Arizona Highways

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I’ve just spent the last week in Tucson, Arizona, riding my bicycle around and sitting in a couple of cafs on 4th Street reading pointless novels and neither knowing nor caring much what the price of a barrel of oil cost in either London or New York.

It was a nice break, but then, any break from Washington is a nice break. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed the desert, the heat, the sun, and the dry air of the Southwest (Jeddah and Dubai were both very hot and very humid deserts). If I can find something to do outside the Imperial Capital, or get brave enough to ever rely on my own two hands to earn a living (it’s a frightening prospect and, in matters financial, I am a coward), I intend to leave Washington, go far away and never, ever, ever come back.

Anyway, what shocked me most about Tucson — a place I’d never spent any quality time in — was just how bicycle friendly it is. I suppose it makes sense, given the climate is better than DC and a lot of students at the University of Arizona ride bikes. So do a lot of poor people, and it seems a fair number of the city’s homeless have as their most important possession one of those low-end Huffy or Giant mountain bikes. Not a bad way to get around. Or a hand-me-down bicycle bought for a few bucks from a garage sale, or "acquired" by some less legitimate means. There are a lot of bicycles on the roads there.

(And near as I can tell, more of Tucson’s homeless would qualify as "down on their luck," as opposed to many of the DC homeless who hang around where I work, the kind of people who have loud and animated conversations with folks who are not there.)

Motorists are fairly good about sharing those roads, too. They are polite, relatively attentive, and generally in no big hurry to get anywhere. In a number of places, the roads — government roads, I know, but you drive on them too — are wide enough for specially marked bike lanes and there are even a few intersections specifically designed for cyclists. And then there are the bike trails, along the washes (it’s cute what Westerners will call a river), nice places to race jackrabbits and roadrunners.

Again, all government work, it appears, the result of much "planning" and the deliberate use of gobs federal transportation money. Taxpayers of America, I thank you for the bike paths of Tucson, the same way I thank you for the Mt. Vernon Trail along the Potomac River.

As for the motorists of Tucson, there aren’t cops on every intersection, enforcing the rules and making everyone drive nice. That’s culture, and not something you can legislate or cajole into existence.

Like a lot of smaller American cities, Tucson is broad and flat and spread out. It is more a collection of shopping malls with neighborhoods — some nice, some not so nice — in between. I’m not a big fan of suburban living, and I don’t like our flat, soulless cities and sprawling subdivisions much. That’s what is so depressing about Northern Virginia; it strikes me as little more than Orange County, California, with a lot more trees and funkier intersections.

But little chunks of Tucson, such as the 4th Avenue business district a few blocks west of campus, have a real small town or community feel to them. In the case of those several blocks of 4th Ave., it is a heavily tattooed, pierced, hemp-wearing, organic-produce buying small town, but it was a wonderful place to hang out, read pointless novels and drink really good coffee when not chasing jack rabbits on one’s bicycle.

I didn’t get as much cycling done as I wanted too. I had dreams of 50-mile days across the desert, and my wife and I did take a couple of long treks, but I generally tend to like doing little of anything useful on vacations. My grandparents, who were ranchers in eastern Washington, tended to spend their short holidays "visiting," and as I get older, it strikes me as a fine time-off activity. I don’t understand casinos and cruises ands package vacations, but I’m guessing more than a few folks fail to see the appeal of riding around southern Arizona on a bicycle as a fun vacation either.

(One of these years, I’m going to take up fishing and take doing nothing to the fine art I understand it can be.)

I really love my bicycle. For some people, an automobile means freedom, but not for me. Not anymore. Not in a big, flat maze of subdivisions as far as the eye can see. When I was 16, or when I daily drove country roads in rural Utah and Idaho as part of my job, or when I’m speeding along an empty Western interstate, yeah, that’s freedom. But sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Lee Highway on a Saturday morning, or clawing your way home on I-10 through Pomona to San Bernardino, or edging slowly through the maze that is the Manhattan-side entrance to the Holland Tunnel, then the idea of an automobile as "freedom" becomes one more foolish and meaningless abstraction.

To me, the bicycle is freedom. Freedom from feeling stupid because I’m just one more idiot in stagnant traffic. Freedom from paying registration fees, taxes and inspection certifications. Jennifer and I abandoned our truck — sold it to the first person who wondered if it was for sale — when it became clear that we were simply never going to be able to afford to keep it given what I’m paid (she does not work). It has been difficult at times, especially when the weather is really bad, or it’s dark, or we just don’t feel like riding the 10 miles to church.

But it’s invigorating too. And enlightening. The world is smaller — we don’t venture very far from Alexandria, and no longer go to some places we could regularly drive to. But that world has also gotten bigger too. We regularly take routes that don’t make sense to drivers, such as side streets and bike trails, and because of that, have learned a lot more about the businesses in our area. We’ve found places that we would never have found had we stayed on the main roads in our truck.

You also see, and smell, a lot more flowers when you ride your bike. That, and not getting some place quickly, is what matters to me.

I’ve become a pretty fair bicycle mechanic too. I have to be. Being a big fat man, I’m hard on a bicycle, and I’ve already ruined two aluminum frames. The bike I ride right now I built myself, using spare parts from a (wrecked) Marin Novato on a Soma steel frame. I’ve even learned to build wheels (again, the fat man on a bicycle thing, trying to build something I don’t have to fiddle with or frequently replace broken spokes on). I like wheel building, but whether I’m any good at it or not I do not know. I’ve only built two, the latest one is holding up reasonably well (like profitability, an objective measure of success) but needs to be rebuilt. I’m also planning on building two more rear wheels in the next few weeks. I enjoy working on bicycles, and if I could feed Sallie Mae while fixing bicycles, keeping Jennifer in coffee and making sure we have a place to snuggle, then I’d do it. At least for a while.

I just don’t know how I could make it all work.

(I owe a combined $60,000 in principal on my undergraduate and graduate school loans. It may not have been the wisest choice I ever made, borrowing for school, but no one forced me and I’m not going to let America’s taxpayers take responsibility for something I contracted for honestly.)

And while there are days I wish I could make all the automobiles in the world simply disappear, I don’t spend much energy cursing motorists or the internal combustion engine. Yeah, it would be great not to have to fight with cars and trucks for road space, but then I’d have to fight with other cyclists, and not all of them are as attentive or even as courteous as many drivers. I generally don’t waste my time worrying about how other people "should" live and fretting about the choices they make. So long as they bear the costs of those choices themselves, and don’t go demanding subsidies from folks unwilling to pay, what do I care what people drive?

Or how they live?

Jennifer and I had a good time in Tucson, and we hope to return at some point, though it probably won’t be permanent. I’m not sure what I’d do there, or any of the other faraway, slow places I often dream of. While my current job is interesting (oil and natural gas really do interest me, and I learn something new almost every day), I more or less gave up on journalism as a profession some years ago, and am only really doing this because I don’t know what else to do. My next "job" will have to be something else, something different, because I don’t think sitting in front of a computer for eight to 10 hours a day is an awful lot of fun.

But whether I could make a living selling and fixing bicycles, or roasting coffee, or brewing beer, or any one of the several zillion other things I love to do with my hands, I don’t know. I’m not borrowing another dime from anyone right now, so it looks like a small business is out of the question. Anyway, I’m simply not tattooed or pierced enough to be a 4th Ave. businessman.

Until then, I’m on the taxpayer-financed bicycle path up and down the Potomac. At least my work day starts and ends with a bike ride, and for that I am grateful.

It could be worse. I could be stuck in traffic too.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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