Did you ever ride bikes through your neighborhood when you were a kid? It was awesome: riding through the suburban streets until dinner, seeing how fast I could go down the hill without wiping out, exploring the far cul-de-sacs of my neighborhood. It was one of those first things that my parents let me do outside of the house by myself so there was this element of rite of passage-esque element of adventure to it. Yet I was still in the boundaries of my neighborhood so the whole thing felt familiar.
That's why touring a new city by bike is brilliant. There is this mixture of discovery and comfort to the act. I hadn't pedaled a two-wheeler in years and yet easily got back into the rhythm of it because it is literally riding a bike. That old cliche holds true. As such, I can't think of a better way for EA and I to have spent our first morning in Portland.
For two hours, we biked with five other visitors along the Willamette River and then through the City of Roses. Along the way, Sierra, our guide from Portland Bike Tours would stop us to discuss the history, architecture, and culture of the city. It was a great way to spend the morning. Our guide was knowledgeable and personable. I'd go on the tour again in a heartbeat.
It helps that Portland is such a bike and pedestrian friendly city. Though there is car traffic, it is astonishing how little of it there is in a city with a population well over half a million. I could probably walk a mile from my house and see more cars at the intersection of Anderson Mill and Reidville at the edge of Spartanburg than I would have at the intersection of Broadway and Salmon in downtown Portland (granted Portland has solid public transportation and Spartanburg is a suburban sprawl).
But there is something about biking and walking through the city that helps you get to know a place. Things don't whiz by. You notice details in the buildings and bridges. You see people's faces. You hear the noises: the hum of the city, the snippets of conversations that tell you what's important to its citizens. Portland is a quirky city and can see that from a car. But nothing can beat the education of having your feet on the ground (or on a pair of bike pedals).
Traveling by bike or by foot may not be as quick or efficient (though in some cases it is) and you're a bit more vulnerable than you would be in a vehicle of...whatever cars are made of these days. But getting to know something is not supposed to be quick or efficient and it always requires a level of vulnerability.
I have an unoriginal, possibly semi-Amish theory that cars make us horrible people. Perhaps horrible is a bit strong, but I do think they make us less empathetic people. Road rage happens so easily because when you are out on the road, you don't see people. You see machines. You get to assume that vehicle that cut you off did so with malicious intent. For all their wonderful benefits, complex machines isolate us in a way that desensitizes us to the people and places around us.
I am part of the first generation that has done much of its communication via the internet. And there is a lot of good in that. As someone who is painfully shy and introverted, the machine has given me more of a voice than I would have otherwise had. Yet I am continually coming to the conclusion that the internet is far from the best way to know people. We don't see the details, the nuances, the quirks that make us who we are. And when people "cut us off"--when they do something that makes us mad or with which we disagree--it is easy to get road rage. We don't see the people behind it; just the machine. We don't listen to stories. We just boil it down to tweets and bits.
Towards the end of our tour, Sierra was telling us about the different restaurants, breweries, and coffeeshops in the Pearl District. She mentioned there was a coffeeshop down the road called Barista where she once accidentally ordered an eight ounce cup of coffee that cost $9 while studying. She thought that she was ordering something a lot larger. The rest of us chuckled as she told us the cup was good but not anything that she'd do again. Who hasn't been in that situation where you order something and don't get what you bargained for?
It was a small and inconsequential story. I probably could have gotten the information by going online or looking at a menu at Barista. Yet Sierra's story was one of those tiny deals that made Portland a little bit more real; a little bit more like a place and a people that I felt like I knew. We would not have had that experience or other experiences like it had we not explored Portland by bike and by foot. It served as a reminder that life is better lived if we take the on-the-ground effort to know others and be better known.