I ride a bike for two reasons. The first is that I don’t drive, owing to an acute anxiety problem behind the wheel and some principles about the environment. Let’s call it a 60/40 split.
The second is every other form of solitary exercise bores me halfway to tears. I have a severe attention problem, and there’s something about trees and cars and air passing by my face that keeps me in it. It also helps that, at a certain point, you ride three miles and the only way to get back is to ride another three miles, so there’s no way out of the task.
Starting on January 12th, I rode every day and wrote about it. I ride a baby blue Trek District. It’s more of a city bike than a normal exercise bike, but those slender carbon-framed things are basically cheating, if you ask me. I rode in three areas. Hazel Dell is an unincorporated suburb in Clark County, Washington. Salmon Creek is another unincorporated suburb just north of Hazel Dell where I attended high school. Vancouver, Washington is a suburb of Portland, Oregon, situated just north of the Columbia River. The area’s population has exploded over the past decade, as Americans seek out a home where they can avoid paying both income and sales taxes.
These entries are the result of that endeavor.
Most days, I ride 6-to-12 miles on the Salmon Creek Greenway and Trail. I start at the trailhead at Klineline, a park built around a man-made stocked pond that sits near the border between Salmon Creek and Hazel Dell and occasionally hosts an E. coli outbreak. It’s about about a quarter of a mile downhill from my house. The trail is three miles long, running alongside Salmon Creek (the actual creek, not the suburb that takes its name). It winds through an outdoor softball complex, a bunch of 30-year-old trees, blackberry bushes, some crane, deer, rabbit, and duck habitat. Once, I rode alongside a deer for 15 seconds, and I nearly died with happiness. It’s relatively flat, well-paved, populated by joggers and walkers. When I pass walkers, I yell “ON YOUR LEFT!” I worry I am too loud and occasionally scare people.
The ride starts out cold; I think I should be wearing gloves. There is a man wearing an Oregon sweater, walking a puppy. As I ride by, the puppy inches towards me. If that puppy had his way, he would be a big, strong dog running free off his leash. He would chase me until I fell off my bike and he could take my wallet. Please leash your pets on mixed use trails.
My seat is causing my underwear to shimmy up my backside today. I have a small, hard leather seat that came with my bike. I own a softer seat, but I feel like that kind of comfort would be an obscene luxury. Also, I have a big ass that works as a cushion.
I have to deposit and transfer some money, so I ride to the bank at the top of the hill, about three miles down 139th street. When I started biking regularly, I stunk at hills. I would give up and walk my bike up the incline. As it turns out, I actually stunk at willpower. In the last year I have done better. It helps that my new bike has gears. The old Schwinn I rode for a year and a half before I got my new bike was fun, but the makeshift derailleur my dad made by nail-gunning a small piece of metal to the rusted derailleur the bike came with never quite did the job.
Learning to force myself to ride up steep hills has been my biggest accomplishment on a bicycle. I am a seeker of comfort, an avoider of hardships. The act of seeing the hill, thinking this is a big hill, and I don’t really want to ride up it and doing it anyway has revealed to me that I can push myself. I will get up the hill, and it will be an accomplishment when I am done. This is a simple and obvious thing that most people know, but it has taken a lot of effort for me to know it.
Last week was the first time I got on a bike in about a month. I rode up the Salmon Creek hill in weather that was significantly more miserable than today’s. I had to rest at one point. It had been raining and the air was wet. My head felt like it was filled with nickels so I blew all the snot in my head out onto the pavement.
Nothing so eventful happened today. The insides of my arms were a little sore. I have a long torso, so they hold a disproportionate amount of my weight when I ride up a big hill. I messed up the pair of leather strap handlebars the bike came with by scrunching the coil up by pushing on the handlebar while I rode.
My iPod was low on batteries. I charged it in the Fred Meyers with a cord I borrowed from a woman working in the electronics department. I plugged it into a laptop. I wonder how often criminals buy cheap laptops, use them to commit cybercrimes like beating someone to death with a laptop, then throw them into rivers. On my way back to the trail, an ambulance passes. I pull over to the elbow and wait for it to pass, like a car would. If I didn’t have earbuds in, you might think I was a responsible cyclist.
I saw a giant white heron in the swamp on the ride back through the trail. I feel really good when I get home.
Vancouver’s climate usually only gets autumnally cold, but today is like midwestern winter. I wear two pairs of long underwear, gloves, a hooded sweatshirt, and a raincoat that I fasten my helmet over, forming a pocket that holds my ears. I am riding at the Salmon Creek Greenway and Trail again. I have decided to do the length of the trail six times, or 18 miles. I ride down the street, past a group of middle schoolers waiting for the bus and realize that I have not eaten breakfast, so I go back to my house and make a smoothie.
The trail is beautiful early in the morning. The plants are covered in frost. As the sun rises and the air warms, the ponds and the creek have steam coming off them. After my first two lengths, I decide I am warm, and I take off my coat. I ride about a quarter of a mile before I am shivering again.
