I’ve covered something close to 100,000 miles during 40+ years of running and riding on the roads of America. That time of the road has allowed me to see a few things that others never witness. During a pause during a long run, I’ve waited on a corner only to find a Volkswagen flying through the air in my direction. It landed on the curb where I had been standing next to an older man that I pulled out of the way. We tumbled onto some wide steps where he lay dazed and I lay amazed at the sight of a vehicle on its side with wheels still spinning above me. Then he got up and crawled into a car whose driver had called his name. Then he rode off without saying a word of thanks, or anything.
And I’ve been chased by an angry, angry man who took offense at the fact that I’d jumped over his feet when he tried to trip me up in front of the town theater. When he could not catch me on foot, he jumped into a car and tried to run me down. Then he jumped out of the car and heaved a knife at me.
Thongs and dongs
The miles have provided plenty of time for contemplation as well. I’ve seen the sad tales of discarded panties lying on road shoulders and down in ditches. There are condoms, too. Sunday mornings take on an entirely different feel when the detritus of Saturday night is all you see.
For many years, the roadside ditches were the catchall for a wide variety of pornography. The requisite repository of print publications ranging from Playboy to Hustler. Gay pornography was rare, and women’s magazines featuring photos of naked men, nonexistent. Apparently, gays and women either do not litter with their lust, or find their indulgences are too valuable to discard.
The era of printed porn has all but disappeared, but one still notices the occasional porn DVD tossed into a ditch. The titles are legible even as you speed past on a bike. But mostly, the access to porn on the Internet has been cleaned up America’s roadside ditches, literally and figuratively.
Butts and Buds
Despite all the warnings of cancer and rotted lungs, the butts of cigarettes have not diminished all that much in number. I once made a count of cigarette butts in a thirty-yard section of county highway where it intersects with a busy local road. There were no less than 1000 cigarette butts pressed into the road shoulder. Smokers must figure their habit is the world’s problem, not their own.
Alcohol bottles and cans know no season at all. One is just as likely to find a case of discarded Busch Light cans in the middle of winter as one might expect them on a hot summer night. Drinking and driving is a year-round hobby. That’s why a typical cyclist has to be doubly aware on an early Sunday morning ride. That’s when the most drunks are headed home.
But people don’t need to be drunk to qualify as terrible drivers. Which brings us to the behavior and skills of American motorists in general. I’ve spent more than 8,000 hours training by bike or running along America’s roads. That’s a lot of time to observe the driving capabilities of the average American driver. And based on this admittedly non-scientific survey, the most I’d give America’s driver’s is a C+ when it comes to driving skills and obeying the rules of the road.
Let’s face it: Nearly everyone speeds on roads of all kinds. When speeding becomes a habit, it is also true that people are loathsome toward the idea that they might have to slow down or actually separate hazards as they are encountered on the road. The more common reaction is to simply speed up even more in an attempt to bypass whatever person, object or other vehicles might be in their perceived path. And more often than not, the driver approaching from the other direction has the same idea. That means two speeding cars have now arrived at the exact point on the road where the cyclists or runners they hoped to avoid are now in critical peril of being knocked off their bike or into the ditch.
Can you relate?
Until you’ve actually been caught in that circumstance as a runner or cyclist, you cannot imagine the shock and terror it can bring. Mirrors pass within inches of your shoulder. The rush of wind and the vacuum it creates can throw a cyclist completely off their line. There is the roadside gravel to consider as well along with the risk of tarsnakes or cracks in the road that lead one to wobble into the path of the rushing vehicles. All that must be processed in a slice of a second lest you get struck by a 2,000 lb vehicle moving 30-70 mph.
Three feet is the margin a vehicle is supposed to give when passing a cyclist. Whether or not that is now taught in driving school is a good question to ponder. Perhaps 80% of the vehicles I’ve encountered over the year at least attempt to separate hazards to avoid affecting cyclists or runners along the road. That doesn’t mean all of them do a good job, just that they have some semblance of the need in their cranium. Another 10% don’t give an inch and the final 10% does everything possible to intimidate runners and cyclists with their vehicle. That is because courtesy is considered a great affront to some of America’s drivers. Hundreds of times over the years I’ve heard them, gun their engines, hit the gas in frustration and nearly lose control going around a cyclist or group of riders. Then they flip the requisite bird only to get caught behind a line of cars at the stop sign. Sometimes, if we are feeling calm by then, we ride up next to the recently crazed driver and just stand there on our bikes looking in at the selfish nutcase inside.
