Suffering (Steve Nissman, RIP)

by Lou on July 8, 2009

In the canyon you can hear the cars and trucks coming up behind you a long way away. But there are few of them today. It’s July 6 and I’m riding up Thousand Palms Canyon. I’m in the middle of nowhere—no houses, stores, or people—though I’m only about 10 miles away from home right now.

Once I head up Washington Street and pass Sun City, civilization seems to stop abruptly. Washington begins climbing after Sun City and turns west. After cresting a hill there’s a right turn that takes me due north, right up Thousand Palms Canyon about six steep miles to Dillon Road.

I’m climbing … and fighting a headwind to boot. The morning is still early—it’s not yet 8 a.m. but out here in the desert it gets very hot very early, and the temperature is already edging north of ninety and it’s not going to get any cooler. I have to be careful to dose my water. There’s no place to refill anywhere near here, and won’t be for about 20 more miles.

The hill ramps up a bit right before a trailhead where hikers park and head off into smaller, even more remote canyons. The trailhead and a small visitor’s is center about half way up to the top. The sweat is running down my forehead and into my eyes. The salt stings. So I take off my sunglasses, stick them in my teeth, and use the soft, back part of my glove to wipe the sweat off. Then I pour some of my water down my back to cool me off and take a drink.

Just beyond the trailhead about four motorcycles pass me as they roar up the grade. I’m not making much speed into the hill and headwind and at the rate I’m going, I expect to spend about 45 minutes on the climb.

The last part is frustrating. I can see utility poles in the distance and I know it’s Dillon Road, the top of the climb. But the more I pedal, the more the poles seem to recede in the distance. Finally I reach the top. I can stop here and catch my breath, but I don’t. Instead, I take one look back to the west, then turn right and head east on Dillon Road. I remember riding up here in February when it was cold. When I glanced westward then, all the westward mountains were covered with snow. Now they’re dry and brown.

Dillon Road rises from it’s juncture at Thousand Palms Canyon. So I’m pedaling up hill for about another half mile or so, but things are easier now. The headwind that was hitting me at an angle going up the canyon now hits me at an angle from the rear, helping me up the hill.

I’m heading east, through an unincorporated area of Riverside County called Indio Hills. There’s really nothing much here, and even if there is a convenience store, I know it won’t be open at this early hour on Sunday morning. So I pedal on.

Once I crest the hill it’s all rollers for the next few miles, and the downhill speed is usually enough to propel me up the next uphill section. I see a couple of cyclists coming in the other direction. We wave but don’t stop. We’re both going somewhere and trying to make time before the day gets too hot.

A few miles later I start a long descent. Now I’m heading south toward the city of Indio, and the wind is at my back. I’m in the big chain ring and on top of my gears. I’m doing about 45 miles per hour, which is a lot considering the condition of the road. It’s old, has it’s share of bumps and washed out sections, and I’m quite happy with the speed I’m making. If I really pushed it, if I got down into the drops and concentrated on turning my biggest gear as fast as I could, I might be able to get up to fifty, but I still had a long way to go and there was no sense in draining all my energy way up here.

After a few miles at speed, I hit a flat section and slow down. I’m looking for a small turn off for Avenue 44, at this point it’s a two lane, old, country road but it will eventually take me home. A few guys riding in a pace line pass me and I jump on the back of their line, happy for the extra speed I’ll gain by drafting behind them. They tow me along for about half a mile when I turn off. I yell “Thank you” and head west. After about half a mile, Avenue 44 widens out and is topped with new pavement. This is an area of all new homes—gated communities, for the most part—that are pretty much deserted because most were built just as the economy took its tumble.

I ride out here a lot. The roads are terrific. Traffic is thankfully absent, and it’s a strange, surreal feeling pedaling through modern ghost towns, all nice and neat and new and even striped with bike lanes.

I cut through Terra Lago, a large golf community built around a man-made lake. As usual, it seems deserted. From there I work my way north and west to a shopping center that has a Fresh and Easy that I know will be open. It is. I go inside and buy two bottles of water. I sit outside and drink one while I suck down a gel to give me some more energy. Then I pour the other into my water bottle and ride off.

It’s getting very hot now … too hot to ride, really … but I have to get home. There’s only a mild head wind down here, not enough to slow me down at all, so I stop thinking and just concentrate on turning my pedals over. The main streets here are named after the presidents, and I’m working my way down from Jackson to Washington. Once I get to Washington, there’s a Just Java that opens every day at 5:30 a.m., so I’ll stop there for an iced tea. If I’m lucky, someone will have left the sports page, so I can check the ball scores and devour the Cliff Bar that’s in my jersey pocket while I cool down. From there, it’s only about four miles home.

When I get home, the little computer on my bike tells me I’ve done about 46 miles. It was work, and it was hot, which made it tougher. But it feels good, and if you can’t suffer, you’re not a cyclist. The shower feels great. So does the nap that follows.

Today is July 7. I took another ride … flatter and only about 30 miles this time, and I started before 6 a.m. to beat the heat. People ask me why I ride and it’s tough to explain. It’s cleansing—purifying, really—and you feel good and clear, clean and precise, while you’re riding, and better when you’re done.

When I get to my computer I find an email telling me that Steve Nissman died. Apparently it was a heart attack, but they’re not sure yet. My friend Adam had to identify the body. Steve was a poker player, and a good one—though not a household name most people would be familiar with. He was only 52, far too young to die.

It was incredibly unsettling news. He had a girlfriend. She was out of town when it happened and someone had to call and tell her that Steve was dead. He had a sister who lived 3,000 miles away. Another person shocked by the news.

There’s an autopsy tomorrow. Funeral arrangements are pending. It’s all such an unsettled situation, and I don’t seem to be doing a good job of processing it.

I’ll get up early tomorrow, before the sun comes up. When it’s light, at about 5:45 a.m.—the time lots of my poker playing friends are going to bed—I’ll be on my bike, out early to beat the heat. This will be a hard ride. It will involve a few hills and I’ll ride as hard as I can. When I’m there, at that point when legs scream and suffering becomes something I just accept and stop trying to fight, in those moments of clarity, I’ll be able to think about why Steve Nissman just upped and died all of a sudden, and for no good reason at all.


Jennifer July 8, 2009 at 5:51 am

I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend. I hope you find some answers and a way to find peace with Steve's untimely passing. My thoughts are with you.

randyc July 8, 2009 at 11:24 am

beautiful Lou

Randy Collack

The Occupant July 8, 2009 at 2:53 pm

A sad day, Lou….to be sure…a very sad day.

Anonymous July 9, 2009 at 7:48 am

I'm so sorry for the sad loss of your friend Steve. May your fondest memories of time spent together bring comfort within. Sending warm hugs and heartfelt condolences…

Michael July 17, 2009 at 7:29 am

Even though you say you are having a hard time processing it, your words speak loud and beautiful and true. Thanks Lou. -mickdog

Anonymous October 11, 2009 at 12:40 am

Steve and I were a couple for 5 years, until 2003. We attended BARGE together for a couple of years, and I may have met you, Lou. I was shocked to hear of his untimely death. I still have a hard time believing it. Lou, where was he when he passed away? Warm Regards, Cheryl

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