My long-suffering Facebook friends are used to being updated on my continuing love affair with my bike. Another week, another paean to the joys of commuting under my own power between home and uni, along the river. Most days it’s the simple exercise I value most – the cranking up of my poor clockwork brain that needs to be wound up with a bit of cardiovascular activity so it can tick on throughout the day. Or it’s the 40 minutes spent away from computer, papers and iPod, leaving room for my thoughts to wash up and back like the tide. Or it’s the fact that it’s free, and I’ve saved both bus fare and gym membership for one more day.
But there are a couple of less tangible things about it I think are worth even more. The first is the way that a memory of a town is ground into you by riding (or walking) a route over and over again. If I close my eyes I can walk again my commutes in Dublin and Brighton, remembering every turning, the horse chestnut tree on the side street, the change from concrete to cobble footpath at a particular corner, the white-painted walls of an alleyway, the metal of an old manhole cover worn slippery, the long, long wait at a particular pedestrian crossing, the low winter sun glinting on the windows of my office as I round the last corner. It’s the same in Brisbane now. There’s the slow climb up to the Storey Bridge, the twisty zip down the path and precipitous Ivory Lane to the river, the slow weaving in and out between pedestrians getting off the ferry at Riverside, the wrist-shaking juddering over the cobbled paths in the botanic gardens, looking out at where Lightfoot used to be moored before Michelle and Graham set off for Canada, then the brackish smell of the mangroves, the roar of the freeway above, watch out for the lip of the curb there, the winding back and forth with the river, up onto the road at Toowong, two hills in the looping St Lucia backstreets (on one of which I was almost run over by a garbage truck coming the other way, a year ago), and the final run into uni, past the old parasitology buildings, and down the ramp into the courtyard of our building. I’ll never fully lose this fine-grained knowledge of this route, not completely.
And the second: freedom. My bike lets me go places I wouldn’t venture on foot at night. Down by the rowing sheds at uni. Around the factories and warehouses in West End, when the streets are silent and deserted. Through the city botanic gardens, dodging ringtail possums hypnotised by my lamp, past the sleeping homeless people, even though QUT apparently sends out occasional emails suggesting that women keep out of the park when it’s dark. I feel like the city is mine, in a way it would never be if I were in a car or walking. I can cycle for miles, go wherever I want, explore whatever makes me curious, and sense it all directly.
Tonight, riding home from my Italian class at about 9.30, I found the river walk blocked off just coming into the city. At first I was cross at the thought of having to take the suggested detour, which involved lots of road-crossing and getting involved with traffic. But then I decided instead to cross over the Go Between bridge to West End, cycle along the south bank of the river past the Cultural Centre, and cross back over on the Goodwill Bridge. Coming into West End, suddenly alert again, I smelled the sharp, sour smell of the milk factory on the night air as I turned into Montague St. I slowed down as I passed the old Montague hotel on the other side of the road, looking over at people sitting talking at tables outside on the footpath, under iron lace balconies, in warm pools of light, quiet amongst the empty streets around. When I came to the museum of modern art, I missed the turnoff for the cycle path, and since there was almost no-one else around I continued on and followed the narrow twists of the pedestrian path for a while, then bumped over the edge of the path to coast down the steep rolling hill of lawn between the garden beds, back to the river’s edge and the boardwalk. It was like a dream – somehow intense but full of floating potential. I smiled the rest of the ride home, thoroughly aware again despite the familiar route.