I didn’t understand then how much would change, or how quickly. Soon after, the road to the park was closed due to melting permafrost and landslides, leaving a bike ride to Polychrome Pass in the archives of the past. I couldn’t get past the current chaos of family life, messy and noisy every hour, looking at a photo of my oldest son cycling to kindergarten one day. And nowhere in my imagination did I have a space for the long pandemic months at home, when cycling was often the only normal thing we did. What I did realize was this: bikes would take us everywhere, now and always. Between sightings of bear chasing and breastfeeding on the tundra, gazing down the well-trodden path into the expanse of the park seemed like the closest to freedom I’d known since becoming a mother of two.
Since the trip to Denali, our cycling styles have matured with our sons, who are no longer babies at age 5 and 7, but boys. In the summer we transported child carriers and backpacks, stacked bicycles on bicycles and covered remarkably few miles without whining. In the winter, we tunneled through snowdrifts and slid on ice, often not in the way we intended. During each season, our fleet shifts with our lives. From toddlers’ balance bikes to trailer bikes, panniers to sleds, tow ropes to sheer stubbornness, the one lesson worth remembering is that nothing stays the same for long.
We’ve often found that bicycles are as essential for entertainment as they are for transportation, such as on a weekend we spent with my sister’s family in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage. With a balance bike, three pedal bikes, four children and three sweaty, backpack-wearing adults, we set out in the rain along a muddy trail. When the trail became too steep to ride, we tucked the bikes behind a tree and scrambled up to a mountain lake where we pitched the tent and peeled off soggy clothes, removed M&Ms from the trail mix and assured our kids that, yes, we would ever come home again. In their imagination, they might have cycled a marathon on a mountain and then climbed the highest peak in the world. To the adults, tired of flattery and bribery and wondering whose bad idea this had been, it felt almost as long. But by breakfast the next morning, everyone’s complaints had faded with the rain. When we returned to our bikes, the kids cheered and cheered, elated at the prospect of riding downhill.
As our range expands, so does our speed, which can be both a gift and a horror. One afternoon, on a local mountain bike trail, I found myself alternately sweating as I pushed uphill and shivering as I waited, tempting one son with candy and the other promising we were almost there, or at least me. thought we were. As we neared the end of the loop, the trail narrowed and the boys jockeyed for position, the youngster making a bold, ill-timed pass. In a haze of wavering steering wheel and splashing mud, they raced around the corner and past a bull country that had come into view just below us. I cycled frantically after them, fearing the worst. When I got to the bottom of the hill and saw both boys roaring but unharmed and the elk trotting off in the distance, I squeezed them hard and close. We sat on a log and I divided the last of the gummy bears in their damp, grime-stained palms, counting them slowly as a blessing.
It would be a bit of a stretch to say that cycling always makes us feel fit and energized, that our family unit is cohesive and cheerful. Even bicycles don’t work miracles. Instead, they help bring us back to ourselves and provide a mirror in which we recognize time as fleeting, parenthood as humble, and family adventures as worth pursuing. Most of all, they expand our horizons and never leave us where we started.