categories: Cocktail Hour
I wrote that sentence about twenty years ago, soon after moving out to Colorado in the wake of going through an operation and radiation for testicular cancer in Worcester, Ma. A book about my cancer experience poured out of me (and to be honest I haven’t stopped writing hard since.) Soon I also started biking, mostly up steep hills.
Not much later a more famous case of testicular cancer made the headlines. Lance Armstrong also did a little biking after he lost a ball. About ten years ago I wrote, but never published, the essay below about Lance…..it’s far too long for a post so you are excused from reading it if you are busy. Just skim! These days I am more cynical about Lance, and the possibility of his doping, than I was when I wrote the piece, but I still think there is something archetypal about his return from near death.
Here it is:
The Meaning of Lance
I pass ponderosa pines, the fallen yellow leaves of aspen turned too early, and three bucks with velvet antlers nibbling on the hillside grasses. I’m back in Colorado, where my recovery began ten years ago, and I’m on my bike heading up toward the abstract outline of mountains made hazy by rainclouds, climbing a hill that I would have once thought too steep. My profession requires that I spend much of my time locked inside the musty attic of my brain, but for the next three weeks my job is not the usual one of keeping my butt in my chair and my eyes facing a computer screen. Instead I will keep that butt on a bike seat—-at least when not standing up to pedal–and will face the mountains I’m climbing. The impulse to make stories, however, can’t be entirely stifled and while my fingers grip the handlebars and my chest heaves and my feet and legs turn the gears, my brain has taken on a secret project. I am going to discover the meaning of Lance.
By this point he has ascended to single name status—Lance—and over the last few years there have been countless articles about him, as well as his own wildly popular autobiography. There are obvious reasons, besides sheer athletic brilliance, that he has attracted our attention. But I want to dig below the obvious, to try and understand why this individual has meant so much to so many and–even more importantly for my current purposes of this very personal essay–why he has meant so much to me.
* * *
It happened years ago, a week before my 30th birthday. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say I lost half my manhood right as I was on the verge of becoming a man. In fact, with hindsight, I can see the role the loss played in the becoming. But at the time I didn’t see that. All I could see was that a doctor was telling me something that couldn’t possibly be true—I was too young and strong, after all—and a few weeks later the same doctor was cutting me open and dislodging my right testicle from its home of 29 years.
Each year in the U.S. approximately 7,000 men, mostly very young men, are diagnosed with testicular cancer. Terry Tempest Williams celebrated her clan of one-breasted women, survivors of breast cancer. I, less poetically, am a member of the clan of one-balled men. Lance Armstrong is the most prominent member of our tribe, and the comedian Tom Greene perhaps the most annoying, but there are hundreds of thousands of others, each with their particular prognosis, for better or worse, and each with their particular story.
Here are a few of the particulars of my story. Kneed in the groin during a game of pick-up basketball, I was surprised when the pain didn’t go away the next day, more surprised when it lingered for weeks. A month later I was in the doctor’s office, standing in front of a man who I’d soon come to regard as my savior, as he recited sentences to me that were the stuff of TV movies-of-the-week. Within ten days the same man was cutting me open, and I was awake to watch it, since the doctor had discovered that I also had malignant hypothermia, a rare condition that made it dangerous, and potentially fatal, for me to be put under with anesthetics. Instead I was given a spinal, as many women are during childbirth, my lower half numbed so that they could make the slit in my abdomen through which to extract my testicle, reeling it in with the spermatic cord. Not only was I half-awake during the operation, I also had someone to talk to. My girlfriend of six years, Rachel, was a medical student at U-Mass, the hospital where the operation took place, and the doctor had asked her to observe the entire procedure, if it was okay with me. It was, and so Rachel was there as a firsthand witness to my half castration.
I stayed in the hospital for a week after the operation and spent most of that time awaiting what Rachel and I came to call “the verdict,” that is the results of the pathology tests. The word I finally got was good indeed—-a seminoma, the best cancer flavor, possible—-and no other operations would be necessary. I celebrated my 30th birthday with the news that I would live, but, despite the positive prognosis, I reacted poorly to the required month of radiation treatment, which seared the cells lining my intestines. By the next fall, four months later, I was well enough to leave behind both my doctors and Rachel, moving to Colorado to attend graduate school.
