Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Your safety, my safety, and the ghost bike between us

I learned to ride in the land of the midnight sun. Up north kids are given the basics of how to physically ride a bike, but the real how is never really taught. It's something you learn. I didn't learn "urban cycling," or "street cycling," or whatever the going term for riding in the streets is these days. We rode on the sidewalk, and if there was none available, we rode in the street in the direction of oncoming traffic.
There were a lot of sidewalks, trails, and pathways in the land where I grew up. Children rarely if ever wore helmets. I certainly didn't until I became an adult. Those who grew up riding knew to watch for riders and pedestrians who grew up under these rules. And I didn't see a ghost bike until I became an adult. Back then, we didn't have ghost bikes, though many memorials to those slain by drunk drivers could be found on virtually any major thoroughfare. We did not fear cars striking us down, we feared moose, and knew no helmet would protect us from the wild animals which wandered on a whim through the town.
Helmets were for kids from the "lower 48," or "military brats," "snow goslings," and the like. Not for us. We knew were were more likely to die from leukemia, a drunk driver, or a moose. We wore lights in the winter if we were ambitious, but most of us settled for reflective striping on our clothes. It might be the land of the midnight sun, but it was also the land where night ruled 3/4ths of the year. Yet, we didn't decorate ourselves in anything more than reflective stripes, or duct tape for the poorer families.
And while we didn't have helmets, lights, and cell phones, by in large, what we did have is something I believe more valuable to us than all of that.

We knew about death. We knew it happened to all of us, that it could strike at any time. We did not shy away from talking about it to children, nor did we children shun the knowledge that we were vulnerable, squishy, and ultimately, very mortal.  By the time an Alaskan child is 10, she has probably attended three or four funerals. By the time an Alaskan child is 15, they have probably buried five or six of their friends. We don't just know that death happens to us, we know how the living carry the dead with them through all the end of their days.

Most children up north get their driver's licence as soon as humanly possible. A car is a warm form of transportation, a lifeline to the hospital on dark lifeless nights, and usually how water will be transported to their home. Many consider the car essential, those who don't, consider having dogs essential.

I fell more into the latter camp than the former myself. I survived happily with my dogs and my bike for many years in the far north. However, even I became weary of such a life, and left for "civilization,"

Here in civilization, you can pass other cars on the right. This would get you arrested where I come from. Walking against traffic is called "salmoning," and its no wonder most never see their death coming, since it comes up behind them. Here there are few sidewalks that are not in such disrepair you can barely traverse without tripping. Here, in "civilization," I encountered my first ghost bike.

Oh I'd seen memorials for the dead in my town, white crosses and a bouquet to mark where a life was taken, but they were mostly for those killed by drunks, or by ice. Here, in civilization its unlikely ice will kill you. but the odds of a drunk doing it are comparable. We had people die on their bikes, some killed by drunks, others by moose, but not because of street tracks, not because infrastructure fundamental failed them, (at least not more or less than it does cars, pot holes caused by permafrost are the bane of all).

In civilization you will probably never know the person who the ghost bike stands for, up north, you knew, you knew either the family or the friends of the person whose last mark on the earth was a little white cross.

The north gave me the knowledge of personal loss, and no helmet protects you better than this, for a personal knowledge never lets you be fooled into thinking you've done everything and now you are safe. It weighs more than a helmet, and can never be taken off. The knowledge of personal loss tells you your safety is always in the hands of others, and that you are responsible, not for your own safety, but for those around you. The knowledge of personal loss tells me everyday that it could be me, that I can never pretend that ghost bikes happen to others. The knowledge of personal loss reminds me that any ride can be my last, and forces me to ride for those who can no longer; it is the bitter taint to my personal miracle.

I put my helmet on knowing it protects me from many things; victim shaming, cops stopping me randomly, or a random piece of airplane falling out of the sky, and that's about it.

Its not magic.

 If a two ton truck hits me, that will be all she wrote because I'm not getting up from that, helmet or no helmet. If a semi-truck mows me down no helmet will protect me. If a car comes up behind me and slams me, its just as doubtful I will survive that either. I can't count on being lucky. I can't count on magic colours or talismans.

I'm counting on you.

I'm trusting you to not hook me with a right on red. I'm trusting you to stop at the light and not "gun" it at the last minute.I'm trusting you to stay three feet to the left when passing me, and not hook me with your mirror. I'm trusting you to put down your cell phone. I'm trusting you with my safety.

Because you trust me with yours.