A friend linked to this essay on Facebook the other day. It’s a beautiful little piece that mulls over Roanoke’s history – the good and the bad – framed by a bike ride up Mill Mountain.
You need to read the full essay by Mark Ferguson, but here’s the opening paragraph that frames the rest of the story:
I had no business biking up a mountain. I mean I regularly commute on my bicycle, but that’s along a flat stretch of paths and roadways in the Washington, D.C. metro. A five foot pitch seems like effort there, so I don’t know why I looked to Roanoke’s Mill Mountain and thought, “Yeah, I can bike that.”
The essay touches on a number of topics in Roanoke – the diversity of its neighborhoods, challenges with racism both in Roanoke and throughout Appalachia and the country in general (with some interesting numbers showing that the country in general is not necessarily that unlike Appalachia), the joys of growing up in a multiethnic Northwest Roanoke, bike lanes on Williamson Road and the growth of bicycle commuting nationwide.
Quite a stunning range of topics!
What I like most about the piece is how the author uses a bicycle ride to weave a story about the human scale of the Roanoke community. It’s one of the more philosophical parts of being a bike commuter I’ve always enjoyed – moving at a more human scale and speed through my neighborhoods and the neighborhoods that connect me to work, not having the separation and isolation of the automobile between me and my surroundings. It’s not always comfortable – and not just in the physical sense of riding in the cold or the heat or the rain. Sometimes its uncomfortable because you are forced to interact with something you might otherwise ignore – a tumbledown house on a struggling street, someone panhandling on the sidewalk, a section of the river choked with garbage after the rain, someone arguing heatedly in their front yard.
It seems to me that if we really love where we live, we want to encounter the unpleasant, the dirty, the uncomfortable. It’s how good people are motivated to fix things, to meet challenges, to find inspiration, to discover something to care about.
It’s also one of the best ways to encounter beauty: to wave hello to stranger walking their kids to a bus stop, to be be able to stop and help someone load groceries into their car, or to pet a puppy, or stop on the greenway to observe a rainbow. On one of my bike rides I saw what I thought was a strangely shaped logged in the river, only to get closer and realize it was a massive beaver swimming along the low-water bridge. At that same spot I encountered a massive black snack stretched across the asphalt and shooed it into the grass before it got accidentally run over.
All these encounters, good and bad, are only available when you move through the world at a human scale.
I appreciate Mark Ferguson’s essay and a reminder and further exploration of that idea, and while I’m unlikely to challenge myself to a bike ride up Mill Mountain any time soon, I appreciate the view of Roanoke he gained through his uphill journey.