It’s awfully hard to write a personal blog these days. Not because there’s nothing going on in my life, but because my one life feels overshadowed by all the Everything going on in the world.
The plots of the most far-fetched spy stories pale next to the conspiracies and machinations that dominate the headlines — and the reality underpinning them is likely far worse.
This is the world we live in. Shock exhaustion. Waking up thinking it can’t possibly get any crazier today. Knowing that it will.
In the midst of that, I am struggling to find my place in a new culture, to find new clients, to learn a new language. All of which can be frightening, or fun, or exhilarating, or all of the above. I feel less intimidated by the little interactions in Dutch — not full conversations yet, but the back-and-forth information and pleasantries of shopping. I get a little thrill when someone doesn’t immediately switch to English. There is, for me at least, something inherently pleasurable in trying to speak a language other than the one I was born into. Even when I don’t get it quite right, there’s a little jolt that feels like swimming. The waters are not my environment, but I can move about, I can stay afloat. I like it. I always have.
And the whole adventure is taking place in the context of living on a bicycle, which is as familiar to me as breathing. The bicycle is grounding, although it seems strange to describe it that way, since it’s a thing made of movement — its very essence is to be fluid and free. If I’m on a bike, I know where I am, even when I am geographically (or emotionally) lost.
It occurred to me today, while riding a narrow fietspad flanked closely by tiny canals (don’t wobble if you want to stay dry), that if I hadn’t fallen in love with bicycles, I never would have come here. That the thread that led me here began with a hard entry into bicycle transportation, a sudden leap from zero to bike commuting 16 miles (each way) to work in #bikenyc on September 12, 2001.
That insane commute evolved into a passionate love affair that has at times threatened to eclipse most of my other interests. It grew into a steadfast (read: stubborn af) commitment to move about my daily world by bicycle.
It took me out of NYC (because gawd that was brutal) and to the U.S. “bike mecca” of Portland (not all it’s cracked up to be). It made the DC metro area (where I’d moved to be near family) an impossible devil’s bargain. It took me a hair’s breadth from moving to Minneapolis (but the stroads!), and finally it spurred me across an ocean, in a move born of desperation (but also of that same deep and abiding love for the bike).
I expected, I really did, to have lots to say about bikes here. I did not expect that in very short order, I would cease thinking very much about bikes. And yet, to a degree that’s exactly what’s happened.
I’d always wondered how my life would be, if I could actually ride in peace, to get where I’m going, or for pleasure, or some of each. I wondered how it would feel, and what I would think about, if I didn’t have to funnel so much of my energy, every moment that I spent on the bike, into simply fighting to stay alive. I thought, idly, that maybe I’d have time for my other interests, the things that have always been important to me but that I used to care about in a more active sense. Art, nature, various sciences, photography, storytelling, the making of things.
I thought that, but I didn’t really believe it, because I couldn’t feel it. It was just a theory, and one that occurred at some distance from where the center of me seems to reside.
I was obsessed with bikes. With bikes and the riding of them, and the incredible difficulty and stress of continuing to ride them in a society that felt to me as if it were getting more and more cruel toward anyone perambulating outside the steel walls of automobiles.
I was so obsessed that I left the United States seeking solace — seeking the freedom to ride where I wanted to go (or nowhere at all) without fear. I neither expected nor wanted to lose the obsession. Yet, within the first couple of weeks, I adjusted to the sight of bikes everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE, all the time, being ridden by every kind of person to do every kind of task, and parked on every available surface at all times, everywhere you look. Not only did that quickly begin to feel normal, but I ceased to even notice them most of the time.
And then, little by little, I stopped thinking about bicycling as a separate activity. Riding became walking, or breathing. I still ride almost every day; I just don’t focus on it in the same way. I don’t think about planning routes — unless it’s finding new ways to crisscross the city through the little alleys — or pedaling into the countryside looking for the fietspads that cut across the flat marshy fields and into little towns.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still gab obsessively about bikes if there’s a bike person around to talk to, but my thoughts are often occupied with…art, nature, science, stories, photography, and making things. With truth and human nature, with where the world is going, and how we can help it survive and help each other through this difficult, frightening time.
