Parenting by Bike: A Boy Named Max

You ever cross someone’s path and roll away feeling like they changed something in you forever, simply by existing as they are? I am Katie Sox, a freelance visual media maker, a professional massage therapist, and proponent of platonic love. I ride bikes, see people beyond their costumes, own my awkwardness and giggle a whole bunch, too. I grew up racing BMX and doing ballet then got into mountain biking in my early 20’s. For me, the privilege to ride is of the utmost value.

With the global pandemic, much of the photo and video work I typically do with women’s MTB clinics, commercial shoots, bikepacking events and enduro races got canceled this season. While the bike products, brand sponsors, and events are what my clients pay me to capture, it’s really the human beings and their stories that I’m interested in. That vulnerability and the connection we share because we all have something in common when on a bike, propelling ourselves forward with feet on pedals – that’s what I’m in it for. It’s not as much the income, the travel, ripping down new-to-me trails, or free T-shirts that I’m missing due to the current situation. I miss witnessing the human element of biking through my lens. I need it. So in an attempt to exercise my atrophied creative muscles, I invited some folks out for a photo shoot in November and was captivated by what I felt. The deep and subtle experience of the humans that ride the bikes is what makes me keep showing up in an industry that can sometimes feel a little bit like a capitalistic high school drama. I show up for work here because I believe that bikes are for everyone and that bikes can make us better humans; that bikes can change people. Bikes helped save me from myself and gave my partner and me something to grow with and escape into, together. I’m 100% sure that bikes are a synergist for our healthy, fun-as-hell, solid relationship. I could philosophize for days about my relationship to myself, my husband, and the rest of the world when my ass is on a saddle and my wheels are on dirt, but I’d rather holler about Max.

He’s 10, curious, witty, well-spoken, and seems to have a positive spin for everything. When I met Max I instantly felt at ease. Like, alright, the world isn’t such a dark place. Max is the type of soul that is welcoming and pure; like he wants well for you. I discovered the Knoth family through my husband Tory who was the Service Manager at Bend Velo, a wee commuter and touring bike shop in Oregon, for several years. He met a whole cast of fringe-y cyclists and salt-of-the-earth characters during that time – Rob and Dawn Rae Knoth are a couple of them. Rob and Tory exchanged bike tour reports and routes, Tory always impressed with the family’s ambition and contagious kindness. He’d come home and share his excitement about “the nicest people ever” who took their 5-year-old on legit bikepacking trips. The Knoths rode a route Tory had designed, which happened to be the route we enjoyed on my very first bike tour – a glorious Southern Oregon loop in the Willamette and North Umpqua National Forests. Serving up sometimes difficult terrain, including extra steep road grades and some serious elevation, the route crests multiple mountains then descends to rivers or creeks, providing the dreamiest camp spots each night. This is not a story about routes, internet-famous bike personalities, or handmade gear. It is, though, a love story. A love story about a boy named Max and how bikepacking with his folks has helped shape him into the gritty, caring, fun human he is.

“He’s so at ease in the outdoors. He isn’t afraid of weird sounds or the dark or animals, bugs, what have you. He’s not anxious about essentially living in the outdoors for a short period of time. He’s at home outside. I think bikepacking has enhanced his “Maxness”. It’s given him a larger world and more freedom to explore, follow his curiosity, use his imagination, know his abilities, experience a vivid, living space with all his senses. I think the time Max has to explore on our trips are his favorite times; he’s so tuned into the magic and details anywhere we go.” says Dawn Rae. Every bikepacking trip she has been on, Max has gone too. He’s done a few without her, logging his first overnighter on a tag-along with his dad. Their first family trip was a slightly longer repeat of Rob and Max’s first trip – an out-and-back overnighter on the Lower Deschutes River Trail, just south of The Dalles, maybe 8 miles total. They swam in the river, the tag-a-long got a flat, Dawn Rae almost stepped on a rattlesnake, and they slept like spoons under the stars, all lined up on a tarp. Max was 4. Later that summer, right before Max started kindergarten, they went on their first “official” bikepacking trip – a 3 day loop Rob planned on the east side of Hood that took in the Old Barlow Wagon Road.

I asked Dawn Rae what her biggest struggle is when adventuring as a family. She replied, “It’s hard to dial down (sometimes way down) the desire to go hard and long, to push myself both physically and mentally and do something BIG. I’ve got to remember there’s a bigger reason we’re out there. And it IS freaking awesome that we’re doing the things we’re doing as a family. Rob and I want to make sure we always strike the balance between effort and fun so that Max continues to want to go. We have enough unexpected type two fun, we’ve got to stack the odds in our favor when planning for maximum family enjoyment.”

One of the best things about Max is the way he and his folks are actually friends. Like, real, true best buddies. You can feel the very authentic way they love each other’s company in the silly noises that fly out of Max’s mouth like a bird call as he pedals along, eliciting a reciprocal call from Dawn Rae, followed by sweet giggles from Rob. The free-flowing love is tangible. It’s easy to be around them. Not because they have all the fanciest bike bags or cycling tights. Not because they have done the coolest routes or because they are the most experienced adventurers, or the perfect parents. It’s easy because they give each other a space to be free; space to be their complete, whole selves in nature, together. When we give each other safety to be our unfettered selves and we feel accepted in that full-fledged weirdness and beauty, we are more compassionate toward the other people we engage with. It’s a trickle-down sort of operation. One that – in my fervent observations of human beings interacting with other human beings – is the root of how we can overcome much of the pain and dysfunction we face as families, communities, nations, and as a world.

