Day Zero: AIDS Lifecycle

Bike at sunset onMonterey Bay seen from the Capitola Wharf. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Bike at sunset on Monterey Bay seen from the Capitola Wharf. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Tomorrow morning at 6:30AM Day One of our seven day 545 mile journey begins. We cycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles and our first stop is Santa Cruz, my special home.  Tonight my bags are packed and I am ready. Riding alongside many good friends, I’ve been training very hard this year with many miles in the saddle. It all started for me exactly one year ago when I watched two friends start the ride of their life on the AIDS Life Cycle. I was inspired to go the distance  An adventure and a challenge, but it is a real means to help others and be the difference. I will ride tomorrow knowing that my riding supports the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. These organizations confront HIV and AIDS through education, advocacy and free services for prevention and care by helping people locally and giving a voice to all people living with the disease nationwide. But I would not be riding without the generosity and support of my friends and family who have dug into their hearts and opened their wallets to give so kindly, enabling me to ride and for we together to help other people suffering with HIV and AIDS. On Sunday night my bike and I will rest by the waters of Monterey Bay in the knowledge that we’ve started something special.



si se puede: it can be done


Strawberry fields along San Andreas Road. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

Strawberry fields along San Andreas Road. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014


Egret on Elkhorn Slough. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014


Crossing the Pajaro River. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014


Monterey Bay from Fort Ord State Park. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

My training for the 2014 AIDS Life Cycle continues! It is the end of March, and just last week I achieved this month’s goal to cycle more than ninety miles in one day. It was an amazing day beginning in heavy fog and ending in bright sunshine and strong winds blowing in from the Pacific; a beautiful ride, the kind of ride that clears your head and helps put everything in perspective, well at least for a few moments! My journey took me from Santa Cruz where I cycled past surfers at Pleasure Point, through redwood trees in Aptos, along the nature reserve at Elkhorn Slough, and through Fort Ord Dunes State Park and on to fisherman’s wharf at Monterey. My good friend Connie joined me for the Castroville to Monterey loop; it was wonderful to have the company and conversation. After lunch, I got back on my bike and rode the fifty miles home to Santa Cruz. It can be done!

Cycling gives you time to think about what you see as you ride. North of the Pajaro River I travelled through strawberry fields; north of the Salinas River through rows of artichokes, all crops being irrigated and tended by hard working Mexican-American farm workers. Every March 31st in California we celebrate the birthday of Cesar Chavez as an official state holiday. It was nearly fifty years ago when Cesar Chavez came to Delano, California to begin the dangerous but desperately important work of organizing farm workers. In 1935 the Wagner Act establishing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The NLRB ensures that workers can join unions and engage in collective bargaining without management reprisal. But unfortunately, agricultural workers were not included in the Wagner Act legislation, an omission that took another thirty years and Cesar and his wife Helen Chavez and Delores Huerta, labor leader, civil rights activist and co-founder with Chavez of the United Farm Workers (UFW) devoting themselves to the cause of organizing farm workers to rectify. The multi-ethnic movement Si se puede began in 1965. On Friday March 28, 2014, Diego Luna’s motion picture Cesar Chavez was released nationally. With great excitement, Wave and I attend the film; it was wonderful to be in the theater with so many young people clearly moved by their heroic story on screen. The film was inspiring; the hard work of farming becomes a tragedy when workers responsible for putting the food we eat on the table are not given respect, consideration, a reasonable wage, and protection from agricultural pesticides. The film primarily documents the events surrounding the Delano Grape Strike (la huelga) including the three hundred mile pilgrimage from Delano to the state capital in Sacramento and Chavez’s moving hunger strike to end violence against striking workers. The twenty-five day hunger strike ended in March 1968 some forty-six years ago this month. Senator Robert Kennedy brought national prominence to the movement when he joined Cesar Chavez to end his hunger strike with a celebration of the Eucharist. In my mind, Kennedy’s presence was a recognition of Chavez as an American hero. Chavez’s heroic work is detailed in two University of California Press books: Delano – The Story of the California Grape Strike by the journalist John Gregory Dunne and in Peter Mathiessen’s Sal si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution


Sunset on Monterey Bay from the UC Santa Cruz bike path. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.

