Some Time In Portland

Shelagh and I are just back from a quick trip to Portland where we were blown away by, take your pick, the bicycles, the transit system, the proud people, the beer, the coffee-houses, the nighttime rain, the bridges, the avocados, beer at Velo Cult, the Sprocket Podcast guys, Pok Pok, the kind bus drivers. 

Here's a lookback. 

We went to Portland to watch films at the Filmed By Bike festival at the Clinton Street Theater. And I had a chance to get up on stage and tell my own bicycle story. Here, along with actual period photos, it is.

My first bicycle was a green, CCM Mustang. It was the 1970s, so that bike had everything you needed to turn the heads of the ladies. In second grade.

It had a banana seat. Those high-rise handlebars. It had what we called in those days a sissy bar on the back. We would attach baseball cards with clothespins to the back of the frame so the spokes would deliver that motorized sound as we pedalled forward. Chasing speed.

And, for me, good thing, because that green Mustang had a secret. It had a two-speed back hub. Picture this: racing down the lane after school, neck and neck with my buddies on their bikes, and all I have to do to pull ahead is quickly, elegantly pedal backwards and find that next gear. And that green Mustang is gone.

It was the first time in my life I felt I was actually onto something big. Gears and joy, you know? But what could I say? I was seven years old. And how could I imagine that one day I would forget how and why to ride a bicycle?

Fast forward. All that forgetting, happily, was still a few years down the road as on a postcard of a day in August 1985 on my grey Miyata I pedalled out of Banff, Alberta, on a tour through the Canadian Rockies to the town of Jasper. I was cycling with two dear friends. So dear that they got married at the end of the ride. They called me best man. I called me third wheel.

J+M heading out of Banff, August 1985

Rolling out of Banff, you are on the TransCanada Highway, the #1. Above the highway, there's cloven-hoofed traffic. Rocky Mountain sheep. They move like sixteenth notes along the ledges.

Sixteenth notes

On the highway, the lead-footed animals. You may recognize the species. Some of you may be descended from them. They sit among us. They originate in prehistoric-sounding places like Arizona and Texas and Florida and Alberta. They drive big motorhomes with names like The Flying Cloud. They call them recreational vehicles. And they are making time. They are always talking about the time they are making.

All vehicles great and small rolling westward out of Banff have a choice to make. Stay on that main highway in its caravan of internal combustion. Or turn off. Take the Bow Valley Parkway. It's also known as Highway 1-A. No, not 1, eh? like you might think Canadians might name a secondary highway, but 1-A!  The issue? At 70 miles an hour you might miss the fact that the choice of roads is still yours to make.

On our bikes, though, moving at our speed, that big sign, Bow Valley Parkway, Exit, Right, just loomed there like, well, the big sign that a lot of us may be looking for. We turned off. To get away from those recreational vehicles. They are scary to cycle next to, especially on the tight corners. After one particular close call near Mosquito Creek, I was so rattled that I needed medical attention.

I found a doctor.

He told me I had stage 3, clinical motorhomeophobia.

Good to know, doc.

Camp between Banff and Jasper
At least, I think he was a doctor. He had a nice tent down by the creek. He rode a Peugeot. He had a beard. To this day, I believe he was a French-Canadian doctor.

Around the campfire, he found the words to describe the difference between those two kinds of roads, those two ways of going. On the non-stop, make-time highway, in a car or truck or RV, you are, essentially, just sitting there. Sealed in. In-car-cerated, if you will.

All that's needed for you to go a lot faster is a mere thought, and a merer twitch of the toe on the gas pedal. The thought occurred to us that those same cyborgs behind the wheel were themselves the mere thoughts of others, put in motion by the campaigns of the marketing minds.

On the other highway, it was quiet. You could smell the air. And the pine trees seemed to guard the
Bow Valley Parkway 
secret of the place, and the secret of the place had to do with how to move through the place. Changing gears to keep our cadence was a thrill.

I felt put in my place. We all know it's not so much fun when the putting in your place is done to us by another human being, but when it's nature, encountered from a saddle, that's a different matter. As the doctor said to us: "Your choice? Consume, or be consumed. Eh?"

I am kinder now to those motorhome consumers, not because I own one, I don't. But because I know that in life you can have a map and a destination, you can be on your way, and be happy, and still be kinda lost because you don't know or have forgotten that there are other roads and speeds and gears.

Life has a way of doing that to you, if you let it. I let it. There was one more tour with the three of us and then the third wheel wobbled away. I met the love of my life. We now have two beautiful, grown sons who, as boys, did it all. They played hockey. And baseball, for a week. Football for a couple of weeks until the real hits and the swelling started. Who were certain about music lessons, until they weren't. Who learned to ride bikes and fall off bikes and take those bikes camping with their grandparents to the Rockies—in their motorhome. And that was great.

It's just that in those days I didn't ride much. And then not at all. Picture this: that Miyata 1000? It's hanging from the wall in the garage until one manic, cleanup day arrives and I actually throw it out. Making space, I told my wife.

What I really threw out was a reminder that being on a bike added to who I was. On my bike, I always felt I saw things better. On my bike I feel apart from and a part of. Both lessons from that old highway.

Eventually or soon enough, depending on your take on time, my bicycle-less life ran out of momentum. I managed to get a new job. Got off my version of the TransCanada, which, in those days was working in a non-stop television newsroom.

I still remember the first day at the new office, pointing my car down the ramp on the way to my numbered parking stall when, on the wall, I saw a sign. For bicycle parking. Later that week, I bought a Rockhopper and since then have faithfully, as an all-seasons bicycle commuter, again taken the road less pedalled.

My bike isn't Mustang green. It's red, with some white. But I still turn a few heads riding in through rain and snow and wind and dark. And snow. And some snow.

I can't help thinking that the answer to those puzzled looks, the whole lesson of what you might call my prodigal bike story was contained in that precious green Mustang. And in what it taught a seven year old, who became a 47 year old (and counting) and that is simply this:

That to move forward, with some style, sometimes you have do what only looks to a chunk of the rest of the world to be pedalling backwards. But, really, is just finding another gear.

To make better time.

Me and that Miyata (and those socks!!)


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