Editor’s note: Back in Issue #13, we ran a piece by Kyle Lehman titled "Like Riding A Bike". It told the story of how he lost his grandfather when he was young and later reconnected with his past through cycling. Shortly after the story went to press, Kyle embarked on a 5,000 mile bike tour of the southern U.S.
Just a few hundred miles short of his destination, in Daytona Beach, Fla., he was riding with friends when he was struck by a minivan. Despite wearing a helmet, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in critical condition. Once stablized, he was flown to a Denver hospital where he will remain for the rest of his rehabilitation. The story of his accident was also told by one of his former teachers, Chris Jones, in the May 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Like Riding A Bike
By Kyle Lehman,
It was a Schwinn. I can remember that much. Slung low to the ground with sweeping chrome handlebars and a ratty banana seat that had been baked into granite by decades under the unforgiving Montana sun. My brother and I yanked it from the dusty shadows of my grandfather’s barn and I swung a leg over the blistered red frame, grabbing the split plastic grips like a bronco rider to reins. Lined up before me was a hundred-yard drag strip of potholed access road cut from the rich Bitterroot farmland.
We were visiting for the week, having made the nine-hour drive from Oregon to my grandparent’s farm. Days were spent in the dusty shadow of my grandfather, me trying my best to act useful as he poured slop for hogs, beat rusting machinery into form, and hauled irrigation pipes through his fields.
The old Schwinn filled the moments in between, resting patiently in the backyard like a tethered mustang. Waiting.
Warily I chose my line of attack, tracing a route through the apple-sized rocks and ruts riddling the road. I was determined to ride, to finally break free from the hesitant, foot- dragging, noodle-armed fear that had consumed my previous efforts. With eyes fixed on the horizon and legs straining, the bike wrenched to a start, its cracked rubber tires gaining momentum across the hardpack in a rambling charge toward seared elbows and gritty knees.
Gradually my attempts to ride began to flow together. Slowly I replaced the flurries of hot dust and bruised skin with cascading rampages of speed, carrying my momentum through the ruts and rocks, and bouncing precariously out the other side on top of two twenty-inch wheels.
My fear faded with each improvement, and with it, the frantic movements and desperation that always preceded a crash. I was beginning to relax. Beginning to breathe. I measured my progress by furrows in the field, from five rows to ten, then the end and back without stopping. Then anywhere.
I am twenty-one years old, I have been riding for three hours, tracing the highways and bike paths from my home in Missoula due south through the Bitterroot Valley, towards the 117 acres of my grandfather’s farm that I haven’t seen in eleven years. I leave at six in the evening for the one hundred mile ride without a map or directions, just the anxious notion that memory alone will deliver me.
I am riding hard, my tires humming on the warm road and wind searing across my knuckles. The ragged teeth of the Bitterroots rise to my right; the hot summer air channeled along their length stifles my lungs. Miles to the south, wisps of virga dance over the valley, glowing pink in the fading sun.
As I cross the Bitterroot River outside of Hamilton the wind kicks up, blasting into my chest and throwing flecks of fat summer rain into my face. I crank through town and turn east toward the Sapphire Mountains, my eyes searching for some landmark to jump from the annals of memory and guide me to the farm. I can feel darkness coming as I drop my eyes and push the bike’s tallest gear across the blacktop.
After that Montana summer when I learned to ride, the ragged Schwinn returned to the dusty alcove from which it came, but sporadic memories of it and my grandfather’s sagging red barn amid the brisling alfalfa fields remain. On one visit my cousin, brother, and I found a long list of names hewn into the rough wood of a grain silo, deep in the barn. The names stretched from far above my reach nearly to the floor, a sprawling record of those who had passed through the barn. I imagined drifters and hired hands and cowboys. Lives and stories stretching out on both sides of the brief minutes they spent in this dark corner, pocketknife in hand, hewing their names into the wood like points on a timeline.
On the last day we added our names, unease growing as I watched. Like it was wrong, like we didn’t belong with such company. We were tourists forcing ourselves on a place beyond our understanding. Somewhere in the rubble of that old barn is my name, carved on an old pine plank under many others. The last in a long line.
Maybe they really were drifters and cowpokes and outlaws, but most likely not. If their motivations were anything like mine, they left their names partially out of boredom, and maybe a bit out of the desire to leave something behind. To make something that stuck.
I am thirteen. In less than a year my grandfather will die. We walk through the field behind my house in Oregon and watch my dad’s draft horses rolling over the pasture. I see my grandfather change as he watches them, his posture stiffening and eyes growing soft. It’s probably been two of my lifetimes since he last rode, and slowly he recounts stories summoned by the timeless grace of the animals. Stories of charging through grass slews after fox, pursuing them over the prairie until they collapse from exhaustion, then clubbing them over the head and selling their hides.
