The biggest thing to remember when your relationship falls apart, or when you have a flat tire, is it always feels like it is a pivotal moment that might define your life and it feels fatal. But, it’s not. You don’t stop being and you don’t stop moving so you have to deal with it calmly and coolly and understand that the approach to changing the tire is the most important part of moving on. Because nothing about the course of events leading up to the moment when two people exchange I love yous and when they depart is premeditated. Even a suggestion of premeditation might seem fatalistic, I want you to know that not every ride ends on a flat tire. Since you’ve learned to change your own tires you haven’t been on a single ride on your bicycle that ends on a flat tire. There’s no guarantee on the road between people and no remedy to the consequences and causalities of words and their interpretations. There is a way to fix a bicycle tire and keep moving.
It does matter which tire is flat. If it’s the front then it’s an easier experience because you don’t have to deal with the drive-train. So, let’s work through how you change out a rear wheel. Generally on a ride you can feel the PSI in the tires and you can feel if something is slowly leaking because it might seem like the bicycle is compressing into the ground. Something will feel off and though you can’t tell what it is, that feeling is something you should trust. In this situation we’ll imagine you truly got a flat. You heard the hiss, you felt the thump, and you immediately understood what happened. Perhaps there was debris from a tire in the road. The wires underneath the rubber mesh of the debris might have been protruding and after many passes under car and truck tires it might have disintegrated into a small object on the shoulder of the road. It could also be glass or rummage from a working truck, nails and screws; whatever it is, you feel like you know and have the power to fix it.
Just remember before you start fixing it, a flat tire is an offering of distance. It’s easier to carry tools than hope on the road and on a bicycle you need to be ready to help yourself. I’ve found flats on bicycles after a long winter of no riding, however, if you’re involved with cycling over any period of time then the tire will go flat. I’ve had my heart break out on the porch, like a slow leak, and felt it follow me inside to a night of deflating. I’ve woken after rides with a flat from a slow leak. If the risk is a guarantee, it is important to chase it and accept the offering because flats can always be fixed, and most risks earn rewards. The flat tire is a beautiful annoyance that shatters the delusion of comfort and sparks self to the surface; enjoy it.
Because of your experience outside of Levingston, four flats in one thunderstorm and a night spent under the overpass of a highway shivering in the rain, you fix tires well the first time. Let’s use that day. You’ve been out for two and a half months. The day has separated in valleys and rainstorms and you’ve gotten your first flat. It was after passing the debris of a tire, though that experience will be different this time because you’ll fix the problem and you won’t only change the tire. This time you’ll only have one flat.
It’s sunny. Too hot for comfort, but it is the dry heat of the west, Montana. There is a collection of trees off the road. Dismount, lift the back, and roll the bicycle over to that clump of cedars. Remove your front bag and turn on your phone to see if you have service; don’t wait, set it aside, and continue the task at hand. Remove the tent lashed onto the back rack with two small bungee cords and set it on the ground. Hopefully there’s some grass to sit on, if not, use your foot to clear the bark away from a single spot and avoid any loose rocks. Now sit down and make yourself comfortable.
Remember enjoying the experience of the flat is through the approach. If it is a guarantee, then approach it with an earnest desire to rectify the situation and be in it. Don’t move too quickly through the process. Check your surroundings and make yourself at home underneath the shade of a tree, or any shade, if you can. You don’t need too much, but you might enjoy a break from the sun and this is your break because you’ll have spent some time fixing the tube. Enjoy it and make sure to drink water. I know I always enjoy the beginning of the experience, and sometimes I get frustrated, but remember that you know how to fix this and how to keep moving. This is fixable and it will make you feel better about everything. Because you can fix it.
Shift the bicycle into the smallest cog on the rear wheel and then loosen the quick release. At this point you would have to loosen the brakes, but since Estella, a Trek Portland, had disc brakes you simply have to grab the top of the wheel tightly around the tire and lift the bicycle off the ground with your offhand. Now push the wheel out of the dropout and make sure the chain doesn’t stay caught on the gears. Set the wheel on the ground close to where you will sit with the cog aiming up and lay the bicycle frame on the opposite side of the drivetrain. Remember that you don’t want to muck up your chain or your gears, but you can’t hold both things at the same time while trying to fix something. You need to let the frame wait and solve the problem at hand, and it will be fine, lay it on its side. Sometimes bicycles need breaks too.
