Thursday, October 27, 2011

East to Weston: Being an Account of a Journey by Bicycle to a Small Town on the Missouri River, the Main Point of Which Journey Being to Drink Beer in Said Small Town

Chapter I

Ian and Jesse arise early and head for Tonganoxie—They have a good breakfast there—A short detour—As Jesse begins to show less knowledge of their route than he had professed, Ian grows impatient—They reach Leavenworth—They meet a couple of fellow travelers—Explosion!The river park is closed—They receive an unwanted lesson in animal anatomy—Ian's, then Jesse's, patience is tested: Jesse fails—Then Ian fails—The campsite is full—A kindly benefactor—Rest

My friend from work, Ian, and I have been thinking for a while about going for a ride up to Weston, Missouri. We both love biking and are trying to get into a respectable shape, and I persistently touted the beer, so there was really no question of where. We finally decided when last week, and scrambled to get both our bikes in proper shape for a long journey.

I've been to Weston twice: once on the return loop of my Missouri "tour" last year, and again ??when?? It's quaint, the state park next door is a great place to stay, and there is a bike path linking the two. Not many places in the vicinity of a day's ride can boast such a list of pros.

We set out about 9 Saturday: I spent most of the morning making maps I didn't really expect to use. I had a few errands, then we headed out.

We stopped in Tonganoxie for breakfast: there's a place there that serves standard American breakfast fare, and I was looking for some calories to push me up to Leavenworth. Ian stuck with protein, but he'll learn!

Out of Tongie, there was a detour from the main route; Ian wanted to give the main route a try: maybe it was something we could pass easily, they just wanted to keep cars out. I told him I had tried something similar before, but had, in the end, had to double back, and had lost precious time and wasted more precious energy because of it. I'm not sure I convinced him, and I wasn't totally convinced myself (it might have been an adventure!), but we ended up taking the detour.

The wind was at our backs, and how! We sped along, often going 20 mph easy on flat land. We were feeling pretty good at this point; we traded excited tributes to the glories of traveling by bicycle: the open air, the comfortable pace, the feeling of connection with the land around us. This made me feel better for choosing the detour: we had no problem making short work of the extra distance it entailed.

Ian powers up a hill

At last, though, I was a bit thrown off track, and while I had a general idea of the route (enough for me: we just had to go north and east, right?) I think Ian was dubious. Still, he followed me, even through a stupid gravel road that was marked as passable on the map. 

But all roads pretty much led to Leavenworth, and after about a half an hour we were there. We cruised through, in no hurry because we were much earlier than we needed to be. We decided to try to find the local bike shop, a place I'd heard a lot about.

While the bike shop was pretty standard fare, on the way out we were accosted by a friendly couple who were themselves planning a world tour in four years--good for them! They were fun to talk to, and it's always great to share your enthusiasm for biking and travel with others.

Suddenly—blam!there was this gunshot sound, then a beautiful hissss. We stood around craning our heads like prairie dogs, trying to keep our conversation going but every one of us curious what the hell that sounds was. I have to admit in the end not a single one of us found the truth, but we decided to agree it was a sudden puncture in the tire of a truck parked a little down the road. Ian reported later he thought this was all very ominous.

I'd hoped to check out the Leavenworth river promenade; there's supposed to be camping there and I was a little worried about the prospects at the campsite in Weston Bend. However, the area was closed due to flooding (how many days since it had rained??), so we looked in the windows at the nearby carousel museum, then continued toward a park overlooking the Missouri river from above.We paused for a smoke (Ian) and a view of the river (me), then set off across the bridge. On the way, an old man looking very much the Fool on the Hill yelled something incomprehensible but vaguely threatening from where he was sitting in someone's lawn. I wanted to ask what he said, because I'm sure it was just fascinating, but was really just too intimidated by his mental state, and just rode faster to catch up to Ian.

