I had driven the first 400 miles of monotonous interstate highway with thoughts anywhere but on the task of piloting my old van. Even at 80 miles per hour, the 1200 miles that remained seemed to pass in slow motion … until the incongruity of a fellow struggling an overloaded bike up a steep grade woke me from a highway-hypnosis stupor. I’d never seen anyone riding a bike on a freeway shoulder, much less up such a long, challenging climb. So, I stopped to ask what he was about.
His answer: “You experience more from the seat of a bike than behind the wheel of a car. Small things. Big things. Important things. You notice details that blur at automobile speeds. You’re in the open, more engaged with your surroundings. Plus, you stopped to talk. How cool is that? We’d have never met, otherwise, would we? People are more open to folks on bicycles.”
I paraphrase, but that’s the gist of his explanation for pedaling from West Coast to East. And, oh, how the simple wisdom behind those few unerring insights resonated!
I began auditioning touring bikes the next week and soon settled on the overlong cargo bike I now know simply as “the Big.”
When I asked that cyclist why he was traveling on a bike, he led with, “You experience more.” A few years later, astronomy author and educator, friend Phil Harrington, a lifelong cyclist, answered, “To see.” And yes, for many, that succinct summation captures it best. You see more – and notice more of what you see – when traveling at the more human pace of a bicycle.
For me, there’s still astute truth behind both sentiments, but my personal answer now includes “to feel” and “to connect.” I am more aware of, well … everything when traveling by bike. I am more there – more alert to my environment. Even better, my bike introduces me to fascinating people I’d miss ensconced alone at highway speeds within the glass-and-steel cocoon of an automobile.
Those who travel by bike are often seen in a more welcoming, engaging light than motorists. We are more approachable, if only, I suppose, because we appear so utterly vulnerable. During an early test ride on the Big, I’d stopped on a highway shoulder to take a phone call, and within minutes a woman stopped her car to ask if I needed help. And before I finished the call, another motorist stopped to ask if I was okay.
I had driven my old van more than 330,000 miles before I retired its plates in 2015, but I don’t recall a single similar experience in all those miles. The Big and I have only journeyed a sixth that distance since I found her in the summer of 2014, but people have already stopped me to talk thousands of times. Indeed, it is a rare day when someone doesn’t stop to ask, “Where are you headed?”
The bike seems to bring out the best in people. Including in me.
I enjoy the physical exertion of pedaling a bike such distances. And I appreciate the obvious health benefits. I trust I’ll never take those aspects of cycling for granted. But what motivates me to push on when my legs are weary, or a cold, days-long headwind ensnares me, or horizontal rain blinds me, or the climb seems insurmountably endless, is the prospect of new places ahead I might experience and the people there with whom to make new connections.
Oh, and throughout the 50,000-plus miles the Big and I have traveled in our years together, I have not once felt the dread siren call of highway hypnosis.
(Photo: As I passed the unlikely contraption pictured above on Missouri’s Katy Trail, the fellow up front asked with a chuckle, “Are they pedaling?” I laughed so hard, the Big and I nearly crashed.)