Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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One of the happiest experiences of my life was looking back to see my father’s proud face as I rode away from him on my bike for the first time. I was four years old. He was a hard man, and I saw that look only a few more times in our lives together.
Another of my best memories is the day my youngest daughter first rode her bike away from me. Watching her fear turn to shock and then joy is something I will never forget.
I’ve tried to learn from my father’s shortcomings. Every time I feel proud of my children, I make sure to tell them. Perhaps they will do the same with their own children, should they ever have any. If they do, I hope I live to see their kids take their first rides.
When I was twenty-five years old and fresh out of nursing school, I moved to bike-friendly Eugene, Oregon, bought a new silver five-speed made for a boy, and rode it to my night shift at the hospital, racing down the bike path by the river.
Early one morning I left the hospital and found an empty spot on the rack where my bike had been. I was wondering how I was going to get home when I noticed a couple of guys about to disappear behind a hedge that bordered the parking lot. One of them had a wheel over his shoulder; the other was casually walking a silver bike.
“Hey! That’s my bike!” I yelled. Wheel Guy kept going, but the young man with the bike slowed to a halt. I approached him, my heart pounding, and shouted, “I work hard for my money. Don’t you be stealing my stuff!” He said nothing as I took my bike from him. I felt amazed at my luck: that not only had I caught the thief, but he had allowed me to reclaim what he’d stolen.
Years later I owned a car, but I still rode my bike around town. My urban neighborhood was nicknamed “Felony Flats,” and the alley beside my house was the scene of criminal activity day and night. Apparently bike thieves in the area had obtained a master key to the sturdy U-locks that were popular at the time. One day I walked out my front door and found my bike gone, along with the unbreakable lock.
A few weeks later my young niece and I walked a couple of blocks to the grocery store, and I spotted the silver boys’ bike on the rack outside, my lock securing it. I realized with delight that I still had the key on my chain.
Grocery shopping forgotten, I swiftly unlocked the bike, and my niece and I hurried it away from the store. I was home within five minutes, overjoyed at being reunited with my bike for the second time.
I am almost sixty, and I still ride that silver bike, feeling like a kid every time I fly down the country roads where I live. I don’t lock it anymore. I believe we are meant to be together.
Pleasant Hill, Oregon
While out walking in the winter of 2017, I found a bicycle sticking out of a dumpster near a vacant elementary school. I checked the brakes and the frame. Everything seemed fine, so I brought it home, figuring I’d tune it up for one of my daughters.
The bike sat in the back of my Jeep for two months before I discovered my local bicycle collective. Every Saturday I went there to work on the project and learn a little about the art of bicycle maintenance from the young employees. The bike turned out to be too large for my daughters, so I rebuilt it for myself using mismatched parts. In the spring I took my two-wheel Frankenstein on a road trip through Arizona and New Mexico.
Friends and family admired my handiwork and asked if I would build bikes for them. I purchased old frames for twenty dollars and outfitted them with vintage and scrap parts. I acquired my own tools and became a volunteer at the collective. When the COVID-19 lockdown arrived, everyone suddenly wanted a bike. I did repairs for neighbors and taught friends how to build their own.
I began dreaming of fabricating my own frame, so I taught myself how to weld and learned how to use the design software. For six months I drove two hours every Sunday to work with a professional builder. I then spent six more months and thousands of dollars hunting down the finest parts for what I thought would be my dream bicycle.
It wasn’t. The new bike didn’t have the same charm as my dumpster find, and it felt like a monument to my vanity. In trying to make the perfect bicycle, I’d overlooked the artfulness of the imperfect vehicle I already had. I sold off the new bike, part by part. I still ride my Frankenstein.
When I was thirty years old, I started working as a bike messenger in San Francisco. Crossing from bay side to ocean side and back again many times a day, I learned which were the even and odd sides of the streets and found all the best coffee spots.
I did a thousand runs for various delivery apps, then switched to a job with a nonprofit, distributing leftovers from caterers and restaurants to shelters, rehab clinics, and churches. I was paid a flat fee and got dinner every day. It was peaceful work. The people who gave were happy to give, the people who received were happy to get, and no one ever reamed me out for delivering a latte five minutes late. I kept that job for four years.
