11/28/2014

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Vashon mystery: How did the bike become embedded in the tree?

Vashon mystery: How did the bike become embedded in the tree?
The foghorn bellows out its long, lonely call as our ferry approaches Vashon Island. There is an air of mystery as we plow headlong into a thick bank of fog that seems to dissolve away in our wake.

It's a trip I've wanted to make for some time, because a mystery in the woods has been nagging at me.

I have come here to solve the mystery.

A couple miles outside of downtown Vashon there is a trail that leads into the woods. And at the end of the trail, there is something that stops you in your tracks, something that needs to be explained. Something of a legend, really.

Innocence and childhood are bound together here by the force of time, and the power of our own imaginations.

It is ... a bicycle in a tree.

Across from the woods there is a street, and directly across the street Nancy Weed sits in her office at Vashon Energy and watches.

"What do I see all day?" she says, knowing full well I already know the answer. "Cars pulling in all the time looking for the tree with the bike."

She says it goes on all day long. Twenty, thirty, forty times. They pull up, look around, and then wander off into the woods to get a look.

It is a sight to be sure. Quite literally, a bike in a tree. Not resting against or hanging from a tree, but somehow actually grown INTO the thing! It is a small bicycle, rusted and aged, weather beaten and corroded by the elements.

Who knows how long it's been there, eaten whole by a Douglas fir, gnarled and knotted into its timeless struggle with nature, held up like an offering to the bicycle gods or an allegory of childhood swallowed up by time.

A mother bends down to talk to her 3-year-old little girl. "How did it get up there?" she asks.

The girl has no answers, only, "It's stuck."

Indeed it is.

The thing begs you to fill in the blanks. How did it get there? Whose bike is it? Why was it discarded?

David Erue hears that I'm there asking questions, and he emerges from the trees. He's lived on Vashon for 30 years, and like everybody he has a theory.

"I think somebody just put the bike in the tree to get it out of the way and they were going to come back later, and they just didn't show up for it."

It's become the unlikeliest of tourist attractions. Pat and Sandra Volmer are visiting from Alaska, and they just had to see it for themselves.

Pat ponders the mystery before him. "Maybe some kid took his little brother's bike and hung it up in a tree where he couldn't grab it... then they moved away and the bike just stayed here."

Faroakh Rahmani stops with a group of touring bike riders to take a stab. "There was a man who used to live in this tree ..." he says, like he's telling tall tales to children. Then he stops and smiles, "Eck, I don't know!"

There are clues. Obvious ones.

It is a child's bike.

It is old.

And for some reason it was abandoned in a tree. But why?

It shouldn't bother me, really. It shouldn't matter. It just "is", I tell myself.

But somebody, somewhere knows the truth. Something tells me there's a story here.

Something that Nancy Weed had said struck me. "There's ANOTHER bike in a tree up in Vashon," she said. "At the bike shop."

My photographer Jon Martin and I drive back into town to investigate. And sure enough, there is a bike shop, and in front of it is a tree, and there is indeed a bike in the tree. It appears to be an homage to the bike in the woods, not nearly as old as the original but a bike in a tree, nonetheless.

Jeff Ammon owns the shop. He shakes the frame of the bike, but it doesn't budge. "This one's been here about 10 years, and it won't come out anymore."

Jeff is a good-natured guy, with old pictures in his shop of the bike in the woods, back before the handlebars had been stolen. He's heard all the theories.

"One of 'em was that these guys stole the bike, off somebody's porch, and then they felt really guilty because they were little kids."

He suggests we go to a local hangout, the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie.

At the Roasterie, there are tables in front with locals soaking up the sunshine and drinking coffee. There are gifts inside, all sorts of things really. And Eva DeLoach, who works there, sells postcards of the arbor-bound bike.

She says, "Well, the story is varied, and it has a lot of mystery."

"No kidding," I think to myself.

"But I think there is one woman on the island who might know the answer," she says.

And so, we go to meet a lovely lady named Anne Irish who works at the Vashon Heritage Museum.

She sees the camera, and probably already knows why I'm there.

"OK," I say, "so there's this bike in a tree..."

She laughs. "Yesssss."

She's heard about it, she gets asked about it, she has no definitive answers.

