Seeking the hematocrit high ground, Part I

Apr 26, 2011 by

Peterson

By Kennett Peterson
(Kennett Peterson is an Oregon-based road racer with the Hagens-Berman elite amateur squad that competes at national pro/am events around the country. He is currently in New Mexico preparing for the 25th Annual SRAM Tour of the Gila. This article, originally posted on Kennettron 5000, chronicles his 52-hour Greyhound trip to get there.)

It’s 11:44 PM on Wednesday as I begin writing this. At last I’ve reached my final destination after being on the road since Sunday afternoon in Walla Walla, Washington. I’m precisely about 7,000 miles away up in the mountains in Pinos Altos, New Mexico above Silver City, the host town of the Tour of the Gila. It’s been a long voyage. The same voyage the pilgrims made long, long ago to reach the sacred hematocrit-boosting mountain air needed to acclimate for a workweek-long stage race at altitude. And like the pilgrims, I had plenty of help along the way from natives — to whom I probably passed on a cold virus, from which they’ll likely die.

PART I

Sunday: The first step of my journey was the easiest. Walla Walla to Boise. Luckily my teammate, Dan, had room for me and my gear in his former team’s truck and trailer (the Bob’s Bicycle team). After the final stage of Walla Walla (which our team completely demolished), it was a relaxing short five hours to Dan’s home in Boise, where we ate some quesadillas and watched Planet Earth way too late into the night.

Monday: Damn it I got off to a late start as usual. After my always long and leisurely breakfast I immediately realized I was going to be cutting things very close if I was to make my 10:35 AM Greyhound bus on time. I still had to pack my exploded bags, put them and my bike in the car, get to the bike shop (which wasn’t open yet but the owner, Bob, was going to meet us there early to help pack my bike in a cardboard box), Dan had to drop his wife off at another bike shop so that bike shop owner could drive her to work, then Dan had to come pick me back up at the first bike shop and drive me to the bus station. It was a lot of logistics for a sleepless night. It all worked out just in the nick of time. And luckily my bus was late, because it was supposed to leave at 10:25, which was 10 minutes earlier than I thought. But reliable old Greyhound was true to its reputation and the bus didn’t show up until a quarter to noon. Perfect.

Rules for riding Greyhound:

  1. make sure to apply plenty of lube
  2. bite down on something so you don’t damage your teeth
  3. bend over and touch your toes
  4. go to a happy place

If you obey these simple rules, you can minimize the feeling of being violated, though in the end you’ll still feel deeply abused and angry at Greyhound and with yourself for not being stronger.

Because the bus was late, we got into Salt Lake City late. We were a mere eight minutes late, but too late nonetheless, because my connecting bus to Las Vegas was just pulling out of the parking lot as we pulled in. Goodbye easy part of the journey. Hello “Holy shit you’ve got to be kidding me!” part of the journey.

Normally Calm Kennett took a violent transformation within .21 seconds of realizing what had just happened, and Rampage Kennett tore out of his puny human-sized clothes, beat his chest and let out a blood curdling scream that shook the nearby snowy mountains, causing an avalanche that crushed the Las Vegas-bound bus in 10,000,000 tons of snow and rock.

I was furious as we unloaded from the bus. I wanted to let our bus driver know, and told myself to use my words and not fists. I mainly used four-letter words. I continued to use them as I stormed off to the ticket counter. Three other passengers were in the same boat as me, and they too rowed the sinking craft with F’s and S’s and B’s and CF’s (that last one is for you Spencer). We docked at the ticket counter and let loose our dirty tongues upon anyone and everyone who was in our path. But our onslaught came to an immediate halt after receiving slips of paper worth their weight in gold. A free voucher for a night at the Quality Inn Airport Motel down the street! Our anger turned to contentedness (short-lived) and we boarded a shuttle bus for a night in a crappy, I mean Quality, motel room. Continental breakfast was on the menu as well, so I was pretty happy despite smelling like an ashtray the next morning from sleeping all night in…an ash tray I think.

Tuesday: After a large portion of eggs, sausage, and 100% sugar cereal (the three American Breakfast staples) I joined the other three delinquents in the lobby to wait for our motel shuttle bus to take us to our Greyhound bus.  One of the three was an overweight woman, about 45, who was missing considerable amounts of teeth, and who was probably one of the dumbest people I’ve had a conversation with.  Imagine conversing with a toddler.  Now imagine conversing with a toddler who is severely retarded.  Now imagine conversing with a retarded toddler with a greatly diminished concentration due to being an alcoholic.  Now imagine conversing with said toddler — who’s now on meth.

