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“Where do you ride—the bike trails?” People always ask me that. They can’t imagine the country roads. It’s a whole hidden world, the world of cyclists; the places they go, the things they do. If you’re a cyclist, you avoid any road with a number in its name (highway 69, say) and spend little time on those with letter names (A or KP). Roads with nouns for names are your best bet, especially if they offer promises like “Enchanted Valley Road” or “Storytown Road”. Cyclists and drivers don’t experience a road in the same way. I sometimes think of driving as watching a place on TV instead of being in it. You see what it’s like, but you don’t experience it with your other senses and you don’t earn it physically. The cows' sweet stink. Starlings like a shower. Inland prairie seas of grasses, and then haymaking. You can’t smell the silage or the pine trees or the dead animal on the side of the road or the rain coming, or the fall. You don’t hear the redwings’ chee, chee or get dive-bombed by them or see herons flying with clumsy, languid grace overhead or feel every jolt in the road. You can’t be felled by a hole or a stone the size of a silver dollar. You don’t swoop out of the heat into the delicious cool of the valleys on summer evenings.
Biking gives me a feeling of joy and freedom, of spaciousness. Every ride brings a gift, if I’m paying attention: a fox, a sandhill crane chick, a couple of deer crossing, orange Turk’s cap lilies on the side of the road, an ancient cemetery, a causeway between lakes, a hillside fragrant with purple clover, a green heron.
Moving through so much air—on a good year I ride some four
thousand miles between April and October—my sense of smell becomes more acute. When I pass a bar I am almost overwhelmed by the hot, greasy smell of it. Clover smells so sweet when I pass clumps of it in the verge that I instinctively sense why foraging animals prefer it. The wood on a new bridge smells both sweet and acrid, like tobacco smoke. I pass an orchard on my
route out of town, and in May I am regaled with the scent of apple-blossom and then, in August and September, the perfume of apples.
At another point I get marshy whiffs of a sewage treatment plant. Once I was puzzled by a strong odor of cut grass, but when a lawn-care company truck passed me shortly afterwards, I felt gleeful as a dog who has tracked something.
Once spring returns to Wisconsin and the temperatures reach the
low fifties, a ribbon of sound begins unroll as you ride through the
countryside, with chorus frogs shrilling in all the wetlands, and later in the season crickets jingling their tiny, shrill tambourines in the dry grasses. The air is full of birdsong too, from wrens, song sparrows, towhees, swallows, woodpeckers, goldfinches, gulls, killdeer, yellowthroats, and warblers going about their business in the trees
and fields. All of this is what I live for, after the long silence of winter.