Night Joyriding

Today’s post was written jointly by Mike Beck and me. Since my arrival in Minneapolis in early July, one of our favorite activities together is cycling at night throughout the city. While we both enjoy nighttime riding, we came to it from different places, and our experiences are our own – hence the format of the post. In the end, we hope you’ll be encouraged to get out on your bikes – especially after dark!  
          –Jenion
Minneapolis By Night, photo by Mike
Minneapolis By Night, photo by Mike

M: I love riding my bike – I always have.  When I was a boy on the farm in Iowa, my siblings and I escaped into made-up worlds on our bikes.  As a father of young boys, meandering on suburban trails with the tots was always pleasurable.  Now, biking is more than just fun; it’s a way to get outside, be active, and a key component in my quest for a healthier lifestyle.   But, with a full-time job, and other activities that often book weekend days, the ONLY time I have to ride is in the evenings.  And it’s still fun, especially when I have someone to ride with.

J: Biking has been such a significant part of my life these past several years that I considered a bike-friendly culture one of the “must haves” for any city I finally chose to settle in when I left Cedar Rapids. By all accounts, Minneapolis fit the bill. When I arrived here, I couldn’t wait to explore the bike trails and greenways I had read and heard so much about. And I looked forward to doing so with Mike – we had talked about cycling for years, but living in different states made it impractical for us to ever actually ride together.

M: Introducing Jeni to her new city has been one of the things I enjoyed most this summer.  I have lived in Minneapolis since 1993, and I know the town quite well.

J: That’s an understatement, by the way!

M: But, as I was saying before I was interrupted, biking in Minneapolis is relatively new to me.  I started riding my bike last fall, after a long hiatus, and I usually stayed close to home.  But now that Jeni lives here, we want to ride as often as possible.  As I mentioned, the only time in my busy schedule is late evenings.  This posed a difficulty though:  Jeni was adamant that if we were going to ride in the evening, we were going to stay put on designated bike lanes and trails.

J: I had my reasons for insisting. If any of you have ever lived in a city that is unfriendly to bicyclists, you’ll understand my reluctance. I had been shouted at, honked at, and had motorists purposely swerve toward me only to pull away, laughing, at the last moment – all as I crowded as far into the gutter or alongside parked cars as I could. Other times, motorists were just so unused to cyclists that near-misses occurred. In that environment, why would one EVER get on the street – especially at night when visibility is even further reduced?! It was a sign of trust that I allowed Mike to talk me into it.

M: We live on Franklin Avenue, a busy street morning, noon and night.  For us to get to a designated bike lane, we have to maneuver off our own street first.  Fine.  We can do that!  Just a few blocks west we can catch a dedicated bike lane on Blaisdell Avenue.  That will take us to the Midtown Greenway, a bike “freeway” that connects to just about every trail in South Minneapolis.  From there, we can connect to the Chain of Lakes where the trail is not only exclusively for bikes, but also one way.  Thus began our foray into night bike rides!  We could get a short ride in just by circling Lake Calhoun, or if we had enough time, we could also ride around Lake Harriet and Lake of the Isles.  This was quickly our routine, and safe and easy for my reluctant partner to navigate.  Plus, it gave us a few opportunities to “practice” street riding.  We had to obey traffic rules on Blaisdell, lest we get taken out by a right-turning vehicle.  We had to leave the comfort of our dedicated lane so as to make a proper left-hand turn onto 29th Street to get on the Greenway.  As beautiful as the lakes route was to ride, though, it quickly became as boring as it was routine.  But I was patient, and that patience paid off!   Imagine my excitement the night Jeni said “Let’s head downtown instead of to the Greenway.”

