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Bicycles

It is strange how I became an advocate for bicycling, especially when I remember how difficult it was for me to learn how to ride. My parents did not believe in training wheels so I was left to my own devices, constantly falling over and feeling like a klutz. They did make one concession by letting me ride a small girl's bike. When I lost my balance, I could jump off quickly before the bike hit the ground. I think I was finally around ten years old when I mastered the two wheels. I eventually took to cycling and later graduated to a larger, boy's bike that I rode around the South Jersey suburbs. I especially remember summers riding with my friend Don. We liked riding along the Cooper River Park, starting where the river is just a small creek. There was one place where the rinse water from neighborhood washing machines flushed into the waterway, creating huge mounds of detergent bubble sculptures that floated on the water and blew away like clouds in the wind.

The exercise was good for me. I was rather overweight for a kid. When my family moved to San Diego, I did not do as much biking. But I did get into walking, especially walking the family dog on weekends. It was the long walks, up to 10 miles in a day, and a strict diet that helped me lose a lot of weight. I frequently walked to my junior high school, at least two miles from my house.

My relationship with cars was unusual for a boy, as well. Normal, American, teenage boys can hardly wait to get their drivers licenses and buy the ultimate ticket to independence, a big automobile. I already figured out I was not normal, and I was terrified of driving. I did not get my license until I was twenty. By this time, I was living on my own, and my parents gave me their old, Chevy sedan to help me get around. A friend helped me learn how to drive it.

I was beginning to feel comfortable with driving when the first gas crisis hit in the early 1970's. In fact, I was working as a janitor where a car was needed to get to work. Feeling trapped in those long, gas lines, I made a decision that I would end my car dependency.

I bought a friend's used 10-speed Peugeot. Getting back into bike riding was a challenge, especially on those North San Diego County hills. Once, I found myself following behind a young man on a skateboard on one of those country roads. As hard as I could, I was unable to go fast enough to pass him.

Eventually, the constant practice paid off, and I found that the exercise to be quite pleasurable. I eventually came to know this experience as "bicycle therapy." The more I rode the better I felt, both physically and mentally. Riding lifted my mood and self-esteem. It was a practical form of exercise where I used my muscles for the practical task of getting somewhere.

I noticed something else from my riding, my relationship with my environment. I feel closest to my surroundings when I am on foot. I do not cover as much ground, but I am fully aware of the ground I cover. I contrast that with being in a car where I am totally isolated from those surroundings. I cover a lot of ground, but I experience so little of it. The bicycle gives me the opportunity of covering more territory than being on foot, without sacrificing that connection to my environment. I am aware of the smells, the changes in air temperature, and the force of the wind. I can spot wildlife that would have been scared off by the sound of an approaching car's motor.

My next goal was a change of profession. I took up the trade of lens grinding so that I could get out of janitorial work and into a job that I could commute to without driving. I found a job making prescription eyeglasses in the Kearny Mesa area of San Diego. Living still in North County, I continued driving to work, though I tried to set up a car pool to the city. The car pools wouldn't last because the other riders moved and changed jobs frequently. Too many times, I sat alone in bumper-to-bumper, freeway traffic, yet to realize my next goal.

That goal was to actually live and work in the same city. Melissa and I wanted to live in the beach community of Ocean Beach. She found a cheap cottage in the summer of 1976. I lost my job at the lab that made eyeglasses, but I soon found another with a contact lens manufacturer just a few doors down. That was the start of my bike commuting experience. I rode from Ocean Beach uphill (9.8 miles according to Google Maps) to Kearny Mesa. I was in my mid-twenties and in the best physical shape of my life. I still owned a car, a small pickup truck, but I rarely drove it.

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