I don’t yet speak much Dutch, but apparently I have absorbed at least one aspect of the culture. Here, bicycles are a means to an end, and that end is life.
Sometimes we don’t know why we make a particular choice, what it means to us — how it fits in with who we are or will shape who we become — until later, often years later. I became a born-again bicyclist (as my friend Kimberly puts it) in New York City, at this time of year, in 2001. I’ve written about what that was like, about why I had to leave when I did, and about my search for a place where I could simply ride my bike in peace. Just be able to go about my business with a reasonable expectation of both being and feeling safe doing so.
But it’s only recently that I’ve been able to see the last few years — and maybe even the last fifteen — in context, as a trajectory that means something to me, and that has a pattern.
I’ve said before that I dislike the notion (popular in transportation research and planning, and even among bicycle advocacy groups) of categorizing people who ride bicycles (or don’t) according to their attitudes about it, e.g. “strong & fearless” <eyeroll>, “enthusiastic & confident,” “interested but concerned.” I know people are fond of using labels as a shorthand so they can talk about how to meet various people’s needs, but my experience in this and every other form of human experience is that labels are harmful. They’re reductive, and they’re a slippery slope to stereotyping.
And one thing they miss entirely in this particular case is that people’s feelings about bicycling, their preferences, their “style,” change over time. As with all other aspects of our lives, how we experience life on the bike evolves. Because we get older, because we try new things, because what used to be fun or comfortable for us no longer feels the same, but we might enjoy some other way of being on the bike.
This is natural. This is normal. Were we a cycling culture, we would understand this in our bones. But we are not. We are a driving culture, and as such we can barely recognize that people on bikes are human, much less that their cycling needs and preferences will develop and transmute over time.
I don’t enjoy riding my bicycles any less than I did when I lived in NYC, but I definitely ride differently now than I did then. And that’s neither good nor bad; it just is. It’s part of being a human on a bike. I have evolved. I will continue to.
The trouble is, the U.S. has no room for me to evolve. Say what you will about your own experiences, for me there is only one type of riding I can do here: high-alert riding.
And I was ready to be done with that style when I left NY almost five years ago. It was why I moved to Portland.
I’ve written in detail about how Portland changed in the time I lived there, and about why it fails to fulfill its substantial promise as a haven for people who choose to bicycle for transportation. You can read that here, and here. Things haven’t improved since I left; more people walking and bicycling have been killed or seriously injured by drivers this year than last year, in Portland and in the U.S. as a whole.
When I moved to the D.C. metro area, I experienced significant culture shock. It was the first time I’d lived in such a deeply car-centric region since I became a dedicated bicyclist. This summer, I visited Minneapolis to see whether it might work as an alternative. The people I met there were wonderful, and the Greenways ranged from minimally serviceable to downright delightful, but the moment you exited them you were shoulder to shoulder with aggressive drivers zooming past your elbow at 50+mph, on the largest stroads I’ve seen outside of Los Angeles. Not to mention that everyone warned me about riding the Greenways at night (in a word, “Don’t”).
My experiences in all these cities have made it increasingly clear that the answer to my simple plea, “I just want to ride my bike where I’m going in peace” is, in this country, “No.”
I’m not the first person to face this hard truth, and I won’t be the last. The surge of interest in “gravel bikes” and bikepacking is due in no small part to people getting discouraged by the constant stream of aggression and near-misses they experience riding on roads.
But as fun as gravel and snow and singletrack are, I still have grocery shopping to do. Like everyone, I have places to go and people to see, and I’m not willing to give up my commitment to doing these things by bicycle. At the same time, I’ve had about as much of this as I can stand. Looking at the rest of my life stretched out before me as an endless stream of abuse, trauma, and threat avoidance, I’ve concluded that I deserve better than an endless pitched battle to stay alive. We don’t require war vets to live their entire lives on the front lines, and I shouldn’t have to, either.
So I’m leaving. I have a roundtrip plane ticket to the Netherlands for the winter, and if it seems like the place for me, I’ll transfer my freelance business there, come back, grab my bikes, and relocate permanently.
