I didn’t understand then how much would change, or how fast. Shortly after, the park road was closed due to melting permafrost and landslides, locking a bike trip to Polychrome Pass into the archives of the past. I couldn’t see past the current chaos of family life, every messy and noisy hour, to a photo of my eldest son one day pedaling to kindergarten. And nowhere in my imagination did I save space during the long pandemic months at home when cycling often seemed like the only normal thing we did. What I realized was this: bikes would take us everywhere, now and always. Between sightings of bear butts and nursing in the tundra, looking beyond the well-trodden path into the vastness of the park seemed the closest thing to freedom I’d known since becoming a mother. of two children.
Since the trip to Denali, our cycling styles have aged with our sons who, at 5 and 7, are no longer babies, but boys. In the summer, we hauled child carriers and backpacks, piled bikes on bikes, and rode remarkably few miles without whining. In winter, we dug tunnels in snowdrifts and slid on ice, often not in the way we had planned. Throughout each season, our fleet evolves in tandem with our lives. From toddler balance bikes to trailer bikes, panniers to sleds, tow ropes to sheer stubbornness, the one lesson is that nothing stays the same for long.
Often we’ve found that bikes are as essential for entertainment as they are for transportation, like on a weekend trip with my sister’s family in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage. With a balance bike, three pedal bikes, four kids and three adults sweating and carrying a backpack, we headed out in the rain along a muddy track. When the trail got too steep to ride, we hid the bikes behind a tree and climbed up to an alpine lake where we pitched the tent and peeled off some soggy clothes, picked M&Ms from the trail mix and secured our kids that, yes, we would one day go home. In their imagination, they could have cycled a marathon up a mountain and then scaled the highest peak in the world. For adults, tired of cajoling and bribing and wondering whose bad idea it was, it felt almost as long. But by breakfast the next morning, everyone’s complaints had died down with the rain. When we got back to our bikes, the kids shouted and clapped, thrilled at the thought of riding downhill.
As our range has expanded, so has our speed, which can be both a gift and a terror. One afternoon at a local mountain bike trail, I found myself alternately sweating on the way up and shivering while waiting, luring one son with candy and the other with the promise that we were there. almost, or at least I thought we were. As we approached the end of the loop, the track narrowed and the boys fought over position, with the youngest making a daring and poorly timed pass. In a blur of wobbling handlebars and splashing mud, they veered around the corner and passed a bull moose that had just appeared below us. I pedaled frantically after them, fearing the worst. When I got to the bottom of the hill to find the two boys screaming but unharmed and the moose trotting away, I hugged them tight and hugged. We sat on a log and I split the last of the gummy bears into their damp, dirt-stained palms, slowly counting each one as a blessing.
It would be an overstatement to say that cycling always makes us feel exercised and energized, our family unit cohesive and joyful. Even bicycles don’t work miracles. Instead, they help bring us back to ourselves, offering a mirror in which we recognize time as fleeting, parenthood as humiliating, and family adventures as mostly worth pursuing. Above all, they shift our horizons, never leaving us quite the way we started.