In his commencement address to the Dartmouth graduating class of 2011, Conan O'Brien quoted Nietzsche's famous statement that “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” And he added, perceptively, that “What people who quote that should remember to emphasize more often is that sometimes it damn near does kill you.”
Last spring, my pursuit of a nearly lifelong dream, after a year of intense concentrated work that seemed to be going perfectly, was brought to a sudden and devastating halt. It damn near killed me. Because I am a responsible adult, and genuinely grateful for the many blessings in my life, I kept on going, one day at a time. But inwardly I was walking wounded, haunted by the door that had closed on me, or at least – and perhaps more frustratingly -- nearly closed, wondering if it was worth one more effort, or if investing more time and energy was simply an exercise in futility. Not a day went by that I didn't second-guess myself, didn't cycle through circuitous, twisting inner paths fraught with bewilderment, anger, grief, and loss, only to arrive nowhere. It took about 75% of whatever energy I had just to get out of bed in the morning, which didn't leave a lot for anything else.
This went on for months, until one day last fall, when I walked through downtown Issaquah past the Bicycle Center where Kent works and happened to glance in the front window. I stopped, and thought, “Cool bike!” Comfortable looking, practical, appealing in a vintage sort of way with its faux wicker basket on the front, it made me smile. I had not smiled spontaneously for a very long time.
Over the next few weeks, I found myself walking by the window a lot, drawn to the bike in a way that I could not explain. I reminded myself that I have already have a bike which I actually like a lot, and I really don't ride all that often. I noted that the bike's $569 price tag was a significant challenge for someone with a part-time retail job. But I kept on walking by and looking in the window anyway. Walking to work in the early hours of the morning, I'd imagine myself moving on down the road ahead, riding the green bike with the basket up front.
In mid-November, with the approach of Christmas, the bike in the front window sported a festive big red bow. I stood in front of it like the kids in the movie A Christmas Story looking in the department store window at all the toys, and found myself whimsically thinking:
What I Want for Christmas
What I want for Christmas is a 15 inch Trek Allant, olive green with a step-through frame and a basket and fenders and a kickstand (and a thing that tells time) . . . I think everyone should have a really cool bike. I don't think a blender makes a very good Christmas present.
Of course, not being a kid, I knew that I would not be getting this bike for Christmas. Kent and I have always chosen to pay for things as we go and to use our one credit card only for genuine medical or family emergencies. Winter is the slow season at the bike shop and I love my husband way too much to ask or hint for presents that we can't afford. But I did some quick calculating, and figured that if I could save $10 a week for a year, I would be really close to being able to afford the bike. I skipped my after-work Starbucks stops that week and started the Bike Fund.
The Bike Fund, like any economic enterprise of late, had its ups and downs. I was able to boost it with extra hours in Safeway's floral department before Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, and with a check my mom sent for my birthday. There were setbacks when Kent woke up one morning with “searing pain in one of my fangs” which inaugurated a series of dental adventures, and the ever-popular April 15th found us owing a substantial sum of money to the federal government. (How this could possibly be so, for people on retail hourly income claiming zero withholding exemptions, is one of life's little mysteries). But I figured that what I had saved once, I could save again, and I persisted.
In March, we were invited by Kent's friend Tai Lee to ride the Amgen People's Coast Classic, a 300-mile ride along the Oregon Coast in support of the Arthritis Foundation. “We could be Team Turtle,” Kent explained. “We would go slow.”
“I can definitely go slow,” I told him. “I'm in.” Kent planned to do the ride on his Dahon Curve. I planned to do the ride on my new Trek Allant, a plan I did not share with my darling spouse, anticipating “You don't need a new bike” and “We don't have the money” responses, both of which were inarguably true.
I continued to build the Fund, working extra hours when I could. A spring sale event called “Trekfest” offered $50 off on the bike, but I wasn't quite close enough to my goal to take advantage of the deal. And I was quickly realizing that I was not the only woman to form an instant bond with the lovely green bike. Women's Allants were selling like hotcakes, Kent reported; they were rolling out the door as fast as he could get them in and build them up. I suspected sales were probably spurred on by some guy blathering on his blog about what a wonderful bike it is.
By the end of June, I had finally reached my goal. I would have the bike for the summer, in plenty of time to train for the ride in Oregon. The time had come to tell Kent about my purchase, since I would of course be buying the bike at the shop where he works. I was sitting at the table when he came home for lunch – and told me, conversationally, “We are completely out of Allants. We can't get them in.”
