Saturday, February 25, 2006
In late summer of last year, I pulled into a gas station here in town. Gas was pushing it's way towards $3.00, and I felt the same powerless anger that most Americans felt at the time... pain at the price, and helplessness while paying it. And I still feel that way at $2.35 today.
There were two college kids on bikes outside the store. They took turns going in, so one would always be with the bikes. They were outfitted for a trip, but their bikes were nothing special. Not road racers with front panniers or rear saddlebags, or anything like that.
At that time I was returning to my love of the bicycle. I grew up as what passes for poor in America, I guess, in that I didn't have a car until I bought my own. I detassled corn to buy my first ten-speed (a Huffy, thank you very much) that I rode into the ground. A year and countless lessons learned about cheap bikes later, I built my next one from a frame I was given and put decent parts on. That thing I rode everywhere, and it never failed me. I have great fond memories of cleaning and sanding that old frame, hanging it in the garage and coating it with about five layers of Krylon High-Gloss black spray paint, then hand trimming the brazing in gold.
Seeing those guys -- college men, they turned out to be -- standing there, ready to ride off in whatever direction they chose, go where they chose, get there when they chose, I was transported back in time. I was eighteen again. I had to talk to them.
I approached the one guy who was with the bikes as the other walked out.
"You guys look like you're in it for the long haul," I said. "Where'd you take off from today?"
"We started in Champaign this afternoon," one said. "We go to the U of I."
"Do you know where you're headed?" I asked.
"Washington," said one.
"D.C.," said the other.
At that moment, a light breeze would have knocked me over.
A couple of years prior to this meeting, I ran into a group at a different gas station that was taking one of the many 'planned' cross country bike rides. You sign on with a company, they provide the route, the food, a place to stay, and a support van along the way. I thought at the time about how conveinent it all was. Where was the adventure? Where was the risk?
Now here were these guys, heading out over the 690 miles from the flat cornfields of Illinois to the nation's capitol with a couple of maps, water bottles, probably credit cards that were nearly maxed, and some prayers.
"Let me go get my bike," I said. "I can be ready in fifteen minutes."
My wife came out of the store right then. It's a timing thing that married women have. She looked at me. I looked at her.
"You guys are living my dream," I said. I gave them my card. "Let me know how it goes. Call me if you need something I can help you with."
I walked back to the car. Got in. Started it up. Went home, pulled the bike down off of the pegs in the garage, made sure the tires had enough air, and took off for a while. My wife, who loves me anyway, didn't say anything when I got back.
I never heard from them. I plotted some routes from Danville to DC, and I watched the weather. They certainly got wet. And cold. And I know it was all worth it.
Go read "The Memory of Running" by Ron McLarty if this appeals to you. More on bicycling, and my love for it, here in the future.