Seeing slow

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.

14 thoughts on “Seeing slow”

  • Jim

    Thanks for the plug Todd. I guess maybe I am a hippy now – or at least not exaggerating my angry moments for the benefit of blog hit counts.

    Anyway, I’ve been working on an essay (parts of which may appear on OIFS) over the past week or so about these low speed bicycle explorations. In many ways, this is my favorite kind of riding, and it seems that the bicycle, by nature a low-speed vehicle even at its fastest, is well suited to this type of exploration. I think the key is to combine the ride with some other hobby: photography, historical interests, birdwatching, or utilitarian trips.

  • fred

    Todd, I read all your posts on your site, regardless of the content. Most of your material if of great interest to me as a
    cyclist, so the content is relevant most of the time. The thought came to my mind as I was reading this entry that you
    might have another source of income if needed (and desired).

    Your ability to write in such a way as to present images to the reader is at the top of the scale, in my opinion. I can’t
    say that I’ve seen what you have but I can say that it’s there in my mind after reading your words.

    Have you considered putting some of your “spare time” into creating a book for the adventurers who can’t get out there? I
    expect that such a labor would be demanding, but you certainly have the talent, as evidenced in these entries.

    Just another rider’s opinion.

  • Bill Manewal

    Thank you for reminding me what it is about cycling that turns me on so much, but sometimes gets lost in my version of “Keep Moving.”

    In agreement with fred, I am astounded at the literary talent evident in this entry.

    And seeing Jim’s great photos, I’m inspired to carry a camera, even on my “utilitarian” commutes.

    Thank you. – Bill

    PS: Was your schooling in Santa Fe at St. John’s?

  • AC

    Lately, I’ve been enjoying the way you can get off a bike and walk it for a while. In a car,
    you have to come back to where you parked it. A bike lets you take a stroll without having to
    double-back — slowing down and still making progress toward your destination.

  • billc

    It seems like the only close parallel to cycling is traveling by train, although it’s hard to stop a train to examine some interesting rocks along the way. Like with a rail line, it’s usually possible to string together interesting bike routes that seem to wind in and out of everyday life as experienced from a car or by foot. Travel by car, and especially by highway, has given us a sort of “official” view of our own landscape or worse, taught us that there’s nothing to see along the way. Cycling lets us rediscover the alternate routes and enjoy, rather than endure, the journey.

  • tarik

    Nice post.

    I spent a summer in county cork ireland working during the week and spending the weekend touring on a cannondale 3.0 crit bike. Backpack, aerobars and light stiff frame with broken axles. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find every pub in co-cork, getting there was the adventure.

    As the chunk guys say, exploring the “urban interstials” is the best part of biki

  • Bill Manewal

    billc wrote:

    ââ?¬Å?Travel by car, and especially by highway, has given us a sort of ââ?¬Å?officialââ?¬Â? view of our own landscapeââ?¬Â?

    I live about 12 miles south of San Francisco and commute into SF each day via Stokemonkey. When I share that fact with people, a very common first question is, ââ?¬Å?But how do you get thereââ?¬Â¦ you canââ?¬â?¢t ride that thing on the freeway, can you?ââ?¬Â?

    This means that otherwise intelligent and informed folks must not be aware that there even IS a landscape; they�ve lost their ability to conceive of any of the half dozen or so major streets on which they could traverse an area about 15 miles long and only 6 miles wide; only the Interstate and the U.S Highway routes exist, bypassing neighborhoods where thousands of people sleep and work and shop and play; only concrete and steel 8-lane arteries remain in their mental maps while the real and complex tissue of the earth with its rolling hills and valleys filled with cooler moister air have been erased; in their vision a 1300 ft. mountain, in the middle of a natural preserve that is 2 miles by 4 miles in size, has vanished; and their only clue that the dimension of elevation exists in any tangible way occurs when they have to decide which way to curb their wheels.

    A corollary might be that such tunnel-visioned and humus-deprived folks may find it difficult or even impossible to care about something that is no longer there in their awareness. [Unless they get in their cars, drive on the freeways, and stare straight ahead at a screen filled with moving pictures about a warming globe.]