We managed to cross the tiny bridge to the Missouri side without getting killed, then had a lesson in animal anatomy. Every animal available in Kansas or Missouri was splayed out on the side of the highway, an organ here and a bone there; some were fresh, some weeks old. Frogs were the most prevalent, but I saw raccoons, opossums, deer, snakes, and Ian saw a turtle. Even a stuffed animal, probably thrown by some cruel young boy from the window of an SUV in a hurry to get to the Weston Bend cider festival, was lying purple and unloved in the shoulder.

We finally found the trail that leads first to Weston Bend State Park, then to the town of Weston itself. It's maybe two miles from the bridge at Leavenworth, and after the uneven shoulder and animal graveyard it is a welcome sight for the touring cyclist.

Ian had been fighting his chain for a while, and the steep hills on this trail into Weston made things much worse. I'm not sure how many times Ian got his chain caught, but he was getting pretty hot by the time we reached the entrance to the park

As soon as we got there I remembered the climb to the campsite, and I knew what Ian would think of that: his knees were hurting and I think he was tired of me being guide. But we had to push on, and push on we did.

The hill up to the main part of the park is pretty dreadful, and I remember Ian saying something along the lines of "we have to come back up this hill after we go drinking?" Because that is exactly what we had to do: once we found a campsite we could take a lively ride down the hill to the trail, then pick it up for an easy ride into the city of Weston; but the ride home would be another slog up what would seem like a mountain after a meal and several beers.

And that same mountain finally tested my resolve as well. Like I said, Ian had been having problems with his chain; all of the sudden my chain got caught in between my spokes and the sprocket, and I wasn't going anywhere. Ian continued on, but I couldn't even walk my bike up at this point because the rear wheel wouldn't turn.

After a day of trying to stay calm and collected, the fifty miles was finally taking a bit of a toll on my out of shape body, and through that flabby body my flabby mind. I pushed and shoved my chain, then I yelled at it, then I screamed; at this point I figured I had done everything I could, so I pushed and shoved some more. Then after a bit more screaming I realized it might help to calm down and approach the problem more strategically. Basically this worked: instead of yanking on the chain I eased it a bit and somehow that worked. I pushed my bike up the hill to find Ian chilling out next to a sign.

We rode on from there, through a group of kids screaming like they were on a roller coaster but really just enjoying the outdoors after warm cider; past an old tobacco barn; and through some wooden gates that close at night to keep out vehicle traffic after dark.

At least we arrived at the campsite... oh, wait, did we just pass it? We were zooming down, then crawling back up another monster hill when I realized we had passed the campsite and were headed outside the park. When we got to the top of the hill, I swallowed and said in my best whiny voice, "Uh, sorry, it's back there."

This was pretty much it for Ian, I think. He yelled "What?" in his best tired, whiny voice. I yelled back "I made a mistake!", then, with another "sorry",  I turned around and headed back towards the hill and the campsite, letting Ian stew by himself for a bit.

But the best news was yet to come. I knew Ian was worn out and near the end of any patience with me, so I was eager to try to find us a place to set up camp and rest before things came to blows. I went ahead into the park, but saw quickly that things were not good: even though it was getting later in the year, the weather was still pretty fine and people were still camping; in fact, every site in the place was full.

I rode back to find Ian, and reported the news, pointing out that there was some rule in the Missouri park system that required them to find space for bicyclists—but not totally confident about this. Ian was resigned to fate at this point, and just shrugged.

The camp host was out, so we sat and ate some food while we waited for them to return. It was still a fine day at this point, and things could have been worse, but I was tired and a bit worried we might have to head back that day.

But when the host finally showed up in his golf cart, he reassured us he would find space for us—for free (wow, really?!)  Oh, no, wait, it's the same price (damn!), but at least there's space (yeah, can't complain...).

We set up our tents and laid down like dead men for a while, dreaming of dead reptiles.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A new letter

I hope you are staying cool.

Well, the fireflies are finally leaving us. It happens every year, and every year I think it will never end. So much more charming than the damn tree frogs. I don't think it's the heat but the tree frogs, blanketing the night with their endless, self-important screeches, that drive the poor fireflies away.

