So I became a bike commuter. Monday I awoke to an empty parking spot where my car had been. Tuesday I was on my way to orientation for a new job. The bike I could use was a red Nishiki, with thick cruiser tires and sit-up handle bars, a rack on the back, and a basket hung rickety on the front with bent metal straps. The brakes squealed but did little else, and the back wheel swayed from side to side on a loose axle, but as I rode through my micro-cosmic rural neighborhood (after the fist-clenching descent down my steep driveway), I soaked in the crisp winter sun and felt grateful for my new circumstances.
I held my breath through the short stretch of busy onramps, and under Highway 1, before turning off on a dead end street to the San Lorenzo River bike path. Clusters of homeless people lounged in the vegetation by the river, enjoying the safety and warmth of daylight, catching up on sleep, playing instruments, smoking cigarettes and weed, and talking about whatever they might talk about. Some lugged around their whole lives on the back of a bike. I rode by, intrigued and intimidated by their culture.
Bike life would require some reorganization. A dear friend and travel companion once described life as a series of “systems”. In order to feel fulfilled, we must honor our ideals, and thus design our routines to support those ideals. If not, we face discouraging obstacles every step of the way. Once efficient systems are up and running, life can flow the way we envision. The trick is to boil down your most basic values, and then artfully sculpt a lifestyle around those.
Over the years, I have refined my values down to health, efficiency, and peace of mind. In order to feel happy, my body must feel good, and that means eating well, exercising, drinking clean water, breathing clean air. I also cannot stand waste in any form; wasted time, wasted space, wasted resources. And peace of mind is perhaps more essential than anything, so naturally, it is the one that I am still developing. In fact, it often runs smack against the other two ideals, as I try to “do it all” and still find time to rest, or decide to relax a little on my high standards of health and efficiency. But that’s another blog.
When I had my car, it was easy to be prepared for anything. Always with several changes of clothes, a box of food, bedrolls, musical instruments, books, water, surfboard, wetsuit. But there was waste and stress in that solution. A bike would further perfect my no-waste standard, add exercise to my daily routine, and, as I would see, contribute to peace of mind.
But first, I needed to consume a bit to pimp my ride. Lights, helmet, bike tools, a sleek water bottle. I already owned a set of panniers, in which I packed school books, computer (as I was bussing across town twice a week for a journalism class), warm layers, spare clothes and toothbrush if I planned to sleep at my friends’ house after class.
My food bag usually plopped in the rattling handle-bar basket, and held bulk-food bags, washed and dried and re-used until they burst holes, (I even saved the twist ties to write the bin number), tupperware for to-go food, a set of bamboo utensils, water bottle, a thermos of tea, healthy snacks, and always (always) dark chocolate. I even took to carrying a small bag of my favorite tea, and was excited to find dehydrated coconut milk in a small resealable pouch to add to my cantina. I quickly learned, however, that recycled yogurt and salsa containers don’t hold up to a day on a bike, and I’d need some locking tupperware. All so I could go a day of eating on-the-go without racking up a pile of totally avoidable single-use trash.
Life transitioned smoothly. I started working 3 days a week. I would wake up, ride down my quiet road, past the lines of traffic, across the river, through the Ross parking lot, and arrive in 15 minutes. That first week was warm and sunny, just before the storms lined up off the coast, waiting to whomp California in quick succession.
When the rain came, I realized that among the stolen possessions were my waterproof pants. Something kept me from rushing out to buy a new pair, maybe the money, maybe the quality. For some reason I toyed with the idea of making my own, maybe out of novelty, or idealism of using all natural products. A little internetting lead me to a product called Tincloth, an old technique of waterproofing canvas with beeswax and linseed oil.
I bought the ingredients and scoured thrift stores for the perfect pants. Cotton would be heavy, I reasoned, so it would probably work on synthetic fabric, right? I found the perfect pair of Merrel outdoor pants, my size, and orange which would match my rain coat and turn me into a bright sun at night among the cars.
I melted the mixture, rubbed it on, and heated it with a hair dryer to even it out. Then hung it to dry, which considering this was the second wettest winter on record, took a long time, and the pants started to develop a strange smell. Meanwhile, I carried a second pair of pants in my waterproof panniers and changed out of my soaked pants wherever I arrived.
