Category Archives: Adventures

Strange Days

bikefaceIt’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.

Focus

tandemI 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.

willetjesbrugI 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.

goldcurveAnd 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. butcher

Well actually, America…

crescentmoonSometimes 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.

lotuspadsThis 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.

purples2I’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.

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Floating down to earth

waterside

“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).

cottonspintree

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.

plantshadows

So there was this SUV…

“So there was this SUV…” he said. I nodded, “Yeah, I know.” And it occurred to both of us that he didn’t even need to finish the story, because we both knew how it went. If you’re a bicyclist, you know the rest without being told.

I went on a little adventure this weekend that involved a great deal of unavoidable, intense freeway driving. It was a remarkable experience, and not in a good way. Eight lanes of cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, and so on, traveling at speeds of 65 to 80 mph (or more), bobbing and weaving from all directions, as drivers flitted in and out of tiny gaps with an apparent suspension of belief in the laws of physics.

I seemed to be the only one on the road who was aware of how fast we were actually going. When I met up with my friends and choked out my horror at the gauntlet I’d just been through to get there, this impression was confirmed. Everyone looked at me and shrugged. “Yeah, it’s the freeway.”

bumps!What it was, was dystopia. The air was hazy with smog, the road surface was chewed to pieces by constant battering with multi-ton vehicles, there were huge chunks of torn-up tire like driftwood along the margins. I narrowly avoided a pothole that was at least 3 feet deep, wide enough to have trapped my rental car like a hunting snare.

It struck me, both during the nightmare driving, wiping sweat off my palms every few minutes so I could maintain grip on the wheel, and later, while I was looking down from the airplane window at our small, fragile planet, that none of this was necessary. That we are killing ourselves and our one and only home, for no reason other than an inexplicably stubborn dedication to traveling in single-occupant vehicles, rather than in safer, more efficient, less-polluting public vehicles, and on completely non-polluting bicycles. For the sake of “saving” minutes and seconds made artificially precious, we have normalized carnage to an extent that is shocking, if you step back and look at it from a human scale.

So there was this SUV whose driver decided it would be a good idea to split lanes with the car I was driving. It happened too quickly for me to honk, and there was nowhere to go, since I was in a lane next to another car on the other side, and I’m lucky to be alive. And that was just one moment of a hundred terrifying near-disasters. But that’s just “normal” car culture.

 

Weather!

The question I hear most often from non-cyclists is “What do you when it…[rains, snows, sleets, simply gets cold out]?” Those of you who get around by bicycle already know what I’m going to say.

There’s no such thing as “bad” weather; only inadequate gear.

skypath

One of the beautiful secrets you discover once you start riding a lot is that weather just isn’t that big a deal. In fact, one of the things I love most about my life on the bike is the feeling that I live outdoors. For at least a part of every day, I experience what’s actually going on out there. Sometimes that means challenges. There’s ice stinging my face, the ground is slippery, I’m getting splashed with mud, I’m getting wet, I’m getting blown around and have to muscle the bike to maintain control. I love that.

I’ve raced a storm, lost, and gotten soaked. I’ve been knocked off the bike by a gust of wind, jumped free, and landed on my feet. I’ve ridden onto a bridge on a rainy day and realized, just in time, that the bridge does indeed “freeze before roadway.” It was a sheet of glass, and I had to walk the entire span, holding the guardrail with one hand, with the bike sliding out from under my other hand.

I’ll never forget my first ride on studded tires one night on a solidly iced Manhattan Bridge. That time I was thrilled when I saw the ice (if you have studs, you want to use them!), and I laughed the entire way. There was the New Year’s Eve ride in ice pellets and fancy dresses. The ride through the blizzard to the dance party. You get the idea.

Most of the time I just ride on, having very few problems at all.

Having said that, over the years, I’ve developed some strategies for winter clothing that others may find helpful.

Cold-Weather Clothing Strategies

First of all, there’s cold and there’s cold. highwiresAnd then there’s Minneapolis. If you live in the snowbelt (or heck, Alaska), you already know, probably better than I do, how to keep yourself warm (and your brake cables operational). If you’re newer to this winter riding thing, however, read on. And when you’re done, go check out these awesome people for tips on handling the various surfaces winter may throw at you.

