The trip that changed my life (by request)

The Dihedral just ran a post about their dream van. One of their friends and frequent commenters, Martha, added a comment about her 1972 VW bus breaking down and spewing oil. I added a bit about our bus breakdown and said the trip changed my life. The Dihedral wants the deets. So here goes…

It was late summer 1973. I had spent 4-5 days camping alone in my friend’s back 40, engrossed in activities such as drying herbs with binoculars. I returned to town to find my roommates gathered in the living room, packed for a trip of their own. They asked if they could use my tent. I handed it over. They asked about the stove, the cook kit, etc. One by one I pulled things out of my pack and handed them over. Then I stopped and asked where they were headed. They said, “John got a temporary layoff from work, so we’re headed to the American Legion State Forest to camp for a week.” I said, “Sounds like fun. Maybe I’ll join you.” They said, “Don’t you have to work tonight?” I said, “Yeah, but…”. They all got silly grins and started swapping knowing looks. They finally confessed that they were off to Colorado.

[By the way, I was planning a major trip to South America the following spring. The Rockies seemed like a good warmup for the Andes.]

[Also by the way, when I eventually made it back to where I had then been working, to pick up my last paycheck, they offered me my job back. I turned them down – more on that below.]

I jumped in the bus with them and off we went. After the trip, we all agreed that it was too short and began scraping money together for a longer trip. As fall came, we had enough to head for the Canadian Rockies. We got about 100 miles. I was in the back, over the engine. I suddenly heard an unpleasant sound and yelled to John, “Shut it down and pull over!” We pulled over and the engine died. We had it towed to LaCrosse, where we got the bad news.

VW buses of that era had an Achilles’ heel. The third cylinder exhaust valve was tucked into a spot where it tended to overheat. When the valve burned, it broke up and scattered bits of itself through the engine. A rebuild was in order. When we were ready to hit the road again, we didn’t have enough money to satisfy Canadian border agents that we could support ourselves in their country. (They had a per person minimum at the time.)

It was time for a new plan. We continued west, but in a more southerly direction – to Estes Park, Colorado. While there, we headed into Denver so I could get my shots for South America. After getting my Yellow Fever, Cholera, and Typhoid immunizations, the Public Health Nurse asked if I had any aspirin. She advised that I get some and take two immediately, two more before bed, and two more as soon as I woke up. I said, “I’m gonna be sick, eh?” She said “Sicker than you’ve ever been.” The next morning I was able to crawl out of the tent and sprawl on a picnic table in the sun. I stayed there all day, too sick to move. Twenty four hours after the shots, I was fine again. If that’s the prevention, I’d hate to have the disease(s).

We stayed in the area until a sudden squall. We dove for the tents, leaving our dinner dishes on the table. When we awoke, we had to break ice out of the dishes before we could put them away. We decided it was time to head south.

We drove to New Mexico and made camp in the Sandia Range, just outside of Albuquerque. There we were hit with a hailstorm that dropped six inches in a few minutes. It melted as quickly as it came. My friends decided they needed some city and I stayed behind. We agreed on a day and time they would return to rejoin me with fresh provisions.

When the time arrived, I headed down the trail and posted welcome signs for them. Jumping across the stream to post a sign, I landed badly and heard a loud crack. I stuck my foot in the stream and iced it down. I made my way back to camp to pack up, figuring they’d take me to the hospital rather than rejoining me to camp longer.

At the appointed time, only one of them arrived. He told me he brought food for three days and they would return to pick us up at the trailhead. He brought some steaks, which had spoiled on the hike back. We spent the next three days crawling off to the woods with diarrhea, digging holes as fast as we could. [The idea of packing out excrement was unknown to us back then, not to mention it would have been a difficult cargo to pack.] In my spare time, I fashioned a crutch.

At the newly-appointed time, we made our way back to the trailhead. We got in the bus and made it to the ER, where I was swaddled in what I now know as a “bulky Jones splint” and fitted with store-bought crutches. It was time to head back to Wisconsin.

bulky Jones splint; from a YouTube training video by the Washington University School of Medicine.
Mine was longer, ending just below the knee.

As winter settled in, I realized there was something more wrong with my ankle than a bad sprain. My peroneal tendon had an unfortunate tendency to dislocate when I walked. It did not seem like a good thing to have happen on narrow Andean trails. It wasn’t altogether pleasant on sidewalks.

Image from CMMG via Pinterest. The purple line (added by me) is roughly where my peroneus longus would end up, instead of its usual spot tucked behind the now-shredded retinaculum. Imagine a rubber band stretched from your knee to the bottom of your foot, then twanging it at the ankle. That’s what it felt like. It would now go slack, which made it hard to stand up.

I paid a visit to my local community clinic. The doctor there had no clue what was going on, but referred me to an orthopedic surgeon who diagnosed the problem when I walked across his office. He said he could fix it Monday. I called Fred to tell him I couldn’t make it to the Andes and scheduled surgery.

While recuperating, I began volunteering at the clinic. I also heard about a new co-op trying to get off the ground. Having nothing better to do that winter, I began to go to organizing meetings. I worked at that co-op for the next ten years, which led to a continuing career in co-ops in California and Nicaragua, which led to where I am today (two careers removed from co-ops, but that’s another story for another time). P.S. Happy 45th birthday, Willy St Co-op; which opened 10/09/1974.

Also that winter, I had a roommate who went ice skating every day. Feeling sorry for myself that I couldn’t go with him, I started plotting for spring. When spring arrived, I bought a new bike. (That story earned a paragraph in the January 20, 2018 entry.) That bike took me on my first tours, which led to the transcontinental tour of 2018.

So that, Dihedral, is my story. And I’m sticking to it. How an injury leads to a career path and a new bike, then a 4400 mile bike trip 45 years later. Way more than you bargained for, eh?

Author: halffastcyclingclub

We are a group of friends who ride bikes. Some of us are fast, some of us are slow, all of us are half-fast. In 2018, one of us is riding coast to coast across the US. If we meet Sal Paradise, we'll let you know.

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