Monday, June 18, 2007

Train of Thought

I recently helped my mother move into her new home in western Sonoma County, California. Because my wife, Jodi, had to leave early to attend to responsibilities in the southern part of the state where we live, I remained behind to help unload boxes and get my mom settled. Dozens and dozens of boxes, mountains of wrapping paper, sore muscles from lifting, pushing, dragging the acquisitions of a life into a semblance of order left me plenty tired. I found myself looking forward to the train ride back south, only the third time I would ride the rails, a sad but probably common statement in this, the land conquered by the automobile.

The morning of my departure, I heaved my duffel up into the bus that would carry me to the bay-side town of Martinez where I would connect with my train. A cool breeze cut across the bay and through the terminal as I boarded at last for the five hour ride down to Bakersfield, end of the line. In a sane world, rail lines would be everywhere as they are in Europe. Here we have to make due with the little that is left, the financially tenuous Amtrak line. With Mussolini in management, they run on time--or close enough.

This pleasant tour down the Central Valley, no worries about traffic, no stress from driving, was fantastic. The I 5 corridor has become a gauntlet of horrors, levels of traffic unimaginable just ten years ago. Rail transport combined with bicycle use provides a paradise of mobility. I wish more people had a feel for its benefits. I had time to eat, doze, contemplate my small place in all of this. Part of my musings took me to the power of motorized travel generally, how it has changed the way we live and who we are. One friend some time ago talked about how this has all been good for the gene pool: people travel far afield and sow their seeds in more diverse environments, the dissemination of insemination, so to speak. Perhaps. But like so much in life, our cleverness rewards us with all manner of unintended consequences. We are curious, inventive. Our agile minds and prehensile appendages give us great power, but what do we release when we open that box?

The carnage on our highways, the increase in crime, the environmental destruction are clearly evident to anyone who bothers to think about them. Evident, too, especially from a cyclist's perspective, is the toll on the human body and spirit. Because physical labor is hard, sometimes very unpleasant, we seek ways around it, and we have grown rich and diseased as a result. Everything must be safe and comfortable, fast and easy. We are now as flaccid and feeble as the Kings of old, hobbled by gout and fattened off the labor of serfs. We build the machines and import the labor so that we may ride in the sedan, a chair once powered by slaves and servants.
The irony, of course, is that now we are slaves to that which would serve us. Even the most vegan, peace loving, bike riding, dread lock-sporting environmentalist eats food that travels, on average, about 1,200 miles from where it was produced. Good God, what madness! We are chained to our machines, "petro-man," as one friend put it. Combine the power of our machines with the laziness of body and spirit and we have modern humans, homo siticus, "he who sits"--and grows ill and weak as a result. Obesity is now an "epidemic," and for the first time in many decades, the young people today are unlikely to live longer than their parents. The average American walks less than two miles a day. And that is an average. Many walk considerably less than that.

This obsession with ease and comfort has some interesting consequences for our perspectives. On the long bus ride to the school where I teach (yes, I sit in the bus like everyone else), I am a freak, usually the ONLY one who has ridden a bike to get to this public transport--even though many who ride it with me live within reasonable biking distance. All of the rest--with the exception of a schizophrenic cycling nut--drive cars to the bus stop. So there's a certified mental patient...and me. Perhaps I am unstable, too? Maybe that 2.5 mile hilly ride from my home to the bus stop really is very extreme, and I have just developed a warped sense of what is considered acceptable. Like the grinning lunatic in the original Dracula film who cackles on about eating flies and spiders, I crawl from the cave of my garage every morning and spin my personal torture device, flagellating my benumbed mind and body for some sin only I can understand.

Once, while loading up for the ride home, one fellow, who had also been on the bus, looked at me as I readied to leave and said, "Bummer. Now you have to ride home." I replied, in my own demented fashion: "Hey, this is sometimes the best part of my day." I'm not sure he understood, but he smiled to humor me, being nice to the village idiot. Later that same semester, as I paused to get the mail at the bottom of the hill where I live, a woman in a car, stopped for the same purpose, saw my bike and said: "You're so brave to ride this hill!" It's about a half mile climb with a bit of 10% grade near the top, something I ride almost everyday. Punishment for one, a courageous deed for another, such are the points of view of people who don't know or understand the possibilities of their own bodies. What should be a common place event, no more unusual than brushing one's teeth or taking out the garbage, becomes pedal powered purgatory or raising the flag on Mt. Sarabachi.

When I tell them I ride the 45 miles into and, occasionally, out of the valley 4,000 ft below, they know I'm fit to be locked up.

Such were my thoughts as I rode the train into the Great Central Valley.