05 May 2008

One more working week without a car

About a month ago, I wrote about trying to get to work for a whole week without using my car. With a renewed sense of adventure, and with convenient new bus timetable coming into effect, I thought it was time to up the ante.

There would be a few important differences this time. For example, instead of subjecting myself in the worst heat wave in recorded history, I'm now facing the onset of the South Australian winter, with random showers and sea breezes sending the temperature to the floor at a moment's notice. I also don't have any public holidays this time around: I've got to keep this up for the full five days.

More importantly, I made liberal use of the trains last time, so I would have less riding to work in the morning (although I still rode home afterwards). Now that I've finally found somewhere I can have a shower at work, I want to work up to riding all the way from home to work by the end of the week.

This is going to take a bit of planning. I'm not going to take food and clothes to work on the bike every day, so I'm taking the bus on Monday to take some clothes to work, and again on Friday to take them home again. Tuesday through Thursday, I'll be riding, but I'll still have to pack food for the day. On the Sunday night, I already had everything packed: deodorant, clothes for the week, soap and towel for the shower, leftovers in the fridge for lunch; and my umbrella, of course, for the walking in between.

That's not to say, though, that I couldn't also suffer a minor setback before the week started: it was bucketing down with rain outside. Before I could take a 15-minute drive to work, I had to endure a 15-minute walk to the train stop; if it's still raining like this in the morning, I'm going to wonder how I ever survived it. For now, there's little more I can do but hope for the weather to ease before tomorrow morning.

Monday

It's always a shock when my mobile phone wakes me up at 6:15 in the morning. Let me sleep in until 6:20, at least. Make it 6:25.

With a quick twist of the blinds, I peer outside to what appears to be a break in the weather. Hopefully, this will hold until I get to work. Despite not having wanted to leave the warmth of the shower, I collected my backpack and my travel bag and headed off.

My daily detour to the local bakery was met with a few spots of rain, which I hardly noticed at all. By the time I'd bought breakfast, the rain had started anew, and with umbrella in hand, I braced myself for the walk to the interchange. When I reached the footpath, I saw a bus coming - the only bus that runs from the shops to the train at that hour of the morning, no less. I hadn't planned on catching this, given the reliable tardiness of buses - particularly when I need to catch one at a particular time to make a transfer further down the road - but it stopped right in front of me and was going the right way.

The Mawson Lakes railway station itself does its best to shield waiting passengers from the elements, with wide metal roofs and an enclosed lounge for city-bound passengers. The elements were winning today, though: with the strong easterly wind, you had to stick to the west side of the stairs not to get wet. Across the track, the city-bound passengers anxiously awaited their vessel, a rainbow to the south marking its destination.

There seems to be a marked difference between the people travelling north and those travelling into the city, with the latter group seemingly better endowed with attractive women. Sure, they have nicer clothes and accessories - or, at least, more expensive clothes and accessories - but they have nicer faces as well, or at least there is a greater proportion of nice faces. Do these people have good jobs in the city because of a better genetic predisposition? And what does that even mean? Perhaps it's my longing gaze across the tracks, my wondering about the inner-city lifestyle only matched by my disappointment that they best-looking ones are never going the same way as I am.

Then again, perhaps I'm also disappointed that I'm going the same way I am. The defence sites can be pretty drab, especially if your office is as isolated as mine. I'm glad I don't work for the Department any more, but working in a private company for the same industry is often just as taxing on one's moral compass. My current project is at something of a crossroads, but since none of us knows with path to take, the whole thing has come to a grinding halt. I've got a few things to work on today, but I can't help the impression that I'll be entertaining myself for half the day.

Getting ready to go home, I had a quick glance at the news. This morning's cold snap broke temperature records across the state, and it wasn't so long ago that South Australia was suffering the longest heat wave in national recorded history. I also noted that the crew from The Chaser's War On Everything have all had the charges against them dropped, news which brought a knowing smile to my face. I grabbed my backpack and headed home.

I've certainly appreciated the change in bus timetable, which got me arriving at work ten minutes earlier and leaving five minutes later - just enough leeway to put in a full eight-hour day. Outside, the intermittent rain has made way to sunshine so brilliant that it almost hurts to look where I'm going. Not that I need to, mind: there's not much traffic to dodge, and I've only got Muse on my iPod to keep me company until I get to the bus.

Tomorrow will be interesting. I took the bike out tonight to get some food to bring home. The bike's still going strong, but the evening air was freezing. It's going to be worse at 8:00 tomorrow morning. Fortunately, I won't have anything to carry except food, since all my work clothes are already at work.

Tuesday

The plan today was to ride my bike to the train, take the train to Elizabeth, and ride back to work. I've done this a few times before, and both stretches on the bike are pretty leisurely.

