The view from Neahkahnie Mountain was spectacular: clear blue Oregon sky, rugged coastline, steep basalt cliffs, lush conifers, the Coast Range in the distance. A nice place to start a bike trip.
Bill Walton stared at the layer of summer fog hovering offshore and then turned to survey my yellow Schwinn Varsity, with baby seat, kickstand, generator light and balding tires.
"You're going on that?" he asked, raising his red eyebrows.
I nodded, wondering how I'd let myself get talked into this venture—a two-day, 150-mile bike trip on the winding, mountainous Pacific Coast Highway. I was accustomed to riding three blocks to the 7-Eleven.
December 7, 1981
It was August 1977, two months after Walton had led the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA championship. Blazer-mania was rampant in Oregon and Walton was king. I was 35, a journalist and not exactly in Olympic form.
"Go slow, Bill," I urged as we eased onto the highway. A sign read BICENTENNIAL BIKE ROUTE. A big logging truck barreled by, nearly blowing me off the shoulder. "This doesn't seem like fun," I said.
Bill was riding his $1,000, custom-made, super-lightweight Falcon touring bike, a gift from a cycle shop near UCLA. His wife, Susan, and their 2-year-old son, Adam, were going to follow us intermittently in a Mercedes. A six-man film crew would shadow us the whole way, shooting footage for a documentary on Walton. I was the pinch pedaler—there was no time for practice laps, it was just mount up and go—called by the film crew only the night before to fill in for a friend of Bill's who had pulled out at the last minute. We were wired with mikes.
"Wait up, Bill," I yelled. "I want to ask you about the time you..." It was too late. He was far ahead, his long legs pumping like the pistons of a well-oiled machine. I suddenly got the picture: I would be playing catch-up bicycle the whole way. Ahead, I could see a Winnebago slowing down, an Instamatic aimed out the window. Oregon's state monument was rolling by.
I rode 10 tough miles into the wind before seeing Big Red again. He was relaxing beside the highway, sipping apricot nectar, picking blueberries and shying away from the Instamatics. His bike was lying in the tall grass.
"For a thousand bucks, seems like your bike should have a kickstand," I said, huffing to a stop.
A minute later, he hopped back up and said, "Let's hit it." Trained on the streets of Westwood, now he was attacking the Oregon coast as if it were Artis Gilmore.
I labored to stay close the next few miles as we turned inland through a pastoral valley, past grazing Angus and clear streams. A Grandpa McCoy type drove by in an old pickup, honking a salute. We returned to the coastline, the ocean breeze offering little relief from the unusually hot afternoon sun.
"My butt is getting sore," I yelled, shifting to get comfortable, sort of.
Bill slowed down to let me draw alongside. "Pain can be a state of mind," he said. "If you convince yourself it doesn't hurt, even if it does, you can keep going. Just let yourself relax, keep it smooth, keep a steady pace. You're working too hard. See, without even pedaling, I'm going faster than you."
"Want to trade bikes?" I asked.
He thanked me for the offer and then shifted gears and pulled away, the sun glistening on his tan shoulders. I was alone, just me and the white lines on the road and the gradual numbing in my legs. It was another 20 miles before I spotted Susan, cruising by in the Mercedes after an afternoon at the beach with Adam. Her comforting, earth-mother smile eased the pain a little. "Where's Bill?" she asked.
"I haven't seen your hubby in two hours," I said, motioning over the crest of the next hill.
At dusk I wearily rolled into Oceanside, a small coastal resort town. As I stumbled off my Schwinn, I fell exhausted right into the middle of Main Street. I wasn't trying to be dramatic for the film crew. I didn't have the energy for that. I truly felt as if I'd just pedaled over the Himalayas. "Count me out for tomorrow," I said, eyeing the passenger seat of the Mercedes. "The legs are gone."
"Twenty minutes of stretching exercises tonight and you'll be ready in the morning," Bill said. "You can't quit."
I wasn't so sure. At dinner that night, I could barely lift my fork. Bill had no such problem. He wolfed down two large salads, two bowls of clam chowder, a large crab cocktail, a bowl of cottage cheese, an order of prawns, a salmon steak and a baked potato. It was tiring just to watch him.
Between bites he talked of his days at UCLA. "Coach Wooden was really good with me," he said. "I really like him, although sometimes I had the impression he wanted everybody to be just like him. I got on his wrong side my first week at school. I had a huge party in my dorm room, and we got into all sorts of trouble. Vandalized the place. I ended up getting kicked out of the dorm."
