How a Banana Saved My Life: Just another stupid near-death experience in the ridiculous and amazing life of Laurie
You've already read the stories of my other near-death experiences: the time I went kayaking without knowing how to maneuver a kayak (or swim); the time I went canoeing and set myself on fire. This story involves bicycles and pavement, not boats and rivers, but I was probably closer to death on dry land than I ever was on water.
I was bicycling from Duluth, Minnesota, to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, on the hottest days of one of the hottest summers on record. I had never done long-distance bicycling, and it hadn't occurred to me that I needed to prepare. I loved to ride my bike, and I figured biking to LaCrosse wouldn't be that different from biking around Duluth and up the Shore; it would just take longer. I did not train; I did not do any research; I did not pack supplements or vitamins. I just stuffed my red pannier bags with a couple of changes of clothes, a tent, and a sleeping bag, and pedaled off. I was 20 years old.
I was not alone, but the person I was with does not factor into this story; it was a boyfriend, long gone, dead, perhaps, at least to me, and useless in a crisis, as you will see. That's all you need to know about him.
It's about 250 miles from Duluth to LaCrosse, down two-lane highways that criss-cross the Mississippi River and hug the banks on either side. The river bluffs get hilly and steep, but the views are beautiful, and I figured the view would be worth the pain of the hills. The trip, I reckoned, would take about five days. I had a map. It wasn't a very good map. I wasted most of one afternoon by going the wrong direction on a gravel road and ending up right back where I'd started. Fortunately, it was near a little country bar, so I had a cheeseburger and a malt, and then pedaled on into the hot and fading sun.
The backs of my hands, the second day, became terribly burned; it had not occurred to me that grasping bicycle handles for hours on end and exposing my hands to the sun, sort of like an offering, might be a problem. In the morning they were a deep hot red, excruciating to touch. I could barely move my fingers.
I had no bicycle gloves, but I wouldn't have been able to pull gloves over that damaged skin in any case. I gave it a little thought, and then bicycled to a drug store and bought a roll of medical gauze, which I wrapped around my hands like a mummy. That didn't help the pain, but it helped protect them from further burning.
That afternoon a tremendous rainstorm blew in. The rain came down in torrents, and I hid, bicycle and all, inside a stuffy and spidery outhouse until the weather passed. Then I climbed back onto my orange ten-speed and bicycled on.
I was sweating all the time. Out on the highway, on the blacktop, the heat shimmered up from the road and beat down from the sun, and I was caught in between, a small, sweating, frizzy, sunburned fool in a cotton t-shirt and increasingly dirty shorts. There was no possibility of shade. Hour after hour, my gauze fluttering in the breeze, I pedaled on, my wet shirt stuck to my back, my face red, my legs aching. It was unbelievably, unrelentingly hot.
That third afternoon--or maybe it was the fourth--I arrived at Winona, a pretty, green town on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi. I was so tired, so hot, so exhausted that I bicycled into the town park, got off my bike, and fell asleep in the grass.
I woke up dizzy, disoriented, my head swimming. I figured I had a little heatstroke, and I figured I just needed to cool off, but I was too tired to move. I threw up, and then I lay down again and fell back asleep. The second time I woke up I tried to get to the drinking fountain for some water, but I couldn't walk. The ground felt like it was rising and heaving, and I couldn't keep my balance. I crawled. At the fountain, I hauled myself up and drank some water and tried to stick my head under the faucet. I threw up again.
I lay back down in the grass.
And then I heard a voice. "Hi, there! Do you need some potassium?" I opened one eye and saw a friendly-looking man bounding down the stairs of his front porch and jogging toward me. He was wearing a YMCA t-shirt. He had something in his hand.
I moaned him away. "I don't want anything," I said.
"I brought you some potassium pills," he said. "And some magnesium. And a vitamin C pill. And some orange juice."
"I can't keep anything down," I said. I shut my eyes again. The world was spinning, and all I wanted was to sleep. It had been hours since I first lay down in the park, and if I were thinking clearly I would have realized that my problem wasn't that I was overheated--I wasn't hot any longer, I was shivering--but of course I wasn't thinking clearly.
"Just give it a try," he said, holding out his hand. He opened his hand and showed me three pills. Now you may think it reckless to just down strange pills in an unfamiliar park handed to you by a man you've never seen before, but I took them. I drank the orange juice. And a remarkable thing happened. Within a few minutes, I was able to sit up. I could look at him. I didn't fall over. I didn't throw up. I started to feel a little better. I sat still and rested, and the ground slowly quit heaving and buckling.
The man told me that a few weeks before a young woman had died after jogging in that very park. Your body loses potassium through perspiration, and if you don't replenish it, you can get depleted pretty quickly in this kind of heat, he said. Nobody had known what was wrong with the young woman--she had been running, and then she suddenly collapsed and vomited and by the time she was at the hospital she was in a coma.
Hospital! It had never occurred to me that I needed a hospital. It hadn't occurred to me that I was sick. I thought I was just hot and tired. And potassium! I didn't even know what potassium was. I had no idea that bicycling out on the blacktop for eight hours a day in 90-degree heat and eating nothing but burgers and chocolate malts was somehow a really stupid thing to do. I thought I was just going for a bike ride.
"You might want to go to the grocery store and get some bananas," the man told me gently. "They're loaded with potassium. If you're sweating every day, you're losing potassium fast."
I was feeling well enough now that I knew I could make it to the store. I was shaky, but I was no longer dizzy. "Will you do something for me?" the man asked. He held out a postcard, addressed and stamped. "Will you mail this to me when you get wherever you're going? So I know you got there ok?"
I packed the postcard in my pannier bag. I thanked the man and handed him back his orange juice glass. I biked to the grocery store and bought four bananas. And then I found a quiet spot, pitched my tent, and slept hard all night.
A note on the photos: River photo and Winona photo from Google. Top photo not the actual bicycle, not the actual boyfriend. That's my brother David and me, circa 1960.
And, other note: this blog posting is for Coffee With Cathy, who asked for it.