Why this blog?

Yonah Biers-Ariel refused to have a Bar Mitzvah. His parents insisted on an alternative rite of passage. In order to avoid leading a half-dozen prayers and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, Yonah pedaled a bicycle 3,804 miles—San Francisco to Washington DC—joined by his parents and little brother. Along the way, the family collected thousands of signatures on a global warming petition calling for the United States to undergo an energy rite of passage moving from our dependence on oil to a non-carbon energy future.

99 GALLONS OF GATORADE is the father’s memoir of this ordinary family’s extraordinary journey.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Chapter 18 – Dad is a Jerk

Seven miles from the day’s destination, Baker, The Beast had the squishy feel of riding on a flat. Because of Murphy and his accursed law, it was the rear tire. Though fixing it was down from 65 to 55 minutes, there was a larger issue between The Beast and me. The trust we had built over the half-year relationship was teetering. While an occasional chain wedgie was an inconvenience, a bad tire or tube was dangerous. The next bike shop was 140 desert miles away. The perceptive Djina knew better than to point out the advantages of a new tandem.

Baker consisted of a dozen dilapidated wooden houses set in the middle of the Great Basin. Electricity didn’t appear to be a town feature. Its residents probably had never beheld an ice cube. Most definitely there would be no Gatorade. From the outside, the Silver Jack Inn/Electrolux Cafe looked like a reject from Warner Brothers’ Wild West "B-movie" backlot.

“You call this a saloon! Where’s the swinging front doors? A saloon’s got to have swinging front doors, and one’s got to be crooked! Get it outta here!”

Yet not for the first time, the veneer blinded the eyes, for in we walked and were greeted not by tobacco’s vaporized carcinogens, currency stapled to the wall, or life-size pictures of Dale Earnhard Jr. about to drink and drive. Rather there were poster-sized, museum-quality photographs of wildflowers, New England foliage, and elephant seals. Just as Moses lost his way to the land of Canaan, these photographs lost their way to a SOHO art gallery. An Electrolux vacuum cleaner hanged from the ceiling as either a chandelier or a warning against excessive cleanliness. There was a refrigerated glass case that held not only Gatorade and Budweiser, but tarts, chocolate truffles, and—what’s this?—Sierra Nevada Pale Ale!

We ordered Thai stir fry with peanut sauce, whole grain bread, and chocolate brownies, each as large as an elephant seal proboscis. The café’s four tables were occupied, so we shared the large one with a clutch of local artists who had left the big city to pursue their art and eccentricities in the rarified air of Nevada's high desert. There was the 85-year-old UC Berkeley grad who told us of the house she had been building since 1968.

“I’m still undecided about a tile roof or shingles.”

There was the weaver who used horsetail hair for her yarn and lived in a hole in the ground.

“I’m sorry, I thought you said, ‘hole’?”

“It’s got everything I need, except I have to haul water every other day.”

There was a man with them, but after someone claims to live in a hole, there was nothing he could say short of admitting to be the Zodiac killer that would have been memorable. I wanted to talk to the owner of the cafe/hotel because besides creating gourmet plates, he was the photographer. He was too busy to chat because he also washed the dishes and ran the five-room hotel. Therefore, here is the fictional biography of Terry Marasco. Terry began his career as dishwasher at Berkeley’s world-renowned Chez Panisse and worked himself up to chief pastry chef before being discovered by Ansel Adams who bequeathed him his large format camera on his death bed. Writing recipes for Saveur and going out on assignment for National Geographic proved tiresome for this eccentric genius. “I vant to be alone!” he screeched at his agent before packing up his knives and camera to find the middle of nowhere. He found it and settled in Baker. The rest is history.

“Here’s a guy with passion!” I exclaimed to Yonah. “What do you think?”

Yonah did not respond because, like Terry, he too was occupied, working on his second brownie. After the gourmet feed, we checked into the hotel, our stomachs and souls satisfied but blissfully ignorant of one of the universe’s primary laws: life is a zero sum game; therefore, a magnificent evening, like a tan, needed to be evened out.

* * *

83 desert miles from Baker to Milford with no services? Cake. Eureka to Ely was 84, and our tummies were filled with whole grains not greasy chow mein. Again we lit out before the dawn, rode into a light side/headwind, bid goodbye to Nevada, and waved hello to Utah. A river otter frolicked in a small lake. Prairie dogs poked their heads from their holes to yell encouragements, and pairs of ravens rode the thermals towards the heavens. A grand day to be alive. But as soon as the sun was three fingers above the horizon, the sun went from simmer to boil and the winds from angelic to satanic. The great day to be alive morphed into survival day; our pace was the bicycling equivalent to backpacking up a sand mountain with 75-pound packs. There was a bad omen: a dead cow which was soon followed by a second bad omen, a second dead cow. Neither were roadkill. These bovines died of thirst. Though we started with an extra four gallons, by the second cow it was clear we would not have enough water, not nearly enough.