J:  I won’t lie: that first ride in the dark, guided only by the spot of light offered by my headlamp, was scary. But it was also strangely exhilarating. Like all new experiences, it took a while to develop a comfort level with riding after dark. The night city has a very different look and feel than the day-lit one. On our second circumnavigation of Lake Calhoun, Mike nearly collided with a silver fox, its coat irridescent in the moonlight reflecting off the water, as it streaked past. Where, during the day, you smell suntan lotion and picnic lunches, at night the exotic scents of flowers and rich soil are noticeable. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. And I wanted to experience much more of the city than just the chain of lakes, as wonderful and beautiful as they are. We began to take different routes about the city, revisiting spots we had both seen before, but not at night or by bike. One wild Friday night we headed to the newly opened Dinkytown Greenway and, with road construction and detours, ended up in unexpected neighborhoods. We didn’t have a map, but somehow a bike lane or part of a trail always opened in front of us. In one incident of serendipity, we were in what I would describe as a “sketchy” neighborhood and we hadn’t a clue what to do next. We found a sign for the Greenway, but when we followed it we discovered the trail gated and locked securely. Suddenly, I saw a  woman emerge from a weedy lot about a block ahead of us. I felt certain we would find a path there – what woman walks alone in a random weedy lot at 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night in the city? Sure enough, it was a paved trail, and it took us over the interstate and back downtown…

M: … where we navigated traffic departing the Metrodome after the first pre-season Vikings game.  The streets were clogged with drunk suburbanites, most of whom didn’t have a clue what a bike lane was.  (That’s the first time I heard Jeni actually yell at a motorist!)  Our dedicated lane wasn’t remotely passable, so we zigzagged through the traffic jam and found a cross street out of that mess…and straight towards the Guthrie Theater where the evening’s show had just ended.  Now our nemeses were taxi cabs picking up theater-goers dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns.  Dodging that mess, we headed into the heart of downtown, where out-of-towners apparently assume people riding bicycles on a Friday evening must know their way around.  We were stopped and asked directions several times.

J: And, of course, Mike always knew how to direct them!

M: Anyway, that evening sealed the deal for Jeni.  She had now grown fond of our night bike rides, and had taken it off the trails and into the streets!

J: Ok, so that makes it sound like I went from a Nervous Nelly to an Adrenaline Junkie in one crazy night! The truth is, I had learned some important things about riding in this city. First, with the exception of the out-of-towners, assorted cab drivers and pizza delivery persons, motorists here both understand the laws of sharing the road and they respectfully adhere to them. Second, you develop “eyes” for night riding – essentially, you develop a comfort-level with using the combination of your headlight and ambient light available from the city. Third, most of our night rides end with a stop at our neighborhood Spyhouse Coffee. I love the arc of these rides – the excitement of choosing a new path, riding and spontaneously adjusting as we go, then – whether we’re refreshed or sweating buckets – a coffee and chat before the last blocks home.

M: For me, night riding is about getting outside after a long day at work.  It’s doing something active, and it’s sharing time with a friend.  It’s an opportunity to bond with our city, from a perspective we don’t see from our cars.  And it’s being part of a unique, vibrant community.  We are never alone on our night rides.  Minneapolis cyclists are loyal and dedicated kinfolk and it’s not uncommon to share a greeting or a brief conversation with fellow riders when our paths cross.

J:  Agreed. But some nights, riding is for the pure experience and adventure of it; a celebration of the spirit of biking. It makes me feel the way I did in junior high when I raced my sunshine-yellow ten-speed all over the small town of Hastings just because it was fun, and I could. In adult life, those reasons are rarely considered sufficient for activity – which makes me wonder: why not? We night joyride – because it’s fun and we can. You should join us sometime!

A night ride must: Spyhouse coffee before heading home, photo by Mike
A night ride must: Spyhouse coffee before heading home, photo by Mike

Good Omens

“Factual information alone isn’t sufficient to guide you through life’s labyrinthine tests.  You need and deserve regular deliveries of uncanny revelation.  One of your inalienable rights as a human being should therefore be to receive a mysteriously useful omen every day of your life.”  —Rob Brezsny

“There is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.”  — Oscar Wilde

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

On the day I arrived in Minneapolis, two small things occurred which seemed to be signs that I had made the right decision to come here.

