In this People's History, Leigh Sheridan, HistoryLink's education intern, recounts her first encounter with Vashon Island's famous "Bike in the Tree." Her narrative focuses on how she learned more about this small-town Washington landmark and is an example of how other young people might research and rediscover familiar territory. Her experience shows that history is made as you look for it.
Vashon Island's Manhattan-like size and tree-covered beauty led my brother and me on a multitude of exploratory trips when we were growing up there. Our house was close to Island Center Forest, which provided a lush network of trails for exploration and hiking. Our parents let us drift only a certain distance from home before, "for safety's sake," we were required to come home. But by the time I was 9, my older brother Jack and I were allowed to ride around the island on our bicycles. Early on, these excursions consisted mostly of whizzing down the biggest hills we could find and trying to carefully cross bridges without tipping over into the shallow streams below. Gradually, however, the long summers made us more restless and pushed us to adventures farther from home.
Of particular interest to us was exploring the woods around our town, which were filled with treasures that, to our young minds, were boundless. We found many fascinating things: a tree shaped in such a way that it was perfect to lie down on (we dubbed it "the lounging tree"); fairy rings that led us to research their terrifying legends; hockey equipment buried far back in the woods, dating from around 1970; a mysteriously open path leading to my best friend's house; and an abandoned, fort-like cabin perfect for sleepovers. Often our most interesting finds prompted us to do research and learn more about them, as with the fairy circles and hockey equipment. Then we would construct elaborate stories that centered on what we found, both feeding our quest for knowledge and creating a good story.
By far our most memorable find was one that -- unknown to us -- many people had visited before. On a casual nature hike with my best friend and Jack, we decided to take a little path just outside the main portion of town. As we wound our way a into tiny clearing filtered with sunlight, a large tree came into view. Embedded deep into its trunk was a rusty, child-size bicycle. My friend and I excitedly jabbered together as my older brother stared at it knowingly, projecting an air of someone who'd been there, done that, and seen it all.
My friend and I raced out of the clearing, anxious to tell the nearest person we could find about the mysterious red bicycle in the tree. Jack trailed behind with preteen indifference. The woman working inside the nearby Sound Food restaurant was not impressed. She explained that the bike was a well-known attraction and one of the things that made Vashon famous. My brother snarked from behind, "I could've told you that."
Rather than resign ourselves to the idea that this old mystery had been solved, my friend and I returned home and did some investigating of our own. The legend of the Bike in the Tree turned out to be far more nuanced than either of us expected, and even today it continues to inspire stories as legend mixes with truth.
My personal search for the history of the Bike in the Tree brought up a mixture of myth and marketing, and it was sometimes tough to disentangle one from the other. The variety of sources where one could find the story was particularly interesting. A cursory Internet search showed that the tale of the Bike in the Tree was featured halfway across the planet, in the British newspaper The Daily Mail. The article explained the scientific basis behind trees growing around/through things, but ended with a vague, "One legend has it that the owner of the bicycle abandoned it at the tree in 1950 and left the island forever."
When I researched the tree as a youngster, many accounts were incomplete, and nobody had the full story. It was a fun-fact situation for most people, and bits and pieces were given to me that conflicted with one another more often than not. I went to my mother first, pen in hand, hoping her authoritative adult voice would give me all the information I'd need. Her response was as vague as the rest, unfortunately. I distinctly remember her suggesting that the bicycle had been left almost 100 years ago by a young boy, but that she'd never looked for it herself.
This belief seems to be the most common overall, today as well as 10 years ago. I also remember speaking with my teacher at school. Her answer was about the same, although a bit more specific. She told me the Bike in the Tree was left because the little boy moved away and later went to war, and that pieces of it had since been stolen. Furthermore, a trip with my brother to the Chamber of Commerce placed the time the bike was abandoned in approximately 1950! Finally, I delved into a book called Red Ranger Came Calling by Berkeley Breathed, which was based loosely on the legend of the bike.
At that time, I accepted as correct what my mother, teachers, and other adults said. As a child, the lack of access to more concrete information kept me from truly unraveling the background story of the bike, but new articles and Internet access have allowed me to come much closer to the truth of the story behind the legend.
Snopes.com, the well-known myth-debunking and fact-checking website, provided me the clearest understanding of what happened in the case of the Bike in the Tree, and noted that the common misconception about the bike was the story that I'd been told -- that it was left by a boy who went to war in 1914. Snopes.com had managed to find an old copy of The Beachcomber (Vashon's local newspaper) that featured an interview with the boy who originally left the bike. This boy -- Don Puz -- left his bike in 1954 and never came back for it. His explanation was that he'd simply forgotten about it. "It had hard, solid rubber tires and skinny little handlebars like a tricycle ... I was too big a kid to ride it." In other words, not as romantic as the legend. When I'd asked about the bicycle as a younger child, The Beachcomber article had not yet been printed, and Don had not been identified.
My most recent research shows that the moderate tourist trap that is the Bike in the Tree has a new dimension. In one of the many leaflets that litter the ferry terminal on Vashon, I came across a recent article that sheds more light on the bike's origins. In 1954, the Puz family's home and all of their possessions were lost in a fire. Tragically, Don's father died in the blaze. In true "Vashon fashion," other islanders generously helped the family start again by donating household and personal items, including a gift for young Don -- a red bicycle.
Don's mother, Helen, eventually bought a new house on Vashon for the family. Today, visitors to the island have the option of staying in this famous family home, on the main highway and only a short walk from the Bike in the Tree itself. Naturally, the house is full photos of the bike and books that mention it.
The original legend of the red bicycle persists and pops up at times when I least expect it. I felt a certain amount of "island pride" when I came across the Bike in the Tree on the popular blogging website Tumblr, where it had been visited over 300,000 times. There's a part of me that likes the fact that the original legend still exists, even with its inaccuracy. While it may be factually flawed, it shows that with its uncertainty, a simple but unusual thing like the Bike in the Tree can inspire fantasy and speculation.