Every now and then, I try something that I know will fail, just because I'm curious about the outcome. Usually the results are poor, but every now and then something good happens, and invariably I learn something. Its a habit that staves boredom, at least.
Today I tried to ride my bike from Mountain View to San Francisco. My planned route was about 46 miles. The furthest I've ever ridden in one day is about 30 miles, so I knew I probably wouldn't be able to make it. I would cruise along the Bay Trail for as long as I could, then stop at one of the many train stations and ride back to the city if I grew too tired or took too long.
The climate approved of my decision to ride. The air felt cool and the sun felt warm, and they met me comfortably in the middle. I had ridden about an hour, maybe a little more, when a spry guy on a bike whizzed past me, good-naturedly shouting, "I'm gonna pass ya!"
I called out a non-committal hello and kept pedaling. I had made the mistake of carrying a heavy bag which slowed me down more than I would have liked. I wasn't able to entertain the idea of racing against a stranger, not even facetiously.
He circled back and passed me in the opposite direction, then sped up again to ride beside me. For an instant, I considered whether or not that made me nervous, some strange man insisting on approaching a young woman cycling alone on an unknown trail. But it didn't. Most people have good intentions, and in the past my refusal to believe in stranger-danger has led me to meet some of the coolest people I know. I prepared for a conversation.
"How many miles ya doin?" he asked.
"I'm trying to ride from San Francisco to Mountain View," I said sheepishly, aware of how absurd and unprepared I would appear.
His eyes grew wide. "Not like that, you're not! Your seat is too low! I know, I was a bike mechanic for years. Used to be a champion cycler. I raced for years, too! You want me to fix your bike seat? See, your legs don't extend enough. You can't get the power you need."
"Uh, sure, if you want..." I managed to get out.
"I'll fix that for you in no time. You'll see the different. I think I've got a wrench... naw, I left it at home. Here, I live right up the road. You wait here, I'll go get my wrench and be back in no time. You see that school? I went to school there as a kid. I'll be right back," and away he rode in a cloud of California dust.
Well, I thought, it can't hurt anything to let him change the seat height, and he's probably right about it anyway. I waited on the dirt path and watched some elementary school children play in the yard. Why don't adults yell and scream like that when we play? When do we learn to stop? And why don't we play anymore? In just a few minutes, I saw my fleet-wheeled new friend flying back up the road, wrench in hand.
"I'm telling ya, you'll really feel a difference once we get this seat right," he said, as he unscrewed my bike seat. A small crowd of school girls approached the fence to watch us.
"Hey! I used to go to your school!" he called. The little girls giggled and stared shyly.
He stepped back from the finished bike, continuing to tell me about his life growing up in California, the athletic days of his youth, and what it was like to be an African-American business owner and a sought-after airbrush artist with customers like the Hells Angels. Between the gusts of bay air and the rush of life stories from my new friend, I felt like I was about to be blown over as I tested the improved bike seat.
"Thank you," I said, trying to wrestle my journey back in to my own hands. "I really appreciate your help. I guess I'll..."
"You know, that Google map'll lead you wrong," he says. "I met a guy the other day, he was riding the same way you were. I took him up to El Camino and he got back into town in 2 hours instead of 4."
I thought about this. "Well, I guess it couldn't hurt to try a better route..."
Before I knew it, I was following him through town towards way to a busy road that led directly to San Francisco. He thought I'd prefer it to meandering up the serpentine Bay Trail. As we rode, he told me story after story about his life and his work. Years ago, he had started his own business as a airbrush artist, and had earned successes that included a stint in reality television. He was a natural storyteller, and his words flowed like an unedited episode of This American Life. There was a lesson in there, if the producer would isolate it, about the value of hard work and the intrinsic reward of finding your own path and ignoring what everyone else told you that you should do.
We finally made it to El Camino and said our goodbyes. I rode along the busy road fearfully -- back at home in Atlanta, this is exactly the kind of street that I avoid for fear of being smushed by a texting driver -- and I bailed on it after a a few near-misses. I tried to ride back to the Bay Trail, but by that time I had been on my bike for three hours already, and I had to get home. I rode to the Millbrae Bart station and took the train to town.
My adventure didn't turn out at all like I thought it would. I'd started out on a joy ride, then tried to take a short cut, and wound up going around in circles until I finally found my way home through an entirely different route. But it had still been a good journey. I made a new friend and saw neighborhoods that I wouldn't have discovered on my own. The life-lesson metaphor seemed too obvious to be real, but there it was.