Alzheimer’s is setting in. He tells the same story over and over, pausing in between, then seeing the horses and starting again. I listen to every telling. Every word.
Waiting for something new, some vignette, a piece of his past riding around in the depths of memory waiting to be jarred loose and passed on. I commit his words to memory, desperate to carve every sentence into my mind. Knowing that I can only retain so much and never brush the surface of what he knows. Knowledge of farming and horses and sustaining through bitter North Dakota winters miles from electricity. Months so fierce and dark he had to stretch a hemp rope from the back door to the barn just to find it. Knowledge that takes lifetimes to gain and just a generation to lose.
I cried at his funeral. Uncomfortable in the stiff clothes bought for the occasion. I heard my grandfather was a wonderful tap dancer and catcher on the softball team and could guess the weight of a hog to the nearest pound, but I never had the chance to talk to him as a man, or saddle up horses and rip across the rolling Montana wheat fields like I’d always dreamed.
My memories of the man are rooted in the inconsequential observations of a child. Erratic scenes spliced together like the contents of an old VHS tape that’s been re-recorded too many times, its contents jumbled and incoherent. The pearl snaps on his shirts, the way he rolled his jeans up at the cuffs and combed his hair so that it broke over his forehead like a sweeping silver wave.
Suddenly these were the only remnants I would ever know. The ability to learn, ask questions, hear stories, all of that was gone, scraped as bare as a beet field in late fall. My oldest living relative shuffled out of my life without a final handshake or words of advice, leaving only the unfamiliar image of him in his black suit and tie rather than the worn jeans and flannel shirts I knew. The golden brown coffin we carried from the church in Oregon his final ride. With time his voice and actions fall away, grow soft like rust collecting on the blade of a knife.
In the fertile valley he once worked, developments have spread, capping the rich black loam with concrete and asphalt. In the darkness I forge ahead. As I turn from the main road my mind flickers with recognition. The sweet mixture of dirt and alfalfa drifts to me as I cross the creek where my brother slashed his foot open on a shard of river rock and stumbled back to the farmhouse trailing bloody footprints.
Ten years later I follow his path back. Ahead, the oak and maple trees lining the yard loom from the night. I roll off the road, my tires grinding through the loose gravel. I unclip my feet from the pedals and stare. In the twilight the Sears and Roebuck farmhouse is just how I remember it, the irrigation ditch stretching in front, the backyard where as a five-year-old I dreamed of riding my grandparent’s dog over the fence after a trip to the rodeo.
All but the old barn remains. Family lore says it was built in the late 1800s by the Copper King Marcus Daly to house his racing thoroughbreds between trips to the Belmont Stakes. Now a simple corrugated shed sits on the upturned dirt where it once was. It’s late, and I don’t approach the house, slouching just outside of the yellow beam from its lone porch light. From where I stand I can see enough, let the darkness filter out the new owner’s changes and preserve my memory.
I can feel rain coming, and with it a restlessness, a desire to leave.
I turn for home, letting the methodic work of pedaling overtake my thoughts. I am over forty miles out, fleeing the ragged edge of a thunderstorm, sailing down an iridescent ribbon of highway under the glowing moon. Lighting bursts to the east, backlighting the Sapphire range like breakers in the distance. In the Bitterroots a fire is burning; I can taste the smoke and see its embers resting like scabs on the hills. The day’s heat carries into the night and cold strings of sweat roll down my face. Just outside of Stevensville the storm overtakes me, embracing me with billowing curtains of rain.
The initial joy of finding the farm has worn off, replaced with the burn of lactic acid in my legs and a hunger in my stomach. Home seems far away, stifled by the mass of black thunderclouds to the north. A car’s headlights stream onto the bike path, glaring off the wet pavement. Blinded and disoriented, I stray from the path, ripping open my front tire on a staple. Cowering under an oak tree, I press my last patch onto the flaccid tube, my frustration growing with the rain.
I squeeze until my stiff fingers ache with the pressure. This patch must hold. A square centimeter of rubber is my ticket home; one errant glass shard or sheetrock screw will mean a thirty-mile hike in bike shoes.
I reassemble the wheel, pump it up, and take to the spongy seat. As I turn back onto the bike trail, my jacket heavy with rain and muscles stiff with inactivity, I think back to the furrows that once measured my progress. Now it’s homes and construction sites and mile markers, points of recognition that will deliver me.
But there is another realization, one that is just beginning to emerge as I struggle for an escape from the discomfort. An awareness that whether it’s clutching for memories and landscapes to affirm a bond that’s deeper than both, or battling a rusted Schwinn over a rugged access road, there is a point of submission: a time to relax and trust your balance. A time to breathe. To pedal.