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A Short Story by Marshall Riggan

The old man remembered his first bicycle, a cruiser his brother had

assembled from disparate salvaged parts. The frame, from a 1938 Schwinn Flying

Star, had been stripped bare. No chain guard, no fenders, no kick stand, no horn, no

handlebar grips, nor lights. His brother had been a purist, had reduced the concept

of bicycle to its bare bones, to its essential function. The bike’s wheels had wooden

rims that warped when he left the bike out in the rain and produced a loping

motion, like riding a camel. He loved riding that old bike, the freedom, the thrill of

silent motion, the sense that he and the bike could go anywhere he chose, maybe

to the ends of the Earth.


In those days, the ends of the Earth began beyond the bluffs along the

Mississippi River, that “mile-wide tide” where Huck Finn and Jim had rafted down

through the American mind. Here, at the highest point in Illinois, he would lay down

his bike, sit back in the tall grass, and look out at the world, and he would dream of

riding his bike on adventures beyond the distant horizon. In those moments he

would be so absolutely content that he promised himself, even if he lived to be one

hundred, he would never forget those carefree, sanguine hours, dreaming above

the river.


Now, as he entered the Mercury Bike Mart, he smiled at the clarity of the

memory. Michael Moss was eighty-seven years old, and he had never stopped

dreaming of a bicycle odyssey beyond the horizon. But when he was younger, life

had always gotten in the way. Then, more recently, death had, or at least its second

cousin, old age. But the dream had always been there, smoldering away in his DNA.


Never had he seen so many bicycles in one place. There must have been

hundreds. They were formed up in rows along the floor and they hung high

overhead from the ceiling. Mountain bikes, road bikes, racing bikes, folding bikes,

freight bikes, something called BMX bikes. Fat wheels, skinny wheels, some with

seats set so high and handlebars so low that they could only have been designed for

contortionists. There were brands he had never heard of, like Kona Sutra, for God’s

sake, or Endorphin, even one company with a stupid brand called Evil Bikes. Along

the walls were racks of accessories like lights and reflectors and computers and

tools and water bottles and luggage racks. There was a huge display of clothing,

jackets and Jerseys, even padded underwear for both men and women, all in

flamboyant, eye-scalding colors. All that useless shit! For a moment, he mourned

his brother’s brown naked Schwinn.


“Looking for a bike?” the young clerk asked. He was wearing a Mercury Bike

Shop T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the Roman winged god riding a purple

racing bike. It occurred to Michael that Mercury was not only the Roman god of

shopkeepers, but also of thieves. He resolved to be wary.


“Why the hell else would I be in a bike shop?”


Undeterred, the clerk pressed on. “For a grandchild?”


“For me.” Under his breath, he added, “Dumbass.” Michael caught a glimpse

of himself in the mirror next to the rack of bike apparel. He saw a tall, thin old man

with a long beard and ponytail. He found himself irritated at the clerk, the little

prick and potential thief. But then he was always irritated at something or

someone. He generally suffered a low-level aggravation with himself.


“We’ve got just the thing.” The clerk led Michael to a display of adult

bicycles. “Here we have the Royal London 3-Wheel Trike Bike. Very stable. No

balance required.” He moved to another. “Here is the Schwinn Meridian trike. Huge

basket on the back for groceries and stuff.”


Michael rolled his eyes. “I don’t want a damn toy. I don’t want a bike to go

grocery shopping.” He moved to a row of shiny new road bikes. “I want a touring

bicycle. One like these.” He touched the handlebar of a bright red Pinarello. How

beautiful, he thought. He traced his fingers over the leather seat, the frame,

marveled at the exquisite design and engineering. He had always considered

bicycles a work of art, as much a joy to look at as to ride. Then, sadly, as his reflexes

and balance and endurance began to wane, he had set his bike aside. But it was still

in his room, as much a part of the décor as the paintings on the wall. It had been

ten years since he had ridden his beloved old 3-speed Raleigh. As his dream of a

long road trip recently began to resurface, he thought of bringing the Raleigh out of

retirement, but he knew it was too heavy and only three gears wouldn’t take him

over the mountains and diverse terrain that guarded the ends of the Earth.


