I never thought I would have gotten a road bike like that for 75 bucks. Heck, I never thought I would have 75 bucks in the first place. But it was a special Sunday morning. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t desperate for a bicycle, I had a rusty but trusty trek mountain bike with a light aluminum frame, big fat tires, and special flat pedals which permitted me to ride barefoot for hundreds of miles a week. The squeaky brakes, and other problems only added to the character. It was freedom on two wheels, but that still didn’t mean that I didn’t gloat every time I saw a sleek skinny-tired racer made for the open road. I used to see them come in for repair at the corner bike shop. They always glowed with the pride of epic journeys, and conquest in battle. My mountain bike glowed too, like a hungry beast overcoming the odds of its survival.
For years it was my only source of transportation on Kauai, the most western inhabitable Hawaiian island out here in the middle of the Pacific. I rode my mountain bike everywhere, and at first it didn’t mean much to me, but when I bought the little bike computer, it’s as if the beast came alive, and could tell me of my glory. I rode it the twenty-five miles to work and back everyday. For months on end, every morning, the first golden rays of the sun would shine in my face as I pedaled, madly spirited by the dawn, to my job as a mountain bike tour guide. I loved leading people along jungle roads, dark tunnels, sugar cane fields, and abandoned plantations, to majestic beach and cliffs where the van picked us up and we called it a day. My mountain bike never got to see those places though, I was a company man, and I had to use the company wheels. My boss asked me not to ride my own bike at work, he said, “we want to give them the impression that or guides are safe and ride clean and up to date equipment.” Any departure from etiquette and sanity into the pure recklessness of functional speed would have to be done on the ride home.
When I moved from Kauai to the Big Island to go back to University my poor black beast was in sad disrepair…I had worked it good. It needed new bearings, the chain constantly slipped going uphill, it was permanently stuck in the highest gear, and the brakes sounded like a subway train when I came to a stop. I didn’t have the money to replace anything. So sadly, my well tempered stallion, that had been my companion on epic treks of hell raising bliss around Kauai, was now retired to serve as a part-time small town cruiser on the streets of Hilo. Were it not for that that little travel computer with my personal records and triumphs forever etched in liquid crystal, there would be no evidence or hints to its’ former glory. Such is the fate of thoroughbreds involuntarily retired to pasture. How I missed biking like a madman through rain or shine by the light of dawn with the sight of ocean and beaches stretching out into the infinite plain.
I was a college student again, relegated to college life, poor and jobless, living off a set allowance. For daily transportation, a car my parents gave me was now my fate. I was a fish in a bowl on wheels again, polluting the air, eating while driving, living a most uninspired locomotive existence. Watching the speedometer hit 30 mph just didn’t feel the same. I felt like an invalid. How do you break a sweat, or feel the wind in your hair, sitting on your ass behind the windshield in a car? Now if I sold the damn four-wheeled jalopy, I would have enough money to buy a real dream bike, and all the styling accessories to boot. But the car wasn’t mine to sell. In reality, I could only daydream about my next pedal powered crotch rocket. That dream was about to come true.