She does, however, show us a kid's book that was written with the bike as a backdrop. It's called, Red Ranger Came Calling, by Berkeley Breathed. It's a lovely Christmas book, with strangely wonderful illustrations.

But, it does not tell who the bike belonged to. Or how it got in the tree.

Ahhh, the legend is a slippery one!

I think about the bike some more. There is pitch from the tree oozing onto the frame in places. There are ants crawling over it. And the old rubber tires are still on it. Not innertube tires, but solid rubber ones. The kind you might find on a tricycle.

My own imagination starts to run away from me. Maybe it was some kind ghost-rider who crashed into the tree and somehow melded together with it.

Or maybe the old story about a boy going off to World War One and never returning is true. "But that can't be," I thought. "Nobody old enough to go off to war would be caught dead riding around on this child's toy..."

Back to the Roasterie we went, this time to talk to the coffee gulping locals.

One eccentric looking chap with Sally Jessie Raphael glasses and a straw fedora says, "Somebody put it there. Years ago. That's all I know."

I can't hide my disappointment.

He adds, "It's kind of a mystery I think.."

Hmmm.

And then we meet Steve Self.

He's lived in Vashon his whole life, which is 68 years.

"My version, coming from some people that might know," he says, "was that Donny Puz was given the bike as a gift." He pronounces the name so it rhymes with 'booze'.

"Who is Donny Puz", I ask?

"Well," he answers, "come to my house and I'll show you."

And so, we drive about 5 miles outside of town to his house. He takes us into the garage and he pulls a box down off a shelf. It's full of high school annuals.

He opens the 1963 edition of the Vashonian. He rifles through page after page of black and white photos. When he comes to the football page he stops.

"There he is! Number eighty-two!"

And sure enough, there he is, a strapping kid with short, dark hair and a serious expression.

I wonder to myself how this boy, who, according to Steve moved away to the Tri Cities, was tied to a bicycle that was consumed by a fir tree. What twist of his early life led to the bike in a tree?

We found Don Puz, and yes, he was living in the Tri Cities. He had grown to become a sheriff, working for a time in his home town.

He told us that he was coming home for his 50-year high school reunion. So we agreed to meet up with him.

We first saw him on the ferry to Vashon, heading back to the Island to celebrate the passage of time and the lure of home.

He's a big man and he wears a big cowboy hat, and he keeps reaching up to hold it so it doesn't fly off in the wind.

We ask him flat out, "Are you the guy? Was it your bicycle?"

Don Puz doesn't hesitate. "No doubt in my mind, first time I saw it, it's my bike. And it's a couple hundred feet from my mom's house where I used to play in the woods."

He accompanies us back to the woods that were his own so many years ago.

He looks up at the bike and touches it. "I keep looking at the front tire to see if it's the same one. Yep. The back one's pretty easy to see."

He starts talking and the mystery unravels with his words.

He tells us about a fire in 1954, a fire that burned his family home to the ground. His father died in the blaze. Donnie was just 9 years old.

The Vashon community, as tight then as it is today, rallied around the family. Donations poured in. Clothes, furniture, toys. And a kid's bike.

Don says, "I had this bike for less than 6-months I bet.."

"Why?" I ask.

"'Cause I didn't like it. It's interesting now, but at the time it was just a little ... it was like a tricycle!" he touches it again. "These are tricycle tires."

So he took it into the woods and left it. He doesn't remember hanging it on a branch, or hoisting it into a tree. But he left the bike.

It's easy to picture, because it's so very human: a little boy trying to be a big boy, ashamed by a little girl's bicycle.

He looks up at the tree, so high now, 50 years later. "This was Christmas tree height when I threw the bike away."

And so the bike was left in the woods.

And the little boy's mother asked where it was ....

And the little boy said he didn't know.

And eventually the boy bought his own bicycle.

And then became a sheriff and lived a long and productive life.

"I don't think I own it anymore," Don Puz says a little wistfully, a little bit in awe, perhaps, of how time makes up its own stories. "I threw it away a long time ago. I think the tree owns it now."

Funny how it works. Our stories bubble to the surface on their own time, paying heed to neither schedule or calendar, or to any of our plans.

This one because ... of a bike in a tree.
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