A group of young people came into the shop and the clerk left Michael for

the new customers’ greater sales potential. Michael walked along the racks of road

bikes, examining each with his eyes and the touch of his fingers. He noticed that

each had a price tag, but he ignored them, noticing only that bicycle prices had

escalated in the last half century. He kept returning to a beautiful black Dutch

bicycle, the hand-made Koga World Traveler. He loved the idea of having a bike

made in Holland and he imagined himself riding along the Zuider Zee where ships

from all the Seven Seas once sailed. The bike looked so solid and substantial, yet he

could easily lift it with one hand. It had a step-over frame to make it easier to

mount with his rheumy old legs. The Koga World Traveler appeared both graceful

and muscular and it spoke to him of independence and the miles and the wind and



“I’ll take this one,” Michael said.


“Don’t you want to ride it first?”


“No,” he said. Refusing to haggle over the price of art, he wrote out a check

for the full price and then rolled the Koga World Traveler out to his van.


Michael had lived in his apartment ever since his wife had run away with her

bridge club partner, abandoning he and his daughters, a half-century before. She

had disappeared from his life, but in recent years, his daughters visited often to

make sure he was eating properly and to remind him he was a lonely, friendless,

introspected old recluse whose funeral would be lightly attended. They insisted he

get out more, take up a hobby, maybe ride his bike again, or join a bridge club. He

would remind them what happened the last time he took up bridge. He also once

had plenty of friends but he had driven them all away with his quarrelsome and

arrogant manner. It was all his ex-wife’s fault. The anger he felt when she left him

to raise two young girls alone, especially through the teenage years, had festered

through the decades, sometimes rising to the surface when he would strike out

against anyone with the abysmal luck to be nearby. He was helpless against this all

powerful force no matter how hard he tried to reform.


He rolled his new Koga World Traveler into his one-bedroom apartment. It

was not difficult to discern that Michael had once been a map salesman until his

retirement some twenty years before. The walls were covered with maps; world

maps, contemporary and ancient, topographical maps, globes, and maps of specific

egions throughout the United States and the world. Azimuthal projections. Conic

projections. Cylindrical projections. But, to Michael, these maps were more than

paper. They reflected one of humankind’s oldest adventures on the planet, the long

pilgrimage to discover the dimensions and nature of God’s world. Over the years,

he had traced some of the most historic and intriguing roads and trade routes of

noted explorers and adventurers. He imagined himself walking beside Marco Polo

and Ibn Battuta and other legendary explorers. In his mind, he traveled along The

Great Silk Road, the Incense Road from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, the

Chisholm Trail from San Antonio to Fort Worth, the route of the ancient camel

caravans across Arabia. Along one wall was a bookcase filled with the journals of

travelers and explorers. It was in this room of maps and dreams that Michael was

most happy, even at peace, here among these bold travelers whose spirit he

shared. Against another wall was his faithful old Raleigh. He had already talked with

it about his need for a lighter touring bike with more gears. For years, he had

engaged in unabashed conversation with his bike, a mute, but gifted and

sympathetic listener. The Raleigh had accepted its fate with admirable grace. It

would be a gift to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Now with a heavy heart and

a keen sense of betrayal, Michael rolled the old bike out into the garage and

replaced it with the Koga. Because he named everything he loved – his pocketknife,

his ukulele, his van – he named his new black bike Shadow. The Raleigh he had

named Walter.


Michael didn’t ride the new bike right away. For days, he was content to

merely look at it and dream. He imagined it framed by the Himalayas, or against a

Persian Gulf sunset, or resting against a giant redwood tree in the Muir Woods.

Sometimes he would walk it around the room, admiring the craftsmanship of its

creators. Often, he would step over the fame and sit back in the saddle, his hands

on the handlebars, his eyes on the distant horizon. It was not settled in his mind

why he was reluctant to ride Shadow. Partly, he knew, it was fear. He was well

aware his balance was impaired. Sometimes at night, he could feel his heart

fluttering like trapped butterflies beneath the covers. Recently, when crossing a

busy street, he had miscalculated the speed of an approaching car and he had been

forced to run, a breakneck loping gallop that seemed to dislodge his vital inner

organs and left him breathless. He feared that to actually ride the bike might prove

how stupid it was to do such a thing. But, perhaps the most salient reason he

delayed riding Shadow was that he had dreamed so long of an epic trek that to

actually begin it might end the dreaming. What if reality didn’t match up to the

dream. It would be like yearning for apple pie and being served rhubarb pie instead.


But as time passed, his resolve to make a grand expedition on the Koga World

Traveler only grew more intense. Then, one morning, as he awakened from a dream

of wheeling freely through strange and mythic lands, he knew the time had come to

make his dream real.


