Traveling at the Speed of Bike

Like so many ambitious enterprises, it began on a whim. In February of 2002 my canary yellow – I called it Tweetie Bird – Dodge Colt died. It was a typical Vineyard car, meaning that to take it off-Island practically assured you of getting stranded far from home with either a defunct car or a massive mechanic’s bill. I’d bought it from my sister, who’d already built up a good 100,000 miles on it. So when Dave at Cars Unlimited came out of exploratory surgery on Tweetie Bird’s transmission shaking his head, I knew I needed to make a new plan.
Somehow I hadn’t the gumption to spend another thousand dollars on another junky Island car. I also lacked the wherewithal to buy something better, i.e. anything that hadn’t yet accumulated ten pounds of rust, with an engine held together by rubber bands, duct tape, and prayer. Because our winter weather had  turned out improbably mild, a sudden inspiration came to mind: I’ll get around by bike!
So I bought a new bike, one of those hybrid jobs that handles dirt roads and asphalt with equal vim. I strapped a canvas sack on each side to haul sundries and, Bob’s your uncle, as the English used to say: I was mobile.
The first early March morning that I cycled the half-mile into town to my new business venture, a tiny book store on Circuit Avenue, the season’s first snow began to flutter to the ground or, to put it more personally, drill into my face. There’s something about snow in your mug – in your nostrils, on your eyelashes, in your eyes – as you puff towards your destination atop the only means of transportation at your disposal, that makes you feel, well, sorry for yourself.
But here’s the good part: come the warmer months you’ve got it made. While car drivers search ceaselessly for that parking space, you scoot into town and put the thing wherever you like. Traffic is backed up for a mile east of Five Corners? The bicyclist sails past every single car as the drivers eye her with jealousy.
And you know what happens when you give up a hard-core modern-day technology? You buy back daily hours of lost pleasure. Who enjoys even a minute of driving these days? The buckling up, the inching along, the endless tick-tick-tick of the turn signal as you wait for someone to let you make a left-hand turn. The minute you climb on a bike, a fragrant sea breeze fills your nostrils. You hear the racket of birds in the ancient oaks overhead. You glide down that long slope to the harbor as a friend waves from the side of the road. On a narrow lane in the Camp Ground, you pass that elderly lady with whom you always share a smile; you know each other so very well now, even though you’ve never exchanged a single word. On your return trip there’s no need to hump bags of groceries to a far-off car. You sling your purchases into your canvas bike totes, right by the door, and wheel your way home.
Nighttime trips are especially fun. When your transportation revolves around a car, you leave your host’s doorstep, you glance briefly at the sky with a moan of guilt over the fact that that for the most part these days you pay so little attention to it, you clunk open the door of your vehicle, and fire up the engine. Moving at the speed of bike changes everything in your life. In fact, you come to appreciate walking even more than riding. When your nighttime stroll home takes you past summer boats, each deck alive with a different scene – in this one a Jack Russell terrier guards the family’s quahaug bucket, in that one red lights crown a mizzenmast – you can’t believe that the straightest line between Point A and Point B takes you past one of the prettiest views on the eastern seaboard.
So what happens when a friend invites me to a dinner party in Chilmark in the off-season when the otherwise splendid bus service is down to but a few trips up-Island per day? Well, for one thing this car-less life works for me because I’m attached to the solitary life. But on those occasions when bike or bus fall short, I’ve found I can always hitch a ride with a friend or call a taxi. With all the money I save on car insurance, gasoline, and auto repairs, I can say “Ha!” to the occasional cab tab.
But what about venturing outdoors on an eighteen-degree January morning with a sub-zero windchill factor? I won’t lie to you: it’s painful. But you learn to dress with all the necessary layers: thin tights under heavy tights, fleece-lined boots, wool scarves and socks, earmuffs under scrunched-down hats. To quote an old New England saying: there is no bad weather, only the wrong clothes.
There is also, when all is said and done, a philosophical up-side for those of us who lead a car-free existence: we’re not part of the problem, babe. Oil wars in the Middle East? Fuel emissions burning up the ozone layer, hastening global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps? Not our fault. That doesn’t mean we won’t march for peace or recycle bottles or send a check to save the whales. We all do whatever we have to do. But those of us who cope without a car are doing a little more than everybody else. And I think we’re a tad happier in the bargain.