Colorado was the perfect place to recover. My tests continued to confirm that I was “clean,” and I began to hike the trails, then run them. It was during my second year in Colorado that I discovered biking. I loved climbing the roads outside of town on my bike, up into the mountains. I wasn’t a great rider, but I was a dogged one, rarely missing a day. It made me feel strong and occasionally I rode shirtless, baring the permanent blue tattoos that had been burned into my torso as guides during radiation treatment. Then, in 1994, a year after I began to ride, two events occurred that changed my life. During the first week in April I began to date the woman who would become my wife, and, later that week I got the phone call with the news that my father, at 56, had lung cancer. He would only live for three more months and throughout those months, when not back East tending him, I spent hours on my bike, climbing up into the hills, enjoying the pain in my still-live muscles and the respite from thought.
* * *
It was two years later, at the end of my fifth summer in Colorado, that I heard the news about Lance Armstrong. I’ll admit that I immediately thought what a lot of people thought: this guy’s a goner. By then I’d been through enough, between myself and my father, to feel like a bit of a cancer pro, someone who knew what was what when it came to the dark art of cells dividing and tumors growing. But you didn’t need any expertise to see this guy was dead. It wasn’t just in his testicle, but in his lungs, and, worst of all, in his brain. He was given a forty percent chance of surviving and, as he wrote in his autobiography, “frankly some of the doctors were just being kind when they gave those odds.” I had gotten to know both good cancer and bad cancer over the previous five years, and this was definitely bad.
The severity of his disease has a lot to do with the meaning of Lance. In The Denial of Death, Ernst Becker writes: “The hero was the man who could go into the spirit world, the world of the dead, and return alive.” There have been many athletes who have had cancer scares, but this was more than a scare. When discussing the hero returning from the underworld, Becker cites not just the obvious Christian myths, but the “mystery cults of the Mediterranean, which were cults of death and resurrection.” Given the extreme severity of Lance Armstrong’s condition–-for instance the brain surgery required to remove tumors–his was as much a resurrection as a recovery, and what elevates him from idol to hero is his time in the land of the dead. Human beings have always heaped praise, even worship, on those who have gotten close to the place we all fear, and then returned. In his book Armstrong expresses anger with those who gave him up for dead, but to a certain extent that was everyone, at least every objective outside observer. The most compelling comebacks in sports are those where everything has been lost, where the athlete, or team, is dead. We thrill when an athlete, Michael Jordan say, performs well in the clutch, that is when facing elimination. Sports, as has too often been said, merely mimic the greater life and death heroics of war, and though athletic defeats may be described as crushing and devastating, all is not lost. In Lance’s case the metaphor was stripped away, and those words became real.
Before my own operation the whole notion of death seemed theoretical, and there was still a chance that my tumor wouldn’t be malignant. After the operation I had a week of uncertainty over my fate, but then, a week later, I was given a 90% chance of survival, which changed everything. I suppose I could claim to know how a dire prognosis feels because I was so close to my father during his last weeks, but that wouldn’t be true either: no matter how close we are to someone there is always the slight relief that it is not us—-and we can never really know how that doomed other feels. And so I can only know how it must have felt for Lance the way any fan knows an athlete: through empathy, with all its limits. That is one of the thrills of sports, after all. We become the athletes we root for, but there is always safety in the fact that we’re not the ones facing the danger, safety in the fact we’re sitting home on the couch. And this is important for the Lance myth, too. Because the hero is someone beyond us, someone who has achieved more than we ever will.
When entering into a discussion of this sort, particularly when the subject is cancer, one has to be wary of talking about “lessons” or “meaning.” “Everything happens for a reason,” was a phrase that people parroted at me when I was sick until I wanted to jump out of my hospital bed and throttle them. “Yes, it happens for a reason,” I wanted to yell. “And the reason is my cells divided and a tumor formed and that’s the reason and there is no other!” In his autobiography Armstrong is quick to point out the role of luck in cancer survival. His doctors tell him that they have seen people with great attitudes and outlooks die while ornery bastards lived. And, likewise, Armstrong, for all his strength and fitness and his innate ability to breathe better than a normal human, admits that he, as strange as it sounds, ended up getting lucky. Just as no one knows the reason the cancer came, no one knows why, in his case, the chemo worked and the cancer went away.
