I greet the damp morning air with a smile and a deep breath. The usual blanket of fog has slipped from the shoulders of the hill, piling low at her hips, waiting to be burned away by the summer sun. It's going to be another muggy dog day, but this early it's cool and shady.
I dig in hard on the pedals, following a ridgeline route from home, across Patton Avenue and down Haywood Road. As I typically do on my workday commute downtown, I pass through the heart of West Asheville. The streets teem with retirees, carpenters, young housewives and suburban somnambulists, all beginning their day with me. Some nod or smile, and some merely shuffle as if in a walking coma. I enjoy momentary impressions of a dormant giant lumbering to its feet, addled but leviathan. These are my neighbors and friends.
That's the peaceful meditation that cycling usually brings me. I'm unencumbered by drive-time DJs, ringing cell phones, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the myriad other nuisances that used to ruin my mornings. I enjoy my community with all my senses, even through the sweat and grit and almost constant peril.
Riding far right on the road, I flirt with the same few cars from light to light, passing and being passed. At lower speeds I can easily keep pace with motorists, resorting to the sidewalk only in emergencies or dangerously tight spots. I know my commute well, having done it almost every day for two years, and I enjoy the open-air tour through the American-dream neighborhoods and burgeoning enterprises of Asheville. I see a lot of the same faces every day, and though we don't know each other's names, we wave or nod in recognition.
This morning, though, as I enter the left turn lane at the corner of Haywood and Ridgelawn, an engine races, and someone shouts directly behind me. I turn to look, glimpsing a small white car piloted by an obviously irate middle-aged woman. She flies past me, swerving into the oncoming lane and striking the median in her haste. During this maneuver, she's forced to slam on her brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of her, which is also turning left.
That forces me to swing wide to keep from eating her bumper. I pass her through the turn (bikes corner better than cars do) and notice her window is open, so I "thank" her for cutting me off.
This is the wrong thing to do. Perhaps a less sarcastic approach wouldn't have angered her as much, but I fancy myself to be witty. She shouts out a litany of obscenities and matches my speed, continuing to berate me as her car presses close to me. We're going about 35 miles per hour, and the road narrows, forcing me closer to the poorly managed and intermittent sidewalk. Getting more and more scared, I inform her that I intend to stop to call the police and she's more than welcome to stop with me.
The motorist zips away, continuing to shout and wag her middle finger from her sunroof.
Only moments earlier, I had been enjoying a tranquil, introspective moment. But the encounter with the irate driver has cast a shadow. Our mutual behavior saddens me. Why did we treat each other that way? I was out of line with my sarcasm, but did it warrant her reaction? Was expressing my displeasure worth being nearly flattened?
We merely succeeded in darkening each other's day, and nothing was gained from the interaction.
Ma'am, I sincerely apologize. I hope that you understand that I felt endangered by your actions. The incident reminds me far too easily of the recent encounter in which a motorist's gunshot narrowly missed a cyclist's skull. This is not a game. Flippancy, arrogance and impatience are as deadly on the road as inattentiveness.
I ride slowly the rest of the way to work, trying to decipher what leads to such enmity over trivial differences in modes of transportation when there are much larger concerns before us. The world is moving faster every day, and our evolutionarily young minds are struggling to keep up. This result is a type of crowded seclusion. Everyone is immersed in gigabytes of information, at times only partly aware of the physical realities all around us.
Have empathy for your brothers and sisters, I remind myself. This world will not be very friendly to us if we aren't friendly to each other. Courtesy, respect and diligent attention to every moment is the only way we're going to survive.
[Jason Gardner lives in Asheville.]