Wednesday, March 21, 2012

As bad as it gets

It's 9 o'clock on a dark, stormy night in Portland. The temperature is hovering just above freezing, and the rain is starting to mix with snow. A lone figure strides out into the plaza. If this sounds sounds like a (terrible) movie script, well, apparently it is. A crew member asks if I could wait just a minute before I walk to my bike. They've been trying to get this scene for an hour.

The plaza is a little different than usual for this time of night. There aren't usually giant lights floating around on balloons, for instance. The Benz parked at the top of the stairs is new, too. Just as I'm taking it all in, a MAX train pulls up, unloads a few passengers, and ruins yet another take. Oh well, might as well go on to your bike. I chuckle at the comedy of it all as I fumble with my rain cape and lock, trying to get clear of the plaza before they start another take. Or, before one of those giant zeppelin lights shorts out and crashes down on me.

To bike six miles in weather like this must seem like it would be pretty miserable. I think this because people often tell me on days like this that it seems like it would be pretty miserable. "This must be as bad as it gets, huh?" I heard it earlier today as a matter of fact. Every once in a while people are right about the weather, but most of the time it's actually not so bad. Tonight's not so bad. In fact, it's pretty nice riding weather. This is one of those little cycler secrets I like to keep to myself. Partly to maintain the appearance of sanity. Partly, it's fun to have secrets.

I like weather, on the whole. When you ride the same route a lot--like the 6 miles between here and home--it's mainly weather that distinguishes one ride from the next. As I cross the river and turn off towards the trail, I'm thinking I can't recall riding through a night quite like this one. The bitter cold east wind that was blowing this morning has calmed. It feels much warmer than the 33 degrees flashing on the thermometer. The air has just a hint of that electric smell it gets just as a fresh snow starts. The snow melts a bit as it gathers in the crook of my cape, but it's still slushy as I heave the growing puddle off to the side.

I roll onto the trail at a good clip. The snow's freezing more, falling more slowly, and I start to catch a few flakes in my mouth. The geese that usually scold me give me a pass tonight. Maybe they're thinking this is about as bad as it gets, leave him be fellas. Their golden eyes glint in my headlight. Heading toward the dark, wooded stretch, I slow a little, wondering if the mule deer will be out. In Montana, they'd most likely have bedded down in a nice patch of grass behind some brush on a night like this. But you never know about these city deer.

In this dark stretch, the snow really stands out in my headlight, dancing patterns and casting energetic shadows on the trail ahead. It makes me think of the occasional bug swarms that will be hatching before too long on warm, summer evenings. My hands start to get a little chilled, and I adjust the cape and pick up the pace to warm them. No frog serenade tonight in Oaks Bottom. I hope all those peepers found some warm mud to tuck into during this little spring intermission. I don't see anyone else on the trail tonight, but I'm sure there were plenty before and maybe a few to follow that know these cycler secrets.

Soon I'm turning off the path, up through the park and along the bluff toward home. I get to look back down at the trail, and all the way back toward where I hope a soggy film crew finally got its scene. From up here, I have to admit it looks like a pretty miserable night for a spin along the river. The best secrets are like that, though.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Second spring

Spring night grocery run

When I decided years ago to drop out of the car game for a while, I thought I sort of knew what I was getting into. But, it turned out to be kind of like marriage. You can think about it in terms of practicalities--there'll be a wedding, then a honeymoon, then we'll be living together, eating meals together, we won't be dating people any more--but you actually don't have any idea what the real experience of will be like. Biking everywhere all the time has been similar in that way. I could wrap my mind around shopping by bike, and that I would get colder and wetter, and that I would get more exercise and not be buying gas any more, but the real experience of being on a bike everyday for normal stuff hasn't been much about those things at all.

My first tastes of the real cycler's life came while doing routine things I had done for years by car. Grocery shopping and fishing, for instance. There was a certain seamlessness to life that kept taking me by surprise. It's like I had expected the scenes themselves to change, but instead it was the scene changes. Years later, it's still the transitions that have changed my world the most. This year it's the seasonal changes that have my attention.

There aren't just four seasons any more, for one thing. And there's more than temperature, daylight, and precipitation in their measure. There are tiny seasons marked by the wind, the smell of the river and plants, the spring peepers and birds and bullfrogs. The shapes and colors of clouds, where they come from, and where they're going. Where the hobo camps are, how many, and how boisterous. I would agree with you if all of that makes me sound like some inarticulate but earnest hippie. But, the funny thing is I'm much more of an average city Joe these days than I ever have been. I haunt coffee shops instead of trout streams, and I'm more likely to see a sunset on my flickr feed than behind the west hills.

I find I'm getting worse and worse at explaining my experiences to others, and that's part of the reason that this blog has floundered. I get stumped when people ask me basic questions about what it's like to bike all year. I've kind of lost the ability to relate it to things. When someone asks a simple question like, "What's it like riding in the rainy season?" I think "Where to begin? There are so many things you should know about the rain, man! There are so many types of rain, to start with." Then I give up and say something brilliant like "Sometimes you get wet." In that way it's a lot like trying to explain being married to single friends. By the time you start to understand it, you can't explain it anymore.

Happy second spring everyone. The one with the swirling winds, the rain that smells like laundry, the nervous frogs, the giggling birds, grey-green river, and the southwestern clouds that have important appointments somewhere northeast of here.

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