There is joy in the bike-messenger life, and there is also the visceral thrill of defying death each day. We have no seat belts, no airbags, no ton of steel surrounding us as we dodge cars and pop on and off sidewalks. I have never understood why tourists fly to Spain to run with bulls when they could much more easily bring a bicycle into any American city and go head-to-head with traffic.
Once, during a nighttime storm, I rode over a slippery steel plate just as a car veered into my path. My wheels slid, and I came so close to a collision that I felt the heat of the car’s radiator sweep across my calves.
I have been “doored” three times — when a driver opens a car door into your path — but have been fortunate to ride away in every instance. Other messengers I have known were less lucky. Nate had his ankle turned completely around by a taxi. Peter went through a windshield and woke up not knowing who he was. Seth and EmKay died.
When a messenger passes away, we ride out to the bay with their bike in tow. There we form two lines on the pier and roll the bicycle down the middle. Each messenger touches a hand upon seat or bars, pushing it faster, until the bicycle flies off the pier and into the water.
I don’t work as a messenger anymore. I was laid off in the spring of 2020, about the same time I realized I wanted my bicycle to rest in the basement and not at the bottom of San Francisco Bay. Life is too precious to be risked delivering takeout.
My first summer job was at an ice-cream parlor. I was sixteen and didn’t have a driver’s license, so I rode my twelve-speed Univega thirteen miles each way along curvy Upstate New York roads. I felt free and independent, and all the exercise made up for the unprecedented amount of ice cream I was “tasting.”
One day my boss called and asked if I was still going to make it to work. Horrified, I realized I’d forgotten my scheduled shift that day. Now I didn’t have time to get there before the parlor opened. I’d always made a point of being on time, even leaving an extra hour to towel off my sweat, change my clothes, and rehydrate before starting to greet customers. How could I have been so careless? I imagined my boss would fire me if I showed up late.
In desperation I got my mother to drive me. We packed my bicycle into her car, and she sped to the ice-cream parlor, where I took the bike out and wheeled it behind the building. My boss greeted me with surprise as I was leaning it against the wall. “You’re even faster on that bicycle than I am in my car!” she yelled, laughing. I didn’t dare set her straight. She pulled me inside and yelled to the other workers, “This girl came all the way from Salem on her bicycle in record time! Now, that’s dedication.” She went on and on about how I was such a loyal employee. No one seemed to notice that I wasn’t as sweaty or red in the face as I usually was upon arrival, or that it would have been physically impossible to cycle that distance so quickly.
That day my boss gave me a raise. Though I felt guilty that I hadn’t been more forthright, I came to see the extra pennies in my paycheck as a bonus for all those pedaled miles and the upkeep of my trusty Univega. I got a flat just once: after my final day of work, as I was pulling into the driveway at home.
On July 20, 2002, while bicycling over the 9,196-foot Kaiser Pass in California, my wife, Jacquette, lost her brakes and crashed going fifty miles per hour. When I reached her, she lay motionless, one foot dangling at an ugly angle. At the hospital we learned that her tibia and fibula were fractured above her right ankle. She’d also fractured her right elbow, broken several ribs, and wrenched her back where the vertebrae had been fused since childhood — an outdated treatment for severe scoliosis. The doctor frowned at the X-ray of her spine and muttered, “She never should have been on a bike in the first place.”
Little did he know.
I met Jacquette at a bicycle-club party, and we became better acquainted on a biking excursion from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In 1995 we married, wobbling away from our wedding on a tandem bike.
We rode 460 miles on our honeymoon, against strong winds around Glacier National Park. We pedaled up to the 6,646-foot Logan Pass and enjoyed stunning vistas while coasting down the other side.
One summer we biked through Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, where a friendly park ranger used his pickup to nudge aside a herd of bison so the bulls wouldn’t charge us. Another time, while cycling through the Black Hills of South Dakota, we saw a beaver floating lazily in a pond. In British Columbia we encountered a pod of orcas swimming no more than fifty feet from the beach. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park we ascended to the Alpine Visitor Center, located at 11,796 feet.
