A rose thorn is a rose thorn is a rose thorn is a rose thorn

What causes a flat tire? Often, something where it shouldn’t be: a nail in the driveway instead of a house, a glass shard on the road instead of I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, a staple gracing the garage floor instead of binding an academic paper that no one will ever read.

What caused these flat tires? A rose thorn—a thorn wielded by a six-year-old so delighted by the liberation of compressed air that the victims included two 20-inch tires, a 24-inch tire and a 700×38 tire.

Four tires flattened without unscrewing a single valve cap, let alone manipulating schrader and presta valves.

And, it should be mentioned, four tires flattened without malice. In angry times, it’s a healthy counterbalance to note the absence of malice whenever it appears, to focus on it, to marvel at it.

Pop.

This is not the work of an anarchist; this is the work of a scientist, experimenting with tool making, material science and aerodynamics.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

The scientist, when questioned about the utility of the experiment’s early results, assured an older, more experienced colleague that a bicycle pump would quickly restore the tires to their pre-thorn state, a certainty born of observation, of watching that same colleage employ the pump, time after time, to put air into the tire.

Sigh.

It must have been a surprise to learn that the pump wouldn’t work in the case of these four tires. But you have to imagine that six-year-olds go from one surprise to another, surprises coming in faster at that age than they ever will again.

Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

Observation, after all, does not necessarily result in understanding. You travel to Chicago to see an original painting of Nan Wood Graham and Byron Henry McKeeby. You’ve been aware of it your whole life. But even with close observation, you have no greater understanding of Graham or McKeeby, stenography or dentistry.

The painting, American Gothic, shows only so much, and your friends argue that the models’ biographies and occupations aren’t important. But if people and what they do aren’t important, what about the painting is significant? The house? The second-story window? The pitchfork?

You look and wonder. Why do we return to this painting throughout our lives? What lends authority to these old brush strokes from the thirties? Why is the painting so utterly unitedstatesian? Opinions vary, but that’s all they are: opinions. There are no certainties save this: a painting’s truths are not amenable to experimentation.

Art is not an inner tube.

Observation led our young scientist to believe that a bicycle pump always returns flat tires to an inflated state. Experimentation, followed by consultation, revealed the truth: a rose thorn will pierce an unseen inner tube, creating a hole that lets air escape faster than the pump can replace it. Moreover, such holes do not magically disappear. They endure. And their endurance can only be ended by patching or replacing inner tubes.

The mind of the scientist expanded. The door of the bicycle shop opened.

No doubt both are parts of a larger picture.

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Does everyone know what time it is? That’s right: It’s coffee time!

I once lived in a house with gray siding in Washington, Illinois. You may have lived in a house made of brick in a different town. (Maybe one of straw—quick, is there a wolf outside the door?) I’m not here to judge. But where I lived there were two hybrid elms in the front yard and a redbud tree in the back yard. 

The redbud grew so slowly that to a nine-year-old it seemed like it was always close to death, until the nine-year-old got older and paid attention to other things. When his attention returned to domestic matters, it seemed as though the redbud—just a stick with three to five leaves and always in danger of being crushed underfoot—had turned into a shade tree in a couple of days.

My sister and brother lived in the house. Parents, too. I understand they owned the place. Or at least paid the taxes, which in those times, just like our own, passed for ownership. (You want to find out who really owns your house? Don’t pay the taxes. Someone representing the real owners will show up in short order.)

The redbud was just south of the patio, which is where the patio would have been had there been a patio at the bottom of the back steps. Maybe there was a concrete slab there and I’ve just forgotten it. (It’s not important to this story, so don’t call me on this, Jane.) On sunny summer weekends, Dad would sometimes sit in an aluminum lawn chair with green nylon webbing (maybe blue, again, not important) in the shade of the redbud and drink coffee.

I remember he once asked me to refill his cup—it must have been the first time I had been asked to interact with the coffee maker. I climbed the back stairs with the cup, mentally rehearsing the return trip.

Keep in mind that most of the cups I had used until then were round and without a handle. Climbing the stairs, I practiced using the handle. Seemed pretty straightforward, handy even. I entered the kitchen, confidently filled the cup, probably a little too full since I wanted to deliver value, and returned to the top of the stairs.

But everything was a bit different. I had practiced with an unloaded cup during an ascent. Now I was carrying a heavier cup during a descent. The handle was just as cool as before, but the rest of the cup was noticeably warmer. I considered the unreasonably small knuckle space between the handle and the cup.

