Published Oct 3 on Elephant Journal (click to view)
Why do I bicycle, every day, to the office, you ask? Why do I forsake the warmth of my truck for the chill of hard weather? Is it to lose this belly? Do I ride to save money or do I consider myself some kind of two-wheeled urban warrior on a crusade to save the planet? Maybe I’m just vain and I like to look cool as I park my bike at my desk, wet from the winter rain? Sure, I’m a little vain, and those are all good reasons to ride, but my answer is no, I ride for a different reason. I ride to connect with my city.
How’s that, you say? Well, imagine you’ve turned down a street lined with houses. It’s spring and you can smell the fragrant blossoms and occasionally burnt toast and coffee. From your car, you wouldn’t know that the birds have returned, but now you hear them sing from the canopy and you think, I didn’t hear them yesterday. Maybe a beautiful woman, wet hair and heels, walks to her car balancing her bottle of lemon-water, phone and briefcase and it makes you smile. Had you driven, she would have been just another driver, texting away, like everyone else in the rush hour crawl. But early morning isn’t about talk radio in the car. Early morning is when dogs are walked and bread is delivered. Early morning is when I see, hear and smell my city as I ride through it on my way to work.
You see, I wake earlier than most so that I can feel my city wake. Most days, I take the shortcut across the locks that raise and lower boats between Puget Sound and the ship canal. In the dim blue light, just before dawn, I see lock wall attendants, hard men who tend the cleats and ropes, guide in a crab boat, probably straight from Dutch and full of fishermen long at sea. Restless. Flush with pay. Just below me, the canal falls into the sound as gulls and herons fish the foamy water. I taste the brackish mist that rises up to cover me and my bicycle. This humanity, plus the herons, salt air and an orange horizon, this is why I feel fortunate to be on a bike at sunrise in the cold air of a Seattle spring morning. Had I driven, I would know none of this.
Now imagine it’s January and you’re on that same commute but you’ve turned onto a bike trail, one that takes you behind the strip malls. Cold rain hits your face, but you’re warm in your waterproof jacket. Through the dark, you see how blackberry bushes swallow abandoned shopping carts. You see that tent where somebody’s daughter makes a home. A young man sits under a bridge and you know from his face that he’s got nowhere to go. This is also my city.
Bike trails take you places that people don’t drive. They go under the overpass and along the rail yard. They wind through the margins of the city, where people live in the margins of society, and riding them, every day, allows you to see the dark reality, as well as the light. It connects you with the truth. What you do with this truth, in your heart and in your actions, is up to you.
Your city is every home and business you pass. It is a breathing collective of sounds and smells of every creature that lives in it. Your city is the sun and the rain and the wind and the snow. It’s the smell of salt air at low tide or the sulfur of the paper mill. If you want to know how your city’s economic and social polices manifest in real life, then get on a bike. And if you want to see the truth, then ride to work. Do it every day, or as much as you can and you may find that you become invested in a way that you may not be if you only see your city from the insulation of your car.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter why you ride, to save thousands in un-bought gasoline, to lower your blood pressure, or to show your coworkers that you do more than just talk about saving the planet. What matters is that you do it. But for me, it’s the connection I feel when I watch, smell and hear my city wake up. It’s the knowledge I get when I see how my brothers and sisters struggle in the margins. It’s a daily glimpse of the truth. It works for me and it might work for you too.