Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Glory be to God for dappled things, pt. 2

Most people don't think of the bike as a practical way to travel. While many of us have done centuries (typically, supported) or taken in 80 miles in a training day, we still won't go from *here* to *there* on a bike. We drive. We fly. We take a train. The exceptions are fully-loaded tourers and decked-out commuters. But what if you just have a racing bike and no racks, panniers, and such?

Truth: if you're not riding across the continent with Habitat for Humanity, you don't really need any of that stuff.

I planned my Memorial Day trip on a lark; I made reservations and got out the door in less than an hour, everything I needed stashed in a backpack fit for a sixth grader.

I left the city around 2 p.m., the same time as everyone else. Across the Chain Bridge and out through the suburbs, I flowed through the gridlock around me, lungs heaving, heart pumping, legs spinning. Around me, people sat motionless in their steel cages, blood pooling in their extremities. I imagined they were practicing zen techniques. Confined in expensive, high-powered vehicles, they were averaging the pace of an overweight jogger. How frustrating.

Virginia's tangle of asphalt ribbon represents a failed, decaying way of life. It's ridiculously resource intensive and it's hideously, hideously ugly. We are going to look back on this recent period of strip-mall-and-subdivision-development and cringe.

Yet there is an indescribable thrill in blowing through all the man-made ugliness at 20-24 mph under your own power: past the auto malls and gas stations, the chain restaurants and condo complexes ("Already Half Full!", i.e., still half empty), through the underpasses and by the quarries.

I went faster than traffic from DC out through the Manassas battlefields, where the road was still a parking lot. Then I took a right turn. Suddenly, no traffic. I stopped at a nearby gas station to refill my water bottles. Whoa! A southern accent I could barely decipher. Just like that, I was in a different Virginia. Red State Virginia. "Real" Virginia. A major improvement, aesthetically speaking, over Nouveau Riche Virginia.

Back on the bike now, I am hammering. The miles are ticking off and I'm deliriously happy. No more diesel fumes and honking horns. I'm gazing under green oaks, out at decaying farms and gentle-sloping hills. This countryside is speaking to me. Whose voice do I hear? Walt Whitman's? That "American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual". Just like this landscape.

Maybe it was the sight of Bull Run that brought Whitman to mind. Maybe because the fetishization of the Confederacy just annoys the hell out of me -- more on this in a bit -- that I recall the over-the-top line:

Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses.

In other words: kick some ass, Union.

But Whitman is not the voice of this place. What I hear is Gerard Manley Hopkins. What I see are the dappled things of Pied Beauty. "Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough." I see things "counter, original, spare, strange". I can't bring all of the lines to mind, but his words land like stones.

Now it's "God's Grandeur". The world does seem charged with the grandeur of God. Yes...

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil.
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

What language! What language! Who should be reading this? An old man. A superhero. Ian McKellan!

I look down at my arms and see goosebumps. Am I really having a religious experience? I'm not sweating. I have no appetite. The water from the gas station is still in the bottles, yet I'm not thirsty. Hmmmmm...

How does the poem go? It's an argument.

And for all this nature is never spent
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

So... nature's resilience proves God's sovereignty? The Holy Ghost freshens up the world overnight? After the suburban wasteland I've just ridden through, it doesn't seem like the strongest case anymore. This countryside exists because the people who live on it are too poor to despoil. The park I'm going to see tomorrow exists courtesy of FDR. The Holy Ghost had nothing to do with it.

My speed has dropped. My skin is dry and bright red. It's heatstroke.

More to come...


Sigberto said...

I'm a proud Virginia boy (though with Puerto Rican ancestry), so I appreciate this post a lot. It's amazing how just a short distance out of the city can change so dramatically.

If you ever want to enjoy some solace with other cyclists, ride down with Prince William Elite Racing (PoWER) down South or the Haymarket and Warrenton guys to the West. They've got some beautiful rides out there, especially the route from the Haymarket shop through the battlefield.

Of course, you can't enjoy it when you're hanging on for dear life.

qualia said...

Born in Arlington myself. The riding out past Manassas was superb. Absolutely stunning.