I had a doctor confess to me that he went through a bit of a “mid-life crisis” recently and started to bike to work. “I did all that truck stuff before,” he admitted, and I nodded, glad to hear of his conversion. “The one thing you have to be careful of is the heat.” That, Doc, and the trucks you repudiated.
Stillwater, Oklahoma, is a lanky college town organized around two major busy streets: Perkins on the vertical and Sixth on the horizontal, or Clogged Esophagus and Too-Tight Belt, if you want to visualize it. Stillwater might have more starlings in the summer sky than it has people in air-conditioning, but it also has more trucks than starlings year round. As a Canadian who isn’t an Albertan, I do not know from trucks. When the heat starts to get to my head, I tell myself two easy lies to help get me through the day and make up for my culture shock and homesickness: One, that I am in a wild land with plenty of rattlesnakes and firearms, and two—the lie I really latch on to—that an honest-to-goodness respect for the value of human life is mysteriously absent here when you look at how people drive.
(By “drive” I mean the juggernaut momentum of a massive object in undeterred motion and the lunatic veering that counts as “turning” and “changing lanes” and “passing.”)
I have students at OSU who tell me that they find violence, hatred, and even swearing repulsive, yet they would squish me or an old lady wearing an American-flag lapel pin if either one of us took seven instead of five seconds to hustle our puny bodies across the road. When that day comes, when I’m plunked, the student will have finally surpassed the teacher. This is a David-versus-Goliath tale, in which the scaly, wicked, CGI Goliath finally wins. You would obviously pay money to see that movie.
In the spring of last year, my colleague Seth was on his bike, and then he was off the bike, under a vehicle, and now he is much thinner and wears an eye patch. In August, Seth wrote about the accident on keithsbikeblog.com, where he makes this compelling observation, without ever dispensing blame: “The driver of the car was not speeding, not intoxicated, not even texting. He simply did not see me (his words). He was not expecting to see a biker there, so he didn’t.” Seth is no Ralph Ellison—sorry, Seth—but in his own way he is also registering the pain of being an object of blindness.
By “drive” I mean the juggernaut momentum of a massive object in undeterred motion and the lunatic veering that counts as “turning” and “changing lanes” and “passing.”
“Stillwater cycling” is not an oxymoron to those downtown, on campus, or on the red back-roads. There is an abundance of bound bikes outside classrooms, and District Bicycles just moved into a spacious new store on Seventh Street, where they coordinate land runs and bike arts events. Rather, it is my own private oxymoron. Seth keeps biking, passionately asserting his strength to carry on, while I keep sensing the inhospitable environment of Stillwater, having come from pedestrian-friendly cities like Montreal and Victoria, British Columbia, where drivers are accustomed to slowing and stopping for anarchists and deer.
Brand-new bike lanes along Hall of Fame Avenue in Stillwater fade into the frenzy of Main Street by the Hastings. They’re deserted. As Mark Kingwell, a Torontonian urban studies scholar, has pointed out, bike lanes without a dividing median are no safer than no bike lanes. The sharrows speak to no one. It might be a matter of changing the mentality first, but this land of loose cowboys might need a culture shaft, not shift, to accommodate the legs and wheels of mobile human beings. How surprising to see more bike lanes, and how harebrained!
So harebrained that in November, Stillwater voters said no to a half-cent sales tax increase to address “transportation and mobility issues,” according to the Bond Election 2013 Fact Sheet, which also makes a pitch for “corridor improvement” and “arterial traffic flow.” It goes to show that “NO MORE TAXES” cracks such rhetoric. It occurs to me that the shape of this state looks like an upside-down pick-up, minus the wheels, bed pointing west.
The mythology of the truck is hard to buck. I, too, like country music, and though I listened to it in the ‘90s—genial Alan Jackson, brotherly Brooks & Dunn—I never knew that pick-up trucks were desirables until I saw the unchanging commercials. Always set in the cracked, vast desert wastes of America, the commercial wants you to identify with the man at the wheel, even though you can’t actually see him through the blacked-out windows. No traffic lights or photo-radar in these parts. While the pitch is often made for practicality, the truck is better seen as a giant statement of freedom and self-possession. Trucks are essentially personal mobile countries on flying saucer-sized tires. That’s what’s frustrating about the bulging traffic in tiny Stillwater: too many oil-rich countries idling together.
In Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers, the experience of “repercussionless speed” only exists in the Salt Flats of Nevada. The truck commercials breed this same fantasy in their viewers who live in places where the repercussions are unquestionably real. It is hardly my place to admonish and stone-throw, but how is running a red light—yes, all three of you in a row there—defensible? It is indefensible! Manifest destiny, power to the people, we built that — none of that applies. There are moments, I concede, during rush hour when everyone seems to be on board with all the extra cars pushing through the light, which is why you can safely call this an “unwritten” rule. I do not mind these communal moments one bit. The philosophy is one for them, one for me, and we can live with that. But what about going 95 behind a going-80 car on a speed-limit-70 highway, tailgating, and nearly clipping the car in front of you until you decide to change lanes and pass on the left, giving a real ugly look to your right as you do, or, crummier still, getting your passenger to make that face of disgust for you. What’s your excuse, law-breaker, risk-taker, sinner, wastrel, or young buck? This is not really what anyone has ever meant by liberty or self-reliance; that’s just not seeing and barely caring.
Trucks are essentially personal mobile countries on flying saucer-sized tires.
When the ratio of machine to man is 15:1 in these trucks, it makes sense that you can delete accountability. Not being a driver anymore, I find myself internalizing the violence of the road and fantasizing about having the power to single out for wreckage only the red-light runner and not his or her inevitable victims. Another lie I tell myself: Surely Middle Americans would respect a divine violence that singles out you and only you for punishment? I mangle the F-150, make music out of the metal, and peel it off the driver like a coat, and then I make the driver float out the windshield and hover in the red space below the traffic light, both harmed and unharmed, both beaten to heck and safe as houses. That would be some lesson. But in reality, I am a teacher from a different place who cannot teach such frank lessons.
My doctor flung the scales from his eyes and gave up the size, strength, and security of trucks. You age into an awareness of mortality, but I think you can force it earlier. I’m an indoor stationary biker for now, while I work through the terror of being out there all alone.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 9, May 1, 2014.