June 19, 2021

Bike There — Adventure and Empowerment Await

Guest Opinion
By Gary Howe | May 8, 2021

I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't have a bicycle. I also don't remember anyone teaching me how to ride. My older brothers and sisters must have taught me, but I suspect their pedagogical method was along the lines of "Keep up or stay behind." In reality, they probably ditched me often. But the way I remember it, I not only kept up with them but also bravely struck out on my own and left them in the dust.

That's the power of the bicycle. It's a machine like no other. It can transform a mere mortal into an uber-efficient, supremely balanced, go-anywhere supernova. The bicycle is empowerment. It is independence. It is freedom. 

Many of the most important life lessons I've learned I learned while riding my bike. I was a typical Generation X latchkey child. Adult supervision wasn't something I had to worry much about. For the most part, our neighborhood's pack of kids were left to their own devices, roving from house to house searching for food and following our curiosities that expanded outward from the subdivision as we grew older.  

Having a functional bicycle was a ticket to a larger world full of adventure. When I was about eight, I was inspired by a calling from deep within: a calling for candy that could only be sourced two miles down the road at Lake Ann Grocery.  

I remember coming to the end of my subdivision where the quiet street meets the county road, stopping to contemplate my options, and then gunning it. Up the big hill, along the straightaway, and past long stretches that, back then, were only woods. It was much farther than I expected it to be. Passing cars were a welcome relief; they might be able to save me from the bears I was sure were going to come out of the woods at any moment. The fear of wild animals pushed me, and the temptation of that candy bar pulled me to remarkably high speeds, given that I was an eight-year-old on a makeshift single-speed with a banana seat. 

I was relieved to roll into the bustling village of Lake Ann. I sat in the park and enjoyed my Whatchamacallit before heading home. However ill-advised by today's safety standards, that trip was an early lesson in perseverance and determination. I struck out on my own to pursue my goals, overcame my fears and physical limitations, and achieved my chocolatey aim. At the time, it felt like absolute freedom. It was also my little secret, and there is power in secrets.

As I grew more confident and upgraded to a 12-speed Ross Signature, I struck out further. As a teenager, I regularly biked the 15 miles to Traverse City to hang with the city kids. I learned to climb the hills, using all my strength. I learned to ride fast and learned back roads to limit my exposure to traffic. The bicycle remained my go-to transportation choice throughout college and allowed me to save money quickly without owning a car. I had a ticket to ride. 

After graduation, the bicycle became my livelihood for a year abroad. I landed in Australia with $300 and a work visa good for one year. In two weeks, after stretching the truth about how well I knew Melbourne's streets, I landed work subcontracting as a bicycle messenger — a pushie. 

Still, today, delivering express packages by bike remains one of the most empowering jobs I ever had, and it introduced me to new people every day, from CEOs on the 55th floor to co-workers struggling with addictions and families to feed. We even had a retired CEO join our crew. He was slow, so we gave him the dregs. I was able to pay off a modest student loan with my earnings and head to China. Thanks, bicycle. 

This is all to say: May is National Bike Month, a time to celebrate the elegance, value, and gift of the bicycle. Established in 1956 by The Bicycle Institute of America, National Bike Month showcases the benefits of human-powered movement by bike and encourages everyone to give it a try. For me, bike month is a chance to reflect on the riches I have enjoyed thanks to this handy, accessible, and equitable tool. 

Locally, we celebrate Northern Michigan Bike Month at Norte, the youth-focused advocacy organization dedicated to creating active-for-life kids and families. Norte kicked off this month with a massive used bike sale, followed by the start of two after-school youth bike programs across five counties and Bike to School Day on May 5. The celebration continues with community slow-rolls, mountain biking, and Eats by Bike Week — the latter set up as a bingo sheet to encourage people to support local restaurants and cafes by bike. Bike there and join in the celebration and find yourself some adventure. Let freedom reign.

Gary Howe walks, bikes, busses, and drives in Traverse City and is the Advocacy Director at Norte. Check out all their Bike Month's activities at elgrupnorte.org

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