“No Experience Required.“
That is what grabbed me about the email. The Center for Appropriate Transport’s “Trips for Kids” program already sounded like a good idea, since it gave youth who might not otherwise get the opportunity to get out in nature and learn mountain biking skills. The specific call for volunteers that I saw back in June was for the all-girls ride, which also got a thumbs-up from my feminist brain. But when the call for adult volunteers clearly stated “no experience required,” I went from passively approving of the project to actively writing back. “Do you still need volunteers? I have no experience…”
See, for all my current bravado as a daily bicycle commuter, I came into cycling slowly and awkwardly. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I really started using a bike, gently coaxed along by my sweetie. This same sweetie, once I got somewhat steady on my wheels, tried taking me on his favorite mountain-biking trail. And, of course, I instantly wiped out on the trail and ended up sliding down a hill on my face. Scab city!
My enthusiasm about the Trips for Kids program is therefore multi-layered. Letting youth have awesome experiences not just helps with self-esteem, but it is a big part of helping them shape their very identity, as they learn what they like to do. The more we can get kids identifying themselves as cyclists, as athletes, as nature-lovers, as explorers, the better off we are. (And that goes double for girls!) But on another level, I knew that a big part of me is still an awkward adolescent that doesn’t know how to ride a bike down a gravelly hill without landing on her face. By volunteering myself to come along, I’d be able to role-model the fine art of being inexperienced–even slightly chicken–but sticking with it anyway.
The morning of the trip arrives. The girls drift in, dropped off by their responsible adult types. Their personalities run the full gamut of the coping strategies I remember from middle and high school: the instantly popular girl who is secretly insecure about this new activity; the shy girl who allies herself with the adult hosts because they are less intimidating than her peers; the daredevil girl who pushes herself to ride like a rockstar; the super-intelligent girl who’s not sure how much of her genius she can reveal without social backlash. Most don’t know each other yet. But they are quickly united in their dislike of our ice-breaker games.
The trip leaders are awesome. Athletic, lovely women who are confident with their bikes and savvy with their group psychology. We carpool to Oakridge, deploy the bikes from their storage location, and set about teaching how to adjust seat heights and test brakes. I know darned well how confusing an unfamiliar set of shifters can be, so we go through a little training on how to downshift and upshift. We loop and loop around the little dead-end street, pass around the sunblock, teach everyone how to check tire pressure, and finally ride down the road to the trailhead.
The Salmon Creek Trail is a gem. First off, it’s beautiful: trees and creek and wildlife and so much beauty all around. It’s also a good trail to learn on, mostly straightforward but with just enough tricky bits to keep you thinking. I assigned myself to be the caboose in our chain of bikes, partly ’cause I’m a slowpoke, but also because I was on a mission to make the cautious kids feel at home. “Sorry, sorry, sorry I’m so slow,” the girl at the rear of the pack would apologize. “Are you kidding? I’m way slower than you are!” I’d reply warmly (and truthfully). “Yikes, that hill looks kinda freaky,” one would say. “Yeah, I think I’ll probably walk this one,” I’d reply; “My gut is telling me to play it safe this time, but that’s just me.”
The great thing was that, as we went through more hilly stretches, the speed at which the kids’ confidence built was astounding. In fact, after we had a creek-side picnic and turned around to backtrack, we covered the same trail in so much less time–they knew these hills already, it was no longer a big deal to rattle over the tree roots and whoosh down the roller-coaster bits. In fact, some were purposefully aiming for the puddles by this point, just for the joy of water splashing up around them as they rode.
We took a scenic detour to the fish hatchery on the way back and spent some time feeding gigantic underwater beasties and examining the ecology mini-golf course there. A chance to space out, to wander around. The girls were clicking with each other. “What grade are you in? What teacher?” You know, networking, kid-style. By the time we got back to the van, everyone was hot, sweaty, and eager to finish the snacks. Those who didn’t nap all the way back were busy challenging each other to think of the absolutely most delicious and refreshing food we could be eating right then. It was a very satisfying day.
Trips for Kids-CAT is going strong with great programs. Family mountain bike rides are coming up on Friday, August 27 and Sunday, September 12. Kids and adults alike can hop on a mountain bike and hit the Salmon Creek Trail together! There’s another all-girls mountain bike trip on Saturday, October 9. Learn more about how you & your favorite adventurous young folks can get involved at the Trips for Kids-CAT website.