Saturday, May 7, 2005

Lyon, France

Friends: France remains as I left it nine months ago after last year's Tour de France, bicycling as I'd order it--little traffic on narrow roads through varied, pastoral countryside and small towns without a neon sign or chain business. And when I wish to camp, there is always a clump of trees or secluded field just a snap of the fingers away to disappear into. I've come over 300 miles since arriving in Paris Tuesday afternoon to Lyons, the second largest metropolitan area in France with two million people.

Its not the cycling so much, however, that has drawn me back, but rather The Cycling--The Tour. Like so many of the people I met following The Tour de France last year, who return year after year, I too must do it again, especially since it will be Lance's curtain call. The race doesn't start for two months. I came early, once again, for that Tour de France of film festivals, Cannes, starting in four days. I'm just 250 miles away and am eager for the warmth of the Mediterranean.

I've been following the route of the Paris-Nice week-long bicycle race, the first significant race of the year, which takes place the first week of March. It was Lance's first race this year. He bowed out after four days due to the snow and hint of illness. It is known as The Race to the Sun. The interior of France continues to be dank and overcast and chilly, so my ride too is a race to the sun.

I have my six weeks between these two ultimate events all plotted out. I will visit my friend Craig in the Cevannes and Florence and Rachid in Tours once again, and will be able to spend more than an evening with them this year. I will also explore the Pyrenees and its many legendary climbs, something I didn't get to do last year. Its most renowned climb, The Tourmalet, has been included in more than 60 Tours, more than any.

There are several monuments at its summit and one at its base that are an added draw. One of the most storied events in Tour lore occurred on the Tourmalet in 1913 when the French rider Eugene Christophe broke the fork of his bike on the descent. In that era racers had to perform all repairs on their bike. He ran down the mountain, about eight miles, to a blacksmith shop, carrying his bike on his back. It took him two hours to fix his fork, but he was penalized several additional minutes for allowing a teen-aged boy to operate a bellows during the repair. There is a plaque on the building where this took place. I will also seek out a monument to Lance's Italian teammate Fabio Casaratelli, who crashed and died on the descent of a nearby mountain in the 1995 Tour. This year's race will be passing by and will pause to pay tribute to him,

And I will simply be content to meander around France and let my thought roam wherever it might. So far it is been much preoccupied with mourning and honoring and celebrating dear, beloved Crissy, compadre of thirty years, who passed just before my departure. I spent a week at her hospital bedside before she succumbed to cancer after six months of chemotherapy failed to defeat it.

Being at her side was both wrenching and uplifting. It was horrible to see her fading away, but a joy, too, to reflect on her true, lively, frolicsome spirit and all the fun times we'd had together, especially for those ten years starting in the late '70s when we lived and traveled together. If she had pulled through this, we planned on celebrating with a return visit to Puerto Escondido, where we'd spent several winters for months at a time living in a one-room thatched hut with a lone light bulb on a cliff overlooking the best surf beach in Mexico.

Crissy had a rare spirit that charmed or beguiled or confounded whoever she encountered. She was without guile or will, the least conniving or manipulative person that anyone would meet. She never lost her child-like glee and playfulness and purity. She was utterly without agenda. She responded to whoever she encountered, whether the homeless or the corporate exec, with the same cheer and sincerity. She was always a joy to be with, even in her last days. She had a natural flair, but without being flamboyant, as she was untainted by anything that had to do with ego. Not everyone knew what to make of her, as such innocence and purity is so rarely encountered, but anyone with any kind of heart embraced her once they realized her genuineness.

She was so unlike anyone most people know, people didn't always know what to make of her or how to express their appreciation for her. One of her best friends at a nursing home where she worked for several years as activities worker told her, "You're weird," meaning it as high praise. A German we met one winter in Mexico and accompanied to the Grand Canyon told her, "You're abnormal," also as an homage. She was certainly weird and abnormal, but in the highest, most grand sense.

It was heartening to remember all this at her bedside, even as I felt a welling of impending loss, and now on my bike too. It wasn't such a pleasure, however, to recall the last 13 or 14 years of her life when she began hearing voices and schizophrenia set in and stole her light and carefree soul. She battled valiantly, doing whatever she could, to regain herself--quitting drinking and smoking, reading the Bible, allowing herself to be institutionalized for a spell, setting off on her bike in the dead of winter to Cape Kennedy to volunteer for the space program, buying a rake and cleaning up parks near where she lived, and on and on.

She worked a series of jobs with minimum supervision so others wouldn't see her tears and suffering--two years as the lone female and non-Mexican gardener at the Chicago Botanical Gardens, a summer in a similar position for the Bahia Temple in Wilmette, a winter as a bicycle messenger, a holiday season as a Salvation Army bell-ringer. She persevered, but she couldn't regain herself or stop the voices. After several years, she gave into medication, something she long resisted. Her ten years as an activities worker at a nursing home, a job she thrived at as she was in charge of fun and games, made her very leery of medication. She'd seen its effect on so many residents, turning them into virtual zombies. The medication did quell the voices, but they also quelled her zest and spontaneity. She was able to work once again with the elderly, tending to the house-confined, but it brought her little satisfaction.

For better than 40 years she did live a life of her own devising outside the confines of conventionality and brought great cheer to many. After college she lived in Aspen for seven years back when it was a center for the free-spirited in the late '60s and early '70s. She was a "flower child" in all the best sense of the term--joyous and carefree, unconcerned about wealth or career or material acquisitions. Her friends from that era, many of whom called her at the hospital, adore her still. I knew of her before I ever met here. When I finally had that privilege, I was immediately won over. I can revel endlessly in our shared experiences--biking through Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, three weeks rafting the Grand Canyon, crashing the 1979 World Series in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, spending all day at the multiplex theater-hopping, dumpster-diving, house-painting, our many winters in Mexico whiling away the hours on the beach with Claude and Siegi and Walter and Lino and many others.

Crissy was the queen of the beach, but without airs of any sort. It is a shame that not all of you got to know Crissy in her heyday. She had qualities that all should aspire to. I am happy to have her favorite purple neckerchief on my hip and two pounds of mixed nuts she gave me for my birthday to nibble on. But I am most happy for her bright and sterling good cheer that she allowed to shine on me.

Onward, George

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