Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Night Cycling

(written Sunday night)

This is a post about me and Red Ryder, my bike.

It’s slightly past 10 p.m. and I just returned from a long ride into the black. Deciding it was too early to come home and do nothing, I climbed aboard and wandered off. Past the football stadium I veered on the Southwest Bike Path, one of the few in Madison that makes no pretense of paralleling a road or lake. No, the Southwest shoots off in only human-created straightness in its namesake direction. On both sides are neighborhoods, set off from the small strip of asphalt by long rows of trees. As you progress the path rises up over the west and you see out over an expanse of dark houses, lit houses and one backyard bonfire. On the other side the homes disappear behind a widening grove, until lit becomes dim, and the path that was lightly outlined before fades to black, so you navigate by the only thing clearly seen – the yellow center stripes.

And you hear the crickets. I can hear them now, downtown, but it’s not the same. Not the same as the country night when they echo across the area, and they are loud. Night cycling deserves a quiet night, so one can hear just how loud they really are.

It wasn’t until I passed the lone other cyclist I saw on the first half of the trip, whose battery-operated light made him look like he was biking into a mine, that I was riding down the darkest path in the city with no light, no helmet and wearing a dark brown shirt. Madison people like to have fun, but it’s also a city of safety-conscious liberals who wear helmets and lights and don’t understand why motorcyclists vote Republican. When I was within a block of my house I passed a family of three, each with their own light, probably wondering I was putting their safety at risk.

This is the second time lately that I’ve taken night cycling to a further limit. Earlier in the summer I would ride around neighborhoods down the isthmus or around the bay, motion loitering than riding toward a goal. Whether it stems from the oncoming drastic change in my life, I can’t say for sure, but lately I’ve pushed that. After drinking pinot noir and binging on “The West Wing” a few weeks ago, I was ready for sleep at midnight. But this was no ordinary night. The humidity descended to a livable level that has eluded us all summer, the overnight temperature dropped to that heavenly 60s that made me want to move here, and the breeze reached my unreachable tiny back bedroom. Had I any less than perfect sleep that night, I would have felt cheated by the universe. It was a weekend, though, and the next door neighbors had a party, a party on their balcony which stands nearly directly over my window. I wasn’t going to let their lame yelling and pick-up attempts at one another ruin my summer evening, so I got on Red Ryder and left. This time I went to Vilas Park, navigating the path half my memory all the way to the lakeshore, where I promptly crashed into the invisible curb.

I’ve always needed this, this space. In high school I could never go straight to sleep, and even when I could I preferred to daydream. In the air base housing development I’d slip out the sliding door and go swing in one of the many identical playgrounds. For who knows how long I’d swing and think, more often than not. My mind will go anywhere, but only if the pragmatic part it tied down with something so I can’t ruin the fun. So I’m a fidgeter. I can’t sit in absolute stillness – I have to find a babysitter for the left brain, like shuffling a deck of cards, folding laundry or packing boxes.

On a long flat run like tonight’s, cycling is a moveable Zen. When a man doesn’t have to worry about shifting up and down, or when it’s simply too dark to see the coming terrain, cycling becomes nothing but rhythm. The legs go around and around, and you pass Glenway Road, and around and around and you pass Odana Road and Midvale Boulevard and then you’re on a bridge over the Beltline, where your mind stops you and you think “I know this view. This is one of the first views of Madison as you drive in from the west, moving to a new city to try something completely different.” And you realize that’s all over and you’re on the far side of town now, moving in the far direction. So you think the universe or the creator has concocted some beautiful scheme to get you out here and have this little moment, but then you realize, no. No, all it took was the rhythm of your legs.

So night cycling became my new pilgrimage. It’s my best attempt at spiritual emptiness, at least here. In the city, the best impersonation a person can do of true seclusion is to visit daytime places in the dead of night.

And now I have to sell my bike. In a perfect future, hydrogen-powered planes will have bike racks down in their farther reaches, and you’ll be able to take them on trips and cycle around foreign cities. It looks like one of Andrew’s roommates is going to buy it, so I suppose it’s nice I don’t have to pawn it off to a complete stranger. Still, it became my bike – the first one I got in good enough shape for 20-mile rides on, the first one I approached with enough mechanical confidence to repair myself. I’m having a hard time letting it go.

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