First step, okay. Second step, okay. Third step, maybe too quick with the right foot, certainly too quick with the left to maintain my balance. I didn’t spill the coffee, exactly. The contents hovered above the cup and then returned to it. In the speedy resettlement, some of the coffee retired from the battle for the bottom of the cup and landed on the top of my arm.

Hot coffee. Man-o-man hot coffee. But I didn’t let go of the cup and delivered it, with apologies, half full to Dad. I thought to myself That burns. How can he drink something that hot?

Eventually, I started drinking coffee. Turns out it’s pretty easy to drink hot coffee. You just have to practice. I’ve been practicing for decades now. Drinking coffee just like Dad drank it. Just like Mother drank it. Hot and black. The only two things that belong in a coffee cup: hot and black.


(FYI: Sugar and cream are for guests. Given their dilution of a perfectly good cup of coffee, you question their commitment to a life well lived, but, still, they are guests and you’ve been brought up to consider their needs, no matter how foreign to your own.)

I’ve experimented with cold-brew coffee, but it’s not coffee. If vendors want to call it coffee, they’re entitled to, but cold brew is just another drink—like water or wine or soda or beer. I don’t confuse any of those for coffee.

My definition of coffee is an ancient one. Coffee is something that burns when it lands on a child’s arm. If it doesn’t burn, it isn’t coffee. If it does, it might be.

I drink coffee during lunch. In fact, my lunch is all coffee. Oh, maybe a scone, maybe a cookie, but the occasional baked good is only a sideshow to the main event: Hot. Black. Coffee. I call it lunch because it comprises one syllable and I only have a half hour for lunch. If I were to take a three-frickin’-syllable coffee break, I’d demand forty-five minutes to complete the mission.

These days, I mostly drink coffee outside in the shade of trees that were planted on a golf course that no longer exists. If it’s late in the day, I pedal to another coffee spot, one without trees or even umbrellas, and drink in the shade of the building. When it comes to lunch, shade is just as important as coffee. A book is important, too: something to read, something to think about.

Sometimes I’m asked How can you drink something so hot on such a hot day? 

I am told that such questions are rhetorical, not to be answered with anything more than a smile, perhaps a chuckle.

But sometimes I repeat the question to myself, silently: How do I drink something this hot? Well, just like this: sitting in the shade, trying to read a book but really thinking about a redbud tree that’s nowhere to be seen.

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The examined life from Oregon to Patagonia. Mostly by bicycle

To Shake the Sleeping Self
By Jedidiah Jenkins
Convergent Books, 2018

Your dad walks from New York to Oregon in the late 1970s. Finds Jesus on the road. Gets covered by National Geographic. Writes a best-selling book about the trip.

Fast-forward three decades. You feel like you’re sleep-walking through life. The road worked for Dad. Maybe it’ll work for you. What’s your life-changing adventure? 

Welcome to Jedidiah Jenkins’ 16-month bicycle ride from Oregon to Patagonia.

Welcome to hammocks, desert, the Incas, bus and boat portages, boredom, the kindness of strangers, good internet connections, his riding companion’s low-rent approach to laid-back travel—and the thought: “Wow, I like Weston so much more on coke than weed. Maybe this is a good change.”

Note: This is not a book about drugs because Weston didn’t write it.

This is not a how-to

We don’t know a lot about Jed’s equipment, though the folks at Surly must be pleased with his endorsement of the Long Haul Trucker, which he bought after listening to an REI mechanic who had ridden across the U.S. three times: 

“If you’re headed into South America, you don’t want a fancy carbon bike. That thing breaks, you’ll be hitchhiking the rest of your trip. You want steel. Any mechanic can weld steel if you get hit by a car or a bus. This Surly is tough as hell. It’s heavy, but sturdy. That’s the one you want.”

We know Jed uses clip-in pedals and that he apparently choses the day he leaves—fully loaded—to learn how to use them. I do not endorse that strategy. If you can’t figure out how to unclip the first time, or first couple of times, you fall, and it’s hard enough to fall without your stuff than to fall with your stuff. But then again, I haven’t pedaled across two continents. Or through the towns of Pueblos Mágicos in Mexico.

“At the center of each town is a massive cathedral and square. These beautiful relics, still very much alive and bustling with life, are far older than anything in the United States. They feel so completely European that their proximity to the United States comes as a shock.”

Maps and monsters

The internet has its uses, way-finding and shelter acquisition among the more exemplary, and so Jed uses a phone to navigate and an app to find places to stay.  

