Elliot’s Big Adventure
by Beth Kozan
It was 1989. Elliot had a big birthday coming up; in December, he would turn 50.
I was spooked about my men and their decade-marking birthdays. My first husband, Doug, left me and our two little girls the summer he turned 30. That was in the early ’70s, and he gave me reason to “Never trust anyone over 30!”
In 1981, my second husband, Tommy, woke me on his 40th birthday to announce he was tired of being married. He moved into the empty side of the duplex he owned with his mother, and we divorced.
So as Elliot approached the milestone of 50 and said he wanted to ride his mountain bike from Phoenix to Seattle, I was concerned that I was being left again.
Most people preparing for a long bicycle ride would concentrate on getting into good physical shape. Elliot trained for his trip by packing and repacking the gear he would need: a tent, sleeping bag, pad for the sleeping bag, rain poncho; canned goods and a small camp stove; clothes for rain, clothes for sunshine, clothes for cold. He trimmed it down to 70 pounds of gear to pack into his panniers. When he came home, he would say he should have left the tent and the stove – he never used either and it would have trimmed 25 pounds off his total weight.
Then he went to Arizona Automobile Association for roadmaps of the western United States. He would map out his route using the less-traveled roads, knowing he’d be safer there than riding on roads with heavy car and truck traffic. He did not set a time to complete the trip; his purpose was to enjoy the journey.
I’d spent three months (February, March and April) of 1989 working in Seattle at the new adoption agency started by my employer. My schedule for those three months: Monday mornings: a staff meeting in Scottsdale; then fly that afternoon from Phoenix Sky Harbor to SeaTac in Seattle. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I worked in Seattle training staff who were new to adoption. Friday afternoon, I’d fly back to Phoenix to spend the weekends with my family. My family consisted of Elliot and my daughter Heather, a student at Paradise Valley Community College who biked four miles to class. Once a month, instead of flying me home, the agency would fly a family member to me in Seattle.
On Elliot’s weekend in Seattle, we took the hydrafoil Clipper to Canada’s Vancouver Island, had high tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, and ate authentic fish and chips. It was rainy and – regretfully – we opted not to see the flowers at Busch Gardens.
When Heather came to Seattle, we watched vendors throw whole salmon the full length of their stall at Pike Place Market, enjoyed the flowers there, and ate dessert at the revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle.
Elliot was enamored with Seattle and decided he would bicycle there. He would camp out most nights and check into a motel on the weekend, where he’d sleep in a bed, catch up on the TV news, do his laundry, and buy provisions for the coming week. He didn’t know how long it would take, and wasn’t concerned.
As he unloaded his bicycle in mid-June from the back of the Subaru station wagon at the outskirts of Phoenix, I asked him if he’d packed any paper to jot down his thoughts. He had not. From my purse I pulled a small spiral notebook (6” x 4”), almost the size of a today’s cell phones. We had no concept of cell phones then. A “car phone” in 1989 was the size of a large sweet potato and needed to be plugged in at all times to work. In Seattle in 1989, the ARCO gas stations had the capability to pay at the pump with debit cards, but – like Starbucks – the practice had not yet moved beyond The Emerald City.
I wondered if he would really go all the way to Seattle (a distance of 1,483 miles) when he hadn’t trained for the physicality of such an endeavor. On his third day out, he wrote in his journal: Pain is Temporary – Pride is Forever. On day six, he called from Las Vegas. He spent two days in Vegas and bought a small camera to record his journey in pictures.
His bed on the road was his sleeping bag. Gas stations with outdoor hoses became his water filling stations and, sometimes, stops for an overnight rest. He slept on the concrete slab at Peach Springs Arizona where the train used to stop; he’d often sleep near a school practice field or behind a gas station. Sometimes he’d be invited to spread his sleeping bag on someone’s kitchen floor. One night, he slept near a ditch in Napa Valley grape fields, under the stars, listening to the drone of irrigation wells.
