``Come on, Dad. You always wanted to ride a bike across the country. Here's your chance.'' My chance? There I was, a desk-bound, middle-aged writer who had not graced a bike in 31 years. My 18-year-old son had discovered the 500-mile RAGBRAI, the (Des Moines) Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Iowa? That's a far cry from Colorado where we lived. I was sure my son must be jesting. But he wasn't.
``It only takes seven days. We have over two months to train. Let's go for it.''
I had wanted to tour via bicycle, but that was years ago. Quick mental math indicated the need to pedal 70 miles per day, more or less. Could I manage?
``I'll give it a try.'' The words slipped out.
``Way to go, Dad. We'll have a blast.''
The 10-speed bicycle I expected to purchase for $100 or so became a 12-speed that cost just pennies less than $250. Then there were the tools, packs, pump, water bottle, and ``this and that'' that added another $100 to the total. It's always those tiny ``musts'' that push one's budget totally out of whack.
While I was having second thoughts, Sean never looked back. The light of adventure was in his eyes. There was no way I would intentionally allow that glow to diminish.
My first day out on the bike left me gasping and weak of knee. I managed six miles.
``Don't worry, Dad. You'll make it.''
A week later I accomplished 12 miles and all but fell when I dismounted. Seventy miles per day loomed impossible.
``Twelve miles? Great. You're really coming along.'' My son was lying and we both knew it. I wanted to hug him for his effort but instead muttered something about hanging in.
Six weeks after my first efforts we rode 40 miles. At mid-point I felt great and Sean's expression bespoke his pride in his out-of-condition father. At 30 miles I was near collapse as the sun bore down. My son used much of his precious water to cool my neck and shoulders. Slowly, as he might lead a child, my son brought me home. That evening he volunteered to call off RAGBRAI.
``If you don't want to go, let's forget it, Dad.'' Not ``If you can't do it.'' No mention of his own hopes and plans.
``Let's work at it,'' was all I could say.
A week later we eased our fragile machines along a rural road in such poor condition we feared for tires and tubes.
``At least they won't put us on roads like this in Iowa.'' Sean was constantly searching for the bright side.
The next day as I labored up a hill that Sean hardly noticed, he consoled me with, ``The hills in Iowa can't be worse than this.''
Not many days later, we found ourselves in the thick of the race, 10 miles out of Glenwood, Iowa, navigating what remained of a once-paved road. Sean caught my eye and ducked his head. ``So I was wrong.'' His grin helped a bit.
An hour later we left the flat river bottom and encountered the first of Iowa's infamous hills. ``We're dead meat!'' Sean called over his shoulder as he sprinted away.
What he meant was that I was in trouble, but by including himself he hoped to lessen my burden.
The following day, with Creston just a name on the map too distant to envision, I sank down in the roadside shade shared by a dozen other cyclists.
``Are you going to be all right, Dad?'' Sean showed concern he tried to hide.
It was already 97 degrees. The humidity was beyond belief. The hills were without end. Was I going to be all right? I honestly didn't know, but my son's concern made things suddenly better. He cared.
The hours and days passed. The hills lessened and uncertainty vanished. Sean would join a high-speed line of club riders and flash away in a burst of delight. Then, several hilltops later, he would be waiting for me with a cheerful, ``Looking good, Dad,'' or ``I could use a Coke. There's a place up ahead.''
We both knew he meant I needed a break and a Coke. It was as though he had experienced a role reversal and my son was now leading me as I once guided him.
Burlington and its fantastic welcome came. With it our journey ended. Our arrival at the banks of the Great River did not bring an end to the closeness that had developed between us.
Together, as equals in all save the physical, the two of us met a challenge and survived. No, I survived. Sean gloried in the total experience.
On that wonderful Saturday in summer my son summed it up. ``Let's come again next year, Dad. This has been a blast.''
In his eyes that day I saw a wonderful thing. Thanks to RAGBRAI and a pair of bikes with skinny tires and narrow saddles, a father and son had established a rare kinship that time and distance would not likely diminish.