When the sun shines around here, everything seems to glow. Even the asphalt, seemingly emotionless, takes on a surreal quality, an exaggerated essence that makes us question- have I ever seen a building/bridge/tree/flower/stop sign that beautiful?
It was like this a couple weekends ago. The plants in my garden exuded happiness. They stretched up tall and confident, letting out a sigh of relief at the coming of the sun. Well-watered from the week of rain before, they smiled at the return of light and sent out invitations for photosynthesis. Time to grow! Turn your gaze skyward! And in the matter of hours, the stalks of the kale plants were stronger and thicker, standing straighter. The sunflowers grew inches taller, inches closer to the sun that their flowers would soon emulate.
For us who ride bikes through the wetness of winter, for those of us who carry rain pants in our pricey, waterproof bags, for those of us who are never far from wet feet, these dryer days of impossible sun are pure bliss, ditching our rain suits for just a few hours. It’s freeing being in the saddles of our beloved vehicles, taking in the air with our bare arms. When I’m on my bike, I feel like I’m able to take on the world in stride. I’ve written before of the transparency of bike riding– the smells, the sounds, the grit, the idiocy of drivers, the temperature, the wind- we’re exposed to it all. Last weekend was perfect for that, so in a couple of days, I covered probably close to 50 miles of asphalt on my bike. Landscapes of city streets, potholes, urban forests, intimidating hills, community gardens, highway bike trails, and views of Mt. Hood. Miles upon miles of human-powered speed, sun-in-your-face, shirt-sleeved, sun-burnt bike love.
On Friday morning, I kicked off my weekend with a 10-mile journey to work. Because I work on the other side of a small mountain range from where I live, I often use the light rail as a means of expediency and avoiding biking up 2,000 feet of elevation each morning. But not that day. Annie and I had our sights on conquering the hill I had feared for months. We were determined to take on the day ambitiously. Our first strange encounter was with a woman on the Burnside Bridge. She sat on a lawn chair, reclined back, feet propped up, sunglasses resting predictably on her nose, face shaded by an umbrella propped up against her chair. She had set herself up on the bridge’s sidewalk, seemingly unaware of the dozens of cars barreling on past her- zoom, zoom zoom- the ship of wind and smell of exhaust hovering in the air, the roar of the city behind her. No, she reclined peacefully back in her chair, book in hand, creator of her own quiet. I laughed out loud as we passed, a permanent smile on my face. Bikes allow us to see things we would never notice in another vehicle. Bikes expand our peripheral vision and awaken our people-watching, world-absorbing, smile-making sensitivities.
After a quick jaunt through the city and its cars and sounds and smells, we reached tree-covered Washington Park. A manicured wilderness of zoo trains and Japanese gardens and roses and the Children’s Museum, it also contains the Hoyt Arboretum (Portland’s living tree museum) and many interconnecting trails, including the 30-mile Wildwood Trail. The park covers 160 acres of one of the peaks of the Tualatin Mountains which separate Portland from Beaverton and the Tualatin Valley. From city floor to Skyline Boulevard, it is a fast elevation gain. We began our climb through the oldest part of the park, a tree-covered, winding private road interspersed with stone staircases covered in ivy. As we slowly climbed the hill, inch by inch, a great feeling of peace set in. On a straightaway respite section, Annie and I spread out our arms in a triumphant gesture of joy shouting, “I love trees!” “I love Portland!” “I love summer!” “I love bikes!” Our words echoed off the old trunks of Douglas Firs and Maples. I wonder if they could hear us. Bikes allow us to reach these places of peace.
A couple days later, Nate and I set out on a bike adventure as well. The day was warm and sunny, a reminder that summer has come early this year. After a jaunt through the city, especially along a quiet, narrow path South of the Steel Bridge, we made our way across town to the Lents Community Garden. The sun warmed our backs as we rode and going was fairly flat along fairly quiet streets alongside Hawthorne, Clinton, and South Tabor neighborhoods. When we reached the garden, we walked through the rows, admiring tall Brassicas, bushy, impossibly large red cabbages, chard gone to seed, and poppies blooming from their bulb tops, a wonderful bouquet of abundance. Sitting beneath the shade of a wide fig tree, we enjoyed our sandwiches and then watered the plot sufficiently. The earth darkened with each falling drop as the roots were nourished and the leaves were relieved to be fed. This little oasis of food and foliage enlightened my spirit and slowed our pace before we set out again to the Springwater. Bikes allow us to stop and take a break and slow down.
Venturing East on the Springwater Corridor, which is just a few miles away from the garden, our bikes soon brought us to farmland, keeping company with songbirds, blackberry, and cattle as well as other bikers, all of us smiling at the sun and open trail ahead. For a time, all we could see at the horizon was Mt. Hood, Wy’East, great guardian of Northwest Oregon. Holder of wisdom and water-bearer for our region, we contemplated his white top, a sign that we’ll have water in months to come. I couldn’t help but think, though, how hot will this summer be and how hard will we make those glaciers work? We can wonder at the same time as we conserve and pay our respects to the mountain who holds water for us each year. Bikes allow us the space to contemplate our place in Nature and in the city.
15 miles in to the trail, we turned ourselves around and back around to the city, “civilization,” busyness and hustle-bustle. As we cover the last three miles of the Springwater, this last bit of the path surrounded on both sides by water and birds and cottonwood trees, I am reminded that Portland is a gem, filled with the art and culture of a city melded with the small-town hellos and run-ins with friends on the street. But the beauty of nature is everpresent. As my legs turn the cogs in my bike, I carry myself to see so many of these places- mountains, and rivers, and forests. Our two-wheelers allow us to slip relatively unnoticed onto small, secluded bike paths or to stop unnanounced to pick berries. On bikes, we are curious and flexible creatures- open to the world and ready to change our course at the first sign of beauty.