Cycling Through an American Town

By Michael Ayers

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Home

The Tortoise Dreamt of a World without Hares

Twenty-nine miles had already been covered as local cycling legend Matt "the Doorman" McCloud neared the final section of his daily ride. Beautiful evenings like this one, only two weeks past the summer solstice where daylight stretched far into the evening hours, never failed to lift the Doorman’s spirits.

Cannondale Falls, his hometown for the past 32 years, was no longer the place that it once was, however. Like many other American towns, decades of sprawl during the latter half of the twentieth century had transformed this once close-knit community into an automobile-choked wasteland, with very few remaining routes that cyclists found to be both safe and enjoyable. In fact, there was now only one road left within a day's riding distance that was quiet enough to legitimately be called a "back road".

To reach this last bastion of undeveloped countryside, he first had to navigate a tortuous eight-mile path through and around cul de sac-filled subdivisions, strip malls, and big-box retail plazas, all of which he would have to pass again on the way home. However, any cyclist willing to brave this section of town would be rewarded with a beautiful ride along County Road 63, passing through forested canyons, quiet meadows, and finally twisting along the course of the upper Cannon River. In earlier times, and several miles downstream, the same river happily plunged itself over a series of beautiful cascades that had originally given the town its name. That, of course, was before the Lower Valley Dam was built.

The Doorman enjoyed this stretch of road so much that he routinely overlooked the unpleasantness of the suburban sections at the beginning and end of the route. He was also an experienced cyclist, well versed in the techniques of Conspicuous Cycling, and never afraid to assert his right to the road. On this day, the "quiet" section of the ride was as beautiful as ever and as he returned, pedaling past the mini-mart that marked the edge of town, he subconsciously reminded himself to be especially alert and on the lookout for unusual hazards.

But today, this would not be enough.

For although he had logged many thousands of miles, and was well respected by his cycling peers, he had been struggling for many years to overcome a persistent streak of bad luck. This time, fate would assert itself on a particularly nasty stretch of Hancock Boulevard, an arterial noted for both the access it provided to recently built subdivisions and the abundant free parking available along its length. Local cyclists passionately hated Hancock, but to reach Rte. 63 from the old section of town, there were no alternatives.

In situations like this, the Doorman never hesitated to "take the lane," and today was no exception. However, just past the C-Falls One-Hour Dry Cleaners lay a giant pothole that had remained unrepaired since the past winter. This obstacle presented cyclists with the disconcerting choice of risking a crash by going across the rather deep hole or passing uncomfortably close to the row of parked cars along the shoulder. Normally, in cases like this, he would carefully slide past the parked cars, looking through the rear window of each one to see if the driver's seat was occupied. Today, this technique fell short as the space immediately adjacent to the cavernous hole was occupied by a blue minivan with windows so darkly tinted that they effectively prevented passers-by from seeing inside. So, he headed for the thin stretch of road between the hole and the van and hoped for the best.

This time, the best did not occur.

At the very instant he passed by the sinister vehicle, its occupant swiftly kicked open the driver's side door, making contact with his bike in an undetermined location. For a brief instant, time stood still and the Doorman had a chance to think to himself, "Ah, I'm airborne!" Just as that thought crossed his mind, time rudely decided to start moving again, and the sound of a bicycle impacting the pavement was instantly followed by the even more unpleasant sound of a human being impacting the pavement.

The damage was predictable: a large bruise on his chest; a patch of road rash of size of a compact disc on his right thigh; and a sprained left shoulder, the intense discomfort of which was not completely felt until he tried to stand up. Later, he would discover a large crack in his helmet that made him pause and think how glad he was that he had been wearing one. His beloved bicycle did not fare much better, with twisted bars, a gash in its saddle cover, and a depressingly Pringled front wheel.

After the obligatory accusations, apologies, and exchange of addresses with the owner of the contemptible vehicle, the Doorman picked up his bike and, with a noticeable limp, began to walk the last mile or two home.

"Well, the others are never going to let me hear the end of this one," he spoke out loud along the way.