Sunset on Monterey Bay from the UC Santa Cruz bike path. Inspired by the artist Doug Ross. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.

Lately, cycling has taken a prominent place in my life; it obsesses my thoughts and it floats through my dreams. I continually cruise peoples’ bikes comparing brands and components; I obsessively monitor my tire pressure; free moments catch me surfing the internet planning road rides; and sometimes in sleep I am climbing the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees and see myself flying downhill, joyously singing, alive, transcendent. Cycling is my primary transportation to work in Santa Cruz and I love everything about it: my breath hanging in the cold morning air; the golden sunrise dancing on the waves; the smell of sardines in the harbor; the cormorants drying their wings at the mouth of the San Lorenzo; the sight of the Big Dipper at the Boardwalk; the red-shouldered hawk’s cry piercing the still meadow; and the steady rhythm of my heart. I’ve even come to humor the stiffness in my cranky knees. But lately, cycling has also become poignant. Riding has become a ritual of honor, an epic poem of remembrance, my song of mourning.

 Every year the AIDS Lifecycle, the 545-mile weeklong bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles begins with a ceremony featuring the poignant entry of the riderless bike. The entourage escorting the bike includes self-identified HIV positive cyclists calling themselves the Positive Peddlers; the ritual honors those who have passed and those who are so ill they cannot ride. In the 1990s, I worked with a wonderful man and archivist named Willie Walker. A nurse on the SF General Hospital AIDS Ward, Walker, when he realized gay history was becoming a victim of the AIDS epidemic, founded the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Historical Society of San Francisco, along with Alan Berube, Estelle Freedman, and several others. Walker was also the project archivist for the UC San Francisco (UCSF) Library AIDS History Project.  During the 1990s, Walker was my colleague and friend when we collaborated at GLBT and UCSF. In June 2002, I did my first AIDS cycling event, the European AIDS Vaccine ride.  This month, I registered to make this epic journey again. In June 2014, I will ride in the AIDS Lifecycle to raise money to help persons living with AIDS and HIV and to honor friends I have lost.  We lost the generous, loving, and dedicated Walker several years ago, not to AIDS, but to other natural causes. But on the road to Los Angeles, I will honor and remember Walker and how he fought AIDS by keeping history alive.

 A ghost bike is a bicycle painted white, serving as a roadside memorial when a cyclist has been injured or killed by a motorist. It is hoped that the memorial will remind drivers to slow down, share the road, and fully grasp the potential destructive capacity of the vehicles they drive. In early November, we lost Josh Alper while he was cycling north of Santa Cruz on Highway One. Josh was beloved by so many; he brought us music, humor and such sweetness.  He was also so earnest about helping students and faculty at the UCSC Library. When shopping for a new bike, I purchased my new wheels at Santa Cruz’s Spokesman on Josh’s recommendation. Josh was a gearhead about bikes and Spokesman is a bike shop with a tip-top crew of gearheads; they, like Josh, know their stuff.  From talking to Josh, it was clear he loved riding, building and maintaining his bike.  He was also devoted to the history of the sport. Waiting in line for coffee, he often spoke to me about his deep respect for Greg LeMond, three-time winner of the Tour de France and the only American to win this epic contest. He urged me to read Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France; he loaned me his copy so I could understand the now mythologized rivalry between teammates LeMond and Hinault. In honor of Josh, the Spokesman bike crew assembled the ghost bike, one of many memorials to this young man. You are greatly missed Josh, and always will be. In early 2014, I will ride with other cyclists to honor, remember and mourn Josh as we escort his ghost bike to its final resting place.

