A week of riding a bicycle around Vancouver reminds me of the first time I took a boat up the Fraser River. Seeing the region from the water, I became aware of industries and activities that most people drive past every day, never imagining nor seeing. In the same way, riding a bike – often on trails and routes that run parallel to main roads, rather than on them – is making me discover corners of the city that I thought I knew. It’s as though I’m continually crossing over into an alternate universe from the one I’ve lived in most of my life.
The small revelations are all the more surprising because, as someone who until a few years ago did some serious daily running, I figured I already knew more than most about the hidden pockets of the city. Yet riding along the south side of Burnaby Lake, I discovered trails that I either never imagined, or had forgot years ago if I ever did know them. Half a kilometer away, traffic on the Trans Canada roared past, yet I was alone on trails through partly reclaimed marshland that gave a green and brackish impression of eternity.
Then, on Friday, I was on the first few kilometers of the Central Valley Greenway, where it crosses from New Westminster into Burnaby. The route passes through Hume Park, which I have been passing for years in cars and on the bus, but of which I’ve been only vaguely aware. To my surprise, the path through the park was surrounded by the tall and dripping green of secondary trees, and passes a semi-professional baseball diamond I never knew existed, and exits into a small urbane oasis of calm only a couple of blocks from the busy streets that made up my definition of New Westminster.
Coming back, I detoured from the Greenway up a steep hill to a path beside the small switching yard for the trains. I’ve run along this part of the Greenway for years, figuring I had a shrewd idea where the path up the hill must lead – but I was wrong by three or four blocks. In fact, the distance from the Greenway to the end of this detour was at least half a kilometer longer than I imagined. In the middle of the city, less than two kilometers from where I live, was a stretch of woodland where I was completely alone, except for the occasional dog walker.
Much the same discovery awaited me this afternoon, when I took the Skytrain to the Main Street station and rode to Granville Island. I was vaguely aware of the Olympic Village, Vancouver’s white elephant from the Winter Games, and the fact that the seawall wound along the south shore of False Creek, but both were far enough from my usual haunts that I had never seen them up close. But today I had a chance to see them up close – even if I did have to keep more than half an eye on the crowds of pedestrians and dawdling cyclists. The Olympic Village struck me as a piece of post-modern minimalism that would benefit from more trees and garden, and I much preferred the older condos closer to Granville Island, but the point is that I had seen neither. I even discovered pubs and restaurants that must cater to a severely local crowd, because I had never heard of them.
The illusion of a parallel world is all the stronger because I’ve met more people in a week than I have in all my years of riding in a car or among the anonymous, iPod-deafened crowds on public transit. Cyclists, I’ve discovered, actually talk to each other. Unlike most of the people you encounter in public, they have potential topics of conversation with each other – and their chosen means of transport actually makes conversation possible.
After all, as a cyclist, you know that any other cyclists is one of the few percent who have chosen a means of transport that depends on their own muscle power. And while the bike routes are mostly well marked, there is often the need to ask directions, or maybe the need to borrow a pump or repair kid.
But, whatever the reason, cyclists talk to each other as they cruise along or wait at lights. One couple even volunteered themselves as guides for several kilometers before we parted ways.
Possibly, my reaction is colored from the wild exuberance and nostalgia I still feel from being back on a bicycle. But I am tickled by the small discoveries I’m making – and more than a little smug that I am now part of a small minority that knows the city in a way that most of its inhabitants never will.