FEBRUARY 2008 – NO. 21
The old man and the bicycle.
I lean my bicycle against the wooden fence at the Redwood Forest visitor center and an elderly man with a white ship captain's hat shuffles toward me with a woman who appears to be his wife by his side. I can tell they are about to engage me in the typical touring pleasantries, "Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Wow!" With my tent, sleeping bag and drying clothes packed onto the back of my bike, I ride a portable house in which I've left the blinds open and the door ajar, an invitation to enter.
The man seems more interested in my bike than in my journey. "A triple chain ring," he says, impressed. "And nine in the back." He concentrates and does the math. "Twenty-seven gears, I remember when my ten-speed was a big deal. And the derailleur, it's so small." He bends down to inspect the component.
"That's a hefty chain," he says. I'm not sure how to respond, so I just nod while he continues. "When I bought my bike, I had to swap the chain out for a better one."
He prods the seat and signals his approval. He flips the clipless pedals and feels the rust developing from the weeks of Pacific Northwest rain. Next he moves to the handlebars. "Look at the location of the shifters. How convenient. It's about time they did that."
"Sometimes it takes people a long time to arrive at the obvious," I say. But I don't think he is interested in that nor in anything I might say. The man is too enamored with my bike. He places his wrinkled hands in position two on the handlebars and caresses the shifters before lightly triggering the brakes.
"He can't ride anymore. The arthritis is too painful," his wife explains.
He asks to touch my hands. I find this a bit creepy, but surrounded by ancient redwoods, obliging is the least I can do to respect my elders. I offer him my gloveless hands, palms up as if he were a fortune teller. He fingers the calluses on my heels. "You're building up a nice pad," he says and turns back to the bike.
"May I?" he asks. At this point he has free rein to do anything. He picks up my bike to estimate for weight.
"Be careful," I say, concerned he might hurt his back like I did when I flipped it hastily to change a flat tire.
"Don't worry about me," he chuckles.
"One time he rode 80 miles," his wife beams. "But that was a long time ago." She smiles wistfully, her eyes glistening with the recollection.
The man places his hands on the straight section of the bars and focuses his eyes ahead as if he is actually on a road. He directs himself to "drop," saying the word aloud before placing his hands on the lowered section of the bars. Then he moves his hands to the starting position again, completing the interchange a few more times while talking himself through the motions. He stays there for a few seconds, his eyes unwavering.
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