NOTE: I shared this in advance with Paul. He found it amusing. I hope the same is true for all of you.
“I think we should head here,” he said as the pencil he was using left the paper far behind, finishing his illustration of the desired route on my coffee table beneath. It was unclear whether or not he noticed that he was drawing on the furniture.
“Um,” I said, leaning down to take in what appeared to be a fairly long, aggressive journey for a bike ride. “Are you sure you want to go that far?”
The “he” in question—Paul Smith—then took on a pained expression that conveyed a deep disappointment in me as a human being. Paul sees a lot more in me, and in the world, than we believe ourselves capable of delivering. It was clear that he fully intended on following this route.
I felt my question was fair as only moments ago Paul had been asleep on my couch. He had arrived for our planned bicycle ride (both of our bikes have electric-assist motors) complaining of intense fatigue and nausea. “It’s not like me to throw up,” he had said, while confirming that that was exactly how he had spent a fair part of the night.
Paul, now in his mid-eighties, is a national treasure and a never-ending source of inspiration, and ideas. You do not say no to Paul. Paul, however, does say no and did decline a water bottle and a snack as unnecessary baggage.
Driving on the rough, rocky road that leads out of town, I eyed Paul nervously as I rode beside him. Paul was wearing an oversized wool sweater that caught the wind and billowed out to the sides. He continued to smack his lips at intervals with an unhappy look on his face, likely from the nausea that persisted.
His hearing aids were back-in post the nap on the couch, but the rough riding made conversation difficult, as did his tendency to accelerate far ahead before soon falling so far behind that I could not see him.
He had mentioned a desire to stop in and say hello to one or more people on our journey. So, a few minutes later we dropped our bikes to the ground and approached a house set up the side of a small hill. There was a car parked in front of the house but no obvious signs of life.
Paul, still wearing his bicycle helmet, banged on the gate that protected the front door and cried out greetings to whoever was within. When that didn’t produce any results he moved to the side of the house, banging on the windows and pressing his face as close as the visor to his helmet would allow.
I watched all of this uneasily from a spot further down the driveway. It looked like nobody was home, but there was also the chance that the people inside were doing something else and just not currently interested in guests. I was not entirely sure how they would feel about looking up to see a face pressed against their window.
Paul eventually gave up and we made our way further along the road to stop at a woodworker’s shop. This was my contribution to the itinerary as I wanted to speak to the woodworker about making a table. The woodworker and his family, of course, knew Paul very well and we all had a good chat.
We were now several bumpy, hilly miles from my house and I once again grew concerned about Paul’s condition. He looked pale and continued to complain about his stomach. When I delicately asked how he was feeling he ignored the question and instead drove further up the hill into the teeth of what turned out to be a significant rain storm.
Driving on shabby, rocky roads that feature huge potholes, ruts and unexpected mounds is never easy—even in a car. Doing the same on a bicycle, even one with an electric motor to partially assist the effort, is even more precarious. Our travels thus far had included only modest climbs, but we were about to take on one of the steepest roads in the zone–the kind of incline where you have to lean forward lest, even pedaling, you roll backwards down the hill.
I rode next to Paul and was so busy looking at, and worrying over him that I failed to see one of those unexpected humps. My front tire lost contact with the ground. I began to flip over backwards but was saved–sort of– when my back tire found a deep rut that led me right off the road and into a ditch. It could have been a lot worse. The other side of the road had no ditch, but did have a drop-off of several hundred feet.
Everything intact, with the exception of my pride, I extricated myself from the ditch and again started to climb up the hill. Paul had not stopped and it took me several minutes to catch up to him. When I did, I sheepishly announced that I was ok. Rain dripping off of his face, Paul looked at me oddly before turning his attention back to the road. It was pretty clear that he had not noticed my absence.
We were now several towns away from our homes. The rain kept coming and the temperature quickly dropped. Much of our path was now downhill, which is even more treacherous and slippery in the rain as the water hides the many holes and forms mini-rivers down the sloped roads.
Paul repeated his theme of speeding past me, then falling behind, but I noticed that when he fell behind I now had to stop and wait several minutes for him to catch up. We were both soaked, cold and miserable. I spied a local bakery coming up on our left and had an idea.
I stopped my bicycle and partially blocked the road directly in front of the bakery. When Paul caught back up to me I waved excitedly at the bakery and gestured that he should pull over. He did not like that idea and instead road past me.
“Stop!” I cried out. Fortunately, he eventually did. When he rode back to me, scowling, I explained that I needed something to drink—and maybe something small to snack on. Paul shook his helmeted head no, sending water flying and for effect also shook his hand that he had extended my direction.
I was reminded of my grandfather, another true character, who also used the same gesture whenever someone said something he did not like—or whenever he sensed that a fallacy had just been uttered. You always knew where you stood with Dick Powers (yes, that was my grandfather’s name) and the same held true with Paul Smith.
I pleaded, “Please just wait for me. We can park our bikes out here for a second?”