But just in time the moonflowers are blooming. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to show them to you: they're so cool in this ridiculous heat. I see them, glancing up with their graceful flutes and I see the moon and I feel the cool whiteness. The one time a year the fireflies and snow may meet! They glow, too, until you forget it's dark.

I ran some of them over the other day in the car (stupid clumsy thing), and only then did I look and see how beautiful they are. They don't make an effort to be that way, they just grow into themselves. Solid, green leaves and limbs that support fragile blossoms, folded away in the day. It pains me a bit to see the blooms when they fall: they become such a sick yellow, and they give off a putrid smell. But do I regret having seen their beauty when they come to this end?

I dug out the weeds around the moonflowers and sickly vegetables, and I was shocked at the life hiding away in green. Crickets and beetles, spiders scrambling to find another dark spot. I wanted to put back what I had unearthed, witless and unaware. But they'll forgive me, or they won't think anything at all; they'll find that other dark spot and go on eating, living and then dying, like they always do. And they'll come back, and the snow, and the fireflies, too: undaunted, unhesitating and without purpose.

Another night passes and I hope you are well.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hi mom and dad! Letter 4

A short letter from a young swimmer. Rated G.


Hi mom and dad!

I'm having such a good time! I wanted to come home at first, but now I'm so glad I'm here, I'm having a lot of fun.

My favorite part is swimming. Well, we don't swim, we lie on the beach and let the tide roll over us. First I can just hear it sliding up the sand, then simmering as it leaves behind sand, drying in the sun. Then it touches my ear, then it comes up to my nose. Then it rolls over to my other ear. It touches one hand, then, after a while, the other hand. Oh, I lie on my back, did I say that? It feels so great. It washes over my whole body, then it sucks me towards the sea as it flows away. Sometimes I slide a little, into the sea, before it lets go and I'm just sitting, drying in the sun.

But then it comes and it covers me and it stays. For hours, I'm under water, and it tumbles me back and forth on the ocean floor. I have my eyes closed, but I can feel it holding me, lifting me up then dropping me down, back down on the ocean floor where the sand lightly billows up and meets me, then slowly carries me down to rest. I sit there.

One time I sat there for several days. In the deep ocean, the tide just stops. The sound just stops. There at the bottom, I don't feel the water anymore. I almost want to be on shore again, so that I can feel the tide roll over me. But I don't want to leave, either. Weird, huh? But I just sat there, deep under the sea, and I could hear the fish swim over me. I can hear the ships sail over me. I can hear the stars, they prickle on the ocean's surface and make a noise, did you know that? Out in the deep ocean it's all prickling stars, except when the sun's out. That's when the fish make the most noise. Then they stop, and it's the stars and the ships.

When I was at the bottom, I didn't think of anything. I started, thinking of you, mommie, and you, daddie, like separate waves when I was on the shore. One time, a wave was mommie: soft and lingering, and I loved it. Then, daddie, those were the ones that pushed me out to sea, gave me a lift, and I loved that, too. But then I'm in the deep sea, and mommie and daddie are there, I can hear it in my ears, but you aren't there, either. When the stars are out, sometimes I cry and sometimes I don't.

Somehow I got rolled back. The sea spit me out. It was like dreaming, I was just one place one time, and then I was rolling, and then I was in this other place. And then I was on the shore, and the tide took itself away from me. It covered both ears. Then it covered my mouth, then it didn't and I gasped. Then it left my nose, and then it was just at my ear, and then I could just hear it.

I liked it, but now I don't want to go to the sea for a while. Maybe I'll just sit on the beach and watch, and then I'll go in later.

Love you and miss you

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Now a series of self-indulgence

This one is rated PG-13 for mild language and graphic imagery.


Hello, my darling.

I hope you are doing well. I think of you all the time. I have a tiny lantern here, something they bring us from the surface. They breed generations of fireflies on the way down to these mines, because it's too dangerous to have any sparks or fires. I look at your picture, your beautiful face, now lit in green by these fireflies, now darkened, as I write this letter.

