Ten years ago my car died in the Arizona desert. It was a fateful day for more reasons than I could imagine. I was a student at a California State University dabbling in all sorts of topics and departments–well, floundering may be the better adjective–and in youthful spirit trying to find my place in the world. My classes offered no substance, no hook and line, nothing that connected the class material to the unexplored world around me. Having been raised in a highly creative and alternative early education program I was yearning for something I could feel, understand, and connect to–the meat and potatoes if you will. I decided to take a road trip to Prescott College in Arizona thinking that perhaps a change in environment was in order. And then, in 98 degree heat on a detour to some hokey tourist cavern attraction my volvo came to a fizzling, popping, dying halt.
Nothing lives in a vacuum. Circumstances line up and out of seemingly unhinged events sometimes there is an ‘aha’ moment. A suspended second, or day, or breath where things line up. Car breaks: the War on Terror is declared: kid in bike shop is of no help: barely pass chemistry: introduced to the Campus Center for Alternative Technology. Young minds are impressionable. My interpretation of the circumstances: fix bike myself, drop out of school, go traveling, and dedicate myself to the anti-war effort.
I had some work to do in order to achieve my new goals. Dropping out of school wasn’t quite as easy as I had thought. There was still my German mother to convince, and I had seldom held a wrench in my hand. In learning basic bicycle mechanics and slowly becoming obsessed with my (far too small) Bianchi, the machine gained mechanical meaning as well as the personal social and environmental symbolism which persists today. For one, women don’t really work on their bikes. That’s what I learned. No, really. I wish it a falsity, but the terrible truth is that most cyclists and especially female cyclists relegate mechanical tuning and upkeep to professionals most of whom are men. So it felt sassy and courageous to take up bicycle mechanics, my sly punch-in-the-face of patriarchy.
I learned to ride my bike to school and to the grocery store. Cars are a hard habit to crack, but it didn’t take too long or too many uncomfortable adjustments to my lifestyle to gracefully manage daily undertakings by bike. It was very easy to draw connections between my love for sustainable agriculture (I was certain to be a farmer then), and alternative transportation: food miles, oil use, synthetic nitrogen, community supported agriculture, local food sheds, eating seasonally. Within the puzzling solution to great questions of consumerism, subsidies, fuel use, and agribusiness, bicycles just seemed to match.
It’s ironic that now I make bicycle panniers. The first tour I took was down the California coast with milk crates wired on to the sides of my bike rack. Aerodynamic, NO. Resourceful, YES. I had smoked half a pack of cigarettes a day for 5 years and my lungs were in haggard shape. I remember the day on that bike tour that I realized my legs and lungs were strengthening. One brutal hill after the other forced my body to begin mending. It felt terrible!
Our bike tour ended in San Francisco and our group was joyously swallowed by Critical Mass. In the months following the declaration of war in Iraq, thousands of cyclists with the same passion for promoting peace through bicycles took to the streets making Critical Mass a monthly anti-war procession. I remember watching the ribbon of bikes extend miles down Market Street. I had been born and raised in San Francisco and was to rediscover my home city at the age of 20. What had previously been a city sensed mostly by Muni and walking now became a metropolitan experience enhanced by cycling. Perhaps you can help me identify what changes when one moves through a city by bicycle–perhaps one’s heightened sense of awareness as you contend with drivers, and busses, sirens, and hookers, help magnify sensations. I find myself attuned to sound color and smell in significant ways. Maybe the simple act of moving my body and pushing my physical boundaries is what heightens my senses. In any case, my bicycle proved a provocative tour guide in a city I claimed to understand as my nature and nurture.
For the past ten years I have wittingly and unwittingly forged my identity around bicycles. While my paths have changed and my routes carry me less to punk shows at 2 a.m. and more often to my precious studio at responsible hours of the morning, and while I curse with more dignified selectiveness at drivers that piss me off than in my younger days–I still find endless joy in my bicycle, and a solid and perplexing commitment to the symbolism which welded me to the simple machine at the beginning of our relationship. I wonder at the long-standing relationship I’ve had with cycling. I never would have guessed. Never would have thought that I’d be riding a 16 mile commute to work because it inspires me, couldn’t have imagined I’d meet my quirky husband fixing bikes, didn’t have the slightest notion that I’d spend this many hours training my skittish dog to get into a bike trailer, hadn’t a clue that my dream would be to run a pannier company.
If I’m lucky, I’ll one day write my autobiography from the perspective of my bicycles.