Looking back, I’m glad now that I started my bike life in NYC, because it’s the one place in the U.S., perhaps, where the car does not rule, and where one can feel most clearly the way the bicycle unlocks a city. As I always said to the bike-curious when they asked why I rode, the bicycle puts back the freedom the city takes away. It gives you autonomy. It gives you freedom of movement. Those two wheels are a pair of wings.
I suppose it is a measure of how much bicycling is still a fringe activity in the U.S. that the most commonly asked question of someone who rides is “What kind of bicyclist are you?” as if you’re meant to choose a team. The multiple choice options are generally something along the lines of: recreational, commuter, racer, fitness, “avid,” etc.
I hate that question. No one in the Netherlands gets asked that question, because there riding a bicycle is embraced as an ordinary part of life. Here, if you’re an adult on a bicycle, well, you’d better explain yourself. Preferably by choosing one of these little icons so we understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and can place you in your proper box.
The thing is, none of those boxes fit.
My real answer to this question is: observant. I am an observant bicyclist. No, I’m not talking about noticing natural beauty in my surroundings or being alert to potential dangers (although both of these are true). I mean observant in the religious sense. I am a practicing bicyclist. I am devout.
Before you scoff or assume that I’m exaggerating for emphasis, think for a moment about what religion is, the purpose it serves for people of faith. At its most basic, a religion is a basis for understanding life — both one’s own experience and the possible reason (if there is one) for existing. It’s a way to make sense of the world, and of one’s experience moving through it. Most of all, it’s a way to interact with our core selves, to make contact with the quintessential spark that makes it so obvious when a living creature is inhabiting her body, and when she’s left it.
Fundamentally (no pun intended), religions exist to connect us to and help us understand life — both within us and around us.
All of those things come to me and move through me when I’m on a bicycle. I make sense of my world by riding through it. When I am mired, confused, struggling through the difficulties of my daily existence like so much sticky pudding, I get on the bike and pedal my way clear.
On the bike I am both free of the world and part of it. I am distinctly, purely me, and yet I am also body, blood, and flesh of the land, water, and sky.
It is as natural for me as breathing, the most simple and mundane of activities, and yet I guard that time on the bike with a ferocity I cannot explain. It is sacred. It is for me and me alone that I ride, and you are not invited into that space.*
Nor will you ever take it from me. The very idea of being forced off-bike turns me savage. I resent intrusions, demands that I sacrifice this one thing I do for me. This one thing that makes sense, in all the world, and that — in the moment, at least — comes closest to making sense of the world.
If (more likely when) I flee this country, it will be as a refugee. No, that’s not a metaphor.
*That’s not to say I don’t like riding with other people. But it is different, just as going to a church fete is different than solitary prayer.
There are times when I need a break from the bike. Often it’s about having a break from being threatened by drivers. Sometimes it’s about not having to carefully layer myself against the elements. Sometimes I just feel like resting in the cocoon of the apartment.
As simple and logical as that sounds when I write it out like that, it’s usually a struggle to allow myself a day off, especially if, as was the case today, I’ve already had a day off this week.
It’s hard to explain my relationship to the bike. It’s a little like a lover, it’s a little like a limb, it’s a little like the bike is a part of my soul made steel.
All of those might well sound like hyperbole. Faith might be the closest word, and my faith in the bike might be the closest thing I have to a religion. That sounds even more hyperbolic.
I can’t explain it, but I know I’m not the only one who feels this kind of connection. I’ve seen it in people’s faces, I’ve heard it in the way they talk about riding or about bikes they’ve loved. I also see it in the way they ride, something about the way they move, the bike becoming the bones of a bird under their hands.
Every time I choose not to get on my bike, I have a secret fear. My fear is that I’ll be off permanently. That I’ll be exiled from my faith. That I won’t have the courage to get back on. Excommunication.
Why, then, do I do what I did today? Because I also need the break, the moment away, to feel what my legs feel like walking, that plain, smaller act. More arduous and more basic. To remember I can still breathe, even winnowed down to my bare feet.
Tomorrow I’ll get back on, I’ll be winged again. I’ll spin up on rainy streets or in the sun. I’ll look for birds, the raptors and the tiny swifts in their fractal swirls. I’ll gasp when a blackbird swoops suddenly across my path as they do. I’ll dream that I, too, can spread a feathered tail and glide across and over the fields.