If the car was good for anything, it was for the all the things I could haul with it, namely all the wild foraged fruit I learned to pick from all the unattended fruit trees growing in this lush tropical place. The fruit picker I scored at a garage sale was the utilitarian equivalent of the little trip computer. It gave me hours of free, personal and productive fun. So, it was one early Sunday morning that I found my car loaded with the bounty of an adventurous contemplative Saturday foraging the jungles and beaches of East Hawaii. I had picked wild papaya’s, oranges, lemons, rose apples, mangoes, lychees, avocados, coconuts, some exotic flowers, and all the sunflower and buckwheat sprouts I grew on my balcony to boot. It was my clear mission to head to the Pahoa Town Farmer’s market and unload my precious stash to those hungry for its’ tasty and nutritional reward. If I sold everything, I would have enough money to refurbish my bike. I was getting restless without my daily dose of mad pumping long distance excitement. It was an awesome morning. The boons of nature had earned me, in less than four hours time, almost a hundred dollars. And it wasn’t even noon! I guess a car was good for some things after all. I was sitting there next to my table, drinking a coconut, getting ready to pack up and drive to the beach, when a nice looking couple came and asked if they could set up a table to sell their stuff next to mine. “No sweat,” I said, “Go right ahead, I’m leaving anyways, would you like any help?” “Sure,” they said. They weren’t selling fruit or vegetables, but a bunch of miscellaneous house wares, and clothes. After all, the farmer’s market also served as a flea market too. I thought it was a little peculiar that they had all this stuff, since they were driving a rental car. They told me that they had lived on the Big Island for nine years, but were moving to Bermuda the next day, so they decided to rent a car, go see the lava coming out of the volcano, camp, and see if they could sell some of their stuff before they left. They had a very nice mellow vibe, and I wished them luck. As I was walking away, ready to cruise, my eyes fell on something that froze me in my tracks. I was utterly transfixed. What they were unloading from the trunk of their car dropped my jaw like a 24 carat gold Buddha in the bowl of a beggar. It was a road bike, simple and true, probably twenty years old, but in immaculate condition. A classic was before my eyes. I came up to it, and lifted it off the ground. It was light. I said, “This is a beautiful bicycle.” And she said, “I’ve had it for ten years, but I have a mountain bike too, and I can’t take both of them where we’re going. Are you a rider?” Did Jesus walk on water? “Yes, I am,” I said. “I’m selling it for $75,” she said. I thought, you can’t even buy these rims for $75. “I’ll take it,” was my only reply. I gave her a hug and kiss that probably made her husband jealous. But the sincerity of my gratitude was very real. I was so happy! I gave them most of the money I earned that morning, and whatever fruit and sprouts I had left over. The woman said that she had put many thousands of miles on that bike and she was glad it was going to someone who could appreciate it. This woman felt very much like a sister to me. It was as if my own family and ancestors had come and blessed me with the thing that I desired. I couldn’t wait to take it home, fashion the little trip computer to the bars, run the sensor through the spokes, adjust the seat, and call it mine. The frame for my new chariot was manganese alloy steel, fabricated in Japan by Lotus. It was a fitting emblem to display proudly for all to see, because, as the story goes, the lotus flower symbolizes a jewel rising out of the darkness, like the flower itself, a wonder of beauty rising out of the mud. It was a great metaphor for my path in life, born with a small chance for life, but with a great hunger for the experience. My path has been one of overcoming all obstacles in my path. And so, there I was, the fortunate owner of a blue and white Lotus ten speed. With Shimano gears and brakes, tires and rims by Continental, a Sella Italia anatomic seat, dual purpose pedals, a custom profile bar, safety light, mini pump, and a plastic one quart water bottle, Hilo town was about to get a new definition for the word lightning.
I had a month of fantastic power riding to and from school and the beach. I could sprint on this bike like I never could on anything before. I actually averaged 26 mph to school, getting there in less than nine minutes, as my little travel computer told me so. I loved the comments from my classmates who said stuff like, “I was riding my bike to school, and saw you fly past me…how fast were you going on that thing?” I was feeling incredibly good, my legs were strong as steel again, and I began thinking about doing a ride that would really take me to the next level. The answer was as plain as the mountain looming in the distance. I remember a conversation with one of Hawaii’s top road racers, and how he said he trained. He said there’s no ride more rewarding than the hard line climb up to Mauna Kea’s visitor center at the 9000 foot elevation ‘Ice Age Glacial Park,’ and the breathtaking descent back down to the Pacific ocean. Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, if you measure from the base. Above sea level it rises nearly 14,000 feet over the Pacific. In the winter it gets so cold up there that on occasion it snows like it would in Colorado, and one can go skiing or snowboarding in the morning, and short or longboard surfing in the afternoon; a truly one of a kind experience only to be found in Hawaii.