But the book itself includes hand-drawn maps. Kudos to the author. Maps are the pushpins of travel narrative; without them, even the most thoughtful text can tumble away next to the missing sock that’s no longer under your chair.

Ah, yes, Bogatá is north of Quito; this is the desert you rode though, this the desert you didn’t. More travel books——the artifacts that survive the journey and the author—should include hand-drawn maps. 

In case you missed the advent of smart phones and stamps that don’t have to be licked, the modern era is different from the 16th century. Evidence: While walking toward Machu Picchu, Jed paraphrases what he learns about the Spanish conquest. Let’s just say religion, a recurring subject throughout the book, doesn’t emerge unsullied.

“…the Spaniards tied Atalhualpa to a chair…. The priest rechristened him Francisco, Pizarro’s middle name. Then, acting quickly for fear Atalhualpa would change his mind, they strangled him to death.”

Surprisingly, the map is unhelpful here. I’m looking in vain for the time-honored phrase Here be monsters or at least a drawing of their ship.

Nope. Nothing.

Despite this oversight, To Shake the Sleeping Self makes me want to find out more about Jed, maybe even revisit his dad’s book A Walk Across America. Jed updates his parents’ stories throughout the book and includes a hike with his mom in Chile at the end.

Chile may be no country for old knees.

How to read this book

When my friend Nadia lent me the book, I let it do all the talking, divorced from any additional information. It’s interesting to avoid the Internet’s firehose of explanation and opinion before cracking the covers. I dare say it’s the best way to read.

Want to try it? Forget everything you just read here and pick up To Shake the Sleeping Self. But really, forget everything, and especially be sure to forget about Atalhualpa. And Pueblos Mágicos. And falling with your stuff.

While Jed explores life’s big questions—religion, sex, politics, privilege, whether Weston will rejoin the road trip after a friend’s wedding in Hawaii—he also prompts a huge question that he utterly fails to address.

After reaching the El Chaltén, the end of his cycling journey, Jed writes: “I never got on the bike again.”

What? Ever? Dude…

Guess I’ll have to follow his Instagram—my friend Aaron followed his ride in real time on Instagram—and pick up Like Streams to the Ocean, Jed’s book of essays coming out September 15, 2020, to find whether he still has his balance.

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Why ride an old bicycle?

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Old reminds

A bicycle that has grown old with you has a history. Your history. You turned it into the path and followed the path.

The sun was at a certain angle. The clouds looked like animals or hats. Sometimes they looked like clouds. You looked at them long enough to make sure you didn’t run into them. Sometimes you did. That was when the clouds looked like fog. Because they were fog.

Shapeless, mysterious. Little cat feet. Adrienne Barbeau in a lighthouse. Somewhere, a banjo.

Remember the time you approached the Mississippi bridge at Alton in the morning and only half the bridge was visible? Intellectually you knew the rest of the bridge existed. You had ridden the bridge before. But was the link to the other side still there? Probably. Was it spooky? Absolutely.

There were two ways to find out whether the bridge was intact: wait for the fog to lift or pedal ahead. Into the fog you went. Into the fog you’ll go again.

There’s a story about people suffering from a disease that causes them to go blind. The early stages of the disease involve the progressive loss of memory. The people, realizing they are losing their collective memory, but not yet aware that their vision is next, start writing everything down.

The first notes are relatively simple; as the memory lost becomes more profound, the notes become more complicated, more detailed.

One of the last notes is written on the side of a cow, explaining what the cow is, how to take care of it, how to get milk from it, what milk is and why it’s important, and so on.

I don’t believe this particular note became as granular as how to swallow or read, but the people wrote a lot of notes and then they went blind. And then they got their memory back.

So, happy ending.

A bike we ride and keep through the years is a similar note. It reminds us that we were faster once, that we rode with people who no longer ride, that a brick wall will scratch paint, that stem bolts weren’t always turned with an Allen wrench, that you once borrowed a seat from a friend who never asked for its return, that a bicycle can be fixed, and that they change over time, often because of the way we change over time.

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Chicago-built Schwinn bicycles came with super-skinny, super non-standard seat posts. The new seat post is compatible with standard saddle clamps. The Brooks B15 saddle is another junk box find.

Old is paid for

You hear it in the shop. Two thousand for a bicycle? I could buy a car for that. Yes, you could. But then you’d be stuck with the car.

You know when two thousand isn’t a lot of money? When you stop comparing it to other things.

