One day Ben Court, who works for Men’s Health but is one of the longtime and loyal lunch-time riders at Rodale anyway, asked me if I’d ever been on a ride that changed my life, and he asked in a way that let me know he knew the answer was yes. I had a lot to choose from, so I threw a bunch at him and he picked one that fit best in the package MH was publishing, “25 Life-Changing Summer Road Trips.” The article was mostly a listing of trips, with three mini-stories, one about family by the biologist and writer Cameron MacDonald, one about love and women from the poet and writer Mark Levine, and this one, from me, about friendship. The editors changed it a bunch, none of which I really minded except for, toward the end, they cut “the same way all of us are.” That phrase was important to me. So here it is again.
I started my ride of the 450-mile Natchez Trace Parkway as part of a group being pampered by a high-end touring company that put us up in mansions furnished with antiques valued higher individually than my net worth. I was 28, and the kind of 28 where “net worth” meant a couple bicycles, a Kawasaki, a good duffel, and deep resentment of anyone who was more settled and more financially secure—everyone else on that 5-day ride.
I hadn’t counted on Mark. He was about my age, but already had a successful practice as an obstetrician, was married, and was a triathlete—back when that title was held only by aerobic freaks, instead of half the people on your block. I knew much more about the nuances of how to ride a bicycle well, but Mark was much fitter, so our paces ended up identical.
The Parkway is one of the great American cycling roads, closed to commercial vehicles, unspoiled by businesses and billboards, rolling but never hilly. For hours and hours, we would be on the road with no one else to talk to. Mark told me how he’d gotten the burn scars all over his body. I talked about not being married, then I talked about not liking being poor. He told me how he was worried he might be forced to stop treating hard-luck women who couldn’t afford to pay. The scenery—farms, creeks, wildflowers, and stands of oak, pine, dogwood, and laurel—absorbed any silences. Five, 6, 7 hours a day of this. At the end of the trip, we were great friends.
We’ve never spoken again. All we really ever had in common was that we rode a bicycle the same speed on the same road. But maybe that’s enough. I not only think of him as a friend, but, 20 years later, things he said still pop into my head. He was one of the first guys I met who knew that you didn’t have to win an argument, but could just leave one. He was the same as me in different ways, and different from everyone else the same way I was, the same way all of us are. Those are life lessons I found my way to over the course of 450 miles, but never would have been able to find alone.
Originally published in the August 2013 edition of Men’s Health