Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a bike that belongs to a six-foot-tall varsity athlete. (Technically, the bike belonged to two six-foot athletes and one average-sized one before reaching five-foot me.) It is 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. The sky is a cold and unyielding shade of white, and I am making a painfully ungraceful attempt to mount a large bicycle in the Canaday courtyard. After some unseemly gymnastics, I straddle the seat and wonder if one can, in fact, forget how to ride a bike.
I somehow find myself engulfed by a Crimson Key tour while pedaling toward Memorial Church. I have been attempting to subdue this comically large bike for approximately 45 seconds, and I have managed to draw as much attention to myself as conceivably possible. Because I have been swallowed by a nebulous mass of tourists, I pedal cautiously. I am moving so slowly that the massive helmet on my head feels like a cruel joke.
Perhaps the worst part is the feeling that I am being judged by 20 people who are carrying selfie sticks. But I have never been one to swallow my pride, and this is no exception. I pedal on with the resolve of a prowling lion and the speed of an injured elephant. A HUPD officer informs me that I am not allowed to ride a bike in the Yard at all, and I notice that at least 10 people in the vicinity are walking their bikes instead of riding them. His words are more liberating than embarrassing, and after the longest two minutes of my life, I dismount. HUPD officers really are a beacon of amnesty, I think.
The worst is yet to come. Back on my bike, it takes about two seconds of watching the hectic streets of Harvard Square to realize that I know nothing of proper road etiquette for cyclists. Is there even such a thing as proper road etiquette for cyclists? Am I a complete dweeb for even thinking the phrase “proper road etiquette?” Coming from Manhattan, my experiences are limited to a grid- planned city and pedestrian sensibilities. As I look at the curvature of the winding roads and the spontaneity with which other bikers seem to just go, all of my anxieties about living in a city that isn’t New York come to a head. Suddenly, there is a lull in the hum of the street; the traffic seems to be taking a deep breath. I hoist myself into the saddle and just go.
I can’t say that this is how I envisioned this bike ride. One could say that I had romanticized the idea from the start. This bike ride would be my idyllic escape from the mundane, an “Eat, Pray, Love” experience on two wheels. I had set aside this afternoon to find where the sea (the Charles) meets the sky, to rekindle my oneness to the natural and untouched (I did FOP, so one could say that I am a nature expert), and to do some light soul searching in between. But I haven’t even reached the river yet, so I leave my expectations out to dry.
I am trailing behind another rider down JFK Street. We’re smoothly threading between cars in ways that I never thought pos- sible or legal. He dismounts and scrambles toward one of the buildings. I silently thank him for the lesson.
Somehow, I navigate the soul-crushing crime against urban planning that is the intersection between JFK Street and Memorial Drive, as well as the subsequent bridge, and find myself on a trail on the other side of the river. To my right is a decent view of the Charles. The water is a placid grey-blue, and the trees, in their uncomfortable pubescence between summer and fall, form a fringe of greens, yellows, and browns. When I focus on my surroundings, I barely notice the cacophony of the highway on my left. The bell towers of campus still command my attention. I imagine their tolls growing fainter and fainter as I ride onward, but it is 2:23, and they have no reason to ring now.
The trail edges closer to the water as it gets further away from campus. The view is nothing to put on a New England postcard: The sky seems stretched taut in its harsh whiteness, and the water is as uninviting as a cold cup of black coffee. At this moment, the most attractive aspect of the trail is its emptiness. I am the only cyclist on the road, and even the nearby benches, which look like they should be filled by adorable old couples, are left unpopulated. If I could somehow convey my delicious feeling of solitude on a postcard, I certainly would.
I pass empty boathouses that are decorated in preparation for the Head of the Charles. There is a ghostly feeling of anticipation about the houses and stacked boats, like a Thanksgiving table set hours before the guests arrive. There is a lone rower slicing through the water. I wonder if she is enjoying her loneliness as much as I am.
I coast through more unremarkable foliage and think about nothing. I reach a narrow boardwalk, a tight wooden inhale between the Charles and a small lily pond. It is an odd little spot, but worth stopping for. I dismount and sit at the edge, relieved to be free from the uptight verticality of the bike ride. A few meters away, a middle school track coach gives a much-needed pep talk to her coughing, wheezing team.
“How do you guys feel now?”
A windchill pulses through me and I realize that my soul has remained unsearched on this bike ride, but I am okay with it. The clock strikes three, but the bells of campus are nowhere to be heard.