Mike was a close friend of mine years ago when I was still in the US military. We were stationed in Augsburg, Germany around 1971. We got along famously from the day we met, and palled around on days when we could get away from the clutches of the army.
Back in those days, we had not yet heard of attention deficit disorder, nowadays referred to as ADD. In fact, I'll bet the term had not yet been invented at the time. Suffice it to say, Mike was hyper. One of those skinny, wiry guys, he was constantly on the move. He needed little sleep but lots of activity to burn off energy that he got from somewhere. Weekends would roll around, and when everybody else was sleeping in from exhaustion, Mike was up and out on his bike in any weather.
We had another friend, Billy, a leftover hippy from the sixties, who rode bikes with Mike now and then. But laidback Billy, who always wanted to stop and smell the roses or smoke a joint, frustrated Mike. He had a need for speed.
My birthday arrived one day in July, and early that morning there came a knock on my door. Mike stood in the hallway with a rather sleek-looking Italian bicycle. “Happy Birthday," he beamed. "Let's ride!" What? Me ride a bike like that? And with a crazy man like Mike? But what was I to do? After all, it was a gift, and a good one at that! (Later he confessed that he bought it for a song from a guy who got an early out from the army and was so desperate to leave that he nearly gave it away.) So, I threw on some civilian clothes, and we headed out into what was to become a very beautiful summer day in Southern Germany.
He took it easy on me, and we wandered off into some small, quaint side streets and then little lanes and roads that lead out of town into the bucolic Bavarian countryside. As this was long before power bars and designer bottled water, by noon we were parched and hungry. Mike was perplexed. What to do?
“Come on!” I said. “Let's just find a place to have something to eat.”
The little ivy-covered café with the quaint grapevine-shaded courtyard was ideal. Obviously, Mike was not used to interacting with the local folks. Most American military people at the time were not inclined – if not intimidated – to fraternize with the local German population, especially small town, rural folks unaccustomed to foreigners.
Noticing the bicycles, the occupants of the other two tables under the shady vines suggested that we all pull our tables together and share some beer and some stories. It was an idyllic afternoon, and by the time we said goodbye and left to ride back into town, Mike had become a true "culture vulture." He talked for weeks about how wonderful it was that we could just spontaneously talk with perfect strangers like that, and that they were so “friendly”.
Well, it was not long before Mike had a grand idea. “Let's all get a leave of absence and take a real bike trip," he suggested enthusiastically. I was amazed that he had thought it through and had actually done some research. Long before the internet or Google, he had decided that we should ride bikes on back roads to Vienna, as it was not legal to ride bikes on the Autobahn. I knew that. He had already calculated how far we could go in a day. Of course, that was how far he could go in one day!
Billy and I were skeptical, so I recommended that we put the bikes in the baggage car of the train to Vienna and enjoy the city on two wheels, then return via those wonderful winding little back roads that Mike had fallen in love with earlier that summer.
Riding along smooth Austrian back roads was a delight. Entering small cobblestoned towns where we were jarred to death on two thin wheels, was like finding milestones along the way. But getting back onto the smooth asphalt was a soothing experience, as I always noticed that my watch, hanging on my then-skinny wrist, quit vibrating. Pavement was smooth and welcoming once again.
We stopped and talked to farmers and ate apples not quite ripe. Finally we came to a fork in the road. Mike was so far ahead that he was well out of sight. Perhaps due to his ADD personality, he simply chose the wrong road without thinking, forging ahead, unaware of his two huffing and puffing friends being left far behind.
Unbeknownst to Billy and me, Mike had gone quite a distance down the wrong fork of the road. Figuring that he would finally wait up for us, we arrived in the next village ravenously hungry, needing a rest and some liquids. So, we camped right on the main street in a small sidewalk café and ordered lunch and a bottle of refreshing mineral water. By then we had guessed what had happened, so just decided to wait. Then, feeling much better, we were having a nice chat on a fine late summer day.
Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, Mike flashed past us at top speed, peddling like a mad man. ”He didn't see us!” Billy yelled.
Acting on some sort of instinct, I pulled out all the Austrian shillings I had left from my billfold and tossed them on the table. Grabbing my bike, I ordered Billy to pay the bill and follow as fast as he could. Meanwhile, I scrambled to try to get up some speed. Catching up with Mike might just be an impossibility for me.
Peddling like crazy and yelling at the top of my lungs, I finally got Mike's attention. He stopped and looked at me with a most peculiar expression.
“Good thing you stopped me,” he panted. “I would have been all the way to Munich by tonight!”
Well, eventually winter set in and snow prevented the three of us from much biking. But Mike had all sorts of energy winding up for our next trip. He promised to stick close this time. All through that cold snowy Bavarian winter he figured that by March or April we should be happily biking around in Northern Italy.
To tell the truth, that sounded mighty nice at the time. But once again, practicality prevailed. “Okay,” I conceded, “Although I will, under no circumstances, peddle a bicycle up the northern slopes of the Alps, if we take the train all the way up to the Brenner Pass, we can coast all the way down the other side into sunny Italy.” I knew full well that it was not so simple, but I had bought some time to convince him that such a trip was too ambitious.
Once he had abandoned the idea of "Let's ride all the way to Rome,” he suggested London instead! But he had learned a lot by then, and suggested that we put the bikes in baggage and find an appropriately low, flat spot in Holland or Belgium to disembark and then just ride to the English Channel. I bought it. So did Billy.
We got off the train in Namur, Belgium and happily set off to see Burxelles. But by the time we got close, the eastern outskirts of Brussels were a tangle of traffic. We lost sight of Mike first, naturally. It was very important for him to beat everybody by weaving in and out, risking life and limb. A few near misses and a few heart pounding scrapes, and Billy was out of sight too. Now what?
Not having a clue what to do, I rode around for hours. Should I go on to London alone? The problem was that we had no plan B. Why hadn't we thought of that? So, as I had already been to London many times, and did not think I would enjoy doing the cultural events and museums on my own – and as I saw no possibility of reconnecting with Mike and Billy – I simply gave up ... went to the train station, put the bike in baggage, and sadly went home.
Later, I found out that they had concluded likewise, and had returned short of the English Channel. We had all learned a valuable lesson:
Always plan ahead!