Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Parker House Rolls

It's nine o'clock as I roll over the Blackfoot River and into Milltown. About a quarter of the 28 miles to Rock Creek are behind me, and I'm starving. I woke up feeling awful this morning, but the 7 rolling miles in crisp air have taken care of that, and now I need to make up for missing breakfast. I pull off at the little local grocery and gas and start grazing. Bananas, juice, one dozen Parker House rolls. It all makes perfect sense as I check out. Then I get out to the bike, finish off a banana and juice and think, "What is a Parker House roll?" and, more importantly, "Why did I just buy a dozen of them?" The answer to the first question is a sweet, cheesy roll which--according to the ingredient label--may or may not contain jalapeños. Hmmm. The answer to the second question will come in time, I decide. I stuff a roll in my mouth, one in my pocket, and the rest in the burgeoning saddlebag, and ride off.

The frontage road is familiar and really only interesting for its destination. My mind wanders with the miles. I snap an uninspired picture of the flat, straight road. The camera batteries die. Ten miles later, I'm sitting up eating a banana when two friendly roadies greet me as they pass. They are a neat sight, legs spinning 100 RPM in unison as they take turns in the lead. I finish the banana and decide to give chase toward Clinton to break the monotony. As it turns out, they aren't going as fast as they look and 20 miles per hour steadily closes the gap. I decide to hang back a bit but keep the gap steady, since I'm sure I couldn't keep up for too long.

As we near Clinton, I hear a truck approach behind--the first vehicle in a long while. It honks twice. Ever the dork, I wave and smile, figuring it's a student or someone I know from town or just someone who likes my flyrod-on-bike setup. As the truck roars past, I realize the driver's agitated. Ahead, the roadies have slowed and are chatting side by side. The truck keeps a straight line toward the cyclers and lays on the horn. The roadies pay him no attention. This isn't good, I think. The lack of response seems further to agitate the driver, and he accelerates toward the riders and blasts the horn. Just in time, the truck swerves out, gives another horn blast, and passes with little margin for error. The outer roadie flinches away a bit and seems confused. The truck roars away.

The roadies probably shouldn't have been riding side-by-side. The truck definitely had no business endangering lives for no reason. On a quiet, friendly frontage road like this, where's the harm in swinging around to pass a couple of bikes? I wonder if the driver pulls the same maneuver on farm equipment using the road. From my vantage point, there's probably a driver that now feels justified in his hunch that cyclers think they "own the road." He'll probably be even more hostile to any rider he sees in the future. From the roadies' vantage point, I imagine they think they were buzzed by another nut behind the wheel for no reason. I feel I've witnessed the world worsen just a bit. It's so hard to communicate when private autos are involved that social interaction can break down instantly.

After a hill, I peel off from the roadies to get on I-90 for the last quarter of my ride, and they continue straight on the dead-end frontage road. I hope that the truck isn't waiting in town for them. Without the rabbits, my pace slows to my usual cruising speed of 15 miles per hour. A couple of miles up the interstate, I spot a very animated hitchhiker. He follows through with the thumb on each passing vehicle, and then spins and throws up his arms in disbelief when each refuses to stop for him. When I drove, I never picked up a hitchhiker, but as I approach him on the bike, I realize I'm in a totally new social situation. Driving past in a car, the idea of stopping to say hello to a hitchhiker seems completely absurd. On the bike, the idea of sneaking past behind the guy without saying anything seemsequallyy ridiculous. It would be like walking past someone on my walk into work and looking the other way, pretending not to see them because I'm so enthralled by this tree bark. You know the feeling. So, I stop the bike right in the middle of one of his hilarious, dramatic spins of disbelief.

"Good morning. Where ya headed?" I ask.

"Headed to Deer Lodge [about a hundred miles east], man, but the miles are going slow. Where you headed?"

He's in his late thirties, long hair, but healthy and fairly clean cut. He could walk into any restaurant in Missoula without raising eyebrows. He doesn't have any luggage.

"I'm just pedaling up to Rock Creek to spend the day."

"Oh, man, I wish I was headed there. I love the creek. That's a fine place."

"Doesn't look like you're having much luck out here."

"No, man, I've been out here two hours and can't get a lift. Hundreds of dollars in my back pocket [pats back pocket], and I can't get a lift. I don't understand these people, man."

I think to myself that those people he's raising a thumb to don't understand him either. Anyone who's walked or bicycled on a road shoulder realizes all too well how much autos insulate against the noise and pollution outside the glass. Standing on this interstate shoulder, I realized just now that the price of that insulated comfort is isolation. In an auto, we're reduced to interaction by impotent horns, lights, mimed gestures, and occasionally threatening each other with two-ton contraptions we actually can't afford to damage. The agitated truck driver earlier attested to that. Autos turn public space into private. Because it's so normal to most of us, I think we've come to view it as a good thing. As in, "Thank goodness I don't have to deal with this nut on the side of the road." This guy really made my day, though. And, I now had the answer to my question.

"Say, I just bought way more rolls than I need. Would you take half a dozen from me?"

"Sure, man, what's in 'em? Maybe some mushrooms? A little hashish, huh? That's what we need."

I laughed and passed him six rolls, which he stuffed in his pockets and began eating. We wished each other luck and parted ways. As I rode off, he yelled after me.

"You know, I should get me a bike. Hey these rolls are good!"

The world had just gotten a little bit better. I flatted on a staple a little ways up the road, but it was an easy fix. I had a wonderful day of fishing on the creek and a beautiful ride home in the cool of evening. The travel time for the 60 miles or so was about four times what it would be in a car, but as usual, it was worth every minute. And, I had every reason to stop for ice cream halfway home.



Anonymous Jim said...

Cars are sort of like the internet. People on blogs and various forums will often behave in a way they wouldn't, say, when encountering strangers at a restaurant. People in cars will often behave in an aggressive, threatening manner, even if outside the vehicle they are mild-mannered citizens.

It's almost no wonder, with many cars and trucks being marketed to be intimidating. Who better to intimidate then a bicyclist.

8:41 PM  
Anonymous Alberto said...

Great story. Hope the fishing was that good.

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Michael Rasmussen said...

Another lesson on how to have a great time with daily life. Thanks!

8:29 PM  
Blogger Jill said...

Nice post! I liked the conflict and resolution. Too bad you didn't throw any of those rolls at the truck driver.

11:59 PM  
Anonymous duane said...

Great post! Even if there was moment of conflict. I'm still envious. "The travel time for the 60 miles or so was about four times what it would be in a car,.....". Can you imagine what your trip would have been like if you had driven a car? Potentially a lot less interesting I'm sure.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Duane, I love it! I think you've pretty much summed up going back to life with a car in general: "potentially a lot less interesting." Thanks for the comment, and enjoy the ride.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Kent Peterson said...

Great story, nicely told. Thanks for bringing us along for the ride.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Really good post. I'd sure like to get over my irrational fear of picking up hitchhikers but it's hard when it's drilled into your head all your life. A lot like the big car lie, I guess. But, I had my wife's support (if disbelief) with the switch to bikes but I don't with picking up hitchhikers...

2:51 PM  

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