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Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride 2001: Moving Rocks, Moving Mountains

I am lying at the bottom of a gravel pit in the middle of Alaska. It's raining, and for the fourth straight morning I'm surrounded by 500 tents. I'm awakened by the now-familiar sounds of luggage wheels scraping over rocky dirt, the unzipping of tent flaps, the crinkle of wet tarps being folded, the faint digital beeps of alarm clocks, and the coughs and groans of over 1000 riders and volunteers rousing themselves from sleep. The start of Day Five at Camp Four on the second Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride...

The Alaska AIDS Vaccine ride is one of several charity cycling events held across the U.S. and Canada to raise money for AIDS research and charities. The riders agree to raise $3,400 in pledges, then pedal 500 miles from Fairbanks to Anchorage in six days. Most riders are not cyclists and have never done anything like this before. To reach their destination safely, they rely on hundreds of volunteers, called crew members. We set up camp, mark the route, create rest stops, direct traffic, fix bicycles, transport riders, tend to medical needs, guard bicycles, serve meals, set up bike racks, provide massages, and ensure every camp we vacate is left cleaner than when we arrived. A few months earlier I rode from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of California AIDS Ride 8. The idea of riding in Alaska had appeal, but I didn't think I could handle over 1,000 miles in one year. I decided go easy on myself and volunteer in Alaska instead. And I learned the well-kept though often-whispered secret of the crew: Riding is easier.

I'm extraordinarily lucky this morning. My crew doesn't have to report until 8:30am. My tentmate reluctantly arose at 4:15am for her daily routine - slam a quick breakfast, brush her teeth, pack her gear, and then load a U-Haul truck full of food by 5am. By 7am she'll be 15 miles up the road, with snacks and water carefully arranged under a large canvas canopy, ready to serve and cheer the first riders of the day at Outpost One. When I signed up to volunteer, I was assigned to Outpost Four, the last rest stop of the day. Just before the ride, I was told the route no longer required a fourth outpost. Our seven-woman crew has been reassigned to a variety of jobs I never expected to perform. But the act of volunteering assumes a selfless attitude, so I willingly accept the jobs assigned to me. I am helping, right?

These rides have a magical quality about them. They are more than just physical journeys across a landscape. They are experiments in human kindness. To participate is to live for a week in the world as you wish it could be. Strangers are kind to each other. They share what they have. They put their personal goals aside to help someone who doesn't think they can go on. They stop to help fix someone else's flat tire. They ride up a steep hill over and over again to encourage struggling riders.

Today I had one of those "golden moments." I was on my feet all day, setting up bikes racks, taking down bike racks, loading and unloading bike racks onto trucks. I was crabby and hungry and exhausted, but finally done for the day. Then I saw a woman stumble wearily off her bike, one of the last riders to finish. She had certainly worked harder than I had. I offered to park her bike so she could go straight to camp. She nearly cried with relief, and thanked me with all her remaining enthusiasm. All I did was park a bike, but I felt like a hero. The high of helping others…

All day long, riders were smiling, waving, thanking us for supporting them. Still, there are times when I questioned whether I was making an impact. It's not as if I committed my life to charity, or gave up much more than the cost of a plane ticket and a week of vacation. I didn't put myself in harms way, or expose myself to the unpleasant realities of disease or poverty. I just supported a very long bike ride. Was this really service, or just an excuse for a bargain trip to Alaska? How much of the money will be passed on to the charity? Were we all just fooling ourselves that an adventure vacation could end AIDS? All I know for sure was that the riders were sincere in their efforts, and I helped them get through each day.

Does volunteering need to be wholly selfless to be authentic? I felt less noble every time Alaska quietly reveals one of her treasures: Huge glaciers, blue-white and still working to carve valleys. A moose and her calf patiently waiting to cross the highway. Polychrome mountains reaching skyward. Even the pipeline, snaking its way toward civilization, had an unexpected beauty. But if some degree of suffering is required for service, I have the heat to even the score. I dressed for frigid northern temperatures and roasted in today's 80-degree heat. Now I'm exhausted, my voice hoarse after greeting hundreds of riders, my back sore from lifting heavy boxes, and my spirit lifted by the last riders of the day who refused to give up.

Lacking an assigned post, my crew was shuttled from job to job. The event was understaffed, 150 volunteers short of expectations. In the spirit of the ride, we were willing to do whatever was needed. Our motto was "Anything but Septic Pumping." The days blurred into one another and mainly consisted of getting up way too early, doing lots of heavy lifting, and driving large vehicles on the narrow road, trying to avoid riders to the right and a head-on collision to the left. When we arrived at the next camp, there was always more work to do. Even when I was done for the day, I still had the work of finding my bags, lugging them from the gear trucks to my assigned tent site, setting up my tent, and organizing the gear I had so hastily packed in the wee hours that morning. Showers were usually far across camp, as was the dining tent. Everything took longer than expected. But just when I was so tired and frustrated that I was ready to cry, I'd look up and see a glacier, or a huge snow-capped mountain, or a fire-red sunset and realize I was in the most beautiful place I had ever seen. One of the reasons I had volunteered for this ride was to see Alaska, and I was seeing it in a way few do, not from the windows of a tour bus, but by working right out in it. I was blessed with both the beauty of my surroundings and the beauty of human kindness on the ride.

Crewing this ride has been so tiring that I had been waiting for it to end. I signed up to work an outpost, basically to hand out snacks and be a cheerleader. But I had ended doing physical work, lifting and carrying, and it's taken a toll on my body. Day Five had us not only packing up camp, but carrying rocks. Rocks! Since it was impossible to drive tent stakes into the hard ground of the gravel pit, the staff had advised everyone to grab large rocks from the edges of the pit and place them in the corners of the tents to guard against the wind. But they forgot to tell everyone to put the rocks back. As part of our commitment to leave the campsites cleaner than when we found them, a handful of us now had to carry 2,000 rocks to the edges of the pit. I felt like Fred Flintstone in the quarry, without the benefit of a brontosaurus. Didn't they have heavy machinery that could do this? Were rocks even considered litter in a gravel pit? Had I really traveled all the way from California and given up a week of precious vacation to carry boulders in a gravel pit? Was this helping? Was I making a difference at all?

And yet here I am less than 24 hours later, on the last day, almost in tears because I don't want this to end. Packing up our last camp this morning, I was sad and quiet. As we stacked folding chairs in the dining tent, I noticed a rider with a sign on his back: "I'm riding 3230 miles in 39 days through 14 states and 2 countries to make AIDS history. Will you support me?" I asked him why he rode, and he showed me a picture of his godson Samuel, born HIV positive three years earlier. Moved to action, he had raised over $35,000 by riding. This man was saving lives with every pedal stroke. As he left, I asked if could support him. He said I already was. And he thanked me. Me. That morning I was just carrying chairs, but it was saving lives.

People ride for friends and family, some sick, some at risk, some departed. Some ride for themselves, despite being HIV positive. Many ride with laminated photos clipped to their handlebars, or names written on their shirts. Together, these few thousand riders were able to raise millions, money that may help find a vaccine to end the spread of AIDS. I just handed out packages of granola, set up bike racks, loaded tables and chairs, and carried rocks. But even the rocks made a difference.

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