The rainpant creation was less than ideal; somewhat oily, somewhat waxy, and with a strong, rancid smell. I wore them once, leaving a smear of beeswax on my bike seat, and stored them in a plastic bag for the day so they wouldn’t stink up my work. I did stay dry, however.
I fully intend to try again, as the process can be used to make food wrappers, coats, bags, you name it (and then I will blog the hell out of it.) But for now I would not call this experiment a do-it-yourself success. What to do with a pair of beeswax pants in a world where you don’t want to throw anything away? I’ll have to get creative.
Along with the rain pants, I realized I had lost my favorite pair of leather boots…five pairs of shoes actually. Many of them hurt my feet, and I was relieved that they were gone. Most of the possessions in the car were tired and old. It was hard not to smirk when I learned my mother’s homeowner policy would pay out $1000, considering most of it was due replacing. But the boots! How my soggy, cold feet missed those boots now. I searched for a new pair, willing to pay asking price, but none were as perfectly worn to my wide feet. I finally settled on some saggy thrift store shores to make it through the winter.
Besides the loss of my foul-weather accessories, I felt my life had improved dramatically. If driving made Santa Cruz a hell, biking made it enjoyable. And as the numbers kept rolling in, I realized I would make more money off that car than if I tried to sell it. I had hopelessly calculated how I might save any money living here for the winter, and then the universe went ahead and took care of it, using her ever unpredictable but appropriate means.
I promised myself a few weeks of biking before rushing into a new car, as much as I like cars. I figured I needed some space, some clarity, and to give this bike thing a fair chance. You know, become good on my own. But it wasn’t long before I started salivating over vans. I had wanted a house-car for a while, but couldn’t let go of my long-term civic. Was this my sign to finally upgrade to comfortable vagabonding? I wasn’t surfing as much anymore, and I envisioned myself cozy in a van with a guitar, a surfboard, and typing away about my daily adventures while the sea-breeze howled around me. A mix between being settled and mobile, the dream.
After the three week waiting period, the insurance company deemed my car a total loss, and asked me to mail the title in exchange for a $1500 settlement. Plus the $1000 for my stuff, I was looking at $2400 out of nowhere (for a 1991 Honda Civic with 200,000 miles and a bunch of REI used gear.)
I was on my way to visit family in Oregon, my father was coming out from New York. Someone mentioned I should wait and do a ceremony to let go of the car, so I left the UPS Security Envelope sitting on my desk, and headed out to catch the bus and then the train and then the bus to my flight to Eugene.
Less than three hours together, my dad popped the question. “So, are you coming sailing with us in June?!”, he asked, nudging me hard in the arm. I panicked. I was finally settling into Santa Cruz, saving money, writing, massaging, and I had started to think that a van was the next big adventure. I’d been waiting a couple of years for this sailing trip, and had been sure my answer was yes. Yet I hesitated.
But not for long. The van seed hadn’t taken root yet, not enough that it couldn’t be shaded out by the journey to come. I could rearrange my vision of the future. I guess the unexpected surge of money was meant for Europe instead of an old VW.
Back home in Santa Cruz, I glanced at the car title sitting on top of the insurance envelope, waiting to be sent. I ignored it another day and settled into bed, just as the phone rang saying they had found my car.
I felt…excited and disappointed. Living without a car had brought an unexpected freedom (if also challenge.) Nothing to fix, no insurance bills, no gas. Then there was the surge of money, or “freedom chips”, as my dad calls it.
I caught a ride to San Jose to take a look at the car. Upon first glance, she looked fine. Sure the dashboard wires were hanging out, the battery was gone, and the ignition was jammed, but no body damage (except for the detached muffler, which I played dumb about…might as well get that fixed, right?)
“Looks like someone has been living in it,” said the insurance agent. ‘Well, that would have been me,’ I thought. Besides a little mold from a month of rain, the inside seemed cleaner than when I last had it. In fact, it had been completely unloaded. All my tools, bags, guitar, food. The only things that were left were my work clothes, including, believe it or not, my rain pants and boots! And a small figurine my mother had given me years ago, which I kept on my dashboard as I crossed the country over and over. All other sentimental but worthless dashboard trinkets (and there were many) had been swiped. There were no mysterious horrible smells, or stains, or any evidence of unruly behavior which would corrupt my sweet, loyal ride. My trusty stead lived on.
