By Guy McClure
What does it take to be truly carefree? For me it is simply two wheels and starry summer nights.
While home in Athens after my freshman year at college, I first experienced this freedom and it has stuck with me ever since. You see in the early summer of 1980, my grandfather’s driveway became the depository for a stolen bike. A white 10-speed Raleigh that he subsequently gave to me after it was not claimed. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I had been issued a driver’s license, but I took the gift thinking it may bring back a sort of nostalgia. It did bring nostalgia, but it wasn’t about the action of riding the bike but the environment in which the bike was ridden.
Every night that summer I would take off on the bike around dusk. I would explore the town that I had left just a year before. I would snake through the residential streets and make a few laps around the courthouse square before pulling into the cemetery to sneak a cigarette and watch the stars go by. I would ride past what I could not have known would later become my house, through the college campus that I didn’t know would become the place of my career, past a house where my friend’s grandmother lived that now houses that friend and her family, and past storefronts that would inevitably change hands or purposes depending on supply and demand.
Although I had only been a legal driver for a couple of years before this, I had already forgotten what it meant to experience traveling on the other side of a glass window. I can still remember the smells of those humid nights and the sounds of summer insects and dogs barking. The streets were empty in that small town and I felt as if I were breaking rules by biking down one way streets against the arrows, gliding through stop signs and red lights, and – my favorite – riding in circles in the street in front of the Courthouse.
Now that I am back living in Athens, I have started my quest to regain, if not reenact, that sense of freedom. I bought what I refer to as a nerd bike, complete with one speed and coaster breaks. I am retracing my now 30+ year old paths, smelling those smells and hearing those sounds. It is the same, pretty much, except there are more cars on the road at night than there were then. I guess the increase in traffic is due to the new millennium mindset that everyone should be constantly busy, to stretch every second of every day until it bursts.
The old town is still pretty quiet though, except for those people out scurrying to burst those remains of their day. I glide past the cemetery now because I no longer have the need for nicotine that made me pull in and sneak behind a tombstone. I still ride in circles on the street in front of the courthouse, and it is still my favorite thing to do.
The best part about this new old experience is that the freedom is back. I can feel it like it never left. It feels like wind on your face, hot pavement cooling down in the darkness, and the jarring sensation of bicycle tires crossing railroad tracks. It is funny to think that all this time went by without me even realizing that I had lost it.