Ten weeks after her accident, Jacquette got out of her wheelchair and began riding a stationary bicycle. At fifteen weeks she demanded I accompany her on a twelve-mile ride.
Soon she was cycling to work again, thirty miles round trip. That spring she rode 480 miles around San Francisco Bay.
Perhaps she should never have been on a bicycle in the first place, but she was. And today, at the age of seventy-four, she still is.
Santa Clara, California
Two weeks before my ninth birthday, my mom told me she’d seen some girls’ bikes with colored streamers at the hardware store. “We could get you a new bike for your present,” she said.
“I don’t want a girls’ bike,” I replied. “I want a boys’ bike with thin tires and no fenders.”
“Why would you want a boys’ bike?” she asked. “What’s the matter with you?”
I didn’t have an answer. In my heart I felt like a boy, or maybe something between a girl and a boy. I was tired of the sissy clothes she bought for me, most recently a pink polka-dot dress. I preferred to wear clothes my brothers had outgrown.
That afternoon I went down to the basement, where my older brother tossed spare bike parts, and I poked around and found a thin frame with the bar across the top that indicated it was for a boy. I ran upstairs and asked my brother to help me look for the rest of the pieces I’d need. We found two thin road tires and a chain that fit. That very day he and I put it all together. I helped screw the pedals on tight.
I rode that bike to school with my friend Tina from up the street. Sometimes Tina and I attached playing cards to the back-wheel supports so that the spokes hit the cards and made a noise like a motorcycle. After school we rode to the park or the shopping center.
I was able to coast all the way down the hill from Tina’s house to mine with no hands, and before long I challenged myself to ride most of the way home from school without touching the handlebars. The last stretch was the hardest: a long downhill with a turn at the bottom. The intersection was gravelly, and handless braking can be tricky, but I learned to do it.
My next goal was to ride standing on the seat, crouching to reach the handlebars. The first time I tried it, my bike fell over, and my knee landed on a sharp piece of gravel. The cut was so deep, I thought I could see the white of my kneecap. I never did succeed, and I still have that scar.
I am now sixty-nine years old and have grown kids, grandkids, and a loving husband, but I still wear boys’ clothes and don’t feel particularly like a girl. If I were young, I might call myself genderqueer or another of those new terms that mean somewhere in between. A young friend of mine who’s married to a woman calls himself gender-fluid and often wears a dress. I know two children under ten years old who use gender-neutral pronouns. But for a woman my age, in my Southern city, no one wants to hear that sort of thing.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of riding my boys’ bike through the air, high among the treetops, feeling joyously free. Sometimes I still have that dream.
Charlotte, North Carolina
On a warm day in Spain Tom rolled in to meet the rest of us camp counselors on a twenty-one-speed custom mountain bike with a rear rack and a handlebar bag. I later learned he had assembled it himself from parts, using a frame he’d bought in Phoenix from a guy named Lenny.
Tom was thin, with scraggly, longish hair, and it was hard not to stare at the tan lines his riding shorts had left on his thighs. He strode over to the table with the signature happy gait that had earned him the nickname Loose Joints, and he sat down next to me. While we ate, he told me he had been riding to Prague when he’d learned he had gotten the job at the camp, so he’d turned around in France and pedaled five hundred miles back, camping along the sides of the roads at night.
More than thirty years have passed since Tom rode into my life. We’ve acquired many more bikes, and boxes of parts arrive almost daily. Our garage is a makeshift repair shop, complete with a beer fridge so Tom’s friends can pay him in six-packs when he fixes or builds their bikes. I’ve stood along race routes, holding out water bottles for him to grab, and I’ve cleaned and dressed the wounds from his multiple crashes. He’s gone from mountain biking to road biking and indoor training during the frigid winter months. Age has slowed him down some, but this year, with the pandemic and early retirement, he has ridden more than five thousand miles so far.
