Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Dawn Patrol

Here's another effort at descriptive writing. Join me for a typical ride to work. Unlike my real life, this doesn't include any vicious chupacabras lying in wait or any attempted abductions by alien UFOs, yet I have to insist that the following account is true.

One of the dubious perks of middle age is waking before the alarm goes off. In those few minutes between the return of consciousness and the click of the clock radio, I take stock of all those minor aches and pains that may increase or decrease throughout the day. Some days the pain is immediate and intense. That's an ominous sign usually meaning I'll have a rough day.

I swing my legs over the side of the bed, moving carefully so I don't disturb Mary. No lightheadedness. That's good, but I don't know why I think about it. There was a time when I was recovering from surgery when sitting up caused dizziness. Maybe it's just a habit to take stock these days. My right foot hurts a little bit. I know it will hurt much more when I put weight on it, so I delay getting out of bed for a moment, steeling myself for the bolt of pain that will shoot from my heel to the knee as soon as I stand. The clock radio clicks on. I lurch to my feet, staggering across the room to quiet it. Then I shuffle off to the bathroom. With my elbows pumping up and down, I do a passable impression of walking like Walter Brennan.

My cycling clothes are waiting in the bathroom. I put them there last night, again, so I wouldn't bother Mary. I do some stretching exercises in an effort to relieve the pain in my foot. It helps. I'm able to walk normally once again, though the pain is still there, subdued, but noticeable.

As soon as I open the bedroom door, the feline chorus starts. They're hungry and they're overjoyed to see a semi-awake human capable of opening the refrigerator. The cat food is inside. I swear, if it wasn't for opposable thumbs, the cats wouldn't keep us around at all. They rub up against the cabinets, the refrigerator, and my legs, trying to communicate their happiness at seeing my sleepy form. I spoon reeking canned food into their bowls. Once they've eaten, I'll be completely forgotten until their hunger returns. Such is the gratitude of cats.

I pour myself a bowl of cereal, and then go out to the living room where I turn on the computer. I look at the news, check e-mail, and read some blog posts while munching. One of the cats tries to sit in my lap in order to be just a little bit closer to the milk in the bottom of my cereal bowl. I shoo her off. After finishing the cereal, I take the bowl out to the kitchen sink, running some water into it. I pour a small glass of orange juice and use it to wash down my pills: aspirin, niacin, and fish oil capsules. When I sit down at the computer again, the cat is instantly back in my lap. She's cold and wants someplace warm to sleep. This one is elderly and I think her health is fading. She likes to sleep on top of the computer monitor where it's warm, but she's been falling from it several times a day. I let her snooze on my lap because I suspect she won't be with us much longer.

All too soon it's time to go. I get up from my chair. The cat protests loudly, then stalks off in a huff. Mary packed a lunch and left it in the refrigerator, so I just transfer it to the pannier. I put my work clothes in it last night.

Then I put on my shoes while a kitten watches, fascinated by the laces going back and forth. I keep a wary eye on her because she's attacked the laces once or twice. Her aim is sloppy and she makes no distinction between laces and fingers. She has very sharp claws. I manage to get the shoes on without losing any blood.

I complete my mental checklist: keys, wallet, and cellphone in the jersey pockets. Stuff sacks with clothes, food, and rain gear are in the main pannier compartment; PDA, spare batteries, and dog alignment tool go in the outer pocket. There's an assortment of junk that's filtered down to the bottom of the pannier. Some day I'm going to get rid of it all if I can work up the courage to dig that deep.

I fill a water bottle and go out to the garage where I check that the bike lights work. I check the tires and brakes too, and make sure to actually attach the pannier to the bike. Once or twice I've gone out the door without it. The bike handles differently without the extra weight, so the absence is very apparent.

Then it's time to turn out the garage lights, open the door, and roll off toward work. I feel the wind on my face, promising a light headwind going south. I switch up through the gears while going down the hill, checking that the drive train works properly, and I listen for idling car engines, slamming doors, or growls and claws on pavement indicating a dog attacking from the darkness. I remember to avoid the road center at the bottom because there are some potholes. In a minute or so, I reach an arterial street. Traffic is light at 6AM. I take the right hand lane for half a mile, then gradually move left to set up for a left turn at a red light.

The city just re-surfaced the road south. It's jet black and seems to soak up my puny headlight. Granted, I can't see the surface very well, but it's a fresh layer of asphalt and it's completely free of cracks, potholes, or any other irregularities. For now, it's free of painted lines too. I'd probably avoid this in the dark if it were raining.

There's a big parking lot along that street, with plenty of early morning traffic in and out of the YMCA. It doesn't help that the highway parallel to the street has heavy traffic. My bike lights just don't stand out when there's all those other lights coming from behind. Motorists routinely pull out in front of me from that parking lot. I'm hyper-aware through that stretch.

I make a quick stop for a newspaper, and in a few more minutes I'm out of town, cycling across a broad, shallow valley through a pecan grove. The dawn chorus is starting, just a few birds at first, but within minutes it seems every bird in the northern part of the county joins in. My nose informs me that a skunk passed this way recently. And there's a road-killed deer adding it's own special stench. I hold my breath.

The road climbs gradually out of the valley for the next 2 miles. I breath a little harder, partly due to the climb and partly due to the slight headwind. There's a crest just south of the Bird Creek bridge. I check carefully for overtaking traffic because they can't see the oncoming lane. I don't want to get squeezed.

I stay alert while passing the house with a bunch of loose dogs. Most days they're asleep, but when they're awake I've been chased by 4 or 5 at a time. My knee isn't solid and I hesitate to sprint. Luckily, this morning I don't have to. No dogs lurk in the darkness, stomachs growling in anticipation of a cyclist's leg for breakfast. I ring my bell in victory as I pass. There are no answering barks. I can relax a little.

There's a diagonal railroad crossing ahead. I check for overtaking traffic again, then zig-zag across the tracks. I stay to the left side of the lane because there's a dip on the far side of the tracks and it still has a deep puddle from yesterday's rain. It would be just my luck to ride through it only to discover a brick hiding under the water, so I avoid all puddles.

Up ahead, the light at 46th Street changes to red, again. I seldom manage to get a green. The signal is controlled with magnetic loops, but the heavy traffic is westbound, not southbound like me. Besides, the loops are hidden under the re-paving the city performed a few years ago. I can't trigger the light. Most days there's enough north-south traffic to trigger it, but not today. I wait for a break in the line of cars, then scoot across the intersection quickly. Someday a Tulsa cop will spot me doing that and I'll have some 'splaining to do.

As I approach the north gate, I unclip my ID badge from the brake cable. A Pinkerton security guard stands outside his booth, scrutinizing the badge in the glare of the floodlights. It simply wouldn't do to allow some bicycle riding terrorist onto the maintenance base. It wouldn't do for me to topple over while riding across the damned speed bumps they've installed in front of the gate, either. Fortunately, this Pinkerton is standing well past the speed bumps, so I don't have to negotiate them with my ID in one hand and the handlebar in the other.

Now for the dangerous part – riding across the parking lot. Some of my co-workers are already late, but they seem to think that if only they can drive fast enough, somehow they'll be able to reverse the flow of time, thereby arriving early for a change. Stop signs, painted directional arrows, and lane markings are merely advisory. I've had too many close calls in the parking lot. It's another place to stay alert. But today I arrive at the bike rack without incident.

I remove the pannier and water bottle; check the handlebar computer; and cover the saddle with a plastic bag as protection against errant birds. The end of the morning ride is always a bit of a let-down because it's so pleasant. There's a temptation to just keep riding, ignoring the turn into the gate, and simply reveling in the fun of bicycling as the sun comes up. But I have a family and I have obligations. The one bright spot is the coffee waiting in the shop. Time for a cuppa!



Blogger Apertome said...

This is pretty cool. I like how you describe your train of thought. A lot of what you mention about watching for cars, or those dogs, is pretty second-nature to cyclists, so I would think it's hard to write about.

