Spinning Tires – Biking Out of Town
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, usually. Sometimes it begins with a stroke of a pedal. My ambition was not to reach nirvana, so it may be more appropriate to change the adage to something like, “A trip of 65 miles begins with a stroke of a pedal.” It was early June, and I had a three-day break from work. This was still the season when the days get longer, the nights are chilly, not cool, and storms are more prevalent than afternoons at the beach. The perfect time for vacation. A much needed one, at that. Work was beginning to wear on me, and my routine wasn’t allowing the peaceful thinking that helps me enjoy going to sleep and look forward to waking up.
A vacation doesn’t need to be a faraway place. Thoreau and Emerson both thought one should only travel as far as his own means could take him. In this way, he stays connected to himself. With my shoes in the straps of my newly purchased bicycle pedals and my tires on the pavement, I looked forward to a long and adventurous day, one that I had been preparing for by bicycling a few hours every week in the largest hills the region has to offer. The air was clean, the sun was shining, the wind like a scarf wrapped around my neck. We began, my two friends — Joe Scott and Colin Kraemer — and I on a trip from Iowa City to Fairfield.
We couldn’t take the busy highway, so we mapped smaller routes that visited small towns, linking our way south, one to the other. The locals helped us with directions, first a group at a bar in Pleasantville, then at a restaurant where we lunched in Washington, and finally at a gas station where we refueled in Brighton. The view was typical: cornfields, soybeans, and bales of hay. But we noticed more details in the scenery than we would have from a car: a butterfly drafting past my helmet, daisies and clovers in the ditches, hawks on fence posts. And we were more attuned to the sun, our compass, keeping it on the right, or west, our shadows pedaling to the east of us.
Water towers, too, became something of importance. A beacon of civilization. Fittingly, a place where we could get more water. We could spot a tower miles before reaching town, something that both tried our patience and pulled us along. The towns themselves were something to see. Antique shops and town squares, pedestrians in overalls and t-shirts.
In this way, spotting the uniqueness of our location, it often felt as if I had traveled a great distance. Although I often felt estranged, perhaps too flashy, too obviously a foreigner, simply by the fact that they had never seen me before, I felt comfortable and was sure that, with a few words, I could prove I came in peace, to share myself as well as to observe.
Fatigue — and trials — are what life is made of. I do not think a vacation should ignore this. A vacation should make the trials personal, something one does for one’s own pleasure. So, at times when my legs ached and the wind picked up, or when I felt faint and the white lines on the road seemed more like a flashing pink, I endured, and my spirit benefited from it. My friends and I helped each other, trading places in the front, and slowing when one fell behind. We became dependent on each other — for navigation and encouragement. I thought of us as a team, and our bond was strengthened for each difficulty we overcame.
On the last leg of our journey down, we were behind schedule. The sun was resolved to set, but was patient. We were still sure to make our destination before dark. The road had been closed because of a bridge repair, so for five miles there was no car on the road.
We zigzagged, sang, chanted, shouted, raced, and finally decided to stop and investigate an abandoned barn — an adventurous idea that seemed, to me, fitting for our trip. We walked our bikes through the dry stalks of corn, and I took a pee break on some yellow clover that was blooming outside the decrepit boards of the barn. There was no real door, so we climbed in where some boards where missing. Shafts of light illuminated the dusty planks, and the smell of something forgotten filled my nostrils. I breathed deeply. A beautiful place where one finds himself on accident is worth all those where one intends to be.
We finished the ride with some much-needed encouragement. We had stopped at the top of the hill (there were many in the final stretch). Colin was aching. The sun was getting to be a golden color and almost looked as if it were playing on the rolling landscape. I was anxious to be going, when Joe spotted a group of cyclists heading our direction on Pleasant Plaine. They were a ways off, but by their sleekness, they seemed to be moving quickly. I think it was mostly out of insecurity, not wanting to be passed at a standstill, or perhaps I could say our innate boyish competitiveness, that impelled us to get back on track before the riders overtook us.
Of all unacquainted people, I have found bikers to be the most sympathetic toward one another. Because of this passion of biking — that’s it’s a movement, and the brotherhood and sisterhood I mentioned — bikers always acknowledge one another on the road. We were soon passed, with a friendly hello, by two riders who were ahead of the group. Later, more talkative riders rode beside us and chattered about where we were from. They seemed impressed with our journey, and happy to be welcoming us en route to their city. They told us about the events that weekend: an Italian arts festival and eco-fair. And they gave us tips on where to buy food.
One of the riders, who was especially talkative, was a guide for us as we entered Fairfield. We transitioned easily from the country road into the city streets. Fairfield was already meeting my expectations of a friendly community. We arrived, and I called our hostess on the telephone. We planned to meet her later that night at a small pub. We replenished our carbohydrate stores at a Thai restaurant.
The town was quiet, a few students were having dinner, a few heavyset men were drinking iced tea, but the town square was empty, and most of the businesses closed. After dinner, I felt compelled to do something to celebrate our arrival. A few beers, á la biking custom, capped off a long day. We chatted at the bar with a few of Anna’s (our generous host) friends. Soon we rode to her house. After exploring a neighboring cemetery and perusing through some books that were around, we retired to sleep.
