Tales from the Trail: Darkness (and homelessness)

Darkness. Back when I worked at the zoo, I wrote a post here that still often swirls through my mind. It was about how much I loved the utter darkness of my commute through Washington Park after the sun went down. I think of that post often, especially in a city where I so infrequently find myself in true darkness. Streets are lit, houses are lit, businesses are very brightly lit; paths are lit, bus stops are lit; everything is brightened to make sure things are seen and seeable, to make us feel safe. True darkness is hard to find here, and it was really special to me that I got to travel through it (in the woods, no less!) on my way home from work.

The ability to slip into a place that still feels untouched amidst the urban jungle, a place that still feels wild, is like a jewel in my pocket — and darkness affords that. It’s one of my favorite things about my ride to and from work now too. Unlit, the Springwater Corridor before the sun comes up or after it goes down is priceless.

bike lights(okay, this is the anti-darkness bike, but I pass it every morning on Division, where everything’s lit up anyway, and I kind of like it:)

I like darkness because I can choose how I want to interact with it. If I want lights, I can turn my bike lights on. But if I don’t, if I want to feel my way along by only moonlight, I can turn off the bright lights that I just wrote about and turn up all my senses until I see someone else coming and get self-conscious, not wanting to be that unlit cyclist wearing dark colors and inviting death with every stroke of dark pedals. Sometimes I just stare off into the brush on both sides of the trail and wonder what’s out there, what rabbits or coyote or deer or feral cats are watching me swish past. On one particular part of the path, I have to look hard to avoid the human excrement that someone persistently leaves (eeew). Sometimes I hear owls. Sometimes I see eyeballs. Always, I love that I have an option for darkness.

Ironically, I just read an awful lot of commentary over at BikePortland about how unsafe the Springwater is, how dangerous — and, of course, one of the first things people call for (aside from uprooting all the transient folk along the way), is adding lights. Granted, I don’t ride the segment of the Springwater they’re calling, in a shameless show of click-bait, the “avenue of terror”; I jump onto it about 10 blocks further east. But homeless encampments certainly line my route both there and on the 205 path, and I pass most of them coming and going, in the darkness. I nod, I smile, I acknowledge; I treat everyone like I treat any human, and I’ve never had any problems nor felt any sort of danger. It feels about the same now as it did over the summer and early fall when I could actually see everyone.

I-205 camp(205 path)

Certainly I don’t mean to dismiss other people’s fears or unpleasant experiences, but it seems to me a great shame to use unsanctioned camping along a path as a rationale for lighting up the whole world. It’s so fricken rad to be able to go somewhere and remember that there are stars, even if you can’t see that many of them here, to go somewhere still in the city and remember that it’s supposed to be dark at night. It’s awesome that the non-human animals who live out there get to have some dark and natural rhythms too. Heck, I’m sure it’s nice for the folks who live out there to get to sleep in the dark too — if you’ve gotta sleep outside, you might as well be able to turn out the lights.

Our fear of things dark is a weird one to me, as is our fear of people who aren’t like us. Certainly some of the people I pass living out there on the path have made some dubious life choices — maybe some of them are even dangerous or mentally unstable at times — but to me that seems like an argument for social services, for support networks, and for attitudes that allow people to keep their dignity when life deals them a shitty hand. Not a reason to round them all up whether they’re dangerous or no, ship them to who knows where, and then — what? Hope that they just magically disappear or find somewhere else to live?

I can think of many wealthy, white-collar people who have made dubious choices in their lives too, I can think of many wealthy sex offenders or murderers or psychopaths, and we certainly don’t advocate rounding up all the wealthy people and ripping them out of their homes because some of them present a danger to society. We’ve bought into the lie that money confers respectability, and the undeniable lack thereof means you did something wrong. When I pass people sleeping out, sure, I get annoyed if there’s trash around, and it pisses me off when there’s human shit on the bike path, but nobody out there is fundamentally less human and deserving of compassion than anyone else. I wish we’d remember that.

I guess this is kind of a tangent from a post that started off talking about darkness. But it seems to me that the elimination of darkness in our world stems from a weird belief that if only we put lights on everything, there will be nowhere that crime can hide. Which is ridiculous, not only because it’s silly to give some amorphous fear of crime so much power over our lives, but also since so much of the crime that does exist in our world hides behind wealthy doors and in plain sight anyway, so much of it is perpetrated by people who look just like me. Certainly none of the systemic crimes are perpetrated by the people out there in their tents.

So I say keep the path dark, and worry about the real issue here. Sometimes I’m sad that I spend so long biking in darkness, but that’s because I’m sad that the days are so dark, that the sun is down for so long. Putting in more lights won’t fix that, just as it won’t fix homelessness. Let’s revel in the days getting longer and work on the causes that lead to homelessness rather than talk about how we can punish people who are experiencing it.



  1. You’re my favorite. <3

    I owe you a real, hand-written letter.

    • Aw, shucks! Thanks! :) As for hand-written letters: heck yeah! I’ll race you to see which one of us can write and send one first! ;)

  2. Moi je voterai pour toi pour Présidente!

  3. Really wonderful sentiments about both homelessness and dark!

    This is an expensive city, and many of our crafty and rugged inhabitants simply choose to spend their time doing something other than working non-stop to afford comforts that they gladly eschew.

    Conversely, I’ve ridden the 205 path at night many times (usually with a male companion) and found myself very thankful for the additional strength in numbers. My bike is not only my primary transportation, but my most valued possession. I take it’s monetary value for granted until i think that it might easy to knock me down and take it from me. Meth is a real problem in certain portions of that trail. I’ve actually been offered it while i bike by.

    Thank you for your even handed and thoughtful conversation. I appreciated it greatly.

    • Aw, thanks for taking the time to comment! I like the way you put that: “choose to spend their time doing something other than working non-stop to afford comforts that they gladly eschew.” In some sense, I wish we could all do that — at least, take a good, hard look at what we think is “necessary” in our lives. Not advocating for homelessness here, or trying to say that being homeless is a more pure way of being (cuz it sure seems like it sucks), but simply agreeing that we often work really, really hard in large part for things that don’t even matter.

      Happy (and safe!) riding:)

  4. You are so thoughtful and brilliant. Love reading your blog!

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