It’s winter, which may have something to do with the big, twiney thoughts that are absorbing my attention most of the time, to the point where Jeezuschrist could you all just stop calling me, don’t call us we’ll call you, I AM ON THE BIKE AND I AM BUSY.
I’m not much of a phone person under ordinary circumstances, but lately, every time that little robot noise goes off, I want to fling it into the Potomac.
I read this a while back, and the ground-level truths of it took up residence in the corners of my consciousness, and they’ve been growing seedlings there. Like the kindergarten time-lapse movie of bean sprouts, I can almost see them growing, unfolding bright green leaves that shake me with little moments of realization. Oh. Oh.OH.
If it was a snake, it’d’ve bit me. All that frustration, all that deep perplexity over why our culture makes insane choices to value parking and traffic “flow” over minor things like, oh, human lives. Why didn’t I see it before? It’s capitalism. It’s not that we don’t know the consequences of these choices; it’s that we’ve trapped ourselves in a huge edifice that’s built on priorities other than keeping people alive and well — namely, money — usually expressed, in “stakeholder” meetings about bike & ped infrastructure, as “the needs of local businesses” (which, in a capitalist society, amounts to a sacrament).
Choose money over people, power over people, and what you get is death. Nearly 40,000 in 2015, the largest single-year increase in 50 years. We’ve institutionalized prioritizing profits over people, and this is the price. Well, this and the fact that one century very soon our planet will cease to be habitable.
You can see why I don’t want to answer the phone.
What can be done? Saving ourselves and our planet would require radical changes, and we all know what they are, and I’ll bet you every penny I will ever see that we’re not willing to make them.
So what I personally do, mostly, is ride my bike and try not to despair. I try to encourage other people to use their cars less. To consider that there are alternate ways of managing many of life’s day-to-day demands beyond the private metal box.
I wave at small kids on bikes and hope for the best. And I rage. I DM furiously with like-minded friends. I suspect the climate scientists are in a similar lather of despair and conscious deep-breathed getting on with daily living.
I didn’t intend to write this post. I meant to write the other post that’s been in my mind the last few months — the one about how much I love winter riding. Either I’d forgotten how I feel about winter riding while I was living in a place with mild winters, or it’s something that’s changed in me. Winter is the time with the best solitude, and on (or off) the bike that’s (almost) always what I crave. It’s an analog for how we move through life — alone with our thoughts. If we’re doing it well, we move gracefully, fluidly, birdlike. If not, we might stumble a bit, occasionally fall, but it’s not such a big deal to get back on and pedal away from those occasions.
I’m thinking of changing careers, just slightly, and I keep getting caught a little on the thought that all I really know how to do is ride. That’s not strictly true, of course, but I have increasing trouble sitting still for anything else. Maybe I’m just conscious of time passing, of fleeting moments being all I or anyone, or even the earth has anymore. I want to keep flying, breathing, shifting smoothly through the air because that is where I am me. If I could write while riding, I would. If I could take photographs to show you what I see without having to stop and maneuver a camera, even a damned-easy phone camera, I would do this constantly. But I can’t, so it’s rare that I hook myself into paragraphs, or stop to try and grab that little scene.
Mostly I just keep thinking and pedaling. Did I think I would be turning into a revolutionary as I aged? No, I did not. But the bicycle has many surprises.
PS. Do try not to troll me with your urgent political viewpoints and BUT BUT BUTs. I meant what I said, I have no desire to be capitalismsplained or any other splained, and I will throw you into the Potomac.
“Well, here I am,” said Jubal Early, floating out into space in the last few minutes of Firefly.
I’ve had that floating-in-space feeling for almost two months now, with occasional moments of landing on my feet, just for a minute or two, before I begin to feel unmoored again. It’s disconcerting, but I guess it’s just part of the process.
All that fretting and soul-searching and fretting some more, and drinking beer with friends in a mad rush to try and see everyone while I was even more madly packing up a house, draining it of its extraneous contents (many Portlanders are by now wearing my clothes or using my cast-off furnishings, with help from Goodwill).