A popular cancer myth is that of the survivor blessed above other human beings, a creature who smells every rose and smiles sweetly at every sunrise. Though anyone who has almost died feels a powerful resurgence at the simple fact that they will live, in most people this fades quickly. What doesn’t fade as quickly, it seems to me, is an undercurrent of fear, of dread, which if funneled effectively, can be a productive thing. “If you can still move you ain’t sick,” Armstrong told himself, and some of his worst times occurred during the relatively indolent period after he had been declared clean and before he had re-committed to being a champion racer. It was when he began to train—and train with ferocity—that he came alive again. I remember my own experience of writing myself into a near frenzy in Colorado a few months after my radiation treatment. The survivor, particularly the young survivor, is suddenly aware that there are deadlines. While I think the world-appreciating survivor is, for the most part, a myth, I do believe that in some cases cancer is life’s starting gun. A sense of urgency prevails. There is little time. We must make use of it.
* * *
Today, through a stroke of good luck, I come a little closer to Lance.
For the last ten days I have been climbing up into the mountains on my rental, a Trek mountain bike. The Colorado weather, edging from late summer into early fall, has been perfect, and the fires that turned the sky rubbery have passed. Our lives are idyllic: we live in a small cottage facing the mountains and yesterday, near dawn, I watched a bushy-tailed red fox amble its way across our backyard. But the highlights of my days haven’t been a pastoral contemplation of the hills, but my ascents into them. I ride alone sometimes, steady but slow by my old standards, and when I ride with my Colorado friends I try to quell my own competitive instincts, keeping behind, telling myself to hold back, just getting my legs used to the exertion and my lungs used to the altitude.
But now, thanks to a new friend, I let loose a little. I met Doug a year ago when my wife and I were biking up one of the local canyons. I was standing over my bike by the side of the road, resting while trying to fit my water bottle back into its cage, when he pedaled up beside me. He asked if everything was all right and I said it was. He rode a fancy racing bike and had on lycra shorts and biking shirt, and what I-—always a kind of low tech guy—-really wanted to say was “What’s it to you buddy?” Not long after, my wife and I pulled over to swim in one of the streams while he rode off up the canyon. When we got back on our bikes we turned off on a road to another canyon but by then the stranger had doubled back and caught us right before a particularly steep ascent. We were taking a quick break at the bottom of the hill and he pulled up next to us. “Do you two know where you’re going?” he asked. Now I really didn’t like him. Who was this guy to ask me about my hills? As it turned he was the owner of the bike shop that had rented us our bikes, and he was just making sure that a couple of out-of-towners weren’t getting in over their heads. We started to talk and my wife mentioned that I’d once written a book about the area. Then he said something that might be normal fare for Stephen King or John Grisham but that I had never heard before. “You mean the book I started reading last night?” he said. The book was personal and autobiographical and he pointed at my wife. “You must be Nina and you two must be out visiting from your house on Cape Cod.” After we talked for a while, we started riding up the hill together and I asked him about his bike. “It’s my Lance bike,” he said. “The same one he won the Tour on last year.” I took that statement at face value, naively assuming that he had somehow gotten his hands on Armstrong’s actual bike. What he meant of course, as I learned later, was that it was the same model Armstrong had won the Tour on: a trek 5900 with a carbon fiber frame that cost around 4,5000$.
Today I am on the Lance bike. The bike only weighs 16 and a half pounds and I, used to heavy mountain bikes, feel as if I’m flying up the canyon. Doug suggested I try the bike after I told him that I had been doing a lot of thinking about Lance. He is a former bike racer and as we pedal he gives me pointers on my technique. I lurch a little too much, and sway my shoulders. “Watch video of Lance climbing,” he says. “His upper body is just a passenger.” On the other hand, Doug tells me I’m a natural climber, and compliments the way I mash the gears when I stand. That compliment, as well as the bike itself, makes me feel stronger, and we easily drop our third riding partner, a friend whom I have been trailing up hills for the last week. For a while I keep the bike in the same gear Lance uses while he climbs, but where he spins steadily, I strain. Still, I feel good. I try to keep my shoulders from swaying and push down even harder on the pedals.
