Much More than a Cabbie

Michelle Darr
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Michele Darr co-owns The Green Bike Cab, a pedi-cab business in Salem. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Darr's bike cabs can seat two or three adults comfortably, although they have transported as many as six. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Darr rides through the Capitol Mall on a recent morning. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Darr drives three of her children — left to right: Phoenix, Willow and Grace — through the Capitol Mall. When they were 2, Willow and Grace went with their mother on a cross-country bike ride from Oregon to Washington, D.C. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Darr chats with writer Laura Sauter after the two took a ride around the Capitol Mall. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Bike cab riders are encouraged to pay “whatever they thought it was worth,” Darr says, rather than a set fee. She also earns money through sponsorships from other businesses. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Darr's bike cab business, like many of her pursuits in life, aligns with her desire to help the environment and to connect with people and places. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

My first bike cab sighting in Salem intrigued me, possibly because I’d ridden in similar vehicles when I lived overseas as a child. To me, bike cabs were exotic, something found only in the third world. But there was one, whirring through the streets of downtown Salem. I wanted to know more.

I met Michele Darr — who has owned and run The Green Bike Cab (formerly Salem Bicycle Taxi) with her business partner, Stan Trumpi, since 2009 — over a cup of coffee at the IKE Box.

They call their company “Salem’s only 100 percent carbon-free transportation service.” Their three pedi-cabs, manufactured in Colorado, have 21 gears, making them easy to pedal on any reasonable terrain — although Darr tries to avoid the big hills in South Salem. The cabs have a maximum speed of about 10 miles per hour and seat two or three adults comfortably; with a 1,000-pound weight limit, they have transported as many as six.

“Anyone who does this for a living has to have a love of social engagement,” says Darr, who, with her soft blue eyes and muscled legs, looks younger than her 40-some years. “I also love showing people all the cool places in Salem.”

Darr clearly enjoys her job, and I expected during our meeting that we’d talk mostly about her business. But, as is so often the case, I learned there was much more to her story than I imagined.

War …

Darr grew up in Salem and graduated from Sprague High School. When she was 17, she met a Palestinian man, and two years later, they married. The couple moved to Kuwait, where her husband worked, and they had two daughters. Then, in 1990, Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. Darr and her family lived through three months of occupation and war until they, unlike many, escaped — first traveling by bus to Basra, Iraq; then flying to Baghdad and on to London and safety.

The family returned to Oregon for a while before moving back overseas to Jordan. Two years later, Darr and her husband divorced.Against Darr’s wishes, but as permitted by Jordanian law, her ex-husband kept their daughters in Amman, Jordan. Darr saw the girls only occasionally during their first 14 years, when she was able to travel overseas to visit. She felt it was in the best interest of her daughters to avoid a bitter and futile custody battle; plus, she wanted to maintain as harmonious of a relationship as possible with her ex and his family, in order to be allowed access to her girls. Through her travels to Jordan and through social media, Darr maintained a relationship with her daughters, and now they have a close bond.

Those were turbulent years, to say the least. In addition to the family difficulties, Darr says she suffered from PTSD caused by her wartime experiences in Kuwait. She lived briefly in Hillsboro, but the noise from the traffic and air shows at the local airport exacerbated her PTSD symptoms, so she moved to Portland and then to Corvallis. She remarried twice and had five more children. She tried to block out the things she had witnessed in Kuwait, she says, until “9/11 woke me from my slumber.”

… and Peace

Darr leans forward over her coffee as she talks about her passion for peace activism. “So much more connects us than divides us,” she says. “The key to peace is connection. People need to focus on what there is to love and protect.”

After 9/11, Darr participated in peace vigils and related actions at the Oregon State Capitol, but didn’t feel that she was doing enough. On March 17, 2003, just before the beginning of President George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq, Darr went to Salem’s Capitol steps for the first time with signs, blankets and prayers, and began a hunger strike for peace. She remained there for three months, 24 hours a day.

She started her hunger strike with a complete fast, drinking only vitamin teas, coffee and water. After 10 days, she switched to a sunrise-to-sunset fast in order to have enough energy to be able to talk to people during the day.

Reactions from the press and the public were mostly supportive, she says, although one online report from the time recounts that a group of counter-protesters fired paintballs at Darr and her fellow vigil-keepers. “My resolve was kept strong by the support from the National Guard troops and their families who came out to visit,” she says.

Darr reluctantly concluded her fast on May 11, 2003, to resume work and the care of her family. But five years later, in November 2008, she began another hunger strike on the Capitol steps in response to the continued conflict. That time, she protested what many believed were the multiple illegal deployments of Oregon’s National Guard to Iraq; she hoped to persuade Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Oregon legislature to block the decision to send the Guard overseas.

