Mark Junge

Ardath Junge captured this image of her husband, Mark, on the last leg of their 2018 bicycle trip in Iowa. The location is at the south end of the Raccoon River Trail in Des Moines. Courtesy

At the age of 76, Dear Reader, I am trying to adjust to the pains, aches and other bothersome toils and tribulations of aging. It took a while, but finally I’ve come to realize that each new day is different, some days are better than others, and I still can make some decisions that affect my life on planet Earth.

Even as we humans grudgingly accept that we’ll continue to pay taxes and eventually die, existentialism exhorts us to believe that we are the captains of our own ships. Furthermore, despite all the evils released from Pandora’s Box, hope will always remain. To confirm hope, we develop little sayings. It was nearly 50 years ago when I learned one of those maxims.

In the summer of 1973, three scruffians – artist Gordon Wilson, historian Mike Robinson and I – spent a week following the ruts of the Overland Trail through Wyoming. Beginning at Virginia Dale at the state line south of Laramie, we were joined by two trail experts – Bob Burns, a former University of Wyoming wool professor, and Paul Henderson, a former Burlington Railroad conductor and renowned trail historian from Bridgeport, Nebraska.

After a long day following trail ruts, Paul and we three amateurs built a tent on the Laramie Plains. To the sounds of a hissing Coleman lantern inside the tent and the chirping of frogs and crickets outside, we nestled in our sleeping bags and listened as Henderson shared his vast knowledge of pioneer trails. Before we drifted off to sleep, he gave us some advice about life: “... and boys, lemme tell ya somethin’. If you’ve got somethin’ to do tomorrow, you’ll live another day to do it.”

At the age of 78, camping along a historic trail was right up Paul’s alley, so to speak. He allowed that, “Comes time for me to die, I’d like to be out on something like this and lightning strike me.”

And that’s exactly how I feel about exploring our continent on a bicycle. Thus, next week Ardath and I will begin our annual long-distance bike ride and tick off another item on our bucket list.

It was in 2004 when we made our first long-distance excursion from San Francisco to New York. That trip of discovery along the Lincoln Highway took four months, with the exception of a two-week break in Cheyenne for Frontier Days.

In the past, our mode of operation was for me to pedal while Ardath drove the van and did whatever was necessary to keep me on the bicycle seat. For years, she made this humble obeisance to an obsessed husband. However, several years ago, Ardath decided maybe she’d like to do some riding.

In 2016, the two of us bicycled the Natchez Trace through Tennessee and Mississippi. The following year, it was the KATY Trail across Missouri, and last year a couple of shorter trails – the Mickelson and Raccoon trails in South Dakota and Iowa. This year’s ride is along the Erie Canal Trail, a 363-mile-long, erstwhile towpath stretching from Buffalo to Albany, New York.

Both of us will use electric-assist Haibikes, and I’ll get an extra boost from portable oxygen that will power my pathetic lungs and battered heart. Actually, it’s really not such a big deal to ride with COPD if a person just takes it easy and plods along like the proverbial turtle.

Whenever a rabbit, or faster rider, whizzes past, my competitive juices are not as quick to rise as they used to be. The frustration of having been passed up somehow has morphed into a grudging admiration for riders who are enjoying a good sweat while exhausting ill humors from their psyches. My thinking is that, really, we’re all just brothers and sisters in the flesh and mustn’t fret about aging. ... Egads! I must be in the “black” period of my life.

If you’re wondering what the black phase of life is all about, you can listen to poet Robert Bly in an audio recording explain how life has three phases: the red, the white and the black. He illustrates them by telling a story about Abraham Lincoln. It was during the middle of the Civil War when the president was awakened at the White House at 5 a.m. by a hysterical woman. She told the president that her son, a soldier from Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, had been sent to Washington by train and stayed up for two nights. Immediately upon arrival, he was assigned to guard duty, but fell asleep, a military infraction punishable by death. Her son was going to be shot!

Bly says that if Lincoln had been in the “red” period of his life, he might have said, “Guards! Get this woman out of here! What is she doing in here? Get her out!” But if Lincoln had been in the next, or “white,” period of his life, more likely he would have said, “Well, madam, you know there are rules in society. We all have to obey those rules. I have to obey them also. So ... I’m sorry, madam, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Fortunately for the woman and her son, Lincoln was in the third, or “black,” phase of life, and his drawling response was, “Well, I guess shootin’ him wouldn’t help him much” ... and he wrote out a presidential pardon.

This year, Dear Reader, I’ll skip my usual sermon from a mounted bike, the usual plea for recognition that millions of your fellow Americans are suffering from lung problems. Rather than belaboring that message or haranguing you about the advantages of portable oxygen, I’ll simply say: If you need someone to vouch for the freedom and independence that portable oxygen gives to COPD patients, then, like Doc Holliday said to Johnny Ringo in the film “Tombstone:” “I’m your Huckleberry.”

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