Independence by bicycle: Now and Then

Did you ever watch the 1995 film Now and Then? A captivating movie with bold, adventurous female actors like Christina Ricci, Rosie O’Donnell, Demi Moore, and Rita Wilson. My daughters and I loved watching this flick. And although, like with most books and movies, I’m not sure how it ages to today but one scene that has stayed with me is the bicycle adventure the girls take, no parents, just friends. Growing up in times that in our rearview mirrors seem easier, freer, safer.

Once when I was ~14 years old, nearly a high school freshman, I rode my bike from my home near the base of Southwest Portland’s Washington Park to our family’s two-houses-ago beloved Montgomery Way home on the bank of the Willamette River in Wilsonville. Readers of my memoir may recall my sharing how much I hated moving into this Madison Street home after our dad lost his LaGrande Observer Publisher and Editor job, a home my grandparents generously shared with us then. The noise of SW Canyon Road roared in my ears, me previously attuned to crickets and silence. I felt I had nothing in common with my “new in mid-year” 8th grade classmates at Ainsworth Elementary, and though excited to experience high school athletics, was nervous to join what I expected to be even more sophisticated peers.

Most awkward family photo ever: ~1973, as our entire family struggled to adjust to a different life in SW Portland. (Pat stayed in LaGrande to graduate high school, missing out on that life lesson. It took me decades to understand how financially frightened our dad must have been.)

I haven’t thought about this solo bike voyage in a long time. Last night, decompressing in my nightly bath, I began Brian Doyle’s essay, “To the Beach,” about a bicycle journey he shared with his brother. Nightly I savor Doyle’s essays in the beautiful volume, One River, One Song, rarely reading more than one or two pieces at a time. Lollygagging in a way that by the time I read all of them, I’ll need to simply start at the beginning again. The good news for this treasured book is that I’m less likely to drop it in the tub in these early bathing moments, rather many minutes later after the hot bath triggers sleepiness. (See: Tips for reading in the bath (or how to avoid fines and electrocution). Yet last night, as I began this essay, my mind wandered – as it does often when I am reminded of a parallel story- to my own bicycle trek, upon which I dried off enough to safely dictate into my phone before I lost my own story’s essence, and could return to Doyle’s. (My spouse is no longer surprised when we are out walking together, I’ll excuse myself for a few minutes to dictate into my phone, the seeming-at-the-time, powerful prose building in my head. He now knows I’ll be less distracted once I release the messages from my head to another form.)

I remember certain images so strongly from this bike ride nearly fifty years ago. Me then, not yet owning even a learner’s permit, flush with determinism and – yes, today I’ll say courage – to power myself alone to the home I still then dreamed about. The home and street that took me to midlife to craft and share sentences and stories now found in My Music Man. My bike adventure being in the early 1970s, few imagined tools like the internet, Google Maps or cell phone.

Today, it frankly amazes me that not only did I figure out how to navigate the nearly 15 miles each way, but I completed it on a ten-speed bicycle that I wasn’t riding often in those days, once we left LaGrande. Did I find a paper map or simply write out notes after asking my parents? Or wait, did my parents even know that I was setting out on this expedition? Ah, if only I could ask them today. Yes, add another unasked question to the pool of those forgotten. I’m pretty certain I didn’t know how to fix a flat yet, not that I carried a pump, patch kit or spare tube to do so. I did travel with a couple quarters in case I needed to make an emergency phone call, back in the days when you could find a pay phone simultaneously hoping someone would be home to answer! I wasn’t worried about bad people or mean or rabid dogs chasing me. I did put a lunch in my backpack along with the quarters and a bit of change for a snack, and hit the road. Even today I remember cycling near Wilson High School, and later cruising Boones Ferry all the way to Wilsonville, although I have no idea how I navigated from Hillsdale to Boones Ferry Road. (Yes, Boones Ferry where just last week Russ and I walked at its end, down at the old ferry landing, graced today with a short riverfront bike path winding below I-5’s Willamette River crossing.) For more about Boones and other early Oregon ferries, see About that ferry.

Bike path beneath today’s Interstate-5’s Boone Bridge at Wilsonville.

That long ago day I rode along the still windy Wilsonville Road, coasted down steep Rose Lane to our old street. The one where “Drive Slow Children Playing” signs that Dad put up in the early 70s still stand. After that I climbed back up to Stafford Road, no Wilsonville High yet, and lacking today’s speeding drivers, those who sneak through to avoid I-205 traffic slowdowns. That stretch of I-205, the War Veterans Memorial Freeway Highway, had only recently been finished. Finally I reached my chocolate break, resting on the steps of the old school building that perches out over beautiful, less developed then, Stafford farmland. The school building recognized today as the West Linn-Wilsonville administration building, but with its 1891 roots as Stafford School.

The chocolate must have fueled me to climb windy Childs Road, dumping me out in downtown Lake Oswego, a town I knew from childhood church attendance, and visits to its library and ice cream store. I was momentarily confused, uncertain at first as I climbed the uphill section of Terwilliger Road leading out of Lake Oswego – smart enough not to try to dodge along the flatter Highway 43. Today, nearly five decades later, this almost final stretch back to our Madison Street home is part of my (non-pandemic) work cycle commute to OHSU. I’m certain I must have been exhausted but it was downhill as I drifted past Duniway Park, near the Kopper Kitchen where in just a year I would pour endless cups of coffee to elderly residents and PSU college students, before making my final hill climb home. I was jubilant at the success of my solo journey! Although a number of bad things could have happened that day, none did. I arrived home and woke up the next morning just like any ordinary day

I would love to ask my parents if they remember that ride of mine. I think I must have told them, sharing my love of the memories of that street, a place our parents nostalgically visited until the end of their lives. But maybe not. For after all, those are the years I wasn’t telling Dad much of anything, and they were both consumed raising kids, working and figuring out their own relationship.

In the end, it was probably remarkable to me and only me. And that’s okay. Our stories can be bold for ourselves only, and though we may choose to share them with others, the most compelling and meaningful ones will never be as important to anyone else as they are to us. Stories matter, whether we share them or not.

4 thoughts on “Independence by bicycle: Now and Then

  1. Loved this Dede, did not know you had a connection to the Observer. These challenges are often unshared, like it or not. They add a layer to who we are, a story to help define us. Maybe your folks did know about your ride, surely that you were capable of it. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks MIke and yes, Karen and I spoke frequently about LaGrande and Dad’s ties to the Observer, especially given her sister’s LG ties. Thinking of that you follow this blog. Just like K did. Thank you my friend.


  2. Enjoyed your story on so many levels! I relate to what I perceive as bitter sweet with a tad more sweet as we reflect on and relay the stories we have to share.


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