bike stories

Adam and I waited in the rain for the bus this morning under a tall oak tree which provided scant shelter from the drizzle. Oak trees have always struck me as a tad out of place in Seattle though there are plenty all over, I suppose they’re one of the All-American trees and I have nothing to support my absurd notion. Perhaps I’m biased living above the Arboretum which spans hundreds of acres of special collections or because we’re surrounded by countless amazing gardens (our neighbor is an arborist and exceptional green-thumb) flanked by glossy evergreens and towering firs. Later in the morning I ran over a ton of crunchy acorns across the Broadway cycle-track on my way to the library to do some research. Two or three oak seedlings sprout in our front yard every spring, courtesy of neighborhood squirrels. That oak at the bottom of our hill goes straight to brown crunchy paper come mid-to-late September. But at any rate, while waiting for the bus I held Adam’s backpack against my chest under the umbrella to keep his schoolbooks dry but being that his new raincoat sheds water in enormous globules not unlike the hood of a freshly-waxed sports car, he decided it was good fun pulling down low branches so it would rain even harder on his head and I told him to cut it out because the umbrella was broken and I could feel my back getting wet. Our neighbor Man-at-Arms and his boys crept down the hill in their little brown van and stopped to put the window down and say hello, the twins waved from the dark back seat. Adam’s humongous bus finally arrived, it always looks misplaced on the little road at the bottom of our hill. It can barely make it around the traffic circle.

Earlier last week on the big bike I received a sobering refresher course on elementary physics, forced as I was to stop mid-block on East Thomas and as a result experiencing a bit of trouble getting regoing. Allow me to illustrate the problem in the form of an equation:

70 pound bike + 47 pound three year old + 235 pound man = Stopping Halfway up East Thomas is an Exceptionally Bad Idea

Practically all the cargo bikes I’ve observed around our part of town have little black box-encased Bosch electric motors. This week, the city announced its maybe-bikeshare fleet will eventually be converted so that it’s all-electric. Sheesh- a motor sure would’ve come in handy for my predicament. After a case of the wobbles I got a head of steam and narrowly averted a humiliating dismount but it was a bit scary and for a moment I felt like a dainty circus monkey trying to pull a red wagon full of watermelons. Thank the Lord for the courteous guardian angel driver behind me who held traffic back until I got going: He had plenty of room to whiz past but stalled on my behalf. Maybe just for laughs but who would know?

Oliver and I would never have been in this pickle except for a seafoam-hued shattered pile of windshield cubits in the curb cut-out, my magic portal to Capitol Hill denied by an act of brazen vandalism. Opting to avoid the pile of broken glass and use the street, my on-the-fly plan was foiled by a driver utilizing the curb lane in a maddeningly illegal fashion. All of this was very demoralizing, to say the least. Later in the afternoon on my way up to school to get Oliver, a hardman road-bike commuter typical of the Seattle sort puffed and labored uphill alongside me on a steeper hill on my route and burst out “Wow! No motor on that thing? That’s really awesome! Keep it up big guy!” I smiled and wheezed a feeble thanks which was counterproductive in that it completely disrupted my breathing rhythm thus interfering with the delivery of oxygenated blood to my legs. Any other day, I would’ve felt like a rad dude for the mad props (except for the big guy part) but not after the East Thomas mini-debacle.  And this was the third or fourth time someone has expressed surprise at the lack of a motor on my bike. I’m starting to have complicated reverse psychology issues but I digress.

A couple in-between days of cheating the laws of physics had me feeling marginally better. One morning, Oliver’s mom was prepared to drop him off at preschool because it was exceedingly foggy (I still don’t have lights for the cargo bike) but then the sun miraculously burned through during teeth-brushing and so after an initial delay resulting from mislocation of essential riding gear (Oliver’s moldy gardening gloves) we were pedaling past school buses, construction workers and coffee shops. After drop-off, I commenced the first bookstore-and-grocery shopping expedition (ice cream and bread loaf runs don’t count) with the big bike and headed north across the Lake Washington Ship Canal. I made an extremely poor choice bypassing the Burke Gilman trail for 15th Avenue East through the University District (a terrifically deceptive long uphill and lots of Metro buses) and detoured across a corner of the University of Washington, where I pretended I was a professor of political science or philosophy and that I was riding home for a quick lunch. My fantasy was interrupted by an obnoxious carload of college kids who tailgated me most of the way up 17th Avenue Northeast to Ravenna Boulevard and I wished I could return from lunch to my 1:30 lecture and find one of the brats sitting in the front row with a horrified look on their face but in reality I was far more worried about the billions of spiky green horse chestnut shells littering the road for three or four blocks. I would have rather taken my chances with shattered windshield cubits or a spilled box of thumbtacks, honest!