We have to tap into loving kindness if we want to function in a healthy manner, no matter what the task. We have to patiently love ourselves so that we have the capacity to offer that same love and safety to others. When I say loving kindness I don’t mean lust, putting people on pedestals, or forgiving harmful behavior on behalf of being “nice” or polite. I mean actual honesty from a place of love, presented in a mindful way that helps someone change potentially harmful patterns. I mean healthy balance and wanting well for ourselves and others. I mean holding each other accountable, planting seeds of self-love and reflection, allowing people to be themselves and making space for one another to grow. I mean holding each other’s hand while we wade through the deep, muddy waters of the human experience. I mean offering the folks closest to us a safe, accepting environment to self-actualize. Because when we are safe and supported in our closest relationships we can learn to love and accept ourselves. When we can accept ourselves, we blossom into gorgeous, overflowing love-flowers whose essence can’t help but be absorbed by others. It snowballs, and the compassion we experience is passed on to the people we encounter in the rest of our lives. Going into the woods on a bike with minimal gear for a few days is prime turf for such a seed to germinate.

Let’s rewind the track a little, though. The reason Max is this rad human whose presence feels both like the warmth of an idyllic grandmother’s love and the fun, lighthearted, squirrely energy of a kid in a squirt gun fight is that his folks provide him with a habitat to allow that internal self-love seed to grow. He has been gifted this amazing opportunity which allows his heart to expand. Once you expand your capacity to love you just keep expanding, you can’t undo that kind of emotional evolution. People around you see that light, feel that grandma’s warmth, that childhood giggle and they want in. It’s contagious, this loving kindness jam. Max’s parents offered this to each other and with that, the dude’s entire being is one created from a friendship based in love and support, developed through riding bikes together. I left the photo shoot curious about the roots of Max’s magic, so I asked Dawn Rae to tell me a bit of her history with Rob and she spilled some beans, saying, “I started riding bikes as a kid. There was nothing athletic or super serious about it; it was just a way to explore my neighborhood, to be outside with my best friend.

I didn’t really get into cycling until after college and didn’t fall in love with it until I met Rob. We fell in love with each other, as we fell in love with bikes. It was a wonderful way to spend time with someone and to see how compatible and supportive we were of each other during the good, the type two, and the downright miserable. We explored so much together via bike, all over the west coast. Pretty much all our trips had some element of cycling to them. It’s a great way to cover ground in an intimate way, to get a sense of a place, a geography, a season, while spending rich time with each other.” She shared an anecdote about carpooling from Portland, Oregon to a race in Bend with Rob, having never met him before. He showed up wearing the exact same sports threads as her – a blue poly pro shirt with a black and marigold Marmot windshirt – she should have known then that the stars were lining up in their favor. They continued to deepen their bond through shared bike and XC ski adventures and got married, but weren’t on the fast-track to parenthood.

In fact, Dawn Rae says they were “on the no baby plan – not firmly, but definitely proceeding that way. I had secondary amenorrhea for most of my adulthood prior to having Max; I didn’t think that I would be able to get pregnant naturally. But around our 5-year anniversary, Rob and I got sweet on the idea of having a little peanut and decided to try. If it happened naturally, then it happened. And it did.” In retrospect, she sees that she had subconscious fear around becoming a parent. Would she be the mom that her child needed, the mom that she would’ve wanted? Would she be attuned enough to her kid that she was the parent that made them feel seen? Is it possible to undo the unwelcome patterns in your own history/lineage when you become a parent yourself? Max is living proof that it is possible. Dawn Rae explains, “It has to be conscious first. And then it’s a constant, messy, challenging, wonderful, learning experience. Parenting is hard but so immensely rewarding. Max is just freaking the best. I love him beyond compare. And I feel so incredibly lucky to be a witness to who he is and his life.” Bikepacking together has been a catalyst in not repeating those unwanted patterns.

She threw down some wisdom about how bikepacking as a family has influenced her parenting style and relationship with Max. “It’s made me a better parent. It encourages me to take constant good look at where I’m strong and where I’m missing the mark. It’s definitely taught me to be more patient. It teaches me over and over, that in every moment, we have to meet those around us where they are. If your kid (or partner or friend) is angry or tired or frustrated or grumpy or just off, whether you think it’s warranted or not is really so irrelevant. You have to pause and validate it, and then feel out, talk out, love out, laugh out, and help out to get to the nugget of why he’s feeling that way. In my experience, it’s not only the fastest way to get your trip back on track, but it’s also the way that builds understanding and strengthens everyone’s spirits going forward.”

Damn, mama, I couldn’t have hit that nail on the head any harder myself. And that’s how we could think of all interactions with humans: In every moment, we have to meet people where they’re at. That, my friends, is loving kindness. That’s why Max is wonderful. That’s how bikepacking has helped his parents to summon up the good in him. That’s how we do better.