A big difference between birds and people is that birds enjoy facing into the wind. “Enjoy” is probably not the right word, but facing into the wind certainly comes naturally to them. It ruffles their feathers the least and protects them from hypothermia. I was reminded of this on the three days that I toured by bike, covering parts of the San Francisco Bay Trail. Almost from beginning to end, I was beset by a constant headwind. It didn’t matter whether I was going north, south, east or west; the wind altered course to oppose my direction.
I have wondered about a meteorological explanation, but winds are not easy to explain, and even less easy to predict. They are, however, very amenable to tired metaphors, in which I am told, I am quite the expert. There were long stretches on those three days, however, when no metaphors presented themselves. I felt a welcome blankness that permits only an awareness of the inputs of the senses, an occasional stray thought, but little judgement or feeling. It was a strange sort of meditation.
There was neither frustration, nor fear, nor happiness, as I lumbered heavily across empty stretches of Pinole, San Pablo, Richmond and Selby, passing broken warehouse after broken garage after smashed window, often without sighting another human being for miles on end. Thoughts came and went with the sight of an abandoned post-industrial landscape, the taste of the California dust, the hot whiteness of the afternoon sky, and always, the persistent, low groaning of the wind. There were parked cars from the eighties, and corrugated iron sheets covered by a thick layer of rust. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be so different from a wild west movie if someone stepped out from behind a warehouse and fancied a pistol shot at a slow-moving bicycle tourist. It was a narcissistic, morbid and wholly unnecessary thought, and it didn’t stick. I didn’t wonder too long about what it would be like to die on a bicycle.
Long-distance cycling, whether slow or fast, competitive or solitary, provides you with something to work with, to keep going in spite of the wind and heat and dust. When you’ve gone through it long enough, you stop cursing the conditions, or wondering when they will improve, or when you’ll have a cold relaxing bath. Little by little, the vanity seems to wear away; the thought that you are soldiering through adversity begins to appear more and more ridiculous. You’re merely doing what needs to be done, and not doing much else. I feel strangely attracted to that state of mind. You are like one of the hunter-gatherer clans that roamed the earth thirty or forty thousand years ago before civilization arose – moving from one grassland to the next, one storm to the next, one flooded river crossing to the next, one wild hunt to the next, doing what needed to be done.
I have not had many long conversations with people who have toured long distances, traversed the length and breadth of the country, for example. These people are rare, and generally not the demonstrative type. People tour, so that they can experience the country from outside the cabin of a car, so that they can discover new friends and new experiences, so that they can find themselves; the motivations vary. Even with all the risks and hardship, there appear to be many advantages to touring on a bicycle. You are not constantly beholden to other people’s schedules, their rituals, their orders, and their personalities. It is just you and the bike, and either out of some sort of empathy for the weather-beaten traveler or because of the relative novelty of a long-distance bicycle traveler, the people you do meet from time to time, tend to behave rather nicely with you. But, if there is one thing that really makes me crave for long bike journeys, it is the mysterious meditative state that I thought I reached in that seemingly endless headwind.