On a bike, you never know how hot the ambient temperature is until you stop because the wind/sweat air conditioning masks the heat. At mile 40 we got off our bikes and discovered true heat. Up until this moment, the trip’s heat had been a bother, an inconvenience, a running joke. Today the fires from hell leapt forth from fissures in the earth. The Sahara and the Gobi were comparative Gardens of Eden. The wind turned the heat into a convection oven. An egg tossed into the air would come down hardboiled.

There is an apocryphal story that when the Ottomans ruled the Middle East, a man committing murder during a hamsin wind would not receive full punishment due to a temporary insanity caused by the heated wind. I understood why, for this unrelenting wind gave me violent thoughts. I cursed it to stop. It paid no heed and blasted more heat.

We were down to a quart of water from the initial four gallons. And we still had two significant passes to climb. And Milford was still 43 miles away. Terry, the restaurateur of The Electrolux Café, was mistaken. He had not reached the middle of nowhere. We had. And for the first time on our journey, we were encountering real danger.

You might be wondering why we got off our bikes in the first place. It wasn’t to drink since we had precious little water. It wasn't to rest or to lunch. It wasn’t to even out tans. There was a flat tire. Between the three bikes and one trailer there were eight tires. Seven of the tires take no more than five minutes to change. What are the odds that the flat would be on the eighth? 12.5%. Yep. The rear of The Beast.

I was despondent. Not from the heat, the wind, or the water situation, any of which had the potential to put us in serious jeopardy. It was that The Beast decided it had enough of this misadventure. It was calling it quits. Including training rides, The Beast put on over 2,000 miles without a flat. Now it wouldn’t go fifty miles without getting one.

The air leaking from the tire hissed, “You should have bought a new one.”

The boys, oblivious to the peril, occupied themselves as best they could. They made up intricate stories called "mind games" that involved a lingo that could be matched in its specialization only by a physicist giving a string theory lecture to a group of grad students.

I multi-tasked. While fixing the flat, I scanned the road for a car to shake down for water. It wasn't promising, for we were no longer on Highway 50, the Loneliest Road in America. We were on one of its smaller tributaries. We were alone. Finally, coming down a pass five miles away, a vehicle appeared. I waved my blackened hands and stood in the road. It stopped and the elderly couple’s expression was no different had Baby Face Nelson demanded all their money. They quickly handed over two pints of water and did not stick around to schmooze. I meant to save the water for the boys. I didn't mean to drink three-quarters of a bottle. I only took a sip. I swear.

When replacing a tube, you must run your fingers inside the tire to feel for any protruding glass or thorn ready to puncture the replacement. Everything seemed in good order, so in went a previously patched tube. The operation was down to 45 minutes.

The next summit, Wah-Wah, was aptly named. Near the top, a Subaru station wagon pulled over. A family of four climbed out, opened the back, pulled out a cooler, and handed each of us a pint of chilled water. A carafe of Rothschild 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon would not be smoother on the palate. Here was the one command every religious tradition is clear about: kindness to strangers. Most drivers passed us with a one-word thought bubble: morons. But this family’s small act of kindness, a five-minute delay in their four-day drive, saved us. A Jewish teaching claims that by saving a single person, one saves the world. Why? Because a single act of kindness holds the possibility of transforming the world in the same manner that the dislodging of a single pebble might lead to a rock slide. The fact that these Good Samaritans stopped when we needed help showed the goodness of religion. I said as much to Yonah.

He replied, "Atheists can be nice too."

“Sure, but if a person is in a religion that preaches kindness to strangers, then isn’t it more likely that a person in the religion will be more kind than an atheist who has no such teaching?”

“Every year on the first day of school, my teachers make class contracts. Being nice to each other is always at the top.”

“Don’t you think they get the idea from the Bible?”

“Where did the Bible get it from? It must have been from people because the Bible was written by man.”

“Inspired man.”

“Inspired by what?”

“The soul or the thing we call God.”

“It could be an evolutionary thing. Societies where people act nice to each other are selected over societies that kill each other.”

“I bet that family was churchgoers.”

“Or bicyclists,” Djina chimed in.