On Day 10, he took a picture of his bike alongside the Death Valley Monument: the imposing challenge! (Factoid: Death Valley, California, is the lowest point on the continental United States and often records the highest summer temperatures in the United States.) To avoid crossing in the high heat of Death Valley in the day, he would do a night crossing. He wore his minor’s headlamp on a headband, and when the temp dropped to 103°, he began his journey. He recorded in his notebook that he crossed Death Valley from 11:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., a distance of 40 miles.
Five days and many mountain ranges after crossing Death Valley, he entered Yosemite National Park. Although there were entirely too many cars in the park for the 4th of July, he glided through the long lines on his bicycle, glimpsing the towering sights from his bicycle seat! The proof is in the pictures. The wheels kept a-turning: he had his eye on Seattle!
Elliot met a fellow bicycler (on a skinny tire bike) who was headed south; they found some shade, smoked cigarettes (he was a heavy smoker at that time), and each shared advice about the road ahead for the other. They rode a few miles together, then parted ways. In addition to writing about this chance encounter, he wrote in his journal: “Saw my first Redwood Grove. Wow!” He saw many Sequoia trees up close and personal, and recorded the events with his camera.
Due to unexpected detours of road traffic, twice he shared a treacherous road with cars and trucks, with no shoulders wide enough for a bicycle. He wrote in his journal: “It’s like riding a bicycle on a Band-Aid.” Each time, he was offered a ride: “Throw your bike into the pickup and we’ll take you through this mess!”
Where are you going? Seattle. Where’d you start? Phoenix. He was invited to share water or a beer or a toke or a meal. Twice as he struggled up an incline, he had a water bottle thrust on him by an arm in an anonymous passing car.
When he entered Oregon, he saw on the map what appeared to be an almost straight line from Coos Bay to Tillamook, so he caught U.S. 101 up the coast. He points out in his journal that a flat map does not indicate the up/down, up/down of the actual roadway, nor the wind currents coming off the water! He enjoyed the bucolic scenes of farms and dairies , then turned toward Port Townsend on the edge of Puget Sound and took the ferry to Seattle.
The most frequent question he was asked toward the end of the trip was: How many bicycle tires did you go through? He recorded two blowouts (the first so loud he thought he’d been shot at!) plus one flat; he always carried spare tubes and fixed his flat with the tire kit all bikers know to carry. So, original tires; two tubes replaced and one tube patched.
He reached Seattle two days short of seven weeks after his departure from Phoenix. He called from the Seattle adoption office to let me know he had arrived. I asked to talk to the secretary. Marti, how does he look? “Well, he’s very tanned, but he hasn’t lost any weight.” She and I had speculated he’d have to be ‘skinny as a rail’ from all that exercise, but he’d held his weight!
I told Elliot I needed him home; he went to a bike shop, boxed up the bike, and flew Southwest the next day with the bike checked as baggage.
This Big Adventure was Elliot’s longest bicycle trip. I think it did help him sort out a few things that bothered him. His favorite t-shirt was orange and had the black silhouette of a bicycle rider and the word CycleTherapy emblazoned across the front. More than once, he biked away his depression.
Twenty-eight years later, he would leave us and his bicycle behind, and there would be no notebook from this next journey. Elliot died at Hospice of the Valley on October 12, 2017. Cause of death: congestive heart failure and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
“What a long, strange trip it’s been!”
Beth Kozan is the author of the book Adoption: More Than by Chance and the forthcoming Helping the Birth Mother You Know. Beth worked in adoption for 35 years and retired to write. She has many more books than these titles to write and will emphasize and explore the concept of community in her additional books. “Growing up in a close agriculture-based, rural community in Texas, I felt the comfort and bonds of caring for others which is often missing in our busy lives today. Exploring and building communities for today is my writer’s goal.” Follow Beth on Facebook or visit her website, where she reviews books and films featuring adoption.