“OH, YOU’RE LOOKING FOR MATTY? He’s out picking up a generator. Go on up.”
The place looked less like a residence and more like a construction site. A handful of beautiful straw bale structures were scattered around the six and a half acres, spots of civilization in an expanse of overgrown clutter. Building materials and garbage and tools were strewn about, an obstacle course for the myriad chickens and turkeys clucking around. Above our heads, one of the city’s power lines tore through the sky directly above a solar panel mounted in a vegetable garden.
Matty’s laughter crept up on us with that playful enthusiasm you usually only see in children. “Yeah, we try to pretend that’s not there.” His scraggly beard clung to his chin like oily straw. “A couple of good ol’ boys came working through here and they were just like ‘Man! You guys livin’ right here under the power line and you ain’t even hooked into the grid? That’s awesome!’” The sun shot off his lip ring and he scooped up his four-year-old son.
He’s one of the mechanics who taught us everything we know about bicycles. This journey needed a method that spoke to its vision, and traveling by bike seemed like an obvious place to start. We would be forced to attach ourselves to the landscape, and we’d be greatly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels in the process. But the bicycles wouldn’t just pop out of thin air; a great deal of labor, resources, and energy goes into putting a bike on the shelf in the first place. Sure, we’d be more connected once we got the bikes, but that would ignore the other half of the story.
The metal would probably be mined in Brazil, the plastic manufactured in a Chinese factory, and everything would have to be assembled and shipped around the world by a vastly impersonal network. How could we go forward with this journey starting with such a detached and convoluted story? Beyond that, there were more practical factors to consider. We would surely suffer multiple breakdowns along the way, and neither of us knew the first thing about bicycle mechanics. We were looking for an intimate, localized vehicle, and a cacophony of foreign parts thrown together into an indecipherable machine by invisible workers just didn’t fit the bill.
The reCyclery was started by Joseph and his friend Mike. Joseph used to work full-time for a dot.com on the west coast. After plugging himself in 9 to 5 and slowly learning to hate computers, he and Mike went on a cross-country bicycle trip, ending up in Asheville with a new ambition, divorced from the grind he left in his tracks.
“We figured the best thing we could do was give people bikes,” says Joseph with a subdued drawl lost somewhere between Appalachia and Northern California. It was that simple, and they set up shop. What began with a few ideals and a backyard shack has now blossomed into a full bicycle shop downtown, fueled by a small army of passionate cyclists.
Many people would have taken this ambition and skill to turn a profit, but this group wants something else. “I wouldn’t want to be paid…” Joseph trails off, always chasing a thought just out of reach. “When people are paying for things, they have a more customer-oriented mindset and act like you’re working for them.” His eyes regain focus. “And how many people would come into the project and start being involved just because they could be paid? I do it because I like to do it and if someone doesn’t feel rewarded by that I don’t think they should be involved.”
Learning and teaching and getting tired and filthy with friends is something we couldn’t have bought. It’s given the journey a narrative that isn’t at odds with the stories we tell along the way. As we roll west, the ripple will continue to spread, far away from Matty and Joseph’s quiet sanctuary atop that dusty hill in Asheville, North Carolina.
Noah and Tim are creating a documentary called America Recycled. They are in the midst of a fundraising campaign in which all donations will be matched dollar for dollar, a prize for winning the USA Creative Vision Award. Fundraising ends April 7, 2013. To see this film completed, please donate at USA Projects.
* This post was published in its original form here.