Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Top of Mount Huffy...

...all covered with rust!

Yesterday I went to help Keith Oberg, head of Bikes for the World, a non-profit that sends donated bikes overseas to be fixed up and put to good use by folks who need them for transportation. You can check out what they do here:

Anyway, I went to their storage trailers, to look at a few nicer road bikes to help Keith determine their ultimate fate. I know a bit about older bikes, and he occasionally asks my advice on things. I arrived ahead of him, but he called my cell to let me know he'd be there in a few minutes, and to ask if I'd mind moving a stack of bikes for him while I waited. I looked at the pile:

And it reminded me of my earliest days at the Community Cycling Center in Portland, OR, in their original location. The shop and the whole operation were a lot more modest back then than they are today. A tiny cadre of paid staff, and a bunch of volunteers, a cramped basement for bike storage and not enough space for bike or accessory sales. And out back, Mount Huffy! That was the name given to the pile of bikes out back that had been deemed beyond redemption. You see, like many non-profit bike shops, the CCC takes in donated bikes and fixes them up. Some of the bikes are then used for various programs, such as the Holiday Bike Drive for kids or the Create a Commuter program, where a qualifying adult is given a bicycle, accessories, and a half day class to help them get around by bike. Other bikes are set aside for sale, the proceeds from which helps fund the programs and keep the doors open.

Inevitably in such a situation, some bikes come in as donations that just aren't useful. They may have one or more mechanical problems that there's no cost effective solution for, even with volunteer labor. Many donated bikes are bikes that have been left outside and neglected, so they are heavily rusted, so far gone that there's no hope. And in some cases, it's a combination of mechanical issues and the fact that the basic bike was very low quality to begin with. In situations like that, one has to decide whether or not it makes any sense at all to put a lot of time and energy into a bike that in the end will still have inherent problems. Many such low end bikes were built by the Huffy company, famous for the bikes sold in discount outlets like K-Mart. Thus the name Mount Huffy!

Now, the picture above is NOT Mt. Huffy... it's just the small pile I found yesterday at the Bikes for the World site. To get the true sense of Mt. Huffy, you have to picture a pile of the same sort of bikes, in roughly the same condition, but piled higher than a tall man's head! The footprint of Mt. Huffy was probably about the size of a small bedroom... oh, call it 10 by 10 feet, give or take. And very densely packed. It was a sight to behold. I sometimes wondered, humorously, whether the bottom layers would some day be crushed enough to form a new, man-made geologic strata!

About six months after I started volunteering at the CCC, the shop moved down the street to its current location, a much better space. I wasn't around for any of the actual emptying of the old shop, so I never saw how they cleared out Mt. Huffy. I suspect the bikes were piled into a pickup truck and hauled off to recycling. However it happened, Mt. Huffy was no more. In the new location, a different, better system was worked out. Former Mt. Huffy candidates would get loaded into a large trailer and periodically taken to the recycling center. That's actually one of the many things I liked about working at the CCC... every effort was made to reduce waste. Many old parts were sent over to Resource Revival where they were turned into decorative objects such as picture frames, candle holders or even furniture. For a while, all of our old tubes went to a guy who made flip-flops. And anything else was taken to a recycling center instead of the dump. I'm sure even to this day, some things still end up in the landfill, but as little as possible does I bet.

Bikes for the World has a different mission from the Community Cycling Center... their focus is international, not local. And where the CCC fixed up the bikes themselves, Bikes for the World partners with organizations overseas that handle the bulk of that. While they serve different communities, both operations do a lot to help people who can really use the help. And both demonstrate what I see as one aspect of the transformative nature of bicycling. I've seen it myself, and heard it over and over from others, particularly those who work in non-profits... get somebody on a bike, and show them how useful it can be, how freeing, and it will change their life. It changed mine.


grahamresource said...

Graham from Resource Revival here. Takes me back.

beth h said...

OMIGOD! I remember Mount Huffy! I helped tear it down when the CCC moved. It went out in truckloads, as you said, mostly to the recycling depot but occasionally a passerby would beg us to give him a bike because he was broke; and I think I watched four or five bikes go that way.

The new system is even more streamlined than when you and I worked there, and everything is carefully tracked now. (For all that grant-writing accountability, ya know.) And you should see what the CCC's getting for "as-is" bikes these days. No more 10-dollar junkers; the cheapest "as-is" bikes are now selling for 50 to 70 bucks. As with everything else, they know much more about what they've got than they used to, and perhaps it's helping them get more money for their programs but still...

(That bell of mine you like so much came from a CCC donation bike. I was allowed to buy it for a dollar from the shop. Today it'd be snatched out of my hands and tossed up on ebay for the sharks. Definitely a different world we're operating in these days.)


Tim said...

Hi Graham! I've never met you, but I love what you created with RR. Amazing.

And Beth, at the risk of sounding like a couple of old codgers, I think you and I probably view "our" era at the CCC as a sort of "Golden Age". I suspect that others see it differently!

Alison said...

Hi Tim,

I'm Alison and I work at the Community Cycling Center. It was so much fun to read your pedal down memory path. I hadn't heard of Mt. Huffy, but I sure know what you mean.

Thanks for the story.


Tim said...

Alison -

I was last at the CCC last winter, when I came to town to see the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. The place looks great. Lots of changes... us old-timers may wax nostalgic about the "good old days" but it's amazing place in any era.