Homer’s poetic narrative of the Trojan War, The Iliad ensures immortality for Achilles and his fellow warriors. Inscribing their glory in battle, their deeds live on, honored in perpetuity. In Ancient Greece, the recitation of the epic poem was an act of remembrance, honoring the glory of warriors. In 21st century California, with the act of cycling, I will honor, remember, and mourn the glory of lost comrades.

in every grain of sand there is a story

Otters at Elkhorn Slough. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

The thirty-eight miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey can be a very busy road to navigate.  Route One is a major corridor with trucks carrying produce from the fields, and cars transporting farm workers, fishermen, tourists, recreation seekers of every stripe, and people like me who live and work at least part of their lives in this region.  Hurtling through space, my eye catches glimpses of life’s daily epic poem acted-out by the inhabitants – people, plants and animals – of this region.

Our Elkhorn Slough epic begins near Moss Landing, now a man-made harbor, but once an estuary, part of the Pajaro-Salinas river system that historically shared a common entrance to the Pacific Ocean.  Launching kayaks recently on a cold gray Sunday morning, we were treated to a new chapter in this epic story.  An important component of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds, the harbor and slough are populated with many species. This day we spotted Bandt’s, Double-crested, and Pelagic Cormorants; Brown and White Pelicans; Common Loons; Clark’s, Western and Horned Grebes; Forester’s Terns,  and shorebirds including Curlews, Dowitchers and Godwits.  Elkhorn is also home to many marine mammals.  Hauled out on the beaches and mud banks, harbor seals and pups nap after a busy night seeking nourishment in the waters of the Pacific.  Sea Lions rest comfortably piled-up on man-made docks. At low-tide, we spot Sea Anenome’s anchored to pilings and there secure amongst the now visible Eel Grass and occasional wayward kelp strand, we find mother Otters and their pups.  The epic story of one such Otter pup is told in the movie Otter 501, a visual poem to stewardship.  Paradoxically, Elkhorn Slough  –  a safety net to many animals and plants –  is situated amongst a complex and encroaching human ecosystem including a  vibrant agricultural economy, a regional power plant, an active fisherman’s harbor, recreational area for birders, hikers and kayakers, and a major north-south highway transporting people and goods.   It is through tireless stewardship that these animals and plants survive in this amazing place.

To the uninitiated speeding by in their cars, Elkhorn Slough is just a flash of light reflecting off water, punctuated mostly by the two power-plant towers dominating the skyline.  But for the animals and plants it is a sanctuary part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS).  In 1992, MBNMS became a Federally protected marine area offshore California’s Central Coast. Stretching from Marin County to Cambria near Hearst’s Castle San Simeon, the sanctuary encompasses some 276 miles of shoreline and over 6,000 square miles of ocean.  MBNMS is the home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with more than 33 species of marine mammals, 94 species of birds and 345 species of fish.  MBNMS partners with organizations and institutions such as the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and research universities including the University of California and Stanford to preserve, perform research, and educate citizens about co-existing as members of this ecosystem on the central coast.

Elkhorn Slough is a fragile marine ecosystem.  Most of us quickly drive by the Slough, preoccupied with getting to our next destination. Most of us don’t grasp the Slough’s role as a sanctuary in an epic poem, and fewer grasp that we are actors in the story and that have responsibilities to co-exist with the animals and plants as members of this ecosystem.  We can actively choose to act as stewards; we can choose to oversee and protect places like Elkhorn Slough, places worth caring for and preserving because they provide sanctuary to living creatures  that enrich our lives and ensure our survival both spiritually and physically. Anyone can be a steward; it can be as simple as recycling plastic bottles and composting vegetable waste or casting a vote to raise tax revenue to keep California State Parks open and education affordable for students at the University of California.  Stewardship is becoming a member of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation to help create conservation easements or becoming a volunteer naturalist with the MBNMS or taking a child to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to teach them about the wonders of the ocean.

