August 26, 2010

Cycling Commute

My commute takes courage, or stupidity. I ride almost six miles a day to the University and back. I start down Garvey’s four busy lanes. The traffic is less concerning than the dearth of blind drives and streets. Making a space for myself between the traffic and parking lane is safer than braving the sidewalk, which turning cars regularly pull across unexpectedly. Sidewalks are obstacle courses dotted with bus stop benches, street sign poles, stunted trees, random squares of grass, fire hydrants, broken concrete, utility access panels, and the moving targets of pedestrians complete with strollers and dogs. The road is clear in comparison, with only a steady stream of passing cars.

I pass small used car lots, mechanics, Uruguayan and Vietnamese restaurants, seafood markets, small trailer courts hidden behind tall concrete walls, dentists, and discount furniture stores. At the busy intersection of Rosemead and Garvey I wait to cross with the crosswalk light and hold to the sidewalks for a bit. The light takes its time, with long turning periods in from multiple directions. Pedestrians collect at the corners, the little Asian ladies under their umbrellas and the Hispanic teenagers texting on their smart phones. Their regular presence ensures drivers don’t charge the crosswalk as they do at less traveled corners.

“Good morning, lady,” an older Hispanic man calls out. “You are beautiful,” he adds as I flash by in my black skirt and red helmet. I return a good morning and a thank you, but I don’t slow down.

I cross the Rio Hondo, an empty concrete canal with stagnant puddles smelling of green algae the Angelinos call a “river.” There are paths on either side, ramping up to meet with the Garvey bridge, the only one in the area crossing the wide trench. Here another cyclist with a rare helmet and bright yellow vest pulls in front of me. I notice the two canes strapped to the back of his bike and the single muscular calf pushing steadily along. On the far side of the bridge, I follow him off the sidewalk and back out into Garvey. If he’s brave enough to ride in the street, so am I.

I pass him slowly a few blocks later, calling out my own “Good morning.” After a few blocks, I pull left towards the turn onto Muscatel. I listen for a break in the traffic coming up behind me before glancing back, momentarily laying my chin on my left shoulder to peer behind. “Be careful,” he calls as he passes me where I wait in the left turn lane.

My path onto Muscatel is calmer, traveling through a sleepy residential neighborhood. Sleepy for Los Angeles anyway, with small, one-storey houses nestled two or three on a lot against the wide street. Along the main roads every house has a fence around the front lot and a closed gate across the drive. Fences are less ubiquitous here and gates are often left open. Cars park along the street. Little space is wasted on garages.

Muscatel continues down to Klingerman, where the neighborhood borders the large corporate campus of Edison International to the south dwarfing a small pocket park with its brightly colored play set. Multistory white buildings with vertical rows of black windows are set back behind wide parking lots and lawns, ringed by tall, unfamiliar trees.

Klingerman brings me to Walnut Grove, wide as Garvey but half as busy. From Klingerman south no cars park along the curb, despite the spaciousness, making an ideal cycle route. After Edison, a swanky new Wal-Mart is set far back behind its massive, palm tree dotted parking lot to the right and a golf course glows a deep green behind a tall chain link fence to the left.

The University drive appears suddenly along a empty seeming stretch of Walnut Grove, two stone walls cutting into the hill and leading up a steep hill to a small, almost hidden campus of pale two and three-story buildings, mature trees, green lawns, concrete parking lots, and a fountained courtyard. I can’t make it more than a third the way up without giving up to walk the rest of the steep rise.

The ride home during the afternoon is much the same, only hotter. The sun beats down relentlessly here and I feel the stress of my eyes held in a constant squint against the glare. I can see tall white clouds over the mountains and wish they would fly this way, but without much hope. I miss the rain.

Riding home after dark, though ostensibly more dangerous, is also more peaceful by comparison. I must trust in the flashing red light on the back of my basket and the steady white light on my handlebars, as well as my own alertness to keep me safe. Kids play on the darkened residential streets and an ice cream truck regularly parks along Muscatel, groups of adults and teens walking to and fro with tall cones. The businesses along Garvey are closed and only guard dogs note my passing. Some lift their heads but do not bark while others pace along the iron fences beside me, silent as smoke and sizzling underneath their dark coats.

I pull into my own darkened drive with a growing sense of homecoming, beneath the looming shadow of the giant tree that overhangs the street. Harry and his buddies are sitting in the carport, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and talking. It is their common evening activity. They greet me as I come in. Sometimes I’ll sit outside with them as I eat dinner, other times I’ll stay indoors and watch a television show or read my email before bed.

I don’t make the mistake of thinking my commute is safe or that I’ll never get hurt. I rather suspect I will. But this happens all the time whether one is a driver, walker, or cycler. I don’t think I’m more at risk for an accident, though I may be more likely to be seriously hurt in one if and when it occurs. It wouldn’t be my first cycling accident and probably not be my last. It makes me wonder how that other cyclist lost his leg. Could I get back up on the bike if I was seriously injured while riding? I don’t know. But I am careful and I stay alert. Cycling is much better mindfulness training than my meditation has ever been (though, yes, I know, I should still be meditating more).

I’m getting both my physical and mental exercise.

1 comment:

bookbird said...

you may be a beautiful cyclist, but you are also a beautiful writer. I love reading your prose, I can picture all of this, and it is terrific. Writing can be meditation too, I reckon.