The work is grueling. I don't yet do any swimming in the marshes, but I will eventually; for now, I sort through what they bring back. Every object makes me angry or disgusted, and I'm not the only one. The diggers (that's my group) and the dredgers (swimmers) often get into fights because we hate them for being such assholes and bringing us this stuff. The dredgers must get tired of it; it's not their fault, I know, but we all wish that we could just leave it alone.

Now, if I were to just tell you what comes up, you would probably think it's funny that we get so bent out of shape by such mundane things. I can't explain it, but it's the way they get into you, somehow, and they are covered in the most disgusting layers of dirt and muck and slime.

Maybe if I give an example it will make more sense. The other day a dredger, the little bastard, brought back this bike, one of those faster ones. It was all bent and covered in this black slime that made tears come to my eyes and a slaver to my lips as I tried to clean it off. And as I cleaned it, I thought of you, broken and covered in slime, staring at me with huge, empty eye sockets. I had you there, with me, after all these years, and yet you were gone, dead or parted from your body. I'm ashamed to say I wanted to slap that body, in my anger I thought it might bring you back to me. Please forgive me.

Imagine hour after hour, day after day of that. The objects that come up are always different: spindles, telephones, magazines, brochures, spotlights, terraces, and on and on, but they all cause these reactions. It's so extremely tiring, and most of the time during my rest period I just stare at your picture because I don't have any power to do anything else.

Once in a while we diggers and dredgers get together to try to heal our anger and shake off work. The dredgers make a disgusting drink distilled from the sludge of the marshes. They mix it with caraway seeds and rosemary to make it palatable, and though I said it is disgusting, it really is passable. Because it's distilled, it's even more toxic than the plain slime, but somehow, sharing the dismay of that stuff with your coworkers makes it easy to look them in the eye and celebrate their pain with yours. Still, the first time I drank it I couldn't understand why they would want to mix the torture of work with the exhaustion of rest. But the real reward of the drink is the dreams.

The drink, after all the shared pain at our celebrations, gives the most restful sleep, full of dreams of joy and restoration. Sometimes we gather in one of the communal areas and place all our lamps together in the middle, and then sit and talk about the dreams we have. Some of the younger folk, born down here, dream of the free air up above, of chasing fireflies in the real rain, and falling with lovers in the grass. A guy around my age dreams of being in his kitchen again, frying up bitter gourd flowers and serving them to groups of people, clamoring behind a darkness he can't penetrate with his eyes, but that accepts the glowing flowers gladly. An older man finds peace in not dreaming at all.

But I dream of only one thing, every time. I dream of you coming to the door at my knock, limping and with your cane, and I see you and know that I am forgiven. You lead me to the kitchen, and we eat like new lovers, and hold each other, and I forget the bicycles and the sludge. I wake up rested and whole another day.

I'm sorry I came here, you know that. It was my choice, but I had to come. I've asked your forgiveness, looking at your green face, so many times. But I can't go back now, and you know that, too. I don't know when I'll get out, so I can't even count the days. But I'm thinking of you every minute, that's how I keep track of time and create my calendar. And I know you'll be there when I get back.

I love you.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

More self-indulgence: a sort of reply

Now I'm being really self-indulgent: three people read my last entry, so I decided to write a sequel.

This is fiction and doesn't mean anything at all, I'm afraid. It's less disturbing, and the bees are only marginal. Probably less enjoyable as well.


Hi there!

This is a sort of letter, though I can't send it. You know where I am (mostly), but I have no idea where you are. Maybe I'll shoot off some rockets with copies and hope for the best! But I've so wanted to talk to you again over the years, and this is the only way I know how.

I planted bitter gourds when you left, and they've crept up the side of the house. I thought I would stop gardening when you left because it distracts me from my work, but I enjoy it. I only eat the dirt I collect on my fingers now. Anyway, the gourd flowers have just begun to bloom, and the bees are persistent and all yellow. I can watch the bees' tiny little legs rubbing and collecting pollen moving between all the yellow flowers. I know they are helping the plants to come together, and to grow, and the buzzing really only bothers me when I sit in the backyard, alone, watching them too long.

I started looking at silence, like you said I should. The mirror in the bathroom shows a little bit of it, but oddly enough the little compact I carry with me is most revealing. I don't use it for anything else now; I just stare at it. Sometimes I set it next to my desk and try to surprise the silence while I'm reading: you would laugh, seeing me! But I think I see now what you said was there. I'll keep trying.

I've kept at my work. My little mud men (and women now!) don't move very fast, but I can get them to smile now and again, and sometimes when I leave them for a few days they'll have moved from one side of the barn to another. But they don't know each other, they don't know me. I put them out in the yard last Halloween, and I think the kids loved it. They played tag, and of course my mud men always lost! But one of the kids thought one of my women was very cuddly, and he wrapped his arms around her. She didn't move, and just stared ahead, and the poor boy walked away so dejected! But I sent him away with plenty of candy, and he seemed happy enough. I've seen him a few times after that night, and I don't think he remembers. The mud woman just stared straight ahead. I don't think she's moved since.

It's gratifying to make these fantastic little people, and so frustrating! Everyone thinks they are my servants, but they don't understand. I don't train them to do dishes or anything! You understood. My hope is to one day get them to talk, then maybe everyone will understand.

I'm working now on building bubbles, huge, beautiful things! I build them up around people, and when they walk, the sides shine so wonderfully in the sun. Even better is the light of the moon, everything is ghostly pallid but you can feel the coolness and rest. There's some of that silence shining in the sides of those bubbles, I'm sure of it; you would stand in awe! But I should be more modest...blush. Still, it feels like I'm not creating anything at all: it's just there; I just happen to be the only one that sees it.

Aggh. I hope you are doing well. I worry about you, though I know I shouldn't. I'm sure you are dancing with the locals, climbing mountains like a butterfly and flying down just as fast as a car! I'm afraid you would find it very boring here. You've probably forgotten about me, even though you said you wouldn't. We always talk about you, far away, while here the rain falls and washes everything away.

Why did you leave? But I know why you left. I wanted to come after you. You know, I even pulled out that old bike, the one we used to try to fix? But it still doesn't work, I don't know why. You spent so many hours on it, turning knobs, lifting levers, and it was so hard to watch you, because it would never go. I never wanted it to go. But you knew that, I guess. Still, you kept trying.

I've waited so long for your letter. I know you don't know my address, but after so many decades I had hoped that you might have sent a letter to every house in town. Surely someone is still delivering letters, after all this time? I've lost track.

I'm happy. I hope you are too.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Self-indulgence: A Letter

This is fiction; I hope you'll indulge me. This is fiction: don't look for any hidden meanings, except for the obvious hidden ones.

Also, I should warn you, some may find this disturbing. There is blood, and hair, and dead bees. If you can't stomach either graphic images or poetic license, you might want to skip this one.

A Letter

I made it! It's been a long trip, and it's really not over now that I'm here, but I said I'd write when I got here. We were separated before I could get your address, so I'm afraid this will stay in my notebook for now. Maybe I'll come home again and see you some day—I can give it to you then.

I set out on this trip to find something. To find somewhere my reaction turns to openness and I don't spend every moment closed behind the temporary walls that seem so hard. At first, though, I glided along in a bubble, and with nothing and no one to break the skin, I rode like a white ghost through village after village, never resting, so that city behind told city ahead that I slept in graveyards, and people avoided me for fear I would take them from their families and bury them in shallow graves far from home. I didn't want to suck their blood, but after so many hungry nights I found myself craving first the blood of cattle, then family dogs, and finally small children.

For months I rode alone, sometimes for hundreds of miles at a stretch. I climbed mountains along with cars, then floated down the opposite side as light and airy as the butterflies wafting from flower to flower by the side of the road.

The people that did not run when they saw me were fellow travelers. They too had taken to sucking blood; though they were ashamed, they felt they had no other option. We had killed no one, we all agreed. For some reason, the bees flew around our heads when we sat next to the campfire, but we paid no attention, and they left when we retired to our tents for sleep.

