To a child, a bike is the first thing they have that will give them the freedom to venture beyond their home. It’s our first tool to get out and go. There’s something almost mythical about the power that a bicycle conveys. At least that’s how it was when I was a kid. It’s clear to me now how much more restrictive parents are. The culture just doesn’t seem as encouraging of the explorer spirit in kids anymore. And that’s a shame.
As I write this, it occurs to me that the story I’ll be telling runs counter to the standard AS narrative. We aren’t athletes and I wasn’t any exception. We’re awkward and have definite issues in motion. You wouldn’t associate us with getting up on a Saturday and biking 10-15 miles miles in 95 degree heat or conversely below freezing temps. But that was pretty much the norm for me. I used to ride my bike 5 miles a day just as a norm! Why did I do it? Well, I was then and am now an extreme pragmatist. I needed to get to the bookstores and various other locations. My bike was my tool. So I just did. No thought to it.
That was the beauty of going out on a Saturday. I had a destination and I would set out for it. For the period we’ll call the golden era, Summer 1996-Summer 2001 (1), I pushed my body to some truly devastating extremes. Definitely risked heat stroke a few times. Had to get rides a few too. But by and large, I just did it. Through rain and snow, I thrust my body through Conway simply because I wanted to be free. Yeah, if I can’t be clear enough, this is a very happy story.
I suppose I should note how I learned to ride on two wheels. My brother pushed me to do so as a kid and I forced myself to learn through the scrapes. So that was that. Growing up in Houston, I had the radius of a single block and I hated it. When I came to Conway though, that was when I first got the taste. It started with the requirement that I ride my bike to school since the school was a mile away and there wasn’t a bus. At that time there was a gas station between my house and the school so that became my first destination. So many sweets.
At first, I was more than happy with my territory. It was huge! About two square miles. This was more than I’d ever had by far. I could even go buy candy! (2) But, when one gets a taste for something, they want more. So it was for me. I started with the simplest of additions, a few blocks past my school to see my friend David. The new terrain wasn’t sought because I wanted new territory, mind you. It was to visit a friend. But it was the start.
What was the first true new terrain? Ah, that was Briarwood, the local swimming pool. With it came the park nearby as well. I spent much of the summer of 1996 biking to and from there. That was until I decided to add the local independent bookstore to my territory. Nice larger swatch of territory there. Salem Rd joined my area. Nice long stretch of road there. For the summer, that block of road was how I spent my time.
Once the fall came, I added two pieces of territory that would essentially set the boundary for a year. The first was the Harvest Foods, where I got my first experiences grocery shopping. Mostly going to pick up items for my lunches. Funny how that small joy was so exciting. I still kinda miss that place. The second, well that was the Faulkner County Library. (3) I spent a lot of time jumping over there after school. It wasn’t the easiest to get to but man I enjoyed going there.
I’ve noted before that I was pretty isolated during the 1997-1998 school year. So it was with my travels. I crossed Salem road to the Kroger but that was about it. But as I was coming back up from my secluded period, I added a key area: Carl Stuart Middle School. I biked there each day during much of my 8th grade year. With my experiences biking to and from, I decided to expand again. This time I headed downtown. I forget why that mattered to me but I really loved going there anyway. I also added out to Nutter’s Chapel during that era too. But all of this led up to a holy grail.
Understand what Oak Street was to me. Oak Street was the commercial center of Conway then and to a great degree is now. The problem: Harkrider and Oak. A terrible, terrible intersection. Oh what laid beyond it was so tempting. And finally, I cracked it. I saw a secret. Cross Harkrider by the Catholic Church. It was a much lighter trafficked intersection. Then, take a side street over to Oak and boom! I made it. So yup, in mid-May 1999, I made my way to Oak down to the interstate. Adding Wal-Mart in August, the new Hastings in September and the new Wal-Mart in January 2000 and I essentially had Conway. (4)
With all of that established, I suppose I could say I had a routine circa November 1999 to June 2001. I’d get up as soon as the bank opened on a Saturday, cash my allowance at Regions, and light out. My typical route would first send me down Oak to the used bookstore as my final destination. Then up to Wal-mart using side streets before sliding up the Hendrix pedestrian bridge to Hastings. The route would shuffle but I almost always took a circuit through Conway.
When I was on my bike, I was at peace. My life could get chaotic but on my bike things were quiet. I always lost myself in the simple task of driving myself through town. When I say my mind would leave me during the ride, I don’t mean I wasn’t focused on the task. I knew my safety rules! But there was something transcendent about the feeling of it. Realize that as an aspie, I’m prone to sensory overstimulation. As a cyclist, I could block that out. Even in the peak of the heat or cold, I was just fixated on going.
And make no mistake, this took a physical toll on me. I never suffered heat stroke but there were times I nearly did. On one great ride, I would ride through below freezing temperatures from 10 am until 6. (5) My body would always ache pretty nicely. And of course, I wrecked. Best was when I hit a grate, my front wheel flew off and I got banged up badly. I desperately chugged Gatorade on my trips to get by.
My rides might’ve been exhausting but the reasons I went biking, oh those were for things as consequential as used books and candy. Oh, there might’ve been the times I had Christmas or birthday money, but these were usually runs to grab a new Star Wars book or a Buffy novel. I would hurtle myself across town in the height of summer at times even just to see if the shops had new books in. I would journey simply to grab Christmas candy. I had the worst judgment then. But this was how I spent my time and I loved it.
And it’s hard to convey now what joy that was. Admittedly, my bike was how I outran my loneliness to a great degree. It was what I did instead of laying in my bed on the weekend. And yeah, I thought about that from time to time. I really didn’t have much of a social life in that era. But I had this and it did the trick.
So why did it end? Well, that can be explained like when all forms of transportation get overtaken: I started driving. I got my license in the summer of 2001 and that pretty much was that. I started driving to get around because it made logical sense. I initially was reluctant but came to enjoy it. My drives were pretty much identical to my biking after all. And with those I could add Little Rock! I could go out of state! And in time I might discuss those journeys but they really aren’t that different. Same thing: going in the hunt.
Do I miss it? Of course. I would be a cyclist today were Little Rock not as challenging as it is. Virtually every street here is hills which I’ve never had any luck with. I might as well walk and frequently do when I can. But ah, those were the golden years. I cherish my past as a cyclist and for that reason, my kids will own a bike. I was an unlikely cyclist but I was a good one.
(Oh and do I have a favorite trip? I have several. My first trip down Oak. The 2001 cold. Going Christmas shopping in 1999. My 16th birthday. )
(1) Yes, that does include the era I’ve referred to as a Dark era in my life. Life is a wildly mixed bag. Not everything was all bad.
(2) I have a massive sweet tooth. Not had. Have.
(3) I know, I’ve expressed my issues with it but it was what I had.
(4) Never had/wanted Towne Centre or Dave Ward past Nutters Chapel.
(5) First Friday of 2001! Great, great ride.