I can’t remember where I found the bike. It was likely abandoned somewhere down the street, in the dingy green of the tumbleweeds. (Well, actually, Russian Thistle. That’s what a tumbleweed is before it dries up, breaks loose, and tumbles away.) Years later, we got a new couch and chair that way; they were all wrapped in plastic and just lying there, like dead elephants, only a little dirty and damaged. People dropped things all of the time passing through–on accident or on purpose–and they never came back. That’s how I got my only Cabbage Patch doll, whose head smelled like chocolate no matter how many times I washed her. And that is likely how I got my bike. The bike had a chipped blue body and a yellow seat. It was a men’s bike, which only slightly diminished my confidence that I could learn how to ride it. I was five and the bar down the center would be difficult to negotiate, especially given the fact that the bike had no brakes. I was convinced I could learn regardless. I begged my stepmom and eventually she got weary of my whining. Together, we hauled the bike up to the top of a dirt hill. I threw one leg over the enormous body and pulled myself up. My feet didn’t reach the ground, and I wobbled unsteadily on the saddle as my petite but wiry stepmom struggled to hold both the handlebars and seat. My confidence waned as I stared down the long, suddenly very steep dirt hill. My stepmom commanded me to take a firmer grip on the handlebars before she let go, her one hand still holding only the seat. I began slipping forward, the handlebars jerking one way and then the other. I screamed. But it was too late. We were careening forward and my stepmom managed to keep me upright, running behind me, her hand still somehow affixed to the seat. There wasn’t any real way to stop it, so we just kept going until the bike slowed. My stepmom tipped the bike and helped me off and we walked it back up the hill. After a couple of times, she let go, and suddenly, I was riding a bike by myself. We had dirt and gravel roads on the property on which I lived, so it was bumpy and terrifying but exhilarating. After several minutes, I suddenly remembered the lack of brakes. The bar in the center prevented me from touching the ground, and my stepmom was no longer holding the seat. A bit panicked, I spotted a tree with a wide trunk and crashed into it. The bike shook violently, but I managed to tip it to the side by adjusting my weight, landing on one foot.
I rode that thing everywhere, and became adept at my method of “crash and stop.” Soon I graduated beyond our 1/2 acre property to one paved street near me, Roberts Road. There was only one thing about Roberts Road that mattered to me, and that was the steep hill on the east end of it. I would conquer that hill. I forced the oversized bike up the road, and when I finally reached the top, I turned my bike around and looked down. One side of the street was all rolling brown hills, barbed wire, and cows. The other was dense shrubs and unkempt trees, their branches stretching into the streets. Roberts Road, a narrow ribbon of white concrete, ran down the center of all of that. I was alone and it felt good. I had no helmet and no brakes, and if one of the occasional cars happened to come around a corner too fast, it would have been surprising if it didn’t hit me. These were things I didn’t consider. I climbed up onto my big blue bike, it edged forward, and soon I was flying, the wind rushing across my skin, until everything around me slowed and I tipped over and landed. I did it again and again and again.
I taught my son Ben to ride his bike a couple of years ago, and it was a very different experience than mine. I fully expected to hold onto his bike seat for about 20 minutes and then release him to ride confidently into the world. But Ben is smarter than I am; he is less reckless. I have flown head first over handle bars, crashed into ditches, spun out and scraped the side of my body against the asphalt, all without a helmet. I don’t think Ben will ever be dumb enough crash as many times as I have. When Ben and I drove his brand new bike to the flat, smooth blacktop of our local elementary school, he was not only wearing a helmet, he was also wearing knee and elbow pads. (And gloves, per his request.)
Ben eventually learned how to ride his bike, and I learned to be more patient. He is still so hesitant, so anxious about potential injuries. He has so many things I longed for as a kid, among them stability and a shiny new bike. We shield him with our love and worry and layers of gear. But he will never sit as I did, alone and very young, with no brakes and no helmet, at the top of a too-steep hill, looking down on what seemed like the world at that time, pushing off into thrilling uncertainty. We protect him from that, too.