I love to climb, and love to watch real climbers climbing. Often there is a sense of controlled fury to ascents; a teammate of Bernard Hinault’s once described that great champion’s quality of “destructive rage.” Armstrong himself wrote of “the primitive art of climbing” and the raw, basic nature of the climb is vital to the Lance myth. Biking is a sport we all knew as children and still know—“it’s like riding a bike”–yet racing is a foreign sport of pure struggle without the usual lines or hoops or rackets or complex rules. Given our culture’s obsession with balls of all sorts, the coverage of Armstong’s comeback might have been even greater if a star quarterback or outfielder had recovered from cancer and near death. But it would have been less metaphorically apt. If cancer strips sports of its metaphors then the climb is both the thing itself—a raw ordeal of suffering—and an activity chock full of symbolic implications. Climbing up from nothing to something, climbing out of a deep hole, climbing as the embodiment of the ability to endure pain. Though the time trials are vital to the Tour de France, it is the series of climbs that are the heart of the race. The question the Tour asks of you, according to Armstrong, is, “Who can best survive the hardships and find the strength to keep going?” What could be simpler? Almost a pure distillation of sport. And what better metaphor, not just for cancer survival but for the more mundane victories of everyday living: the need to go on, to battle upward, to survive. In fact, the sport so perfectly fits the story that at times metaphor and the thing itself blur, just as they do when you’re riding. Armstrong wrote: “I tried to tell myself that the fight for my life was a lot more important than the fight to win the Tour de France, but by now they seemed to be one and the same to me.”
Of course the Tour is not just a climb, but a race, which means beating others. Athletes often feed and nurture the chips that grow on their shoulders, since these chips fuel them, and the chips have to be invented if none are there at the moment. Armstrong began his career as an almost raw embodiment of “destructive rage,” breaking other riders, driven by an urge to show the bastards. “When you open a gap, and your competitors don’t respond, it tells you something. They’re hurting. And when they’re hurting, that’s when you take them.”
Today, as my legs pump the pedals, I have no illusions that I’ll be pulling away from Doug. He is an ex-racer, and could likely drop me at any moment. A series of little stars, the sort used to reward kindergardeners, shine up at me from his bike’s crossbar. Each star represents a time Doug has beaten his regular biking partner during their countless races to Deer Crossing signs or town borders. When I lived here I often raced up the hills with friends, the competition pushing us to go faster than we ever would alone. We weren’t winning any yellow jerseys, or beating Hinault or Ulrich, but it meant something to be the first one up, at least it meant something in our own small worlds. Ernest Becker writes: “An animal who gets his feeling of worth symbolically has to minutely compare himself to those around him.” Doug’s stars help him get up the hill, and give sense to an essentially senseless thing. For those of us who are not ever going to win, or even compete in, the Tour, the victory is in the activity itself, but even if the goal is something beyond ego it doesn’t hurt to enlist ego to help get there.
It’s on the downhill home that I learn something else about riding: the bravery required to hurtle down on such thin wheels. The bike is acutely responsive, both to my movements and to bumps, and I am too much of a coward to let go of the brakes for long. Still I get a sense of the speed—racers can reach seventy miles per hour on these flimsy things—and the trusting courage it must take to ride brakeless down such hills.
* * *
We are told that we must not hero worship. And this is a sensible admonition. But there is something we have abandoned along with the worship. That is hero use.
So: in Lance we have an archetypal hero returned from the land of the dead and a sport well suited to the myth, both in its metaphoric and actual elements of struggle and pain. What else makes Armstrong’s case particularly compelling? Well, there’s also the myth of transformation. Around the time of my own sickness, Robert Bly’s Iron John was quite popular, and one of that book’s central stories was that of the boy who lost his golden ball, and then suffered a deep wound, on the way to becoming a man. The Lance story provides us with one of the basic pleasures of narrative: watching our protagonist change and grow. As Armstrong himself writes, there was a Before Lance and an After Lance, and part of his story is the way that his cancer prompted a kind of accelerated maturation. The Before Lance, according to our myth, was an angry bull, at times a study in wasted energy, always going out hard and early, trying to prove he was stronger than everyone else. This character was a brash young wildman, who attacked at any time, seemingly at random and out of spite, and who, when he won, flashed the Texas Longhorns “Hook ‘em horns” salute with both hands. The After Lance, on the other hand, is a mature, almost scientific tactician, a leader who knows how to make best use of his still prodigious strength and energy. And what separates these two Armstrongs? Cancer. It is narratively perfect. Our hero’s trial. His wound. His lost ball.