At Third Place Books in Ravenna I picked up the last Dragonbreath book for Adam to complete his collection. He’s moved up several floors in the reading world since he started the series by Ursula Vernon but they are just pretty danged funny and from time to time he’ll pull one of them down from the shelf just for laughs while he’s nursing a bowl of ice cream (our family has a nasty habit of reading while we eat, especially during dessert). Also for Adam, I picked up books two and three from The Fog Mound (which I just adore) and a very attractive, illustrated guide to some of the great cities of the world. I got Oliver a book about airplanes because he’s becoming less of a terror as a travel companion and I have a theory that informing him as much as possible about flight technology and the airline industry will serve to further dramatically enhance our enjoyment of him at 30,000 feet in the near future. Finally, for myself, I splurged on a hardcover of David B. Williams’ Too High and Too Steep.

After the bookstore, I ventured to the grocery down the road and in addition to the aforementioned books above, added the following to my load for the bike ride home: Two bunches of bananas, two pounds of strawberries, a half gallon of 1% milk, a half gallon of chocolate milk, two packages of colby jack cheese sticks, a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, five ounces of spinach, one loaf of oat bran bread, three frozen pizzas, one package of mini muffins, three bags of Pirates Booty (white cheddar cheese) and two containers of cottage cheese.

I self-consciously arranged groceries on the bike, trying in vain to ignore the lunchtime audience in front of the store- per capita, Seattle has more people than any other mid-sized U.S. city, who sit around during the day drinking coffee and staring off into space. The cargo bike is already quite the babe and nerd magnet, but you add an idiot trying to pack two grocery bags onto it like a game of Jenga and it’s a train wreck. Everyone was at first mostly minding their own business but I was rapidly becoming an object of interest, a real-life episode of Portlandia as I fumbled with various containers and bundles. I’m not the wittiest person around so I felt a little desperate for a self-deprecating (but not too-clever) come-back in case someone felt the justifiable need to point out my complete ineptitude because I had it coming. Halfway home, I winced at every jarring bump in the road: It was going to be nothing short of a miracle if my assorted beverages made it back to the house without leaking all over the place.

Earlier this week during lunchtime, Oliver and I rode the bike down to the Montlake branch of the library to return a couple overdue books. Two homeless guys waiting for the library to open were admiring our bike when we returned from a corner grocery and we chatted with them about the maneuverability of cargo bikes. One of the men told me I smelled nice and asked me if I was wearing patchouli, I wasn’t but my clothes were a few days old.  The library opened and we bid the fellows adieu after some more sunny day chatter. I pedaled slow and relaxed in first gear up the very long hill back to the house but halfway home I realized Oliver was falling asleep so I started frantically pointing out old-time cars and squirrels.

Two weekends ago might have been the prettiest, sunniest day of autumn so far. That’s where this image comes from. We took the boys for a long walk in the woods on Sunday. I might’ve preferred to go someplace alpine except all of us were feeling full from scrambled eggs and cheese so tromping along in the woods alongside the river fit the bill. We meandered for five miles, I would guess, and had the forest to ourselves. Among other pursuits, the boys explored a small cave where Oliver’s phobia of slugs was revisited. This scene features a sidepool by the Middle Fork Snoqualmie. It has been such an unusually warm, dry season in the Pacific Northwest that I let Adam cross the river by himself. He had to wear his grubby old shoes to school the next day but as far as he was concerned it was more than well worth it.

