The Outspokin’ Cyclist: Make some idle time to relearn lost art of exploring

You see more from a bicycle than you do from a car. You see even more from a balloon-tire Schwinn than you do from a carbon fiber Pinarello.

That’s why author John Stilgoe, in Outside Lies Magic, says to choose the cruiser.

“Bicycle to the store,” he says, “then ride down the alley toward the railroad tracks, bump across the uneven bricks by the loading dock grown up in thistle and chicory, pedal harder uphill toward the Victorian houses converted into funeral homes, make a quick circuit of the school yard, coast downhill…, tail the city bus for a mile or two, swoop through a multilevel parking garage, glide past the firehouse back door, slow down and catch your reflection in the plate-glass windows.”

Where’s Stilgoe taking us? Nowhere in particular; and that’s the point of exploring.

You know, if only intuitively, what he’s talking about. There’s something nice about packing a lunch and riding off in no particular direction in search only of finding something new. It’s not destination riding, it’s not about exercise, it’s about wandering. Exploring by bike is a way of reevaluating our everyday environment, the setting we’re always in, and discovering mysterious and fascinating parts of our community we overlook.

With the right mindset, two lost arts can come together on a bicycle.

First is the lost art of appreciating something for its own sake. There’s not a whole lot of unstructured time in our daily lives. I think there’s not enough.

In response to the hurried lifestyle of 1920s Oxford, England, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay extolling the virtues of idleness. He reminds us that work, or moving stuff around, is not the point of life. If it were the point, then we might think that anything that doesn’t help us make more money, improve our test scores, or get a nicer house is not worth doing.

Oh, wait. There are a lot of us who really believe that. If you’re one of them, then you’ve fallen victim to what Russell calls “the cult of efficiency.” Valuing only time spent productively can lead us to believe that our lifestyles dictate a maddening pace.

Don’t worry, there’s a way out. There’s a way to reclaim some of that time, a way to set your own pace.

Some things are worth doing just for the sake of doing them. One of those things worth doing all by itself is exploring. The art of exploring is the second lost art.

Exploring is just looking closely at the things you pass every day and pausing to consider their meaning. Exploring is simple, and it’s accessible to all of us.

Exploring, in this way, is not about being the first to climb a mountain or photograph a waterfall. Jill Homer, a cyclist and journalist in Juneau, Alaska, says “my opinion about exploration has always been that if I’ve never been there, it’s new to me.” And that’s the kind of exploring we all can do.

Back in Durham, neighbor John Schelp says he likes to explore the American Tobacco Trail.

“The ATT is a wonderful place to see the seasons change,” says Schelp. “The crisp fall air brings all sorts of new colors along the length of the trail, and it’s neat to see the changes in the little gardens. These quiet urban spots remind me of my time in Congo and China, where vegetable gardens stretch to the edges of public paths or little foot bridges reach over ditches.”

As Schelp hints, part of exploring is noticing what’s there. The other part is making a connection with what you find.

The joy of exploring is in not knowing what you’ll find. Have you ridden the alleyways of Durham’s downtown neighborhoods? Do you know Durham’s many murals? Most are painted on the sides of buildings downtown and along Fayetteville St. Have you found the Eno Quarry? To the few who know it, it’s a nice swimming hole. Do you know where there’s a good spot to watch the sunset? Do you know which marching band practices on the field behind CC Spaulding Elementary School?

There’s no map that will point you toward these Durham treasures. But, they’re examples of what you might find if you’re out exploring. You’re not likely to find them if you’re in a car, because most of the time they lie beyond where cars can go.

If you try exploring for yourself, leave the heart rate monitor and spandex at home. Don’t run any errands. Just ride. See where you end up. And if you find anything interesting, let me know.


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