“Oh, no,” I said, dismayed. This was a development I had not anticipated. I had figured that if the bike was not in the shop, it could be ordered from Trek. But even though I frequently cut my high school economics class to sit in on journalism and write copy for the yearbook, I did absorb the basic concept of supply and demand. When the demand exceeds the supply, this is a good thing for the supplier -- until the supply runs out, which then becomes a problem for everybody.
“Why 'Oh, no'?” Kent wondered aloud. “Did you want an Allant?”
“I've been saving for one since last November,” I confessed. “I can't believe I finally have enough money, and the bikes are all gone. Will you be getting more in?”
They would, but he wasn't sure when. First it was going to be the first week in July, then the second week, then they really didn't know. But a conversation with the Trek rep revealed that there would be no more 2011 Allants. The next ones in would be the 2012 model, possibly in a different color, possibly with other changes.
“Maybe we can find one,” Kent said. “I could call around.”
“Why call,” I wondered, “when you can Google?”
I got on my computer and searched for Trek dealers in the Seattle area. Classic Cycle on Bainbridge Island has a great website, which advertised that they “carry all sizes of Allants all year around.” I called them and asked about the one I wanted. They had one. I put a deposit on it and said I would come in the next day.
I reported my find to Kent, who waxed enthusiastic about Classic Cycle and assured me that he did not mind me buying the bike at another shop. In fact, he was as excited as I was, and we made plans to leave early the next day for Bainbridge Island. The day started out overcast with light rain but began to clear up as we took the bus to Seattle and the ferry to the Island, and walked to Classic Cycle in downtown Winslow. Jaime, whom I had spoken with on the phone, greeted us and showed me the Allant. She was very knowledgeable, helpful and friendly as we chatted about the bike. I took it out for a test ride behind the store, verifying that yes, this is as much fun as I thought it would be. She showed me various options for carrying stuff on the bike, including the basket and a rear rack. I got the rack, but decided to wait on getting anything else for awhile. Kent came over and outed himself as a mechanic at a Trek shop in Issaquah, to which Jaime responded, surprised, “Then what are you doing here?” We explained that I had intended to buy the bike there, but they were sold out and couldn't get any more. We admired the shop and the wonderful museum bikes display, and after some more conversation Kent and I ventured out into downtown Winslow while they installed the rack on my bike. We made our way through streets being dug up for renovations, settling on the Harbour Public House for lunch. We ate fish and chips, talking, looking out at a profusion of pink roses, blue skies, and bright sunlight on water.
Finally we wandered back up to Classic Cycle, picked up my new bike, and headed home on the ferry and the bus. On the ferry, I tried to explain why I wanted this bike I didn't really need. Kent said “Sometimes those are the kind of things you really need to do.” I thought, not for the first time, that I really married well.
We brought the bike upstairs to its new home, then went to the Bicycle Center where Kent bought me a basket and inner tube. Later we biked over to REI and Target to look at lights. Finding a front light that would work with the basket was something of a challenge, but we settled on a small Coleman light that Kent attached to the front of the basket with zip ties. Since I am married to a guy who describes himself as “obsessed with lighting,” I didn't need to buy a taillight. A Planet Bike light dug out of the stash at home works just fine. With a cable and lock attached to my rear rack, the Allant and I are ready to commute to work in the morning.
As I am drifting off to sleep, I realize that for the first full day in nearly a year and a half, I have not thought about that long-ago devastating disappointment, not even once. This has been a wonderful, amazing day with the person I love most in all the world, full of interesting places and people, full of adventure and beauty and possibility. And the bike that I looked at in the window and rode in my imagination for so many months is sitting in our living room, ready to ride for real anytime I want. Perhaps some things aren't meant to be. But then again, perhaps some things are.
An epic adventurer recently observed that “You can do everything right and still not get what you want. Accept it, move on, learn.” Early Friday morning, long before dawn, I get up for my very first bike commute to work. Kent is with me, testing out his new “taillight with frickin' lasers.” We carry the bikes downstairs, turn on their lights, and head out into the early morning darkness. “This is fun,” Kent calls out to me as we ride through dark, empty streets toward the Issaquah Safeway. I zip comfortably along on my Allant, smiling, and call back, “Yeah, it is!” I'm moving on down the road, at home in the darkness, knowing dawn will soon break over the mountains to the east. In my mind's eye, that old barely-still-open door appears. I close it gently, and see myself riding away.