The happiest times of my college years were never at college. I do not long for the people I once knew, their faces sullen against that listless Oregonian sky, nor do I ever pay any mind to the clamoring beige-green classrooms where lectures were held. Never do I find myself misty eyed for their polite conversations and careful hair, their threadbare tolerance and famished acceptance. They were probably fine people, but in a world as small mine, there is hardly any room left for fine people. But alas I miss them all.
Nay, the best moments of my life in recent years occurred on the saddle of a bicycle. When the weather was just right, I took out my 1989 Diamondback Mountain Bike, baby blue with three shiny gears up front and six behind, a superbly simple machine. I would gently push off from the ground, standing on a single peddle in a show of from. Then I’d lift my leg over the frame, and peddle hard, with the dignified halls bearing sole witness to my expedient departure. I left them behind and veered through downtown Salem, with its dinky shops and Van Halen lookalikes, a Mexican family running alongside me as I crossed the street.
A few tedious moments of rushing traffic eventually led me to the road that curved towards Minto State Park, parallel to two shiny stretches of rail that shot off into the distance. Drivers took full advantage of the liberal speed limit, flashing by and hurdling out of sight in a matter of seconds. Towering telephone poles stood stripped against their evergreen counterparts, both dipping their respective wires and branches with elegant resolve. A brand new suburbia marked the city line, the smell of fresh paint and plywood traveling over muddy lots. When the city of Salem wished me to “Come Back Soon!” I knew that in my heart and soul that I was finally and truly free.
The road arched beautifully, accommodating the land’s topographical indiscretions with perfect grace. An ample shoulder, two bold lanes, and a delicious yellow line running through its center. My bicycle ebbed me on, it wanted to go fast, aching to be in a state of perpetual motion, to be used for its intended purpose. As the countryside unfolded in front of me, the Willamette River served as my silent companion, vast and watchful from both banks. It was here, on this lonesome stretch of road, that every element and every breath told me “Yes!” when everyone else told me “No.” It was here that the world held me in unyielding love. It was here in my state of adrenaline fueled locomotion where I was finally content.
The country highway that I road along was nevertheless a strange one. There were a number of marijuana farms of varying size and complexity, some with high plank fences and cameras, and others which relied on their shabbiness to deter would-be thieves. Alluring gravel turn offs and inviting patches of shade beckoned, despite weak willed “No Trespassing” signs. Yet it was at about twenty miles that my country road reached its veritable climax; a mighty bridge that arched like a cat before depositing motorists and bicyclists alike into the city of Independence.
One day, while I was preparing to scale that elegant overpass, I saw two pickups pulled over in the gravel and dust of the shoulder. Two men stood, hands in denim pockets, looking down at a dark bruise on the pavement. Ever the diligent bicyclist, I coasted to a stop and came to stand there with them. The man closest to me raised his graying hair and peered at me through aviator glasses, golden lenses outlined by thin shiny brass.
Sensing my concern, but too grieved to care, he said simply, “My best friend died here last night.” I responded with the only thing I knew to say, a hollow if sincere, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Aviator glasses went on explain that this his was his best friend, his war buddy, that’d they’d been kids together. And now that friendship had been consumed in a flurry of fire, glass, and metal, the scattered remnants of yesterday’s loss blowing in the wind.
I left the two men there in their manly grief, silent and stoic over the loss of an old buddy. I biked half way up the bridge and then suddenly stopped, positioning myself symmetrically to its radian curves. I stood there for a long while, watching the Willamette meander underneath my feet, golden in the spring haze, light emanating lazily up towards the pale sky. Birds played on the river banks, before spreading their wings and disappearing into the wilderness upriver. Cars sped by and I mourned a man I didn’t even know.
The fair city of Independence, population 8,600, a straight shot from Oregon’s humdrum capital to small town values. Turning off the bridge led one through a forgettable main street, historical buildings populated with the regular crapshoot of bars and restaurants. All the fixings of Anytown, America were there, including a used book store, a bakery, and an ice cream parlor which fancied itself a smokehouse. Banners situated on street lights proclaimed Independence as the “Best Small Town in America”, no doubt the product of pencil pushers down at the brand new city hall.
A Mexican market served as a weary conclusion to Independence as I knew it. It catered to the homesick Mexicans who had worked their way through California, to settle as far north as they dared. Dog-eared posters implored bygone souls to call home at reasonable rates, while fresh tamales eased the pain. I would sometimes lean against the wall and watch a chubby Mexican girl, hair pulled back in an unflattering ponytail, make rapid conversation with vaqueros cum farmers. They’d buy a Coke and stop in, before returning to the dusty fields that surrounded Independence. I always wished I could speak with them, my tongue rolling the riveting “rr” of Spanish mystery.
Every trip to Independence was different.
I would coast from place to place in the downtown area, stopping at the library for
I thought Salem would be the end of it and yet, when I close my eyes, I’m suddenly thrust back in time. The gentle trees pointing me along a road of perfect of construction, a delicious yellow stripe running down its center. When I hear the voices that kept me company on my bike, it calms a traveling feeling in my soul. The roads were the one place where I felt like I truly belonged. I was finally set free from a world of compromise. There was finally room enough for me in my own life. It was truly the only happy moments I ever had.
Joe Ely’s words sounded like a prophecy, “You’re gonna wanna hold me, like I always told you, gonna miss me when I’m gone.” And now my love, I am gone, gone, gone. Beijing has swallowed me up and it will never let me go.
he Willamette a meandering companion that ran more or less parallel to me.
Its waters flowing away from Independence, back the way I came. I am thrust back into a seemingly inconsequential moment. It calms a traveling feeling in my soul.
the swan song of purring rubber on concrete is one of my favorite sounds.