The Importance of Pedals and Wheels

I LEARNED to ride a cobalt blue, one-speed Schwinn on a humid summer day in the late '50s. The still air had encouraged even the bees to flee to shady bushes. My mother sat on the front porch talking to her sister, occasionally waving the morning paper like a fan, as if redistributing the air might make it cooler.

I was seven years old. Most of my friends had been on two wheels for a long time, a fact my 10-year-old cousin pointed out to me. "You're never going to ride that thing," he said, and not so gently kicked the back tire.

I stared straight ahead through the thick air. I pushed off against the concrete with such force that the bike, seemingly unused to such assertiveness, wobbled only slightly and then made a steady course to the corner. I looked back only to wave to my mother, glancing over my cousin's head as though he weren't there.

The rest of that afternoon, I rode up and down Klickitat Street, waving at the neighbors. By the end of the day, I'd mastered the concrete ramps at the playground, making sure to avoid the janitor, who I knew would warn me about cracking up.

The bike became an extra limb as important, and sometimes more important, than my leg or arm. I learned to ride with no hands, with one hand and with my feet piled on top of each other on the shiny blue frame. My best friend, Roger, used to show up on Saturday mornings, and we'd ride until we were so intoxicated by the sensation of flight that we forgot about getting home and getting in trouble if we were late.

I continued to ride, graduating from the shiny blue one-speed to a silver five-speed with a leather seat and a loud horn. Then came the white 10-speed that I carried over my shoulder up to the apartment I rented at the university in downtown Portland. I stored it outside my window on the fire escape where winter wrens hopped around the tires to get the food I left in feeders. I learned to ride brashly through downtown traffic with the confidence that comes with being 20 and invincible.

I carried both my children on bikes until they were too heavy and too unwilling to climb into the hard plastic seat on the back of the bike. Their fine blonde hair blew out the sides of their helmets like bird feathers.

AT times, I had to coax my daughter into the seat by letting her take several stuffed bears along for a ride. I'd sing at least 40 verses of "Down on Grandpa's Farm" to get her eight miles down the road and back. The return trip took a little longer, because she usually fell asleep, and every mile or so a stuffed bear would slip from her hug onto the road.

My children are older now. My son is saving for his first new mountain bike. My daughter is just ready to have someone tell her she'll never ride without those "trainers."

We spent much of this summer on the East Coast. I thought I could make it seven weeks without a bike. "I can run," I said to myself.

But after two weeks, I was watching bikers head down the mountain we were on with such envy that I thought I might do something like sneak a bike out after dark - one that wasn't mine.

My uncle loaned me an old Schwinn he had hung in his garage. "It's only a 10-speed," he said, "but it's taken me all over New Hampshire."

The bike was the color of celery when it's just picked. It had a generator that, when engaged, powered a light for dusky nights. The seat had a sheepskin cover and the rearview mirror, though a bit loose, could be held in such a way as to warn the rider of approaching trucks and cars.

I met a bicyclist who knew as much about bikes as he did about the Vermont roads that wind their way past fields full of day lilies and cows. He kept the bike alive for me, the way a doctor might tend to an elderly patient.

My children and I play a game when we travel and sometimes at home. It's the kind of contest, though, that deepens away from the familiar, when you're not distracted by work and chores that fill a life slowly like drops in a bucket.

"What means the most to you, Mom," my daughter says, "I mean after me and Dylan, of course?"

"Yeah, Mom," says my son, "what can't you live without, after us?"

I think of the miles I've biked. I think of days when I rode 20, 30, sometimes 40 miles just so I could fall into bed and sleep more than a fitful hour or two.

I think of how this summer it wouldn't have matter if the bike had been only one speed. It would have sailed me down that mountain as though I were a heron taking flight.

"Do I have to give up the garden?" I ask them.

"One thing, Mom," says Dylan. My daughter is more lenient and will usually let me keep my flowers.

"Well, then," I tell them, "it's the bike for sure."

Nothing is fixed on a bike. I can take words or problems and shift them around on an imaginary line. I can move solutions into place as though they were pieces on a gameboard. Things aren't as permanent as they are on paper. I can shout, sing, or weep, and no one hears me except the squirrels who hurry out of my way.

"After us, of course," says Hallie.

"After you."

"Mom," she says, "you can go ahead and keep the flowers, too."

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