The beauty of self-reliance

  Reader Portia Masterson walked into the office on a drizzly day in late March. It was an unusual moment for a couple of reasons: first, Portia usually sticks close to her home in Golden, near Denver; second, when she's out and about, she's usually riding her bike.


Masterson owns Self-Propulsion Inc., a bike shop that caters to bicycle commuters and long-distance tourers. She doesn't think much of the adrenaline junkies who tear up trails on their mountain bikes. "Every once in a while, we'll have someone walk into the shop with a bike just covered in mud," she says. "Our first question is, 'Where'd you get that?'... Well, don't do it again.' "


Her Self-Propulsion newsletter is full of tips for serious bikers - how to keep your hands from going numb, your buns from hurting and your ears from freezing. Her mechanics are mainly women, who, she says, give "great attention to detail," and she offers discounts to only two groups: folks who pedal to work each day and bike cops.


In theory, Portia's friend, reader Neal Schwieterman, ought to qualify for a double discount. Neal spends his days pedaling around Paonia on his knobby-tired, two-wheeled police cruiser. After only a year here, he knows just about everyone in town.


Before coming to the Western Slope, Neal was a Jefferson County, Colo., sheriff's deputy for 11 years, three of them on a bike. He's full of harrowing tales - like the time he was run over by an irate Christmas shopper searching for a parking spot, or the time a bunch of kids tossed firecrackers at him, thinking he was just a biker in a yellow shirt (he stopped and introduced himself, then got to know their parents).


His most heartbreaking experience came during his last week with Jefferson County, when he answered a call to Columbine High School. "It was eerie," he says. "The first call said, 'There's a 911 call from Columbine High School. There's a party down in the southwest parking lot.' The next call said 'multiple shots fired,' and the floodgates just opened."


Neal spent much of the next five hours hunkered behind a football outbuilding with 10 kids; "Four of them were almost 1084 - that means almost dead." He called for help while the two student gunmen fired down at them from a library window. Amazingly, all the teenagers with him survived the experience.


"I thought, 'I'm never going to live through that again,' " he says now. "I decided to do something active to make sure that doesn't happen again."


That something is teaching Paonia High School students how to kayak. He starts them out with rolling lessons in the county swimming pool, then takes the braver souls out into the local rivers to try their paddle at whitewater. In the process, the kids learn about self-reliance and determination.


Government officials can throw all the money in the world at preventing disasters like the Columbine shootings, says Neal, but it won't do much good. "The biggest problem was that those two kids didn't have the coping skills they needed."