On this fact, there could be no argument. For it was precisely this type of event that made him a living legend, and the unusually large number of such incidents that had earned him his nickname in the first place. For Matt McCloud had been "doored" more times than anyone else in the county, probably more than anyone in the whole state, for that matter.

He thought about not telling anyone about this latest crash, but he realized that would be hopeless because, one way or another, someone would eventually find out. So, he would just come clean and participate in the inevitable ritual that was to follow. In a day or two, he would gather with his many cyclist friends, and with much fanfare and pageantry, stand before a large wall map of the town and place a little red pin at the exact spot where this dooring had occurred. Similar pins marked the spots of earlier mishaps. The total number of these was getting so large that the event was losing any humor that it may once have had.

"I think it's about time for me to move somewhere else," he said to no one in particular.

By the time he arrived back at his house, various parts of his body had swollen or stiffened to the point of being nearly non-functional. Trying not to make any unnecessary movements, he went inside, set his wounded bike down near the front door, carefully peeled off his tattered cycling attire, and gently slid onto his bed to rest. By this time, night had fallen and it seemed easier to just stay put rather than endure the discomfort of trying to stand up again. Actually going to sleep turned out to be somewhat more difficult as even the slightest body movement sent waves of pain shooting around his nervous system. But, he had no place else to go, and was determined to give it a try.

After an indeterminate amount of time, the Doorman rose again, feeling surprisingly well healed and rested. Through the window he could see that daylight had returned, so he must have been out for quite a while.

"A good night sleep can really do wonders," he thought to himself as he lifted his left arm, which was now pain-free, above his head.

If he had slept through the night, it must be Saturday. So, he decided to get started on his long list of plans for the weekend.

Outside the sun was shining, and as he stepped out onto the front porch, he filled his lungs with several breaths of clean, fresh air. This should have been his first clue that all was not normal with the universe on that particular morning.

He occasionally had the opportunity to visit undeveloped areas where he could remind himself what clean air smelled like, but here in Cannondale Falls most residents had simply grown accustomed to the aromatic scents of hydrocarbons and diesel particulates. It didn't take long, however, before several other oddities convinced him that something strange was going on.

The most startling of these was the change to Chestnut Avenue itself, the street on which his home was located. For as long as he could remember, Chestnut, like all the other streets in Cannondale Falls, was a full 32 feet wide. Now, suddenly, its width had shrunk to a mere 12 feet. Perplexed by this change, the Doorman strolled around the block examining the homes of his neighbors. Each lot now had an additional 10 feet of open space between the dwelling and the road. Many of the residents had reclaimed this space for small plots of vegetables, some planted flowers, and a few built simple gazebo-like structures that were now being used to enjoy early morning cups of tea and neighborly conversations.

After a few minutes, he gradually became aware of another unusual situation. It was quiet. Normally, by this time of day, the wheels of commerce would be in motion and the air would be filled with the hums, rattles, and buzzes of everyday life. Most of the time, this just seemed like "white noise" and he simply ignored it. Only now, when it was absent, did he realize how intrusive the noise had been.

Eventually, he did hear something. In the distance, the faint "clang-clang" of a bell broke the silence. He looked around to see what it was, and was surprised to observe an electric trolley car crossing Chestnut three blocks away.

"Now that was not there yesterday!" he exclaimed to himself.

His confusion grew as he struggled to comprehend these surprising changes. But, when he made one more observation, he began to realize what had happened. Everywhere he looked, he saw people walking. And, even more so, there were bicycles. Dozens of bicycles, carrying their riders gracefully and quietly around the town. If he was not sure that this was Cannondale Falls, he might be excused for thinking that he was in Old Beijing or Amsterdam.

It was then that he understood the stunning change that had occurred.

The bicycle had re-conquered America.

He didn't know how it had happened, when it had happened, or why it had happened, but he was just glad that it did. For years he had wondered what his town would be like were it to be freed from the iron grip of the automobile. Now that the liberation had come, his excitement was beyond description. There were so many places that he wanted to ride, experiencing them as car-free for the first time, that he scarcely knew where to begin.

Then he noticed that the all of the cyclists passing by were traveling in the same direction.

He shouted to one, "Where are you all going?"

