My friend Kent Peterson recently wrote a blog post that struck a chord with me and like that song that gets in your head, I keep coming back to it.
There are a few reasons I keep turning this over in my mind; It involve old people and try as I might, I can’t reconcile my age, even in dog years with being other than old. I used to say “I’m not old, I’ve just been young for a very long time”, or “60 isn’t old, if you’re a tree”. Recently I had a conversation with my older brother who is retired in Florida. He allowed as when I get old and retire I needed to come and have an extended visit. He said in this retirement community there are all kinds of bike clubs and though they may not ride over mountain passes in freezing rain through the dark of night, there are surely some old codgers with hair growing out of their ears who could drop me in a moment. I reminded him that I would soon be turning 62 to which he replied: “I’m sure you must be mistaken, because if that is true that would make me ….”. It’s true.
Also this stuck with me because it is about bike nostalgia and that is something I can appreciate, precisely because I am old. And it also reminded me that there was a time in my life not too far back when I frequented a senior living facility and being bikish there were occasional Q and A’s about biking.
In her last years we moved my mom to Olympia from her home in Granite Falls. It was something of a necessity; she had been living alone for about 10 years after my dad passed away, her health was failing and there was no family closer than me. Oly is not near to Granite falls (about 100 miles as the Prius flies) but those miles cross the eye of the motorized hurricane that is I-5 through Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett. From a traffic perspective, there is probably no worse 100 miles to travel in Washington State. Getting mom to and from the Dr, and attending to her other needs became an enormous challenge as she lost her ability to take ‘dial a ride’.
My sister who lives near Corvallis and I conspired to get mom to ‘relocate’, so I put mom on the train to Corvallis for a visit. Surreptitiously Judi introduced the idea of moving ‘some place closer’ and took mom on a tour of a few senior living situations in and around Corvallis. In other posts you may have heard me mention the stubborn nature of the McCubbins; If it is genetic my mom must have been a throwback; She could make granite seem as yielding as butter by comparison. A week or so later Judi put her on the northbound and called in advance to tell me it was a no go.
I picked her up at the train station and asked how her visit went. After she blew off most of her steam I suggested we take a look at a new place that was being constructed in downtown Olympia. “No” she said, she wasn’t ready to move. “Well we could just stop by and take a peak” I suggested. “No!” She insisted. “I’m not moving and I want to go home!”
As it happens that McStubborn streak did not end with her generation. I told her I’d be happy to drive her home tomorrow …. right after we took a tour of the Boardwalk apartments. She was livid! Strong willed independent minded people react to coercion worse than most. I won’t say she had a tantrum but it was a good thing she was tuckered out from her trip, she went to bed early that night.
Long story short, she was won over and within a few moths she had settled into her new apartment a few blocks from where I was living, where she lived out the last five years of her life. Of course because I was so close I was a frequent visitor and I often arrived by bike. I always brought my bike inside and parked it either in the day room or in the interior courtyard. At first this caused quite a stir. Old folks when they are cooped together often get a little childish, a little territorial, especially when subjected to surprises that interrupt the routine. Mountain out of a mole hill might be an understatement. It took a few bags of cookies or the occasional bin of Costco muffins but in short order my bike became a tolerated if not accepted fixture.
It also became a conversation starter. Like Kent’s recounting I often caught a glimpse of wistfulness as we would have conversations about bikes. As you know the bike is a magical machine and the magic didn’t just happen when you and I arrived on the scene. I learned that bikes have always held magic. I would tell tales of my randonneuring adventures, thinking pretty highly of myself. Then I’d hear stories of their bicycle adventures, always on bicycles much more primitive than anything I have ever ridden and, I am sure over roads much less suitable. It was good therapy for my badly swollen ego.
I’d have to get out a Washington state map and draw the routes for mom. Big thick red felt tip marker lines, circling the Olympic Peninsula, or slipping across and through the Cascade Mountains. “You mean Wenatchee, where Gene and Jesse live?!” Old folks talk, and over time some of the more friendly regulars would know when I had an event and would ask how it went. When I showed my mom the brevet medals she innocently asked “You are going to wear them aren’t you?” She was serious.
Those discussions down in the lobby, the remembrances that brought more life to their eyes and put a little more animation in the conversation were inspiring. But too there was always some degree or remorse, a sense of longing for things lost. This building was not an assisted living facility or a nursing home, it was just senior apartments. Eligibility for residence was means tested and people had to be at least 55 years old, nothing more. You had to be pretty old and not too wealthy. So, some of these folks were in their late fifties and early sixties. There were always a couple cruiser bikes locked up in the stairwells and I would occasionally see them out on the streets on a sunny day.
There was one woman who was friends with my mom who somehow went on a fitness tear. She was obese but over the period of two years she lost an enormous amount of weight, mostly just by walking around town. In time she asked me about a bike. She confessed that she was afraid to ride a bike because of the traffic and then the whole business of bicycles, gears, and brakes was threatening. I suggested that there were reasonably priced bikes that were very dependable and designed to make riding very simple and very comfortable. I mentioned that it could be just about like walking only faster. That got her attention and within a few months she was rigged out with a bright yellow and white Electra Townie. From then on I would frequently see her tooling along on the sidewalks of Olympia on her bike.
This was a teachable moment for me. In that building there were all kinds of people with all kinds of attitudes. Many were focused on their problems: Their health challenges, their medications, their lack of or diminishing mobility. There were a few who chose to make the most of what they had, to focus on maintaining or prolonging what they had. They were no less stricken by the ills of age or life’s misfortunes, they just chose not to have that be their focus.
Years earlier I had a similar epiphany as a young man living in Roslyn, Washington. Many of my neighbors there were retired coal miners, or the widows of miners. Two such old fellows lived on my street. They were OLD, and decrepit, but once or twice a week they’d take off early in the morning in the pea green Datsun pickup one of them owned to go out and cut a load of firewood or hunt up a pail of mushrooms or wild berries as the season dictated. I worked for the US Forest Service at the time and so would keep an eye open for some easy pickins in the firewood or huckleberry department and I would tip them off.
They loved me, and I loved them. More than the extreme eco-adventures of the day these old guys were my role models. They were the randonneurs of life, enduring against hardship, against the odds to go long in life. A fellow could do much worse than to get up early on his 62nd birthday and go out to scavenge a pickup load of wood with a thermos of hot coffee and an old friend.
I have not ridden a long hard brevet in some time. I believe I still can and do plan to get more of that in the life remaining for me, but this bicycle commuting and Kent’s blog post have reminded me that just keepin on keepin on is a form of success.