My introduction to the pleasures of bicycling came in the middle of my struggles as a small-time newspaper publisher.
For 19 years I published a small, underfunded, independent weekly newspaper in Sacramento, Calif. We were always running to catch up, whether it was to meet a yawning deficit in our bank balance or one of the ever-present deadlines. There never seemed to be enough money, enough people, or enough time to do the job. I was always filling in the gaps: delivering papers, selling ads, or writing copy at the last minute.
The job of editor/publisher, as exalted as it was in some respects, also locked me in a kind of self-imposed prison. There seemed little chance of even a brief escape beyond the one week at Christmas when we didn't publish a paper.
About five years into this madness, I sold my car to pay off some of the paper's debts. For a while I got around town on a small scooter, but I finally abandoned motorized transport entirely and purchased a durable three-speed bike with a wide, comfortable seat and a sturdy frame.
I had never thought of this reliable clunker as anything other than a city bike, until one Sunday morning. Feeling energetic, I pointed it south down the road that runs along the Sacramento River. I must have had a tail wind that morning, because my memory is of skimming down that road almost effortlessly, even on that heavy bike. By midday, I found myself, amazingly, in the little Delta town of Walnut Grove, 30 miles from Sacramento. That day I had taken my first major step out of my self-imposed prison.
FROM then on, it was a matter of pushing the boundaries out a little farther with each trip. I took a quantum leap in this direction when an inheritance enabled me to buy a fancy new racing bike. It weighed about half as much as my clunker, and I was now able to push farther into the Delta, or to head east into the rolling hills of the Capay Valley, and to make forays into the Sierra Nevada foothills.
I now had a simple antidote when the pressures became too intense. I strapped on my backpack, hopped on my bike, and hit the road. There was always a feeling of delicious freedom when I passed the city's limits. My mind cleared; burdens were left behind. There was only the road passing under my wheels, the wind in my face, and two or three days of leisure ahead.
On a bicycle there is nothing to cut you off from the river, the road, the wind, the sun's heat, the rustling leaves, the smells. There's no windshield to limit your view, no radio or tape player to block the sounds. On a hot summer day when you're out on the open road, there can come a time, usually when you've covered a lot of miles and you're too tired to think, when the road, the river, the trees, the sky - and you - melt into one shimmering whole.
One of the many disadvantages of the automobile is that it causes us to miss a great deal. The car enables us to go farther and, paradoxically, see less.
On my bicycle, I can savor the sights along the way. I am always traveling back roads; the quiet of the countryside is disturbed only by the barely audible whir of my tires on the road. This quiet mode of travel has let me glimpse shy animals like coyotes and wild turkeys.
Indeed, encountering the unexpected is one of the delights of this mode of travel. Had I been whizzing along at 50 or 60 miles an hour, would I have noticed that strange collection of empty bottles carefully arranged in geometrical patterns on someone's front lawn? Or seen that blue heron taking off?
Currently, I work in a bookstore 10 miles from my home. I still don't own a car, and my bicycle commute to work is in mountainous country. In the dead of winter, the trip over snow-covered roads may take two hours, while the same trip in an auto on the freeway takes 20 minutes.
But anyone who's ever felt the soft pelting of snowflakes on his face or been surrounded by snow-dusted pine trees knows which route and which mode of travel is more rewarding. Bicycling is a prime example of how taking more time to do something actually adds to one's quality of life.
In an age of e-mail and store-bought bread, bicycling is in another world: one of handwritten letters and the smell of fresh-baked bread. The quiet, steady whir of those wheels on the road keeps saying, "Enjoy the journey."