Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride, 20-26 August 2000
What an adventure!!!
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Aug 26th, Saturday - Day Six, Palmer to Anchorage, 48 miles

There was a lot of excitement in Camp this morning as we got up and readied ourselves for the day.  My excitement was tinged with a little sadness that this crazy adventure is coming to an end, I've met so many great people over the past week it will be difficult to say goodby.

In order to be certain that my group of friends and I could ride in to the closing ceremonies together we all agreed to meet at the lunch outpost since that was to be the last outpost before Anchorage, this way we could ride the last leg of the journey together and be sure we could be together for closing ceremonies.

Most of today I rode with a new friend named Ricky, an amazing guy who is finishing up his Ph.D. at Emory University and works at the Emory AIDS Vaccine Research Center.  Ricky was born with a concave chest cavity and this past October he had open heart surgery to enlarge his chest cavity to give more room for his heart and lungs, then in April he had another open heart operation to remove all the hardware the doctors had used to rebuild his chest cavity.  All of this and Ricky still rode in the Alaska ride, his drive and stamina amazed me each day of the ride.  We met on Day Two while on the bus to Camp, I wasn't riding because of my blood pressure/pulse rate problems, and Ricky wasn't riding because his chest was hurting a little bit - I nicknamed us the "Hearty Boys".

Today was the only relatively flat part of the entire ride, at least "flat" for Alaska.  For the first time on the ride we could see Denali (Mt. McKinley) as the sky was virtually cloudless for parts of the day, it was a magnificent.

Each outpost stop today was like a mini party, we were all so excited to have survived this adventure - at the lunch pit stop a group of people were line dancing (or line limping for some of them <g>). It also didn't matter how badly our butts or knees or hands or feet hurt, almost everyone rode today, we were all determined to ride into Anchorage.

My emotions really started to churn as we rode into the outskirts of Anchorage.  We began riding past more and more people on the side of the road cheering us on.  Lots of little kids lined the streets cheering and holding their hands out for us to give them a high-five as we rode by.  It was so encouraging to see all the kids and their parents outside to cheer us especially after spending 5 days riding through mostly wilderness areas.

As I rode past one group of kids a little boy ran up and handed me a packet of stickers, I quickly put the stickers in my jersey pocket and as I turned back to thank him I saw the biggest smile on his face, it was amazing how a smile that big fit on such a tiny face, he was waving and jumping up and down with excitement.  It was incredibly touching for me.

We entered downtown Anchorage and began to see some hotels, someone pointed and shouted — "real beds & hot showers in real bath tubs", that sounded really nice at this point!  The excitement was simply electric, the last block or so from the holding area (ending point for the ride) the streets were lined with people, media crews, and family, friends and other riders cheering us in, yelling, singing, blowing whistles, clapping, and holding up signs and balloons.  All the riders who'd already arrived were wearing their long-sleeve black Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride ‘victory' t-shirts, a sea of riders in identical shirts, it was like showing up at a family reunion, everyone there was so excited to see us arrive.

We rode into bike parking, though the sea of cheers, and checked in with my rider number so the Ride staff could count me in as arrived (they check in every rider every day to make certain that every rider has made it into camp).  I put my bike on the bike rack and bounced up and down with my friends, cheering, hugging, and taking photos — WE'D MADE IT!!!!!

The holding area was a sea of emotions, there were riders cheering the other riders in, hugging and dancing for joy.  There were also riders crying, clutching photos of their friends and family members who've been lost to AIDS, in all the joy of completing the Ride the real reason we were there was never far from our minds.  Everywhere we looked there were reminders, photos on handlebars and on t-shirts, red ribbons, signs, and friends and family members sharing their loss and grief with each other, what I would give to have never had to do and AIDS Ride in the first place, or to never have to do another one again.

Can you just imagine for a minute what life will be like with an AIDS Vaccine, no more going to funeral after funeral, no more new quilt panels, no more seeing the skinny bodies of children in developing countries wandering the streets because both their parents have died and there is no one left to take care of them...  The world post-AIDS is a beautiful place isn't it?