All I received in return was more shaking “no’s” of head and hand, but he did agree to wait on the porch while I went inside to order. I tried sticking my head out to see if I could order him something to eat or drink. No, I could not.
I stashed a ginger ale and a roll in my soaked backpack and went outside to find Paul stumbling from one side of the porch to the other. He was getting worse by the second and finally agreed to come inside the bakery for a minute to regroup.
He sat heavily on one of the chairs by a small table and the nice woman behind the counter asked us (in Spanish) if Paul wanted anything. Paul is very well known by most people in the area but it did not appear that she was personally familiar with the large, dripping man plopped down on her chair clutching his equally wet green sweater around him.
Paul replied that he wanted only water.
“A bottle of water?” She innocently asked.
“No! A cup! Just a plain cup!”
I smiled reassuringly. Her eyes widened a bit but she could tell that he was not feeling well.
As he looked past me, sipping his water, I realized my latest mistake. The cooler full of water bottles, where the señora had initially headed, was directly behind me—and in the direct view of Paul. To say Paul is an environmentalist is to say that the sun is hot (true, but a long way from accurately describing the depth and breadth of the situation).
For my benefit Paul switched to English to launch into his angry analysis of water bottles and the waste and harm they cause the environment. The good news was that his anger seemed to heal a lot of what ailed him. The bad news was that the poor señora did not understand why Paul was so angry at her drink cooler.
I agreed with everything Paul stated, which was easy as I do agree with his position, and tried to politely float the idea of getting a taxi to bring us back. A number of taxi drivers in town use pick-ups. It would be my treat. It was not for him. It was for me. I pointed to the rain outside which had only gotten worse.
In return I received another shaking-head/wagging-hand and, with many thanks to the Señora, we were soon slipping and sliding all over the horrific roads on our journey back. We shared these roads with tour busses, trucks laden with cattle and a host of other drivers trying not to fall off the mountain. It was not safe, or fun.
Eventually we made it back to Santa Elena—the hub of commercial activity in our district. Unfortunately, the rain played havoc with the traffic and we had to dismount and weave our bikes between the parked cars and trucks. We passed the main taxi stand but, unfortunately, there were none of the truck variety. I tried calling out to Paul that I would wait here for a truck taxi if he would wait somewhere out of the rain. Paul just went walked past me. My eye was drawn to the brown stripe of dirt that now marked the back side of his sweater.
I resumed pushing my bike through the traffic and took the right turn at the end that led to a much more peaceful route back the direction we both lived. A route that also included a good stretch of actual pavement. Free of most of the traffic, I accelerated around the corner and then looked backwards, one eye on the slick pavement, as I tried to locate Paul.
Paul and his sweater soon appeared but, instead of heading up the hill with me, he continued straight and drove into the open doors of a local store that sells appliances to locals on a monthly-payment basis. I stopped, turned around, and rode back to the store.
The entrance was crowded with a number of people attempting to escape the rain. Paul sat on his bike, legs out to either side, dripping large pools of water onto the showroom floor. He was still facing inward, surrounded by a number of curious employees, when I put my bike down outside and came in after him.
“Paul, are you ok?”
We were the best show in town and most of the people around us, who did not know either of us, gave curious, concerned expressions.
“Why don’t we get you off the bike. You can wait here and I’ll go back up to get us a pick-up taxi.” I nodded encouragingly, my bike helmet sending water soaring in agreement.
“I don’t think I can make it.”
I nodded again. “That’s why I’m going to get us a taxi.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want a taxi.”
I gestured towards the pool of water now beneath us and the increasingly agitated employees. “Well, I don’t know what to say. I don’t think we can stay here.”
Paul looked at me, nodded, and then slowly turned his bike around so that it was facing the street. I felt a wave of relief. He was going to get off his bike. I would get us a taxi and we would all make it home safe and sound.
I had seriously underestimated Paul’s drive and determination. Instead of dismounting, he used his right foot to push his bike forward. I watched as he pedaled up the hill, into the driving rain.
Swearing softly to myself (mostly) I pushed my bike back through the crowd, waved goodbye to everyone else clustered the doorway, and chased after Paul.
I caught up with him soon thereafter and shouted through the rain that there was almost always a pick-up taxi at the corner just where I would turn off to go home. I yelled, dodging traffic, that I would load his bike into the taxi and pay the fare to get him back to his place.
I thought he nodded in agreement. I felt even better about things when he too slowed down at the curve that passed the taxi stand. There was, best yet, a pick-up taxi waiting for us. I slowed further and prepared to go negotiate with the cab driver when Paul started pedaling in earnest and accelerated away down the main road.
“Paul!” I cried out.
Without turning, he shook his helmeted head and then disappeared into the rain.
Paul and I have plans to go on another bike ride Monday. After discussing this article we realized that we had both been too preoccupied with the idea of letting the other down to see common sense the last go around. This time I will bring water (in reusable containers!), snacks and the number of a pick-up taxi driver with me. I will also bring a lock and chain and a bit of rope in the event that I have to cut off Paul’s avenue of escape. Vamos a ver.