I felt an obligation to get her back, save her from a salvage yard. So I waited for the full damage report. State farm claimed a total loss, $3,000 worth of damage. In addition to what I had seen, the gas tank had a hole.
OK. I called around about getting the gas tank repaired. I had no way to get her back, to fix it myself. I was in Santa Cruz, the car was 40 minutes away in San Jose. I would have to get it towed to a shop, take a bus to pick up the gas tank from the junk yard, pay nearly $400 to have it installed, just to be able to start it and see if there was anything else wrong. ‘I can do this,’ I thought. I pushed on, as stress swamped back into my life, as I looked ahead to spending all the insurance money to rescue a car that still needed a new ignition (couldn’t I just hotwire my own car forever?) I felt conflicted…was the message to let go or persevere? That dilemma haunts many areas of my life.
That answer would be clear to most, but it took me realizing it was nearly impossible to finally accept defeat. The fatherly San Jose mechanic on the phone explained how I would have to get a salvage title to register my newly criminalized car. That would require driving to Oregon, an impossible feat for a car that didn’t even run. I finally surrendered myself to the universe (no doubt exhausted from launching clear signs at my thick head), and my car to the insurance company, with a pang of guilt of abandonement.
I slipped the title and keys in the envelope, sent it off, and headed to a redwood grove on the property to burn the registration with some sage. A little severance ceremony, reflecting on the journeys we had together, the part of my life that car represented, all my college and travel years, a sense of freedom I was now learning to find in myself, even when my roaming radius is limited by bike and bus.
I saw progress in my anxiety of being trapped. Sobriety from my need to flee, my addiction to escaping. I would spend the next few months settled in my simple, routine life here, before running off to Europe with my dad. Somehow the lack of choices was comforting, relaxing.
I nearly relapsed, however. With only a couple months left in Santa Cruz, I realized I hadn’t been surfing for a while. I felt exhausted by all my obligations (of my own choosing), and all the rickety, slow biking in the rain. I started looking around for cars. I found a couple beaters for $500 and thought, “I could just have it for a couple of months, and then use it to move to Oregon, and still save some money!”
Then I found a 1992 Honda Civic for $1000. Same mileage as mine, but one year newer, and 5 speeds, one more than mine had. And red! A total upgrade in my mind with $500 to spare. I started a conversation with the owner, planning how to meet, as he worked on getting the registration sorted out.
Even if I got a car, I reasoned, I would use it just for surfing, and still bike all around. I just wanted a little bit of car, I wasn’t going to get addicted again…
Meanwhile I bought a faster bike from a kind man who claimed to be living in the house where the Grateful Dead used to hang out. He even helped me drive both bikes back to campus where I could catch a ride home with a classmate. Riding a bike to buy a bike can be tricky. Next I set up a surf station at my friend’s house, close to a break. I biked across town fully loaded with two panniers, wetsuit, surfboard, and got out the next morning for a wonderful surf session.
I was feeling freer. I didn’t even crave a car anymore. It seemed more of a hassle. But I felt obligated to at least look at the fancy red Honda, as I had been talking with the guy for weeks. The day came for us to meet, and he sent me a message…”turned the car on and it started blowing white smoke. It appears the head gasket is blown.” Well, decision made easy. Once again, dodged a hassle, saved by a gasket. Relieved by the simplicity of no choice.
So bike it would be. The weather started to clear, sunny days brought more cars, and I finally felt like I was winning the commuting competition. Coworkers and clients consistently showed up late to work, complaining about the traffic, while my commute stayed a consistent 13 minutes (I gained some time with my new, speedy bike). Once or twice another bike was parked in my spot, or the bus racks were full, and I sneered, feeling righteous in the face of these fair-weather bikers. I was proud that I had made it four months, through rain, grocery shopping, part time school and part time work. I felt accomplished and rugged, making it work without a car.
As I sifted through an old notebook in my endless effort to organize my life, I came across a writing idea. “A year without a car.” I had completely forgotten. At the time it seemed like a major challenge for me, yet here I was four months in, looking ahead to another few months traveling. I’d be 3/4 of the way there. After Europe, who knows. I will have a good head start…maybe once I find a van it will take four months just to get it running. Very likely.