"To the meeting at the...." came the reply, fading out as the rider continued on.

The Doorman had no idea what the meeting was, but he knew that he wanted to be there. He bounced up the steps to his front door, ran inside, and grabbed his bike, which was right where he had left it. In doing so, he failed to notice that its front wheel was now perfectly true once again. Jumping on, he joined the other riders, smiling all the way.

In a few minutes they converged with more riders, arriving from other parts of town, at the end of Walnut Street. In the Doorman's memory, there was a shopping center here, complete with plentiful free parking and all the modern-day "conveniences" offered by a myriad of nationwide-chain stores. But today, the same space was occupied by a beautiful community plaza lined with tall shade trees, and filled with fountains, benches, chessboards, and other amenities. One end of the plaza was largely open, and on Mondays and Fridays used by local gardeners and farmers to display fresh produce.

Cyclists from all over were gravitating towards the open end. Several hundred were already there, socializing in an amorphous clump surrounding a large statue of Major Taylor. The Doorman rolled up, dismounted and looked around, not realizing that he was now wearing a rather stupid-looking grin across his face.

Around him were bicycles of all ages, sizes, and descriptions and cyclists of all ages, sizes, and descriptions. A few of the riders were people that he recognized, but most were strangers. Everyone seemed to be engaged in friendly, but intense, discussions, complete with wild hand gestures obviously intended to convey some sort of important information. A few had brought photographs or charts, and some held rather heavy-looking books. Sitting on the ground near the Doorman, a young girl of no more than twelve furiously scratched notes in a spiral-bound notebook.

Just then, he recognized Soon Wang, a friend of his who worked as a manager at his favorite grocery. He had known her for many years and had never before seen her ride a bicycle. Nevertheless, here she was with all of the others.

"Good morning, Soon," he said happily.

"Hey Doorman, glad you could make it!" Soon replied.

"Me too. But I'm kind of embarrassed to say that I don't really know what's going on. So, what's up?"

"You, of all people, didn't hear about this?! Today we're going to...."

Before she had a chance to finish, she was interrupted by a chorus of "Sshhh's" rippling through the crowd. Things got quiet, and one of the cyclists climbed up onto the pedestal below the statue. Once there, she took off her helmet, and with her loudest voice, addressed the crowd.

"You all know why we’re here today.... We've been given a job to do in the re-building effort, and it’s high time we got on with it..."

Her enthusiasm increased, and with a tone bordering on jubilation, she shouted out the task at hand.

"We have to decide what to do with all the Winnebagoes!!"

Cheers and applause burst forth from the crowd lasting a few minutes, after which she continued.

"Today we’re going to start with the Class A motorhomes. There are 700,000 of them, and none of them are being used for anything. They’re taking up too much space and we have to do something about it!"

The Doorman turned to Soon and asked, "Which ones are the Class A's?"

"You know, the really big ones. Nine feet wide, thirty-five feet long, with all the extras; air conditioning, refrigerator, satellite TV, and stuff. Bigger than my first apartment. Used to get about 4 miles per gallon," she answered.

"And there are 700,000 of them?"

"Seven...... Hundred...... Thousand!"

The Doorman thought back to a time five years earlier when, while on one of his long bicycle tours, he was enjoying a lightning-fast descent from Teton Pass. He had just swung around a tight outside switchback when he encountered one of these very beasts, trailing a sport-utility vehicle to boot, attempting to make the climb. The behemoth was too large to negotiate the curves, and, taking nearly the entire roadway, forced him to within inches of making a swan dive into the juniper-filled canyon below.

"This is going to be fun!" he shouted.

The cyclist standing on the pedestal continued:

"So let's hear your suggestions. We'll take a vote on them, and pass on our decision to the deconstruction authorities."

The first idea came from a teacher who was riding a fat-tired beach cruiser. She suggested removing the engines and tires from the motorhomes and using the rest as low-cost housing. Her idea received a warm reception from the crowd. But a carpenter on a homemade chopper bike pointed out that these old motorhomes were basically poorly insulated metal and fiberglass cans, and without the engines would be terribly cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer.