Many people, including his mom, ask me how I can deal with the danger of his daily rides along heavily trafficked roads. I lost both my parents in a car accident when I was young, and I always pause for a moment before I answer. Tom’s riding has been part of our relationship since the day I met him, and I know he started tinkering with bikes at the age of five or six. To discourage this passion would be like silencing a songbird. Tom would still exist, but not as the person he was meant to be.
He still wakes most mornings to put on the tight bike shorts that leave funny tan lines, and he bounces out the door with that same happy gait.
Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey
A couple of weeks before Christmas, for some reason I cannot remember, I went into the attic, and there it was, my present: a chrome-fendered, three-speed English-style racer. It even had a gearshift built right into the handle grip. I was so excited, I couldn’t help sneaking into the attic at every opportunity to admire my new bike.
Then a horrible possibility occurred to me: maybe the bike wasn’t for me at all. Maybe it was for my brother who was one year younger. This thought haunted me right up until Christmas morning, when my brother and I got out of bed early and crept downstairs. The bike was standing next to our Christmas tree. I went straight for it and saw my name on the gift tag.
My mom appeared unexpectedly a moment later. She and Dad always slept in while we eight kids opened our presents. I sensed that she had gotten up early so she could witness my excitement, but after all my trips to the attic, the excitement of receiving that shiny new bike had waned. Of course I was grateful, but I couldn’t pretend I was over the moon when I was mostly just relieved that that bike was mine and not my brother’s. I could see how disappointed my mother was that I wasn’t out of my mind with happiness.
Every Christmas I think of that morning and wish I had never discovered that bike in the attic. I had a great Christmas that year, but I ruined hers.
One weekend, on a whim, I bought a new bicycle: a shiny Schwinn beach cruiser, powder blue with white trim. I was the single mom of a teenage boy, and it reminded me of the freedom I’d felt as a young girl, riding around on my beat-up green bike with its glittery silver banana seat and orange tires. My son, who was at the age when everything I did was a great embarrassment to him, said my new set of wheels looked like an “old-lady bike.” Still, I convinced him to join me for a spin around the neighborhood.
At first my riding was shaky, the front tire wobbling. Perhaps I was too old for this. Seeing me struggle, my son took off, pedaling far ahead. Bike riding had been my joyous escape while I was growing up with an alcoholic father. I wondered if my son felt as happy to get away from me. I worried that, in my efforts to provide for him, I’d only given him reasons to want more distance.
As we got closer to home, he circled back and rode beside me. Grinning, he yelled, “You’re doing it, Mom!” I finally relaxed and allowed myself to feel the simple thrill of riding again.
We raced the last block, past the neighbors in their yards. After he won, my son continued up the street while I turned into our driveway. As I lifted my leg to dismount, my heel caught the edge of the fender, and I fell face-first on the pavement, twisting my ankle and smashing my knuckles. My son was nowhere in sight. Acutely aware that the neighbors were staring at me, I quickly disentangled myself from my bike, flashed a quick smile, and limped into the house.
A few minutes later my son came home and was shocked to see my bloodied hand and dirty clothing. Defeated, I burst into tears. To my surprise, my son insisted that I get back on the bike immediately. He said if I didn’t, I might never find the courage to do so. He continued to pressure me until I agreed to ride around the block.
As I rounded the final corner, I looked ahead to see his beaming face. He was standing outside, waiting for me, with no sign of embarrassment. I came to a graceful stop and pushed the kickstand into place like a pro. With all the flair I could muster, I turned to the neighbors and took a deep bow. We walked into the house to the sound of clapping.
When I was a sophomore in college, a friend asked me to bike with her across the country, and I said yes. I’d always been a misfit and wanted to escape myself. I thought this trip might help me change and become more self-reliant.
My friend soon developed other interests and abandoned the idea, but I had already bought a bike and was looking forward to the adventure, so I resolved to go alone. My plan was to ride from Virginia to Oregon after graduation and never come back.
Over the next two years I prepared by regularly riding thirty miles in the Appalachian hills. I taught myself to change a flat tire and patch a punctured inner tube. I gripped my handlebars when angry motorists passed too close to me, leaning on their horns. Men on remote country roads catcalled me from their pickup trucks, but my mission gave me courage.