On the simplest level, Armstrong’s transformation was a physical one. Before the cancer, he weighed 175 pounds, bullish for a biker, but the chemo and inactivity stripped him of muscle and he made his body anew. “The upper body is the passenger,” Doug told me, so why waste time putting on showy muscles that will have to be carted up into the hills? The new body is sinewy and lean, 158 pounds, and the new face, self-described, is “hawkish.” (To get the idea of what a difference this makes bike up a steep hill sometime and then try it again with a 17 pound weight in your backpack.) But even more important than the new body, according to our story, is the new mind. This mind knows some of the hard-won secrets of the adult world. It knows the value of patience, when to hold back and save energy, and the value of consistency, as well as, to some extent, the value of diplomacy among the other riders in the peloton. And it knows that great goals are not achieved all at once but through accretion, the gradual piling on and up of day after day of dull and repetitive work.
“I wasn’t as good at the one day races anymore,” Armstrong writes. “I was no longer the angry and unsettled rider I had been. My racing was still intense, but it had become subtler in style and technique, not as visibly aggressive. Something different fueled me now—-psychologically, physically, emotionally—-and that something was the Tour de France…..I was willing to sacrifice the entire season to prepare for the Tour.” In other words he was able to hold back, to plan ahead, to give up short term pleasure in return for long term gain. And isn’t this a change we all go through, or imagine we go through, if we hang around long enough? Isn’t it, for the purpose of our story, something like the getting of wisdom?
* * *
While my own story wasn’t nearly as heroic or resonant as Armstrong’s (whose is?) it did divide my life neatly into a before and after, and was not without some mythic overtones. I grew up in the industrial city of Worcester, Massachusetts, and, having lived my whole life in the East, moved back to my hometown the year before I got sick when Rachel was accepted at U-Mass medical school. In the fall after my cancer, once I’d recovered from the radiation treatments, I drove an unregistered Buick Electra from Worcester to Colorado. The trip mimicked the classic American movement from east to west, a chance to make myself anew. Along with my right testicle, I left many other things behind in Worcester: my mate of seven years, generations of family and family history, my old job and old friends. My new home was a small blue cabin tucked in the cleavage of a canyon that was called, appropriately, Eldorado. Though lonely at times and still anxious about my health, I often felt exhilarated as I went about learning the names of the local plants and birds—all new to me—and embracing my new Western life.
I had come to Colorado, not to ride my bike, but to write, and each morning, in the cool of the canyon, I got up and walked to my desk, where a book about Worcester and cancer poured out of me. Though, as I say, I am loath to draw too many cancer “lessons,” I felt at least two of the things that Armstrong reports feeling. One was a daily urgency—-I was being given a second chance and I would damn well take it—-and the other was the determination to finish a long project, that is a book, not a mere story or essay or fragment. As it turned out it would take years, not the months I’d optimistically imagined, but that book would eventually be completed.
* * *
Yesterday, just after I’d finished my morning ride, Reg Saner came by for a visit. During my first years in Colorado Reg was my wise man, my Merlin. I first got to know Reg as a poet and professor, only later learning he was an outdoorsman and Korean War vet. White-haired with an aristocratic nose, Reg has a noble bearing and an aggressive intellect and, though he was a great and kind teacher, he could also be somewhat intimidating in class.
We sat behind my cabin and ate bagels and peaches, and I told him about my Lance project. Reg himself was an ardent biker, making it a point to climb regularly into the mountains surrounding the town. He listened carefully and then mentioned something I hadn’t considered.
“You might think about Greg LeMond’s story, too” he said. “He’s Armstong’s precursor in more than one way.”
He reminded me of LeMond’s victory in the Tour de France in 1986, the first by an American, and then of the tragic hunting accident the next year that nearly killed him. LeMond was only a few minutes from bleeding to death when a massive transfusion and operation saved his life, and his recovery was long, slow, and painful. Just as experts wrote off Armstrong, they assumed that LeMond was finished as a biker, but he vowed he would be back and two years later, in 1989, he won the Tour again.
