Sunday, July 16, 2006

Self-propelled Independence

I'm sitting on my couch, still sweating a little at 11:15 pm. It's been really hot here in Southern California the last few days, humid as well, even in Venice and Santa Monica, where there are very few days you'd even think about turning on an air conditioner. Of course, even if I thought about it, I don't have one, so it's as many open windows and doors as possible and a couple of fans.

I might also be sweating because in the category of, "what was I thinking?" I decided to ride my new bicycle to an afternoon barbecue a few miles away. I bought the bike last weekend, as a part of my "Operation Lose This Gut" campaign. I really prefer to walk over just about any form of transportation, but there are times when walking just takes too long, and I still don't want to drive. The planet is heating up, the Middle East is in flames, and I have this stupid, middle-aged spread that I want gone by the next time I take a vacation that involves a bathing suit.

The downside to riding a bike in LA is that you have to deal with all the cars, and what can I say, cars scare me. As I got dressed, I pondered the likelihood of ending up in an emergency room courtesy of some SUV driver on his/her cellphone. Still, I put on my shoes and headed off.

It's not precisely true that you never forget how to ride a bike. I hadn't ridden one regularly since junior high, and there were plenty of things about it that I'd forgotten. Like, shifting. And going over rough road, and down hills.

What I did remember was the sense of freedom a bike had given me, back when I was too young to drive. Growing up in San Diego, where things are pretty spread out, having a bike meant that you could suddenly get where you wanted to go, without parents driving you there. It meant freedom, and independence. I spent one memorable summer, biking from the apartment where we were living (a Hawaiian Tiki fantasy, with great sweeping wood roofs shaped like giant outriggers, four foot tall Tiki masks and torches) down to Ocean Beach to hang out with friends. Ocean Beach was not precisely reputable, in those days. It was where the "hippies" were, the remnants of hippy culture, anyway. There was an ice cream place called "Father Nature's" and a head shop called "The Black." Going into The Black felt like the height of rebellion to little straight-laced me. Bongs! Rolling papers! Black light posters! Not like I was smoking pot or anything, or even listening to music much more radical than Cat Stevens, but the contact high of illicit culture was still pretty powerful.

Anyway, I plotted out what seemed like the most logical and least car-infested route to the barbecue and set off. It took me about 40 minutes or so. On the way over I decided that I needed to buy some additional bike accessories: a rear-view mirror for my helmet, a very loud horn, and gloves, because I sweated so much that the handlebar grips got slippery. It really was hot out. Besides, I sweat a lot. It's just one of those things I've learned to accept about myself. Sweat happens.

But it was interesting, how empty the streets seemed at times. How quiet. Every now and then I'd see another cyclist pass by, on the opposite side of the street. It was like, the streets were actually ours, the motorists who whizzed past us did not really possess them in the same way that we did, with the hard-won knowledge of the road's actual topography, the bumps and cracks and subtle hills. It was a variation of the sense I've always had when I walk someplace, that I know this landscape in a way that someone driving through it never will.

The barbecue was fun, the ride home much easier than the ride there, as it was cooler out and mostly downhill.

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