A few weeks back we had a mid-winter warm spell. With nighttime lows in the 40s and daytime highs in the 60’s, we blissfully welcomed a few 3-season activities into our mid-winter routine. Warm bike rides, playing fetch in the river, we even went on an overnight backpacking trip. During the thaw, a couple of adventurous ranch boys started riding bicycles through cow pastures and rural roads 6 miles from their home across the valley to our three-room school. On Tuesday, their cousin and neighbor joined. By Wednesday, there were 5 riders and Eva came home and asked if she could ride her bike to school. We live just shy of 11 miles north of the school. Of course I wanted to ride bikes with Eva to school, but Mark had a better idea. Why not drive her to the boys’ house and let her ride with her classmates to school? Without an adult? Wait… what?

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Flash back. So, a year ago, riding to school was our everyday norm. We lived in Fort Collins, Colorado, where separated paths are plentiful and bikey culture prevails. The kids were able to ride from our house to school almost completely on bike paths. We’d developed a bike pool where parents took turns leading the train of bikes to school. The neighborhood kids were well-versed in cycling safety, donned helmets, lights, even flags on their bikes. Despite all these safety advantages, the children were never allowed to ride alone. It barely came up in conversation.

So what is different today? This route was entirely more dangerous. It was 6 miles on ranch roads and pot-holed pavement without line nor shoulder that crossed a busy two-lane highway. Did her riding companions know anything about safe cycling? They were ranch kids, and I had seen one driving a Ranger down the road at age 8. Was I allowing this because we now live in Montana where kids really never stopped being “free-range”?

No, I simply knew she was ready. This was important to her, and I couldn’t get in the way.

6:15 AM next morning. I awake Eva in the darkness and say gently “I know it feels early, but today you are going to ride your bike to school with …” Before I could finish my sentence she was up and out of bed. Every other day of the school year, I have to shake Eva out of bed, struggling to get her vertical by 7:30 am. This morning was different. She quickly dressed, got ready and ate breakfast without being poked, prodded, or pleaded with. This never happens; not even on Christmas.

We drove her down the valley to her friends’ house. I started to quiz her on safe cycling in the car, but her eye-rolling urged me to stop. When we arrived it was still relatively dark. Three kids greeted us on the front yard, mounted on bikes, helmets on. They were ready. A younger sister, and Eva’s friend, had decided to ride as well. The first pink light flooded the eastern sky over the Absaroka mountains. It was time to go. After the boys did a two way radio check, I snapped a blurry picture and coerced Eva into a one-arm hug. She then joined the others as they pedaled south and east towards the river. They rounded the corner and rode out of sight. There she goes…

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Mark and I went in the house and visited with the parents. We listened in as the boys checked in via radio on each side of the highway crossing, when they had arrived at their cousin’s, Teddy’s place, East River Road and eventually the school. Everyone was sticking together, they reassured us. Even on the other end of the radio, we parents collectively shared in the camaraderie.

45 minutes later the kids arrived safely at school to a near-empty parking lot. In all the excitement, they had pedaled quickly and beat the teachers to school. They enjoyed an extra long morning recess and greeted their fellow classmates as they arrived. I can’t think of a better way to start a school day.

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At pick-up, Eva was still high on the experience. Her friend complimented her on riding the whole way up the largest hill. Eva asked if she could do it again the next day. Unfortunately, a cold front was about to hit and the first snowflakes were in the air. Winter had returned, but I was going to entrust Eva with more freedom from now on, I promised.

When we arrived back home, Eva rushed in the house to tell her sister about her day. “I rode my bike to the school with no adults.” She emphasized. As I listen, I am smiling, but also taking a deep breath. She is becoming the strong, independent and confident human being I always hoped she’d be. I better brace myself, this may be a wild ride.

Written by Mark and Erica