Take your front bag off your handlebars and bring it with you to the ground. Sit with your legs crossed and pull out your tire levers, your patch kit, your new spare tube, and your phone. You don’t have service, but it is a beautiful day and it might be important to take a picture. Take a picture, but not of the road or the cars, or of the valley that you’re currently in. Take a picture of the wheel leaning against Estella, and Estella lying on the ground. The picture doesn’t mean anything to anyone else and it doesn’t capture anything about you except to say that once you were where you are and knowing that is enough. I know that’s enough. You know it too. We’ve always been dealing with this since we started.
You, on the page, are the actor working it all out. You are the fantasy of my trying to understand what happened. The present consumes me and I’ve always tried to impart something to you about it that might later come back to me because our relationship is symbiotic. You have always been what I need to remember when I write you correctly. A reminder that life isn’t the consequence of a moment haunting the self beyond the point of redemption. Life is a constant and fluid experience. You are the extracted grace of what I am. It’s an unnecessary burden that I give to you, but as much as you are the permanence in black, you are also fluid. You exist perpetually being written and embodying the good things that I recognize and try to point out and keep close like lessons. I will always be learning from you because I don’t know how else to learn. I continue to work hard to teach you and create you, an act that builds me in the present.
Turn your phone off. While you are out on the road, other people are going through life and they don’t actually believe this is anything other than some sort of privileged fad. That will be true enough, but this is special. I know that. You know that. The road is salvation from the time when I’m drowning in lines, the promise of the lines of the road seem like the maintenance that I need to make you stronger. The hardest thing to remember is that I need to approach myself with the same intentions that I approach Estella. You do it though, and well, you grow and forget the haunted feeling of past lovers. Even if sometimes you reminisce it is not bitterly.
Take your tire lever and align it with a spoke, then insert it under the bead of the tire and flip it over the rim. If you’re having trouble, put a second lever further down the rim, then flip both sides to allow the bead to pop out easier. Straddle the tire on your lap and let the wheel face away from you, the tire resting on your chest, and pull the lever along the rim while rolling the wheel. The lever will circulate along the bead and pop the tire out on one side of the wheel.
I sometimes forget, and I forgot then, but you should always remember, and now you will remember that after the bead is popped is the moment when you can change the future by dealing with precision to fix the present concern—where you earnestly work to find out why your tire is flat. Remove the tube, pulling out the valve first, and use your pump to fill it and see what type of leak you have. If the leak is obvious you will see it unwilling to inflate; if it is simply draining then you don’t need to find it yet. Return your focus to the wheel. Instead of having four flat tires later as the day goes on, you’re going to run your fingers on the inside of the tire. First on the left side, where you won’t feel anything, then on the right side. At some point you will feel the sharp prick of metal. It will be a small, sharp wire from the mesh of a car tire. Take the tweezers out of your front bag and pull it out if you can’t get it with your fingernails.
You don’t need to have tweezers with you. But having them is a preparation for the unexpected. Sometimes you might find yourself with a splinter if your handlebar tape wears thin enough, or if you make a fire at night. It feels good to be prepared. Because whether or not you have imagined a situation, you came prepared to face it. You have the tools necessary to solve complications and you don’t feel guilty about what you did or didn’t say. What you did or didn’t do. And, I know you don’t feel guilt or anxiety about my actions because you do not own them and this is where I grow. When I give you these moments like clothes to try on in different positions and in different poses. I anticipate they will look better on you, or you will wear them correctly. I make you hold them forever, Atlas of my life, because when I am gone the lessons will carry on and we will both be better.
Once you’ve removed the wire from the tire it’s time to fix the tube. Fill the tube with a puncture with air until you can hear the tube wheeze. Run your hands on the outside of the tube to feel for the air escaping. If you cannot feel for it, and I have more luck with this, listen to it. Put the tube to your ear and wait to hear and feel the air push toward you. When you can hear it try and move your finger over the hole. Once you’ve done that lick the tube. If you can’t visually see the hole, wetting the tube will force the air to bubble past the water. It will be obvious where the problem is and that is the first step to fixing a problem.