Michael loaded Shadow into his van, then returned to the bike shop to

accessorize his bike for the coming journey. At first, the clerk thought he was

returning the bike for a refund. Smirking, the clerk said, “Changed your mind, I see.”

“Didn’t change shit,” Michael growled. And I still think you’re a little prick,

he thought. And without further ado, he began to collect what he would need for

his expedition. He selected panniers, saddlebags, to mount over the front and back

wheels. He also selected tools, spare bike parts, small bags for the tools and

miscellany to mount under the handlebars and under the seat. He selected a highpressure pump. A patch kit and several water bottles to mount on the frame. The

oddity of a bearded old man outfitting an expensive road bike, drew the attention

of a number of young bikers who were hanging around. He thought they looked silly

in their tight pants and zany Jerseys. He wondered what Daniel Boone or

Meriwether Lewis would think of these outfits. Even Marco Polo, who wore

pantaloons and slippers, seemed more fit for the trail than these clowns. They

gathered around offering unbidden suggestions until he told them to fuck off. He

paid his bill and rolled Shadow back out to Eddie, his van.


It took nearly a week to completely outfit his new bike. From a sporting

goods store in the mall, he purchased a Nemo one-man tent that weighed barely

more than a pound and a sleeping bag that weighed next to nothing. From the

same store, he bought a water purifier, light-weight cookware and a tiny stove and

a small pot and frying pan. For silverware, he would use his pocketknife, Hezekiah.

He also purchased an array of instant and freeze-dried meals, as well as peanut

butter and granola bars.


Then, one night, after watching Naked and Afraid on television, he loaded all

the gear and supplies and clothing he had purchased into the bike’s panniers and

packs. The last thing he packed was Blackie, his Beretta 25-millimeter pistol, in case

he might encounter bandits or revolutionaries. Then he rolled Shadow out into the

back yard where he leaned the bike against a loblolly pine.


A pale crescent moon, like something from an Arabian fable, bathed Shadow

in a soft nimbus of light. All else was darkness, stillness. Even the normal sounds of

the neighborhood, dogs barking, late-night television, a distant train, all seemed

muted and illusory. And there was something else in the night. A massive presence

that had not been there before. Above the loblolly pine, above his garage, the

moonlight revealed a great mountain, its peak frosted with snow. A cold wind

swept down from the mountain’s dark shoulders. Michael shivered, worried about

hypothermia. It was time to make camp.


He removed the tent and the sleeping bag from the bike. By the light of a

small battery powered lantern, he pitched the tent and stuffed the sleeping bag

inside. He wondered if he should build a fire as protection against wolves or snow

leopards or demons. Instead, he removed Blackie the Beretta from the pack and

chambered a round. He turned off the lantern, whispered a prayer he had not

thought of since childhood, then, after a time, he went to sleep.


At first light, Michael rose and made coffee on his little stove. The mountain

rose in the middle distance, blue at its base, the peak shrouded in silver mist. He

listened to the mountain, heard an almost deafening silence. Then he heard the

sound of prayer wheels spinning in the cold mountain air, a magical sound the great

explorer Ibn Battuta had described in his journals. His heart filled with both

euphoria and apprehension, Michael broke camp, packed his gear, climbed aboard

Shadow and set out down the road.


The road between Nepal and Tibet coiled down the face of the mountain,

often through corridors of juniper, often through corridors of stone. To the right,

the Himalayas rose into cloud. Far to the left, were wide golden fields of poppies.

Alongside the road, sheer drops plunged down to a small, swift river white with

rapids. There was a scent of juniper in the air and somewhere in the distance, the

ethereal melody of brass Yak bells haunted the morning. The road of crushed stone

was surprisingly smooth and as Michael maneuvered the downhill curves, he

thought it was the next best thing to flying. Occasionally, he passed a Buddhist

stupa, its dome strewn with colorful prayer flags streaming in the wind. Now and

again, he passed a solitary pilgrim, or a family of nomads. They would pause to

watch this strange, wheeled apparition pass, then turn back on their arduous



The trek was not as difficult as Michael had feared. He had quickly learned

how to work his way through the bike’s many gears, his legs felt strong, and his

balance had returned like a lost memory. At noon, ahead in the distance, he saw a

yak caravan silhouetted against the sky. The caravan was probably carrying grain or

salt, maybe silk, spices, precious stones from China and India. Later in the day, it

was apparent Shadow was faster than the yaks. By evening, Michael had caught up

with the caravan just as the Sherpa traders were making camp. There must have

been two-dozen yaks, great wooly beasts, some black, a few white, most black with

white faces, legs and tails. They all had bright flags and red tassels woven into their

ears. Michael thought, with their enormous size, obvious strength and great long

curved horns, they were the most noble creatures he had ever seen. Their long hair

and tails swept the ground like luxurious gowns.


