The Corner of Walnut and First

By Eileen MacGairdener

There’s a party at Free Cycles tonight, I'm going. They always have nice parties at Free Cycles. This one is to support four local non-profits. Entrance is free, local beer and local food, 5 bucks each, all you can eat or drink.  You should come! Free Cycles is tucked away down on 1st and Walnut, just this side of the River. There's a corner there with lovely old warehouse buildings. Oh, ‘free-cycles’, yes, they give away free bikes. Well, not exactly, (unless you’re a child) they have some ready-to-ride for sale, they have some almost-ready-to-ride for sale and they’ll help you finish fixing it up, they have lots and lots of bike parts and you can build one for free if you take their bike safety class and volunteer for a few hours. There’s always sorting and tidying to do. (I’ll tell you later how I’m paying for mine) The folks there, paid and volunteers, are all willing to give you whatever help you need and they have nearly all the tools any bike-fixer could dream of. So, yes, you can have a bike for free, not during the parties though, for that you have to come in during working hours, 10 am to 6 pm Tuesday through Saturday.

The building feels warm and inviting, even in the bitterness of Winter here. Old, dark-honey coloured wood floors contribute as does the mismatched furniture, rustic tables, counters, bookshelves and work stations. Painted peg boards hold tools, sorted by size with matching duct tape. Bike stands, to hold vehicles stable off the floor for repair, are made from chopped, clamped and welded bike parts. Shelves and cabinets, bins and drawers are filled with neatly sorted parts and pieces of bicycles. Posters of local events and bicycle memes and tidbits adorn a corkboard by the door. Local art, reminders to put your tools away and tidy your work space, and more bicycle thoughts adorn the walls. The big, welcoming, open room is busy with people and bicycles in various states of repair. Heading into the back, on the left is the Wheel-Truing Spinney Things and the tiny little Spoke Wrenches, then on the right is the Fix-a-Flat table with Air Pumps, a tub of water for testing Inner Tubes, Tire Pullers and possible Patches. Further to the left is the "kitchen" and restroom and the other wing of bike repair.  Out the back door now and here is the courtyard, the piazza. Here's where the parties happen, and the Fix-a-Flat station in decent weather. Immediately clockwise is a roofed over section, good for serving food and drinks. Continuing around, the West wall has a small stage/platform, in back of this is a loading door that opens into the other wing of the building. Bands look good framed in the opening. The North wall of the courtyard is formed by a sticking-out-bit of the building which houses the People's Projects Storage, this is where bicycles-in-the-works are kept with name tags for those who don’t get finished in one day. The Eastern side of the piazza is open and to the fence there are row upon row of small bicycles, waiting for small riders. Unusable Rims decorate the chain link and are even being used to build structures- a Quiet Place is being designed to be something like a yurt-ish/ teepee-ish thing. Climby vines will be added in the Spring, Scarlet Runner Beans maybe or Sugar Snap Peas. Back on the outside of the building, there are racks to lock bikes to made from, can you believe?  bike frames! There are frequently people testing their handiwork in the street in front of Freecycles. It's a quiet neighborhood, the cars all know to watch for pedaling people. A few doors down, there's a large warehouse that's also part of Freecycles. This is the realm of Sorcerers and Mad Scientists who are designing and building anything to do with Pedal Power and/or Sustainability. The previous theme is reenacted here in force! There are literally bicycles everywhere, stacked, lined up in rows, hanging from the walls and the Mezzanine.There's also a big metal table and a mysterious piece of equipment known as a MIG Welder. They do unimaginable things here with hacked up bicycles, retorts, vials, grinders and hot metal.

The most recent addition to the property is a Berry Garden with Nanking Cherries, Currants, Strawberries and Grapevines. More will be added in the Spring, herbs and flowers and Raspberries. This is the beginning of the next level of community here, a Food Forest. Apples, Plums, Cherries, Hazelnuts and Chinese Chestnuts will grow among the rows of bicycles, offering glimpses of future community Pie Contests and pedal-powered Cider Pressings.

Back to the party this evening though; it is mostly younger folks tonight, well under thirty. Drinking and hugging, eating and washing dishes- sustainability is a theme, we wash bowls and spoons and cups instead of throwing them away, this is done quietly and competently in rotation by those hosting. The music isn’t too loud and white light-strings swoop around the edges of the courtyard. There are tables for eating, two bean-bag toss games going and a line for the restroom. As the evening dims, lights are turned on in the corners, but angled away from the crowd. The people at my table include one of the Sorcerers from the Wizard Tower/Warehouse down the street, a friend of his and his friend’s wife and a slightly older couple not-from-here. He went to school here in Missoula and now their daughter is, and she’s involved with one of the beneficiary organizations so that’s why they’re here. The friend and his wife, they are traveling through from Tennessee to Washington and dropped in to say hi. This is Missoula after all. Oh, me? I’m the Garden Faerie. That Berry Garden? I’m building that. And the Compost Piles...

The first wave of starving college students has eaten and as dusk is starting to settle, they begin dancing. The band is fabulous! Bluegrass-type setup, they are playing lovely older folk and some silly stuff (5 Pounds of Possum in My Headlights). One sticks in my memory though. The banjoist is very cute and a very serious musician. An intense vocalist, she lets passion flow in her voice, the words are the timeless ache of the downtrodden, working to fill others’ pockets. Here tonight at Free Cycles, we are supporting groups that reach to lift up the downtrodden, lift up each other, to help and to share and to fix our community.

A gorgeous, clear and warm October evening settles down into Missoula, making black silhouettes of the trees against sapphire skies. There is music and people are happy. There is a party at Free Cycles.