But I met one man, a traveler, who did not suck blood. He listened politely to the others' tales of blood in barns, on porches, in parks of far-flung cities. I watched him the whole night, but he didn't speak a word until the others gradually dropped off to sleep.

With the others gone, he finally engaged me. I no longer understand why he chose me, but at the time it struck me as appropriate. He didn't dwell on his own past but told me immediately he had given up sucking blood. He said he found that giving up on blood, at first the pangs were unforgiving, but finally, after several days, he did not need the blood anymore. He said his dreams sustained him.

I laughed at the thought of surviving on dreams and took up my bike again the next day after many days of rest. My fellow travelers and I had raided the nearby city so much that the people had all evacuated, so we were rich with vigor.

But soon I was once again alone for days at a time, and I found my energy sapped as the long miles between cities supported nothing. The buzzing of the bees became unbearable. They had built a hive in my flesh, and the blood I sucked went now not to push me up hills, but to their growing children. I slept on my stomach as a hive grew first on the back of my leg, then another on my neck. All the while they buzzed, until I grew frantic.

At last I could no longer move. I lay in my tent as the bees flew wildly around my head; they grew angry because I had no more blood. I was so weak I could not say I was sorry, and they stung me.

I was near death. I felt suddenly the horror of those poor little bees as they died deep in my flesh. The hives grew stiff and cracked, then one day they shriveled and blew away. The bees buzzed no longer.

That night I dreamt of you. So long ago, another life. You posed with your back to me, your beautiful hair curling up around your shoulders, I surprised you framed in the doorway, waiting. Waiting for me.

I awoke and remembered the history of that image. I was wandering in a labyrinth, my head down. The labyrinth wound around and around, and though there were no walls, I could follow nothing but the black line ahead of me as it curved. Through interlocking labyrinths I found I could always reach my destination... or, well, I found I always reached a destination, even if I did not at first recognize where I was.

And there you were, your hair shining in the sun so that the black line of the labyrinth grew fuzzy and dissipated and I could see the door. Then even the door disappeared and it was just you and me and the warm light of the sun.

Remembering that moment I felt a new life inside me. My flesh wounded by the bees still hurt, but I soon could move again, and a month later, after dreaming every night of warmth and light, I could push, and then could pedal, my bike again.

I was no longer feared. In towns the people welcomed me, and we danced and sang. We shared the stories of our dreams, but when I began to speak of the bees they grew quiet, so I told a story of my home and we sang once again, of home, and of lightning, and fireflies. Then it rained and the beauty washed away to be replaced by beauty.

And so I reached this place! Unlike the people of the cities and villages by the road, I do not shun the travelers who suck blood, because I am a traveler, too.

I hope life is treating you well. All the best.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An interlude: a day in Tokyo

I don't know that I've ever gone through a day in Tokyo here in this blog. Sometimes I wake up and think, "maybe I'll head over to Ueno," or "it'd be great to do some people-watching in Omotesando". Then I remember I'm 5000 miles away. I'm kind of curious, thinking now from a lounge chair here in Kansas, if I can recreate for myself the environments of Tokyo again.

I lived most of my time in Japan in a four room, traditional style apartment in the far north of Tokyo. I've decided to set my story in early June, just as it is now here in Kansas. It would be warm; the sunlight coming through the frosted-glass windows heat the tatami (a type of reed) floors, so that there is a natural perfume at the end of the day. In the morning, though, the apartment would smell like coffee, rice and natto, my usual breakfast back when I could easily find it.

I open my window, that same frosted-glass window that spans the face of my "living room". This room is "four and a half tatami", meaning it is 80 square feet; rather small, or cozy. It is a pleasant room in the summers when I can look out over the local area: my building is one of the tallest in the neighborhood at three stories, so I can see one of the nearby temples, the park a couple of blocks away, even the Yamada Denki electronics store far off on Nikko Kaido road. And even further away is the Joban line train and, next to it, the highway lining the Arakawa river. Not a lot of green: the concrete goes on forever.

