Home Is Where You Make It.

by Beth Donovan

WHERE YOU MAKE IT
by Connor Koch

Over the summer of 2020, my friends and I set out on an ill-fated adventure. We wanted to climb all the California 14ers in record time, biking between them and climbing and running our way to the 15 summits. Spoiler alert: we didn’t pull it off. In fact, we didn’t even come close. We made a film anyway, and somehow stumbled upon the real gold along the way. This film wasn’t about record-setting linkups or athletic accomplishments. It was about something more universal: struggling in the face of adversity; finding perspective in harsh, beautiful ways; having a blast and laughing in the face of barriers. Our friends at Kitsbow agreed to premiere the film at their new headquarters, so we headed to western North Carolina for an East Coast adventure. With the fall colors just beginning to pop, we pulled into town ready to screen “A Study of Self” and ride through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Nothing interesting happens here.” When you first arrive in Old Fort, NC, this old-timer’s assessment would appear to be correct. But there’s something very interesting indeed happening on Commerce St., in the old Parker Hosiery building now known as the Old Fort Ride House. Kitsbow took over the building in 2019, moving their HQ and workforce over from their roots in California to try out a new model: high-end bike and lifestyle clothing, made in America, by people paid a living wage. Lots of companies talk big about sustainability and supporting local business, but we found out right away that Kitsbow meant it; within 30 seconds of arriving, we were situated in the Ride House Cafe, drinking coffee roasted in the next town over and munching on pastries from the bakery down the street. Janet and Mallory, the two friendly faces running the shop, kept us entertained with the interactive trail map and Kitsbow storefront until our friend and wrangler Jennah, community lead at Kitsbow, appeared from the back to kick off the factory tour.

We walked into the heart of the building, strolling past car-sized rolls of Pendleton® wool, the world-famous fabric used in Kitsbow Icon Flannel, a can’t-destroy-it piece that looks as good as new after 300 days in the world’s harshest climates. We met the people making the clothes, the faces behind Kitsbow's big talk about community. Ben, who’s a beekeeper by hobby, was running the show on the laser cutter, while Amalya, holding a rubber mallet, applied labels and finishing touches to outgoing bibs and merino leg warmers. The funky, fun crew behind the scenes wasn’t what comes to mind when you think of a factory; these people are real artisans, using skill and care to craft the garments from start to finish, and having fun doing it. They were happy, doing work they love.

After a cheerful goodbye from the folks in shipping and receiving, and a quick photo-release waiver delivered with a smile by Deb, we walked 10 feet through the double doors into Schoenauer Service Course, a bike shop inside the Old Fort Ride House, featuring pro mechanic and immediate friend Chad Schoenauer. After watching us struggle to assemble our new bikes (who knew that the charge port for the space-age Di2 rear derailleur is in the handlebars?!), Chad took pity on us and stepped in to handle the situation, greasing, cranking, truing, and tweaking our Ventum GS1s into Blue Ridge mode just in time for the main event: the group ride and film screening. Chad’s expert bike and people skills, delivered with an unfaltering smile, are just another component in the first-class service found in every corner of Kitsbow headquarters.

With bikes ready to rip, we headed outside for a bit of fresh air before the ride. Ryan, a Black Mountain local with some zany climbing and bike trips under his belt, showed up in a hurry, 30 minutes early and covered in sweat, asking if he still had time to join the group ride. While we chatted with him about his climbing days, folks started streaming in on all manner of bikes, from brilliant titanium masterpieces to rented MTBs. Plenty of people showed up in well-loved Kitsbow gear, featuring patches and repairs and plenty of stories; others showed up in race lycra, and we even had one brave soul in Levi’s and a cotton tee. Our rag-tag and ultra-stoked bunch saddled up and rode towards Black Mountain, making our way up a bikes-only road twisting through kudzu and changing leaves as we climbed above the misty valley. We stopped at a break in the trees, soaking in the vista and snapping a group pic before charging back down, dropping the acorn-littered backroads in jet formation, hooting and hollering with the joy of new terrain, new friends, and new memories.

We pulled back up to the Ride House as the sun lit up cotton candy clouds behind us. Somehow, in our short absence, the Kitsbow army had erected a small village for the film premiere, featuring local food trucks, popcorn (what movie night is complete without it?), and a house-sized screen out on the lawn. The fine folks of Old Fort were taking up residence on the grass, sprawling out on blankets and chairs while enjoying local beverages from Kitsbow’s neighbor, Hillman Brewing. We were stunned by the support; people had come from Asheville, Raleigh, and beyond to check out the film. My father and his partner, from Encinitas, CA; Colin’s dad and stepmom, Doug and Kathy Rex, from Cary, NC; Jonny’s girlfriend Dikshya, from Denver, CO; my college roommate Tyler Creasman, from Columbia, South Carolina; many, many strangers and social media acquaintances. All these people were here for our film, but they were here for a more important reason first: community, and the shared feeling of unparalleled joy when you hop on two wheels and pedal your way into a better you. We heard a lifetime’s worth of stories as we waited for the sun to set and the skies to darken so we could start the film, and suddenly it was time to show the fruits of our failed adventure, a trip gone awry that felt so far away from the lawn outside the Old Fort Ride House.

I pressed play and walked over to my best friends and family, leaning against the railing at the back of the lawn. I sat there and sipped my drink, looking around at the people who had come out to be part of the event, misty-eyed at the support and endlessly grateful that this was our life. I wondered how each person’s path had led them to Old Fort, North Carolina on this perfect Friday night, how they’d found bikes, or found this corner of the world – a good place made great by the strength of the community. The film beamed from the projector onto the big white screen, our Study of Self playing for the world for the very first time, but I hardly watched. I was exactly where I belonged.