Sunday, January 04, 2009

Tonight's Commute

Today never really warmed up and the snow begins gently, lightly and whitely about a half hour before the 5:00 PM time when Donald and I close up the bike shop. As I wait at the slow light at the turn from Ferdinand to Rainier Avenue, I see pavement already blanketed with a thin sheet of white. The cars are still mostly rushing, their drivers hoping to outrun the weather, but the flakes are gaining ground, gently piling patience onto all our paths.

I don't have the luxury of speed or an OPEC-fueled mirage of mastery to insulate me from this night. I have studded tires, layers of wool under nylon and a single, low fixed gear to get me home. I'm pretty sure it's all I need.

I turn off Rainier onto Alaska, a street that tonight looks like its namesake. In the slightly bluish beam of my headlight, the flakes plus my forward speed draw tracer beams more special than any Hollywood effect. One flake in five-thousand rotates just right and presents a perfect dazzling mirror. I remember Jack Eason's advice and look not at the light, but at the darkness.

Along the lake the snow seems undecided, the flakes are almost rain drops now. The road coating is silent beneath my wheels, as if a layer of white, whipped grease is soaking up every sound. But my carbide studded tires never slip, gradually passing on a confidence that conditions would not seem to warrant. But fixed-gear bikes are truthful beasts, they'll tell you the second you've lost your footing. Special Ed, the bike I'd build for nights like this, relays nothing but the Gospel according to Carbide. We're going home.

The climb up though Colman Park displays a dozens of perfect pictures, but with my camera layered deep inside my jacket, this night is too cold and dark for photography. Only living eyes can capture each shining facet of each switch-backed vista. I meet one driver on the Olmsted-designed road, I'm far to the right inching my way up as he's white-knuckling his way down. We probably both would prefer to have the road just to ourselves, but we each are going home.

After the park, and the crested view looking out over Lake Washington, I turn steeply down, slow pedal motions imparting caution from my legs to my wheels. I turn onto the bridge and roll eastward.

The temperature must be right at the freezing point and the wind is out of the south. This bridge floats on the water, with a low wall separating the bike path along it's northern edge from the lanes of oncoming automobile traffic. The side-loads from wind-shear prevent the construction of a taller wall and even on a clear night, the glare from westbound headlights is a challenge for eastbound cyclists. This is not a clear night and it's just a fraction of a degree warmer on the lake. The wind whips the sleet into needles. Under my helmet, I Yehuda my cap low on my brow, its brim forming a shield against glare and grim nature.

One native story holds that what we now call Mercer Island actually rests on the back of a giant turtle and that one night the turtle will submerge. Tonight is not that night, but the turtle is blanketed in white. I skirt the island's northern edge, thankful once again that geography gives me refuge from the worst of the winds. Hemingway understood that "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle." I would add that you need not have a coasting bike to appreciate this truth and via the exercise of a daily commute, done in a wide range of conditions, one's appreciation of geographic and meteorologic factors become the most ingrained of knowledge.

The east channel bridge is the last clean shot the wind gets at me tonight and crossing over into Bellevue I know that the vast bulk of Cougar Mountain will keep the wind on different roads than my wheels. The rest of the ride is a little higher and a degree or so cooler. The snowflakes are large and white and hexagonal again.

I climb through Factoria and up the suburban northern streets of Cougar Mountain to Newport Way. Newport is a long, gentle downhill into Issaquah my morning warm-up and my evening reward. Tonight it is especially rewarding, on the whitened road I catch a rare glimpse of another traveler, a coyote running off in search of something.

I'm home now, Christine's concern melting into a smile as she sees me roll in the door. Snow has settled everywhere, not just inches on the street but a good half-inch on my helmet and my jacket. A big hug, warm food, warm clothes, and a warm drink all displace the damp cold that had been testing every chink in my mostly weather-proof armor.

It's good to ride and it's good to be home.

Keep 'em rolling,



jasonk said...

Wow. That was great. Thanks for sharing it.

Andy Davidson said...

A lovely meditation on riding and the landscapes through which you pass. Having ridden all those routes (although not as a commuter), I found your piece quite evocative. Nice!

Jess said...

Dang, that almost makes me wish my commute were longer than a mile! A lovely vicarious experience...thanks.

Dave Hansen said...

Love the use of 'Yehuda!' Just added it to

nollij said...

I too got a good laugh out of the Yehuda comment.. I've been reading that comic now for almost a year, and if anyone can personify Yehuda for a few moments, it's you Kent. Great post!