The conversation turned to methods of travel. "The summer after we won the NCAAs my sophomore year, I hitchhiked 13,000 miles across Canada and the United States," he said. "All the way to the East Coast. All I took was a backpack and $175. I had some great rides. One I remember was just outside Calgary. There must have been 30 hitchhikers in line. One guy said he'd been waiting four days. I went to the end of the line and got a ride in five minutes. The driver didn't know who I was; he just picked me out of the crowd. Another time a guy went 200 miles out of his way so he could talk with me."
The next morning Bill was up at dawn and eager to get started. I failed to share his enthusiasm; my whole body was stiff. For reasons I'm not sure I understand, I pulled myself out of bed and joined him for breakfast. Adam and Susan were still sleeping, which is what I wanted to be doing.
We were on the road soon after breakfast. The film crew again followed us closely, and I got the impression that Walton would have liked to take a quick left at the county road, ditching everybody, but he was a good sport.
"Only 90 miles to go," he said, grinning back at me over his shoulder. "It'll be a piece of cake today."
However, as we started the long climb over Cape Lookout, the pile of breakfast pancakes I had eaten felt like dead weight in my stomach. The sun was burning through the fog, forecasting the 100° day to come. Even Bill strained going up the grade. He zigzagged to reduce the severity of the climb, challenging the morning traffic.
The rest of the morning we sailed over a gently rolling stretch of highway. Bill generously slowed the pace and I began to get a second wind. I smiled at rubbernecking drivers who spotted Bill. One lady in a Buick jammed on her brakes, rushed out of the car and handed him her owner's manual to autograph. We encountered her again five miles down the road. She was waiting with a pitcher of orange juice, a plate of oatmeal cookies and all her neighbors.
"How's the weather up there?" asked an elderly man, staring up at Bill, who was actually sitting on his bike but who still towered over the man. Bill just rolled his eyes. He quickly finished his glass of juice and we were off again.
By early afternoon we had reached the base of Cascade Head, another steep climb. I stopped for a rest, watching Bill disappear over the first rise. It would be a couple of hot, grueling hours before I laid eyes on him again. When at last I wobbled bowlegged into an earthy little health-food restaurant in Lincoln City, Bill was finishing a bowl of lentil soup and his second strawberry smoothie. My second wind was long gone. It, along with my legs, was back on Cascade Head.
"I've had it," I said, gingerly slumping into a chair. "This is the end of the road for me."
I excused myself to go to the bathroom. When I returned, Bill was already gone, off on the last 30 miles of the journey. No goodby, no thanks for filling in and it's been nice riding with you, no attempt to urge me on. I stood there, surrounded by alfalfa sprouts and organic apple juice, listening to one of the guys in the film crew ask me if I wanted help loading my bike into the back of their van.
"Hell, no," I said bravely, trying to rub some feeling into my legs. "I'll show him."
I pedaled off again, a sweat shirt wrapped around the seat for cushioning. The final leg of the trip would be the toughest of all. I rested frequently, looking for any excuse at all to gather my strength. In the west, a poet's sunset was gathering, splashing brilliant shades of orange and crimson into the Pacific. Some other time I would be able to enjoy it more.
"Big Bill Walton rode by here a little while ago," said a man with Texas plates on his car. "You should hurry and try to catch him."
"I'll do that," I said, not bothering to explain. I was in a race with darkness.
One last mountain, Cape Foul-weather, was left to climb. I paused at the bottom, a worn-out Sherpa at the last camp up Everest. I tried to get metaphysical, visualizing myself coasting down the other side.
It must have worked. After what seemed like an eternity, I cruised down a hill into the fishing village of Newport, the finish. There was no checkered flag, no crowd, just exhilaration. One small ride for Walton, one giant ordeal for me. I'd biked 150 miles, more than 100 of them alone. I knew the loneliness of the long-distance cyclist. If I hadn't exactly brought the road to its knees, I had at least survived.
I rode tall through the town toward the wharf where Bill was rumored to be waiting. "If he's not applauding when I ride up," I said to myself, "I won't let him be my hero anymore."
I shouldn't have worried. He was standing in the middle of the street, a big, crooked grin on his California face. He didn't offer a high five—that hadn't become popular yet and I may not have been able to reach it anyway—just a sincere pat on the back. "Nice damn going," he said.
I flipped down my kickstand, and we walked down the street to a restaurant where he and Susan and Adam had been waiting for almost two hours. A cameraman from the film crew handed me my unofficial but appropriate trophy, a large beanbag pillow to sit on.
I sat down to order a beer, the pillow elevating me above Bill. Looking down at him, I just couldn't resist asking, "How's the weather down there?" I was on top of the world.