By Susan Lachmann
“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” feminist pioneer Susan B. Anthony said in 1896. “It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
No doubt you have met Opportunity, the Mother of Invention; now meet her twin cousins, Tenacity and Enterprise. You will find them congregating alongside Charis Hickson, who keeps wheels turning with the Johnson City Bike Party on the Tennessee side of these mountains where there’s always an open invitation to join their rolling adventures. Whatever your skill level, you’re guaranteed some good old “I didn’t know I could do that” self discovery along the way.
Keeping a stationary position long enough to get the JCBP story was, in and of itself, a challenge since Charis (as in charismatic) is a mobile subject while she speaks about mobilizing others. Every spoke on every wheel of this woman’s life passion emanates from a core commitment to personal evolution, plus a penchant for sustainable practice. In other words, she wants to get where she’s going by way of discovery, not by following the box mix 1-2-3 easy directions. With family roots in the Appalachian mountain’s culture historically seen as resilient, adaptable and attuned to the environment, she speaks readily to modern culture’s loss of ‘connectivity.’ College studies in music followed by travels with the Sustainable Living Road Show as part performer, part production crew and part education coordinator have further informed her lifestyle choices and confirmed how building community makes way for better connections… a smoother ride one might say!
“My obsession with bikes came while I was in Oakland, California when I was so broke I didn’t even have money for public transportation,” tells Charis. “On Craig’s list, I found a bike kitchen full of really old rusty bikes for reasonable amounts, though barely functional. It got me in the door though, where volunteer mechanics helped me fix one up. I put the work into it! Before moving to California, I had been learning how to work on my own car because if you are going to use something it’s important to learn how to take care of it. Working on bikes is LOTS easier than working on cars. The second day I was working on my bike at the kitchen a woman stopped in, curious if they could help her find a bike for her child. She was new to the area, down on her money, and her kid needed bike. After just a couple days’ work together, they walked out with working equipment. He sat there like a sponge, learning about bike care and safety. It was great!” The bike benefits chain reaction keeps moving forward. “I realized with so much traffic I was getting places much faster and feeling better by the time I got there. Riding was invigorating and enlivening; it allowed me a closer look at things, gave me a better view and enabled me to become much more intimately connected to everything around me. Nobody wants to feel alone; the bike absolutely helps you make more connections.”
Shortly after moving back to Tennessee with her wheels of invention churning, Charis organized the first Johnson City Bike Party in January of 2012. Why? “I wanted to have party on bikes because it’s fun, OK?” OK! Now monthly bike parties, most of them theme based, have become an opportunity for people to congregate and create. Take for example the NOISE MAKER ride, replete with cards clipped on spokes clacking all the way around (remember?), plus hats with spinners making noise while riding in the wind, and kazoo players. One guy even rigged a structure to shoot fireworks from his bike, pedal powered. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your status is,” tells Charis, “if you get on your bike and ride from place to place together, you are going to have fun!” The project has rolled into bigger applications and broader connections now, with collaborations with the city for bike racks and bike trails, bike safety days and educational booths at local functions to inform the public about city codes.
A bike kitchen known as the Little City Bike Collective is now operational and providing recycled bike parts and donation items to benefit the growing community of riders. Volunteer mechanics will show you how to put on a pedal, adjust brakes, and generally help get you more comfortable and self-sufficient with building from parts. Access to education–the right kind of education–is another driving force to the Johnson City Bike Party mission.
When the bike party started, Stephanie, aged 40-something, didn’t know anybody involved. She saw a posting on Face Book about a community ride and just decided to go. Though not a “sports person,” she does identify as a “recycle person.” Guess who’s done every ride with the bike party now along with husband and teen-aged son? “It’s a really big part of our family health activity now. Biking makes me feel like a kid again! When we’re out riding, we see more animals, more of how the seasons unfold.
Socially it’s a good way to meet people. We have recreational groups that ride for fun, athletic groups that ride for fitness and personal competition, plus folks who ride for transportation. My husband rides 22 miles to work every day! We are really into road cycling; we also have mountain bikes and like trail riding. We help kids in the neighborhood learn to ride, too, and my son knows when he gets a job it needs to be accessible by bike.” All this is enough to make your head spin, yet still there is more. Bike party branch-off groups continue to form including local university campus orientation rides for faculty and staff, and at farmers’ markets there are some small children’s groups.
Echoing the words of Susan B. Anthony, Charis Hickson sums up the power of cycling by saying, “Biking has nothing to do with anything but being a source of independence. YOU are the one powering it. YOU make the time, energy and dedication that maintains your bike. It’s YOU exercising the independence to anywhere, whenever you want. The bike means freedom and mobility.”
Find out more about Johnson City Bike Party rides and the Little City Bike Collective bike kitchen on Facebook pages: JC Bike Party and Little City Bike Collective.
Susan Lachmann works in arts and education as a program designer and provider. She remembers well the freedom felt bike riding as a kid and is seriously looking to ride again! You can hear her radio broadcast, Women On Air, weekly via audio stream. See www.facebook.com/womenonair for links and schedule.