Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On the Ground

When I began riding my bike to Tosi's, I took the same route I took in the van: straight north over the shoulder of Mt Tabor. It was a bit of an incline, but one I barely noticed that when I was driving.

Riding the bike, I discovered, was another matter entirely. It wasn't a bit of an incline. It was steep. I geared down and geared down and finally -- on my first couple rides, anyway -- dismounted and walked the bike up the last half-block, feeling a little silly.

Now I simply swing west a couple blocks and avoid the ridge altogether. Now that I'm riding regularly it's second nature to avoid inclines, either up or down. I learned in my mountain climbing days that elevation is precious: you never wantonly waste it. "Never go down before you go up," my Dad taught me. Bicycles teach the same lesson. Going straight up over the ridge was obviously squandering energy.

A driver of a new hybrid told me that his car has a dashboard gauge that shows the real-time MPG the car is getting, and that he drives radically differently on account of it. Watching that gauge drop down to single digits when he was accelerating uphill on the freeway -- when gas is $3.25 a gallon -- was a sobering sight. Ordinarily, automobiles do their best to conceal the variation from us. That's what we like: feeling that we can swoop anywhere, effortlessly.

But the illusion comes at a price, and not only in gasoline; you pay for it, eventually, with your spatial sense and groundedness. It disturbs me now that, after years of driving over it, I knew so little of the lay of the land around my house. South and west is downhill: I can coast most of the way to Tom's, but I labor back. But I had no idea of that, before I was cycling. I thought it was all flat.

A whole countryful of people who float over the ground like wraiths, with no sense of geography, whether local or international: I can't help thinking that explains a lot about the American sensibility, or -- to be more accurate -- the American insensibility. Our feet don't touch the ground. For a commercial people, we are remarkably resistant to getting down to facts, to reckoning prices, to weighing costs and benefits. Would we have gone to war in Iraq, had the government begun the war by presenting every household in the country with a bill for $5,000 dollars? I doubt it. But we seem to be unable to think like that.

No comments: