Bessie Helped me See the World in A New Light

Joe Lapp - Washington DC

Bessie Helped me See the World in A New Light

The bike that changed my life came to me in my twenties.  I had graduated from college and, after a year of volunteering, didn't know what to do next.  My cousin Glen proposed an east-to-west, across-the-US, pedal-powered meander.  Why not, I said.  But I needed a bicycle.

He took me to Shirk's Bike Shop in eastern Pennsylvania's Amish country.  Run by conservative Mennonites who use bicycles as their cars, it's the local place for a good deal.  They fixed me up with a Trek police bike, last year's model, but I didn't care about that - I didn't have much money and they gave me a good price.  Plus, it already had a rear rack for the beat-up saddlebags my cousin lent to me.  I bought a cow-shaped squeeze horn and christened my new ride Bessie.

Newly outfitted with clipless pedals, I took the bike out for a spin.  I stopped at a stop sign and immediately fell over.  I had never ridden with clipless pedals before.  I also had not ridden more than 50 miles in a day before.  I didn't really know what I was in for.

The next three months were some of the best of my life as I rode that Trek from Lancaster, Pennsylvania all the way to San Francisco, California - via Minneapolis, Winnipeg, and Seattle.  My cousin and I camped in backyards and by streams, lived on five dollars a day each, let old and new friends pamper us along the way.  We blazed across the searing flats of the Midwest in early September and survived a 17 degree night in a tent below Mt. Rainier in mid-October.

By the time we rolled into San Francisco in early December, I hadn't done much to my sturdy steed except patch an occasional flat, put on new brake pads, and straighten the rear rack's support rods when they got a little bent from the constantly jouncing bags.  After 5,000+ miles the bike still sported its original tires.  I, however, was much changed - thinner, hardier, more spontaneous, and more convinced than ever of the basic goodness and generosity of the human race.

After the trip I took Bessie with me to live in the 'hood in Washington DC, where it was the envy of young teenagers more accustomed to squealing around the streets in stolen Dodge cars and minivans.  A few years later I flew the Trek to Pakistan, where I rode it around the edges of Taliban country in the hills not fifteen miles from the city where Osama bin Laden was hiding out.

When I left Pakistan I sold my wheels to a friend.  As life happens, that friend - and the bicycle - now lives in Burkina Faso, a West African country just north of the nation of Ghana, where I currently hang out.  I dream of buying Bessie back one day, flying her back to Pakistan, and taking on the famous Karakoram Highway as it winds past 8,000 meter peaks on its way to China.  Or maybe I'll just buy a kid's seat and ride my now one year old son to market on it.

Either way, I'll always remember the faithful Bessie as my first real bike, and the one that helped me see my country - and the world - in a new light.

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