There are drums. In the distance. The beats join the music in a happy union. I can sense smiling. And a twirl of tulle-ed skirts and can-can costumes. I walk closer, unable to keep myself away. Someone takes my bicycle from me. “Don’t worry, it’s safe here.” The tarred road quickly becomes gravel as I walk further off today’s route. That’s okay. It is safe here. The music gets louder and as I round a corner; a red flash. Then more red, and a torso. First just smiling and shaking and rhythmically undulating. Then a louder flash of music. And the drums again. Always the drums as I walk into what feels like an African tribal ritual of stomps and starts. I walk through the beat. People start writhing around me. More red. Beautiful red that makes me smile. Smile because everything red is a dress and only some of the dresses are women. That feels strange out here in the raw country, where cows stare and butter is churned instead of manufactured. But it feels like home. I walk in deeper.
Hundreds of bodies—fit, athletic, practiced bodies—are dancing to deep disco and loving this lunch break from Day 5’s grueling ride. They are what last night’s camp director called HEROs; people who toiled on equipment and at fundraising to pass as fit and able to complete the AIDS LifeCycle, an annual bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Today is Red Dress Day and for lunch today they’re serving party.
The beat grabs a feeling in my chest. They dance and I feel light again. The knees, tired from pedaling, are revived in this brief interlude between baking morning and dusty afternoon on our quest for tonight’s camp. My eyes zoom in on the zinc oxided faces of others as the beat brings their faces forward and their smiles pass right through mine. Dust. Dust raised by stamping feet. Feet in cleats and legs in dresses. We move as a union yet all also alone in our rhythmic uniqueness; in our own riders’ pain and in our own living joy. Someone passes me a banana. “Eat.” I listen and hear the smiles. The song changes, but it is still the same. I see.
I see a friend from this morning’s breakfast table. We chat over the noise, about how the riding has gone today. “Quad Buster Hill is still coming up,” I am warned. “Save yourself just a little.” And then he explains why today is Red Dress Day.
The banana is delicious. It is syrupy and thick on my thirsty tongue. It chews a little longer than normal, but I chew happily. “Mother Nature’s energy bar.” Groups of people form and dissolve. Some walk back to the tarred road and their bikes. Others to the portable toilets set up in a pretty row. Others need to hydrate. They do. We do. We are.
And then there is nothing. It is empty. All of the red is gone. Someone rolls up a cable, dusts off a speaker. The wind carries the deep breathing from the hills in the distance to the imagination in my ears. I feel muscles working up Quad Buster. Back here a store reopens for business. An old person appears. My bike is still safe and my red dress pristine. I mount. I ride. I breathe.
The Red Dress Day on the AIDS LifeCycle was conceived to be a red ribbon floating along the 42 miles of Californian mountain roads that twenty five hundred cyclists drag themselves through on the fifth day of the week-long ride. The visual—as much as the ride—is dedicated to raising awareness and a united front against a disease that has taken so much away. School children see things that they have never seen before and ask questions that will save their lives. And the millions of dollars that are raised benefit AIDS organizations that help people who are fighting for theirs.