Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Uphill Both Ways

The aspect of reducing my carbon footprint that I’m having the hardest time embracing is transportation. The only place I can actually walk to from my house is the general store/archery supply, which is fine for those times that I need a twinkies or turkey call, but for my other travels, I’m pretty much reliant on four wheels and an internal combustion engine (we can walk to the daycare center as well—once I was walking M there and we found ourselves surrounded by a gang of five-year olds on bikes who asked us, “Why are you walking? Why didn’t you come in a truck?”)

My neighbors down the road also work where I do, and occasionally I’ve walked all the kids down to the daycare center and hitched a ride with them, but with their kids’ schedules and my kids' schedules and running errands it just hasn’t worked into a regular thing. Excuses. Excuses.

So when Commute Another Way Week came around this year, I decided to plunge in and try alternate modes of travel. I signed up for two days of telecommuting (my two days off—ok somewhat disingenuous, since I drive a lot on those days), two of carpooling and one of biking. It turned out I wanted to pick M up from gymnastics yesterday since it was his last day, and tomorrow I planned to leave early to shop and pack for our camping trip, so I had to postpone the two carpool days (but I’ll do them, I swear), which left only the bike day.

I rode my bike to work several days a week the summer before I got pregnant with M (which didn’t do much for the environment, since C and I carpooled back then, and he did NOT ride his bike), when we lived a bit closer to work. After I had the baby, though, I placed a higher value on staying alive (the route was kind of scary), and I no longer had the time or energy to fit in the bike ride with daycare dropoff and pickup. I went for a bike ride with some friends the summer M was three—before I got pregnant with the twins—and haven’t been on one since.

I carefully mapped out my route while driving back and forth to work over the last couple of weeks, noting the distance (13.5 miles), the terrain (it appeared to be uphill both ways) and the porcupine carcass. I would be following three stretches of winding back roads, a long straight stretch of busy road with wide shoulders, and two more side roads with a short length of dirt path in the middle. I did not get out my bike and try getting in shape—I only wanted to feel the pain once, rather than over and over again for weeks. C got my bike out Sunday and pumped up the tires (when I said I would have to dust it off I was not kidding—the thing had ¼ inch of grime on it). I did not go out and try it out because it was Mother’s Day and I was busy trying to enjoy myself.

I did agonize a bit about what to wear—I don’t have those shiny black biker pants, or one of those bright yellow jerseys that alert traffic 5 miles away that a bike is on the road. This morning I put on a pair of tan leggings from the days when I had time to take yoga classes, with a pair of light purple shots, because no one needs to see me in leggings, and a long-sleeved polyester athletic shirt that C bought for me inexplicably last Christmas. Before I walked out the door, I glanced at the thermometer—42 degrees—and tossed a fleece on top of it all. I figured I could take it off if I got hot along the way.

I had been worried that I might prove wrong the old saying that you never forget how to ride a bike, but I got on and pedaled and balanced all at once. I did forget which gears did what—is the easy one the small to big or small to small? I quickly discovered my derailleur was out of adjustment and I only had about half my gears. By the time I got to the end of my road, I wanted to turn around and go home. But I rested at the stop sign and started up the next stretch, trying to notice the good parts—it was quiet, I could observe flowers growing along the road and hear birds singing. I heard red-winged blakbirds, an oven bird, a robin, something that made a series of bright chirps interspersed with some buzzy sounds, a veery harmonizing with itself in the treetops, and, later on, saw a turkey vulture soaring over a field and watched and listened to the bobolinks and grackles dart from the fences into the fields.

I tried to think about inspiring athletes of my acquaintance. I thought about the guy at work who does the Trek Across Maine on a one-speed bike. I thought about how in college I used to ride up Cadillac Mountain—for fun!—with my roommate, who called me “the tortoise” because she would ride way ahead of me and wait at the pullouts, but I came slowly, steadily along behind and never stopped once all the way up the mountain, because I knew if I did I would never start up again.

I walked up a few hills—and did not even feel wimpy for doing it, because the only people who would see me were sitting on their fat a*ses behind the wheel of a car. I coasted down the hills, taking three deep yoga breaths before tucking in and pedaling down. I wished I had brought water. I never got hot enough to take off the fleece. All that was left of the porcupine was the hide. I did not get run over by a dump truck. By the time I pulled into my office parking lot I felt great. I figured I could do my two make-up commute days by bike instead of carpool, and maybe even bike once a week all summer. I went inside, ate a bagel and chugged water. An hour later I felt light-headed. By lunchtime I wanted to crawl under my desk and sleep for a week. I hope I make it home.


  1. I hope you did make it home. I'm impressed that you tackled this at all. So many folks would just say 'impossible' as they refilled their gas tanks.

    You continue to inform & inspire....

  2. i love this! we must have been on the same wave length. i pledged to start biking to work/school, last week as well - it is an hour trip and i was so out of shape and unprepared. not enough water, my computer on my back not arranged well and throwing my balance off - i hated, hated, having to get back on the bike for the trip home. but the high i had all night was fabulous.
    of course a week later and i am sitting with my knee up - some injury as a result of pushing my out of shape body too hard.
    eee gads.

  3. As a car-free mama, I have to admit that I am sooo impressed that you are able to ride your bike for 13 miles. Holy Cow! I've done that once. And only once. It is a bit of a challenge to be car free, as you have seen from my blog, but I live right on a bus line that gets me downtown. I can walk to get all my groceries, etc. And, we don't shop at big box stores much. I try to make my bike trips less than a mile or two. People are always amazed that I ride bike for transportation not for fun. I actually dislike biking and I live up the biggest hill in Minneapolis. I much prefer the bus!

    Good work!


  4. You may wish to consider a scooter. A 50cc model should not require a motorcycle license, tops out at 30mph, and will give you 70-80 mpg for up-front cost of <$1500. Often less given the vast used scooter market. It's the best $/mile of any gas motorized vehicle. Also, you can fit a passenger (kid?) on the back as well as a trunk case for baggage. It is safer than a bike since you have lights, turn signals, etc.


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