You never forget. Just like riding a bike. Something I reminded myself as I extracted myself from an Alder tree.
In the memory fog, most of us have a rite of passage story about our first bike ride. It’s the moment we discover the alchemy of balance and forward motion. Finally, our little legs can escape our parents or siblings. The first unassisted bide ride is a parent letting go, maybe for the first time. The breeze in your face is a sign you are moving both further into and away from childhood.
As a new college student, I assumed I needed a bike. Coming from a family that fetishized automobiles, I don’t have a clue why. Perhaps it was the television shows and movies where every campus background had 10-speed bikes buzzing back and forth. I imagined I would ride my bike to class and to, well; no idea where. I bought a 10-speed. At school, I locked the pristine white bike into the rack on my dorm patio and never rode it. Not once. In fact, I didn’t know someone had stolen it until the police contacted me. Worse for wear, I locked the bike back on the dorm patio. No idea what happened to it. Maybe it was stolen again because it never made it back home.
The longer I was in Portland, the greater my ambivalence, if not hostility, to the entire concept of bikes. Well, not exactly the mechanical conveyance itself, but Portland bike riders. I get bikes are an elegant way to amplify human muscles. Unfortunately, there is a notion that owning Spandex and a bike helmet are an anointing. And with God’s anointment comes the belief that almost anything done on a bicycle is God’s work. And, given God’s grace, there was no reason to follow the traffic laws that bound the rest of us planet haters. I lost track of the number of times my quick reflexes at the wheel saved the life of a bike rider. The most common thank you was a middle finger. God’s work.
Middle-aged idiocy put me on a bike once more. At about 50, I decided that I finally needed to be a jogger. I got the right shoes, read the right books, bought the right clothes, then out into the night I went to aimlessly circle a Mt Tabor reservoir. As the gasping and wheezing settled, I enjoyed the solitude and the biting cold. Then my feet failed… badly. Seems that St John’s Bridge level high foot arches with a few decades of wear are not made for jogging. I damn near crippled myself. Ordered by a doctor to not do that again, he suggested that biking was a safer workout. Safer being relative.
So, there I was in a neighborhood without a single level street with my first bike since college. My first impression was that since I last rode a bike, they had gotten taller. I looked down at the passing asphalt and got a chill that never happened when I took my Mini Cooper out on high-speed racetrack days. But I stuck to it, making my way further and further up the park’s cinder cone and back. But that was it. I had no desire to go anywhere else. My new bike was medicinal. I got some fresh air and a little workout. After a few months, my feet healed. My bike sat in a rack at the back of our garage. One day, after a quick trip to the store, I pulled into the driveway to see it was gone. Two thoughts: Some asshole came up our driveway with Sal home and took my bike. Damn it. And… good riddance. I hope they get some use out of it.
Flip forward to a Social Security card and our move to Tigard. During the house search, I nurtured a new fantasy. I said to anyone who would listen, there’s an isolated bike trail along Fanno Creek, “I am thinking about a bike.” Laughing ensued. In my newly addled mind, I was highly motivated because just over a mile down that isolated, mostly flat trail, there were 3 taverns. Cold beer. A noble pursuit. Sal, who once commuted by bike, was thrilled. “We can ride together,” she gushed. Happy wife….
Armed with Google and YouTube, I dove deep to find the perfect old dude bike. As a modern hunter/gatherer, I was now an expert. After mowing the yard at our now old place one last time and heading to the new home in Tigard, I stopped at a bike shop, walked in, saw the bike I wanted, and pointed at it. “I’ll take that one.”
The young woman greeted me, looked confused. “You don’t want to look around? Can I ask you some questions? Let me help you.”
“Nope, I’m good,” I said with unearned confidence. “I now live next to Fanno Creek Trail and this is what I need.”
“You want to ride it on our indoor track?”
“Nope,” I said, horrified that someone would watch this old man get on a bike for the first time in over a decade.
“Well, let’s at least size it for you.”
“And a helmet. And one of those water bottle things. A bell. I need one of those bell things. How many bell options? Good lord. No, let’s keep it simple. Can I take it all now?”
“Easiest sale you have ever made I bet.”
“Different,” she responded.
I’m bizarrely stubborn, a trait for good or not. It’s important to know that as you read this next part. In the last few years, I have gained a couple of vestibular syndromes. Vertigo. Seems one inner ear doesn’t always sync with the other one. That means my world can get a little off. Turn my head quickly and it’s like my eyes are trying to catch up with what they are seeing. At its worst, I can’t drive. Doing hours and hours of PT and regular home exercises has taught my brain to mostly ignore the unsteady world when this new unbalanced feature kicks in. A rational soul might say I wasn’t the perfect candidate to take up bike riding. But a trail. But taverns. But new toys!!!