Next to speak was an artist on a recumbent. He began quite eloquently, "I believe that we should use these relics of past excesses to make a positive statement for the future."

Continuing on, he outlined his idea, "My plan is to collect all the Class A's together in a flat area, probably somewhere in the Great Plains. Then we line them up side-by-side and arrange them so that they make giant letters. We could spell out, say, W...E...L...C...O...M...E. Using 700,000 Class A's, the letters would be about 60 miles tall, and the whole word would be about 480 miles wide. That would be wider than the entire state of Kansas. The final step would be to cover the tops of the motorhomes with a shiny, reflective material.

When he explained his reason for doing this, his voice became rather sheepish, "That way, the sun would reflect back into space, and the word would be large enough so that passing by in know...... spacecraft..... could read it.

Having got that part out, he finished up, steadfast in his convictions, "I think it's important that everyone knows that our planet is now a warm, hospitable place."

To the Doorman's utter astonishment, this plan received surprisingly strong support from a large portion of the crowd. However, a farmer who was riding a mud-covered mountain bike, reminded the group that if this were done, the sign would cover about 6,200 acres of prime cropland, enough to feed nearly 10,000 people. After that, everyone decided to move on to other ideas.

A few more proposals were made, none of which produced much enthusiasm in the crowd. Then the young girl sitting near the Doorman, who had all the while continued to scribble page after page in her notebook, stood up to announce her idea.

"Hello" she put forth in her most respectful voice. However, the surrounding sea of velocipedians easily drowned out someone of her stature.

She tried again, this time with the assistance of her bike bell; Ring--ring.... "Hello!.... Hello!" Ring--ring--ring. Still, no one heard her.

The Doorman, observing her efforts, rushed over to offer assistance. In an instant, he lifted her up onto his shoulders allowing her to try once more.

"Hello!" she yelled out. This time, a hush came over the crowd, and all eyes turned toward the pair.

"Thank you," she began, "I think that we should take out all of the steel and aluminum from the old motorhomes. We can use it to make other things. For example, from 700,000 motorhomes we could get enough steel and aluminum to make one billion bicycle frames."

The crowd erupted into a joyful celebration. Applause, shouts, and whistles filled the air. In a few moments they began to clap and chant in unison, "Melt 'Em Down!....Melt 'Em Down!...."

It was clear that the matter had now been decided. The Doorman carried the champion of the hour to the front of the crowd so that she could stand on the pedestal and except her well-deserved congratulations.

The party went on for close to an hour. Whenever things started to calm down, someone would shout out a suggestion for what to do with all of the glass, copper or other materials in all the Class A's. No one knew what to do with the fiberglass, plastics or carpeting, but hopefully someone would eventually think of something.

The Doorman strolled through the happy group, thinking only about what a cool place to live his hometown had suddenly become.

Tragically, however, just as quickly as he had gained his liberation, all was lost again. In an instant, a complete sense of disorientation overcame him.

It was dark.

An intensely annoying Whoop...Whoop...Whoop... sound screeched through his brain.

Instinctively, he flung his hand toward his alarm clock. In doing so, his swollen shoulder ignited an agonizing chain reaction of nerve endings firing in protest over the unwanted movement. He stopped himself in mid-motion, crying out in pain; "Arrghhh!" Out the corner of his eye, he could just barely make out the numbers on the face of the clock- 3:27 a.m.

"That can't be right!" he thought to himself as he ever so gently moved himself back into a more comfortable position.

Yet, the offending sound continued, Whoop...Whoop...Whoop....

"No, no, no! It had to be real!" he lamented, while trying to cover his ears with his good arm.

But as the cobwebs cleared from his mind, he realized that he had indeed heard this sound before. It was the result of a decision by one of the neighborhood cats to go for a pre-dawn stroll across the roof of the Volvo sedan parked next door. The cat, of course, was not concerned in the least way that she had set off its obnoxious, and totally useless, alarm system.

The Doorman laid motionless, overcome by a unstoppable wave of gloom.

Cars still roamed at will across the countryside. Winnebagoes still consumed appalling amounts of resources. His dreams of a better world would have to wait for another day.

When despair grows in me and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting for their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

~Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things"~


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Home