I was walking down a residential street in Anchorage on August 25, 2001. It was my 39th birthday, which was neither here nor there. A woman stood in front of her house, facing the sun with her eyes closed. My guess was that she was trying to take in as much warmth as she could before winter came and her seasonal affective disorder made her drink a lot and punch walls. I’m a Californian so dark, cold winters are a foreign concept to me. I kept walking.
I had my backpack with me as I had checked out of my motel a few hours earlier and was not able to check into the bed and breakfast until later that day. Between now and then, my job was to go meet my then wife Laura when she crossed the finish line of the Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride.
This was a 500-mile cycling trip from Fairbanks to Alaska and she had been training for months. She was Dutch so riding a bicycle was second nature to her. What wasn’t second nature was how the route went through a sizable mountain range. The Dutch don’t have mountains, or even large hills for that matter.
When she wasn’t training, she was busy getting people to sponsor her. I can’t remember exactly how much money she was supposed to raise, but I think it was about $1,500. I hit up people at work and got a few takers. She did most of the fundraising though.
I could hear the music from about a block away. It was instrumental and generically uplifting, the kind of stuff you hear in an inspirational sports movie. The underdog team defies all odds, wins the big game, and brings glory to their piece-of-shit hometown.
When I arrived, the music was mostly playing for people who were nowhere to be found. A few Tour de Francers and triathletes, slumming for a good cause, were already on the scene. Several hours later, the Bus of Shame, loaded with those who pussed out along the way, would be bringing up the rear. Somewhere in the middle was Laura, closing in on Anchorage on her trusty hybrid bike.
In the meantime, I sat on my backpack and waited. There was a bandstand-like thing set up on one side of the street. It had a stack of speakers, a large “AIDS Ride” banner, and a microphone set up in the middle of the stage. Either the organizer of the event or someone else high up in the organization was congratulating people as they crossed the finish line.
“You’re heroes! You did it!! You’re heroes!!!” he said over and over. He didn’t say anything else. There was no need. His message was for everyone who did the ride, and more importantly, brought in a bunch of money for AIDS research. The music didn’t change either. It maintained a crescendo of triumph for anyone who came in on a bicycle. Maybe it would change to a sad trombone when the Bus of Shame pulled in, but that seemed unlikely.
I never had the chance to find out. In due course, Laura arrived and crossed the finish line, earning her herohood from the man behind the microphone. She was both exhilarated and exhausted as she introduced me to new friends she met on the ride.
“This is surreal,” I said. and started explaining how the music and the praise kept at such a high level left me shaking my head. She gave me a disapproving look and turned to start talking with her friends.
“Fucking mutated,” I went on, still proud of my powers of observation. I looked around, hoping to see someone who had witnessed what I had. I saw plenty of loved ones welcoming riders and showing support. There weren’t many casual spectators. Why would there be? This event and all its spectacle wasn’t for them. In time, I came to realize that it wasn’t for me either.