Archive for August, 2013

The Ride Of My Life

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This is the view I wish the Captain could have seen.

I can barely control myself on a bike, which is why I wonder what inspired me to say “yes” to riding a tandem with a soldier who lost his eyesight in a rooftop explosion in Iraq. It was one thing if I squashed myself like roadkill on the pavement, but to potentially do the same to a man who has lived through hell on the front line of every American conflict in the past 25 years, was an entirely different matter.

The trouble, however, was that the only way Ivan Castro, a Special Forces Captain who is still on active duty, would grant me an interview, which I needed for the story I was in Telluride to report, was to ride a bike with him. Plus, it was his birthday and it’s hard to turn down a charming blind man on his birthday.

So I said yes.

“There are two times people crash while riding a tandem,” Castro told me. He should know. He rode a tandem across the U.S. last summer. “When they start and when they stop.”

I started fine, simultaneously steering, braking, and describing the jagged horizon in front of us. But stopping was another matter. Soon we had exhausted all the cul-de-sacs ending in $7 million mansions in Telluride Mountain Village. As we coasted toward Colorado 145, where out-of-state Cadillac SUVs flew around switchbacks 20 mph over the speed limit, we had two options: Turn around and start the slog back up to the village or coast all the way into Telluride and let the gondola do the heavy lifting on the way back up.

Before I considered the very steep highway grade into Telluride, I laid out our options to Castro, joking that if we made it to town I’d buy him a celebratory birthday beer.

The magic words were out of my mouth and no amount of backpedaling was going to get me out of this downhill ride, so we started coasting toward town with me riding the brakes so hard that he told me to relax and ease off.

Halfway to Telluride, BOOM! The tire exploded. The heat from my braking blew the tube to bits and took a good part of the tire with it. We didn’t crash, but of course I had no extra tube, tire, or pump to fix the flat, so I sent out an SOS on my cell phone and we sat along Colorado 145 and waited for a ride.

That’s when Castro told me about his friend Ralph, whose name was on a bracelet around his wrist. Ralph died in 2006, right next to him. Both were riddled with mortar fire on a rooftop in Yusifiyah, southwest of Baghdad.

After killing Ralph, the mortar shrapnel ripped through Castro’s body, tearing up his knee, breaking an arm, ripping off his index finger, collapsing his lungs, fracturing facial bones, and blowing out his right eye.

It took more than 17 months for Castro to recover and he permanently lost his eyesight. But in the seven years since the explosion he’s run more than 20 marathons, cycled cross-country, remarried, and has a 22-month-old baby daughter. Which is to say that the exploded tire on a steep downhill outside of Telluride didn’t faze him.

“I’ve been in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Albania, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I’ve come to realize what war is. And now there are certain things I live by: Positive attitude, gratitude, faith, family, and friends. Ralph isn’t here to have fun,” he said. “Which is why I never do tomorrow what I could do today. There is no tomorrow.”

So instead of sipping a beer at a sunny outdoor table in Telluride, we sat in the gravel on the side of the road and laughed.

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