It was finally time for closing ceremonies.  We got on our bikes and headed to the park where closing ceremonies were to happen.  1,500 cyclists do not move very fast when having to walk  bikes together in a crowd, we cued up in the street and the mass of cyclists was an impressive sight - all of us in matching shirts stretching for blocks.  We were all ready to go, then we stood there for about 40 minutes, just waiting, it seemed strange to have to wait so long.

When we were finally allowed to ride in it was a joyous event.  The people who'd come to watch cheered as we rode in (as did we!).  It took a long time for all the cyclists to finally ride in to the closing ceremony area, those of us already there were busy snapping photos, spraying each other with our water bottles (hey, the temperature was way up in the high 50s or low 60s, it was balmy weather compared to the rest of the ride!!!!)

Once again, 33 riders and 11 children representing the millions of people currently infected with HIV and those children orphaned by AIDS.  During the closing ceremonies Dr. Rafi Ahmed of the Emory Vaccine Center and Dr. Irvin Chen of the UCLA AIDS institute spoke, reminding us of the importance of vaccine research.  Not just a preventative vaccine, but of the desperate need for a prophylactic vaccine, one that will disable the virus in those already infected.  Dr. Chen called the Alaska AIDS Vaccine ride the biggest scientific pep rally he had ever attended.  The doctors told us how incredibly valuable the $4.1 million dollars will be to them, each of the three beneficiaries will receive more than $1 million dollars in unrestricted funds.  The doctors told us how many times Federal funding is restricted to traditional research activities and how they often do not have funding to try completely new and innovated research projects, the funds we raised will allow them to do just that.

Dan Pallota also spoke during the closing ceremonies, he is the creator of both the Tanqueray AIDS Rides and the AIDS Vaccine Rides.  Dan was also a rider in the Alaska ride.  During his speech he talked about riders being heros and he told us of how earlier in the day he saw a rider who'd stopped to talk with a group of little kids. An adult rider fully decked out in cycling tights, snazzy riding jacket with bright and reflective technical material, topped off with a fancy helmet and riding glasses, and riding a fancy touring bike, Dan thought it looked like the kids were talking to a super hero. (Turned out the rider he mentioned a fellow DC rider, Richard Schusterman, who'd stopped to talk to the kids.)  Dan stressed the importance of how our actions reach so far beyond ourselves, and how there is a group of little kids who know that someone really impressive to them took the time to stop and talk with them.  As Dan spoke it reminded me of the little guy who'd given me a packet of stickers.  I reached into my jersey pocket and pulled out the stickers — he had given me his Pokémon stickers, I was stunned, I don't know many little kids who would voluntarily part with their beloved Pokémon stickers.  His exuberance and  generosity touched me deeply, I started to cry, this little guy had made me feel like a hero, it was humbling, very, very humbling.

A fellow rider shared what had been heard from one of the 11 children who participated in the closing ceremonies.

‘As we were standing in the middle aisle waiting to welcome the rest of the riders and crew to the stage- Wyatt (a 6 year old) said — "Look! God must know we are celebrating down here because He put a rainbow around the sun-isn't that cool?"  It was indeed ‘cool'.  With all the talk of "family values" in the political arena this was a wonderful day of sharing and celebrating "human values", the fact that every human being on the planet has dignity and individual worth regardless of their beliefs, position, color, creed, etc. etc.  And I do believe God was indeed celebrating a small part of humanity that finally got the message of love and compassion that God has been trying to tell us for so very, very long.

Following closing ceremonies I stuck around to help out with loading the bikes on to the semi truck headed back to DC.  They didn't need any help loading so I went back to my room at Days Inn, showered and headed to dinner.

I didn't know anyone staying at my hotel so I wandered to dinner by myself, I'd just placed my order when a group of about 11 riders came into the restaurant, saw me by myself and asked me to join their table.  We had an incredible time reliving the past week, sharing stories, memories, and celebrating the simply fact that we were all dry and warm.

After dinner we headed to Mad Myrna's for an unofficial post ride party.  I don't know where the energy came from by we danced until 1:30 in the morning.  I finally headed back to Days Inn as I had to get up at 7:00am the next morning to go load up the bikes on the semi.

I went to sleep knowing that I'd been a part of something very special, something truly life- altering, I felt blessed, very, very blessed.

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