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 15, 2010

Chapter 20 - Words Are Not Necessary

Ken doled out one more gift before heading home. He hauled our gear to Panguitch, so we could do the 5,000-foot climb out of Cedar City unencumbered. The climb had the same orange rock of Bryce Canyon. We looked down on long vistas of forests. The Nevada deserts were a memory of the past. It was no longer the Battan Death Ride. Today we were the Von Trapps out for a mountain picnic.

Solomon and I sang up the mountain and came upon a 10% grade.

“Ready to kick it in?”


We attacked the climb with relish and pushed the pedals hard.

“We own this sucker!” I yelled.

“Yeah!” Solomon agreed.

The Beast begged to differ.

There was a sharp snap sound accompanied by a spin of the pedals as if there were no load on them. The snap and the spin led to a sudden stop. I looked down. The chain was gone. Where could it be?

“Dad, it’s behind us.”

Forty-two years of riding bicycles and my first chain break.


Luckily we had the chain-tool I foresightfully purchased but hardly knew how to use. Turning to Djina, I proclaimed, "Don't worry. I can fix it."

A pin holding two chain links together failed, destroying the links. The two bad links needed to be removed and replaced with a special repair link. The operation was straightforward but tricky. The trick was to remove enough of a pin, so a bad link could slide out. Remove too much pin, and it falls out. Once the pin is out, it is impossible to insert it back into its hole. The solution then is stick out your thumb. Remove too little pin, and the link can't slide out. I managed to slip out the bad links, but the repair link demanded fine motor skill and patience, two qualities I am not genetically wired for. After I dropped a critical piece in the high grass, Djina volunteered to take over as relief mechanic. I don’t have any hang-ups about gender roles and insisting on doing the man’s job, so after dropping that critical piece in the tall grass twice more, I offered, “Want to try?” She snapped the links together like a pair of Lego pieces, and The Beast was again whole. Djina didn’t say, “Hah!” and lord her successful operation over me. She didn’t have to, for at that moment I knew who wore the mechanic overalls in the family.

* * *

In rural America, art is created by what’s at hand. Hence, the dollar bill wallpaper and the shoe tree. But what about the rancher? What is his art? He hunts, and after eating the venison and tanning the leather, he’s got antlers. What if you’re not Georgia O’Keefe? What if you don’t know how to scrimshaw?

Ranchers make art by nailing antlers to gates, fences, and the sides of houses reserving a central spot for an elk rack whose span is wider than a condor's wings. Until this one installation, none of us were particularly impressed with antler art. But this was different. A good quarter-mile from a lone ranch on a steep climb were sets of antlers spaced a couple of feet apart all the way to the gate. In terms of numbers, the average deer antler is about three feet wide. Fill 400 yards of fence with one set of antlers every five feet and you come up with—well—a lot. But the jaw dropping was reserved for the gate made of two posts planted in the ground twenty feet apart rising twenty feet in the air. A crossbar connected them at the top. Now imagine a colony of army ants attacking a lone hotdog. That's how tightly packed the antlers were on the gate. It seemed as if every deer and elk antler in the entire country came to rest in peace here. It was art of abundance.

If The Beast were to give up the ghost right then, I’d request the rancher allow me to nail it along his fence.

* * *

Two cyclists coming the other way stopped to say hi. Like most people, they looked at the boys with gaping mouths. At the mention of being a kind of Bar Mitzvah, the two volunteered that they were Mormons. I have nothing against Mormons. As I mentioned earlier, I respect their toughness and work ethic. Some of my best students are Mormons. But Mormon theology seems a bit silly with the gold hieroglyphics written in "reformed Egyptian." In addition are the white-shirted, tie-wearing, young missionaries combining a toxic mix of naiveté and sanctimony. Add it together, and you see why I’ve never taken Mormonism too seriously.

(“That’s what passion gets you,” Yonah’s thoughts burst into my mind.)

But these two cyclists were not wearing their religion on their name tags. They were interesting and intelligent. They had graduate degrees. They understood the importance of combating global climate change. Again I was forced to rethink my prejudices. The beauty of traveling is that during our "regular" lives, we stereotype in order to get through our busy days when we don't have time to meet people as they really are. But here the only items on the “To Do” list were riding bikes and meeting people. You automatically become friendlier to everyone, and—lo and behold—you discover you have more in common with other members of your species than you originally thought. You discover how once you become friendlier, everyone mirrors the friendliness back. You vow to hold onto to this new way of being upon returning home.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you vow, prejudices are impossible to extinguish. When the cynicism returns, it's time to hit the road again.

Following the 5,000-foot climb, I let go of The Beast’s reins, and plummeted down the mountain. If Solomon and I went any faster, time would have stopped.

