California AIDS Ride Journal – Day Two, Monday: 89.5 miles to Greenfield

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

Just after 5 a.m., the cyclists of California AIDS Ride 3 rub sleep from their eyes, sniffling with hay fever in the high pollen count, and crawl from their tents.

We stream toward the showers, the chemical toilets, then the food lines for a hot breakfast of eggs, hash browns,sausage, cereal, danish and more, laid on by volunteers.

Barbara Quattrocchi, 67, sips a little coffee. She laments the fact that she rode only 51 miles on Day One in memory of her son Ted’s1991 death from AIDS. Her bike_flown to San Francisco the day before in a crate_got reassembled wrong and she spent the day on a saddle that was first too high, then too low. Exhausted, she let a support van bus her into camp.

“I’ll do better today,” she vows.

Muscles ache, but we stretch, strap on our helmets, saddle up and roll out into rush hour traffic.

Santa Cruz falls away behind us as we cruise across the Monterey Peninsula, heading into a cold, stiff breeze. Skirting south of Watsonville, we cut across farm country, dodging slow-moving tractors and swallows that zoom after bugs like dogfighting jets.

A few knee-grinding hours later, I roll into the lunch stop and squat on hot grass with first-time rider Brian Vatcher, who is wolfing a sandwich.

“The phrase is, I’m living with HIV,” says Vatcher, gay, 34, lanky, cordial and blunt. “I’m not dying from it.”

He found out his status in 1990 at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, which will receive some of the $7.9 million he and other riders have raised.

“The woman gave me my test results, and the first words out of my mouth were, `But I have plans,'” Vatcher recalls. “And she said, `Keep ’em.’ And that’s stayed with me this whole time.”

The news snapped his priorities into sharp focus. His friendships suddenly became far more important, his daily living more intense.

He refuses to count his friends who have died of AIDS, from the first in 1985 to his best grade-school friend a few weeks ago.

The latest, a friend who planned to make his third California AIDS Ride succumbed suddenly last week. “Something with a 16-syllable name” swiftly destroyed all his red blood cells, Vatcher says.

Vatcher was determined to do the ride. After doctors ensured his T-cell count and other blood chemistry were safe enough to risk the strain of up to seven hours a day of hard pedaling, he is now two days into it.

He wanted to somehow repay the Center for all the medical and psychatric care he gets there.
So he faxed letters to nearly 100 celebrities seeking pledges, but only Janet Jackson responded, with a $1,000 donation. That helped push his total to about $7,000.
Stretching out before he hits the road again, Vatcher explains why he carries only a list of his sponsors, not the snapshots or stuffed animals other riders carry to commemorate dead friends.

“I don’t like to dwell on death,” he says. “I don’t want to put myself in that category.”
Back on the road, I look at the picture I carry in the map case atop my handlebar bag and fall to thinking about the man in the photo.

Steve Marquez, a short, humble, savvy Philadelphia Daily News reporter and one of my best friends, was killed in 1987 by AIDS.

Steve knew his home town: who made the best cheesesteaks, where all the mobsters got rubbed out. He once showed me all the Mafia hit sites, the house where a nail bomb blew Phil “Chicken Man” Testa off his front porch, the Bomb-Bomb cafe which was so named because it got blown up twice.

Steve smiles out from the snapshot, inside the massive model of the human heart at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute museum, his feet crossed atop the left ventricle, that look on his face that said he was ready for anything.

He was not ready for AIDS.

He told one gay friend he was sick, no one else. His mother found out while making funeral arrangements. His friends learned in the raucous din of a reporters’ hangout called the Pen and Pencil Club, at his wake.

Maybe Steve would have told more people had he lived until 1996, now that AIDS is slightly less taboo a topic. Maybe he would have lived longer, instead of wasting away to the 75-pound husk that I said goodbye to after he died, as machines kept his body breathing.

Maybe not.

NEXT: Day Three, Tuesday, 76.5 miles to Paso Robles