Saturday, May 27, 2006

Chicago by Bike

PurpleflowersmillparkIt's fun to have outings around town. Growing up, my father used to always take us on road trips on the weekend. In retrospect, I suppose that the road trips were not generally long excursions. I mean, the furthest we generally got was about forty or fifty miles from home, but we certainly had adventures. For instance, one day we would drive up an old logging road until the car got stuck. On another day we were chased out of an estate by Dobermans, on a third day we would find the most wonderful swimming hole around. The important thing about these outings were not to go to exotic locations, not to accomplish amazing feats of endurance, but simply to see a new side to the world. I suppose one of the lessons that I've drawn from these adventures is that you don't need to go far from home to have them.

I began the last post with a passing reference to one of my favorite books as a young child, Muncus Agruncus, A Bed Little Mouse. Things that I liked about that book included the nice rhythms, an interesting vocabulary for a children's book. Consider the following lines:

"One by one his brave fleet disappeared,

While the roar of the cataract burst on his ears.

Into the wild foam cloudland he whirled

With mizzen mast bending and all sheets unfurled. . ."

I mean, how many books for five year olds mention mizzen masts at cataracts, or have the inventiveness to come up with the word, "cloudland"? It really is a great book. And the whole plot is about a naughty little mouse that decides to have adventures around the house he lives in. It too reinforces the lesson that one can have incredible adventures without straying too far from home. But equally, the book also mentions the joy of returning to home. After being chased all 'round by a broom when the owner of the house catches site of the mouse, Muncus retires to bed but not before laying out plans for his next adventure.

Now that I'm a full adult - something that one feels in a deep way after turning 30, and which has been further emphasized now that I'm on the verge of turning 32 - I still try to keep up such adventures. My adventures in Chicago have been raised to a whole new register today, since I decided to go out and buy a bicycle. MybikeI then spent the next 12 hours exploring the city in a whole new way. I bicycle is such a very unique form of transportation, and I think that it's very difficult to come close to the feeling of riding a bicycle through any other means of travel. Unlike a car or a motorcycle, it's quiet, and you are not confined to the road, but can take excursions along paths, sidewalks, and fields. Unlike walking, you can travel at a fast enough pace to get to places far beyond the range of two feet, and even beyond your immediate horizon. And if you want to stop somewhere, it is easier done than said.

The uniqueness of this form of transportation was immediately apparent when I road down the road away from the bicycle store. Almost instantly I was in parts of the city that I had never been to before. CloudymomentTo understand this, you have to realize that in Chicago, just like in some other cities (Amsterdam is the most striking example of this phenomenon), really good neighborhoods are sometimes one or two blocks from a really bad neighborhood. In the case of my first ride from the store, it's a one-block difference. It's actually sort of amusing that in Chicago you can usually determine whether you've driven into a poor, slightly dangerous neighborhood by the existence of White Castle hamburger joints. These joints sell hamburgers for $.49, and so they're always located in neighborhoods where (a) there are lots of people interested in $.49 hamburgers, rather than the $7.00 hamburgers one can get at downtown diner and (b) where the property is cheap enough to be paid from the narrow profit margins of $.49 worth of beef. And sure enough, less than fifty feet from the bicycle store there is a White Castle. But then one block over you're in suburbia, with tree-lined streets, and polite and happy people, and even a university. It's sort of crazy how things like this work out sometime. Anyway, normally I don't explore these little bits of suburbia, because I don't particularly feel like crossing through WhiteCastleland (Or if we were in England I suppose we could spell it Whitcastle), but on my bike, travelling at the speed of the breeze (literally, since the breeze was under 30 miles per hour), a bad neighborhood is a mere passing blur.

BuckinghamfountainIn general, I find that Chicago has a certain wonderful randomness about it. For instance, Chicago has the largest population of Poles of any city outside of Poland. So, when you're driving around, chances are that you'll find a giant statue in the middle of nowhere celebrating some noble Pole's defense of the motherland. I suppose New York has these things too, but they seem to be more endemic to Chicago. I passed a few of these places within minutes of leaving the store, and they are sometimes in the most delightful little parks. Chicago has other amusing sites too.


And getting around in Chicago on a bicycle is rather easy nowadays. The mayor of Chicago Richard M. Daley - who might as well be known as the emperor of Chicago after the number of years he's been in power and the number of things that have his name written on them - really likes riding bikes, and so he's trying to make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the United States. Although he does have a way to go, I was amazed at the number of bike lanes, biker signs, and paths there are in this town: something I missed in my bikeless days. It seems that at least in the areas that I road through today there were always convenient ways for a bicyclist to get around. And perhaps the greatest of these is the lakeshore path. It's a path, 18 miles long running from the Southside of Chicago, through the center of town, and way up north, and it never wanders more than a few hundred yards from the water's edge. BikingonlakefrontThe path for the most part is free from intersections, and crosswalks, so you can basically bike the length of Chicago and have beautiful views the whole way. Not many cities have anything even close to this. Further, the path has two lanes, and although it can get quite crowded on the weekend, it nonetheless is possible to bike quite fast on it (with a few exceptions downtown). Furthermore, there are many detours one can take.

