Small streams are running through the gutters of Higgins Avenue, filled by a torrent of rain falling from the sky. For bicycle rickshaw drivers, the weather is a killer. “They’re not waterproof yet, and there’s sensitive electronics to protect,” says Jonas Ehudin, a driver now in his third summer of driving a bicycle rickshaw. The electronics he’s speaking about are the iPod and stereo system, powered by a 12-volt rechargeable battery, that Ehudin and the other driver—born Brian Gharst but known to most simply as Frog—have installed on their rickshaws. Huddled under the generous awning outside Worden’s, the three of us and occasional interlocutors listen to Dead Prez, currently in the rotation on Frog’s rig.
His is the newer of the two, constructed this year in a welding shop the two operate out of a garage on a side street in mid-Missoula. A third rickshaw is in the works, this one intended for foot rather than pedal power. Frog evinces no desire to pull it, and Ehudin concurs: “It’s for our friend Emily; she’s the jogger.”
Ehudin and Frog, in the public eye for their rickshaw driving, view the pedicab work as a means to an end, investing the proceeds of ferrying around downtown denizens into a workshop where they make heavy-duty trailers and develop designs for other human-powered transportation. They call the developing business Brazed Chicken—a name fused together from a type of weld called a braze and the “chicken buses” that Frog encountered during a season he just spent in Central America.
He describes the chicken buses as “a DIY transit system where somebody will buy a bus, and they fix it up and fit as many people and things as they possibly can in it. I feel that relates a lot to what we’re trying to do. This is creating our own form of transportation with bike trailers being able to haul five or seven hundred pounds.”
Ehudin says the trailers haven’t been officially load tested to that capacity but he does recall hauling a quarter-ton pile of metal from Pacific Steel to the workshop using a Brazed Chicken trailer. “It’s slow,” he says, “but it’s possible.”
Because of the possibility of hauling such heavy loads, interested locals have expressed a desire to buy the trailers—which measure 31 inches long by 20 inches wide by 12 inches deep with the ability to pile on and bungee cargo that exceeds those dimensions—and to employ them for myriad tasks, everything from around-town chores like hauling groceries to recreational adventures like hauling gear into or game out of the backcountry.
The first five trailers manufactured have already sold, at prices ranging from $185 for an unpainted frame with a hitch and no wheels to $340 for a trailer complete with wooden side panels, a powder coating for the steel frame courtesy of Missoula business Armor Powder Coating and wheels with tires and tubes. Of the next batch of 10 to be constructed, Ehudin and Frog estimate that “eight or nine” are spoken for.
The goal, the burgeoning entrepreneurs say, is not exactly to build a business enterprise, such as the cooperatively owned and Eugene, Ore.-based Burley Design Cooperative, which has been steadily growing since 1978. “I don’t expect to get rich off of this,” says Frog, “and I don’t really want to.” Ehudin instead describes the goal as “to do this work that has meaning to me and also help Missoula become more bicycle reliant.”
The two craftsmen are also clearly enjoying themselves—while continuing to manufacture by-now standard trailers, they’re also advancing other projects like the custom one-wheeled backcountry cart, complete with suspension, emergency handbrakes and stabilizing supplementary wheels, to help a paraplegic customer get into the backcountry. All told, Brazed Chicken comes off as a sort of mutant engineering A-Team. “We’re open to custom design,” says Ehudin. “If people have something in mind they have never seen before, they should get in touch with us.”
As for the rickshaw business, it furthers both goals of Brazed Chicken’s founders by supplying startup capital for the design and construction of human-powered vehicles as well as raising the profile of those vehicles, thereby changing people’s perceptions of what pedal power can accomplish.
Rickshaw travel in downtown, says Frog, is “becoming less of a novelty and more of a reality as a form of transportation. More and more people stop us, and they just get in and say ‘We want to go from point a to point b.’ It seems like folks are treating it more as a taxicab not like ‘Oh, let’s go for a joyride.’”
As if on cue, a potential customer walks up to where the rickshaws are parked in front of Worden’s for a solidly unsentimental session of haggling. “How much to the Mo Club?” asks the interested party, a man in his 20s headed there from the Iron Horse Brew Pub. “$5,” responds Ehudin, quoting the standard rate for rides in downtown. “$2,” comes back the counter offer. Ehudin and Frog look at each other, perhaps thinking that haggling with someone pretty uninterested in profit is a losing proposition. “It’s raining,” says Ehudin. “It’s raining,” repeats Frog. Ehudin turns back to the potential client. “$7.” The negotiation is over, and the gentleman’s soggy walk south begins.
Soon after, a second passerby recalls an earlier trip on the rickshaw; his take suggests the novelty has not quite worn off even as altered bikes and accessories appear more frequently on Missoula’s streets. “It was awesome,” said the young man, “If you have a lady with you, it’s like New York with a horse…It’s experiencing Missoula.”
That Missoula experience, it seems, is one that increasingly applies ingenuity to locomotion in ways that appear unconventional today, but could be commonplace by tomorrow.