A city during the holidays is a pleasure simply to observe. For me, the best way to do this is by bicycle. There is something unique about it; I can go farther than on a walk and see more than on a drive. I ride on streets and on sidewalks and am welcome on neither.
Around Gig Harbor, it is difficult to find a road that is unfamiliar, that does not bring memories of youth groups, Little League games or senior year Nerf Wars. But here in college in the San Jose area, it is quite the opposite.
There are no hills here. That much is obvious since I never have to change gears. No long, grueling climbs like the winding, narrow one in Cromwell back home, like the one on Sixth Avenue going down to Steamer’s in Tacoma, or especially Pioneer Street in the Harbor, which churns and grinds my legs until they are sore for hours. No, it is much flatter here. I pedal faster.
San Jose, Calif., is a city that cannot quite decide what it is. I pass glossy skyscrapers, with logos of prestigious tech companies prominently displayed down the side. I pass chic plazas with modern art centerpieces, heralding the high-tech, futuristic paradise that is Silicon Valley. But then there are the authentic taquerias, the streets paved with cobblestones, the adobe walls and old-fashioned architecture that herald something else.
I ride through streets lined with palm trees, multimillion-dollar houses plunked side by side. I see an outdoor shopping mall selling $600 shoes. And I pass through a park where every bench has a full-time resident. One hand on their rucksacks, they silently ask for one six-hundredth of what those shoes cost.
They are peddling and I am pedaling, I think to myself. Ironic. I should write that down. And I do, just now. I pedal faster. I ride through an underpass full of desperate faces and my palms are sweaty on the handlebars. I pedal faster.
Signs of winter have crept in – or at least an imitation of winter. I ride through a strip mall hung with lights and decorations for the season, complete with a blanket of white felt on the ground, the closest thing to snow this street has known. A sign announces “Icy Walkway: Proceed With Caution,” and there is more road salt than ice.
Everyone is bundled up in wool and down feathers as though it were half of the 52 degrees the neon sign says. Californians, I think to myself, and I wonder how much colder it is back home.
I imagine riding across the Narrows Bridge, frigid air biting at my face while I watch the current push the water out with the tide. When the sun goes down, the bridge lights up with red and green lights. Across town, the sign for Tacoma Self Storage reads “Elf Storage,” and rows of glowing trees illuminate the grueling hill on Pioneer. This is the Christmas I am used to.
I ride back toward campus. Through the trees, I can see the blinking red light from the top of our tallest dormitory that warns away planes landing at San Jose’s airport. But the pleasant sunshine, the flatness of the road, and the palm trees, taller than everything except the skyscrapers, remind me that I am not home yet. I pedal faster.
Aidan O’Neill, a 2013 graduate of Gig Harbor High School, is a freshman studying business at Santa Clara University in California. He is one of five reader columnists whose work appears in this space. Email him at email@example.com.