Two thousand for a bicycle? You could buy a couple of good computers for that. You could buy a lot of Hummel figurines. You could hang around a coffee shop for a couple of years. You could buy the Oxford English Dictionary for that kind of money. You’re right. You could. But you wouldn’t have a bicycle, would you?

On the other hand: two thousand? You could buy four bicycles at the back of the shop for that kind of money. But you can only ride one of them at a time. What kind of sense does that make? Might as well spend the two Gs.

By the way, how much did you pay for your old bicycle? Do you even remember? That was thirty-five years ago. What was money worth then? What is it worth now?

Some people remember the price of everything. Some people do not. They spend money and forget about it. Five years down the road they don’t remember exactly what they spent—only that they have a bicycle that works for them.

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Old is not broken

Let’s be clear. Sometimes old can hurt you. Steel and aluminum have only so many flex cycles.

Still, if you ride an old bicycle without harm, it’s usable. And if it’s usable, why would you not use it?

Ah, it’s obsolete, you say.

But what does that have to do with anything? Every morning I wind a weight-driven mantel clock that predates the Civil War. It’s absolutely obsolete. But it still works, and it offers a calming soundtrack that my digital wristwatch does not.

Ride your bike. The older the better.

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Old is not precious

A new bicycle is a jewel. Everything is just so: the paint glossy, the chainrings unmarred, the chain just as clean as every other part. You park the bicycle carefully. If it has a kickstand, you park it out of the wind. If it doesn’t have a kickstand, you lay it on clean green grass, derailleur side up.

If it’s an old bike, you’re still careful with it. You clean it. Oil the chain. Change the tires. (OId tires are worth nothing; they’ve never been worth anything.)

But you don’t expect an old bike to be pristine. You expect it to support you when you go for a ride. The scratch from year two that use to nag at you no longer rules your attention. It has become part of the bicycle’s geography of use. Grant Peterson calls it beausage.

It is what is is. You are what you are. Together, you go just as fast, though not as fast as you used to; just as far, though not as far as you once did.

You both have your scratches, your geography of use. If anything, you and your bicycle are more compatible than when you first met.

Time plus absence plus rarity sometimes increases the attractiveness of a bicycle.

I would like a Reynolds 531 frame with a full Campy Nuovo Record group. I had a bicycle like this in the late 1970s. It’s no longer made, and most of the originals have disappeared. I put in a lot of quality miles on such a bicycle.

At the same time, however, I can remember replacing the Italian rear derailleur with a much less expensive Japanese mechanism in 1981 and enjoying a huge improvement in shifting.

If I ever get another antique Campy-equipped bike, I’ll go into the purchase with my eyes open, not because of the allure of the way things used to be, but to see how forgiving I’ve become.

Sometimes a bicycle, perhaps a machine from a builder who no longer builds bicycles, turns into iconography, something to be hung on a wall— roped off from the road, roped off from usability.

A painting hangs on a wall; it may even be art. A bicycle so displayed is not the same. You might even contend that once divorced from the road it is no longer a bicycle.

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Old is a habit

Off the bike, you’re a pedestrian. If you’re lucky you have two legs that terminate in feet, two arms that swing in stabilizing rhythm. You’re like any pedestrian so equipped. Some might even say you are unremarkable, but maybe you know your mother loved you and so you are special in the universe. Sure. Whatever gets you across the street.

Before you ride, you’re still a pedestrian. You walk across the basement floor to retrieve your bicycle. But your bicycle has made you a different sort of pedestrian. Now you’re the person walking to a Bianchi, to a Nishiki, to a Peugeot.

The bicycle you walk to is different from other bicycles. You have become the sort of person who rides a Trek with a water bottle, a Kona with lights, a Giant with a seat bag, a Speedvagen with GPS, a spray-painted bicycle with a milk crate zip-tied to the rack.

Your bicycle changes your expectations. A blank wall is now the support system for your Motobecane. You know how the handlebars turn as the bicycle settles into its parked position. You know when it’s really parked and when it’s about to roll.

Back on the road, you know how much lean it takes to turn to the right, to the left. You don’t think about it; you might even think you’re controlling the bicycle when all you’re doing is correcting the bike as it falls to the right and left.

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Old is inevitable

A new bicycle is interesting because it provides an apparent contrast to the linear nature of time. Sometimes it’s an improvement; sometimes it’s this year’s marketing effort. But when that new bike gets old, the contrast disappears, replaced by another confirmation that everything gets old.

If you’re always riding a new bike, the joy of riding it soon turns into a hunt for the next thrill. It takes money to pursue this form of serial mechanical monogamy, but you can’t take it with you.

