Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Alaska Winter, One-Wheel Drive

After three auto accidents, my friend Lory got rid of her car. "I've given up driving" she said. Her tone of voice was shot through with the resignation that so often accompanies the endless grind of loss imposed by Parkinson's Disease. But I was relieved. "No, Lory" I had to reply, "You gave up crashing".

There comes time for all of us when we should stop driving. I'm 53, which seems young to face this, but with Parkinson's, I am aging precociously. It became clear to me that I had to consider some unpleasant realities about getting behind the wheel of a massive, metal missile.

Unpleasant reality 1: I am now dangerously vulnerable to distraction when driving.  I suspect that this is due to the changes that Parkisnon's causes in the brain's prefrontal cortex that interfere with multitasking. This is especially problematic when I have a passenger aboard. (Side note- the worst driver I ever rode with who wasn't demented, stoned or otherwise chemically incapacitated was my beloved Aunt Jane. Her exploits behind the wheel are legend in my family. I remember several trips through New England I was convinced would be the last for both of us. This summer I remembered that as I drove my son through the woods of New Hampshire. A glance at him in the suicide seat told me he was experiencing the same horror of my driving I felt at my aunt's. "Wiley, it's your birthright to be terrorized by the driving of an elder relative on these roads" I told him. He gave me a wan smile. I gave him the wheel.)

Unpleasant reality 2: Suppose I am involved in an accident? Even if it's not my fault, once it's known that I have a degenerative nerve disease, I have to bet some of the blame will stick to me, even if undeserved.

Unpleasant reality 3: What if it IS my fault? Injury or death of another motorist and/or their passengers is not something I want to live with.  Having already given Wiley the wheel, we decided to give him the rest of our old Subaru, Now we are down to one vehicle, my wife's truck.

With winter here, this leaves me with several options. The first is to never leave the house. This certainly appeals in the deep blackness and cold of mid-winter Anchorage. But it invites cabin fever, and all too often the consequences end up as a grisly story in the paper garnished with shocked comments prefaced by "He was a quiet guy, kept to himself..."  and illustrated by pictures of spent shotgun shells, smashed patrol cars, and hundreds of cats. Clearly that's out.

The bus? Workable, but in Anchorage, lots of work. Taxi? Too expensive. Bicycle? Now we're talking! Flexibility, autonomy, exercise, not likely to kill innocents if I lose control. What's not to like? Oh, that's right- six months of ice, cold, and dark. And don't forget our ever-present friend Parkinson's Disease.

You say it's crazy to imagine a person whose balance is impaired to ride a bike? Tell this guy. I can't explain it, but I know I feel steadier pedaling a bike than walking across a room. I honestly find I concentrate better on where I am going on a bicycle than in a car. There is no division between what I need to pay attention to, and what I want to pay attention to. No music, no passenger in desperate need of instruction from me in the nuances of bare fingers versus picks when playing slide guitar. Just me and the potholes, pedestrians, traffic trolls, and random moose lurking in the shadows. As for the effects of PD and its medications, yes there are considerations. But I have to factor that into anything I do now.

So, what about Cold? There's an old Alaska saying: there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Most of us have learned by now to layer polypropylene, or smart wool, or stupid wool or what have you. Too hot? Take off a layer? Too cold? Put one on. Winter becomes a long, dark, dance of seven veils! You can even get big mittens called pogies to go over your other big mittens and finally keep your hands warm. There are a variety of warm socks, boots, overboots etc. to keep your toes from frostbite.

Believe it or not, as someone who has lived in the subarctic all my life, I've come to enjoy a cold wind on my cheek, provided I can keep the rest of myself warm. There is a certain pleasure you get when skiing or skating that isn't present in the warmth of summer. Bonus beneft: chances of heat exhaustion are amazingly low. Finally, if it's truly marrow freezing, bone cracking, tooth splintering cold, there is another old Alaska method of coping. Simply stay inside. It won't last forever

As with cold, there are gear fixes for dark and ice. Bike lights of today are far superior to those sickly, weak, and clunky ones from when I was a boy. Now they cast brilliant beams that actually reveal what's ahead. For ice, we now studded tires. What could be cooler than gnarly great knobbies with spikes sticking out of them? Plus you can now get 29-inch gnarly great knobbies with spikes sticking out them, instead of the old standard 26-inch wheels.

