I’ve been celebrating my 40th birthday, which happened in mid-June, for the better part of a year. My last big present is coming up at the end of the month—a 10-day bike tour of the Adirondacks with a bunch of other mid-life-crisis-suffering middle-class white folks. It’s one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean, I love riding my bicycle, I have the kind of bicycle that is meant to take big bike tours, and who doesn’t want to traipse around the land that inspired Henry David Thoreau in the hard heat of summer? Thoreau wrote, “Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.”
Beautiful, yes, but how about that climbing. Once I signed up for the tour I realized that the Adirondacks are mountains, and riding a bike in the mountains would probably require more stamina than it takes to get up from the Inner Harbor to Waverly, tough enough in the summer oven of Baltimore. Well, shit. So I’ve spent the better part of summer so far just trying to ride my bike as much as possible so that I can maybe have enough energy to suck all the marrow from the bones of life, or whatever 10 days of camping with strangers will make possible.
My first step, because I’m a bookworm, was to read up on training plans for cyclists. I’m not going to invest in a heart-rate monitor or fancy clothes, I thought, so I need something simple that’s mostly about mileage. I ordered some books, parked on some website, read a whole bunch of theories about the best way to train, and I finally settled on just riding as many miles as possible, and trying to ride up and down some hills while I was out there. OK, cool. I can totally do that.
So now I ride my bike to work—a good 11 miles each way from my place in north Baltimore out to UMBC in Catonsville. Sure, I have to leave my house before 7 a.m. to do so, but hey, that’s what summertime is for. Bonus: I get to see not only the way Baltimore neighborhoods change as you travel south and west and back again, but what it looks like to go from the city to the county—a switch-over I generally avoid by staying in the city as much as possible. The morning ride is against traffic, because we’ve set things up for folks to live out there and come in here for work. Of course, most of that traffic stays on the highways and main drags that function to get people to and from work quickly. They do that, but they also keep us from understanding how our neighborhoods abut, because in a car, you can’t really tell. You’re flying over it all, eyes on the street straight ahead, ears to the radio to tell you what the other cars are doing. Biking’s just a totally different game.
The ride downtown is a quick one, through Waverly and the abrupt change that happens on The Other Side of Greenmount, the reminders of the Roland Park Company’s plan from 1890s still etched in the streetscape, the architecture, the tree canopies. The ride across the White Stripe—Guilford, Calvert, St. Paul, and Charles—leads to the abrupt treeless Maryland Avenue for a speedy flight down through Remington, Station North, and Mount Vernon and over to Eutaw for the ol’ dodge-the-pedestrians game by Lexington Market. A right and a left and a right onto Washington take me through Pigtown to the start of the Gwynns Falls Trail, a hint of the wild at the edge of the city—though I’m not sure this is what Thoreau was talking about. Wilkens Avenue is the worst part of this ride, all speeding cars and heavy trucks trundling toward another ramp to I-95, and the last thing they want is a bicyclist slowing their rolls. It’s all uphill from here, in terms of the terrain, but also the fight to claim space on one of these major arterials. And drivers—I’d love to take a different route, ride streets out of your way, but there’s just not another choice.
Things get real different once I take my left through Arbutus toward campus. It’s all trees and separated single family homes on twisty roads and surprise one-ways. That’s how suburbs are designed: hard to get in, hard to get out, unless you “belong” enough to know your way. I’m suspicious of this kind of design, but I’m not going to lie—it’s a huge exhale from the main drag. It’s always a surprise, though, how different these streets are, just a few miles west of West Baltimore. In a car, on a freeway, you can pretend these places aren’t so different so close together, and you also miss out on the training ride.
In an attempt to increase my mileage, I’ve been taking the long way home, detours to and through Patapsco Valley State Park and over to Ellicott City before heading back to Baltimore. I’ve let my GPS device pick the routes, which has landed me on the rocky shoulder of Route 40 and, terrifyingly, up I-195 searching for a promised ramp to Selford Road—I turned back before accidentally ending up on 95 toward Washington, D.C. It’s worth it, though—it’s beautiful out here, and extending my rides just a bit has reminded me how close we are to the “wilds of nature,” even as those wilds are heavily curated by the infrastructure needs of our urban/suburban sprawl. And when I’m done, I get to go back home. To Baltimore.