Easy Rider | Life in the Kingdom

In the warmer months, I like to ride my bicycle early in the mornings. I ride after coffee and chores but before breakfast, early enough that the day is not yet fully formed, late enough that I have a pretty good sense of what sort of day it’s shaping up to be. Sometimes the clouds […]

By Ben Hewitt

Aug 26 2021

Easy Rider
Photo Credit : Tom Haugomat

In the warmer months, I like to ride my bicycle early in the mornings. I ride after coffee and chores but before breakfast, early enough that the day is not yet fully formed, late enough that I have a pretty good sense of what sort of day it’s shaping up to be. Sometimes the clouds are parting and the sun is breaking through, and sometimes the clouds are closing and I can smell the approaching rain. Or, like this morning, the sky is clear and blue and clean and the air so still that not even the leaves ripple, and it feels as if the day is decided.

I like riding in the morning for lots of reasons. The first is strictly pragmatic, because I know that if I don’t ride early, I probably won’t ride at all. The day will sweep me into its river of tasks, and by evening, when I might again be able to carve out some time, I’ll simply be too tired. But I also like riding early in the morning because both the air and the light are softest then, because the birds are singing loudest then, because there’s little traffic along the network of gravel roads I frequent, and because having ridden my bike, even if only for a short time, I know my day will be better for it. I like that it’s a little chilly when I ride early in the day, which is true even in the height of summer, and especially true in fall. I generally don’t ride when it’s raining, though I’ve ridden through my share of snow flurries. I’ve ridden on deeply frosted mornings when my first breaths sting in my chest, and the leaves that have fallen from the roadside maples crunch beneath my tires.

I like the sheer physicality of riding my bicycle. The pleasure of using my body is something I’ve inherited from my mother, who at 80 is still a voracious walker along the back roads near my childhood home, where my parents still live. It’s not far from here—just over 20 miles—and on occasion I meet her there, and we walk together. I’m always amazed by how quickly she traverses those steep hills, carrying the walking stick that my son Fin carved for her nearly a decade ago. I can see how her hands have worn the top of it smooth from so many hours of use. If I’m to be entirely honest, the stick looks perhaps a bit less sturdy than a son might hope for his 80-year-old mother to be relying on. But I also know that if I am 80 and one of my grandchildren has gifted me a walking stick he carved when he was 9 years old, I’m going to use the damn thing until every single last step is walked right out of me. I’m guessing my mother feels the same.

Another thing I like about riding my bike is that it brings me right up close to the world. It brings me right up close to the sound of the mountain stream and the smell of fresh-spread manure and the warmth of early sun on my face. It brings me right up close to the people who inhabit this land, the old men mowing their lawns, the young men out tinkering on motorcycles and four-wheelers, and the kids selling lemonade on the front lawn of a mobile home along a back road that can’t see more than a dozen cars pass each day. I stop and buy a cup for 50 cents and drink it right there. It’s not very good lemonade (powdered, I’m sure, and a little on the warm side), but I pretend otherwise, and they look very pleased.

I like riding my bike because of interactions like these, and the one I had just the other morning. I was pedaling the final pitch of the long climb to the height of the mountain road, my legs burning with the effort, my mind already on the long, sweeping descent that lay just over the crest, when I was passed by a man on a motorcycle. I know the road well, and I flew down the other side just as I’d anticipated, not needing to pedal at all, nor brake, just letting gravity do its thing. And it was in this manner that I soon caught up to the motorcyclist, who was descending slowly on the loose gravel. I hesitated for only a moment before swinging out and around him, and as I passed I yelled, “Good morning!” He looked over and grinned hugely, and I could see that he was missing a fair number of teeth. Then we hit the flats, where he passed me again and we waved.

There are other interactions, too, like the time I came upon a blue jay that had been hit by a car and was flopping desperately in the dust of the road’s shoulder. I stopped, preparing to do what I thought right, though I didn’t want to do it. Not at all. But when I wrapped my hands around the bird, it soon quieted, and nothing seemed broken beyond repair, so after a few moments I opened my palms and the jay flew straight as an arrow into the sky. 

I pass a lot of trash on my bike. I know the brands of beer my neighbors drink, and their favorite flavors of Twisted Tea. And masks. I pass a lot of masks these days, always those blue disposable ones you buy in boxes of 50 or 100. Occasionally I find something useful, like the big outdoor propane burner that’d been left in a free pile. I’d long had a vague idea that one of those would prove useful, so I hung it over one end of my handlebars and awkwardly pedaled the remaining seven miles home, feeling a little silly but pleased with myself. This was over a year ago, and I haven’t used it even once. Yet. On the other hand, I’ve hauled home at least three pairs of free shoes in the past year, including the ones I’m wearing as I write these very words. I found a five-dollar bill, too, which for no good reason I can’t quite bring myself to spend.

I notice more when I ride my bike. I notice how people live, some in wealth and some in poverty, and many more in the indeterminate space between the two. I notice how in rural Vermont, some of the best land and the most-coveted views still belong to those with evidently the least money, the ones whose families have managed to hold on to the land for generations, ever since the land sold for the sort of money a farmer could afford, and ever since the original farm itself was viable. I notice how many barns there are, and how most of them have fallen into disrepair and even collapse. I notice that people are generally (though not always) considerate when they pass me in their cars and trucks; they give me a wide berth and go slow so they don’t kick up too much dust. I wave and they wave back, each of us traveling at our own speed, and I know they’ll get wherever they’re going faster than me. But I also know I’ll get where I’m going soon enough.