Half of the US on fire–unprecedented wildfires are destroying homes and businesses and live in the west. Half of the US is under water–unprecedented flooding is destroying homes and businesses and lives in the east and south. And half of the US is suffering from an unprecedented heat wave.
So I went for a bike ride.
For some perverse climatic reason, the local weather has been absolutely gorgeous this week. Temps in the shallow end of the 80s, low humidity, light breeze. It’s like we’re in a pocket of beautiful weather surrounded by nightmare climate change. It’s temporary, of course. I know that. Assuming the weather forecasters are correct (hush, it could happen) next week promises to be miserable.
So yeah, on Thursday I went for bike ride. Didn’t feel at all guilty about the good weather. It wasn’t a long ride. Just under 20 miles. And I took my time, stopping periodically to shoot a photo or take a drink or indulge my curiosity. In other words, it was a nice, leisurely ride. I didn’t have any destination in mind; I just wanted to be on the bike.
That’s my usual approach to cycling. I don’t ride for exercise or to keep fit; I don’t ride to save gas or limit my carbon footprint. I ride because it’s fun, because it makes me happy, because it makes me feel like I’m twelve years old and skipping school. That’s why I like to ride on weekdays, when all the decent, employed people are hard at work.
Riding on weekdays also means I often have the bike paths and trails all to myself. When I do encounter other cyclists, they’re usually folks like me. Relaxed, lackadaisical riders who are maybe retired, maybe unconventionally employed, maybe skipping work. Only occasionally do I encounter stern cyclists wearing spandex and riding serious road bikes, putting in the grim miles in the name of…I don’t know, physical fitness or time trials or something that is amenable to measurement. I’m confident they’re also riding for the pleasure of it, just like me–but it’s a radically different sort of pleasure. I slow down and let them zip by me.
It’s not that I believe my approach to cycling is better than the serious cyclists. Well, maybe I sorta kinda DO believe that, but only because I personally find more value in connecting with the world at large rather than focusing primarily on yourself. I’ve been a serious, spandexed cyclist; I like to think I’ve outgrown it (which I recognize is arrogant as fuck). I had a good road bike and I rode it seriously, as fast as I could, focused on the road ahead of me–sometimes just a few yards ahead of me, sometimes a more expansive view. But I gave little attention to what was on either side of me. Part of that was because of the way road bikes are designed–the rider leans forward in an aerodynamic pose, which limits your vision. It was also partly because road bikes are designed for speed, and the faster you go the more you have to pay attention to the road.
Then, many years ago, on a whim, I bought a mountain bike. The riding posture was more upright, which allowed me to…well, look around as I rode. And I had a moment of clarity. There was stuff happening around me as I rode. And that stuff was interesting. Birds and animals. Buildings and people. Scenery. Colors. The whole damned world, right there all around me all the time, and I’d given it no attention at all.
I started riding more slowly. I started looking around. I started smiling and laughing when I rode. Riding became more enjoyable, more fun, more pleasant.
I got rid of that road bike. Now I ride a massive fat tire electric bike. It’ll go fast if I want it to, but I’ve little interest in going fast. I generally just cruise casually along, probably around 10-12 miles per hour, looking at stuff. Sometimes I just enjoy the motion of the bike, and I’ll glide along as long as I can without stopping. Sometimes I stop fairly often. To look at something, or to sit on a bench and drink some water, or to feed peanuts to crows (yes, I have a bag of raw peanuts in a pannier for those times when I encounter crows–and yes, I also keep a crow caller in the same bag in case I don’t encounter crows but want to). Sometimes I stop to shoot a photo or buy a cupcake or pet a stranger’s dog.
Frances Willard, the 19th century women’s suffragist, wrote that learning to ride a bicycle helped her find the courage and determination she needed to lead a movement. She said,
“I found high moral uses in the bicycle and can commend it as a teacher without pulpit or creed. She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.”
I agree with her that cycling is a great teacher, though I think the notion of trying to gain mastery of life is a mug’s game. Cycling is fun, but it hasn’t given me mastery of anything. What it has given me is genuine pleasure and moments of joy. There’s a certain purity in the joy and pleasure that comes with cycling. It’s unalloyed pleasure, undiluted, uncontaminated and unblemished because it’s so simple.
A couple of weeks ago I rode my bike through a gaggle of Canada geese. These large birds gather around the many ponds here; they’ll casually step aside as you ride through them, but they are completely unimpressed by bikes (or cars and trucks, for that matter). As I was riding slowly through them, some of them took flight. For a moment–probably no more than six or seven seconds–the geese and I were moving at the same speed. I was surrounded by half a dozen flying Canada geese. It was glorious.
That will probably never happen again. It only happened because I was riding slowly on a bike, looking around me, enjoying myself.