“Or bicyclists,” I admitted glaring at my wife as she unwittingly subterfuged my attempt to get Yonah to see the beauty in religion.

East of the summit was another desolate valley floor. Twenty miles across stood Frisco Summit. Our destination, Milford, lay on the other side. More water was necessary. We flagged down a large pickup with the license plate ILUVBEEF.

"Wish I could help, but all I got is a half-gallon of water we've been swigging from."

"We'll take it!"

"Uh, I got a quarter bottle of warm Gatorade?"


"How 'bout I sling your bikes in the back, and we just take you to Milford?"

Pause. Begging drink is one thing but begging a ride?

"Thanks. We're going to try and make it on our own."

"Well, okay. Good luck. It's mighty hot today."

Approaching Frisco Summit, the day was no longer a child, nor even middle-aged. But it was nearly the summer solstice, so though it was 6:00 p.m., we felt confident making Milford.

"Dad," Solomon tentatively called as we started the climb. This nine-year-old was smart enough to know what would set his dad off, and like a good social worker wanted to break bad news gradually. "I think we might have another flat."

“No way!” But sure enough there was the squish. Wise Solomon did not issue checkmarks for words that would have made Beelzebub's ears burn. These flats didn't make sense. In five years I had commuted over 20,000 miles to work with fewer than ten flat tires. Here we were with two flats in three hours. I looked the wheel and tire over. Everything seemed fine. It was like the coroner who examines the body and pronounces, "Nothing wrong except for the fact that he's dead."

I would have cried, but the wind and sun would have dried the tears, and I had no water to lose. Plus, I had to pretend everything was all right for the kids. There was nothing to do except put in another patched tube, but The Beast smirked that it wouldn't last. We shook down one more truck and scored a full gallon of water. Close to the top of Frisco Summit, the sun was beginning to descend, and The Beast called it quits with its third flat. The ride was over for Solomon and me. There wasn't enough daylight to fix it. Yonah and Djina continued to Milford while I stuck out a thumb. A large pick-up with four migrant workers wedged into the front seat stopped. We loaded the bikes and panniers into the bed and settled between the bikes. I thought Solomon would be excited about riding in the back of a pick-up, speeding along with the wind in our faces like a pair of desperados watching the setting sun paint orange and red streaks across the sky. But he was sullen and angry. We were breaking the law.

"Solomon, we didn't have a choice.”

"You have to wear seat belts.”

"Not if you ride in the back of a truck."

"You have to wear seat belts. It's the law."

"This is Nevada. It’s not like California. They don't have seat belt laws."

"We're in Utah, Dad."

"Utah has a law against wearing seatbelts."

"Yeah, right, Dad. You're such a jerk."

And so it went to Milford. While waiting for Djina and Yonah at the city’s main intersection, his anger did not abate. Perhaps he has forgiven me, but I suspect that at an auspicious family gathering—say a 50th wedding anniversary—he'll raise a glass, "I'd like to toast my mother for putting up so long with my father, a law-breaking jerk."

I put a repaired patch on one of the tubes and remembered the adage about the definition of madness being when a person faced with repeated failure keeps repeating the same actions which brought said failure. That also defines stupidity and lack of imagination. Thinking the patch might hold, the adage clearly covered me.

Dusk came and went and still no Djina and Yonah. At 9:00, two bicycle lights appeared. We checked into a hotel and ate in the attached diner. I spoke about something that had been on my mind. I wanted Yonah to take more of a leadership role. After all, this was his trip.

"Like what," he asked, not happy with the conversation’s direction.

"You know, like being the leader for the day. Tell us when to get up, organize breakfast and the loading of the bikes. Kind of like what Mom and I do every day."

"Do I have to?"

"It would be part of your rite of passage. You know, build self-confidence and leadership."

"Isn't riding across America enough?" he pleaded.

I said nothing but thought what other father says to his 13-year-old son that covering 83 miles by riding a bicycle for 16 hours loaded with 25 pounds of gear through 20 mile per hour headwinds and triple-digit temperatures isn’t enough?

Solomon was right. I was a jerk.


  1. Early parts of this one need some transitions to help the reader. Maybe I was reading too fast, but I got confused.

    Still enjoying it though.

  2. You don't know me but somehow I found your blog. I check everyday to see if you have written a new entry. It is great. I asked my post Bat Mitzvah daughter if she would have considered doing this instead of the traditional rite of passage and she thought I had lost my mind!! keep up the good work. I look forward to making it across the country with your family!

  3. What I remember Yonah saying was, "Atheists do good things because they are good people, not because they fear some divine retribution."