That was my first thought. The image was of me bicycling the 20 odd miles between work and home. After six years of more-or-less regular commuting, the longest of my life, my sense of adventure had led me down every possible pathway between my own little town and the College burg where a desk has my name on it. I had often thought of bicycling between work and home. The image in my mind was a warm spring day, an azure sky and warm sun low over the Cascade foothills, with me leaving from home to go to work enveloped in the smell of flowers and the spring chorus. It was a pretty image.
The reality began to set in as I was driving down from Portland. Due to some family logistics there was no car for me in the lot; I had a bike and the weather report said: showers and after 29 years in the Northwest I haven’t melted. Don’t worry, I will just take the bike home, I told my wife. Driving down the Willamette Valley, dark clouds rolled south like shock waves as a cold front moved through; the “showers” were more squall lines of downpour with icy centers, and the winds shuttered the car when it struck. This was not my preferred cycling weather.
Back at the office, geared up in the “full MAML,” covered in rain gear, I headed south. Checking the tires, chain, and lights I headed off. There is a difference between working out by bicycle and traveling. With exercise, you get to choose the path and can generally stay away from the obvious danger of the sport – cars. Or, at the very least, avoid the places without shoulders or bike lanes and use sidewalks as a last resort. Traveling involves getting to a destination and the route is set by the goal. Of late I have been training, but this would be my first commute.
Section 1: Bikevana
The city of Eugene regularly gets awards for it’s cycling paths. I have never seen such a small city with so many Multi-Use Path bridges. Eugene has five that I am aware of; Portland has one across the same river (although to be fair Portland’s Non-MUP bridges have better bike lanes for the most part) but bridges are really where you know your value in the eyes of society as every square foot of surface must be built and supported. So my commute starts on wide paths free of cars. The air is heavy but without rain and I roll through the homeless camps that have become a fixture of Northwest life.
Two miles in I realized the back wheel was out of true, rubbing the brakes. Not an auspicious beginning. Backing off the brakes I wonder if this is a great idea. The front wheel does most of the braking and hopefully, the wheel will not wreck if I avoid curbs and potholes. Under a path-light I try and gauge the line between “not a perfect circle” and “impending taco.” I decide that it’s more circle than taco and continue on.
For the homeless, these paths offer some refuge from the police while providing access to their daily needs. There is a lot of talk among cyclists about the issues related to this: the mess, people with shopping carts carrying all their belongings, the accessories of addiction, and signs of mental health issues that play a large part in the overall dilemma. How we treat the most vulnerable in our society is how far we have advanced; on the bike paths of our cities it is clear we still have far to go.
It can be frightening to pass by someone yelling at the sky on a dark path at night. It is certainly harder to have a mental crisis alone in the dark on a pathway with people flying by on thousand dollar bikes, sometimes yelling at you. While I cannot solve the problem I try not to aggravate it, so I slow and speak softly, keep my headlight down, and weave through the camps as in a residential neighborhood.
The path leads down by the water and under the freeway ending in a few miles at the gritty industrial edge of town. The trees are bare save for the occasional cherry or hawthorn, their flower petals lie like snow around them. The ground is shiny, wet, and slick. Suddenly, a crosswalk and a flashing light mark the start of Part 2.
Part 2: The Edge of Town
Here the path runs through that ugly edge every city has; the place where the things people need but have no desire to live next to reside: train yards, power stations, landfills, U-Haul stores, and used car lots. The road is at least wide and, until the city’s edge, the shoulder generous. I ride past the landscape shops and transfer station, past low-slung stores with barred windows, their neon beer signs flickering. The flood plain trailer parks and industrial lots pass by, my legs pumping, mindful of the miles ahead, eyes watchful for lights behind and potential glass on the road. The night smells first of exhaust and oil, then electricity under the transfer station in Goshen. The town itself has been swallowed by a freeway interchange, the power station, sawmills, and construction lots. The emanations of the nearby landfill are pervasive. At the end of a street an abandoned church stands under a steel power pole, it’s classic lines contrasted by the angular steel. Six miles from town this is as far as a daily bicycle commuter is likely to go; the shoulder ends as does the 45 MPH speed limit and so begins…
Part 3: The Valley of Death.
The next 6 miles of highway runs straight and shoulder-less, parallel the freeway. The proximity of I-5 limits the usefulness of hearing and light to perceive over-taking vehicles. Having left the liberal enclave of The People’s Republic of Eugene I am now at the doorway to the land of angry white men in red hats and diesel trucks, where terms like “rolling coal” and “ICEd” come from. Living in a small town I know that the vast majority of people here, like most places, are peaceful but it just takes one they say. With no shoulder there isn’t anywhere else for me to go should the driver of another vehicle decide to debate my use of the road with their bumper.
There is a way around this; out 3 miles on another (well shouldered) highway and down through the farm land but it’s an extra 20 minutes, and I had already cycled 15 miles before the start of this little excursion. The hour was late, the day long, and the rain still threatened to come crashing down at any moment; perhaps my jaunt through the “valley of death” was not the wisest choice. Each car passing is a moment of faith in the goodwill between people, and that night my faith in humanity was not misplaced. After several miles the cow pasture-cutoff around Creswell appears and I am off the Highway and onto the rural local roads.
Part 4: The Last Leg.
Finally off the numbered roads, I could relax and enjoy the ride. It was also the moment the rain started, thick and soft; the wind blew steadily at me, but not harshly. The cold front broke against the hills that connect the Coast Range to the Cascades. My ride was spared the movie-funeral downpour I had expected. Onward I rode, past the dairy, the orchards and bee-yards, the cattle and Creswell Castle , the snow-broken trees. Wildlife along the side of the road included a skunk, a pair of raccoons, and a small herd of deer. On a bike you are intimate with them; the deer are eye level, the skunks rasp and the raccoons chatter like two old men as they watch me pass. Finally, home comes into view and the ride is over as quietly as it began.
The rain stops as I rest at the foot of my own driveway and watch the clouds roll like waves on the ocean, sweating, stiff, exhausted. This wasn’t really that long a ride and my wife would have come to collect me had I asked it of her. The feeling of completing a trip long desired, however small, is still satisfying. No journey goes as planned, and this was no exception but enjoying the life we get instead of pining the journey we envision is the line between childhood and adulthood; a line I probably crossed in my thirties. Being on the other side of it has offered many benefits along with some regrets at what I missed earlier. But having arrived sweaty, middle aged and clothed in lycra hobbling up my own driveway, regret is part of the journey; if it weren’t for the unexpected it wouldn’t be a journey.