I didn’t know C.S. Lewis had written about bicycles until I read The Inklings blog, but I was considering my own history of bicycling when, while on vacation and staying in a house whose amenities included eight bicycles in the garage, I went for a spin with my granddaughter.
It was the first time I’d been on a bike in about 20 years, as lower back problems had made perching on a bike seat uncomfortable during my last pregnancy and beyond. I wasn’t motivated to try very hard, because by the time my back was healthier, we had moved to the suburbs, and riding where there are a lot of cars and stop signs to look out for and accommodate is at worst harrowing, and at best a chore. So we gave away my bicycle.
The bike I rode for just a few minutes in Oregon was a bit large for me, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the sensation of rolling along with the wind in my hair, smelling the pines and listening to the chatter of my little companion.
It all took me back to the freedom and happiness of my youth, when for a few years in adolescence two or three friends and I would tool around the back roads of our Central Valley villages, spanning the miles that separated our houses hidden in orange groves.
From Lewis: “‘Talking about bicycles,’ said my friend, “I have been through the four ages. I can remember a time in early childhood when a bicycle meant nothing to me: it was just part of the huge meaningless background of grown-up gadgets against which life went on. Then came a time when to have a bicycle, and to have learned to ride it, and to be at last spinning along on one’s own, early in the morning, under trees, in and out of the shadows, was like entering Paradise. That apparently effortless and frictionless gliding — more like swimming than any other motion, but really most like the discovery of a fifth element — that seemed to have solved the secret of life. Now one would begin to be happy. But, of course, I soon reached the third period. Pedalling to and fro from school (it was one of those journeys that feel up-hill both ways) in all weathers, soon revealed the prose of cycling. The bicycle, itself, became to me what his oar is to a galley slave.’
“‘But what was the fourth age?’ I asked.
“‘I am in it now, or rather I am frequently in it. I have had to go back to cycling lately now that there’s no car. And the jobs I use it for are often dull enough. But again and again the mere fact of riding brings back a delicious whiff of memory. I recover the feelings of the second age. What’s more, I see how true they were — how philosophical, even. For it really is a remarkably pleasant motion. To be sure, it is not a recipe for happiness as I then thought. In that sense the second age was a mirage. But a mirage of something.’
“‘How do you mean?’, said I.
“‘I mean this. Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one’s first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false — even if all possible promises of it are false.'”
— C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, “Talking About Bicycles”
For myself, my memories also include unpleasant experiences on bicycles in my youth, both involving moments of panic at the realization of my helplessness. Once I was borrowing the bike of my grandmother’s friend, in a strange neighborhood. The bike had been offered to keep me entertained while the ladies had tea indoors. I blithely pedaled around the residential streets for a very few minutes and suddenly knew that I had no idea where Grandma’s friend lived, or how to get back there. I didn’t know her name; I hadn’t noted what street she lived on.
The feeling of being lost was so sharp and guilty — it was my own stupid fault, of course. With my heart beating madly I rolled along vaguely back the way I had come, and eventually saw my grandmother’s car. I went back in the house with the awareness that no one there knew how close I’d come to disaster; and I never told my secret, about how the lighthearted floating through space took away my common sense.
Another time, with my cousins in their city, we walked our bikes up a hill so that we could ride down fast. I was wearing my cousin’s child’s cowboy hat, and as we picked up speed on the descent I felt the hat fly off at the same moment I saw that the traffic light at the bottom of the hill was turning red. My instincts told me not to slam on the brakes, for fear of losing control even more, so I ran a red light, and I think I might have screamed at least a little. Drivers of cars waited for us to go through, and as we slowed to a saner speed I noticed that the cowboy hat had a neck cord that had kept it on my head after all.
No, I didn’t get off to a good start with city riding. My favorite rides of all time are the country ones I took with Pippin riding on a small plaid child’s seat behind me, when she was a toddler. We would take a half-hour ride in the mornings sometimes, when her father worked swing shift and could watch the older children. There was a narrow road I liked to take, with oaks arching over, and in springtime the banks along the way were covered with sweet-smelling broom.
Even then, the pleasure of bicycling was for me as much in the surrounding sights and smells as in the mode of travel — which means a preference for meandering rural rides. Mr. Glad has teased me for decades about getting a tandem machine for us to pedal together, but that has never sounded relaxing in the least.
I wonder if there could be some more appealing variation of my earlier experience still ahead for me, maybe a “third age,” as above, followed by a richer “fourth age”? The gentle prodding I received to revisit the topic has made me more open to the possibility of a bicycle (or a tricycle??) in my future.