Layering. Yes, everybody says this, but it’s important to know which layers to use for specific conditions.

Layer 1: Baselayer. The basic idea is to have a thin layer next to your skin that will wick moisture (yes, we still sweat in winter) away from the skin. That means either synthetic, silk, or wool. Cotton is evil. Put the cotton away until spring. Your non-hypothermic self will thank you.

Layer 2: Midlayer(s). Rule of thumb: Two thin layers are warmer and more versatile than one thick one. Warmer because two layers will trap a little air between them, and air is insulating (that’s what makes down warm; the fibers are hollow). More versatile because cycling produces a surprising amount of heat, and if you’re overdressed, you’ll get sweaty, and then the sweat will do what sweat does – cool you off. Which is not ideal when it’s 10F out. Put on, peel off, it’s the winter two-step. My personal favorite midlayers are wafer-thin merino wool sweaters.

Layer 3: Outer shell. Depending on your local climate, this should be wind-blocking, and/or waterproof. (Waterproof layers generally cut the wind pretty well, too.) In cold, dry weather, I wear a softshell jacket. When the temp drops below the teens, I may add a down vest outside of the jacket (the better to take on and off easily). In cool, wet weather, my outer layers are a rain jacket and rain pants (and rain socks, damnit! I hate wet feet).

Dress evenly. Many bicyclists overdress their top half and underdress their legs. This is a recipe for getting sweaty and chilly. Your legs are going to get you home; treat them nicely! Below about 30F, I’ll add a lightweight baselayer bottom under my cycling tights (if I’m wearing those), or under whatever else I may be wearing on the bottom. I’m also a huge fan of knitted legwarmers. I find that my ankles & lower legs are always happier in them, and I can stuff a hanky into a legwarmer for easy access when I come to a stop and have to contend with a river of snot.

Those are the basics, but most of keeping warm happens in the details, namely the extremities. Hands, feet, face, ears, neck. So let’s devote some time to the most susceptible parts of us.

Head/face: Hat, neckwarmer, balaclava (or as we used to say in #bikeNYC, baklava) – you’ll want some or all of these. I prefer a simple tube-style neckwarmer (also called a cowl) to a scarf because it’s easier to pull up or push down on the fly, and won’t come unwrapped and then get tangled in some part of me or the bike. I wear either a knitted cap with earflaps that tie under the chin (over my neckwarmer to keep out drafts), or a wool cycling cap with earflaps I can tuck the neckwarmer into.

Some folks go full balaclava, and I have no quarrel with that (I’ve been known to do a thin balaclava with a cap on top for extreme cold), but I find that a tall neckwarmer plus earflap cap allows me more flexibility and is almost as warm. Pull neckwarmer over nose when needed, scrunch down when my glasses fog up, etc.

Hands: Obviously you’re going to need gloves, mittens, or lobster claws. As with most things bikey, there are various schools of thought. Mittens are the warmest and give the crappiest control. Gloves give most control, but you’ll lose digits when it’s seriously cold out. Lobster-claw style gloves give some of the benefits of each. In my experience, any glove or mitten made for bicycling is not going to be as warm or as waterproof as something made for skiing. It will also cost about twice as much. Don’t ask me why. So go to the ski shop.

Also, as with anything else, when the temperature gets seriously cold, adding liners will often make more of a difference than you expect. Liner gloves also mean you have something between your bare hands and cold metal when you pull off your big gloves to lock up. leafystreetI use a variety of options, including silk liners and wool liners in cycling gloves, lobster claws with an added silk liner, and ski mittens for when it’s fucking serious out. Ski gloves and mittens typically lack a terry patch for wiping your nose, so stuff a hanky in your sleeve, legwarmer, or back pocket. Military surplus stores are great places to find cheap knitted wool gloves for liners.

Pogies: These kooky-looking things are a great option if you have one bike or a dedicated “winter bike” and don’t want to mess about with sixteen layers of gloves. I haven’t used them, but icebikey friends of mine swear by them.

