Indoor shot, taken through the spokes and rear triangle of a bicycle. About 10' away a dog rests placidly on a rug in front of shelf with LP records

Four decades of bikes wearing grooves

Published 2022-03-21

Ten years ago today I started doing this regular thing where I ride my bike over a particular hill. I had just turned 40. We were living in a rental house in the woods. I had one more living ancestor than I have today, and one fewer living descendent. But that third descendent was imminent and at the time I was our family’s sole breadwinner. I worried about money. I turned my tiny side gig into my nearly-as-big-as-my-main gig and that’s when I really started working six- and seven-day weeks. We had a big healthy lovable black mutt, but not the big healthy lovable black mutt dog who lives with us now. In significant ways my life was not much different then from my life today: a computer geek dad working for nonprofits who rode his bike a lot. In the last ten years I’ve been digging deeper in the same groove. Computers, bikes, kids, dogs.

Ten years before that my future ex-wife told me she was definitely, completely done with us. I had just turned 30. We were living in a rental house in Southeast Portland. I was newly unemployed and we had just learned our loveable black mutt had a mysterious chronic disease that we hoped was incurable, because we couldn’t even pay for the diagnoses let alone the treatments. In some ways I was still sketching out the lines of my life. My computer career was only three years old & kind of tenuous; in most of the previous decade I had practiced archaeology. The dog was the first dog I ever lived with & I didn’t know how to talk to dogs yet. The only kids in my life were my future ex-nieces & nephew & I didn’t know how to talk to them either. Bikes were starting to become an obsession, and it is clear in retrospect: bike guy was the groove that I would wear deepest, and which would pull me into all the other grooves.

When my ex and I finally split twenty years ago right now, on an impulse I moved into a cheap studio in Northwest Portland with my bike and dog, where about a month later I first met Jenny. We were neighbors.One day not long after I moved in she saw me hauling my bike — a Bianchi Volpe, my first cyclocross/touring/all-purpose bike, which I had only owned for one year that point — she saw me hauling it up the stairs and she asked “do you know any good bike rides around here?” Like a chump I gave some lame answer, “oh yeah maybe some rides up in the hills.” She and I would see each other in the hall frequently, especially when I would take my dog — by then in a wheelchair — out for walks. (It was nearly a year later that I realized, whoa my foxy neighbor was hitting on me.)

Then in April 2002, I did this One Big Thing, where I rode my bike down the Oregon Coast. It was transformational; I could feel myself transformed as I rode. I had a lot of time to think. I realized that in my 20s I had been a shitty kind of man, and I came to realize what kind of man I needed to be. During my Summer of Unemployment I discovered that my very most favorite thing was to ride my bike 40 miles into the hills and get kind of but not totally lost. Where did that come from?

But ten years before that I was a junior in college. I had just turned 20. I was an RA in the dorms at the University of Nebraska. The grooves of my life were totally different from now, and shallower. I never rode my bike: a Schwinn Varsity I had bought with my paper route money in Junior High School. I worried a lot about my hair. I had just bought my first computer — a Macintosh LC — but probably didn’t even know the word “Internet,” except maybe from William Gibson novels. My pets were fish, not dogs. My Majors were technically English and German but I had already failed out of German and was kind of sick of pretending to care about literature. I never actually read the books anyway; I had discovered a trick of reading one or two academic papers about the book, and then scraping that for term paper content. I was so lazy about filling my schedule with classes that fulfilled my Majors, I was easily two years away from graduation.

In Spring 1992 — so thirty years ago from now — I took an Archaeology course from Dr. Peter Bleed, my onetime neighbor/newspaper route customer. He convinced me to enroll in his field school happening that summer — conveniently near to campus at the oldest house in Lincoln. I calculated that if I took the field school & then filled my senior year with nothing but Anthropology classes, I could graduate in 1993. I thought I liked Anthropology OK, but that was before I actually got my hands dirty. Field school hooked me. I (re)discovered that I think better outdoors than indoors. I didn’t skip the required readings in Anthropology, it was actually intrinsically interesting to me. And I don’t think it was entirely a coincidence (at least cosmically) that the same summer I bought a mountain bike. I loved that mountain bike. For the entireity of my 20s the cars of my life were cheap and unreliable, but the mountain bike was cheap and reliable. I wasn’t exactly a bike guy but I was definitely a guy with a bike.

Of course ten years before that I was a kid. When I try to cast my mind back to 1982 I have trouble putting my 50-year-old brain into a ten-year-old body. I either cast myself as my parents, or maybe cast my kids in my body. After forty years these are no longer memories so much as memories of memories. Did my brain have grooves? Were they the shallowest versions of the grooves I have now? Were there other grooves that, because I never wore into them, have been completely erased? For example, I am profoundly musically untalented. But if I had pushed myself or been pushed into practicing piano, would I that be a groove of my life now?

My family lived on a gravel road at the edge of an exurb outside a small town in western Nebraska. Feel free to inject your own romantic notions of rural childhood: tree forts and BB guns and so forth. The family pets were cats, nearly feral. I was terrified of dogs — there was no leash law in our neighborhood and the dogs, big country mutts, ran riot. A dog bit my ass once. Of course I rode my bike, all kids rode bikes. Haven’t you seen E.T? “Bikes” was how kids went anywhere in 1982. My favorite thing was to ride my bike out onto the dirt roads around our house, especially irrigation canal roads. To get kind of but not totally lost.

That summer my family moved to the Big City (Lincoln). It was an urbanish neighborhood which suited me. Suddenly all kinds of interesting things were within a half hour bike ride from my house. College campuses, grocery stores, swimming pools, malls, arcades. For all that I had a rural childhood I was always secretly a City Mouse. Bike people know this secret: that bikes are the best possible way to get around a city. Yes even sprawly car-centric American cities.

Still, every so often I would get a very specific kind of itch. It took me 20+ years to define it: wearing grooves in a gravel road.