The next person I’ll describe was a middle-aged man, also overweight of course — this is Greyhound we’re talking about.  He had a mullet, covered by a dirty baseball cap, which he rarely took off.  He was on his way to fly a helicopter for a geologist down in Las Vegas to discover potential metal mines with “an X-ray machine” for $500 a week.  The night before it had taken me five minutes to explain to him that our bus left at 8:30 AM and our shuttle bus to the Greyhound station left at 7:30 AM.  It took five minutes to explain this to him again this morning.  I feared for all human kind when I heard this man was qualified to fly a helicopter and that $500 a week was a sufficient pay for someone to operate that level of expensive and dangerous equipment.

The third person left behind was an 18-year old named Thomas who happened to be a cage fighter on his way to Tucson.  He’d only fought twice, so I think he was pretty new to the sport.  Plus he still had all his teeth and his ears weren’t giant bulbs of cauliflower.  Thomas’ back-story goes like so: he had a child when he was 14 years old, dropped out of high school and traveled around the country (as a thief it sounds like), got his GED at 15 or so and started taking college classes, got married to the girl he got pregnant, spent most of the next couple years locked up in juvenile hall and got divorced, got out of jail and started going to a college in southern Idaho, then went to Tucson to live at his deceased father’s condo, then went back up to Idaho to get back together with his former wife and child, decided he didn’t like that after a few weeks when she got mad at him for hooking up with a girl at a party, left her a note on the fridge saying goodbye, got on a bus heading back to Tucson to start chef school at the U of A.  Most people riding Greyhound have a worthy story to tell and Thomas was no exception.  Thomas was probably also the most normal and sane person, aside from me of course, on any of my buses.  We were to become good friends over the next 48 hours.

Just to keep us on our toes, the shuttle van from the motel to the Greyhound station was late.  It finally arrived 30 minutes before our bus left SLC.  We got to the station with 20 minutes to spare though, so no worries.  None of us tipped the driver though.  Not that we would have anyways.  The night before, Thomas and the other two spent all their cash on beer, cigarettes, Lunchables and beef jerky from the convenient store down the street (no wait, they stole the Lunchables and beef jerky by simply running away with it).  And I spent my money on Chinese food, unfortunately (depending on how you look at it) missing out on all the action that night.

We all made our way to the ticket office, me still lagging behind them not wanting to be grouped in as an acquaintance (yet).  I still had a shred of questionably deserved pride.  I wasn’t one of them.  After all, I don’t think anyone with more stains on their shirt than I do is someone anyone would want to be seen with, let alone hang out with.

They all checked in, presenting their old tickets instead of their IDs, and, surprisingly to me, they weren’t given new tickets.  Crap.  Immediately I knew I was in for trouble.  I left my ticket back in the motel room.  The woman working the ticket desk asked for mine and I told her I didn’t have it.  “Well we can’t let you on the bus without it,” she said.  The next few paragraphs aren’t appropriate for this blog.  I’ll just say that I was mad enough to not be making any sense.  Another Greyhound employee came over when he heard the commotion and attempted to aid her in her argument about why issuing new tickets wasn’t possible because someone else could find the old ticket and use it since they’re good for a whole year.  I told him to shut up and I went on cursing at them both about the shitty company that they worked for.

Eventually she called the motel to see if one of the employees there could find the ticket and drive over with it.  I knew this plan was pure bullshit designed to get me to shut up and leave them alone because there were less than 15 minutes before our bus was to leave.  I kept rampaging at them, looking for something to kick over, smash on the ground, or strangle to death.  Finally someone with a brain and some authority came over and just printed out a new ticket for me.

