We’re pleased today to host this guest post by first-year student Haley Rowlands.
I bike to campus every day. It’s seven miles each way, and you can probably guess I moved into my apartment in Boston before I knew where I was going to law school. It’s also worth noting that I’ve never commuted anywhere on a bike before this, except to hop around the city walking dogs.
Why the sudden commitment to biking? I’m interested in environmental law, and after I made the slightest peep that I was considering going to BC Law, it seemed everyone popped out of every orifice of the earth to expound on the Jesuit tradition and BC’s commitment to excellence, responsibility, and service to others. My own devotion to the environment is steeped in feelings of belonging – I am at home in the boughs of a tree or the field below it, and not really anywhere else. To me, it felt like there was no more worthy cause than standing up to protect these things. And what self-respecting environmental lawyer drives their carbon-emitting metal box to school when they could be out in the world on just two wheels? Not this BC-bound one, anyway. (It’s ok if you do though, I’m not judging. Honest.)
So, here I am. I took a hard look at my own morals and got on the bike. Suddenly, I am a bicycle commuter!
I learned a lot in the first week. Until the day before classes, my bike was a 19-year old tank of a mountain bike that weighed about as much as five Civil Procedure casebooks. Now it’s a slightly younger road bike with bald tires that I bought on Craigslist 14 hours before classes began. I sweat a lot. My butt is always sore. Did I mention that I sweat A LOT? It also turns out many people want to kill bikers. I do not know how to pace myself. Did I mention that me, my shirt, and my backpack are all utterly soaked by the time I get to campus?
But a BC Law student is no quitter, and I bike 14 miles a day, every day. I know many people bike far longer for their commutes, and if one of you is reading this please know that I aspire to be you. I am truly a beginner. But I’m learning.
You cannot look away when you’re biking. You cannot lose focus. I didn’t know one could be so fully aware of every fiber in your body and every movement in front of you for so long. As I learn how to read a case and keep with a professor’s line of reasoning, I am learning to stay sharp and react more quickly. I’m thankful for my helmet when I’m biking, and miss it when I’m on call. There’s nothing to pad my fall, so I better pay attention.
It turns out these new parts of my life have a lot in common. They’re challenging. They’re engaging. I feel like everything is always going a little too fast. I want it to be done as quickly as possible but I also can’t get enough. It becomes challenging to parse apart biking and learning, they’ve become one and the same.
Sometimes when I’m biking I think about the trees. I identify each one as I whizz by, and some become my friends. I watch the leaves change, and I look forward to greeting them each day. I like feeling the sun on my neck, I like the wind pulling tears from the corners of my eyes. I like stepping out the door and melding with the day, equilibrating with the temperature and the smells and the tone of the city. I think about how streets are designed and built, and, naturally, what laws make them that way. I think of my tree friends and wonder who planted them, and who will protect them. One day a friend is missing, hewn away at the base. There’s sawdust in the bike lane. I clench my teeth. There was probably a good reason for this tree’s removal but it feels unjust, and I pedal on to classes that don’t tell me exactly how to prevent these things, but at least they start to.
Sometimes, if I let it, the world flashes past me in a stop-motion of beauty and laughter. A man in a kilt serenades me on a crystal blue day as I climb the Comm Ave hill. A deep red mushroom clings to the roots of a big old oak. I pass another biker and they slip on a banana peel! Is this real life? The afternoon breeze is amazing. The traffic disappears and I hear the robins. Shafts of light shoot through the trees on Beacon St, extending ahead for miles. A family of turkeys walks to school with some children. An ancient car rolls through the intersection ahead of me, the woman in the passenger seat beams as I laugh along with her. I pass a unicyclist barreling down Beacon St at rush hour, his smile huge, as is mine. I can feel the sun between my sandalled toes, and it’s the perfect temperature. Orange leaves scuttle down the road ahead of me, while mirages of color form archways above. I ponder this beauty, I think about what it takes to preserve it.
Sometimes, I get a flat tire. Actually, this has happened far more often than I’d like to admit. Suddenly the hill is very hard and I don’t know why, but when I hear my rim on the ground, I get it. Then I’m marooned on the side of the road, looking at my tire. Someone stole my bike pump off my bike, so there’s nothing to be done. It’s usually raining. After a moment of quiet I’m shocked to find myself truly upset about missing class. It’s easy to think you’re going to class because you have to, but it takes a flat tire to show you that you’re going because you actually want to. So you walk your bike two miles and you do it pretty darn fast to get there on time.
Perhaps we all need a flat tire every once in a while. (I would, however, not recommend them twice in two days, back-to-back.)
Often, I’m just breathing. My mouth is open the whole time, and I’m constantly at my upper limit. A long high-school career in cross country running has taught me to conserve energy, but no one has ever taught me how fast to bike. So I hurtle down Beacon St, passing other bikes and getting to lights out of breath, gasping for air. I breathe hard, my throat dry for lack of saliva, for 36 minutes straight. Cars pass me too closely, triggering an adrenaline spike – I think about breathing. The wind blows my bike sideways – I think about breathing. I have a memo due tonight and it’s not done yet – I think about breathing. Pedals, handlebars, sunglasses sliding down my nose, breath after breath. You can’t think about mile six when you’re on the hill in mile two. You just pedal, taking on only what’s in front of you. It doesn’t feel like it’s possible to do the whole thing, but you’re not doing the whole thing. You’re rotating the wheels once, and then once more.
Sometimes I think about dying. No, seriously, I do. If anything can put you in touch with your own fleshy mortality, it’s going 30 mph down a hill and someone opening their car door into the bike lane mere feet in front of you. Somehow bikes are allowed to go as fast as cars, be in the same lanes as them and obey the same rules, and be like 1/8th the size. Cars are giant armored husks with power steering, each wheel weighing as much as me. My bike is a tiny metal tube that I can pick up with one hand, and the only thing that will save my life is a Styrofoam bucket over my brain. So death is ever-present. And boy, do I cling to my vitality! I dodge, swerve, and duck my way through a Coconut Mall-esque world of chaos each day. It seems some bike commuters don’t think about the road as a greedy undertaker, judging by their lack of sweat and their bemused expressions, but I certainly do. I am grateful each day to safely make it to campus or home, and it’s reminded me that this is something I should be grateful for anyway. I’m alive! I get to learn! I get to use my body to take me wherever I want to go! Statistically my chances of dying are probably higher just driving a car, but the idea of body hitting pavement and the sound of my bike crumpling occupies a lot more of my brain. And so I practice this gratitude every day: glad to be here, glad to learn, glad to live.
So I’m a bike commuter now! And also a law student! I’m a bike-commuting law student. Imagine that. When I start my day, my legs sore and my backpack always too small for all my textbooks, I am reminded of why I’m here at BC Law. A daily homage to environmental law – my studies might be just beginning, but I’m already practicing it. It’s easy enough to tell someone I want to work on environmental policy, but BC holds up a magnifying glass to my words and says, “So? Why are you waiting? Where are your morals?” And so I get on that bike.
I intend to ride every day for the next three years (barring the occasional flat). I’ll breathe and witness daily beauty and tussle with life-threatening perils. I’ll never feel like a true cyclist, what with my old bike and shabby cotton long-sleeve and lack of biker shorts. And I’ll probably never feel like I belong in law school, just like everyone else feels at some point. But here we all are. So I’m going to let BC take the reins and guide me in the right direction, just like I’ve let it all along.
Does that mean I’m going to bike through snow and ice? Probably. I will valiantly try. So I’ll let you know what freezing and slipping adds to my daily thoughts in a little bit.
Haley Rowlands is a first-year student at BC Law. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.