At first, the Sherpa traders, though obviously curious, paid little attention to

the strange cyclist in their midst. They set about building stone fire circles,

gathering wood and dried dung and tethering the Yaks. Michael noticed they set

out guards armed with rifles. Ibn Battuta had written that caravans were often

attacked by bandits or bands of criminal monks. Michael was glad he had brought

Blackie. The Sherpas showed no signs of hostility. They simply went about the

business of repairing gear, feeding their yaks dried peas, and setting up their yakhair tents. After a

time, several of the men approached, smiled, gestured at the

bicycle. They squatted down and examined the bike as if it were some new species

of animal. Then they rose and gestured for Michael to follow them to where others

had built a fire out of the wind behind a wall make of unloaded boxes and packs.


Soon they were sharing a meal. The Sherpas offered Michael yak butter tea and yak

milk stew. Michael offered the Sherpas peanut butter, granola bars and freezedried potatoes.

After he pitched his tent, he returned to the fire where his new companions

were drinking something that sounded like chaang from wooden mugs. The drink

was piping hot, wickedly intoxicating, and seemed to race directly into the

bloodstream. One of the men around the fire began to play a strange stringed

instrument, some kind of lute with a drumhead like a banjo. The music he played

was melodic, soothing, and Michael began to feel a spiritual connection to the men

around the fire. His stomach filled with yak stew, his brain buzzing with chaang, he

realized he had never felt so happy, so content. Not since those days he lay above

the Mississippi with his brother’s bike those many years before. All his irritation at

the world, at its citizens, and at himself began to fall away. At last, he was living the

life he had always dreamed.


When the fire began to die down and the iron pot of chaang had emptied,

the Sherpas dispersed and returned to their yak-hair tents. Michael crept into his

bright orange tent and wriggled into his sleeping bag. For a long while, he lay

awake, listening to the yak bells. Feeling at one with the Earth, his companions, and

the flow of time. He had just begun to doze off when he heard the first shouts and



By the time he wrestled out of his sleeping back and crawled from the tent,

the camp was in chaos. They had been attacked by a band of marauders who were

firing into the tents, stealing packs of trade goods and driving away the yaks. One of

the bandits was trying to carry way Shadow, struggling to free it from where

Michael had tethered it like the Sherpas had tethered their yaks. When he yelled at

the man to stop, the thief turned and fired his rifle. Michael felt a stinging punch in

his stomach, yet managed to fire Blackie, again and again, until the man fell.

Michael pried the bandit’s dead hands away from Shadow’s handlebars, then he

waded into the melee, firing Blackie at the enemy, until all his bullets were gone

and everything went dark.


When Michael regained consciousness, it was apparent the bandits had

been driven away. The Sherpas were caring for their wounded and burying their

dead. Several Sherpas had gathered around where Michael lay. One was treating his

wound with yak grease and honey. Others were offering healing prayers. They all

regarded him with the deepest respect. Then he felt the Sherpas gently carrying

him back to his tent. For a long while they stayed with him, wiping his brow, feeding

him spoonfuls of chaang to kill the pain. Just before dawn, Michael closed his eyes

and feeling no pain, he slept.


In the morning, it was his eldest daughter who found him. She had been

looking for him in the house when she noticed his tent and his new bicycle outside

beneath the loblolly tree. She found him inside the tent. At first, she thought he

was sleeping. She smiled, realizing she had never seen the old coot looking so

peaceful. Then she saw the blood and the pistol by his hand.


When the police came, their first thought was suicide or an accident. The

pistol had been recently fired. Yet, the investigating officers were confused by the

size and nature of the fatal wound. Michael was carried away. All his maps, Shadow

and Walter, Hezekiah and his other beloved possessions were donated to the Boys

and Girls Clubs of America. Since Michael’s death was an open case, Blackie would

be held in the police property room until the mystery of his death was solved.


If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy my new novel, The Lost Caravan, available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble