Reminisces, words by Lael Wilcox. This story was originally written for the Dirt Rag Literature Contest.
Under the dull orange glow of sodium lights the urban snowscape is flat and calm. In the dark season, only the clock indicates morning. I feather the brakes all the way down the neighborhood hill– the kind of hill a four year old learns to ride a bike on. It’s January and I’ve been doing this for a month. A fresh layer of snow covers slick ice. Focused, I anticipate falling. I’ve already taken a couple of spills this year as my back tire loses traction and slides out, or I turn too quickly or a pile of snow redirects my front tire. Just around the corner from the house, I’m already five minutes late. Subtle brake control is beyond the ability of my mittened claw hands, but this time I come to a stop at the bottom of the hill before turning left. Made it.
Exiting the neighborhood, I pedal toward a narrow gap in the fence, a natural corridor created by alternating snowfall and pedestrian use. Fresh snow blankets a month of frozen accumulation, and my daily passage ensures that this path remains rideable. On four-inch tires I can casually ride through some fresh snow, but six heavy inches are hard to ride. Fortunately, the walkers travel no matter how much it snows and some boots have shuffled through already. I nose my tire over loose piles and try to stay afloat. In these conditions the hazards of falling are laughable– the entire world is padded– although a faceful of snow isn’t welcome at 7 AM. The front tire washes, the rear tires spins and I punch a boot through the adjacent bank to remain upright. Today, more pedestrians and cyclists will groom this route and by dinner is will be a perfectly rideable single-track. Connecting the sleepy neighborhood to Midtown Anchorage, this is my portal between worlds. Still straddling the toptube, I shuffle the bike through to the other side.
I cross the boulevard and ride onto the sidewalk, the zone for misfits. Each passing windshield provides a glimpse of the driver. Those whose windows are still painted with frost, except for the requisite peephole, are like me– always late. Fully defrosted windows with operable wipers signal a prudent character, a complete breakfast, and some kind of fantastic job, most likely. I’m a math tutor and I pounded some dry wheat toast on my way out the door. A herd of traffic ambles past, each driver cradling a steaming cup of coffee, and each vehicle sharing its voice. Conservative talk radio wanders out of a rusty Ford; somewhere, Gotye is on repeat and Adele is “Rolling in the Deep” really early in the morning. Some of them check me out as we wait at the stoplight. People in cars feel entitled to stare. If you meet their gaze, they abruptly look ahead and pretend like you don’t exist. This is a really long light and we ignore each other for another two minutes. The signal turns green.
The crosswalk is a mess. I loft the front wheel over and over; every lane of traffic that I cross features a pair of icy ruts, like a giant washboard, and the orange display flashes “Don’t Walk” even before I start. Riding on a tightrope, my right knee draws outward to compensate for momentary imbalance. Looking back across six lanes, I lift my bike over an encrusted berm and am back onto the sidewalk– misfit but safe.
Every road loses a lane in the winter. Snow and ice obscure traffic paint and four lanes are reduced to three, three to two, two to one, and narrow roads nearly become tunnels. Drivers closely follow each other’s rutted tracks, afraid to change lanes. Winter lasts for six months and people have places to be every day. They don’t slow down for the weather and the city doesn’t do much to make the roads safe, even in a winter of record snowfall. Everyone has studded tires, if not also a big truck. With an average speed of 5 mph, I can’t expect to ride with this crowd in these conditions. Winter in Anchorage is the only place I routinely ride the sidewalk.
For several blocks I lay down first tracks on the sidewalk, running against traffic on Benson Boulevard. Secret shortcuts across boot-packed singletrack and empty parking lots speed up the trip. I bump across the lawn of a giant oil company on a path that leads over a snow pile and drops me into a plowed parking lot. A well-worn trail passes the busy exit of the McDonald’s drive-thru window as moose feed on the trees outside the restaurant– just passing-thru like the rest of us. In winter, Anchorage becomes a maze and commuting is a game of connecting the dots, requiring deliberate route planning based upon changing conditions. Every morning, I dial 844 for automated local weather conditions before leaving home. Every morning is different.
Past the public library, I turn onto the C Street sidewalk. Several years ago the city put up signs to indicate a bicycle route. This morning it is a frozen sculpture of a dried-out creek bed, strewn with the jetsom and flotsam of a recently plowed roadway. I scan for tire prints hoping to piggy-back another rider’s route, but there aren’t any. The walkway is peppered with frozen cobbles and boulders and even as I try to pick a rideable path, a firm-looking mound melts under my weight. Guessing my way through, I give some gas and hope. The front tire pushes through like a sled. I lean back and weight the rear tire, but it still spins. I put a foot down.
Alongside the ironic white snow bike I unscrew plastic valve caps and dab the stem with my mitten. Even in the cold air, the tube’s exhalations smell like canned tuna. The tire sidewalls nearly fold over themselves with my weight. I tighten my core and propel the bike forward, grinding until I pick up speed. It works! I roll up to the next red light, grinning. This three mile stretch, a signed bicycle route, is stunted with seven major lights. Even so, I’m getting somewhere, and I have somewhere to be.
Unzipping several inches of my parka, moist air steams in front of my frozen face and a trickle of sweat runs down my spine. I pull my Buff up to my eyes and suck frozen air through its fibers. Within several minutes, each inhalation is joined by water, condensation formed as my breath meets the cold air. Soon, the wool is frozen and a white beard grows around my face– the Buff holds its shape. If I was planning to be out much longer I’d be more careful not to sweat so much, but mittened children march along on sidewalks, which means I’m close.
Other teachers are running the short distance from their cars to the school doors like desperate urbanites in a rainstorm with newpapers over their head. Casually rolling my bike into the school, warm with energy, I smile at them. The bell rings and millions of squeaky boots storm the hallways for another day of cat and mouse. It is my job to be a diligent math cat to dozens of remedial math mice.
At the last bell of the day, the streets are dark once again. I zip into my fur-lined sledding boots and knee-length parka, pull the Buff over my head, buckle my snowboarding helmet and decorate the ensemble with a reflective construction vest. I mop up the puddle of water under my bike and roll out the door, emerging on the streets like a neon hobo power ranger. Riding out of the parking lot, a teacher rolls down his window and asks if I am training for that big race that they do with these bikes. No, I’m just riding home I tell him. I have somewhere to be.
A year ago, Lael and I were riding through a winter of record snowfall in Anchorage, AK on our Pugsleys. The title to this story was inspired by this post, and our daily travels through the organic urban snowscape.