Postscript: I know I’m throwing some bad darts, here. This insufferable piece of whatever-you-want-to-call-it has been published because your guess is good as mine and if you feel like you just got done paddling up Shit Creek, join the club. Having completely distorted all sense of time and place, allow me to tack on a few more notes: A few days ago I pedaled north to a little bike shop in Greenwood (on a strangely humid afternoon that had me sweating like a real sonofableep) to learn I’d completely worn out the rear brake pads on the big bike after just one month. I rode back to the shop Saturday morning (in a ridiculous downpour) because the big bike developed further complications (you don’t wanna know and besides this postscript is already getting too complicated) and while I was in the shop a girl from West Seattle fainted and dramatically fell on her face right in front of me, indirectly leading to my late arrival to that afternoon’s presentation for David B. Williams’ new book at the Seattle Public Library where afterward my friend Valarie took me on a short tour of the tenth floor stacks where she conducts priceless historical research. Yesterday, we took the boys up to the Cascades to explore the dried-up beds and old growth stumps of Lake Kachess. I’m still anxious for a good trip into the alpine before everything gets brown and bony but yesterday we had the place utterly to ourselves and the boys had a fine hootenanny in the mud, so it felt just right.

19 thoughts on “bike stories

  1. You have such an interesting stream of consciousness style I really respond to. You’re one of the very few writers I know who gives the reader the true feeling of being a fly on the wall and getting to observe without disturbing the scene. (or in this case, a fly on your shoulder). I love it so much, Jason. It’s like getting to walk around inside a head way different from my own. Refreshing, welcome, and incredibly entertaining. It’s pretty cool when you verbalize (well ok technically you’re writing but you know what I mean) what most of us might feel in a similar situation. Case in point > “…and I wished I could return from lunch to my 1:30 lecture and find one of the brats sitting in the front row with a horrified look on their face…”

    I’m still giggling.:)

    And it’s awesome.

    • Hi Roni. Dang it, thanks for reading tonight! All I have to say is, you’re a glutton for punishment. But I appreciate your feedback a ton. The “stream of consciousness” is a mechanism I enjoy a lot as a way of writing honestly. I worry leaning too heavily on it could be allowing me to develop bad habits as a writer, especially since I’m not an English major. But then again, everything I write here has a picture of Jabba the Hutt above it so if ever there was license to take certain liberties……. I hope you’re having a good week.

      • “A mechanism I enjoy a lot as a way of writing”. There it is right there. The very reason it is so effective. And it’s probably why I enjoy it so much as a reader.;-) I’m having a great week and I hope you are too!

  2. You made me chuckle listing all the groceries and things you piled into the cargo bike. I’m habitually grabbing a basket at the market when I should use a cart with similar results. Yes, as Roni mentioned your posts are fun and interesting and it feel like a conversation with a friend. Love that you buy your kids so many books!

  3. Excellent post (err, what is a cargo bike?)…the photo is gorgeous too 🙂 I have just bought Mackenzie the 7 yr old his first ‘proper’ bike – brand new and with 6 gears – a mountain bike and we plan exploring the moors with it – I will have to dust off my old one and give it a shot of oil 🙂

    • Hi James. Thanks for still noticing the photo despite my unending, marathon blather. About cargo bikes- they go by different names but they’re basically freight bicycles for carrying big loads. Some have humongous baskets or carriers in the front (that hold everything from big boxes to children). I’m still waiting to share a picture of my bike because I’m training Adam to shoot with my camera while he’s a passenger, I want to see if we can get some funny pictures of little brother sitting in the very back. My bike has a long bench on the back with a protective metal bar around it for both the boys. I mainly transport little brother in it but lots of big kids go for rides on these things. They’re super-popular in places like Amsterdam and really catching on in bike-friendly cities in the United States.

      Hooray for MacKenzie and the brand new bike from grandpa!

      • Ahhh, so that’s what they are – now I know. I thought that is what they were – I was in Amsterdam recently on a business trip and nearly got run over by one 🙂

  4. Ha! How I would have liked to have been one of the gapers watching you load your bike with groceries. 🙂 Unfortunately, I am an unusual Pac Northwesterner in that I have a tendency NOT to sit around at all ours of the day sipping coffee and staring into space. Perhaps I need to give it a whirl…

  5. Except for the evidence of the post itself that you were safe home, I would have had my heart in my mouth while reading at least half of this narrative. Even down here in the burbs I will only ride my bike on established trails like the Chehalis-Western. And that trail has a few steep bridges that force me into the lowest gears and expending everything I’ve got. Well done for taking care of so many necessities of daily life by bike (am I the only one who calls them NDLs or is that a thing?) and taking advantage of the benign weather to do so. But continue being careful! Finally, I have to add that I also admire the beautiful photograph that accompanies this post. This really is my favorite time of year. The light and the color in that photo help explain why.

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