This summer, it’s been hard for me to react to all the fuss about high gasoline prices. I never have sticker shock at a gas pump because I haven't owned a car for 30 years, and far from being a liability, my life has been all the richer for it.
It has certainly enriched my travel experiences. Alone on my bike, or with my wife Sandra on our tandem, we’ve explored Northern California and Oregon. The grand vistas of our region — the Pacific Ocean and Coast Ranges, the interior valleys and forests — can all be truly appreciated from the seat of a bicycle.
In a car, the natural world is "out there." On a bicycle, you're a part of it all. Of course, that can have its down side. Sandra and I know, through our sweat and huffing and puffing, why the Columbia River Gorge is a favorite place for wind surfers. But we also know what it's like to swoop down the California coast with the wind at our backs and a glimmering, turquoise ocean stretching out as far as we can see.
We've been battered by coastal rains and arrived, soaked and dispirited, at a campground near midnight. Then the next evening we’ve sat in utter contentment, sipping tea at the end of the day as we watched pelicans glide over the waves.
We travel back roads for the most part, and with our quiet mode of travel, we catch glimpses of wildlife we might not otherwise see: The possum scrambling in the brush by the side of the road, a blue heron about to take flight.
I recently completed a 500-mile bike trip from my home near Mount Shasta, down the California coast to San Francisco. One of the things I look forward to on a trip like this is the unexpected, the serendipitous experience that may lie around the next bend. What I did not expect this time was spending a night dwarfed by redwood trees in the middle of a grove called the Avenue of the Giants.
I wish I could say that I’d stopped deliberately, wanting to commune, Thoreau-like, with those magnificent, ancient redwoods. But the truth is that my bike light failed, it was pitch dark and I was stuck until the sun came up — a mystical and eerie experience.
Eerier yet was the time I was biking on the road that winds along the Klamath River, and spotted a man plodding down the road in a wetsuit. When I stopped to ask about his odd hiking attire, the man told me he was a miner, one who tries to scoop up gold by swimming underwater with a suction hose. Had I been whizzing along in a car at 50 or 60 miles an hour, intent on getting to San Francisco by the end of the day, I might have exclaimed but not stopped to satisfy my curiosity.
Speaking of the unexpected, how about the transvestite in a low-cut top and red glitter wig? He-she was standing on a back road just north of San Francisco, cheering on a passing stream of cyclists. As I pedaled alongside them, I learned that this was a training ride for HIV-positive cyclists, preparing for a fund-raising trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Had I been driving a car, I would never have met a grizzled man named Steve, who was staying in one of the hiker-bicycle camps that dot the California coast. Steve was the proud middle-aged and chain-smoking owner of one of the best-equipped bikes I've ever seen. It was sleek and black with 24 speeds and featured a portable computer and coffee thermos mounted on the handlebars. Stashed away in compact zippered bags was more equipment than you'd find on a lot of recreational vehicles. Steve, I learned after talking to him awhile, was homeless. He stays in a mission north of San Francisco in the wintertime and tours state parks the rest of the year. The high-end bike was the closest thing he had to a home.
For this shy and introverted writer, riding a bicycle has been a 30-year privilege. It’s been a bridge connecting me to people I might not otherwise meet, and a link to landscapes that would otherwise be framed by a windshield.