After nearly seven-plus years of being an engineering student, I was no stranger to long nights at a campus computer. Nights then and now still drag on, until I earn my sweet reward: a bicycle trip home.
Midnight biking to me is a celebration of ritual, something that must be done every day and somehow becomes sacred, a time to myself in a world full of conversation and communication. As I was writing my thesis, I remember nights of returning home at 3 a.m. to 14 quiet, frozen domes, my schedule creating almost a different world for me. For every change I make in my life, I’ll still have this nighttime commute: pure, dark, a contest with only one entrant.
When I attended UC Riverside, where I rode a bicycle despite heavy counterculture, riding home alone at midnight or later was my meditation. I would enter this seance with motion and travel through an emptied, litter-blown campus to my apartment. There was a quiet beauty to Riverside during the night, perhaps because the majority of the students commute and don’t live near the campus. If you aren’t familiar, Riverside is one of those regions of California with one month of winter and 11 months of heat, which make those midnight rides through an urban heat island quite pleasant.
Davis is not so kind: Now it’s just me, the rain on my cold handle bars, my soaking wet gloves, my wet bike seat, my water-blocking fenders, 15 mph winds and a few drunk drivers leaving G Street Pub, determined to show me a thing or two. Studies on night commuting in Washington state confirm my speculation: car-bike accidents double during the hours from 6-10 p.m.
During the winter quarter, when I teach Engineering Economics, hours of grading leave me with a terrible treat: 15 minutes through absolute ice. However, pain and endurance is the most important part of prayer, and every moment against the elements tests my faith as a cyclist. Unlike Riverside, I am never alone; this town is never asleep. If I wanted to linger and spy, I could. However, I’ve got my prayers, rhythms and rituals, and cars to outrun on Russell.
I never thought of myself as athletic. However, whenever you enter the world of car vs. bike, you become the athlete; every interaction is a contest, one where they hold your life in their hands. They can always kill you, they can make a mistake and run you over, and for some odd reason, that empowers me. It’s probably the only way to be a modern martyr in our apathetic world. When the roles are reversed and I am driving through Davis at night, I drive timidly and slowly. I see myself in every unprepared cyclist, moving without lights and reflectors. Every time I narrowly miss bumping a hidden commuter, I recall every night I spent moving between poorly insulated campus buildings and surburbia, dodging cars, moving between work and play.
I had only one longtime lover in Davis and I would visit her faithfully on my reflective silver Peugeot, a bike I only used to visit her. The bike required no additional lights. When a car’s light hit, it shone like a streak of lightning (maybe because I was impatiently running through stop signs on Sycamore). Once we were no more, I could not stand to look at my midnight bike anymore and sold it. Whenever I looked at it, my mind would immediately wander to her long blond hair and that anticipation, biking in any condition, with her bed at the other end of the trip. Those days, midnight was my time. Midnight was when I was alive!
Nowadays, after college, it’s more about avoiding midnight. I’ll go see your Sickspits, visit your Birdstrike or show up at your co-op’s dinner, but everything is built around avoiding midnight. There is no more midnight ride; now it is a 10:30 ride. I have college town entertainment without college deadlines. No longer are there classes/homework; instead a bus that gets me to downtown Sacramento at 7 o’ clock. A buddy of mine was recently having a birthday at Sophia’s on a Thursday, and I was in West Davis. I looked at my phone’s time, my soaking wet bicycle, gauged it all and decided to get him a future bottle of whiskey, and bike directly to my bed. It was the first time in what I’m sure will be many in a series of decisions I will make as a grown-up.CHRISTOPHER SALAM is a minister at the Davis Bicycle Collective, and can be reached at email@example.com. If you are interested in DIY bicycle repair, visit the DBC at its Bike Forth location, on L Street and 4th.