We are all products of our environment, upbringing, and interactions. Chance encounters leave snap shots stored deep in our temporal lobe. I was once intrigued by an uber-friendly clerk named Kurt. His every move, dress and diction were as crisp as a cadet on graduation day at The Citadel. I made it a habit to buy my Sunday Wisconsin State Journal from the Fort Atkinson Kwik Trip for several consecutive weeks, though the store was not on my path.
Then, there are folks who come to us in times when we are malleable, vulnerable, or incomplete. They demonstrate a trait that becomes a part of our DNA, affecting every minute of our lives, from that day forward.
John Humphries has taken me from the Continental Divide through Colorado to the Burr Trail in the Deserts of Utah. From him I’ve developed perseverance, courtesy of mountain pass that pushed me to the point of failure, only to take hundreds of literal or metaphorical pedal strokes past. Cloaked in polypropylene, smart wool, and rubber through a full-on mountain monsoon in 2006, we validated the Norwegian guide’s proverb; there is no such thing as bad veather, just a poor choice of clothes.
In a decade and a half of touring with John, I’ve met a shuttle-bus load of exemplary people (and Howie). None have been more memorable than Hendrick Boyd Barner. Having retired from a fifty-year career, Hendrick was encouraged to try cycling by his neighbor Barret . Though Hendrick and Barret lived at or below sea level in St. Louis, their first ride was a high-altitude sufferfest called Ride the Rockies. His second would be a five-hundred mile trek from Lake Powell to Bryce Canyon, through the white rocks of Utah. Rick was seventy-five.
Sunrise on day one of a Lizard Head Cycling tour looks like some combination of a mobile bike shop and a flea market. Guides check pedals, saddles, and derailleurs. Guests gather wind-breakers, water bottles, and goo-shots while frantically checking radar and accuweather.com. Thirty, or maybe ninety minutes past the announced time of departure, the meeting is called to order.
Guests gather in a semi-circle while John lectures like a cross between a high school health teacher and Jimmy Fallon.
“All right everyone, the hardest part of the trip is now over, you’re here,” he opens.
To follow are rules about self-preservation, hydration, nutrition, and rules of the road: “If you’re in front of the guide, you’re no longer on a guided bike tour.”
Finally, we’re asked to introduce ourselves. Twenty-three boxes of the Herriot’s Shadow Collection in my daughter’s bedroom has pushed me past any aversion to self-promotion. “My name is Bill, I’m a Packers fan from Wisconsin, a full-time veterinarian, and a part-time author.”
Last in line is Hendrick. “Please, just call me Rick, I’m recently retired,” he nearly whispers.
Early in the spring John floated some options for the 2016 installment of our cycle-born brotherhood: “Big Bend National Park is surreal, our trans-Utah chubby bike tour is epic, and we’re doing a Nova Scotia-Cape Breton tour,” he left a pregnant pause to lead my decision, “which will be Rick Barner’s last ride.”
Just call me Rick walked softly and spoke quietly, yet he rode multi-day bike tours EFI. He was not in the least deterred by headwinds, horizontal rains, or a nine percent mountain grade. As we departed the Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, he and Barret quietly deposited their luggage by the rig, and pedaled off an hour or so before the group. You cringed that the gravel at the end of the drive might throw him like a tyke losing his training wheels.
Diffracted by the October sun off the desert black top, forty or so miles into a ninety-mile day, a meandering mirage would appear in the distance, his front tire drawing a sine wave across the fog line. You were well served to break pace and ride a stretch with Rick. Between gasps, he’d ask about your parents, children, and profession. If you managed to turn the conversation, you’d find out that before he retired, Rick was an MD.
Somewhere between post bike ride IPAs and hors d’oeuvres Rick and Barret would roll up the drive. The gauntlet of guests cheered like the Tour de France. Rick responded like Walter Payton scoring a touchdown; it was his job for the day.
You’re only a guest on a Lizard Head trip for about an hour, before you become family.
One of the premier tours offered by Lizard Head Cycling traverses a famous section of The Lone Star State. The swath of God-forsaken tumbleweed and cow pastures that runs from Dallas to San Antonio, glancing just west of Austin, is known as The Hill Country. It covers an area twice the size of the Eastern European countries that many of its famously stubborn inhabitants immigrated from. It is not called The Mountain Country of Texas.
Still, in the spring of 2016, at age eighty-two, a four percent grade into Blanco must’ve seemed as daunting to Rick as Cottonwood Pass in Colorado.
Jim and Sue live in Boulder, Colorado. Apropos, as they are the grown-up version of Pebbles and Bam-Bam. On a tandem bike they are known to wave slow-moving cars out of their way. Sue is a research consultant; Jim installs well components. Judging from his forearms, with a pick and shovel. Recognizing that Rick was starting to fade, Jim would ride handlebar to handlebar with his hand on his back, and push Rick up the Texas hills.
When John leaked it could be Rick’s last, The Lizard Head Cycling tour of Nova Scotia became a family reunion. The focal point of the tour was Cape Breton, much like a mountain, sticking out of the North Atlantic. Where rugged sea-cliffs meet forests of maple in full fall foliage, it is an artist’s wet dream. Transit on bike or in motor car is by way of 198km black top called The Cabot Trail. It is one of the ten top cycling destinations in the world. Thankfully, the drivers are pathologically polite because seldom is there a proper shoulder, and often there is road construction, avalanche repair, and fog.
While the CT is not exactly the Swiss Alps, it ain’t Illinois. Pebbles and Bam-Bam knew it would be more than Rick could ride. If this were to be his last, his legacy of EFI, or even MEI, would remain intact. They rented a tandem bicycle.
The gesture alone is off the Above and Beyond chart. Then, when the bike shop in Nova Scotia sold the rental tandem bike before they arrived, they bought one in Boulder, boxed it up, and sent it to Canada.
For the six days in the saddle over five-hundred kilometers Jim was captain and engine. Sue trailed, reminding Rick not to lean, and to pedal hard into the hills. Sometime after lunch Rick would relinquish his stoker’s saddle so that Jim and Sue could have some time together, and drop the rest of us like a Lamborghini pulling away from a Prius.
The legacy that Please, just call me Rick is slow to claim requires ten minutes, a Google search, and a couple clicks. His medical, surgical, and teaching career spanned over fifty years. He is a member of tens of professional organizations, has authored over three hundred research papers, thirty medical journal chapters, and developed a procedure for harvesting the radial artery.
As the gale force winds rocked our bikes on top of the rig just outside, we gathered for breakfast on day three in Antigonish. The waitress escorted Rick to the head of our tables with a gentle hand on his arm, which he thanked her for. In one voice, we chanted “Good Morning, Rick,” to remind him we were his people.
The hands that had once deftly bypassed occluded coronary arteries, and well may have saved my grandfather in 1974, now struggled with a plastic butter knife and a packet of strawberry marmalade. I handed him an open one, and noted the missing tab.
Back in Halifax, we tipped our guides and hugged our goodbyes. Rick shook my hand and pulled me aside.
“Bill, it was a pleasure to ride with you, and thanks for helping me with the marmalade.”
The fourth Thursday in November is the official day for most Americans to give thanks.