It is overcast, like so many days in Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji from the roof of my building, but today the view doesn't make that much of an impression. I spend the morning on the computer; my computer is on top of the kotatsu set up for summer (since I don't need the insulation of a blanket, this means it is now just a table), just before the window. I'm sitting on the floor.

My ritual before work, when I was working for Kikkoman, was to grab my clothes, hanging to dry on a line on the balcony outside the sliding doors of my bedroom, iron them, then stuff them in a backpack for the commute. Yeah, it kind of defeated the purpose of ironing, but I at least had to go through the motions. I then put a sealed container with home-made red curry in a separate pocket and loaded up my hydration bag. I take a quick look at the pot containing bitter melon seedlings I just bought that weekend: they won't take off until mid-July, but they are a pleasant, vigorous green.

I then take my biking clothes to the bathroom. The bathroom and the toilet are separate, with my tiny, crappy washing machine between the two. I take a shower in the bathroom, while the bathtub, a fantastic machine that can automatically prepare water that will cover you from neck to toes with water the perfect temperature as you sit cross-legged, sits unused. I don't use it much in summer, though there are the occasional cool nights even in early summer when a warm bath is the perfect end to the day.

At one point I put my bicycle in one of the closets that lined every room: monstrous caverns that increase the size of the apartment almost a whole time over. I had a folding bike, and so could easily fold it up and stuff it away behind the thin sliding doors of one of these closets. However, I soon tired of carrying the 25-lb bundle of gears and oil up two flights, so I just left it down with my tank bike and the tanks of my neighbors.

So I put on my bicycle shoes at the door, in the tiny entranceway about half a foot below the floors of the kitchen and the rest of the house. I shoulder my bag full of clothes and lunch, don my helmet and gloves, and push open the heavy metal door. I clack on cleats down the flimsy steps of this concrete building that has been grandfathered out of earthquake proofing. I try not to think about what the big one might do some night to this flimsy structure.

My landlady turns to me when I reach the bottom of the stairs. She bows rapidly a few times, her face crinkled in that smile that makes me, would make anyone, feel like everything is right in the world and that I am somehow involved in creating or maintaining that rightness. She says "ohayo gozaimasu, ii tenki desu ne!" (Good morning, great weather, huh?) It's past morning, (I work at 2 and leave at 12:30), but I say good morning as well. "O dekake desu ka?" Always the same question "are you going out?" "Hai, shigoto e ittekimasu". Yes, I'm headed to work. "Itterashai!" she bends a couple of more times in slight bows: "come back soon" or "have a good trip".

I put on my helmet, push the folding bike out of the bike garage, clip my shoes in, and head out. Some of the younger children are playing in the quiet alleyway that connects my apartment to the nearby streets. The little girls all say "good evening, Eigojin!" in a mix of incorrect English and incorrect Japanese ("Eigojin" means "person from the English language"). The boys are too cool or too nervous to say anything. I wave and correct them: "Hello," or "good afternoon", and then I ride off.

The small, winding alleyway opens quickly onto a much larger street that has no name. I pass an ume, Japanese apricot tree. In late February the ume signals the beginning of spring with its dark red buds and pink flowers, but now its twisted figure is covered lightly in green. A purple maple overhangs a gate between cinder-block walls.

The larger road ends at the train tracks to the west. The Tobu line Nishi Arai station is a fifteen minute walk from my house; the trains all stop there, headed north to Saitama or Tochigi, or south to Kita Senju, Ueno, Ginza in downtown Tokyo. But I'm biking my way south, so I'll just ride the underground walkway over to the other side of the tracks.

On the other side I exit the tunnel and come around to another street that I'll take south to the river. I see a mother and her small boy astride a bike next to the fence surrounding the train tracks. Mom is sitting in the bicycle seat, holding the front wheel straight while the boy, sitting in the basket on that front wheel, watches the tracks intently to the north. When one of the beautiful orange rapid trains squeaks around the bend, the little boy slowly raises an uncoordinated hand and coos; mom leans over to coo into his ear and look excitedly at the marvel. The boy is rapt in the contemplation of magic.