The town of Panguitch was nestled in a picturesque green valley. Adding to the color were two festivals: the gathering of the hot air balloons and the Harley-Davidson rally. Ken guided us to the KOA campground. While we set up tents, Ken scoured the town and, given the hard-partying balloonists, was lucky to find a six-pack. Ha-ha. The balloonists were strictly a two glasses of zinfandel crowd since they needed to rise before dawn and fire up their balloons for the "Mass Ascension at Dawn."

Ken scored a six-pack of "Polygamy Beer." Its slogan: Why Have Just One? It's Utah, remember? Alas, after our beers, Ken had to ascend on a plane to California and invent a better almond harvester. So we were left at the campground, surrounded by fifty of the Harley crowd. At about midnight, they yelled at us to stop partying so they could get some sleep.

* * *

Though I'm a vegetarian, I have a genetically-induced belief that I should teach my sons manly skills such as hunting and fishing. If I were a real father, I'd teach them basic construction or plumbing, so they could at least build a picnic table or replace a broken toilet. In the old days, fathers taught their sons trades. Of course, the technology is infinitely more complex now, and you need a $50,000 gizmo just to tune a car. Nevertheless, there aren’t many useful skills I've taught my boys.

Yonah's front tire was flat, his first of the trip. Back in Davis, I taught him how to fix flats. Now was the time to demonstrate his expertise. Though he knew what to do, he was tentative with his hands. You can’t massage a tire from its rim, you need to yank it off. It's the difference between tapping the bathroom door to see if it’s occupied versus trying to knock it down when your four-year-old is in the bathtub behind a locked door. Yonah is a tapper. Eventually, after realizing that his father wasn't going to help, he got it. I can’t say if competency in tire changing lifted his self-esteem, but if his life depended on his fixing a flat, he would live.

It was a relatively tough day. Mostly desert, heat, wind, and elevation gain. Late in the afternoon was an ascent. Our destination, Escalante, stood on the other side.

"The summit!" If there are sweeter words after mashing your knees all day, I know them not. And there is no sharper knife to the heart than, "Sorry, one more," when the false summit is reached and another, steeper one, looms ahead.

Following this false summit, stood a short, but extraordinarily steep mountain with a fire road at the top. While I scanned the mountain to find the regular road that would take us over the mountain's saddle, a car appeared on the fire road. First I thought, what the heck's a car doing on a fire road? Then the ol’ heart skipped a beat when it realized the truth—that was no fire road. It was ours.

"No checkmarking way," tumbled out of my suddenly bone dry mouth. A goat would need ropes to scale this grade.

"Can we do it?" Solomon asked.

For our children we attempt the impossible.

"Yeah, we can do it. Slow and steady. Deep breaths. We can make it." The cyclometer dipped below 3 miles per hour and continued falling. At 2.3 miles per hour the thigh muscles unnaturally burn. And so it went, foot after excruciating foot we climbed. 2.2 mph and you can see which individual spokes are not perfectly straight. If we breathed any deeper our lungs would have burst out our toes, but we were not going to walk our bikes. 2.1 mph and your feet are ready to pull out of the cleats, so you can catch yourself when you don't have enough forward momentum to keep the bike upright.

“Don’t give up. We can do it.”


It didn’t seem possible that our legs could keep moving. We weren’t inching up the grade, we were centimetering up it. I wasn’t sure if my heart or knees would be the first to blow.

And with a final grunt/grimace/pull/push we were on top. Did Hillary feel prouder when he summitted Everest? Of course. But we felt pretty darn good as we caught our breaths and took in the Powell Promontory. As we stood gazing, a motorcyclist pulled up.

"Which direction did you come from?" he asked.

"Same as you."

"No way." Incredulous can't describe the look he gave us. It verged on horror.

"Yep," piped up Solomon. Yonah, too tired to say anything but grin, was proud. This was tougher than anything thrown at him yet. And he did it. Words were not necessary; his accomplishment said it all. That is pride.

From the summit was an easy descent to the Escalante Reservoir campground. We arrived at 4:45. There was an excellent camping spot near the showers. However, a sign reserved the spot for handicapped patrons until 5:00 p.m. At 5:00 it was fair game. It was obvious that no one would claim it in the next fifteen minutes, so we set up camp. Solomon didn’t talk to me because his outlaw father once again was breaking the law. At 5:00 he forgave me because both then we were swimming in the reservoir, and it is impossible to be mad when you’re splashing in the water. If there is a heaven, you can take your halos, harps, and wings and give me a jump into a lake on a hot day after a long ride. I could do that forever.


  1. Matt
    Hard to imagine how rude your boys must have been to keep those H.O.G. campers awake that late.
    I sure remember Denise's glare on our touring rides when my male know it all assurance that "this is the last hill of the day" turned out to be all hot air.
    I'm really enjoying this chapter book.
    Michael J

  2. You had two Mormons face to face, and you didn't get them to put on tefillin?