I swing my right leg over the saddle, guide my shoe cleat into the pedal, and hear the affirmative click of the engagement reverberating through the quiet morning air. I hold onto the handlebars and push on the pedal. As I start rolling forward towards the daylight streaming in over the eastern mountains, I feel something like laughter bubbling up on the inside. I’m headlong for adventure. I’m off on a bike ride.
I feel the air current flowing over my wintry silhouette. As my breathing naturally synchs with the circular motion of my legs, my consciousness moves from my head into my heart. My heart is now guiding me and I think of the mantra chanted at the green tea ceremony in Santa Fe. Open your heart. Open your heart. And there I am in the moment living a scene maybe no one sees, swooping through the currents of chilly winter air, the life inside of me shining out on this quaint street. All seems quiet and mundane, just me and the bike rolling.
I didn’t intend it this way, but so far I’ve spent a lot of my life on the road. Much of it moving so fast, boxed in behind windows, scenes flying by on a scale exceeding my human senses. The bicycle has helped me relax more and enjoy being in the moment. And much like William Safford’s poem Maybe Alone On My Bike suggests, on the bicycle, rider and poet become one.
When climbing mountains, we experience a suffering that is cathartic and brings us closer to an experience of ecstasy. On grinds up long grades we sometimes feel bogged down. Then we rise up out of the saddle, and call down to the engine room for more. Sometimes we find something inside ourselves we didn’t know we had before. Climbing mountains can be purifying in a way, as we learn to let go of negative emotions and overcome our self doubt. When I am suffering on a mountain climb I focus my mind on a singular thought: Just keep going, keep my motor spooling, my chain connecting my drive to the wheel and to the ground.
The bicycle shifts the normal feeling of separation we feel with motorized travel to a sensation that we are more a part of the landscape. Cyclists are insiders looking out. We meet nature on its own terms, with our own nature driving us forward. Cycling connects us with life’s splendor.
It’s not that bicycling is the only way. Technology has widened our perspective. We can be immersed in the physical world, such as when we swim. We can walk or bike and move at human scale over the earth’s surface. Traveling in cars gives us the ability to see contrast at the landscape scale, big changes from river valleys, plains and mountains, which we traverse more easily and swifly. Air travel gives us a kind of patchwork quilt perspective. Space travel has given us a picture of Earth’s uniqueness in the Universe. These five perspectives are almost like a five storied pagoda. But as Wendell Berry wrote, “we cannon live in machines”. When I pedal my bicycle the chuckle of the chain tells me this is a happy median to be in. The story of the bicycle is a machine metaphor I can live with, because we are the drivers. I marvel at our ride.
The William Stafford poem this blog entry is based on is reprinted in this post:
Wendell Berry’s quote is from his excellent The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, “The Use of Energy” chapter. Full quote: “The catch is that we cannot live in machines. We can only live in the world, in life. To live, our contact with the sources of life must remain direct: we must eat, drink, breathe, move, mate, etc. When we let machines and machine skills obscure the values that represent these fundamental dependences, then we inevitably damage the world; we diminish life. We begin to ‘prosper’ at the cost of a fundamental degradation.”
A professor who teaches literature introduced me to Safford and helped me engage with art. “…we do not use up the richness of our favorite texts, but rather interpret them more deeply with each encounter.” –Scott Slovic, “Literature.” Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology. Eds. Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim. New York: Routledge, 2017. p. 355-362.