Monday, December 24, 2007

My own power

A lot of cyclers will tell you there's something really satisfying about getting around by their own power. Headwinds, hills, and cold rainy nights all become accomplishments when the only way to put them behind you is to keep turning the pedals. More than once I've shown up on my doorstep sopping wet, dog tired, and, strangely enough, ready to do the same thing again. Romantic as it is, one's own power does have its limitations, and the implications are kind of interesting.

The past year has made it clear that my own power is not the same as your own power. And, it is not even in the same league as my distance riding pals like Kent and Michael. As it turns out, my own power is pretty ordinary.

When I drove as well as biked, I of course didn't realize that. We read about the early affordable cars as the great equalizers of mobility, but I'm not sure we really grasp the concept any more. If Kent, Michael, and I all wanted to go bike camping in the mountains, well, by gum we all could. Kent and Michael would pedal from Portland into the hills, and I'd be brewing a cup of tea one spot over--after I drove the 25 miles to the foothills, parked my car, and biked the rest of the way.

My first year without a car in Missoula was easy in part because where I wanted to be was more or less within the limits of where my own power could take me. The trout streams and mountains where I liked to hang out were almost all within a 25-mile radius from my front door. I also had a more flexible schedule and a walking commute there, and that left me fresh and ready to head for the woods 2 or 3 days a week.

In Portland, 25 miles gets me to populated foothills, at best. My schedule is less flexible. My commute is 6 flat miles each way, which doesn't sound like much, but after a long day at work and school adding another 20 or 30 to loop through the hills takes some resolve for me.

This year in Portland has been much tougher for me than the carfree year in Missoula. It is also a really interesting experience to constantly butt up against my own limitations. If nothing else, I think it's kind of rare for us these days. For many of us, when we reach our limitations on most practical things, we can just pay someone else to sort of extend our abilities. If I can't install a headset on my bike, or fix the furnace, or build a chair, it doesn't mean I have to give up riding, build a fire, or sit on the floor. In the same way, with a car and gas money, I can pretty much buy all the mobility I want, regardless of how well I can get around on my own. Giving up driving is like refusing to buy furniture (and, some might say, an equally silly thing to do!). With some woodworking tools and lumber, most anyone can cobble together a chair, but one's limitations are suddenly going to become obvious.

I'll never be able to ride as far in a day as Kent or Michael or a lot of other cyclers do. And, I certainly can't access all of the woods I could by car. Then again, I can only explore one place at a time anyway, and I only need one patch of ground to stretch out on for the night. These thoughts occur to me as I look down an old logging road somewhere in the Tualatin Mountains, after just an hour or so from my office downtown. Too muddy to explore right now, but I'll be back when the rains stop.

There's still something special to me about getting around under my own power, even if it just means working within my own limitations. I could buy a car and drive to the bigger mountains a range over, but I wouldn't find anything there as satisfying as that muddy logging road winding back into those little hills. The whole notion of sustainability is really just learning to live within our means. In focusing on what we have to give up, we sometimes lose sight of what we might gain. There is a peculiar satisfaction in pushing up against one's limits more often.