I’ve become one of those crazy people- wearing spandex, tight-fitting rain gear and shoe covers. I flatten my hair with a helmet, talk routes, and bedazzle my ride with lights. Sometimes, I feel like a Christmas tree with the rest of ’em, back end blinking red. I don’t speed along high-speed highways, trying to keep up with cars at 30 mph, but I certainly try to push my leg muscles up dramatic hillsides. I align myself with the most hardcore of cyclists in my intention but have tried to maintain my own level of mainstream modestness. This is always a two-edged sword, something Portland does so well its infinite number of niches, outlets for any interest. My family and I call it “acquiring hipster talents,” referencing all the crazy hobbies that Portlanders take on. This is a juice-making, knitting, scarf-wearing, beekeeping, chicken-raising, mustache-growing, kale-tending, pickle-making, food-preserving, bread-baking, beer-brewing, candle-dipping town. And bike riding fits right in there, along with my other hipster talents, like applesauce-making.
For me, it really started last spring, after almost a whole school year of riding my bike from my house to the MAX train to avoid climbing the insane hill on my way to work. I was already in love with the sport, having ridden a heavy, steel-framed early ’80s Nashiki for a year before upgrading to my speedier Diamondback. I also spent last winter (!?) gaining miles on the weekends, slowly working my way up to a more-than-average amount of miles on a ride. Luckily, Sean and Annie allow me to tag along with them on their bike excursions, one of them being the first two days of one of Sean’s bike tour to Denver, CO last summer. Despite all this training, I still had a small mountain range between me and my workplace, a mental barrier that made journeying there entirely by bike a bit of a challenge. Thanks to much coaxing (and coaching) by Annie, my extremely athletic roommate, I made it up that hill on one beautiful, sun-dappled spring day. You would have even heard me say, “That wasn’t that bad!” when we reached the top.
So this school year, I was determined to bike the hill more often. To take in the sights and smells of the day, the temperature of a brisk morning, the solitude of the road, and feel the change in topography (as uncomfortable as it may be). In the early fall, when sunrise was around 6:30 am, I would wind through the Arlington Heights neighborhood while I slowly made my way up the mountain, catching glimpses of the city and the blinding sun blinking at me from its awakening from between houses and tree branches and pine needles. Every day the air got slightly colder, the leaves on the trees blushed all the more yellow and orange and red and brown. Soon enough, I was biking under falling leaves, which danced in an early morning breeze, brushing against me and welcoming me into the day with each slow pirouette.
As the fall progressed, the entrance to Washington Park on Jefferson- my portal into the stillness, quiet, and fresh breaths of my mountainous ascent- became carpeted in leaves, to the point where the sidewalk welcomed me like a velvet rug: all-encompassing and flush with the swish and slide of the progression of fall and turn of wheels.
The later sunrise has gotten, the more I’ve ridden in the dark. The city is still bustling this early in the morning despite the later sunrise, but the neighborhoods are quiet. I glide out onto streets lit by streetlamps and the towering houses of my West Hills ride glow warmly with cheery porch lights. Sleepy businessmen eat their morning cereal by one lone lamp and the birds, one at a time, announce their excitement at a new day. At first, I can hear only one song. And then, more and more call to me from their branches.
As a chorus emerges with every pedal stroke, I find myself wanting to sing along, maybe in my own language, but aspiring to be just as melodious. I find my pot of quiet, of needed loneliness in a busy, go-go life. I sing along with the birds and I bundle up, feeling the creation of my own warmth and sweat beneath fleece jackets and fuzzy gloves. I see my breath in the chill air, evidence of a life…a heart-pounding, leg-straining, skin-chilled vibrancy of life. As I bike alone in the quiet of the Hills, the birds are my companions and my bike my compatriot, announcing our arrival with the quiet creak of a chain and the whirring of wheels on the wet pavement. We go together, bike and I.
Sometimes I do look at myself and think I’m crazy: riding 12+ miles up 800 ft of elevation, straining muscles and lungs at 6:30 in the morning, just for the sake of exercise and “experiencing the elements.” Crazy indeed. I remember saying this to my bus friend, Josh, one early morning, “I know it’s crazy, but I just love how bike riding strips down that barrier to the elements.” Instead of being protected by glass and metal and heated seats and NPR, we’re out in the cold, crisp air amidst the steam of the city and the oil-strewn rain water, slick on the streets. We’re diverted to the side of the road, where we risk getting clipped by a passing car, tipped into a storm drain, or pushed out onto a gravel, uneven roadside…
But it’s exhilarating, this life as a bike rider. We get to bike over wet leaves, remembering that it is fall, or feel the chill of the air on our already frozen fingers, reminding us that winter is approaching. We get to speed past cars, headlights lining up as far as the eye can see, stuck in early morning traffic. Drivers fume into their steaming coffee mugs as I glide down a bike path, wind whipping at my cheeks. This week it’s been in the 20s (and even below!)- a low extreme for this part of the world. I’m worried about the worms burrowing deep in my worm bin and I’m more conscious of my layers when I leave for school in the morning. The tips of my fingers numb fast in the still darkness and when I ride home in the mid-afternoon, all is stark and gray, frigid and still. Time and space seem to open up under all this emptiness, allowing my thoughts room to grow and blossom. Poems are written in the winter by the light of a candle or under the wide horizon of biking across the Willamette River.
Though we have to be aware and on the lookout for ice, there’s something surrendering about being out in the elements, subject to seasonal changes. From our bikes, we get to see the Earth go through its seasons and we’re as much a part of that as the Squirrel, preparing for winter. She just knows what she needs to do. From a bike, I feel as though I’m an enlivened being on a planet that I don’t really have much control over. But I do have control over how I live. I can choose to live a sheltered awareness, avoiding discomfort, but by doing this I often avoid beauty as well. I miss the moments that we never expected to be there- the ones that take us by surprise. Like seeing a leaf fall in a perfect spiral, startling an owl out of its nightly hunt, riding on a paved trail that used to be a railroad, waking for a morning bike ride to a world blanketed in snow, smelling the city as it wakes, or hearing its hum from above a blanket of mist as it lays below in the early morning. Bikes can take us there- to this wild world, a place with sounds of water whirring on wheels and mist turning into drizzle the higher we climb. To this place that forces us to disconnect, unwind, process, unplug, and marvel at the alivedness of this beautiful world.