Darr camped day and night in freezing weather — with frequent snowfalls and temperatures sometimes dropping to 28 degrees — in a spot she dubbed “Camp Home Bound.” After two consecutive 40-day fasts, Darr began to experience alarming symptoms of weakness and lost most of her hair. When the governor gave orders to redeploy the Guard, despite the protests, and Darr found herself too weak to engage with people who questioned her about the vigil, she ended her fast “with a heavy heart.”

During the protest, she was arrested three times for criminal trespassing and, she says, “spent the next six years in court,” where she was represented by the ACLU and by local attorney and former Salem mayor Mike Swaim. They argued that the First Amendment rights of Darr and five other defendants had been violated by the arrests. The case went all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, but was ultimately unsuccessful. In March 2009, Darr earned a Wings of Justice award from the independent news nonprofit Truthout for “putting her life on the line for peace.”

Across the USA

In between the hunger strikes, Darr found another way to express her passion for peace and support for those serving in the Middle East, one that eventually led her to start her current business.

In March 2007, Darr and her good friend, Vernon Huffman of Corvallis, set out on a cross-country bike ride from Oregon to Washington, D.C., with three of Darr’s children in tow. Displaying a banner that read “Support the Troops — Stop the War,” the adults took turns riding tandem with 11-year-old Tala or pulling the 2-year-old twins, Grace and Willow, in a bike trailer. When they arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Tala decided she needed her own bike, and rode the rest of the way across the country using her own power.

The group talked to people along the way about the importance of peace and its connection with sustainability, particularly in the realm of transportation. The ride took six months, and it changed Darr’s life.

They biked through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, where the sponsors of the ride, Veterans for Peace, were holding their annual convention. The keynote speaker, then-presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, invited Darr and her family onstage to tell their story and lead the hundreds of attendees in singing “Happy Birthday” to Tala.

The cyclists then journeyed on through Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia to Washington, D.C. In every town they passed through, people came up to them to ask questions and thank them for what they were doing.

“It was so refreshing to go slowly, and to know nothing was being harmed by our journey,” Darr says. “Everywhere we went, we made connections. The whole trip was about love, joy, connection, the environment; it was profoundly moving.”

Sacred Economics

Back in Oregon, looking for a way to make a living that aligned with her values — something that would not damage the environment and that would connect her to place and people — Darr recalled the transformative experience of her cross-county journey and came up with the idea of a pedicab business.

About one-third of The Green Bike Cab’s business is providing tours of Salem for visitors and special occasions. Darr loves showing off her city; she takes folks on rides around the Capitol Mall, Willamette University and across the pedestrian bridge to Wallace Marine Park. She runs a tour of Salem’s celebrated gardens, including spots at Willamette, Deepwood Estate and Bush’s Pasture Park.

Another third of the business involves providing shuttle service for special events, such as the Salem Art Fair & Festival, and the final third is a straight taxi service — a trip to the train station, or to a medical appointment, or a ride home after a night of bar hopping. The Green Bike Cab is popular for proms and weddings and was recently nominated for both a Statesman Journal Best of the Mid-Valley Award and a Mid-Valley Green Award.

Possibly the most unusual aspect of the business is that Darr does not charge a set fee for her services. “When I was conceiving the idea, I couldn’t figure out a fee structure,” she says, with a shrug. “I just decided to tell people to pay me whatever they thought it was worth.”

In keeping with Darr’s belief in “sacred economics” — a philosophy developed by Charles Eisenstein where compensation happens “through the mechanism of gratitude rather than compulsion” — The Green Bike Cab is available to anyone, regardless of whether they are able to pay. All compensation offered by riders, however, is gratefully and happily accepted, Darr says. She also earns money through sponsorships from other businesses.

The Green Bike Cab was Darr’s only source of income until last month, when she took a supplementary job to help with some unexpected expenses (the company is currently running a GoFundMe campaign to help as well). However, the unusually warm and sunny winter has meant more business for the pedicabs. Passengers sit snug and dry under a zippered canvas hood, while the driver wears rain gear.

Riding in the cabs is an uncommon experience, as I found during several recent trips. Moving more slowly — and without engine noise, a radio or a GPS telling me where to go — I noticed more and I felt closer to the life of the street. On a recent spin around the Capitol Mall, I could smell the cherry blossoms, and a light breeze scattered blossoms into my lap. The cab’s tires murmured on the pavement. I heard the hum of voices and the clatter of traffic; as we passed a restaurant, garlic scented the air. The life of the city opened up. People walking by stared and smiled and sometimes waved. I found myself waving back.

About The Green Bike Cab

Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to midnight, although the company often makes exceptions
Contact: 971-209-2224; call to reserve a time to be picked up
Online: thegreenbikecab.wordpress.com or on Facebook

Laura Gildart Sauter writes for the Salem Weekly and has had her short fiction and poetry published in obscure literary journals.

Diane Stevenson is a freelance photographer and videographer who specializes in candid portraits and landscapes. On weekends you can find her pouring wine at Left Coast Cellars and Methven Family Vineyards.