Twenty years ago I was living in Frankfurt, Germany. I had just bought my first “serious” bicycle. I think most Americans think of touring Europe as hitting several cities, if not countries, in a couple of weeks. Instead, I toured a rather small area of Germany for nearly three years, by bike, foot, and train. There was so much to see, so close. The slower you went, the more you saw, heard, smelled, lived. One time riding up Feldberg on that Cannondale crit bike, I set off up a rocky path toward a minor peak. The surface became too loose to ride with my skinny tires, so I got off and walked through the forest as the path faded, enjoying the dappled autumn light and mushrooms. Near the top I stopped and sat on a mossy rock. It looked to be worked, at least lightly. Poking around, sweeping back ferns, I could make out walls, stacked. Later I learned that this was a ruined signaling tower from the Roman Empire, two thousand years old. There were no signs.
At the time, I would explain this microcosmic depth as a European thing — so much history in such a small area compared to the virginal newness (or cultural sterility) of America. More recently I’ve embraced it as all a matter of pace, of literal slow motion through space, a pace that’s pretty much been marginalized as recreational at best if it exceeds the scope of, say, a mall and its parking lots, a weekend indulgence. There is as much enchantment in a slow mile here as there; it’s perhaps just a bigger secret here. If this isn’t apparent, you’re still moving too fast. If you move too slowly, though, outside of certain designated rest and recreational areas, somebody is likely to call the police on your creepy hippy ass. “Move along!”
I relish running errands in town on a bike, usually the Brompton if no passengers are involved. The other day I had to deliver a hundred machined parts to an anodizing shop a few miles away, in a bit of Southeast I hadn’t yet explored. It was cold and bright. When I pulled into the parking lot, necks craned from inside and a shop guy walking in from his truck gave me a grin that said “40-year-old virgin?” Maybe it was the rainlegs. I unloaded the parts and continued, turning down a few blind alleys just to see what was there. Portland has an amazingly diverse industrial infrastructure compared to the bigger, service-economy cities I’ve lived in. I wheeled the bike through the weeds of an embankment at the end of one alley and onto the road I’d return by. But I went the other way deliberately to see more. I rode into an open rolling field with some community garden plots on it, mostly mulched up for the winter now. I kneeled to look close at maybe half a dozen different kinds of mushrooms coming up in the glistening grass, my breath steaming. I thought about Dan my friend who died last autumn. Beyond the field were woods. I entered and descended to a clear deep creek running fast, with the last of the yellow and red leaves swirling in eddies. Up the canyon I emerged on the campus of Reed College, in a complex of dormitories. I thought of my own school days and wondered how they might have been here instead of in Santa Fe.
I rode through the surrounding pre-automotive neighborhoods in the direction of a grocery store, along streets lined with nice old craftsman homes. I encountered nobody except one woman raking leaves. She smiled broadly back at me in acknowledgment of the secret as I rode by. Someday I’ll do a photo essay on local architectural detail — the crazy eaves mainly — that inevitably you’ll either over- or undershoot on foot or in a car.
Then I wheeled home 30 pounds of groceries. The whole trip was maybe 90 minutes. Maybe it would have been 60 in a car, but those extra 30 minutes are the best stuff there is.
What you see on foot and from a motorcage are parallel universes, but there’s yet another one on a bike, and I like it best by far. It’s still fast enough and you can carry enough that you can enter it without work stopping, but not so fast and sealed off from the outside world that you can’t discover overgrown ruins, mushrooms and streams, or catalog industrial processes and architectural details in your neighborhood.
Jim, who has also turned into a hippy, has a lot of good pictures up recently of great stuff he has more or less all to himself, on his bike, in his dense wintry city.