For instance, I visited Northerly Island for the first time the other day. Northerly Island Northerlyislandwater is an island just off the coastline of Chicago. I suppose it's not really an island, but more of a peninsula thanks to a narrow isthmus connecting it to the downtown area. It used to be an airport called Meigs field . . . in fact, it was still open when I first arrived in Chicago. But it was closed in rather dramatic fashion. When the lease expired, the mayor was determined to turn it into parkland, and so he hired bulldozers to secretly destroy the runway in one nighttime operation. It was sort of ridiculous, and many people are right to be mad about that move (especially the people who didn't get a chance to get their airplanes off of the island beforehand), but the result has been this wonderful expanse of fields, grasses, water, birds - and if you visit at the right time - complete silence. All of this with the center of the city not more than a mile away, and completely in view. In addition, I think that on the right day it may be one of the most perfect places to fly a kite in the world. What makes it the perfect kite-flying place? Well, it was an airport, so it has huge wide-open spaces. Some of these places are now covered with prairie bushes, but huge stretches are mowed, Goflyakite1so there is plenty of space to move around easily. It's also in the windy city, so there are often very strong breezes, especially since there are few buildings or hills on the island to interfere with the wind. The place has a full sand beach with a food vendor, and crashing waves, so that both gastronomical and auditory desires can be fulfilled. It is also - well, at least the day I was there - almost entirely devoid of people: or rather, even better than that, there were actually quite a few people on the island, but it's big enough that you can find space all to yourself and still feel safe. And finally, except for the crashing waves, there was almost no sound to be heard there. It was so quiet you could hear the wings of birds as they flew by (And the island serves as a bird rehabilitation center, so there are lots of birds, and apparently in the winter you can see Great Snowy Owls).

NortherlyislandbeachAnyway, when I road my bike there today there were many more people there, since it was Saturday, and some were already swimming in the lake. What a pleasant addition to city life here!

I also discovered that with a bicycle I can commute from Hyde Park, my little neighborhood of the moment, all the way to downtown in a little over twenty minutes. I thought this was remarkable, since it sometimes takes me longer than that to take the bus; but with no traffic, and no stops, a bike can make the trip in no time. Actually, I should say one complimentary thing about the busses: most of the busses are outfitted with bike racks, so it is easy to use public transport and a bike. Even the trains in Chicago allot a certain number of spaces for bicycles for free. FireworksgreenThis came in handy at the end of my day when I got a flat tire. Yes, it happened downtown, eight or so miles from home, and in many cities this would be the beginning of an annoying hassle. But in Chicago, I just hung out downtown, shopped a little, had a decent bouillabaisse with a glass of wine, enjoyed one of the bi-weekly firework shows, and took the bike home on a bus!

I should also probably say a word or two about the place I bought the bicycle, since it's really a great organization. It's called the Working Bikes Cooperative, and it is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that rescues hundreds of bicycles, many of which would probably have gone to the dump otherwise. These bikes are repaired and fixed-up by the staff, and then sold three days a week from their outlet on Western Avenue. So, you go in, pay between $40.00 and $120.00 and leave with a working bicycle. But the best thing about the organization isn't the fact that it's one of the few used bicycle shops in Chicago, but the truly amazing thing is what they do with all the bikes and bike parts they don't sell: they send them thousands of miles away to be distributed for free in third world countries. As many of your probably know, farmers and factory workers in such places often have to walk six or seven miles a day to get to their jobs. Literally hundreds of bicycles are shipped to places in Africa, Central America, and South America. So you know that when you put down your 40 bucks, that you're doing something that is producing real good in the world. I may actually feature the organization on my other weblog, but the location of this site is secret at the moment. I'll be sure to tell you more about it when everything is off the ground. It's far more than a humble blog . . . but more on that later.

So, now, after a long day of biking through new neighborhoods, relaxing on lawns, Fireworksredwatching fireworks, eating good food, and enjoying the sun (I'm a little burnt, I admit), I'm now sitting in my apartment, drinking red wine, listening to the stereo, and enjoying the pleasant period of contemplation that so often follows a full day. There's something so wonderful about those few hours before bed, when you have time to sit back and contemplate everything that’s happened, and to look forward to the next day's adventures. After hiking with friends, it’s the time to sit around and tell stories, and to have conversation around the fire; after working in restaurants or the farm, it is the time to just let all those tired muscles unwind, and after a party it's the time to sit back with the last of the wine and chocolate, and enjoy the silence of a clean apartment. (When I throw parties, I almost always clean up the place before I go to bed, mostly to generate this satisfied feeling.) Anyway, right now I’m relaxing, and I know that there are clean and crisp covers waiting on the bed in the other room. And on top of all of this there is that content feeling: you’re content not only knowing that you’ve sucked the marrow out of a day, but also knowing that it's time to plan for tomorrow’s adventures. Actually, I'll let Nancy Watson have the last word.


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