Matt Dickerson: Seeing the world from a bicycle
It is easy to think that tools and implements — from screwdrivers to spatulas, plows to pliers, or automobiles to arc welders — are passive things, whose use is determined by the user. There is some truth in this, of course. But it’s also true that we are shaped by our tools. There is wisdom in the old saying that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Something similar can be said for our modes of transportation. The way we get around shapes how we see the world. Our family recently moved from a quiet, wooded lot where no neighbors were visible to a house near the center of Middlebury not far from the hospital and college. After my first few nights in the new house, in which I was kept awake until nearly midnight and then woken up not long after 5 a.m. by the sounds of passing cars and trucks, and occasionally by loud voices of passing pedestrians, I posted on social media that we had moved to the “big city” and were now dealing with city traffic. My friends from New York and Boston laughed at me. But I was only partly joking.
Then I went biking.
Vermont has a reputation for good bike touring. There are multiple bike touring companies around, on- and off-road biking groups, two great bike shops in Middlebury alone, annual bike races (including a big one just this past weekend that clogged up or shut down roads in Bristol, Starksboro and elsewhere). We also have beautiful summer weather, and lovely rolling pastoral terrain. Or some good mountain climbs if you want them. So the reputation is well deserved in some ways.
But then there are the roads. It’s not just the potholes, though there are plenty of those. It’s the fact that even many of the state highways have no shoulders. Cars — as well as lumber trucks, gravel trucks and other commercial vehicles — come flying over hills and around corner on these roads, and the biker has no place to go to get out of the way.
Now my wife and I are not what you would call hard-core bikers. Not by a long shot. We don’t do century rides. Though I have been on a few multi-day bike tours, a typical “long” outing for us might push 20 miles, but probably won’t exceed it. Still, biking is our favorite summer form of exercise. We try to get out a few days each week for a one-hour loop first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon. We take our bikes with us when we go on vacation.
Unfortunately, at our previous “quiet” house, it was impossible to go biking without going at least a few miles on one of the aforementioned shoulderless state highways with gravel trucks and fast moving cars. And there were very few options — in fact, really only one — for a one-hour biking loop.
What we discovered, to our surprise, was that Middlebury was actually a much better place for biking. It boasts numerous quiet roads, with beautiful views (looking in all directions of the compass). In fact, despite the comparative busy-ness of “downtown” Middlebury and the Route 7 corridor, just about every other direction we could go from town leads to a quiet back road with minimal traffic and the option for a nice morning bike loop. We have taken loops out through Weybridge, trips down South Street, and tours through town and around campus. All enjoyable. And we have plenty more routes to explore.
After 25 years of driving automobiles in Middlebury, my view of the town was dominated by shopping centers and car dealerships. But now, after one month sitting on the seat of a bike, I have a whole new perspective. A much more positive one. Although I miss my wooded backyard, I am actually enjoying living (and biking) in Middlebury.
But I still wish cars would stop going by my window at 5 a.m.
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