Food for Thought-The Anonymities of Nice

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What makes a stranger a stranger? How do you tell if someone is from the complex heart of undefinable otherness? Perhaps it begins with the purchase of a map, the posing of a query, or even the blatant refusal of a dog to lick someone’s hand. The bicycle gangs who ride these roads embody the two wheeled world of accessorized strangeness. Embroidered saddlebags from LL Bean, “Hell Hath No Fury Like Those We Delay” patches, and water bottles spiked with more caffeine than Starbucks can legally sell. How do I know this? I lived the strange. I rode strange. I am strange.

Outlaw bicycle culture remains the dirty little secret of the American underworld. Questions are asked and answers seldom given. From the comfortable confines of our cars, we see groups of men (and women) on matching touring bikes. “Don’t they look nice,” we think. “I bet they’re all on some holiday trip.” Maybe it’s true, perhaps it’s the lie the others want you to believe.

In May of 1973, not long after I returned from the Acai Berry Plus Rehab Center (I was overweight and addicted to over the counter weight loss pills), I decided to try cycling. It seemed like the ideal way to lose weight. With no job and little prospects, I had little to do but ride a bike. The solitary nature of bike riding, while it looked appealing in movies, wasn’t something I relished. I knew clubs of riders met and did day trips up and down the outer banks. These were good natured people, people with jobs, kids, families, and other hobbies that benefited society. All I needed to do was buy a bike and meet them at the library on any given Saturday morning. Using what money I saved in rehab, I bought a new Huffy from Sears and Roebuck, a helmet from my German friend Helmut, and shoes. Up to this point in time, I was barefoot, the shoes were designed to serve both life and bicycling.

My new life style would begin tomorrow. On Friday night, before I was to meet my new riding buddies I decided to go out for a night of carousing, cards, and checkers. With $2.57 in my pocket, I dropped into the last place on the left, the only bicycle bar in town, “The Dew Drop Inn”. If I was going to cruise the rolling hills of Ocracoke and make the uphill run to Corolla, I needed all the carbohydrates my body could handle. I would be home by 2 am and at the library by 9. This was my plan. What I didn’t count on was meeting the “Farley Mowat Serpent’s Coil Peddlers Society”.

At first, I was uncertain how they realized I was a bicycle rider. Apparently the bags from Target, Walmart, and Cycle World sitting by the bar stool were giveaways.  The art of floor level deduction is a skill cyclists learn early and use often.

“You riding that yellow Huffy?” asked the in-shape one with numerous tattoos of other in-shape people doing bicycle related activities.

“Yep,” I said. It seemed a frightening enough question to demand a one word answer.

“Who do you ride with now?”

“Me,” I said. “I don’t ride with nobody.” I tried to sound as tough as possible.

“We’re the Farley Mowat Serpent’s Coil Pedder’s Society, and outlaw bicycle gang named for the famed Canadian novelist and environmental writer Farley Mowat. One of our members Denikasi was recently sideswiped by a Z71 near mile marker 71. And while we nurse those ironic wounds, we’re looking for someone to take his spot.”

Each member of the gang received a club name. These names were taken from one of Mowat’s novels. Many of these were Eskimo in origin. Denikasi rode somewhere near the back of the pack. It would be a good place for me to begin. I was to be called Meewasin. Still not sure of Eskimo etymology, I believe “me was in” had something to do my membership within the club.

Through the hill towns of lower Outer Banks we rode with the restrained fury of accountants at a tax preparation conference. Blocking traffic, dealing in bootleg power bars, and holed up in two bit sin shacks; we slept wherever we could find racks for the bikes and a place to blow up our ergonomic air mattresses from Sweden.

For eighteen months, until overcome by a desire to live in a room with walls and drive a car again, I rode with the “Farley Mowat Serpent’s Coil Peddlers Society”. The constant beeping, road rage, and Gatorade addiction was killing me. Life, in its fullest, is a rush when it is lived four feet above the pavement, downhill, in the rain, with a line of traffic behind you. For me, that rush died on the bumper of an Oldsmobile Delta 88.

When the ride is over and the dream ends, look out your car window. Who are those strangers riding by on their bicycles?