Shifting Gears

justpaperskater and I exchange stories by giving each other a word which is the seed for the next correspondence. This is my response to her choice of “Bicycle.”

For years, the number haunted me. “314.” I’d see it on a door or in an area code (St. Louis, pretty uncommon in 70’s and 80’s New England) and I’d get a flash of recognition. Why? Whenever I’d ask someone what the number meant to them, they’d say “Well, it’s pi of course. 3.14.” But it wasn’t that. It was something else, and I had the strong feeling that I was never supposed to forget it.

About 30 years later, I finally figured out what it was: the code to my first bike lock. It was a very lightweight chain with a blue plastic cover and a three digit wheels. But in retrospect, it was my very first responsibility.

I didn’t want a bike. I preferred Big Wheels and other things that let me pretend I was doing something from a TV-show or movie. Bikes were mundane, and until ET came out, no one did adventurous things on bikes. But it didn’t take me long to realize the practicality of bikes, and soon I was riding all over Salem and the surrounding towns. A bike was freedom.

I had many bikes over the years, and my first paying job, delivering newspapers, depended on the two giant newspaper racks I had mounted to the back. Many stories were collected, too many for this blog post. But I will share this one.

In 1986, I had the chance to ride a bike from New Smyrna Beach to Palm Beach, Florida. It was organized by the Campus Crusade for Christ, an organization I knew little of then. Though I had been an atheist all my life, I gave Christianity a shot in college because my friends were involved. Riding bikes the length of Florida during spring break seemed like fun.

We boarded a bus late a night, but it wasn’t any ordinary kind of bus. This old tour bus had over 1,000,000 miles on it,  and it had been converted into a giant orgy mobile. I’m sure the organizers didn’t see it that way, but what would you call a bus that had seats on the bottom and a giant bed above? A cushioned platform for 40 people was suspended above the seats, and we all piled up there together. They called it “The Possum,” with the idea that passengers could all sleep inside while it drove all night long, the way a possum carries its young. Those were some of the best sleeping nights of my life. An old school bus filled with bikes and gear and cook shack followed us. It was called “The Camel.”

One peculiarity of this trip was that we had no plan. There was a destination and a date, but no scheduled locations for eating and sleeping. It was called “serendipity.” When I first heard this, it sounded a bit crazy and then I realized that the worst case would be that we’d all sleep on the bus. Also, being an evangelic group opened a network of churches and Christian-friendly businesses. We slept in some interesting places like a converted southern mansion, a retreat center, a campground draped with spanish moss, and the gymnasium of a Cocoa Beach high school.

Days were spent pedaling 35-50 miles down A1A past mansions and beaches. It was flat and non-strenuous for me, but others struggled, having not grown up attached to their bikes as I did. For whatever reason, the concept of gears can be difficult. I had a childhood friend who had a three-speed bike who would never shift from first gear. When I asked why, he said “It’s too hard to pedal in 2nd or 3rd.” I tried to point out that once the bike got up to speed that it was easier, but he’d never even try it.

On this trip, I tried once again to explain gears, this time to my then-girlfriend. She’s was falling behind and seemed very out of breath. I noticed her derailleur was in 2nd gear. While we were stopped at a 7-11, I tried to help.”Yes, it’s harder at first but you’ll soon see that it gets easier and you’ll be able to go much faster with much less work.”

She burst into tears, and ran off into the women’s room with one of her friends.

I was confused by this. From my perspective, she was having a problem and I had the solution. It was a simple fix and now that I explained it to her, she should be happy. From her perspective, she was on day one of a seemingly impossible task. She was falling behind, exhausted, and had no idea how she would complete the journey. While everything I said was correct, it wasn’t what she needed at that moment. What she needed was to know that her friends understood what she was going through, and would help her through the days to come.

This was a valuable lesson for me and to this day I continue to work on “how to say things” rather than “what to say” as it doesn’t come naturally to me. But there was another lesson that I think we all need reminding of.

After the trip was over, we received copies of the Campus Crusade for Christ magazine. The feature article was about our trip and my photo was on the cover as well as in the article. There were other photos too; photos of people I regard as friends. We had just ridden the length of Florida together, and formed connections that only traveling can make.

My photo’s presence in the magazine showed that I was representing the ideals of this organization, which today I stand very firmly against. Our values do not align, our goals are at cross purpose, and we think that each other are part of the problem rather than the solution.

And yet we traveled together, laughed, and formed strong bonds. I do not support the Campus Crusade for Christ, and really didn’t even then, but from my experience in 1986 they were nice, kind, dedicated folks trying to make the world a better place. In that, we are in full agreement.

I think this dichotomy exists in much of our culture today. It’s so easy to vilify and label those with opposing viewpoints, but in reality they’re just as good as we are despite their different viewpoint or value. If you had lived their lives, you might be doing what they’re doing. Or maybe not – but unless we keep a dialog open, we can never know.

I’m not saying we should agree or support opposing causes. But I am saying it’s possible to share experiences and realize we’re all in this together. It might seem to hard to shift gears, but in the end you get where you want to go much faster.

Categories: Friends, Photography, Travel

1 reply


  1. Shifting Gears « Jeff Wagg

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