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The Existentialism Of Bicycling

The 15th Edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica informs us that according to existentialism, “… man is not a detached observer of the world, but ‘in the world.’ He exists in a special sense in which entities like stones and trees do not; he is open to the world and to the objects in it. Their rejection of Cartesian dualism is one reason why Existentialists are concerned with being rather than knowing, and why they argue that phenomenology is also ontology.”

“Existence is always particular and individual—always my existence, your existence. …And “existence is primarily the problem of existence (i.e., of its mode of being); it is, therefore, also an investigation of the meaning of being.

The final voiceover of a movie I saw recently—thanks to Todd Walton who dedicated a column to it, offers another understanding of this philosophy of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus:

“I have of late been pondering that painting. It has struck me to view the ocean as the past, the sky as the future, and the present as that thin precarious line where both meet. Precarious because as we stand here, it curves under foot, ever changing.”

(Final voiceover by Bo (Amy Brenneman) in Off the Map.)

Riding a bicycle in the city among traffic requires that the cyclist be fixed in the immediate future. His life depends on it. Is the driver of that Saab in oncoming traffic that’s about to make a left turn going to wait until the cyclist has crossed the intersection? Or is he impatient? Driving by the athletic field near Cranford High School, the street is lined with cars belonging to parents who have come to see their daughters play soccer. Will an excited mother or father accidently open a door in front of the oncoming cyclist?

Public works even in the high-priced, high-taxed towns of Westfield, Cranford, Mountainside, and Scotch Plains have not yet filled crater-like pot-holes that could break an axle on a car or destroy a wheel on a bike.

Years ago, while riding in Riverdale, NY, with my friend Stefan and his (then) young son Andres, I monitored Andres as he crossed an intersection and was not looking at the road. I hit a pothole and broke one wheel rim and one collarbone.

In contrast, while riding the Withlacoochee Bike Trail in central western Florida, one can glide along on that “thin precarious line” of the present. There are long stretches of trail with no intersections and no other cyclists. The Rails-to-Trails people maintain the WBT in pristine condition, and the green of oak trees, cypress, Spanish Moss, and other foliage; the chatter of titmice, chickadees, woodpeckers, finches, and cardinals; the sweet smoky aroma of dry roasted pine needles and burning wood plus the smells of grasses, pollen, and flowers, combine into a mesmerizing blend that overwhelms the senses. Add to this the sensuality of moving at about 15 miles per hour powered only by your own leg muscles, the hiss of the wheels, and the soft, mild breeze in your face, and you’re right on that line. Descartes was wrong: I feel therefore I am.

“I’m here now” throbs through my brain and my body.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

(Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”)

One warm morning, while soaring along the trail, I am awakened from my reverie by a shout: “On your left!” I move from the center of the trail to the right—where I belong, and a rider attired in red and white passes me at a high velocity on his top-of-the line, red and white Trek. A few miles later, at the Gulf Junction Trailhead, which is at the extreme northern end of the WBT, I see him, with the bike upside-down, repairing a flat. He looks up as I stop and explains he went over a stone near the trailhead and punctured the inner tube on his rear tire.

—Rim and tire ok?

—Yeah. Just have to replace the tube.

—Need anything?

—I’m fine. Thanks.

—Sorry for hogging the road

He grins.

—You were in the county of Nirvana. This trail takes you there. I often go there myself.

I’ve been riding this trail for many years and see a lot of old friends on the trail. My first day back, I run into Harry. It’s overcast; his wife and riding companion, Mary, has decided to stay home. Harry has a few chores to do and says it’s ok if I keep him company. Harry and Mary moved to Floral City next to the WBT because they love the trail, which they ride almost every day, usually on one of their recumbent tandems.

Harry points out a kite and an egret that fly overhead as we ride toward Inverness. He tells me that kites eat while flying. We see a hawk dive after some unlucky songbird or slow-moving squirrel, and I mention the hawk’s disagreeable trait of eating its prey while it’s still alive—as do bears.

—That’s just the way things are —Harry observes.

Easter is a pagan festival celebrating the vernal equinox and the concomitant wonders of longer and warmer days, fertility, fornication, and regeneration. Easter was usurped by the Christians, who destroyed or stole all things pagan. Riding the Withlacoochee Trail on Easter Sunday, my pagan spirit connects to this ancient celebration of the Saxon Mother Goddess, Eostre—the incarnation of the fecundity of spring. Could there be a better place to celebrate this holiday of life and light?

Two miles south of Istachatta, on the eastern side of the trail, there’s a large, old trailer sitting on three quarters of an acre of land covered by oak and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. It’s owned by Don Flight, who’s asking $28,000 for the entire package. As I survey the property, one part of my brain is concerned with the stifling heat and humidity of Florida summers, sinkholes, “homesteaders” who take over people’s houses when they’re not around, and the impossibility of getting insurance for a trailer or mobile home. Another part of my brain imagines waking up everyday and stepping out from my living room onto this patch of land right off the Withlacoochee Bike Trail. This part of my brain is purring.

“… to confront our dying is to focus on the current moment, the here and now.”

(Stephen Fehl, posted September 19th at The New Existentialism)

I am going to be 69 on May 13th and an understanding of the evanescence of everything has been with me for many years. It’s now Thursday, May 1. It’s no longer the “now” of riding on the trail. It’s a different “now” in spite of my desperate attempt to cling to the thin precarious line of the bike trail.

When I was a teacher in elementary school, I fell in love with many children’s books that I had not read when I was a child. One of them was The Little House in The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She ends the book with this lovely passage:

When the fiddle had stopped singing, Laura called out softly, “What are the days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

The poignant irony of this passage is that Ms. Wilder wrote the book when she was in her sixties and by then the “now” in the story was a long time ago.

Poignancy, irony, and existentialism in a children’s book. Impressive.

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