23.8.16

The Slow Joy of Bicycle Touring

Speed was of the essence, the joy of sitting in the car and hurtling himself forward through space. That became a good beyond all others, a hunger to be fed at any price. Nothing around him lasted for more than a moment, and as one moment followed another, it was as through he alone continued to exist. He was a fixed point in a whirl of changes, a body poised in utter stillness as the world rushed through him and disappeared. The car became a sanctum of invulnerability, a refuge in which nothing could hurt him anymore. As long as he was driving, he carried no burdens, was unencumbered by even the slightest particle of his former life.

[Paul Auster, The Music of Chance.]

[A spring respite.]
There is a particular feeling after bicycle touring that sinks down into your legs. It grounds you, connecting  your feet to the earth, the floors of your rooms, the dirt in your yard, the concrete and asphalt streets all offer purchase of a different kind. The topography is alive with the possibility of a distant place, not just the knowledge the remnants of a lived encounter between your body and the world around you.

"I traveled this far on my own, carried myself into and across a landscape," it says mutely.

You don't think this thought so much as feel it, the distance fills your limbs, the lingering horizons tracing an unbroken curve between here and there, an aura of peace equal parts physical and mental that changes the feeling of chairs or paper. Everything tastes bigger somehow.

The richness of traveling by bicycle is rooted in vulnerability, the sheer act of carrying weight, the intensity of each hill, or the infinite randomness of the weather. This recent trip, to and from a small farm outside Stillwater, Minnesota, began in a deluge, hours of rain that seemed to swirl on the radar and stop overhead, dropping rain all morning long and making sure my socks would we wet for hours. Back and forth the rain drops toyed with gravity. Bicycling demands and rewards the patience and thick skin, but then just as much the sky settles down and by nightfall first a single star appears and then a dozen and then a hundred. And the next day is completely new, blue sky and white clouds and sunshine falling through the trees. That's the beauty of bicycling, that you never know.  Exposure making each hour or mile more keenly felt, the intensification of the everyday, the adventure of the mundane.

[Bridge relativity.]

A friend once send me a letter describing a journey not on bicycle but on foot, walking a pilgrimage through Spain. He wrote:
We're averaging just nine miles a day but this is plenty so far. It takes your feet and body a week to get used to getting up every morning at seven AM, eating a little breakfast and coffee, walking eight or nine miles with a break here or there and repeating this day after day. After seven days, I'm finally used to it. We get to our next destination by noon or one PM. We wash stuff, shower, or chill for a bit, then I go draw for a few hours. Then often communal dinners, sleep, repeat.

The main thing that strikes me is how you could drive this 180-mile distance in three hours on a freeway but, in 'shortening' distance, the car makes human transit (moving through space) into a drab affair that destroys the space through which it moves. We both know this but a long walk puts the modes in stark contrast -- drive for three hours in a boring mundane way in diminished space at great expense (personal and planetary) or take twenty days to walk it in what can become this highly detailed, fantastic adventure.
So much is written about the glories of speed, but speed is a relative concept. It has no inherent meaning. I still keenly remember my first trip in my first car, driving alone from Saint Paul to Massachusetts and, afterward, contemplating the space I had crossed. The rubber tires touched every mile between my homes, tracing a line across the landscape. I felt I had learned something important about the scope of the terrain between.

Yet compared to the car, bicycling grants rich dimensions of topography, climate, and the experience of air itself, and unfathomable intimacy with the land. Yes, driving offers the transcendence of space by seemingly limitless energy. But bicycling -- or walking! --  is to immerse your limited body in the great variety of Earth. Soon afterward, a rich feeling sinks into your limbs, the knowledge of distance, weight, movement, the wealth of space itself.

[Stillwater in the distance.]

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