    In the spirit of this thread, wandering off my usual route home today, drenched in a welcome warm afternoon sun, I discovered a store called ââ?¬Å?Rolling Stockââ?¬Â? that sells nothing but fancy car, truck and, above all, SUV wheels as well as hubcapsââ?¬Â¦ thousands and thousands of hubcaps. Interesting. I parked in front of the open front door and watched 4 or 5 people standing at the counter talk with mild rapture about different wheels they desired. A young worker spied my bike and we struck up a conversation. At the end, he pronounced my ride ââ?¬Å?Off the hook.ââ?¬Â? And his buddy called it ââ?¬Å?Smokinââ?¬Â?. I took these to be good things.

    Leisurely pedaling over flat streets between streams of children walking and talking excitedly with their friends, out of doors, out of school, in the warm winter sun, on their way to suppers with their families, I daydreamed about a large store full of an assortment of assembled Stokemonkey bikes in this same working-class neighborhood. I saw a long line of customers on Saturdays eagerly waiting to purchase alternatives to their rusting cars whose fuel they could no longer afford.

    I enjoyed the journey� 30 minutes by car and 50 by bike, but, for the tradeoff of 20 minutes, so much richer.

  • Cara Lin Bridgman
    Cara Lin Bridgman December 9, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    It’s called a Bike Hike. I’ve done them since I was 10.

  • Cara Lin Bridgman
    Cara Lin Bridgman December 9, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Oh, and I’ve always carried a camera. If you don’t, you miss the good shots.

  • Cara Lin Bridgman
    Cara Lin Bridgman December 9, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    Oh, and I’ve always carried a camera. If you don’t, you miss the good shots.

    Getting off the main roads is so important. On main roads, the speed differential is so much higher. The shade tends to be less, too. I found that in working out my commutes I was exploring alternative routes. In Taiwan, I have to consider the complexity of the intersections. Some roads or bits of roads are cobbled, and that’s no fun on a bike. So, traveling by bike does necessitate a shift in perspective and priorities. Getting there is no longer enough of a goal, the route also has to be pleasant.

    Another result or biking is that it reinforces my dislike of shopping centers or malls or any sort of shopping complex that has to be entered before you can find out what sort of stores are inside. I like the shops to have a ground floor opening right onto the street. With these shops, I can immediately tell what’s inside and I can usually park my bike within view from the inside.

  • Bruce Alan Wilson
    Bruce Alan Wilson December 20, 2006 at 3:49 am

    Has anyone here ever read Jerome K. Jerome’s THREE MEN ON THE BUMMEL? It was first published in 1900, and tells the story of three Englishmen vacationing with their bicycles in Germany. They travel between the cities by train, taking their bicycles, which they use to explore each city and the environs. It is both very funny–you can imagine the amount of trouble those three got into, especially as only one of them spoke German at all well–and some of what he says about German society is a disturbing pre-echo of things to come in the Bloody Twentieth.

    I think it would be a wonderful project for someone to re-trace their route and see what is different and what is the same.

  • Mike C

    “Three Men on a Boat”, while not cycling-related, is also very funny (if you like that type of humor, which I do, a lot). Not sure which one came first but I believe both are still in print (at least in the UK).

  • Bruce Alan Wilson
    Bruce Alan Wilson January 12, 2007 at 5:30 am

    “On a Boat” came first, I think.

  • Dave

    In an urban commuting sense, I think this is one area in which a lot of European cities and towns *do* have an edge up on us - not necessarily because of their bicycle infrastructure, but because they don't cater to automobiles at the expense of livability. That makes it much easier for anyone to go slowly and stop and look at what's around them - not to mention, it helps create places where you actually want to go slowly and not just rush to wherever you're going to get out of the way of everyone.

    Thankfully Portland has many beautiful neighborhoods with very low amounts of car traffic, and it really is a sincere pleasure to just meander through them on a bike, running errands, going to work, whatever. The best moments are when you catch just the right sunrise coming up behind the Hawthorne bridge (, or just the right filter of light through the fog at a particular moment ( or simply another cyclist who is obviously enjoying themselves (and potentially looking quite good while doing it) (

    I think your bit about the speed of riding is perfect - just fast enough to be convenient, but slow enough to be able to enjoy it and not just view it as a way to get from here to there. Keep on enjoying those rides!

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