On my 63rd birthday I took up bicycle commuting for the sole purpose of reducing gasoline consumption, but the residual advantages just keep coming. Last month I recounted the benefits to my health and improved general attitude, but hardly a week goes by without revealing another unexpected blessing.
Probably the greatest inducement was the circumstance that first suggested the idea: the existence of the Springwater Trail, which extends all the way from the Willamette River to Boring. It runs within two blocks of the place where I work in southeast Portland and ends only two miles from my house, making bicycling in traffic almost unnecessary.
The route is what we in the biking community (I’m now an official member) call a “Rail-to-Trail.” A railroad line used from 1903 till the 1980s, its tracks were torn up in 1990 and by 1996 had been converted into a MUP (multi-use path), paved except for the last 2 ½ miles into Boring.
East of 122nd Avenue, most of the trail runs through woods and fields, affording many sightings of rabbits, deer, and coyotes, not to mention slugs and skunks. Riding through the woods in the early morning, usually before daylight, I often pretend I’m the “Lord of the Manor,” riding my trusty steed across my vast domain to spy out wildlife for the day’s hunt ahead.
Some of the wildlife is human, as there are several campsites along the way used sporadically by homeless folks. I would have said “itinerants,” but that implies traveling around, and often I see the same faces day after day. Some kindly-intentioned ladies I know have asked, “Aren’t you afraid of the weirdos?” I can only reply, “I’ve spent most of my life being a weirdo. This is no time to start being afraid of them.”
Still, there have been a few startling experiences. One evening just west of Jenne Road, I came around a corner to see a small boy about 100 yards ahead of me holding the end of a long rope. At the other end of the rope was a pig—not a cute little Vietnamese potbellied pig, but a 200-pound sow.
I still don’t know whether they were just out for exercise, or the hog had escaped, or “this little piggy went to market,” but as I rode by I clearly saw and heard what appeared to be the boy’s mother bending over the pig and murmuring, “Don’t worry, girl, he won’t hurt you.”
Approaching a covered shelter on the side of the trail a few weeks later, I heard what sounded like a trumpet playing a clear, haunting Latin melody reminiscent of the “no-quarter” theme from the John Wayne movie Rio Bravo. Drawing closer, I saw one of the homeless regulars, horn pointed at the sky, back arched as far as it could go, playing his heart out. I almost stopped to find out what his backstory was, but decided not to, in order to preserve the mystery and continue to imagine all manner of exotic explanations.
One morning, stopped for a light at one of the streets that cross the trail about every half mile, I looked to my left in the darkness and saw another biker whose face looked familiar. He turned out to be Romeo, a friend I hadn’t seen in years who had taken up bicycle commuting the same week I did. Now we ride in together every morning, and strangely the ride seems only half as long now.
But the most exciting event of my cycling adventure, and the one I least want to repeat, was the “Attack of the Pit Bull.” One night after work (and after dark), a quarter mile into my ride, I heard a dog bark beside me, and then felt him biting my leg.
I thought I would just pedal fast and outrun him, but then I became aware of a second dog dancing in front of me and slowing me down. Every time my left foot came down, the dog would sink his teeth into my calf, and when my foot came up, the flesh would tear out of his grip. Soon my pants were shredded from the knee down, and my left shoe was filled with blood.
Two women—presumably the owners—were screaming, “Cujo, stop it!” as the bike finally slowed to the point that I fell over, whereupon I was forced to do what I should have done at the very first: pick up the bike and use it as a shield.
I rode to Portland Adventist Emergency Room, where the doctor said, “The good news is we haven’t had a case of rabies in 40 years.” The next day I went to G.I. Joe’s and bought a dispenser of pepper spray. Like the rodeo bronc rider who gets back on his horse, I got back on the bike, but I’m a little more suspicious of dogs on the trail now. I’d rather run across a 200-lb. pig any day.