The next morning, Colin and I bought breakfast burritos in the local café. We bought a bolt of tulips to adorn the living room table, and lazed about in the sun until Joe woke up. A Vedic community, a spiritual Indian community based around meditation, was located a few miles from town. It constituted a sightseeing expedition. On the ride over, we crossed two other boys on bicycles, wearing farm clothes. They gave us directions (“Just turn right when you see the sheep”), and I said maybe we could see them at the festival that night. We didn’t see them, but luckily the festival was full of dancing and good food. We were disappointed by the sparseness and vapidness of Vedic City, where we spent half an hour pondering over an architecturally ancient observatory.
It seems to me that where there are people to tell stories, there is culture. The stone structures of the observatory, most of them concrete blocks with hemispheres scooped out of them, lines, letters, numbers and shadows, were a mystery, an old tale of knowledge that needed to be interpreted. It almost felt as if I was observing ruins, the playfulness of being on top of something lost was uplifting. I had been reading Rilke that day and his Advice to a Young Poet: If you encounter something you do not understand, you should approach it as if you were a child. In the isolation of ignorance, I discovered a kind of mystery about myself, not one that can be solved, but one that would never be — a kind of inspiration.
These grooves that the shadow crosses
and this string of shadow on our earth
are silent in the night — but now
they speak in ancient tongues
and I, a sleepy traveler, wait
to say my part.
When dusk came, vendors were setting up their stands, and people sat around the bandstand. Unsure of what to see, we explored the shops on main street: a café, an antique shop, a furniture store that sold prints of paintings. There were a lot of girls around. The owner of the furniture store joked that after her son left, he complained that he should have gotten hitched before he moved away. A few enchanted smiles stirred me, but I needed Rilke: One must know solitude before love. Besides, I’m quite shy, even after a few drinks. Despite that, by the time the night was rolling, I had tasted some lasagna (nothing to write home about), the ambiance was lively, and Colin and I danced in the back of the crowd.
Joe was taking pictures, and I was taking a rest, when we spotted the cyclist who had led us into town. He encouraged us to visit the eco-fair the next day. We intended to listen to the presentation on train travel, but as for the part on bicycle tourism, we figured we had it down. Besides that, we planned to leave by noon the next day. He eagerly told us that we should meet the mayor, who was hanging around somewhere. He popped up and we got to introduce ourselves and chat for a while. Joe got our new friend to take a picture for us with his old Canon. It was a great welcome; I never expected to be so warmly embraced by a community.
Perhaps it was because of the effort required to bike 65 miles that our presence was appreciated. It was with our own sweat, blood (external and internal, respectively — no one got injured besides a sore behind) that we were present to partake in the festivities.
Earlier that night, I walked into a fancy jewelry store, for I have a strong affection for beauty (and what finally gets a woman to marry you). I was carrying my biking helmet, and the owner happened to be the captain of the biking group we had met. A spiritual leader, someone put it. He was all the more eager to show me the most expensive diamonds, and explain how they were crafted, and how they could be customized.
Finally, worn out from dancing and with a long day behind us and ahead of us, we took a ride to the park, where we finished the night enjoying a couple cigarettes and watching reflections crinkle on a pond. It was then that I grew homesick, and I felt that my friends shared my thoughts. We had participated in the celebration to the best of our ability. We made an effort to be present, to share our dance moves and conversation. Still, I think humans are sensitive to being outside a group, and there was no avoiding the fact that we were strangers.
Thoreau was a homebody; his thoughts and introspection were, to him, a world in themselves. Traveling is a test of this interior self, to see what accord your being can make with new places — it is a difficult and tiring effort. It is rewarding though, and although I’m not sure a perspective can be widened, it is often deepened, made more profound by the discovery of all we do not know.
We slept well that night. It rained in the morning, and we skipped the eco-fair. I felt somewhat guilty for it, but I don’t think we owe it to them. We bought a supply of granola and trail mix for the ride. With an energy burst from our three cups of coffee, we hit the road.
Colin commenced with such vigor that I immediately fell behind, and spent the first few miles trying to catch up. The wind was strong, and although it sometimes caught us crosswise, and once head-on, we rode home on an expedient tail-wind. In only four and a half hours, minus the time it took to get an ice cream and chips in Pleasantville, we wheeled back onto Colin’s lawn. I pedaled my last stroke and laid the bike and my body on the ground. I didn’t move for half an hour, then I went home and fell asleep.
Home is where you can dream of traveling. Home is where you are when you’re not going anywhere. Peaceful, thoughtful, I came home to what I had left — a summer still ahead of me, my last in Iowa City, a recently broken heart, and of course, work. I had traveled on my own energy. Self-reliance, as Emerson wrote, is to trust one’s conscience: to find in oneself one’s home, both the source and destination of an outpouring spirit. On a bicycle I am free. My movement is my expression, and although I depart, I keep myself in mind, to measure and observe, to return with a greater desire for life, whatever it be.
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