Stewardship is a story that must be shared with others, repeatedly.  Saddened, I fear that for every story told, there are thousands of people who will never hear the story, therefore never be educated to learn about and understand their role as stewards.  With education, we build empowerment, foster discussion, enable understanding, and  realize just actions through compromise.  These are noble aspirations, and evidence abounds that it is always an uphill battle.   However, as the church of baseball teaches and Yogi Berra preaches, “it ain’t over till its over.”   At the bottom of the ninth with two outs and down by five runs, the Sisyphus at the plate knows heaven is found in the uphill struggle (described in the The Great Wave blog entry).   And so we must continue the hard work to learn and to teach each other about our responsibilities as stewards of ecosystems, no matter how great the odds.  As Rachel Carson wrote in her 1958 article Our Ever Changing Shore republished the book Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, “in every out thrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.”

Just off the beaten path….our precious California State Parks

New Brighton State Beach. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

On May 21st we started our journey at the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge and ended some eight hours later at the wharf in Monterey.  On three sequential Saturdays some fifty adventurers hiked thirty miles in the distinguished company of Sandy Lydon, Historian and Cabrillo College faculty, and Gary Griggs, Director of UC Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Science. Today would be the final ten-mile leg of  Monterey Bay Walk 3. May 7th we hiked from New Brighton State Beach in Capitola to just north of the Pajaro Dunes.  May 14th we ambled from Zmudowski State Beach to the Salinas River.  This morning a flock of Caspian Terns greeted us by the riverbank as we walked through the refuge to the beach. All was beautiful: endless sky, sea and sand.  My day’s walk would be measured by miles of words and punctuated by meters of awed silence –  awe inspired by the magnificent Monterey Bay. My companions on this adventure included my amazing friends Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin.  Both passionate environmentalists, they have shared their love of nature, understanding of human frailty and hopes for the future in their recent books: Reti’s Kabbalah of Stone and Rabkin’s What I Learned at Bug Camp: Essays on Finding a Home in the World.   I am grateful for all the knowledge they shared with me about the human and natural history of lands between Santa Cruz and Monterey on these special  Saturdays in May.

Sandholdt State Park. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

Reflecting on the walks, many images delight my mind — images conjured by the stories of Sandy and Gary, the two  trip leaders: the realization that Monterey Bay is not a pristine environment, no location on the Bay has been spared the impact of humankind; the image of Chinese fishing sampans on the beach now known as New Brighton; the impact of earthquakes, erosion and tidal forces on the coastline; the story of Gaspar de Portola and his Spanish troops walking what would become the El Camino Reale as he searched in vain for Monterey Bay; developers’ insistence on building at the ocean’s edge, imperiously disregarding the cycle of el nino and la nina climate patterns on urban planning; the mother gray whale and her baby breaking the surface with their spouts; the enormous American bullfrog, an invasive species found on the shore of the Salinas River; the bachelor otter pod at Moss Landing; the snowy plovers guarding their nests and chicks on the beaches near to Monterey; and the clouds: light fogs at a far distance resting lightly on the water — quickly burning back leaving a brilliantly bright day where sunlight danced crisply on the waves, or the dramatic bands of clouds moving fast north to south, precursors of the front that would bring unseasonal rain from Santa Cruz to San Diego.

Fort Ord State Park. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

For thirty miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey we walked on the beach  – a pathway formed from a patchwork of California State Parks and Federal Wildlife Refuges  — a ring of bright white sand circling the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.  Seventy California State Parks will be closed because of our state budget crisis.  Four of these parks are beach parks found along the shores of Monterey Bay, and two of them we crossed during our bayside journey: Zmudowski State Beach and Moss Landing State Beach.  In November 2010, the majority of California’s citizens elected NOT to  pass Proposition 21, a referendum proposing an annual $18.00 vehicle license fee.  Such a small price to pay for so much beauty….. just off the beaten path…..our precious California State Parks.