I got on the bus not one minute before it left.  Cortisol levels jacked.  After sitting down at the first open seat, the driver boarded and told me to move because I had “violated his bag.”  I had moved a bag out of the seat since, after asking who’s it was, no one had said anything.  “Oh are these seats not for passengers?” I asked.  I was in no mood to be screwed with at this point.  Not that I ever am.  He muttered something about it being for handicapped patrons…“because there is a fire extinguisher under the seat”.  This made no sense to me, but instead of arguing further, I just got up and said, “No, I guess this seat’s not for people.  Just bags,” and went to the back of the bus by the bathroom to fume and pout.  The bathroom seat immediately presented itself as a good choice though, since I was able to stretch my legs out in the aisle in front of me.  This small luxury outweighed the smell of urine and the constant flow of people tripping over my feet as I slept.

With my Mount Everest-high blood pressure popping vessels in my eyes, I settled down for the long drive ahead to Las Vegas and the two-dozen rest stops in between.  I was able to doze for a lot of the 6 or 8 hours or however long it was.  My left knee (the one I most recently crashed on at Walla Walla) was beginning to ache at this point in the trip after a full day on the bus, so I had to move around a lot to stretch it out.

I woke up as we pulled into Las Vegas at around 3:00 pm.  It was warm out.  Walla Walla was cold, Boise was cold, Salt Lake City was cold, Las Vegas was warm.  Remind me why people live in the Northwest?  Oh yeah, because it isn’t full of bums, crack addicts and prostitutes.  I got off the bus and dragged my bike box, duffle bag, food bag, and backpack over to the benches to sit out the 5-hour layover when two security guards came to make the rounds.  They wanted to see everyone’s ticket, or you had to leave.

They stopped at a man who was slumped over on the benches and asked him for his ticket.  He was unconscious though, so he didn’t say anything.  They began banging the metal bench he was on and he still didn’t wake up.  Someone suggested that he might be dead and everyone in the room chuckled at first.  Thirty seconds later when he still wasn’t moving after being shaken, I saw the eyes of one of the security guards bulge as he realized this could be true.  He shook the guy more and he still didn’t wake up.  It took them about three minutes of banging on the chair and yelling “SIR!” at him to revive him.  That’s how drunk or stoned he was.  And yes, he did have a ticket so they left him alone afterwards.

The station was small, muggy, and crowded and the TV was blaring a daytime court show.  I had to get the hell out of there.  I risked it all (this was Vegas after all) and arranged all my belongings in the baggage line for gate #3 heading to Flagstaff.  People were standing in line already for the bus.  Not standing but sitting with their stuff.  Most people just left their stuff there unattended though.  In normal circumstances I would never leave my bike alone in a place like that.  But no one knew what was in there–the cardboard box—or how much it was worth—more than my life.  And I had transformed into a Greyhound person by then anyways and any sense of logic I had before was long gone.

Greyhound had drained me of substance and integrity, soul, and morality, brains, focus, and foresight, strength, love and self-respect, compassion for my fellow human being, hope, imagination, courage, pity, sorrow and shame. It stole from me what made me human. Gone were my dreams and aspirations of being a pro bike racer. The void was filled with animalistic desires for a cheap thrill, a laugh at another’s expense, a greasy meal in my belly, and a peek at a trashy showgirl.

So, content with my new Greyhound persona, I abandoned my life at door #3 and set out to appease the simplest human cravings of fast food, entertainment, cigarettes and booze (well maybe not the last two).  Good thing we were in Vegas.  Thomas lined his stuff up as well and we both headed out the door into the sky scraper-shaded streets of Vegas, hoping our stuff would be there when we got back.

We walked South, or maybe North.  I wasn’t sure.  I didn’t care; we were out of the bus station and the smell of vomit was becoming a thing of the distant past.  It didn’t take us long to find our way to a huge casino plaza.  I’m not sure if that’s the right word.  Plaza.  It was basically four city blocks of casinos, clothing stores, souvenir shops, and restaurants with a giant metal arched canopy five stories high spanning across the large walkway (or plaza) in between the buildings, which was filled with tourists and pretzel stands.

As we weaved our way through the throngs of the thousands of people my eyes darted around at the flashing lights and shiny pieces of metal.  Ooooo, shiny…  Unlike most people though, my attention wasn’t diverted to the slot machines, expensive showcase cars or people dressed up like famous actors.  The only thing I saw was: “$2 hot dog and coke.  $1.50 pizza by the slice.  $3 hamburger and fries!”  Holding strong though, mainly because Thomas didn’t stop walking or talking long enough for me to buy anything, we made it through there without spending a dime.

