Around noon Thursday, I got a call from a man who was obviously upset about something as he began to unpack his story into the phone. His name is Stephen Swift, a bicyclist riding around the country for cancer awareness. Knowing the coast highway is a common route for such rides, I was expecting him to ask for a photo and story as he passed through Crescent City.
However, his call was not about press coverage, a photo op or a story. He was asking for help.
A little online research on Stephen will bring up a series of stories that will make most people’s lives appear blessedly easy. Stephen has lost many of his family members to cancer, and is a survivor himself, now facing a third bout of the disease. He explained to me that after losing his wife in 2011, he simply couldn’t face going home alone. Instead, he decided to ride a bicycle and talk to people about cancer, while spreading encouragement and advice to those who have it. On his journeys, he has had a few bikes stolen and was even hospitalized after being attacked by a would-be bicycle thief in Ventura County.
“I almost died for that bike,” he told me, explaining that the attackers left him with many injuries, including a concussion, damaged shoulder and a permanently disfigured hand.
Stephen went on to tell me that while riding down the coast, he’d lost the key to his bicycle lock. While ducking into the casino in Smith River for some warm coffee and a needed break, he left his bike outside for a few. It was promptly stolen, with some of his belongings on board.
What makes this act particularly reprehensible is that the bike was attached to a small, single wheeled trailer, with a clearly visible banner that reads “Biking around America for cancer. Don’t judge until you walk a mile in someone’s shoes.” According to Stephen, the thief had to manually detach the bicycle by pulling two pins from the axles and placing the heavy trailer aside in order to steal the bike.
He told me he was now without money, without a ride and stuck at the casino with a bicycle trailer he couldn’t pull. Distant family wouldn’t be able to help him for days and he had to keep asking the casino to let him recharge his dying phone.
While he said the casino’s security cameras showed the theft happening, authorities were still unable to locate his bike, leaving him unable to continue.
Normally, I wouldn’t get involved, but in this case, I knew of a way I could help.
I went over to talk to Dave Cormack, a retired local hot rod mechanic who rebuilds and donates bicycles to local kids every year. Upon hearing the story, Dave immediately wanted to help and showed me a few bikes Stephen could choose from. I called Stephen and we coordinated an exchange. Since I have a bike rack and planned to interview Stephen, I decided to take the bike to him.
I arrived at the casino to find a visiting family treating Stephen to lunch. I spoke with hotel security who said I could not see the footage from the security cameras without making some information requests. Knowing that wouldn’t do anything to get his bike back immediately, I returned to find him getting stuff from his trailer.
He showed me stacks of printed photos he’d taken with people on his journey. He unfolded several notebooks full of signatures, business cards and messages of well wishes. He showed me photos of such people on his digital camera. He expressed frustration that someone could do such a thing and sadness that he would have to miss scheduled events along his route.
As a mechanic myself, I showed him how we might be able, with some creative wrenching, to mount the trailer on the donated bike so he could continue.
That’s when Stephen broke.
“You don’t know how close I am to crying right now,” he said as he refastened the straps on his bikeless trailer. “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to ride, I don’t want to do anything. I just want to get on the next bus and go back to Newport. I hate that my story has to end this way.”
I asked if that’s what he really wanted to do and he confirmed, so I did what any human should. I gave him enough money for a bus ride home with a couple meals along the way. He was profoundly thankful and asked that I keep in touch. I said I would.
A local problem
Unfortunately, the incident serves to highlight a problem that doesn’t seem to be subsiding. Bicycle thieves will stop at nothing to get your bike, and they will quickly reduce it to a pile of spray-painted parts, swapped onto untraceable frames.
After writing about having my own bike stolen last month, I was contacted by several residents who’d had bikes taken from their yards, cars and even garages. I recall a traveller speaking to the Crescent City Council some time back about having his bike stolen from outside a local grocery store, leaving him stuck for days in Crescent City.
It’s certain many Del Norters are about to get new bikes for Christmas and I’d highly recommend you get the biggest lock available to go with it, and encourage the recipient to use it every single time they leave it somewhere. It only takes seconds for a thief to be long gone.
A long shot
Stephen’s bicycle is a black 2012 Trek X-caliber. It’s decorated with stickers from around the country. It has a two-sided, split seat with tears in the front and back. It has hydraulic disc brakes with a white caliper in front and a black one in back. Near the rear axle, it has the mounting brackets for a single-wheeled trailer. If you know the location of the bike, please call the Sheriff’s Office at 707-464-4191. If you find or have recovered the bike, you can call Stephen directly at 541-819 9449.
As I’m writing this after 7 p.m., Stephen is probably waiting at the bus stop in Smith River with his trailer and souvenirs from an unfinished journey. I can only hope that once he’s back home and has had time to regroup, he’ll find the means and enthusiasm to embark on a new journey and not let this one act of malice be the end of his desire to spread awareness and help others battling cancer.
Reach Tony Reed at firstname.lastname@example.org