Halloween was coming up, and I thought, what better day than that, when the souls of the dead are closest to the living, to test my own spirit and mortal coil? I began my ascent by the light of dawn. The climb was straight uphill. At first the sun was beating on my back, but then as I rose higher, the fog enveloped me, and I found myself in a high- land forest, enchanted with fragrant mists and the chirps and melodies of elusive birds. Saddle Road, which climbs to 6000 feet cuts right through the center of the island. From this road one can take a turn which takes you straight to the summit of Mauna Kea, a mere 55 miles from Hilo town. My destination was only 26 miles away, the visitors center at 9000 feet. I had made it 18 miles so far, and it was starting to get cold and a steady rain was beginning to fall. I breathed in deep the familiar fresh smell of the water droplets hitting the pavement. The vitality of this contradictory meeting of elements gave me a renewed strength. Thanks to my Hawaiian weather class, I knew that if the conditions were right, I was about to emerge into an entirely different climate. Here on Hawaii, there is something called a tropical weather inversion, where the trade winds, under normal conditions, allow the low level clouds to get no higher than 6300 feet. The contrast is striking. In less than a half mile distance one passes from a tropical rainforest of ancient trees, ferns, and mist, into a barren desert of rocks and sun. Thus I emerged out of the clouds to behold the grand peak of the Pacific ever so closer, and jagged fields of red and black lava, like a Martian landscape, stretching endlessly into the distance. The sun was overhead; I was above the clouds! Looking back, I could see the white billowy mass hugging the land. It was like going through a portal into another dimension. The air was cold and thin; my legs ached and my body was thirsty, but my will pushed me on to that place which I decided would be my destination.
I love the looks people give you when they realize you have done something extraordinary. It’s a double take. At first they see a guy on a bicycle, and don’t think anything of it, because what is so unusual about a guy on a bicycle? But then they realize that you’re at 9000 feet! And you don’t look like you just unloaded the essential speedster from your car to take an alpine cruise. My breathing could not betray the effort. That’s when that second look comes at you, their eyes a little wider, their brow a little higher. It’s the look that beams of vicarious satisfaction, like they couldn’t be more proud of you for winning that shiny medal and bringing it back for your fellow countrymen from the games. That’s when I give them that nod and self-satisfied grin, the one that says, “thanks for your support, remember me always, and share the tale of this triumph with your future generations.”
These are the epic moments that make me feel most alive, like a mythological character jumping off the pages of history. On that day I pushed the limits of my own human potential. On the descent, I felt like a bird soaring from the heavens to the sea, or a space shuttle on a controlled burn. For the hours of heavy labor, heaving, groaning and panting, I was rewarded with the swift delight of pure adrenaline rushing in my veins as I flew downhill. Is there a better way to scare the living daylights out of yourself on Halloween or any other day than to practically freefall down a winding road on a slick skinny-tired sixteen pound pedal powered piece of steel through wind, rain, and fog at 50 mph? As I re-entered the clouds, and built up speed, the wind began howling past me with the vacuum force of a jet plane in flight. To even touch my breaks was blasphemy to my immortal spirit, and that of my precision machine that had birthed itself into sudden awareness by a supernatural grace. The rain felt like tears of joy, and I imagined another myself flying right above me, watching this crazy human quenching his soul. It’s as if Nature herself held its breath to play witness to the speed and balance it had bestowed to one of its own. I was the rider, the one being ridden, and the act of riding all at once, a blue streak of energy in motion. On the way home, I stopped and filled up my water bottle at a natural fresh water spring I had found hidden in the woods, not far from town. The water sang itself into my cells, refreshing every thirsty part of my self. For that day, I was complete. I had glimpsed behind my own mask, and received a vision of power. Now my new chariot could stand before me motionless, emanating the glow of its’ maximum expression that it had shared with me; the little travel computer, its’ silent partner in the glory of the day.