“That final time trial might have been the most dramatic comeback not just in the Tour but in all of sports,” Reg said. “Going into that last race he was down fifty seconds to Fignon. It was a short race—24 kilometers—and the experts said it was impossible to make up two kilometers a second. He rode the fastest time trial in history and won by eight seconds.”
I wondered if Armstrong had found any inspiration in LeMond’s story, in having a predecessor and role model when it came to doing the impossible. Of course more recently there has been some discord between the two champions, in part because of LeMond’s comments about Armstrong’s association with an Italian doctor notorious for doping. Unfortunately, the specter of drugs hangs over the Armstrong story, threatening to re-write it at any minute. I mentioned this to Reg and we agreed that we would feel a deep sense of disappointment–even betrayal–if he ever tested positive. But the fact is that Armstrong has been tested for performance enhancing drugs again and again, and continues to come up clean.
* * *
A bear has been getting into the neighbor’s trash. Drought is part of what is driving the bears down from the mountains, but so is time of year. Fall is the foraging time, and fall is coming. A time of activity and gorging, before the long burrowing of winter.
The mornings are cool now and I get up early and work in our backyard, using a tree stump as desk and watching the roseate hues reflect off the red sandstone mountains we call the flatirons. Each day, before I ride up into the hills, I bury myself in books of myths. I am re-reading the Armstrong autobiography, but I also dip into myths of heros and heroines who have spent time in the land of the dead and returned to this world. In a compilation called Parallel Myths by J.F. Bierlein I read the Kenyan story of Marwe, the Babylonian story of Ishtar, and the Egyptian story of Osiris and Isis. Every culture, it seems, has its myths of those who have died and come back. As well as more well-known tales like Aeneas crossing the River Styx, the book also details Native American stories of the Iroquois and Algonquin. A common thread in these stories is that those who have known death once and escaped, later, when the real time comes, greet death as a familiar, an “old friend.” Another thread is that the period between the first journey to the underworld and the final one is often a time of great prosperity and fecundity. Though I have not made much of the “love story” aspect of Armstrong’s comeback, the myths consistently stress love conquering death. Whether this is the case of not, it should be noted that Armstrong married soon after his cancer, and now through artificial insemination using stored sperm (a method unknown in the mythic literature), has three children.
Bierlein quotes the Irish scholar Jeremiah Curtin: “A myth, even when it contains a universal principle, expresses it in a particular form, using the particular personages the language and accessories of a particular people…” Who is to say, in this non-mythic time, that Lance doesn’t fill a particular role for us? Who is to say he is not the universal made particular? Even down to a certain geeky reliance on computers and gizmos, he seems very much one of us, but at the same time, by virtue of talent and achievement and circumstances, he is also something more. Thomas Mann wrote that “the typical is actually the mythical.” I know a little of what it’s like to live out the myth of comeback, of return and recovery. But Armstrong has lived it more dramatically and on a larger stage. And that is the role of the hero, too. To do what we all do only more grandly.
* * *
Tomorrow Nina and I return home to Massachusetts. But before we go I am taking a valedictory ride, up to the mountain town of Gold Hill. Sunshine Canyon doesn’t live up to its name this morning, the clouds seeming to blossom into volcanic plumes above the mountains of the continental divide. My backpack holds raingear, extra water, and a journal, and I–-no longer graced with the Lance bike–am taking it slow this morning. Sunflowers, gumweed, and asters dot the side of the road while delicate aspen leaves sough in the wind with a sound like flowing water. Yesterday a black bear was seen on the trail only a hundred yards above our cabin, and later I found prints and scat while walking along Skunk Creek. Fall is coming fast and today almost feels like it’s here.
I pedal up toward the clouds, sweating through my T-shirt as if feverish, my shoulders and thighs aching from both the morning’s exertion and the cumulative exertion of the last three weeks. The ride to the dirt is hard, the ride above brutal, a 3,000 foot gain in altitude. I pass Doug Firs, a hovering golden eagle, a scolding raven. Narrative is part of what pulls me up the hill, and when the dirt finally levels out nine miles above town, the day’s plot reveals itself: the clouds that have been hiding the horizon tear away to reveal the massive range that includes both Long’s and the Indian Peaks. You need to get up this high to gain perspective, to really see the mountains and appreciate their range, that is how many and how massive. Today’s theme, it turns out, is ascension, not just climbing but what we climb into. Like Lance, I climb so I won’t die. What better way to banish both the mundane and the terrifying than through sheer physical force? If you can move you ain’t sick. But it is more than that. I climb to be up here.