A dear friend said to me, on my last night there, “Even when it’s a change you’ve planned and worked toward for a long time, there’s always a moment when the change takes effect. And that feels sudden.” Damn right he was. It still feels sudden, as if I’d left in a madcap whirl: “Oh hey, I’ll think I’ll move to DC now. Zap!”
Well, here I am.
It’s not perfect in #bikedc, by any means, but if it seemed perfect I’d know not to trust it (see also: 3 years in PDX). I moved to Portland seeking a safe bike haven, and did not find one. I found other things — mostly people, who are always the best “things” to find. I found a little house, which I soon found I couldn’t afford to keep.
I found inspiration, and the ability to climb hills, and friends I hope to keep, and the very nicest bike shop, and a very loud voice (okay, I knew I had that, but it was interesting to hear it echo in a smaller place).
I found that I knew exactly who I was, away from everything and everyone I knew, and that was valuable. I also found that I missed my family, and my east coast people, and that it was okay to admit that, and to go when it seemed the time for going. And I’m glad I did. I think it’s going to be good. Imperfectly solidly good. As soon as my feet find the ground.
I’ve been thinking that most people probably aren’t very aware of their dark side. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an operating force in their actions, and it doesn’t mean they don’t fear it, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Many people express their darker selves when they’re behind the wheel of a car. And when they’re on the Internet. Both situations offer power and anonymity. The opportunity to hurt without consequence.
In a car you can bully someone you’d never feel comfortable threatening in person. Someone bigger than you. Someone stronger. Someone older, or more accomplished. Someone who would command — and possibly demand — your respect, if you had to look them in the eye.
On the Internet you can threaten, humiliate, libel, and ridicule someone you’ve never met and will never have to face.
Many people take advantage of these two situations to scare, hurt, and threaten other people, to knock them down emotionally or physically. I wonder if more people act out while driving and/or on the Internet than don’t.
It takes a certain strength of mind to remember the humanity of others when they can neither see you or touch you. When they’re saying something you don’t like, or doing something that “gets in the way” of where you want to be, or what you want to do.
It takes patience. It takes humility.
If you’re not the one in the empowered position, behind the wheel, way up high in that SUV, you may be a little more familiar with the edges of your dark side. With the landscape of what you are capable of, given the right set of circumstances.
Let me tell you about my dark side.
I know what it feels like, rising. I know the size and shape of it. I know its roar. I know exactly what it — and by extension, I — am capable of.
I also know that it responds to the cold logic that runs through my mind when I’m processing a bad situation. I know that as incendiary as it is, it still filters through my awareness, and I still make choices about what I am going to do. Choosing through an enormous storm of rage is a very weird feeling, but it’s one I’ve felt a lot.
I will tell you that most people have never seen my dark side, not even a glimpse, though many have seen (or heard) me angry. I will also tell you, and I am deadly serious now, that you do not want to meet my dark side.
I have had to spend a lot of time getting to know my dark side because it is there to protect me from danger, and I’ve been in danger — real, you-might-die-now danger — more times than I can count. I’ve had to find out just what the limits are — how much control I have, what the decision-making process is like from within a white-hot rage. It’s not a pleasant experience. But it’s worth knowing, for real, who you really are, when you’re pressed up against the sharp edge of your mortality. Because of these terrible experiences, I have come to know my most dangerous self, and it is well-integrated into the rest of me.
What I’ve discovered is that: a) it’s a source of strength, b) it would enable me to kill someone if that were the only viable choice, and c) it is still me. C) means that for the most part, like Mal,
If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.
I used to joke that I had to leave New York before I ended up dead or in prison. It wasn’t altogether a joke. If I ever kill you, it will probably be because you have hit me with your car, and I will either be unable or unwilling to tell my big dark rage to stand down. And I probably won’t regret it.
It’s become a familiar refrain at #bikingtobeers gatherings. “What is it going to take to get PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation) and the city’s political leadership to take action to make our streets safe?” And the answer is always: “It’s going to take deaths.”
I remember Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland (I think that’s who it was) tweeting something to the effect of “I’m worried we’re heading to a dark place,” referring specifically to the hazardous situation of aggressive drivers “sharing” Clinton St. with families riding to school. I’ve been feeling the same way about bicycling in Portland overall, and it seems to be gaining momentum like a giant snowball.
