Lessons Learned From A Year Long Commitment to Bike Commuting
by Katherine Ehrlichman
Blog Written by PJ Mears, Director of Learning & Development at Kitsbow.
When I accepted full time employment with Kitsbow on Jan 1 2021, I also committed to commuting by bicycle. It was a long held goal of mine to be able to consistently bike commute when I relocated from Maine 10 years ago.
What I didn't know when I accepted the role, but became crystal clear 12 months later, was how important that daily commute down (and then back up ) the mountain would become to my well being.
The standard 11 mile route from my home to Kitsbow can be broken into thirds. First, on a lower traffic road over the eastern continental divide , then onto a paved greenway, followed by another low volume paved road. Ideal conditions really. There is also a Forest Service gravel road alternative that I will ascend at least once a week for a change of view and extra miles.
I consciously chose to ride in all weather; warm, cold, some snow/ice, rain, wind. As long as my schedule would permit the extra time on the bike, I'd ride. I ended up commuting over 6k miles last year on both my gravel and pedal e-assist bikes. Trust me, it was work on either bike carrying my gear and clothes back and forth.
I have always been an astute observer in nature. I spent 20 years in my first career as a Professional Forester in Maine. I settled in on my commutes on the bike and focused on a variety of things happening around me. The sounds: birds, wind, the regular freight train headed east. The smells: woodsmoke, the smell of seasons, and the diesel engine of said freight train. The sights: a wide variety of wildlife, flowers, the changing foliage, the trash on the side of the road (that I picked up every 6-8 weeks), the sunbeams shining through the mist. The touch: the air on my face, the feel of a well designed and made Kitsbow product on my body that I was wearing and/or field testing, the radical drop in temperature from top to bottom on winter mornings.
This became so much more than simply riding my bike to work each day.
About halfway into my commute sits the Point Lookout Trail overlook. A long range view to the Southeast towards Old Fort and beyond where the old route 70 lookout, motel and store were located. Currently a flag pole and old stone stairs remain. I took daily photos.
It was here that I accelerated my experiment with building a relationship with gratitude, acknowledging my own feelings, and choosing how I wanted to show up each day.
This decision was born out of the confluence of personal challenges.
2021 was a hard year for almost everyone I know for a variety of reasons. It certainly was for me in very specific and personal ways.
My mother had a very hard year health wise with a precipitous decline that ended with her passing from the effects of multiple cancers just before thanksgiving. Commuting by bike and stopping at the overlook to offer gratitude and offload anything that was not serving me each day became my anchoring point throughout her journey. In fact her passing was curiously timed with my riding past the overlook on the way home that day.
Everyday the view was different, yet the landscape and other features remained. The same rock cliffs that became overrun with Kudzu, the same ridgeline with a streak of softwood on top to create the mane. Stark in winter, supported by pastels, green and colorful cloak the rest of the year. The same creek rushing on the valley floor through the historic swannanoa gap.
Even crossing paths with the same flocks of turkeys (and their offspring).
It was a metaphor of sorts.
Things change over time, sometimes slowly, and yet there is a fundamental core of familiarity, of deep knowing, and of self. Paying attention requires stillness. Even when moving, even when feeling sadness, pain, or fear. Maybe especially then.
I took to looking for the train to see if we could cross paths at the tunnels (and who might win the daily sprint competition!
I was blessed to see a large assortment of wildlife over the year: Turkeys, squirrels, birds of prey, snakes, deer, bear, turtles (snapping & box), bobcat and coyote.
I learned every nuance of the trail surface, and where the thermal belt would come and go along the way.
I would take in the subtle color changes in spring and fall until they were on full display. A muted pastel in the spring and a blaze of intensity in the fall. Always with the perfect morning light.
Commuting by bike doesn't have to be a personal growth experience, or a path to enlightenment.
It can simply be a way to get from point A to point B, get exercise, and use less fossil fuel in the process.
I started out thinking about the latter, and bike commuting became about so much more.
I actually miss it on the days I don't ride to work on my bike.