Our house has a steep driveway, so I pushed my new bike out to the sidewalk. I told (warned?) Sally that I was going for my first bike ride. She was almost gleeful. Was that the same reaction my folks had the first time I stayed up on a two-wheeler? Phone in my pocket, just in case. Helmet uncomfortably pulled down tight. I straddled my bike and pushed off. OH SHIT! While you don’t forget how to ride a bike, that doesn’t mean you are immediately good at it. Turns out, our street cascades down to the creek. Okay, not cascade so much as it leans. I gained speed too fast for my muddled reaction times. Hell, I didn’t know which brake worked the front or back. I kept looking down to figure it out. And the height. Good god, I am up in the air. Which gear? How many of those do I have anyhow? Where are those brakes? Damn it! Slow down! Cars? Are there cars at the intersection? I don’t think I can turn around and look back without crashing! Panicked, I pulled to the curb and stopped. Well, kind of stopped. Maybe bounced off the curb and dragged my feet. But I didn’t fall over, which I counted as an achievement. Assuming a nonchalant pose I had seen a thousand times, I reached down and pulled out my water bottle, took a swig, and looked around disinterestedly. I had ridden one block.
Braking constantly, I eased myself down to the trail. Ducks. I see ducks. Don’t look at the damn ducks!! I hadn’t counted on the fact that the paved trail would be so narrow. Okay, it isn’t narrow, but now I was horrified that some other biker would come at me from the opposite direction. The first time it happened, I almost rode off the trail as my arms locked like rusty steel pistons. I rode to the first trail exit and exhaled in relief; fiddling with the mystifying gears as I made it up the precipitous rise to my house. Right, maybe a gentle rise. Huffing and flush with victory, I walked into the house and loudly announced I was back. “Okay honey,” was all that Sally said, clearly not appreciating the magnitude of my victory over time and balance.
By my third ride, I had expanded my orbit. But nothing felt natural about riding the bike. I still glanced down at the brakes as I applied them and tried little memory tools to remind me how and when to shift up or down. For reasons that escape me, instead of looking around, I watched my front wheel. It was as if I was an enormous antibody attempting to isolate and kill the toxic invader between my legs. I came to a blind corner and thought about ringing my bell. I mean, I had a yet unloved bell. I looked down at the bell, then back up. At the apex of the corner, in the middle of the trail, was a small Latino man, his bike and bundles. He was tinkering with something. Have you ever watched your brain work? My noggin was saying: Brake? Front or back. Both? Go right and try to sneak by him? Bell? What? Hit him? Left. Go left and you will be fine. I did none of those things. Braking far too late, I went straight across the trail toward Fanno Creek plunged into an Alder tree. Face first.
Suddenly, there was no motion, just confusion and some pain. I looked down to see my front tire hit the trunk dead on. Well, at least I didn’t ride into the creek. My helmet was askew, glasses hanging from one ear. My body seemed fine, well, except for one knee caught in the briar. My face hurt as I scratched it in several directions. I yanked the bike back onto the trail. The small man, eyes red with some sort of substance abuse, stood next to me, almost face to face. In any other circumstance too close, but now vaguely comforting. He said nothing as he pulled bits of twigs and leaves off my face, brushing them away with the side of his hand. I recall he did so in the most delicate way. He stepped back, and I put the bike on its stand on the other side of the trail. It looked to be all in one piece. I thought to summon the little Spanish I know, but no phrase I knew would have been meaningful. I think we simple exchanged “Okay” back and forth a few times. Then he was on his way.
Still shaking, I rode home. In the bathroom mirror, I saw I had some scratches deep into my beard and a bump on my face next to my left ear. I said out loud, “Are you fucking kidding me? The third time. Are you fucking kidding me?” Uncapping the hydrogen peroxide, I asked myself if I really needed to be a bike guy. What in the world was I thinking? But here’s where being stubborn is a good thing. I know all about trauma. On the ride home, I felt familiar sensations erupting in my body. Icky levels of adrenaline. A certain recoiling away from harm. I had trouble sleeping as I replayed the feeling of helplessness as I lost control of the bike over and over. Slow motion self-torture. But the next day, with Sally at work, I said to myself, “No goddamnit. Not this time.”
I was determined to do the same ride. Back to the scene of my crash, before the blind corner, I stopped, parked the bike, and walked the trail. I ducked as a branch was hanging out over the trail at the bend. What? On my bike, that branch would have hit me in the face. Somehow, I had edited that detail out of my replays. I had to be ducking that branch as I rounded the corner. No wonder I had so little time to react. I walked to the place where the little man had parked and looked back. My god, even as slow as I ride, there was no way I could have avoided what happened. I shook a little, fighting back tears, took a few deep breaths and got back on my bike to finish the ride that had ended so abruptly the day before. Not this time trauma, not this time.
A week after the crash, my face had almost healed, except for that bump near my ear. One evening, I scratched the itchy bump and felt something hard. I looked at my finger there was a part of an Alder twig that had worked its way out my head. Bike rider and part tree. Perfect. I took rides the rest of the summer. On vacant streets, I practiced swerved around leaves on the ground reminding myself what the little boy me did naturally. The brakes and gears came more naturally. Still wary, I took the trails slowly. No need for this old dude to be in a hurry. But here’s the funny part. From August on, Fanno Creek Trail was closed north and south of our home by park and trail construction. I never made it to that tavern. Instead, I stopped to look for a Blue Heron who I saw now and again. I still clench a little when a bike or a walker comes toward me and let out a relief breath when I am by them. But I also share nods with the approaching strangers because that seems to be what bike riders do. My bike is tucked away for winter now. Come the spring, those taverns will still be there.