Riding Bikes with Father Abraham

Wednesday June 26, 2013, Free Cycles Bike Shop, Missoula, Montana

Today I’m a full-time bicycle mechanic, on a brief break from riding cross-country with friends. This isn’t my day job or even my passion. But today I volunteer in a bike shop that stokes my desire to fix things. And this is no ordinary bike shop. It’s more of a blossoming garden of generosity. For those who see bike ownership beyond their reach, this shop plants the germ of hope.

Sure, the shop owners sell bikes. But they do more than this; they support a community where a person can build a bike for no cash out-of-pocket. Add some sweat equity to your own bike project and several hours to help others with theirs, and you’ll leave the shop with a custom bike, built from salvaged parts. Recycled. Free-cycled.

A sun-bleached sign at the entrance states that all are welcome. I feel it. The shop manager offers a smile and a nod as we pass through the door, into this temple of bicycle revivals. He’s been expecting us, this procession of cyclists seeking refuge during a mid-summer pilgrimage.

He gently thanks us for showing up today. Though we are the ones thankful to be out of the sun and wind, away from veering trucks, to have this interval of rest and respite. He’ll put us to work, no doubt. He’ll exact many hours from the dozen of us. But this is nourishing work, energizing. We violate the inviolate laws of thermodynamics; we expend energy, yet we have more than we brought with us. Here in this shop, energy is not conserved. It is shared and multiplied.

Three bikes are already on repair stands, in varying states of disassembly. Or assembly. I can’t tell which direction they are going. Other repair stands are empty, awaiting the mechanic’s touch. Or the shaman’s. The manager guides us through the open shop. The floor is of soft, weathered wood planks, marred and stained by heavier implements. Not bikes. This floor appears to have served another industry prior to its redemption to bike-making.

This wood floor reflects the mid-morning sunlight onto the ceiling and walls, casting a warm, ochre light that illuminates my hands and my friends. One friend quietly touches the tire-less rear wheel of a suspended bike, sending the wheel turning, clicking. I follow the round reflector, jammed in the spokes, in its revolution. The wheel slows until there is not enough momentum to bring the reflector around and over the top. She bumps it again, as though it were a skinny Buddhist prayer wheel. This is our meditation. Today, fixing bikes for strangers is the rite that expiates sins of a self-centered life on the road. Today, we are born anew as bike mechanics.

The spinning wheel slows and the clicking fades again. The shop manager instructs us on shop safety and how to navigate the many bins and crates and buckets of reclaimed bike parts.

This is my third day with these new-made friends. Two days ago, I met them at a campground in St. Regis, Montana, just a few miles from the Idaho border. They are cycling across the United States, and their trajectory has brought them close to my own home. Like a brilliant comet, passing close to the Earth only once in a century, they are passing within view, and I intend to witness at least part of the rare event. I brought my bike to ride with them for one day.

This ad hoc peloton is assembled from members of the Jewish community from around the country. They started in Seattle, Washington, eleven days ago; nine days of riding, one day of Shabbat in Spokane, and one day of bike-mechanics here in Missoula. Yesterday I joined them on their journey from the small mountain town of St. Regis (population: 319) to the relative metropolis of Missoula (population: 69,000). Ninety miles through rolling mountain prairies and river valleys. We followed the Clark Fork and Flathead Rivers. We rode along the National Bison Range, and for most of our day was crossed ancestral lands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. I joined this community of cyclists for this leg only. I didn’t start with the Pacific Ocean at my back, and I won’t finish, in eight weeks, looking out to the Atlantic.

The dozen or so people in this group are either Jewish or have established deep roots in this community. I’m not Jewish, though I share with them a long collective memory. And I’m not here because I suddenly have an interest in Judaism, or even in cross-country cycling. Rather, my own sister has joined this cross-country fellowship, and she is riding within a hundred miles of my home. This is why I have taken, if not an entire summer, at least a couple days to renew the sacred community of family.

Two days ago I was welcomed as a friend into a group of cyclists who had recently become friends themselves. I shared in their quotidian chores of setting up a field kitchen, preparing dinner, and washing and storing plates and dishes and silverware for the next day.

These friends have made various levels of commitment to kosher observance, and there were varying degrees of kosher-ness in the several food choices. I tried them all. Neither my palate nor my cultural and religious senses alerted me to the variations in how these foods were prepared; I simply sensed I was partaking in a first sacrament with my recently-adopted Jewish brothers and sisters.

We recounted stories during dinner. They shared jokes that left them laughing uncontrollably, and that left me slightly disoriented at a cultural and religious frontier. But I felt their warmth, and I recognized kindness and compassion in those who have adopted me during this brief reunion. I see now that spiritual inroads reach easily across the cultural and religious divide.

I haven’t seen my sister for a year and a half. She lives in Connecticut, twenty-five hundred miles from my home in Montana, as the bike wheel roles. Our paths converge during holidays or when we both happen to visit our parents during the same week of summer. Then our paths diverge again for a year or two. We go back to our own communities; we pursue our own interests. This is how we find each other – from year to year, for a day here and a week there. Like Jacob’s children, we have left a common home, but we find our way back together. We separate, always with the hope of crossing paths again soon. And not only a hope, but an intent; an intent to find each other, a desire to observe the traditions of our parents’ home, to commemorate an earlier time, when we were not separated by months and years, but only by hours or days.

When we meet this time, I find we are not so changed. Yes, our lives look different in many ways; our own families and friends and occupations vary as the subtle shades of leaves of the same tree vary. Yet our roots are nourished from the same source. Our own family’s diaspora has strewn us across the country, but our divergence is not permanent; we still find our way back to each other. Our time away has created diversity in our family. And unity. We discover our common capacities have grown, not diminished, because of our diversity.

While my sister and I cycled along mountain roads yesterday, making our way to Missoula, I considered this group I had joined. Belief figures largely for me here; there is no question I am different from this group. But only as different, I suspect, as the individuals in this group are from one another.

Yesterday we joined to ride the same road. And today, we continue in the same direction, laboring side by side in this community bike shop. I’ve joined them before; I wandered through the wilderness with them and with Moses for forty years; I cheered with them when Elijah had his smackdown with the priests of Baal; I sat with them to hear Isaiah teach of fasting and generosity; I hoped beyond hope with them for David, for Jonathan, for their covenant of friendship.

Then, two thousand years ago, our paths diverged. Their path remained true to the Temple and the Law, while mine followed a rebel from Nazareth. But today our paths converge, again, in a bike shop in Missoula, Montana.

The shop manager leads us to the various repair stations. Two by two we will fix and build these bikes. We take wrench and screwdriver in hand.

One of my new friends begins humming, and another joins him from across the room. I don’t recognize the tune, but it feels like a light shining through my skin, into my heart. Like the jokes and stories I heard on the night before last, at the camp in St. Regis, this tune they are humming now is their own, from their own culture and spirituality.

I wonder for a moment if the meaning is rooted in a religion I don’t fully understand. No matter. I look around the room. My sister is here. Other sisters and brothers of mine are scattered around the room, already working. We are not here for religion. Our work is bigger than that. We are here to build bikes for strangers, to make things right again.


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