Out on the other side and back out into the sunlight, we entered a slummy section of town with vacant lots and buildings with broken windows.  Typical.  The illusion of wealth and happiness is what America is built on when in reality 90% of it’s a dump, full of poor people and stray cats begging for a mere scratch on the back and a pat on the head.  For some reason the people I passed didn’t seem to appreciate the pat on the head as much as the cats did.

An hour later we upped our pace as we circled back to the bus station.  I suddenly came to and remembered that I had left all my worldly belongings there sitting out in the open for a thief to steal.  Damn it how could I have been so dumb and careless??? “If it’s still there when I get back I promise I won’t leave it alone again,” I pleaded with the god I don’t believe in.

It was all there.  Phew.  “OK, lets go find that Chipotles, Thomas.”  I had been calling dozens of people at home to look up a Chipotles in Vegas online, since Chipotles never seems like junk food but tastes just as good.  Thomas had called about five people too (using my phone since he dropped his in the toilet the day before).  We now had directions to the nearest location, which was across the street from the Belagio or some famous casino like that.

According to a guy we asked outside the Greyhound station it was “a long ass ways away. ”

“Well, not too long I guess.  Actually, man, it ain’t that far now that I think about it.  People jog from here down there every morning if you don’t got a car.”

In fact, he decided to walk a block with us and point us in the right direction.  After walking the block, he asked us for $15 so he could purchase a new bus ticket and “get home.”

“Do you believe in second chances?” he asked us.

“Uh, not really,” I said.

“Well,” he continued, “I just got out of prison for getting caught with 500 pounds of marijuana.  I was in the room when the police came in.  Wasn’t mine, just in the room.  Anyways, I’m trying to get home to blah blah blah.”

I can’t remember what else he said, but after his little performance I showed him my empty wallet and answered, “Sorry no cash.  You take debit?”

The walk seemed to be taking longer than the guy had said it would.  Forty-five minutes later we asked someone at a bus stop and he informed us that it was another three miles.  Well, there goes that.  Neither of us felt like doing a 10-mile round trip hike for a burrito.  We went into a casino and thought about sneaking into a buffet.  My brother, who had been on the phone shortly before had suggested doing this, much to Thomas’ liking.  I chickened out when we got there though so we wandered around upstairs in the casino, which turned into a mall, which then turned into a movie theater.  We escaped once again without spending anything.

On the walk back I broke down and stopped at a Thai place that looked cheap and got some stir-fry.  It was good but didn’t fill me up.  Thomas didn’t get anything and looked longingly at my plate of food.  “I feel bad for eating all this in front of you,” I lied.  I wolfed it down like a ravenous sheep.  I mean wolf.  It was lunchtime and I hadn’t eaten since the continental breakfast!  (Other than about five apples, some sardines, oat bread and jam, oranges, and whey protein).  We discussed how we’d kill the next couple hours and planned on attempting the buffet option again.  Now that I had some food in my stomach I had a lot more courage.  Plus we were still about three miles away from the Golden Nugget, our planned buffet-sneaking location.

We got back to the bus station to check our stuff, saw that it was still there somehow, then walked down the street again to the huge casino plaza area.  It was dark out now and the plaza was packed with people.  Loud music from every direction and dancing girls on stages distracted us for a good 20 minutes until our groaning stomachs reminded us of our objective.

We wandered in and out of casinos and buildings searching for a buffet before we tried the Golden Nugget.  It was our best hope, and therefore was left until last.  It didn’t let us down.  We made our way past the senior citizens, cigarette smoke and slot machines.  Past the restaurants, where Thomas literally poked a large cheese cake with his finger to see if it was real, past gambling tables and to the elevator.  I pressed the button on the elevator that said, “The Buffet.”  We were in luck.

I didn’t consider this stealing.  Or if it was, I didn’t feel bad about it.  How can you feel bad about taking food from an industry that bases its business plan off of deception, greed and lies?  No I’m not talking about a car company or congress.  The fact that people are OK with casinos existing in this country is pretty disturbing…that is until you go into one and see all the fancy contraptions, bright lights and girls in thongs.

The elevator door opened and revealed an entire floor devoted to the buffet.  Immediately I felt joy and depression set in at the same time.  It was a huge place, yes–joy, that looked like it had tons of good food, but at first glance there seemed to be no way in except right past the greeter and cashier—where a long line of people were waiting to be seated.  All is lost, all is lost!  Abandon all hope, all is lost!