I once saw someone riding across the bridge at Elizabeth at the same time as me. He was riding on the road, and I stuck to riding on the footpath. Now that I've ridden on the road, I don't know how anyone ever put up with it. On top of the constant flirting with rush-hour traffic, the bitumen is cracking at the seams, which makes for one hell of a bumpy ride on a bike. Next time, I think I'll stay on the footpath.

The good part about this stretch of road, though, is that the way from here to my office is a sealed road that is, for some unknown reason, closed to all car traffic. There's a section of East Avenue that's blocked off, starting at Bellchambers Road at the northern end, and ending at an assortment of offices of Defence contractors. Actually, the road runs from there all the way through DSTO, but much to the chagrin of the early-morning commuters, the north gatehouse is very rarely open.

As is so often the case, it wasn't until I'd gotten to work that I realised I'd forgotten something. Word to the wise: if you aren't going to wear your work shoes on the way to work, /leave them at work/. So I was in my good work clothes, and a pair of sneakers. Really, there wouldn't be anything wrong with wearing my work shoes on the bike: they're little more than black sneakers, after all, and I've walked many a mile in them already. The problem is deciding whether to wear them to work every day or whether to take them to work once and leave them there all week - and sticking to that one plan. I didn't bring a belt, either, but I've got no excuse for that.

I'm starting to look forward to the ride home each day now. Leaving at twilight, you see the colours change over the Edinburgh bushland. On Tuesdays, you get to laugh at the people queued up for cheap petrol; on Wednesdays, you get to laugh at the people who forgot to fill up their cars on Tuesday. It's not that I'm not a sucker for the gas-guzzling lifestyle: I still own a car, after all, but I drive so little in it that I feel that I'm making that evolutionary leap beyond oil with every day that I choose an alternative. Remember, peak oil is largely an economic phenomenon, so the weaker your dependence on oil is, the weaker the effect of its price will be on you, particularly in the long term. Almost paradoxically, I consider what I'm doing such a good investment that I will neither need nor want whatever money it returns to me.

I felt as though I was making record time on the way home today, but it turned out not to make any difference. It still took me 40 minutes to get home, and I didn't feel any more or less tired and sore than I usually do. Normally, I would be inclined to rest on the laurels of a day like that, but I'm determined to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.

Wednesday

I'm putting the stakes up a bit higher today. Instead of riding from the Elizabeth interchange to the office, I'm getting off at the Salisbury interchange and continuing from there. In real terms, instead of riding 3km to work, I'm now riding close to 7km. I'm still planning on riding all the way home as well, which is still more than double that. This is all part of the build-up for this week.

After yesterday's stellar weather, the showers have finally come. However, it was only Adelaide rain, which was too faint to see from inside. When I ducked outside to see just how hard it was raining, I could barely feel it on my hand. I can live with that, I thought, remembering that there is indeed hot running water at work. I made sure I had the shoes and belt I forgot to leave at work on Monday, and grabbed the water bottle I forgot yesterday.

It turns out that the sleet is considerably more noticeable when you're riding through it that it is when you stick your hand into it from under the cover of the front porch. By the time I got to the bakery, I was starting to regret not having worn contact lenses today; waiting for the train, I used up the last tissue I was carrying with me, getting as much cleaning and drying out of that as I could.

Salisbury Interchange is interesting. The railway line crosses the highway, high above the underpass of regular traffic. There's also a foot bridge into the northwestern suburbs, from which you get a unique view of the highway; at rush hour, you almost get the impression of living in a major city. The foot bridge connects with a paved track that appears to run between a school and the main roads. I've taken this path once before, but I couldn't remember where it ended up, so I was navigating based almost entirely on my sense of direction, heading in the rough direction of work, picking up the suburban backstreets on the way. It's a shorter distance, but I'm not convinced it's any quicker, especially when you end up turning across heavy traffic afterwards.

Salisbury, as its name suggests, is high up on a plain, whereas Mawson Lakes, formerly known as The Levels, is quite close to sea level. There are no steep hills along the way to suggest such a difference; moreover, it's a steady incline that gains some 50 metres of altitude over the 7km voyage. Heading west into Edinburgh, the climb continues; and with the rain still falling, I'm talking to myself to keep going. It's not much further. There's hot running water. Just a little further.

I get into work bang on 9:00. Of course, I'm in daggy clothes that are soaked from both directions, so I can't much hang around the office like this. One of the buildings here is equipped with a proper change room, presumably recalling the days when actual military personnel were here and had to keep fit as a matter of duty. Really, though, the difference is only that my duty is to a higher calling than Queen and country.