That is because common courtesy is considered a great affront to some of America’s drivers. Hundreds of times over the years I’ve heard them, gun their engines, hit the gas in frustration and nearly lose control going around a cyclist or group of riders. Then they flip the requisite bird only to get caught behind a line of cars at the stop sign. Sometimes, if we are feeling calm by then, we ride up next to the recently crazed driver and just stand there on our bikes looking in at the selfish nutcase inside. The silence is thick and that is our ultimate revenge. All the rage and rush has gotten him nowhere. And what a perfect symbol for where America is right now.
The presumption on the part of the Rush and Rage drivers seems to be that the roads are suited for one thing and one person’s priority. When someone yells “Get off the road!” they mean “Get off MY road.”
And when someone yells “Get on the bike path” they have revealed a massive ignorance on both the availability and length of bike paths in America. Their personal notion of what constitutes a bike ride is a 10MPH ride of about four to five miles. They simply cannot conceive that it is both legal and logical to ride 70-80 miles at speeds of 18-20 MPH.
These are likely the same people who cannot conceive that evolution is real or that manmade climate change is happening before our very eyes. Their frame of reference is confined to the cab of a pickup truck, a child-cluttered minivan or spotless Lexus and a Jesus Fish on the back bumper. We know this because we have raving videos of these people raving at the world from within their vehicles.
Over the last forty years, the presidents have changed from Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton and back to Bush again. Things were not all that good for runners back when Richard Nixon was President. Steve Prefontaine roared and raved at the AAU that was run by a bunch of controlling assholes that would not let runners earn pay for their talents.
The treatment of everyday runners was not all that good at the time either. I’ve lived through people throwing things out the window while hollering obscenities. running (or jogging) was in its infancy as a popular sport.
Now that millions and especially women have embraced running as a healthy activity, there is greater civility on the roads toward runners in general. Yet women still get harassed with catcalls and sexual comments. Becuase jerks in cars think they have the right to do so. I’ve heard you America. This is nothing to be proud about. Yet the apologetics for such behavior dominated the recent election, and the harasser in chief now sits in office. What does that say about hope for the common man?
Oh, I’ve seen it all America. The road kill, the porn and the panties in the ditches. I’ve picked up Christian rock CDs from ditches and put them in my car stereo, then torn them out when the obliviously banal lyrics come through my speakers. I have a faith, but so much of what constitutes religion is a sickness of mind that never rises above feckless platitudes. And Christian rock celebrates the worst of if.
The lack of depth in Christian music symbolizes the low level of patience for actual policy and consideration. The shallow speech of selfish populism has spread. If the book was literal, these are the same vain, bickering and secretly profane people that God wiped out in the Great Flood. They are the again the same clan dispersed by God for narcissistic idol worship and overreaching self-righteousness at the Tower of Babel. Should anyone question the idea that the encroaching figure of the anti-Christ lurks right around the corner? Present events are making the Book of Revelation look like the Chicago Tribune than a pre-millennial prediction that empires must fall in order for new orders to come in.
I’m no literalist or reverse literalist on these matters. I’m completely unwilling to predict the end of the world. I’ll leave that to the blind zealots and deaf propagandists spewing sycophantic praise to a True Leader who can’t speak the truth for the life of him. To survive his own fears, he must be fed the complimentary lies of others in order to feel whole, real and trusted.
Yes, forty years on the roads can teach you quite a bit about the character of a place such as America. This is one fucked up place, and the only way to keep it from turning into a living hell is to recognize the worst tendencies of human nature and take steps to prevent them from taking over the national narrative. But some people have made up their minds that the roads and everything else are their personal property.
But some people have made up their minds that the roads and everything else in their sight are their personal property, and the rest of the public be damned. They’ve decided that privatization is the perfect means of justification for selfish whims. They claim to like it that way, and show it every time they turn their key in the ignition and drive around looking for opportunities to show they own the road. Yes indeed, I know a few things about you, America. Things you don’t even know about yourself.