Next time I want some alien abduction, though!

8:42 AM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Great read, Ed! It's the little things you see that cyclists can share but motorists don't even notice. Yet another reason to bike: it makes you more aware of the world around you. We'd be having fewer problems today if more people realized what was going on in the world.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Coelecanth said...

Nice job. I had a movie of your ride playing in my head as I read. Something that only happens to me when descriptive writing is well done.

I was wondering what type of pda do you have? I've been going through about one a year and I suspect it's dragging it around on the bike that's causing them to fail.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Tim McG said...

Nice ride!

Re- your red light: I read somewhere that if you lay your bike down on the pavement, you might be able to trigger the magnetic loops for the light. And I've seen with my own eyes a parking lot gate that wouldn't go up if you sat a soda can on the loop, but if you lay the soda can on its side, the gate would go up!

12:01 PM  
Blogger Ed W said...

First, for the fossil fish - I'm still using an ancient Palm IIIc! It has only 8 megs of ram and the display is awful by today's standards. But I just need if for the calendar and contacts, though it has a copy of the ThinkDB database and even a spreadsheet. They're cumbersome compared to the laptop programs, and they're harder to read. Fortunately, vibration hasn't ben an issue with this unit, but it certainly was with my old Compaq laptop. The rubberized edge connectors in that computer went intermittent when I carried it on the bike. After a thorough cleaning it worked OK for a month or two.

And for Tim - there's no way to know where the loop detector is since the city re-paved the intersection. So I could lay the bike down, but I wouldn't know where to do it. Fortunately, Mingo Road gets enough traffic that I rarely have to run the light.

Finally, my thanks to all of you for the comments. I wanted to describe the experience of riding to work while avoiding the my-what-a-lovely-ride and the bicycling-is-horribly-dangerous traps. I didn't mention motorists much until I was on the parking lot with all its mayhem and excitement. That was deliberate. Most of my commutes are very pleasant, and I tried to stay focused on that.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Jett said...

Another good read Ed. This one is real easy for me to relate to. I get a kick out of waking up just before the alarm goes off, need to warm up my right foot before I can put weight on it, and eat cereal with cats vying for attention.

And, I used to carry a Palm IIIx until I got my Treo. Got tired of carrying both the phone and the Palm.

You're dead-on target with parking lots. I tell my 16-year-old daughter it's like all the rules of the road are turned off when you're in a parking lot.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Smudgemo said...

Once when I was 16 and zipping through a parking lot with my dad in the car, he asked me how I'd feel if a little kid ran out from between the cars and I couldn't stop in time. That was probably the last time I ever went fast in a parking lot.

Nice write-up. Have you considered a rechargeable headlight like a Niterider? I've got a couple of lights mainly used for night mountain biking. They throw a lot of light and work well on the road, and one has a super-bright tail light that makes a standard blinkey seem invisible.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Ed W said...

My son and I were riding home from his school one afternoon. Jordan was leading. We were passing some parked cars, one of them a mini-van, when a kid stepped out directly into Jordan's path. They collided and both went down. Fortunately, except for some scrapes and bruises, neither of them were hurt.

Jordan was probably 11 or 12 when that happened. He's learning to drive now, and he's beginning to anticipate what other people on the road may do. A few days ago, he mentioned the above incident. I had almost forgotten about it, but not Jordan. Let's hope it has some impact on his driving.

As for lights - the sun is almost over the horizon as I leave in the mornings. It's twilight. A new lighting system isn't a priority just now....but....I still have the old TurboCat lighting system in the bottom of my toolbox. I could re-build the battery pack again, but it's a 6v unit. I'm thinking about using the existing lamp housings with some 12v MR11 lamps, and adapting a small lead-acid battery to power it. NICADs or NiMHs offer much better power to weight, but they're also far more expensive. An alarm system battery goes for around $20. The only concern I have is whether it could take the vibration. Some lead-acid batteries have spacers between the plates to absorb vibration. Without them, the soft lead plates can break.

8:14 AM  

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