We approached cautiously, casually, but mainly awkwardly and sneakily.  A few short sentences were passed between us before we made a quick decision to just walk right past the line of people and into the food coral.  I held my breath and tried to look as un-guilty as I could.  It worked!  One second we were an infinite distance from the expensive spread of delicacies, the next we were quickly scrambling to find plates to pile it on by the pound.

The first thing I came across was shrimp and a mix of steamed seafood.  Yes sir.  To my right there was a line for the fried catfish and other seafood, which I passed since I couldn’t be bothered to wait.  I also passed the line for the ham and meat cuts, and went straight for the build your own fajitas section, which had no line but a delicious-looking assortment of fajita mixes, beans, rice, and toppings.  There was pizza, which I grabbed a piece of, a Chinese food section, pastas, bread, thanksgiving type food, other fried stuff, and an entire other half of the buffet that I never saw, which according to Thomas, included desserts such as cheesecake, chocolate cake, pie, ice cream, cookies…basically everything I ever craved and in endless amounts.

My plate was already full though, so I stopped with the small piece of pizza, fajita, and seafood.  I started eating it standing up, cortisol and adrenaline levels still jacked up from sneaking in a minute before.  I had overheard the greeter say, “Your table is almost ready,” to one of the people waiting in line as we passed by.  This meant they kept track of tables.  Crap.  There were plenty of open ones available, but Thomas and I nervously discussed our options while standing up eating our food.  Sitting down at a table meant someone might come over and discover we weren’t supposed to be there.  We could sit at a dirty table or a clean one.  Which would be the safer bet?  Should we just stand and eat?  That would look suspicious. We ended up sitting down at a clean table right in the middle of everything, which was a bad choice.  But we couldn’t concentrate with all that food right there on our plates begging to be eaten.  We took our seats and I got the pizza and the fajita burrito down in a little under 40 seconds before we were caught.

“May I see your ticket please?” a voice asked from behind.  I had told Thomas that if anyone asked about us sitting there we should say we just moved from another table.  Thomas replied to the guy, “Yeah, we had one over there.  We moved though, I can go see if it’s still there.”  He got up and walked over to the table he had pointed to, looking confused.  I got up, walked past him and whispered, “Let’s just go!” and took off.  I bolted for the elevator, looked behind to see Thomas still talking to the guy, and repeatedly pushed the button for the doors to close.  If he was stupid enough to stay behind and get caught, so be it.  This wasn’t the Marines.  No man left behind had no weight in a Greyhound person’s conscious, such as mine.

The elevator door opened when I reached the bottom floor and I briskly walked through the casino to the exit, taking my jacket off and removing my sunglasses from my head in case the cameras had spotted me earlier and were now searching for a guy wearing a black sweatshirt and a pair of yellow sunglasses.  I’d watched too many casino-type movies where they have 1,000 people upstairs monitoring sophisticated surveillance equipment, ready to push a button to release five men in dark suits and dark glasses to escort you to a dark backroom somewhere to be interrogated by a 260 pound street thug.  I think most of those people upstairs are watching the poker tables and slot machines though, not the buffet, because I made it out alive.

I walked to the other side of the plaza across from the Golden Nugget and waited for Thomas, half expecting him to burst out the doors in a full sprint cramming his mouth with French bread and fried catfish with 10 security guards in pursuit.  A few minutes later he appeared.  Just walking with a nervous smile on his face.

Apparently the guy had bought our story, which was partially backed up by another table-clearer who had said she had seen a ticket at that table for two but couldn’t remember who was sitting there.  Thomas had left though, since it looked strange that I had just left like I did and he didn’t want to take any chances.  So we both spent the next 24 hours banging our heads in frustration over all the food we missed out on.  It was almost worse getting a taste for it then not being able to go back for seconds than it would have been to not have had any at all.  It was like eating a single potato chip.  Except in Thomas’ and my case a single potato chip was a full plate of food.

We stopped to watch the dancing girls on stage one last time and I think Thomas stole a belt buckle from a vendor, then we made it back to the bus in time to wait in line for half an hour, because the bus was late.  Again.

(Check back later this week for the dramatic conclusion of Hematocrit High Ground when things get really weird).

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