“The urge to heroism is natural and to admit it honest,” wrote Becker. And what is heroism? Becker answers: “heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death; we give valor our highest and most constant adoration; it moves us deeply in our hearts because we have doubts about how brave we ourselves would be.” But the mind is slightly embarrassed, even squeamish about the notion of heroism. We make jokes and shy away from such a crass notion, and won’t admit that it is what we most want. But perhaps I should quickly qualify that “we.” While academics and intellectuals grow uneasy around such a gauche concept, the so-called popular mind, as Becker points out, has always embraced the heroic. And still does as evidenced by the fact that Armstrong’s autobiography long perched atop all the bestseller lists. No matter what we say or how we equivocate or intellectualize, we all hunger for the rawly heroic.
For me the climax of Lance’s story was not his crowning ride into Paris, but his training rides up into the mountains outside of Boone, North Carolina. Months after his final operation and the last round of chemo, Armstrong still lived in the limbo of recovery, getting physically stronger but not yet ready to commit to becoming a bike racer again. The story goes like this: several times he tries to come back, several times wavers, several times quits. But then he heads to Boone, to train with his old friend and coach Chris Carmichael. “From then on all we did was eat, sleep, and ride bikes…..I began to enjoy the single-mindedness of training, riding hard during the day and holing up in the cabin in the evenings.” It is there, in the ancient and worn Appalachians, on the steep ascent of Beech Mountain, that Armstrong begins to feel whole again. And it is there, on that road where years before he won the Tour du Pont, that he sees the words, “Viva Lance” still painted, faint but visible, on the asphalt. “As I continued upward, I saw my life as a whole. I saw the pattern and privilege of it, and the purpose of it, too. It was simply this: I was meant for a long, hard climb.”
Noble words, and wise ones, but for me there is something beyond–-or maybe below–words about the story of Boone. What is a comeback if not the raw wordless resurgence of life? Almost dead. But not dead. Alive. And that makes all the difference. For Armstong it meant five Tour victories, a marriage (that has ended in divorce), and three children. For me it means a pregnant wife, three books written, and ten years of life I wouldn’t have lived. For other survivors it means other things, but always a basic gift, the gift of more. And, below any specifics, any achievement great or small, there is, once again, something simple and wordless. Maybe, in the end, the meaning of Lance is as ineffable as Whitman’s barbaric yawp. A squall of life like an infant’s. I am alive. Still alive. I was dead, the story goes. Now I am back.
I crest out on the dirt, overlooking the mountains, and then glide down into the little town of Gold Hill. Up here the early aspen patches glow a strange gold-lime, and, at over eight thousand feet, it feels closer to early winter than late summer. My legs, trained by the last weeks, are strong and my mind feels freed by the exertion. As I bomb down the hill I want to launch right out of my skin into the thin mountain air. On days like today I do feel something like the cliche I often denigrate: the appreciative rose-smelling survivor. And I can’t help but feel that the descent’s delight is tied to the ascent’s struggle.
I have a close childhood friend from Worcester who has been Californized by many years in L.A., and who now leaves this outgoing message on his answering machine: “You have reached the house of bliss.” I’ve never liked the message, though I’m not against occasional spasms of euphoria. It’s just that “The house of trial” seems, to me, a more apt description of the world. During my stay in Colorado I’ve kept a picture of Armstong tacked to the wall of the cabin, the way a teenager pins up a pop star. The picture shows him pedaling in the Tour, standing over his Trek bike with his upper body as a steady, though slightly swaying, passenger. But his body is not what interests me about the picture. It’s his face that pulls me in. The face is drawn, slightly haggard, the eyes somewhat demonic and the expression only slightly less anguished and tormented than the face in Munch’s The Scream. It’s not the face of bliss, that’s for sure. But if this is what torment looks like, it’s a self-imposed torment curiously close to happiness. For me it is an attractive face. For me it is the face of life.