Today I rode my bike five thousand miles. And the front derailleur cable broke, just sort of stiffened and snapped, right at the shifter, and so the chain was stuck in the very easiest granny gear (and I ride a steadfast sort of steel-framed touring bike, which has a veritable rolodex of granny gears) and so slowly I traveled amongst the flaking victorians of NE Portland, and the flaking victorians of N Portland, and the freshly-painted Victorians of SE Portland with their neat herb gardens and red-rusted wind-chimes, and my wheels rolled forward in slow-motion while my legs pedaled manically in space, knees flying every which way, and if I forgot for just one moment and tried to shift into a higher gear my chain only ground against the lifeless derailleur with a horrible shrik-SQUEAK-shrik-SQUEAK which was embarrassing, and so I pedaled as fast as I could, and everything took seventeen hours instead of one.
Tomorrow I am going to get that fixed.
While I’m on the subject of granny gears, maybe I should tell you more about my bicycle. Her name is RoHo and she is my steadfast transportation, my pickup-truck, my Steel Horse. She was named by a friend of a friend who was visiting one warm Portland summer many years ago, and this friend of a friend (it’s easier, almost, to think of her as a distant cousin, which is how I’ve started to think of all the friends-of-friends who become my friend for a day or two, in summer, or I become theirs, and then they go back to some other place where they stay for some amount of time, and I never see them again, or at least not until I least expect it, except in pictures, or maybe on the internet, but always I know that they are out there somewhere, traversing the world, beating paths to the towns of other friends, who are also my friends, traipsing about with a loose bit of silk thread dangling from their back pocket to catch on a blackberry bramble and leave a trail two thousand miles long, through everyone’s backyards and under their beds and out their kitchen windows…) But anyway- this friend of a friend was visiting for a few weeks in the summertime in Portland and had gotten into the habit of naming bicycles, and I, having just acquired a new bicycle, took advantage of the rare opportunity to have my bicycle named. So she straddled my bike, rode it a few blocks, and named it RoHo, which is short for Roman Holiday. The name, I think, was inspired by the bike’s shining, tasteless new paint, which was a sort of creamy, rusty color, like root-beer with milk in it. I was horrified by my new bike’s gleaming, subtly glittering, new-looking paint, that shimmered like it had been dipped in cheap lipgloss, and so I painted the frame, as soon as possible, with a can of matte black spray-paint, without sanding, of course, so that the black paint only sort of stuck, and flaked off, in bits, over the course of weeks, on the parts that rubbed my ankle, and the part where I swung my leg over, and the part where I used my u-lock, until my bike was appropriately scuffed-looking, and unkempt, and its sturdy workhorse pickup-truck personality was at last allowed to shine through.
I originally got a touring bike because I wanted to bike to Alaska. Which is, of course, ridiculous. A friend and I were going to do it, together. So we got touring bikes in the fall. And in the spring she moved to Asheville and fell in love, which she had been wanting to do more than she had been wanting to bike to Alaska. And then I had some friends who flew to Alaska and biked BACK, and they said that it was nothing if not boring, and a little traumatic, and then they wouldn’t talk about it anymore.
So RoHo stayed home, and grew more lovely with age. And we would go on little trips, sometimes, when we got a bee in our bonnet- one winter in the piedmont of North Carolina we took off, just the two of us, to bike to a state park I’d seen on a map, Uwharrie, and when we got there it was nothing but clearcuts and scratchy clotted young forest and burned-out trailer homes with moldering, limp rebel flags. And I slept on a picnic table at an abandoned campground with RoHo standing guard and the moon like a gas lantern in the bare trees, and in the morning I’d gotten my period, so we biked the 14 miles to a town on the map that was, in the end, a row of strange, anachronistic shops, typewriter repair shops and shoemaker shops and alterations shops where women sat unsmiling amongst bolts of faded fabric and stared at me, alarmed, when I took off my helmet and asked them, did they know where the grocery store was? Of course they did. It was just across the street. And so I looked, and there it was. And it was that winter that was the last winter I ate gluten, the winter my cramps were so bad I couldn’t believe it, like I would die, but instead I just vomited on the coiled hose behind the shuttered church in that small southern town, I vomited on the bright green chickweed and the neatly coiled hose and then rolled on my back on the grass, clutching my stomach and moaning, while men in hardhats ate slices of pizza across the street, looked at me, got into pickup trucks, their lunch break over. Worst pain I ever felt in my life. Roho and I found the highway, slept in the woods alongside it, woke once in the night to see cows, tongues like gutted whitefish, breathing on us through the wire fence, and in the morning we hitch-hiked home. There is a thrash-punk band called Uwharria, named after the forest that once was, where owls used to be, and deer and other creatures. Uwharria plays deafening songs of loss, tragedy, noise. It seems appropriate.