That spirit of adventure fueled other aspects of my life, and I began to feel less awkward and lonely. By graduation I had a job and had met my future husband. Suddenly, leaving for three months made no sense, so I put off the trip.
For thirty years I regretted that decision. Family, graduate school, and jobs, though all good things, didn’t lend themselves to cycling sabbaticals. I’d missed my window of opportunity.
Still, I kept riding. The threat of catcalling men gave way to the hazards of metropolitan traffic. I flew over my handlebars once. Another time I was hit by a car. But I rode on, because the bike set me free in a way nothing else did.
Now that the kids have left for college and my work schedule is flexible, the window has reopened. The thrill of a solo cycling odyssey still speaks to me, even if its purpose has shifted from escaping my life to reflecting on it. My husband supports the idea, but the old fear tells me I’ll miss out on my rich daily life if I go. How can I leave my spouse and my aging parents for months?
So here I am. The clock ticks in the kitchen. My bike waits in the shed.
In high school I was an overachiever, and when I failed to meet my own high expectations, I turned to alcohol and drugs to dull the shame. My injurious habits went on for twenty years, until I was rescued by a recovery program and took up bike riding as a way to keep my serotonin and dopamine levels normal.
One day I was invited to tag along on a ride with a group from a local bike shop. Afterward Ken, the strongest rider, asked if I wanted to join his four-man team for an upcoming relay race. I surprised myself by saying, “I’m in!” I’d never competed before.
At the race I marveled at the sea of sleek, state-of-the-art bikes. My own was conspicuously out of place with its chipped paint, rusty wheels, and torn seat. Ken introduced me to the rest of our team: Stan, who had just returned from hiking Denali, and Fred, who did Ironman competitions. I am so out of my league, I thought.
Each lap covered ten miles of steep climbs and treacherous descents. The team that completed the most laps in twenty-four hours would win.
My bike creaked as I charged onto the course for my first lap. I was soon breathless and struggled to pedal over rocks the size of small boulders. Though I gave it my all, other riders began to pass me.
Thanks to the prowess of my teammates, we remained among the leaders throughout the day. Each time it was my turn, I attacked the trail with ferocity, but fatigue took its toll, and my lap times lagged. Near midnight, as I descended a hill, my front tire hit a rut. I flipped forward and tumbled down the track. When I tried to get up, cramps seized both legs.
Another rider skidded to a stop and asked if I was OK. I told him to keep racing, but the benevolent stranger helped me back on my bike anyway. “It’s mostly downhill now,” he said. “Take it easy; you’ll be OK.” Not waiting for me to thank him, he jumped on his own bike and disappeared down the trail.
Hours later Ken announced we would win the race if we completed just one more lap before noon. I expected him to suggest one of the stronger riders take the lap, but he slapped my shoulder and said, “Do us proud!”
Inspired by his support, I rolled onto the course. I had learned to pace myself. Passing the rut where I had fallen during the night, I could still see my tumble marks in the dirt.
During the final stretch my strength waned, and my legs began to cramp. A faster rider approached from behind and called, “You’re almost there!”
“I don’t think I can make it,” I answered.
“Yes, you can!” the rider said. “Follow me. I’ll bring you in!”
Dumbfounded by his kindness, I focused on keeping his back wheel in sight. I could hear the amplified voice over the PA reminding everyone there were only a couple of minutes left until the end of the race.
As we turned the last corner, the track was lined by fans waving flags and counting down the final seconds. With my last ounce of strength I mashed the pedals. The finish line was just a few feet ahead. “Three, two, one!”
Hundreds of people moaned in unison as I crossed the finish line three seconds too late.
Panting and wheezing, I rolled to a stop. I had failed. How could I face my team?
Ken, Stan, and Fred emerged from the crowd. “I’m sorry,” I told them.
At once they pulled me from the bike and lifted me to their shoulders. Looking down on an ocean of upturned faces, I heard Ken yell, “Champion!”
Lake Hughes, California
At the age of nineteen, with the youthful belief that I was immune to danger, I acquired a fast motorcycle. It wasn’t my first, and many more would follow.
