September 3, 2011
I read a lot. Given my job as an English professor, this is not surprising. I read around fifty books a year (I know, because I keep count), hundreds of student essays, academic journal articles, popular magazine articles, political and cycling blogs, and on and on. For the past couple of years, I’ve read a tremendous amount about the Marcellus Shale, ranging from scientific articles to news reports to blogs and list-servs. Much of my week is dedicated to reading. Withholding reading from me is like withholding beer or bikes—I get twitchy, irritable, and uneasy.
From all this reading, I begin to understand who I am as an individual, who we are as humans, and what sort of world I want to live in. In other words, I begin to understand where I am—my place—in this forest of words we walk in.
I also think of reading in terms of riding my bike. For me, reading is like riding through Tioga State Forest at Asaph. Up, down, right, left, trees, meadows, creek crossings, log crossings, gravel roads, swoopy singletrack, deer, turkeys, grouse, the occasional bobcat or bear or hiker or car. I encounter all sorts of stimuli that tweak the way I ride in that moment and that change me. When I finish a ride, I’m never the same person that started it. Likewise, when I finish a book or essay, I’m not the same. That’s the point.
Over time, I’ve realized that riding a bike is not merely a metaphor for reading, but an act of reading my place. Like any book, there are limitations to what I learn while riding my bike. But pushing the pedals certainly helps me read my place. Let me explain.
This past Saturday, Tom, Josh, and I rode our cyclocross bikes. For those that don’t know, cyclocross, or cross, bikes look like road racing bicycles with the curved bars, but cross bikes have relaxed geometry (which makes them more comfortable and forgiving of mistakes), knobby tires, and a type of brakes that stop you in wet, muddy conditions. Cross bikes are perfect for the sloppy conditions around here, and we spend a lot of time on them in the fall and winter riding the dirt roads and trails that cut through Tioga County.
On this ride, we headed north out of Mansfield up Kellytown Road to Pickle Hill Road toward the Tower Hill Road area. We climbed Painter Run, a five-mile stretch of gravel road through farm houses and hunting camps that gets progressively steeper toward the end, reaching 10% grades just before the stop sign. A right on Tower Hill, and then we plunge down Maple Ridge Road and Warner Road toward Highway 328, losing in minutes the elevation we gained. We turned west on 328 for about two minutes, turned left onto Button Hill Road, and worked our way over toward Mitchell Tree Road and Tower Hill West. Along the way, we passed more farm houses, gas pipeline construction (it occurred to me that I could ride the right-of-way back to my house), and an elderly farmer out on his Farm-All tractor shaping cut hay into rows for bailing. He grinned and wave when he saw us. I waved back.
We were out for three hours of mellow riding, disproving the adage that three cyclists together means an outbreak of racing. We filled our bottles at the spring on Painter Run. On the way back up Mitchell Tree toward Tower Hill West, Tom saw apples hanging out of reach on a tree and we spent a few goofy minutes trying to get one down.
First, Josh lifted his bike above his head and tried to knock the apple out of the tree, but bikes don’t swing well. His bike is light, but not that light. Then Josh and I cupped our hands for Tom’s feet and heaved him up to grab the apple that taunted us. We laughed at the absurdity of three lycra-clad adults thrashing after apples like kids stretching for the cookie jar on the fridge, especially when the apple turned out to be so-so. But that stop started a trend.
As we pedaled up Tower West, a long, gradual climb through fields and forests, we stopped at nearly every apple tree. Some apples had a nice texture but no flavor, others combined nice texture and flavor, others were too tart. Tom tried one so tart it nearly turned him inside out. Josh and I laughed and moved on to the next tree. Josh thought it would be a good idea to do an apple tour on the bikes each year, a mellow ride that involved trying all the apples you saw. “That’s a good idea,” I said. After several more stops, we reached the top of Tower Hill West, decided to bomb down Painter Run, and head back to Mansfield. In the end, we rode about 35 miles, gained and lost about 4100 feet of elevation, and tried apples from ten or so trees. A great way to spend three hours on a Saturday.
Multiply rides likes this one times 150 rides a year (I know, because I keep count) on cross, road, and mountain bikes which means differing terrain and speeds, differing weather depending on the season, and so on. You get the idea. I learn a lot about the place. Over the course of each ride, I pedal thousands of revolutions that adapt to the terrain—pedals resisting going up, spinning easily going down. My breathing deepens when my legs labor under the pressure of pushing up 10 percent grades and slows when I lose the elevation I gained. I read the landscape, choosing when to brake, when to accelerate, when to turn my head to follow five turkeys flying into the trees, where to stop and pluck an apple dangling from a branch, where potholes lurk that might send me or my compadres sliding down the asphalt, where I might spy a scarlet tanager when I fill my water bottles at the spring on Arnot Road. (While Lilace is out riding, a thunderstorm has arrived ahead of schedule. Another kind of lesson.) There’s constant variation on the roads, calling to my mind the choices a good writer makes as she unrolls the words on the page like a ribbon of road or trail, the pace changing as the story builds suspense or plunges toward the climax. On the bike, I read through my eyes and legs and lungs, feet and hands and butt, and I learn about the shapes and contours of the land the way a book teaches me about the contours of living.
Last post, I mentioned that I’m a strong believer in commitment. Both bike riding and books show commitment to things like truth and knowledge. Riding bikes has helped me commit to this place because I know it. I know where the back roads are, where the red efts most likely hang out, when and where I’ll probably see deer, and now where the tartest apples are. Paradoxically, I read the landscape and at the same time I am inscribing my own story on the landscape. That’s what humans inevitably do. And as I ride, I read the changes inscribed in the landscape by the gas industry—the huge swaths of trees and fields cleared for pipelines (many already buried and re-seeded), well pads, holding ponds, compressor stations; orange extension cords snaking along the roads and plugged into yellow boxes for seismic testing; and even the new additions to houses, new cars and trucks, new roofs, new barns, new tractors, and new businesses.
We change, and we change things. But the gas industry doesn’t care about this place the way I do. And they won’t stick around for the end of the story. So I find myself lingering over this page, frustrated as all hell, wanting to tear it out.