In any case, that shower was worth it, without question. I can feel my legs stiffen up, now that I'm only using them to stand on the spot. I can already tell that I'll spend half of today doing squats and going for random walks around the office to loosen up my knees.

Having spent 15 minutes getting cleaned up and getting changed, I'm starting to calculate in my head how long it's really taking me to get to work. I left today at about 8:10 to get to the office at 9:00. I reckon I could ride in that amount of time: it takes me 40 minutes to ride home, and the climbing wouldn't add that much time to the total. The only problem is that I should really be at work and in a working capacity by 9:00, so really, I should be leaving ten or twenty minutes earlier. That said, we don't get many visitors here, and none of them ever wants to see me, so unless I'm specifically meeting someone, I don't think anyone cares if I start and finish a bit later, as long as things get done.

As you can probably tell, work isn't really capturing my attention today. My boss called me at around lunchtime to try and arrange a meeting with me, and again about an hour later to cancel it. We'll try and meet again tomorrow morning and see what progress we can make. I've scribbled down some ideas regarding a direction that I don't really know we should be taking, just in case that's what we end up deciding.

I left a little bit earlier today than yesterday, catching a break in the showers, as well as wanting to get back to the shops before the bakery shuts. I didn't buy much, and there wasn't anything I needed urgently, but the bakery was offering me free stuff and I wouldn't have gotten it home before the weekend otherwise. The things we do, I suppose.

To cap off a pretty trying day, I thought it would be a really good idea to do a stir fry when I got home. After eating that in front of Spicks And Specks and washing up everything, I wasn't done with it much before 22:00. At least I don't have much that I need to do to prepare for tomorrow.

Truly, I'm tiring from this, and not just the cycling. On the way home, I felt that the cycling was getting easier, but my legs were like jelly through the night, and I can't run all the way up the stairs as easily I could a few days ago. Maybe organising this is getting easier as well, although I wouldn't know it today, without an array of frozen meals that I can just grab on the way out.

None of this has stopped me wanting to continue, though. Seeing petrol jump to 154.9c/L today helped a bit, and I now find myself heckling people with my bell as I ride past petrol stations, so I can always look forward to that. We might get more rain again tomorrow, so I'll have to see what I will be able to do. I'll be interested to know how I feel physically and mentally as well.

Thursday

I wasn't sure what I'd do today. I had noble goals of riding all the way to work, but I had three concerns about whether I'd manage it. My first problem was that the Bureau of Meteorology had forecast showers for the morning, and I could only hope that they don't coincide with my ride to work. My second and third problems were that my knees were aching like anything.

I had my alarm set for 6:20, in case I bailed on the bike ride and had to take the bus. The weather was moving in from the west, seemingly blowing the rain clouds away, and I could see what I swore were blue skies over the horizon. The bike ride was on, and I was back to sleep for another hour.

Leaving at 8:05, I could feel my knees arguing with me before I got to the end of the street: they're going to hate me for this. I had thought about taking the elevator at Mawson Interchange rather than riding up over the bridge, easily the slowest part of the whole journey, but some roadworks had sprung up overnight, and taking another detour from the one they had established wasn't worth it. Anyway, the bridge is quite an apt metaphor for peak oil: the climb is much easier in a car, but the descent is far more satisfying on a bike.

Navigating Salisbury Highway on a bike, you notice it's only straight and true on a map. The quality of the road surface varies wildly from smooth finish to seismic anomaly. The bike lanes are either generous or non-existent, so the trip combines peaceful, uninterrupted cycling with the white-knuckle terror of mingling with rush-hour traffic. In some parts, I'm not convinced it's safe to be on the road at all - and it's bad enough taking my chances with oblivious pedestrians on the footpath, thank you very much. Maybe I need a bigger bell, but then I'd have people chasing me to buy ice cream.

The meeting with my boss has been postponed again, and it might not be today at all. Since I still don't know what I should be doing, the frustration is setting in. You'd think this would be discouraging me from making an effort to get work, and I'd be lying if I were to say it wasn't having some effect. It's just as well that riding has been so much fun and so satisfying. The key, I think, is to persevere with work as much as I do with the bike: just as I know that some parts of the ride are more difficult than others, I know that the current inactivity will eventually make way, and I'll be off at a frantic pace again. Still, the slow points on a bike last minutes, not weeks. That's kind of a downer.

Today was classic autumn weather: bright and sunny for a while, then raining, then sunny again. In most parts of the country, this phenomenon is referred to as "Melbourne weather", but Adelaide's weather is not much better at this time of year. I got a few spots of rain on the way out, but I could still see the brilliance of the sunset through the bush to the west, at least for the first few minutes. That said, the sunset lasts a bit less time every day, and I left a bit later than I'd hoped today.