I almost run into two people, because they apparently can’t hear me yelling “LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!” They sit in the middle of the road until I have to slow down and wait for them to clear a path for me.
I don’t keep a good pace; I ride very slow. I have things to do today—an article to finish—and I am becoming annoyed with myself. I should push myself harder. Cycling is the only thing I do that I know makes me focus on work. It makes me so tired that I give in to productivity.
My Schwinn had a longer body, and it was easy to go fast on, like a horse you barely have to kick to force into a gallop, but my girth kept breaking any back tire I bought for it.
On my third length, two guys are walking next to a dog without a leash on. I say “Hey, can you hold your dog?” I do not finish the rest of the sentence, which is “...so he won’t chase me and feast on my sweet leg and ass meats.” They don’t comply with my request. Normally, I would simply ride by and pray for my legs, but this is a bigger dog, a grown lab mix, who seems like he could—might—chase after me. So I stop my bike and obnoxiously wait for them to walk by me. (In retrospect, the dog was old and probably wasn’t going to get after me.) I pass them three more times, and each time, they call the dog to their side. We live and learn.
I also saw a dog with enormous testicles.
I saw two women wearing surgical masks. I don’t know if they were scared of trail disease, of if they just wanted to keep their mouths warm. I used a metal water bottle today; it got my water nice and chilly.
On my last length, I pass a guy, and we wave to each other. I have been seeing this guy on the trail almost every day I have ridden for a year. About six months ago, we started waving at each other. He has shoulder length grey curls and usually wears a blue jacket. I was worried, after I took a month off from riding, that the connection would be broken, but it’s still there. I don’t know a single thing about this guy, except that he walks on the path every day long enough that I almost always ride past him and that he has lost a ton of weight in the last year. I also pass a young man walking down the path and dribbling a basketball between his legs. I don’t know if he is going to go the entire three mile length of the trail, but I hope he is.
When I get home, I am wrapped in warm layers and sweat. My body is a cooked Hot Pocket. I feel tired.
I rode to and from the farm where I volunteer as a Master Gardener. I had to saw a gigantic clump of zebra grass in half, which was significantly more physically taxing than today’s ride.
I left late because I wasted a bunch of time fixating on whether I should but a new portable microphone and where I could get it. It’s raining. I have a rain jacket and waterproof shoes, so the parts of my body that experience the most aggressive discomfort when it’s raining are fine, but the rain hits my face when I ride and the droplets feel like little icy angel pokes.
I ride up the hill to Salmon Creek and stop in at Three Creeks Library, where I often check out books and loiter. I mess around with my iPod touch for half an hour, check Twitter, zone out. I am tired, from the rain and having ridden. I start thoughtlessly walking around the commercial complex the library sets on. I walk into the Fred Meyer; I dick around on a Wii U; I listen to a podcast; I let myself go into standby mode for 40 minutes. I probably shouldn’t do things like this. I should command my own focus more often, work more often, keep my brain engaged.
I go to get on my bike and notice I don’t have my gloves or water bottle. I set them down somewhere. I spend another 15 minutes scouring the complex trying to find them. I I hope I just left them in some part of the library I didn’t check, and I will be able to get them back eventually. More likely, I have lost them forever. I lose things a lot and am used to it.
I get back home. I am tired, again. I knock on the sliding glass back door and my dad lets me in.
When I was at Three Creeks yesterday, I saw there is a sale today at the old library building: books for a dollar. I need to get a piece of that action. They manage to get old library books, so you can buy some good stuff for a buck.
I ride south on Hazel Dell Avenue, which turns into Main Street and takes me into the guts of downtown Vancouver. I cut through a development built around a Target near my house. There are a lot of unused spaces in the development, including an abandoned building with a giant blue Best Buy facade. Best Buy abandoned the space six months after the development opened, and no one else has any use for a giant building that was clearly built to house aisles and aisles of TVs and stereos and computer games. I am riding in my lane through the parking lot. There is a massive Escalade in the other lane. He nuzzles into my space a bit. I am not scared, but I pull off, to wait for him to pass. He rolls down his window when he is beside me.
“Hey, excuse me,” he has an accent people from Washington don’t have. “Where’s the Starbucks around here?”
“There’s one in the Target over there.”
“Oh, Okay.” He drives away. His nav system pointed him to the development when he went looking for coffee.
My front brake handle falls out, so I have to pull my brake hard to get it to work. I decide to get it checked out while I am downtown.
I pass my friend Charlie, who is driving in a SafetyOne van. She doesn’t see me. My friend Alex owns a fleet of vans disabled people hire to take them to doctor’s appointments, and a few of my other friends work for him driving vans.
I ride on the sidewalk when I get into Downtown Vancouver. They don’t have bike lanes. I am not proud; I should ride in the street. Once, I was riding on a sidewalk, and an old man said “Hey!”