I sigh and head to the road. Japanese drivers are courteous, but that doesn't make the prospect of traveling alongside half-ton steel and plastic goblins huffing and puffing their black breath any more charming. I ride on the left side with them past the Mexican restaurant, past the brand-new mega mall, past the indoor tennis gym, and past warehouse after warehouse, tiny industrial facility after facility.

I reach the highway. There is no entrance here, thankfully, but the elevated road rises high above the levee on this side of the river. There are plastic panels on the side of the road to muffle the sound, but you can still hear the wind being pushed aside by eager metal.

But now begins the most pleasant part of my commute: the Arakawa riverside park trail. On either side of the river there are roads, car-width but inaccessible to the monsters. Just pedestrians and bicycles, and in the middle of the day, even these are few.

I cross Nishiaraibashi (so named because it is a bridge (bashi) and leads to my city, Nishiarai). The wind along the Arakawa usually rushes south in the afternoon and north at night; today it is indeed running south, the direction I'm going, so I can get up to 20-25 miles an hour. I pass by baseball diamond after baseball diamond: empty now, but later in the day young boys will be chanting their Japanese version of "swang battuh" on every one of the 15-20 fields that line this section of the riverside.

It's cleared a bit, and the river is glinting in the sun. Unlike the Sumida, the grand and sluggish river that has been allowed to cut through the eastern side of central Tokyo, the Arakawa slides along at a young pace in its path from north to east, and finally down to meet the Sumida at Tokyo Bay. It is about a football-field wide. A single waterskier glides by behind a speed boat, against the river's flow.

Despite a few too many happoshus the night before, I'm feeling energetic. The wind always raises my spirits, and I'm cruising along, careful to give the few tank-riding ojiisans (grandpas) plenty of room as they weave along.

It's about 6 miles to the tennis courts and the end of the river path. Here I face again the reserved madness of Tokyo streets for the final leg to Hibiya park, where I'll have lunch and change before work. The street that crosses the river here, connecting Kasai to Tokyo, doesn't really have a name, like most streets in Japan. Unlike many streets in Tokyo, though, it is straight, and it is wide. My best option for a quick ride into the heart of the city.

Eastern Tokyo has become a bit like many crappy American cities, with huge mall after huge mall, all offering the same stuff. I know just off this street, though, that there's a little store off a little alleyway that offers a rich supply of Southeast Asian ingredients; take a right here and there's a tiny shrine: not an ancient shrine, because everything was pretty much destroyed here by the firebombs of WWII, but quaint none the less. Tokyo, is an ugly, modern city, but it holds magic in the most unexpected places.

But what can I say about riding on the street with 4 lanes of traffic? It sucks. I survive one more time, crossing the Sumida and entering the true center of Tokyo. My office is 3 blocks from the moat of the imperial palace; before the Emperor established his home here, the Shogun controlled Edo (old Tokyo) and eastern Japan from behind same moat for 400 years. Basho, the poet that invented haiku, lived on the eastern bank of the Sumida for many years; on the western side of that river is the Nihonbashi, the point from which all distances were once measured.

Once across the river, the peak height of the skyscrapers climbs. Tokyo is mostly low-rise, but downtown the giants huddle together and it feels like a big city. Here I pass under the shinkansen, the bullet train, making its way from Ueno station to the north down to Osaka, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. It's old now, but it will always be a symbol of Japan's late 20th century ascendancy.

Finally I reach Hibiya. It's a simple park, with nothing to really recommend it beyond its restfulness between the powermongering in Kasumigaseki and moneymaking in Shinbashi. I came here every day for two years, ate my lunch while watching old folks play tennis, and I loved it.

After lunch I change into my partially pressed shirt and pants, Mr. Rogers from bike shoes to oxfords, and tease a half-windsor out of my tie. All in a free but clean bathroom stall in the park. I saunter by bike to the nearest conbini (convenience store), buy a refrigerated Starbucks coffee drink, lock up my bike, and saunter on foot to work.