RoHo has been with me through all my shifting transience, my unpredictable migratory urges, my soul-crushing seasonal wanderlust. She has dutifully been assembled and dismantled, packed and shipped and crowded, forgotten, rediscovered, brought triumphantly from the basement after a long month’s absence to roll me to the store like new in the warm gathering dusk of whatever sort of place I have found. She never ages, it seems, ever, or maybe that’s just what happens when you have a new bike, a real live New Bike, and even a New Bike you’ve had for five years is better than a long string of faceless goodwill bikes who carry the neglect and abandonment of their pasts like bed spells, like hexes, bikes whose wheels will never be true, whose bearings will always be full of sand, whose cranks will cry out like ghosts.
RoHo and I have never been in an accident. And I don’t think I’ll jinx myself just by saying that, and get hit by a car tomorrow, and come back in two weeks and write on this blog as a paraplegic, because I’ve been saying that very thing for years now, I’ve never been hit by a car, at first cautiously, under my breath, with knuckles on a wooden table-top, and then more openly, and lately I’ve been saying it all the time, whenever it comes to mind, and it never ceases to astound me, in this the most bicycle-friendly city in the country, where all of my friends ride bikes everywhere, and have for years, in every sort of whether, to their jobs and to the store and on adventures and everything, and I have never been in a serious bicycle accident, and almost all of them have. The closes thing that happened is I was stopped at a red light and a woman in a minivan behind me didn’t see me, stopped a minute to late, hit my back wheel and jammed the front of my seat into my tailbone. I had a bruise, but I was fine. And RoHo wasn’t hurt. Nearly everyone else I know has been blind-sided in the crosswalk, side-swiped in the turning lane, hit head-on at a four-way stop, went over a bad pothole and skinned their face off, broke all the tiny bones in their wrist. Although all of my friends (and friends of friends) have lived, a unusually large number of bicyclists are killed each year in portland, which corresponds to the unusually large number of people who commute on bike. It’s really the only dangerous thing I do, like driving is for most people.
Once, on a bike before RoHo, I was in an accident. It was a cheap goodwill bike, a twenty-dollar bike I’d switched the tags on and gotten for five. I was in New York City, in Manhattan, and I was doored. Doored by a sleek black cab with a sleep black door, a door which shot out into the bike lane and sheered my bike out from under me, I flew up and over the door, landing on my side in the street, my green tennis skirt up around my face, shimmery gold legging scuffed on the concrete. The man in the taxi was concerned, leaned over me and shook me by the shoulder, but I couldn’t speak, the wind had been knocked out of me. At last I got up, got his contact info, and limped home. I was staying in a dusty squat with some friends and strangers, I didn’t have any money for to the doctor. My ribs were cracked, I think, and hurt for months, when I laid on my side, when I bent over, when I breathed, but I just waited and eventually they healed. I didn’t know then that you could get money from people, that you were supposed to make them pay your medical bills when they hit you in their cars.
I left that bike in New York, came back to Portland and after a few months alone, bikeless, riding friends’ borrowed bikes, strange and oddly-shaped bikes that had been fashioned from elbow grease and the parts found in bikeshop dumpsters, I got RoHo. And suddenly it was like I had a Cadillac, a trusty steed, and a pickup truck, all rolled into one. RoHo never injured me. No matter how often I rode, no matter how far, no matter how tall the hills- my knees never went out like my friends’ did, my shoulders never cramped up at the base of my neck. My lower back never pained me, I never lost the sensation in my wrists. And on RoHo, I could carry anything- big boxes of wilted produce, dumpstered in the cold dead of night, my breath a frosted mist around my face- I kept an old bike tube wound around my rear rack for just such occasions, and with it I could strap down anything- could stack the most ridiculous loads, could balance them safely home like an ant with its giant crumb of sand, a bird with some grass for its nest.
And as I write this, it’s late, and the night outside my window is cold, almost frosty, the false spring we had gone like a mirage, and I know that RoHo is there, waiting, against the stack of plywood up next to the garage, safe in her u-lock, and that she’ll be there for me, in the morning when I need her, no money required, no job, no future, no five-year plan, that she runs on nothing but my own willpower, my legs, while I have them, and my hunger for motion, which is endless.