I pulled up to him, because I thought he needed my help. “Yes?”
“Why aren’t you RIDING IN THE FUCKING ROAD LIKE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO?!”
I arrive at the book sale. I put the books I bought in a basket I have strapped to my rack with bungee cords. For the rest of today’s ride, their weight makes me wiggle slightly.
I stop at the library because I need to use a computer. A woman on a computer near me is on the phone, saying, pretty loudly for a library, “I really wish I had never met you.”
I ride to the bike shop. I spend a lot of time in bike shops, because I have a big, heavy body that is very, very hard on bikes. Since I got my bike last year, I have needed: a replacement wheel that was technically built for a mountain bike, two replacement tires, six new tubes, new gear cables, a new chain, and a new bottom bracket, which I tore in half one day because I was starting from a high gear too often. The repair shop guy looks at my brake, cleans it and tightens it.
I ride back home. I pedal up a hill that I was intimidated by six months ago, and I do it easily. I don’t know if I am physically better at riding bikes, or if my will has strengthened. Perhaps both.
The sky is a tipped-over mop bucket. I wear my rainjacket and a pair of rain pants. I ride down the Greenway and up the hill towards Salmon Creek. I don’t go all the way to the library because I am trying to keep my ride short. I’m having dinner with my extended family to celebrate my dad getting a new job.
There is almost no one on the trail today, because the outdoors are a swirling nightmare of falling water. I pass another guy on a bike.
“Hey, nice day, huh?”
I don’t hear him, because I have earbuds in, so I say “Uhh, what?”
“I said, ‘nice day.’”
“Oh, yeah, for sure!”
About a quarter mile later, that guy sprints right past me. I am riding slow.
While passing the pond on my way back, I see a group of ducks on the trail in a pentagonal formation. When I get 20 feet away, they scatter simultaneously, fly into the pond, and land in the same formation.
I wouldn’t have ridden today if I weren’t writing about riding. I wore a pair of knit gloves, and I took one off to talk into my iPod’s recorder. When I put them back on, they were waterlogged. I took the gloves off; I was vaguely disgusted with wearing that much water on my hands. No gloves was worse; my hands were cold until they eventually went numb.
I take a shower. The shower is awesome. A hot shower after riding in the rain makes the abject misery of actually riding in the rain worth it.
I put a bell on my bike today. I am riding up 99th Street to the Goodwill in Salmon Creek, then the West trailhead of the Salmon Creek Greenway, then I plan on going to my friend Tom’s house to pick up an SD card for a new audio recorder I bought. There is a dull pain in my left leg. It works itself out after I ride for 10 minutes.
It’s a nice day after yesterday’s apocalyptic downpour, but some of the Greenway is flooded.
Salmon Creek is the local watershed, so it fills up when there’s a big rain or a glacier melt. It’s not so bad today. I ride through it and only my feet get wet. One summer, it wouldn’t drain at all, and the entire middle of the trail was submerged up to my waist. I rode through it once, which was gross, because the Creek is where everyone’s dog shit, fertilizer, discarded motor oil, used condoms, expired milk and bongwater run into. My feet have marinated in this mixture, so I decide to wait on going to Tom’s house. I go home to take a shower instead.
A few hours later, I ride to the bus, and go downtown to Tom’s house to hang out for a couple hours. When I am about to get on the bus to go back to Hazel Dell, I look for my bike lock, so I can attach it to the bus’s frame and not carry it on with me, I notice that I don’t have my lock. I think about where it might be. Tom’s house? No. (I called and asked.) Home? No, I remember having it with me. A bus? Probably. I call C-Tran’s lost and found answering machine and leave a message.
I bring my bike onto the bus and ask the driver if she has seen my lock. She says she hasn’t, but another bus is on the line, and he might have dropped it off at their office. Another dude on the bus speaks up: “There was a lock at the bus station, sitting on the bench.”
That is probably my lock. I figure no one took it because what good would a locked lock do anyone? When we pull into the station, it’s sitting right there on the concrete bench. I have lucked out and avoided punishment for my absent-mindedness. I am thankful in the moment and unnerved afterwards.
Sometimes when I ride a bike, I have a moment of perfect happiness. I am riding on a flat surface, making good time, not feeling tired, or at least feeling a type of tired that makes the action of pushing forward feel like a relief. The weather is nice, and I notice that niceness. I drink in what is around me. I feel content—no anxiety, no guilt that I am putting something off.
I don’t get this from riding in the cold and the rain, as I have this week. The rides are slogs, at times, but slogs are not unrewarding. I slog because I know what I might gain from the experience; I slog to get to the moments that matter.
Corbin Smith is a Washington State Certified Master Gardener who writes Biscutball. He also writes for Portland Roundball Society and The Diss, and makes the Biscastball podcast. Here is a Twitter account he maintains.