At 5:00 p.m. on Monday, I exited I35W into downtown Minneapolis, four lanes of busy traffic surrounding me as people began the mad rush home from their workdays. I was listening to local radio Cities 97 and, as my tires literally crossed from the freeway to the exit ramp, Sara Barielles“Brave” – my unofficial theme song for the summer – came blaring through my car’s speakers. I was singing along, buoyed by the lyrics, “…Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live, maybe one of these days you can let the light in, Show me how big your brave is…”, when the car in front of me in the left turn lane died. The light ahead turned red. I looked in my rearview mirror, to my right, and felt the claustrophobia of being hemmed in by hundreds of vehicles along with the certainty that I’d be stuck there all night. My car was loaded down with stuff from my storage unit, my bicycle dangling off the back end, and I made a split second decision — before the light changed, I was going to signal my intent. I cranked the wheel, flipped on the turn signal and nosed slightly into the next lane. And when we got the green, I was able to smoothly pull around the disabled vehicle without eliciting a single honk or appearance of road rage from the other drivers. Good omen number one – check.

My new landlady, C., is friendly and kind and fairly conscientious. Also quite a talker. It took well over an hour to go over the apartment, the lease, and the Minnesota tenant/landlord requirements. By then, we both forgot the exchange of keys that was to take place! Luckily, once outside the house, C. put a hand in her pocket looking for her car keys and discovered mine. When she came back, there was a tutorial about the keys – I didn’t want to seem impatient, but seriously, folks: after a long career in residence life on a college campus, I am a flipping key expert and can easily handle the four new ones (garage for bike storage, mailbox, security door, apartment) she gave me!

In the middle of my time with C., Mike arrived home. Mike – who went from long-distance friend to upstairs neighbor and lifeline with my signature on C.’s lease – helped me finish unloading my car. We separated to shower, then met up again for dinner to celebrate my first night as a Minneapolitan. We went to a wine bar/restaurant I had never been to before and, as it was an incredibly beautiful evening, snagged the last outdoor table. As we sat there, sipping our fruit water and waiting for our healthy “small plates” orders (which, as is our habit, we intended to share so we would both enjoy the collard greens, arugula, pancetta and Spanish cheese) we lapsed into a companionable silence.

My mind began to range back over the previous two months – from submitting my resignation through to that entire Monday – and I was completely overwhelmed by the number of seriously, profoundly, joyful moments encompassed within that time span. Heartfelt and sincere exchanges of love and respect with colleagues and friends; the most deeply soul-satisfying farewell celebration with friends at Molly’s; the safe travels and great times with my family in New Mexico; the quick visit back to Cedar Rapids and quality time with the Dennis’ and several friends (none of which felt crammed or cramped into the four days I was there); coffee and lunch with my brother Jeff’s family in Cedar Falls on my way to Minneapolis. The past two months have, quite literally, been the most amazing and beautiful time of my entire life. I feel almost greedy in, looking forward, hoping that this wonderful streak will continue through the move this coming weekend and RAGBRAI at the end of the month, and on to finding a job so I can really settle into my new home.

Obviously, people can debate forever whether omens and portents truly exist. If you know me, or have been reading Jenion for a while, you know I am an inveterate reader of signs. I believe that our intuition often knows better what is right for us than our thinking brains. Our egos and personas, filled with the “shoulds” and “oughts” we’ve internalized over the years, can often be just so much static, preventing clear signals from penetrating to our core. Intuition can sometimes help by taking us beyond the fear and paralysis that our “practical” brain (and its tendency toward circuitous thinking) leads us into. Which isn’t to say I believe in jumping into things based on a hunch and no careful thinking or planning. Only that both pieces are important in putting together the puzzle of our choices to make a full picture of our lives.

When I came back to the present after these recollections and musings, our al fresco dinner was finished. We hadn’t actually licked the plates clean, but it was close! Mike and I both felt like ambulating, so we drove over to Lake of the Isles for a walk. At the lake, the lovely hush of summer dusk was in full swing. As we got out of his car, Mike said, “Jeni, look up!”  When I did, the late evening sky was a breathtaking and deep violet-blue. And there, right in the middle of the sky, framed by the trees ringing the lake, was an X formed by criss-crossing jet contrails. I couldn’t help it, I immediately cried out, “X marks the spot!”

To me, those vapory white lines of water crystals in the sky appeared to be exactly that – the destination on a global-sized pirate map. A giant X marking the exact spot where my treasure will be found: Minneapolis, Minnesota. Good omen number two – check.

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Standing in the doorway of my new apartment on Monday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Mike, who wanted to reshoot it once he learned I planned to use it today! But I like this authentic, first day, commemoration!