I imagine it’s easier to listen closely for what is broken than to try and find it reactively. I’m trying to work through an experience on the porch. Close proximity, words whispered in the growing dark, listening closely for the pop. Words can articulate that something has gone wrong and maybe actions are the wheeze of the tire going flat and the exit of someone else walking home is the flat. There is no patch to offer solace between mistakes when those mistakes are choices. But, those choices were mistakes and it was impossible to know that except for it to wheeze out and fall flat in the growing distance between a lover leaving and a muted pain, growing to a knowledge of absence. But the echo of a hurt voice only resonates a hurt in the distance between and it doesn’t heal or fix with insistence like a patch.
So, open your patch kit. I’ll make sure that inside is a variety of patches, a sander, and extra glue. Try and clean the tube off as much as possible of grime and dirt. Sand off the area where the tear on the tube is. Apply rubber glue or guerilla glue to the tube and the patch then put the patch over it. Grab your tire lever and use the back of the scoop to create friction through fast rubbing to dry and harden the glue. Look up and enjoy the view. There is no growing and indeterminate absence here. It’s windy and you can see the clouds swirling on the horizon and storming, and you know this will be your last flat of the day. You will ride through the valley between mountains on a road like an oxbow river in the rain laughing and you’ll camp on a nice grassy field.
Let’s assume that the tube is fixed. It’s fixing, gluing itself back together. You have done the work to allow things to get better and now you have to wait. Maybe it’s time to enjoy a cigarette on the road. I know I rarely let you smoke because it is a problematic suggestion on paper, but this time since we’re reimagining something together, you take a cigarette out of your front box and put it in your mouth. Now light it. As much as you can continually change and transform and better yourself, there are things that I know I will not stop even though I know they are absurd. I’ll think about this new absence now, but back then, think of the last love that left you. Remember how she ruined ‘hiii’ because of how goddamn sweet that spelling tasted? Leave the goddamn behind. That’s just me getting in your way. Remember how sweet the ‘hiii’ tasted? How your phone would blink red and you wondered if it was a ‘hiii’ from the distance now nonexistent. How with four characters you felt completely immersed in yourself and connected to another permanently. The word like something out of a John Donne poem.
Smoke the cigarette thoughtlessly if you can. Remember that the flat tire tried to bring you to the surface and let you confront the day. Delight in the present state of matter. There won’t be any animals because the highway is the bridge between civilization and nature, but the absence of both, the absence of the picturesque or the sublime—the forgettable space. Copy-pasted versions of landscapes that could be anywhere and that is where you find the most comfort. It’s crazy that suburbs seem so new, landscapes have been replicas of landscapes in the West since explorers compared experience to the past. Delight in the stories written about a place like this.
I know we can’t blame the explorers though. Every confrontation with something new is a reminder of something you have once experienced or seen because there is no other way to approach the world. It is the constant reminder you face that you are in fact not special, just an experience everyone is having. And that’s beautiful because you can recognize how important it is to be earnest and to deal with others fairly and try and impart to them something of yourself and not criticize them if they take something from you that you didn’t want to give. When you understand we are not special, you can know our interactions make each other special. And this is reassuring because you will always give it all, and I know I try to remember that when I’m falling short of you.
Your cigarette is dying and you ash the finale and rub it into the dirt. Take the butt and put it into your bike box, as much as you dislike the smell of stale smoke that reminds you of what you do to yourself, you don’t leave remnants of your presence on the road. Because owning the experience is more than enough and more than you could ask for and taking that away from someone else is an unfair laziness. Grab the wheel, the new tube, a tire lever and settle into the waving shade of the trees and the sounds of leaves like Aspen chimes. Settle into where you are and understand here is the pursuit.
Fill the tube with a little air. Enough to give it form and remove the wrinkles in the flatness of its curvature. Give the tube its own shape back. This step is important to remove a significant chance of pinch flats. Those generally occur when the tube is stuck under the bead of the tire and you attempt to fill it. With the tube filling and retaining a shape it will naturally stick into the throat of the tire and you can feel more assured that you won’t pop your own tire out of haste. Put the tube in valve first at the hole in the wheel. Don’t just put the tube in before inserting the valve, say what you feel when you know you mean it.