I was pretty hungry by then as well, so rather than get there and start foraging, I stopped in for junk food on the way home. It seemed that everyone else in the entire city did as well: I've never stood in line so long for "fast" food. To make matters worse, everyone in the queue ahead of me seemed to be catering for a family reunion, except for the couple ahead of me, who spent ten minutes disputing an order because they got something more than what they ordered. At least someone had a busy day at the office.

It was nearly 20:00 when I got home, and I could feel the air getting cooler. I couldn't wait to have a hot shower, get rid of my dirty clothes, and just stop for a moment to rest on my laurels. A colleague told me today that you can well be surprised by what you can do when you're committed to it, and of course, he's absolutely correct about that. A few days ago, I could have seen myself regretting an experiment such as this - arriving at work one day, for example, and being so weak and tired that I couldn't even walk, let alone concentrate on work. Now that I'm on the home stretch, all that remains is to get the stuff I've left at work this week, bring it all home, and wash it - perhaps even in preparation for next week. I can taste the finish now; not even fried chicken and cheesecake could mask that.

Friday

Well, this is it: one last early start, one last dash for the train. Followed by a weekend of washing clothes, no doubt.

On the way to the bakery, fittingly, I caught up with the friend of mine who lent me the bicycle that made this little experiment of mine possible. I let him know what I'd been doing and that the net result of it may be my purchasing of a new bike. I'll try to catch up with him and pick his brain about what I should be looking for. I can't see there being a paradigm shift from what I've already got; it's more about designing something for me and for my needs.

When I got on the train, I saw one of my old bosses from my previous job at Defence. I don't know whether he saw me, and frankly, I don't much care either. He and I had a falling out when one of his yes-men, who was scared to death of me (and possibly still is), tried to blame me for screwing up a project, and when he stepped in, he turned out to be no more honourable than the coward he was defending. Usually, I just act as if I don't know them; they should be so lucky, in reality. Fortunately, he didn't change to the bus today.

It's weird, actually. He's a keen cyclist, he uses public transport whenever possible, he's multilingual, he buys organic produce, and he's got a positively evil sense of humour. Before the disputes came up, we got on famously. Afterwards, he decided that pecking order of his subordinates was more important than their ability to work together, and the disputes got out of hand. Now, I'll never speak to him again. It might seem like a shame, but I don't really want to be associated with people that harbour such resentment of me, and I'm just glad I don't have so many of them in my life any more. I am, admittedly, morbidly curious to know how these people think of what happened, but only as much as a passing driver slows down to look at a car accident: you might want to know, but there's a good chance you won't like what you find out.

The office is always very quiet at 8:15 in the morning, which allows me to concentrate better on my work. That is to say, it would allow that, if I actually had that much to do. In the absence to a solution to any of my problems, I'm trying to find ways of filling up my days at work, and I always feel guilty about doing that, even if I didn't cause the problems in the first place. It makes it difficult to appreciate your own ability to do something worthwhile with your life, to leave on the world a mark that is truly yours, to be a person you can improve stuck in a place that you can't.

To cap off a particularly trying week, I nearly missed the bus on the way home. It seems that not everyone at Adelaide Metro got the new timetable, and as I was trying to cross a busy street at rush hour, I could see the bus turning to drive away. It's at times like these, when you're running across a congested roundabout to a bus stop, that you notice how much heavier wet clothes can be than dry clothes.

Even so, I couldn't stop congratulating myself all the way home. A couple of friends invited me out to dinner that night, and I had to order something decadent and expensive as a reward for my efforts. It would be especially ironic if that meal undid all the healthy things I've done for myself during the week, but I don't really care.

* * * * * *

What I have done is to prove to myself that, in spite of my obvious physical unpreparedness, I could still do it with little or no ill effect. My legs still ache, but that will fade over the next day or two, and what will remain are the memories of what I have achieved.

On that note, I wonder how many people will read this and fail to imagine themselves undertaking such an exercise. I can only respond in the words of Antoine de Saint-Exup?ry:

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

I have no special skills in this department either. To me, this was simply one more exercise in building a plan using very basic tools and materials. The rest comes from my passion, my commitment to leaving a mark on the Earth of which I can be proud. See the Earth in a different way, and consider all she has done for you, and you too will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

2 comments:

Darls said...

Hey, that's great! I had to laugh at several comments, but overall kudos to ya for keep going with the insane project to prove the Oil Companies that you can live without them ;)

Keep it going!

Aaron Nielsen said...

Thanks for your support, daris, but bear in mind that this insanity is controlled insanity. :) Glad you had fun reading it.

Cheers,

Aaron