Admittedly, all this is not cheap. But consider this: once you dump a car, gas, insurance, and maintenance, quite a bit of change frees up for a nice bike with the requisite cold-weather amenities. So of course, I convinced myself that this was the ticket.

Here is what I can tell you about my "beta version" of Winter biking. So far, I have traveled about 50 miles in relatively mild Winter conditions. Temperatures ranged between the mid-teens and the mid-twenties with light snow on the ground. I avoid darkness as much as possible. The most demanding ride yet was across the East side of town to a 9:00 a.m. appointment with my neurologist. I left in the pre-dawn dark of November and arrived after about seven miles without problems on the way. Most of the trip was on bike trail, minimizing traffic concerns. I did run across one especially cranky traffic troll on the way back home, but the ride was otherwise enjoyable and uneventful. Usually trips are significantly shorter, a two mile round trip to the store is more typical than an epic night ride. I've had one memorable fall so far, pushing too hard on a very steep and rough trail.

 A few points gleaned from my experience stand out. The bike seems to steer a little differently for me in the snow. There is often a slight float which causes me to lean less in my turns. Hence I tend to steer a little wide. Going up hills requires a bit more weight shifted to the rear to enhance traction. Plowing through even light snow does slow progress, but you can still go too fast if you put your mind to it. Curb cuts can be a little tough to find under freshly scattered snow, requiring more than the usual attention when crossing streets. Frigid headwinds are even less enjoyable than normal headwinds. Always pack your pogies (thanks, Yvonne) if you aren't wearing them. One thing I learned about riding in the dark was, even with a bright headlight, it is difficult to see the drivers in their vehicles and make eye contact. All Winter riding, but especially in the dark, demands great alertness and caution.

So far, so good. Experiencing familiar places under new conditions yields fresh impressions. The intimacy that biking brings to places in summer is the same in winter, rewarding the cyclist with glimpses of beauty and moments of connection riding in a car cuts off. It is clear to me that I can't do all my in-town winter travel by bicycle. But there is far more opportunity for winter cycling and its benefits than I suspected.


Adele said...


You are brave and you have such determination. I am glad you have figured out a way to stay mobile without posing a danger to others. I love your practical, matter-of-fact way of looking at life's obstacles.

When the snows of winter block your trails, is there a runner-based alternative?

I have started to plan my biking routes for when driving is no longer an option. I don't think I can bike everywhere but I could do many trips that way. It seems ecologically sensible, too. I just wish that I weren't afraid when I cross busy streets.

Adele Hensley

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Thanks Adele,

I don't think I'm being brave here. I have assessed the situation as best I can, and believe that this will be a safe and comfortable, even fun way to go. If it turns out differently, I'll adapt to that. The whole idea is on a try-out basis right now.

I have a healthy caution of busy street crossings. There was one intersection in Anchorage that I had to abandon as just too dangerous. It's since been rehabilitated. Is there an alternate route you can take? I've found side streets and neighborhood roads sometimes offer an escape from particularly hairy intersections or routes.

We are fortunate to have a great system of trails here in Anchorage. Some are designated "Winter Routes" and plowed more frequently than others. I hope to take advantage of this.

Best wishes, and stay safe.


Richard Edge said...

I had been bike commuting for a few years prior to my recent diagnosis. I am now very glad I did as post diagnosis I am driving a lot less for a few of the reasons you have given. I still drive but far less frequently. Since we have been a one car family for a while it was a relatively easy transition. I had also taken and advanced bicycle safety course a few years ago to be better able to bike commute. Little did I know at the time how this would become a necessity.

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Hi Richard, Sorry for the delay in your comment posting. For some reason Blogger tagged it as spam, and I just found it now in the filter. Great to hear from another pedaling Parkie.