We need more bicycles, less Zoloft™

I’m an emphatically utilitarian cyclist.  My bike is my only ride.  It is my way of going.  It is point A to point B with a pile of stuff.  But that’s not all it is, and sometimes I forget.

I started biking 20 years ago when I was 14 and living in Japan as an exchange student.  It was how everyone got to school.  Every morning was a flood of blue wool uniforms on classic bikes going clickety-click and ding-ding.  Baskets, fenders, and not much in the way of gears.  So it was utilitarian there too, but I also used my bike as an anti-depressant.  I didn’t speak Japanese when I got there.  My family didn’t speak English.  All the other students were always busy with homework.  I was lonely to the point of tears.  Sometimes I’d ride around after school until dark.  Sometimes beyond dark, in the rain and the wind.  I discovered fireflies in a peace park one night.  I let a typhoon blow me across the plain.  I climbed hills and had crashes.  It was a kind of love affair, it was something I could feel unabashedly good about, even if my host family thought I was crazy for staying out and getting drenched.  It was deep rhythmic breathing and endorphins.  It was still lonely, but at least I was focused.  I felt free.  When I came back to the US, I traded the circuitous hour and a half long school bus ride for an additional seventy nine minutes of sleep and an eleven minute bike ride each morning.

Somehow in my last year in Sanger, I got it into my head that biking to Alaska would be fun.  I have no idea why I thought this was reasonable.  Over the course of my first year at Caltech, as my academic self worth degraded, eventually shattering into smithereens, I looked more and more forward to that escape.  I saved money from working as an usher, and tutoring.  I bought gear.  I flamed out of school, and my by then ex-girlfriend with whom I’d been planning on riding north, of course declined.  I didn’t feel safe riding in the US alone, so I flew to Britain, and wandered aimlessly for weeks, until coming across Pearl and Angela, with whom I spent four months or so, headed to Turkey, passing through eastern Europe.  It was rocky and emotional, but it was a kind of recovery.  A long slow return to sanity and self.

With only one quarter left before finishing my BS, I had another kind of crisis.  School had felt so bad.  It was almost over, and I still felt like a failure.  I bolted.  I went north, with a tiny pile of things, and lived with friends for a quarter.  I’m amazed they let me in.  Let me languish on the floor for a while.  Let me cook with them.  Let me garden.  And eventually, after recovering from some uncalibrated brownies, I got on my bike and rode.  I rode all day.  I rode every day.  I wandered into the hills and valleys, and through the fields under the gray winter sky, and I came back to myself, again.  Time to think.  No choice but to breathe deeply for hours.  One more quarter.  Done.

And then to lonely Santa Cruz, riding in the redwoods above UCSC, up the coast to Pescadero.  Down the coast to Monterey.  Into the Santa Cruz mountains in the rain on roads so steep I wanted to vomit, or old railroad grades in the forest of Nisene Marks.  Shortcut to mushrooms.

Fifty miles and five thousand feet above Boulder.  All day bike path circles around town until dizzy.  Depleted blood sugar, followed by Nepalese food and infinite hot chai.  Picnics in Left Hand Canyon.  It’s different from kayaking, and different from backpacking.  I think it’s the fact that it’s so aerobic.  It’s warm and glowing flesh.  It’s feeling that whole disgustingly filling burrito get metabolized over the course of half an afternoon.  It’s being blinded by dripping sweat in front of a sun-baked west facing road cut at three in the afternoon in August headed for the San Joaquin Valley.  Don’t stop; it makes the breeze go away.  It’s feeling too warm even though it’s below zero and fresh snow is squeaking beneath your tires and the rivets in your jeans are burning frostbitten pinpricks into your legs.  Don’t stop; the sweat will freeze.

I forget I’m like this sometimes.  I forget that it’s something I need.  I forget, and am reminded in the depths of despair one day, that when all else fails, the bicycle will still be there.  It will still take me silently away over the mountains, and across the plains, and into the woods.  It never says no.  It waits for me.  It knows how to make me whole again, how to make me back into myself.  It takes time and quiet roads, but it works.  We need more picnics, more festivals, the Dalai Lama said.  The evils of our world cannot be medicated away.  They cannot be destroyed by force.  We need more bicycle rides, and less Zoloft™, less Adderall™.  More potlucks and fewer sitcoms.  Less work and less stuff and less news.  We need time enough for love.

So get on your bike, and ride.

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4 Responses to We need more bicycles, less Zoloft™

  1. Fruity Pimpernel says:

    What a beautiful piece of writing. Made my morning.

  2. Zane Selvans says:

    As of two weeks ago, I’m exercising in scenic, wonderful, Boulder Colorado. It sure does help with everything.

    I’m curious what kind of parking discussion is going on at Caltech these days. Is it online? Who’s talking, and what are they talking about? I’m so glad they ended up supporting the Zipcars, and they seem to be getting a lot of use (and probably keeping a significant number of cars from needing to be parked on campus). Hopefully they can get the slow maintenance issues worked out.

    Getting used to a new place, and getting connected to new people just takes a while, even if the situation is good. That said, I think going into grad school without at least considering the other options is often, if not usually, a bad idea. Especially in engineering, I can’t imagine that having some work experience pre-grad school would be a bad thing at all, since you’ll almost certainly be ending up back in industry when you’re done — and advanced degrees (even an MS) in engineering are some of the ones that make the most sense, depending on what kind of work you ultimately want to do. Just don’t dig yourself a deep hole. If you feel like moving on after getting an interim MS, then take a leave of absence and do a long internship, or some consulting work, or go ahead and get a job. If you change your mind and want to go back to school, there’s really no harm done (regardless of what your academic compatriots might say), and you’ll be more confident in your chosen path.

    Good luck!

  3. Kevin says:

    Exercise is amazing, especially when you get great views of nature. and I think chemically, that effect is exactly what those drugs are going for. Your story is amazing.

    I first saw your blog a few days ago through the Caltech parking discussion, and also really appreciate your last post on grad school. I can’t say I’ve been depressed for too long, but lately just feel fearful since I’m unsure about grad school. That fear is just repressed or pushed aside, by plodding forward. I’m starting in the fall in engineering at Berkeley, and I just never really looked into any jobs, so it was my go-to. After reading your post and the Katz one you listed, I just don’t know.

  4. Leslie Finney says:

    I’m so sure I have something to say about this, I’m just not sure what :/ A year ago I would have completely agreed with the blanket idea that Americans are over-medicated and “they” all need to get off their asses and take better care of themselves to get better but alas I have become one of the “theys” and have no intention of changing it any time soon and if I could go back in time I would have become a “they” when I hit puberty and wonder how my life had been different had I gotten pharmaceutical help sooner. At my last Dr.’s appointment I teared up and asked, “Is this what it’s like to be normal?” How many years did I spend lacking? And could those 16 years or so have been different in a good way? I hope a nice long bike ride will effectively hit your reset button so you can move on and feel “normal” again. <3

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