A tailwind has flattened the little rise on Broad Street and pushed the early evening’s storm out ahead of me. The pavement passes sibilant under my wheels but is not so wet it splatters my legs. All around me rises the smell of cold water on hot asphalt. I’m a little late getting home, got out of the office slower than I’d planned, but nothing I can’t make up if I take the quickest way, if I go to Fifth Street and turn straight up the hill.
The climb is maybe half a mile, insistent but never steep. I can manage it in a couple minutes without sweating through my shirt on a cool day, in three or four if the weather is otherwise and I need for some reason to arrive home dry and presentable.
I don’t go that way. Instead, I turn before I get to Fifth. I take Seventh, climb for a block on a barely perceptible grade then cut into an alley that leads to another alley, and as I pass the pigeon coop back there, I nod to those racers, wondering as always if they can sense we are in some sense kindred.
I detour again, this time just half a block uphill, before turning onto the dead-end street that hosts a home gone so cluttered and thicketed that its ruination has achieved elegance. I wonder over that, too, for a few pedal strokes, how it is possible to fall so far you rise and why I so much admire this quality. Then I am on the footpath through the bushes, then scrabbling across the chunky gravel of the railroad bed before I emerge onto Sixth and turn uphill once more, this time past one of the two purple houses on this street.
I’m going to be late, for sure. But instead of feeling rushed, I feel a rush—of affinity for these streets and their odd attractions, and from the sensuous aspect of the road surface on this evening, and as well from the working of my body and bicycle, the simple and often ignored idea that I am propelling the machine that propels me.
I almost never take the short way home. I traverse the hill, and not to avoid sweating or because I don’t like to climb. It’s because I like to ride. I like to, in the fall, burst through piles of leaves raked to the curbs. In the winter I like to try to negotiate the lake of ice glaciated out onto the road from the drainpipe of the monastery. I like to take the extra time to see if the aging dog who jumps up in the bay window to bark me away from his property is still there to do so. I like cutting through the parking lot of the church and sometimes thinking about the two funerals I’ve attended there, and sometimes thinking about the traveling carnival that sets up there—how when she was eight or nine my shy daughter amazed me by belting out Pat Benatar at the karaoke tent or how, last year, in the beer garden I ran into a couple riding friends who weren’t getting out much and who, as the night and drink and my stories about the road wore on, turned from defiant about their busy schedules to something so close to melancholy I left to refill a pitcher and did not return because, after years of being where they were headed, I was finally on my way back.
I turn onto my street, right where I had when I’d walked home that night. I get out of the saddle and hammer the pedals, not to save time, but for the pure pleasure of knowing I am almost home. In all my life, I have never wanted nor been able to get directly where I want to go, and the bicycle has abetted me in this sidelong ambition. Riding has shaped me in ways that have nothing to do with with physical prowess or ecological benefits. I became a cyclist—instead of just being a racer or a commuter or a guy trying to lose some weight—by taking the long way, which seems to me the only way. And to keep on being one, I need to stay on that same route. Or else, just for the hell of it, try the next turn I come to.
XII The Thing We Carry XIV Lucky Day
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, September 2012