And now we’ve arrived at the dark place. It’s ugly, and it’s frightening. Six people riding bicycles have been hit and seriously injured or killed by drivers in the Portland metro area in the past month. Two in the same spot, at SE 26th and Powell. Two in the past week, including 22-year-old Mark Angeles, who was killed the day before yesterday by a driver who failed to yield while turning left at SE Gladstone and 39th.
Alistair Corkett, also 22, lost his leg when another left-turning driver failed to yield at SE 26th and Powell on May 10.
Peter Anderson, 37, was hit and injured today while riding with the right of way on a green light in that same intersection.
Tonight I stood over my bike at the intersection where Mark was killed, in a crowd of about 150 people. We stood quietly, observing a moment of silence — for approximately 20 minutes. There’s a ghost bike there for Mark, and the protest ride was called “No More Ghost Bikes.”
There were also flowers piled around the ghost bike. And members of Mark’s family crying.
We stood, and watched. We were spread across the full width of Gladstone. People drove through the intersection along 39th, some of them hustling in that way people do in cars, where it seems like nothing in the world matters so much as that extra second they might grab by pushing ahead of another car — or around a person riding a bicycle.
I watched the two women at Mark’s ghost bike crying. They hugged each other for a long time. It was a very human scene. A hundred people on bicycles, standing still, watching them cry.
I thought about how exposed we all are, on the bike. Just our bodies, out in the air, moving through space on these small simple machines. We are basically naked out there, a little cloth over our bones and skin, but nothing much. We move like birds do, and that is beautiful, but it is also a vulnerable state.
I thought how, oddly, I felt safer in that phalanx of riders than I ever have while riding in Portland.
I thought about the people driving through the intersection, rushing, annoyed, thinking about the precious seconds they were losing. I thought, here a whole person was, on Wednesday, who isn’t alive anymore. A young person, just graduated from college. People are crying for him right there, those two women who loved him, and now he’s gone. I don’t think seconds are precious at all, except maybe in the sense that if those seconds had gone differently, if the person driving the truck had waited a few seconds, Mark would be alive, and his family wouldn’t be crying. They might be going home to dinner right now, or maybe he’d be getting a beer, like we did after the ride.
We locked up our bikes, four of us, and went into Hawthorne Hophouse, and sat down at a booth, and then PJ quietly pointed out that sitting in the next booth was Alistair Corkett. I was worried about bothering him — he was there with his brother and his mom — but in the end I was glad we got up and introduced ourselves, and told them where we’d just come from.
I was struck by how young he looked. I was struck by the look in his eyes — a little scared, I thought, a bit in shock still, perhaps, and also brave and determined and very much alive. He got up, hopped nimbly to the other side of the room. When they left I saw the empty space in one leg of his shorts. So young.
The moment we’d peeled off from the larger group at the ride’s end, I’d felt sort of naked without the giant crowd of riders. Immediately less safe, through we were still riding in a group, two by two. As we left the bar, I rode a block or two with Kyle, whom I’d ridden next to for most of the ride, and then we split off in different directions, and I was one rider again.
I spend the vast majority of my time riding alone. It’s more by default than by choice, though of course there are things I like about riding “feral,” as Velouria of Lovely Bicycle puts it.
But there was a power to simply being in that large a group. We were nothing more than the same individual fragile humans we always are, and yet we could take the entire road, all of it, without fear. People in metal boxes suddenly couldn’t terrorize us.
There was more. I looked in at the faces of people driving in the oncoming lane, and the ones who weren’t cheering or waving looked…nervous. There was something intimidating, apparently, about a crowd of people that large, simply riding bikes. We weren’t shouting or doing much of anything except riding — and waving back to those lovely, supportive drivers.
And I thought, There’s something in this. The difference between the way we get harassed and bullied and threatened as individual people riding on our little steel birds (hush, carbon), and the way the same drivers had to treat us with respect (whether they wanted to or not), when we rode in mass numbers.
How to take that difference and transform it into a solution for the dangers we face every day, I don’t know yet. But there’s something there — a hundred exposed, vulnerable humans together are no longer quite so vulnerable.