[I have decided not to mention the 1987 movie Moonstruck here. It would take too long to make a convincing link between Cosmo Castorini and the person, maybe you, who always has to have a new bicycle. It might be an unfair comparison. But it is a good movie. By the way, if you’re a fan of Trek bicycles, here are the cutting-edge machines you wanted to buy in 1987.]

You might not understand why someone would gladly ride a three speed with fenders, or a fixed gear without hand brakes, or a beach bike with a rusty chain.

That’s because old bikes aren’t about you, except they are: Old is the path you travel. Every step forward, every pedal stroke, you age. Likewise, everything you make, everything you own, ages.

Geez, Sam—does that mean it’s all downhill from here?

Not at all. Whether you’re riding a new bike or old, you still pedal into the wind and climb the next hill. You still sweat.

But if you like speed and the wind rushing by you while you roll faster and faster, there will be plenty of downhills ahead as well.

Not as metaphors of decline—which never make sense to someone who rides a bicycle—but in the sense the world will tilt in your favor, at least part of the time.

And that part never gets old.

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How the bicycle might have changed everything in 1994. Now, with footnotes

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SAAB claimed it was born from jets. This Miyata, from a company that’s made bicycles since the 1890s, could just as accurately sport a “Born from Guns” decal. (It doesn’t.)

An essay from the January/February 1994 issue of Upbeat magazine. The headline, pictures, captions and footnotes are new.

What with all the talk about the information highway, I got to thinking about that other highway out there: America’s everyday road system.[1] And I started wondering how the U.S. would respond if the Japanese invented a highly efficient mode of transportation. One that used no fossil fuels, didn’t pollute (not even a little), and actually improved the health of those people who chose to employ it. Would it be the missile gap all over again? In other words…

What if the Japanese had created the bicycle just yesterday?[2] What would be the president’s reaction? Would he direct the vice president to make a speech about the bright future of transportation and how the government needs to actively promote the use of bicycles? And not just promote the bicycle, but actually encourage it? Would billions be poured into research? Would Rodale Press quit publishing Organic Gardening in favor of High Tech Transit?[3] How would the Saudis take the news?

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The past, present and future of highly-efficient transportation. Russell’s 1981 Miyata 912, modified with 650B wheels, among other things. (Sorry, no Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor.)

Or would there be a super-secret American bicycle catch-up program like World War II’s Manhattan Project? “Sir, we believe the two-wheeled plan has merit, but none of the scientists are small enough for their fathers to hold them up while they attempt to pedal the machine.”

How would the movie industry portray the latest road-going innovation? “I’m the Derailleur. I’ll be back.” Arnold turns to his trusty dual-suspension carbon-fiber monocoque bicycle and races after his next victims, a pickup full of dirty dockworkers with tattoos like “Leave it or leave it” and “King of Leers.” The camera pans down from Arnold’s passionless face, across his bright lycra jersey, along the bike’s black and seamless frame to the downtube levers.[4] “No one expects a 63-tooth chainring,” he says to himself, grimly shifting the bicycle into the largest gear.

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As you go back in history, Shimano Ultegra cranks are eventually replaced by Shimano 600EX Arabesque cranks. But when you reverse direction and go forward again, Ultegra never seems to reappear. Fortunately, MKS Lambda pedals work throughout the continuum.

And back in the real world…

What of the hapless millions stuck with their old-tech automobiles? “Gosh Marge, soon the streets will be packed with people of the future thinking future kind of thoughts while pedaling their super-efficient, future kind of bicycles. Will we still be able to buy gas? Do you think they’ll make car paths for us? I just hope those biker people don’t develop aggressive attitudes.”

Okay folks, there are plenty of new bikes for everyone.[5,6] For those of you who won’t be pedaling, all we can hope for is that your automobiles don’t depreciate too quickly. Hey, first one in line gets to see Al Gore sweat.[7]


  1. Before the information highway arrived, my paragraphs were longer.
  2. Remember Japanese bicycles? How old are you, anyway?
  3. Rodale acquired Bicycling! magazine in the late 70s and Hearst completed its acquisition of Rodale in 2018. Check the Wayback Machine for Rodale’s picture of itself before the end.
  4. Back then I didn’t need to explain what downtube levers were. I don’t need to explain them today, either.
  5. The “plenty of new bikes” line was pre-pandemic. If you’re looking for sub-$1,000 bicycles in May 2020 the pickings are slim indeed.
  6. I miss Slim Pickens.
  7. In 2006, Rodale published Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It.
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