Chinook Bicycle

When it comes to the art of giving and receiving gifts, I’m developmentally stuck somewhere around the age of 12.  I know, after 35 years I should have figured out this fundamental human experience out by now, but it’s a ghost that haunts me ceaselessly time after time, year after year.  This quick brain dump is my (hasty) attempt at an exorcism.

The act of gift exchange can be an uncomfortable situation for a lot of people, and I realize I’m not alone here…but I do have a special knack for overthinking it.  Common internal monologues include,  “Did I look excited enough when I opened the package?”  And, “Do I give off the vibe that this is something I absolutely need in my life?”  Followed shortly thereafter by, “Wow, two uncirculated Susan B. Anthony coins mounted onto a marble and brass pen stand.  With my name engraved on the base.  Sweet.”

The flip side can be just as daunting.  What does my reciprocal gift (or lack thereof) say about me?  Too cheap?  Too frivolous?  That I’m a self-centered asshole who doesn’t much care enough to send a birthday present to either of his nephews or niece on their big day?  Well, that’s how my uncle rolled.  Or at least that’s the excuse I tell myself.

But for me, there is one type of gift where all of the internal hand wringing and gnashing of teeth doesn’t happen at all.  It’s a somewhat common type of present, truth be told, but something we associate more with our older sibling’s worn-out jeans or busted athletic shoes than a traditional gift. 

It’s called a hand-me-down.  

No, the type of hand-me-down I speak of is much different than a pair of old Adidas cleats, and often carries significantly more personal attachment.  To say that this type of gift has seen a comeback in the last decade would not be untrue.  When the economy took a shit in the late 2000’s, we were all looking for ways to be cost-conscious when it came to non-life essential things like giving gifts and choosing one ply versus two.  But in the past few years, we’ve also seen this tradition start to dip into cliché territory. 

Terms like, “Heirloom Quality” and “Heritage Goods” are now attached to items we ourselves won’t have much use for in a few years, let alone our offspring decades down the road.  But true representations of this idea still exist.  And I’ve noticed an uptick in this kind of giving as our parent’s generation winds down.

It’s a romantic notion -- a mother or father (or grandparent) handing down something that is so precious to them they can’t imagine anyone else but you taking it and making it part of your own life.  And it’s my experience that this kind of exchange tends to go down one way -- the giver struggles ever so slightly with the idea that they are parting with something they know so intimately well, they often don’t know how to let go.  This exchange can take more than the few moments.  Sometimes it takes days (or even years). 

A minute or two more of backstory before I get to the point; I had the good fortune of meeting and eventually marrying a lovely lady named Meghan who grew up with two parents who were very successful.  Her mom (Niki) and dad (Greg) could afford nice things.  And they had great taste.  They spent their money wisely on things they knew they would love and put to use for years to come.  But now they’re hitting the age where they don’t need as much stuff and have found other hobbies that have rendered some of these things less useful to their lifestyle.  But still, they have a sort of relationship with a lot of material things they used day in, day out.  Because it was good stuff!  And like anything we as humans care for, inanimate objects included, there are a lot of feelings wrapped up in the preservation and continuation of something precious to us.

Which brings us to one of my favorite hand-me-down gifts of all-time:  A hand-built road bike my father-in-law, Greg, commissioned when he was attempting to run the quickest Seattle to Portland road race of his life.

I could bore you with the details (unless you’re a bike nerd) about what makes this unique piece of machinery so special; things like the fact that it was an earlier Chinook model built by Bruce Gordon, whom some consider one of the godfathers of the hand-built bikes movement the US.  Or that this bike features an older downtube friction system for shifting gears, requiring finesse and finely-tuned muscle memory for finding the right gear without searching back and forth.  Or that it still has all the original Italian Campagnolo components.  But that’s all secondary to what I really love about this bike -- I love it because of the relationship Greg forged with this hunk of steel over three decades.  It meant everything to him.

The story goes, Greg pedaled towards Portland with a fierce level of determination the day he attempted his Seattle to Portland run.  It was a rather hot day when the race started, and in the pre-Goo era of sports, the defacto form of hydration for him that day was Gatorade.  That, unfortunately would be his undoing.  Unfortunately, he ended up in a lake next to the old nuclear power plant off I-5 a good 50 miles from Portland, trying to cool his body temperature down as he hit a wall built by that nasty combination of dehydration and heat stroke.  Not the way he had envisioned finishing the race, needless to say.

But while the STP race was the impetus for having this bike built, it’s really just the start of the story for Greg and his Bruce Gordon bike.  By the time I had met him in 2003, Greg had notched a handful of statewide bike trips in Oregon.  And after the touring days winded down, the bike became his daily driver to work.  By the time we met, he had a half-dozen other bikes in his garage, but the Chinook was the only one I saw him ride every day.

I must have dropped hints almost every time he and I were in the garage next to that bike.  I actually remember the first time he let me borrow it , and how letting me take it for a test spin around the neighborhood -- even a quick one -- took more than a little convincing.  But like I mentioned earlier, this type of hand-me-down is not a quick exchange.  Greg had to come to terms with the conscious-uncoupling of man and machine.

The past three years, I’ve ridden the Chinook almost exclusively when bike commuting to work.  It fits pretty good (Greg’s slightly longer than I am), but it’s one of my favorite things I own in my possession.  The paint shows a good deal of wear, the decals have faded a bit and the components need more maintenance than your average bike, but all the wear and tear is part of the story.  And it still rides like a dream.  Maybe one day Meghan and I will have kids and they’ll have the same opportunity to add to the legacy.  Or maybe all kids will be flying around on hoverboards by then.  Who knows?

Now excuse me while I go drop some hints that the La Pavoni espresso machine sitting idle Greg’s garage needs a new home…