One afternoon I was cruising along a rural, two-lane road when I noticed a young boy pedaling his banana-seat bicycle down a driveway. I assumed he would turn around, but instead he continued straight into my lane. I braked hard but couldn’t avoid slamming into the front of his bicycle, and we both went down hard. He was bloodied from asphalt abrasions but otherwise OK. I suffered a compound fracture of my left tibia and a fractured left clavicle. The paramedics unceremoniously cut off the brand-new boots and Levi’s that had set me back the good part of my fry cook’s paycheck. A few hours later an incredibly skilled orthopedic surgeon bolted me back together.
Since then I have lived with a slight limp and moderate but constant pain. Running, jumping, and skiing are all out of the question, and I had to give up backpacking. For much of my life I resented that boy for having caused the accident. Did he ever think about that day? Did he remember how badly I was injured? Every time I saw a kid on a bicycle, I was reminded of getting hurt. A friend once told me I had PTSD, and I guess that might be true.
Nowadays I ride an e-bike. It’s easier on my ankle. Still, I continued to ride motorcycles, racking up a few hundred thousand miles over the course of fifty years. I even taught a beautiful young woman how to ride. She took one bike up to a hundred miles per hour. We both survived.
The summer I was fifteen, I got a job at a miniature-golf course. I had to ride my bike to get there. I was worried it would get stolen if I left it parked out front all day, so I got an old, beat-up bike I figured no one would ever want, and I locked it securely to the rack.
I was right: no one wanted to steal that bike. Instead they stole my lock.
One of the happiest moments of my 1950s childhood was when I bought myself a new Schwinn with the earnings from my paper route. Until then, I’d had to share an old, wobbly bike with my brother. Every day after school I pedaled the Schwinn out of the Philadelphia project where I lived to a distant park, where I charged down rough trails and through a creek, bouncing over rocks. After one of these adventures the frame split in two places. I walked my beloved bike home as if it were an injured horse. All hope was lost when my father applied pressure to the frame to test it, and it broke into two pieces.
My mother was outraged that the bike I had worked so hard to buy had been so “shoddily” constructed. I neglected to mention that I had been riding it on washboard trails and colliding with trees. She announced that we were going to get a refund. My father warned her this would be a hopeless mission, but there was no stopping her. We took the bus to Sears, each holding half of the bike.
My mother marched to the department where I had made my purchase and demanded that the salesperson take a good look at the inferior merchandise that had been foisted on her innocent child. He did take a look, and then told my mother, in the soft voice of a doctor delivering a difficult diagnosis, “This bike has been abused.” While I squirmed under his gaze, my mother demanded that he fetch his supervisor.
An older, grumpier man arrived and quickly delivered the same diagnosis, minus the bedside manner. He gave me a pointed look, as though expecting me to fess up. I glanced away at all the sparkling new bikes on display.
Not one to take no for an answer, my mother proceeded to demand a replacement — and not a “lousy Schwinn” this time. I interrupted to assure her I would settle for a lousy Schwinn. Touched by my noble gesture, my mother put her hand on her heart and became even more insistent.
The man in charge, taking note of the customers who were gathering to witness the scene my mother was creating, offered to take the bike into a back room for a closer look and suggested we go home and come back later.
“Now he’s telling us to get lost!” my mother told the crowd. She asked a lady if she thought riding a bike on city streets to deliver newspapers would result in such damage. The lady authoritatively stated that this should not have happened.
Mom told the supervisor nothing short of an armed guard would get her out of the store. And if she were removed, she would be contacting the newspapers and the Better Business Bureau.
When we left the store, Mom rode home alone on the bus, and I rode home on my new Schwinn.
When the front wheel of my bike hit the space between two steel plates in the road, I pitched over the handlebars, and my right leg slammed into the trunk of a Nissan Maxima. The next thing I saw was the gorgeous blue sky of a late-May Chicago morning. I was flat on my back in the gutter, my bike a few feet behind me. I tried to get up, but my leg wouldn’t bear weight.
Two cops arrived and called an ambulance. The looks on their faces and the pain starting to overtake me confirmed this was no sprain. This was a before-and-after moment.
The irony was that this was supposed to be my day off from exercise. I was suffering from a groin and hip-flexor injury, likely from twice-daily workouts of running, spinning, and stair-climbing, bookended by bike rides and binges and purges. I was twenty-nine years old, and for ten years I’d had an eating disorder. I’d recently vowed to run the Chicago Marathon — proof that I’d completely tuned out every message my underfed, overworked body had been trying to send me. Riding in the ambulance, I thought, Well, at least when this is all over, my groin will be healed.
In the ER, someone cut through my favorite warm-up pants. A doctor told me my femur was broken, and they were going to fix it with a titanium rod.
When I woke, my mom was standing next to the bed. She and my aunt had flown in from Louisville, Kentucky, in the time it had taken me to come out of surgery. Mom said, “There’s a cute boy with a stuffed animal in the waiting area.” That cute boy was my editor, Robert, on whom I’d had an intense, unrequited crush since he’d hired me six months before. With Mom at my side and Robert waiting, I felt good for the first time that awful day.
The feeling didn’t last. My eating disorder was furious. How could I eat if I couldn’t exercise? I had been the woman who worked out all the time. Now I was broken.
Though I was angry about being immobilized, I also felt as if the universe had given me permission to slow down. Since I wasn’t at the gym twice a day now, I had time to hang out with Robert, who often drove me home from work. I had more mental space to devote to writing. And because I’d lost so much muscle mass, I’d actually lost weight. I was forced to eat to get better. Food, for the first time, felt restorative and safe.
That rod has been in my leg for twenty-two years, and I’ve told this story hundreds of times. When clients ask why I left journalism to become a massage therapist, I tell them about the massages I received during physical therapy and how they helped me put one wobbly foot in front of the other. When, at the age of forty-five, I hit rock bottom with my eating disorder, I remembered how I had felt in that gutter: stuck and in dire need of help. When friends ask if I ever get scared biking to work, I tell them how grateful I am to get those eight miles in, not as a punishment for eating but as proof of my recovery. When people ask how I met my husband, I always tell them how he sat outside my hospital room, holding a scruffy white teddy bear, waiting.
Falls Church, Virginia
The bike hanging on the back wall of our storage shed was covered in dust, with two flat tires and cobwebs crisscrossing the frame. It was far from the way it had looked on that spring day twenty-plus years earlier when it had stood proudly on its kickstand in the driveway, its sky-blue frame gleaming in the sun. My college-graduation present: a sleek, ten-speed Zebrakenko street bike.
For the next two decades that bike went wherever I did. To me it was more than an alternative mode of transportation. It was a time machine. Whenever the demands of adult life became overwhelming, I’d throw my leg over the seat, put my feet on the pedals, and cross the threshold into the world of my youth. I might take it to a Little League ball field, where I’d root for the young pitcher on the mound while internally communing with the ten-year-old me who’d dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees. Or I’d ride to my favorite coffee shop, where I’d sit with a latte and a dog-eared copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, dreaming, just as I had in my late teens, about cross-country adventures.
Staring at the sad relic hanging on the wall brackets, I couldn’t believe that I’d let it get so shabby. Was it time, as my wife had suggested, to put my bike out at the curb in the hope that somebody might “do us a favor” and drive off with it? I shuddered at the thought of my Zebrakenko disappearing into the bed of a stranger’s pickup truck. I would get it fixed.
As I drove to a nearby repair shop, I wondered what the employees’ reaction would be. For all I knew, Japanese street bikes were still the gold standard, as they had been back in 1982. And this Zebrakenko was now vintage. Would all the mechanics drop what they were doing and crowd around? I envisioned myself on the set of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, a crowd of gawkers standing in the background. “Would it surprise you,” the appraiser would ask, drawing out his words, “if I told you . . . that in its current condition . . . at auction . . . this Zebrakenko would bring . . .”
At the repair shop the mechanic glanced at my bike and immediately dismissed my request for an estimate, telling me they didn’t work on “that kind of bike.” Aha, I thought to myself, a bike like this requires a specialty bike shop. But I quickly divined that it was the exact opposite. From the mechanic’s standpoint, it was not worth it for him to work on such a low-end bike.
On the drive home I felt lost. What would I do without my bike? No one — not my wife, not that mechanic, and not even the imaginary Antiques Roadshow appraiser — could ever fully appreciate the value of a 1982 sky-blue Zebrakenko.
When I was twenty-two years old and waiting to hear if I’d been accepted into the Peace Corps, my sisters Suzie and Jeanne and I hatched a plan for a long bike trek around the “thumb” of Michigan. We’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing, which is one reason the idea was so appealing. I also knew I might soon be off to Africa, and Suzie would be married before long. We might never have another chance.
Our bikes weren’t fancy, but each had an all-important carrier over the rear wheel. Never having seen a bungee cord, we used ropes to tie on our bedrolls and a borrowed pup tent. We packed a few groceries: cereal for breakfast, peanut-butter sandwiches and fruit for lunch, and tinfoil dinners over an open fire after a long day of riding. We’d buy the rest along the way. Michigan had plenty of state and county parks where we could camp overnight. Everything seemed simple.
On the first day of our trip one of Jeanne’s friends drove us past Detroit so we wouldn’t have to deal with city traffic. We immediately hit a snag when the state park where we’d planned to spend the night was closed. With our almost-nonexistent budget, a motel was out of the question. Exhausted and hungry, I suggested we find the local Methodist church, explain to the pastor that our father was a Methodist minister, and ask if we could spend the night on the church floor. To our delight we were offered space in the parsonage instead.
We spent the next three weeks riding through one small town after another. Most nights were spent in parks. Once, along the shore of Lake Huron, we couldn’t find a camping area, so again we went to the Methodist parsonage. After the startled minister denied us shelter, we biked over to the Baptist church to try our luck. The pastor there started to refuse us, but when he heard the Methodists had already turned us down, he got a gleam in his eye and welcomed us to camp in the churchyard.
Many details of the trip are lost to me, like how we found bathrooms and which of us knew how to start a campfire. (It couldn’t have been me.) But I remember the many times we entered a town and attracted the attention of some kid on a bike. He’d holler, “Hey, what’re you doing?” and we’d tell him. By the time we reached the village limits, we’d have a string of boys wistfully following us as far as they were allowed to go.
Almost four years ago Suzie died of cancer. Jeanne and I live far apart, but we talk on the phone often. I’m forever grateful for that trip and how it cemented the bonds among the three of us.
I stood on the side of the road, waving my arms at every SUV and truck that passed. I could already hear the scolding that was in store for me: This is exactly why you need a cell phone! My bike lay propped against the curb, a nail in its front tire. I was still four miles from the school where I teach, with no way to tell them I would be late for work or to call for help. As vehicle after vehicle drove by, I began to think I would finally have to get a phone. Of course I could have saved myself if I had bothered to learn how to patch a flat, as Jake at the bike shop was always urging me to do.
I decided that if no one stopped in the next three minutes, I would cover the last stretch of the commute on foot. I stepped a little farther into the road and started waving my arms. A white pickup truck with a rugged-looking man behind the wheel pulled over. I explained my situation, and he offered to drive me to work. He hoisted the bike into the bed of his truck while I climbed into the cab.
On the way the driver, Mark, and I chatted about his teenage daughter and his travels around California. I told him about teaching high school, riding my bike through the foothills on gray mornings, and why I still believed in the kindness of strangers. He dropped me off in the school parking lot, smiled, and drove away. I scurried into the classroom with two minutes to spare.
Later that day I recruited a bike-savvy colleague to fix my flat so that I could ride home. When we pulled my bike from the rack, I was shocked to see that the tire was fine.
“Are you sure it was actually flat?” my colleague asked. “Maybe you just thought you saw a nail.” I doubted myself for a few moments, too, because I didn’t see any other logical explanation. Then it dawned on me: Mark had probably come back during the day and fixed the tire. I smiled the whole ride home, imagining every person I passed was as good as Mark, the Bike Savior.
I continue to put more faith in random acts of kindness than in cell phones, and I renew my faith every morning as I set out on my bike.