Thread the tube first into the throat of the tire, then thread the tube into the tire. Push it inside the tire so you can feel the partially filled tube in the throat of the tire and can prepare to put the tire’s bead into the rim of the wheel. When it’s inside, use your thumbs to roll a section of the bead into the rim at the opposite end of the wheel. The spokes will be facing you as you do this. You might take it as an opportunity to pull between the sets of spokes and see if the tension is correct. If the wheel is not true, you will feel it when you reattach the quick release and ride because the wheel will wobble and it will create consequences in the long term. But, check the tension because you know it feels good to try and fix things, even if you don’t know how, and knowing what something is wrong stops a lot of problems from getting out of control. Like when I walked away from her in the snow, tracks leading away and you instead turned back and saw that in her eyes she didn’t mean it, and it turned out differently. Make sure the wheel is true because you can’t see what’s behind you when you’re pushing yourself forward.
With the first section of the tire put back into the rim, continue with both hands, moving in tandem up each side of the wheel. Roll the tire itself with your thumb and continue moving toward the top of the wheel. As you get closer the tension on the tire will increase as the bead creates a horizon line across the rim. This will happen when you’ve got about a six inch section of the tire left revealed on the outside and it needs help to go into the rim. Always try to roll horizon over the rim with your thumbs. Roll on the outside while letting your palms slide across the outside of the tire and push upward toward the middle, like you are crimping the tire’s bead into the rim. If you can’t, you can use the tire lever to follow the inside of the rim and it will do this for you; you can do this though and each time you do it strengthens you.
And I guess strength is not actually what I want for you. Each time you do this it increases your endurance to make it through a hardship in your life with precision and poise; it teaches you to remember to respect the tasks that you chose to accomplish and to respect the weight of a job well-done. I’ve seen you in a moment or two where I felt close to calling you beautiful, but your beauty is in what you do and it has nothing to do with how you look. I know I feel a harbored collection of resentment within myself for what I think, but what you do is beautiful and on the road you’ve never complicated that and you’ve shied from opportunities that would take away the beauty of the act and taint it with desperation. I applaud you for that; I applaud you for your tenacity; I applaud you for changing tires well.
The tire is in the wheel, but you need to check for pinches of the tube sticking under the tire again, because pinch flats are a problem. Roll the tire back and look into the rim to see if you can see any buttons of rubber are sticking out. If you can, then use the tire lever to push it onto the opposite side of the bead. Do this around the entirety of the wheel on the side where you inserted the tire. By this time you might feel the desire to lament the flat. Don’t, you will cover all the distance that you set out to cover because this only matters to you and because you are building the worth of yourself by continuously challenging what you are capable of, you don’t have to worry about anything. The guarantee of distance is only limited by the restriction of time and you haven’t committed to an impossible task, you’re here for the moments where you excel.
Grab your pump and attach it to the valve-stem and start pumping. When the tire is full it will feel like a rock. 120 PSI is very strong and you won’t get close to that with your hand pump. You should try toward that though. Pump it as tight against the tire as you can until you cannot move any air in without a serious amount of effort. You will be passing a town somewhere and there will be a place with a pressure-gauge pump that you can use. Don’t even question that, ask door to door if you want; strangers are much more generous and open to you. You look like someone with purpose. The amount of gear you carry with you screams intentions beyond the place you are at and I wish I could figure out how to carry intentions in person, but you’ll be fine.
I should be you. You sound great and so resolute and useful. I love how open you are, how willing to experience for the sake of the experience. The hardships I put upon myself are acts of penance with a mixture of deep and genuine satisfaction. In some ways the idea of penance seems stupid. I feel it makes sense though. I thought I’d be dead by 20 and I acted like it and I’ve been living in compunction since my conscious developed a conscience. There’s just something nice with spending 9 months only interacting with strangers you never see again, and while you can remain attached virtually to your past, you only project your experience of the hardships, and you savor the journey. And maybe there are some people who know me who need to see me suffer; at least I know that I need to see that. But, you can be the written detail of a prayer. Because bicycling for long enough becomes more spiritual than any attempt to intone a chant.
Stand up and wipe the dirt off and prepare yourself to return to the sun and the revolving storms, the blinding light and the pursuit of the horizon. Put your wheel into the drop out, first pushing the derailleur down to open the chain, and attach the wheel to the frame. Pick up the frame and tighten the quick release and try and wiggle the tire to make sure it is both true and firm. Put on your panniers then attach your tent with your bungee cords and put your front box onto the frame. Now, return to the road and be better than I am.