I accidentally set my brother, Walt, on fire when I was 3. In fifth-grade, I swiped his buffalo-head nickel collection, blowing it on candy and RC colas. During college, I unintentionally sank a drill bit into his thumb, sending him to the emergency room. After 50 years of my shenanigans, you'd wonder why he still speaks to me. I know I do. But he never holds a grudge.
In the winter of 2001, Walt noticed that his foot had occasionally started to go numb. As spring came around, the vision in his left eye started to blur. The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. MS is a chronic, disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. The symptoms for most MS victims come and go, forcing them to adjust to those symptoms as they try to get on with life, all the while desperately hoping for a cure.
To help raise money for MS, Walt started riding in the Colorado MS 150-mile bicycling event. Each year I'd fire off a paltry donation, because, hey, I'm a busy guy. But this year I somehow realized that personal involvement was the only way to get off my "human fungus" list. So, on a recent overcast morning, two of my young adult sons joined me in Westminster, Colo., for the big event. Walt had to bow out, but we were determined to fill his place among the 3,100 riders.
At first, I used the riding style of the great Tour de France cyclists, swishing my bike gracefully from side to side using the powerful steam-locomotive force of my legs. I abandoned that strategy as soon as I reached the starting line, substituting a couch-potato-and-I-pray-I-don't-die-approach.
The ride wound through the incredible scenery of the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Or so I was told. I missed the sights because my brain was too focused on convincing my body not to mutiny. I knew all would be lost if my eyes even caught a glimpse of the long column of bikers racing up a hill that closely resembled Mount Kilimanjaro.
Riding 150 miles in two days requires special equipment. Judging by the posteriors of the riders always ahead of me, close-fitting black shorts are a must. I'll admit it -- I wore bike shorts, too. They incorporate padding in the crotch, creating a curious baggy-diaper appearance. As you pedal down the road, you feel as if you've stuffed a T-shirt down your shorts while sitting on a watermelon. Call me a wimp; I don't mind. You try holding your head for five hours in the same position you'd use to discover why your car drips oil. My neck was a wreck of pinched nerves; my hands and feet went numb. The other bikers seemed a lot more relaxed, but then, they were riding bikes costing only slightly less than the gross national product of Iceland.
Fortunately, my pathetic maladies were soothed by the wonderful food and solicitous volunteers. Each day started around 6 a.m. and, after pedaling around 40 miles, I'd roll in to the lunch stop before 9 a.m. The cruel reality of another 35 miles stared at me even as I munched on huge turkey rollups, a pilaf and goat cheese appetizer, minted cantaloupe and walnut-surprise desserts.
Then there were the rest stops, at which were dispensed everything from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to snow cones served by gals in hula skirts. I had no self-control, as shown by the power bars I was stuffing down my stretchy shorts.
It felt great to see the crowd as I crossed over the finish line, even though my first inclination was to ditch the bike and assume a fetal position. My sons seemed amused to see their dad waddle around bow-legged, desperately trying to find more water.
Oddly, other riders barely exhibited fatigue, although I struggled to muster enough energy to collapse in the shade. Still, I caught a strong sense of camaraderie. I think we all felt that the effort to help people with MS was worth every mile.
That evening, getting together with my brother, I realized I'd been a knucklehead, anxiously trying to achieve life's milestones even as more rewarding goals went unsought. I should have been at the starting line years ago -- reaching out not only to my only brother, but also to others around me.
The bicycle ride was only a snapshot of what goes on in communities across this country. There's a cornucopia of opportunities to support worthwhile causes, all of them made possible by the efforts of volunteers with a keen sense of purpose. I'm glad to be a part of the volunteer movement, if only to start paying back those buffalo-head nickels.
Joe Barnhart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.og). He lives and writes in Dillon, Montana.