Feet: I will be honest with you; feet are my bete noir. Everybody’s got something that’s an extra challenge to keep warm. With me, it’s my toes. I have a whole bag of tricks for my feet. The basic rule is wool socks rule. I start with tall wool socks (lightweight or midweight ski or snowboard socks), and depending on the weather, there may be a wicking liner sock inside the wool sock, or two layers of wool socks, with or without a chemical toewarmer pack sandwiched in between (or on top). If it’s raining, I wear lightweight ski socks with rain socks over them (Rocky makes some good ones). Or I may just ride in waterproof boots. A nice setup for snowy weather is waterproof hiking boots and BMX pedals with Hold Fast straps. That way, when the inevitable happens, and the bike starts to slide out, you have decent traction on the foot you put down to catch yourself (ask me how I know).

If you simply must ride clipless, you’ll have to invest the damn money in Lake Winter Boots. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Eyes: Cold wind will not only sting your eyes but also make them tear up, and then your tears freeze and you have eyelashcicles. Cycling glasses are helpful until they fog up (hence my neckwarmer maneuvers), and in deeply cold weather you may need to move into vented ski goggle territory.

One last tip: If, despite your best efforts, you’ve miscalculated and find yourself getting sleepy after having been cold (especially cold and wet) for a while, pull the fuck over and get yourself into a bodega, mini-mart, anything indoors to thaw out for a few minutes. Getting sleepy or disoriented are signs of hypothermia, and you don’t want to fuck with hypothermia. (Trust me, I’ve been there.)

After reading all this, you’re probably thinking, screw it, I’ll drive/take the train/bus. Don’t. You’ll be missing out on some awesome riding, and the incomparable feeling of being able to get around under your own power in almost any circumstances. Plus, if it’s super-cold, your car isn’t gonna start anyway.

The thing about winter is, you very quickly get to know what you need to wear for specific conditions. Gearing up becomes automatic, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as getting the layers just right, and feeling comfortable on the bike, arriving at your destination an invigorated, rosy-cheeked superhero.

sunsetstilts

The way home

“You’re a runner,” she said, meaning I use my bike to escape things I don’t want to feel. She had a point.

But the opposite is also true. Sometimes I don’t know I’m feeling anything until I’m 12 miles out and have sloughed off the carapace that accumulates when I’m stationary, indoors, or around people.

My Twitter stream sounds like I’m constantly running errands. Like everyone’s, my daily life entails lots of little missions. But I also have a habit of lining up bike errands for myself nearly every day so I have an excuse to get on the bike.

The cat was out of wet food today (thank you, Cat!), so I rode out into a typical November day – rainy and cool. I started to go the most direct route…and then turned around. When I get the detouring instinct, I try to follow what it’s telling me, because it knows what I need better than I do, and that’s not necessarily cat food (though I did buy that, because: Cat). As I looped through one neighborhood, and another, and another (neighborhoods here are wee), the day began to be beautiful. I don’t mean that the sun came out. I mean that mine did.

goldleaves2

Over a golden carpet of heart-shaped leaves, through rows of rosy trees, and do you know how many different colors grey can be? You do if you live in the Pacific Northwest. They are all bewitching: bluish, purplish, like so many dove-wings hanging above you.

Rain falling on my nose, delicious.

Yesterday I’d gone for a long ride, one of those times when I don’t even pretend to be riding for a purpose, other than because I need to. I rode the bike that’s a part of me, as if we are a bird together. It’s the one I keep in the house, because it might be made of a piece of my heart. It’s steel.

For the first hour I was angry, tangled like some tough old cocoon. When I got to the farm just outside of Gresham and looked at the lambs, their little legs dark in the mud, a dream I’d had that morning came to me:

I had wings, but they were ugly, made of flesh, and only half-grown. I hadn’t even known they were there.

And then I was crying a bit, on the bike. It used to be I could only cry while riding through the park at night alone.

In that moment I understood that my wings were stunted because I’d been told they were something to be ashamed of. That was why they’d been hiding there all this time, half-grown against my back.

I rode 20 more miles then, through the hobo camps along the Springwater at dusk (ride fast, dodge but don’t stop), turned on my light, listened to the geese. At one point I thought a bike was coming up to pass, but it was the wind.

Stopped at the grocery store (sometimes the non-errand rides get errands thrown in). Carried a half-gallon of milk on my back. Fed the cat.

I’m not always home when I’m in my house, but if I ride I usually arrive at myself.

ridesky