I have a backwards commute. Maybe you do too. I mean that I bike the opposite direction from most people — and though I’m biking early enough that I mostly don’t see them, I know that if I left two hours later I would see hordes of cyclists whooshing past me on their way westward, manifest destiny-style, toward the glistening towers (ha!) of downtown and the central city.
My way east is what I think of as biking upstream, like a salmon fighting the current. Except that unlike a real current, biking backward is actually easier: fewer people.
Those of us who bike eastward are in the definite minority, and those of us who bike eastward before 6am are even fewer and farther between. Nevertheless, over a year’s worth of bike commuting, I have made a few bike buddies of circumstance, people I see every so often heading my direction, one of us catching the other when we’re going faster or we get stuck for a while at a light.
There’s Mark, the high school teacher who rides even further than I do and who I often see in the mornings. We talk a lot about teaching and sweeping ideas; he make me remember the things I loved about being in a classroom, and the things I hated. Dave teaches physics where I work and lives with his family just over Mt Tabor from me; I see him riding home usually. There’s Michelle, who races cyclocross and used to wait for me by her house in the mornings so we could ride the whole way together — until my start time changed and she didn’t want to give up her morning snuggles with her partner (good call, Michelle). There’s Bryan. There’s Michael. There are a few folks I’ve met only once but I’m sure I’ll see again.
In short, it’s a whole ad hoc community of people who, like me, bike backwards, early in the morning. I don’t know too much about these people, not really, and I often go weeks between seeing them, but riding together gives us a closeness and a chance to chat that I don’t share with many people who I see every day.
This is why I love biking, and why a commute by car seems so lonely to me. If I were sequestered away in a little 4-wheeled metal box, sure, I could play the songs I like and set the air to be just the temperature I like; if I didn’t have to contend with traffic sometimes I might even get where I was going faster. But what would I lose?
Aside from the simple joy of the journey, if I just hung out in my own little world all the time with my own chosen friends and my own chosen routines, how would I grow? How would I remember — in a real way, I mean, a way in which I actually have to grapple with it — that there are other people with other perspectives out there, perspectives that can be rationally and logically explained even though I’d never agree with them? How would I get my necessarily infusion of ideas that are drastically different than my own?
Every time I pass a certain section of the Springwater, I think of Michelle telling me she calls it “the Everglades” because of all the tropical-sounding birdsong. When I see someone with a bike that looks way too fancy for their circumstances, I think of Dave and his amazing humanity, his ability to assume positive intent rather than jump to conclusions. And on the other side of that equation, I think of Scott, who for protection bikes with a knife attached to his waist — not something I agree with in the least, but a viewpoint I at least need to remember to consider, a viewpoint I’d like to be prepared to push against when I come across it again.
These incidental bike buddies, I’m pretty sure, make me a better person — if nothing else, because they remind me of how to be a person in the world with many other people in it, all of whom are worthy of respect and consideration. They remind me how to interact with a vast humanity, kindly. Can you say that about your car commute?