The Beginner's Mind of Car Freedom

Bike commuting in Tucson is becoming easier. My routes are starting to take shape, and I’m feeling less and less like I will get lost on the way to work. I don’t think of my commutes as “exercise.” Rather, I’m aware that my body is adjusting to what I’m asking it to do every day: ride 20 or more miles.

And with the commuting part of my life becoming easier and more routine, my beginner’s mind is learning what it means to live and adapt in a city this size when one doesn’t have a car. Not carless, but car free, thank you.

(In case you missed my first pretentious post on “The Beginner’s Mind,” it refers to the Zen practice of approaching your pursuits with openness and without preconceptions, regardless how much you already think you know.)

When I gave up my car about 10 years ago in Washington, DC, one aspect I hadn’t thought through was this: What do I expect from my car-owning friends?

They kept offering me rides. I kept accepting — sometimes with a token protest.

I pondered whether or not I was entitled to rides from friends. Was I sacrificing car ownership for some noble purpose? And my friends who persisted in owning and using cars, was it their penance to schlep me, the martyr, around from time to time?

Or was I going to be a completely independent grownup who just didn’t happen own a car?

I chose to be as self-sufficient without a car as I had been with one.

It’s embarrassing that I gave this a moment’s thought, but I was young, okay? I was, like, 40.

My choice, to paraphrase Zachary Taylor, was to “ask no car favors and shun no transportation responsibilities.”

I know even less about President Taylor than I do about Zen Buddhism, but my choice meant that — no matter what — I would never ask my friends with cars for favors if the favors were ones I wouldn’t have needed when I owned a car.

I knew I had a lot of things to figure out. I did figure them out, and I never looked back. There was extensive public transportation, ubiquitous taxis, car-sharing, and car rental agencies.

Oh: And I worked from home.

That was DC. This is Tucson.

Vox DA5 1x6.5'' 5 watt Guitar Amp Combo Black
Also amplifies cargo-carrying limitations

This little guitar amplifier caused a ridiculous amount of creative consternation. It’s only about as big as two toasters, stacked one on top of the other. I decided to sell it on eBay, and I did.

I just wanted to get this amp to my workplace from where it was — my friend Mike’s house — so I could box it up and ship it to the buyer. But I didn’t want to use a car, or ask anyone with a car to help me.

My bike has no bike rack. My backpack is too small.

Right away I failed; I asked Mike to drive the amp and me over to where I am staying. He drove eight miles, round trip, because I suck at being car free in Tucson.

The next morning, I still needed to get the amp 10 miles.

In DC, this dilemma would have been resolved with public transportation.

I went online and figured out the Tucson bus system and learned it would have taken me two-and-a-half hours, including an hour of walking and half an hour of waiting between buses. Walking the entire way would have taken three hours.

In DC, when public transportation was not a viable solution, I might have resolved this with a taxi ride. So I called a Tucson taxi company and got a $20 estimate. I rejected that idea because it would have eaten my eBay profit. (But I did save the taxi company’s number in my phone for future reference.)

And in DC, my ace in the hole would be to rent a car, and then combine several car-appropriate errands into the time when I had the car — from an hour to an entire weekend. But in Tucson, on that day, I couldn’t justify it.

Finally I looked at my carry-on sized suitcase and remembered that hidden beneath a zippered panel there were two backpack straps that I have never used. This feature is like a James Bond gadget — the kind where you know, as soon as it is revealed by Q, that there will eventually be a plot contrivance where it is critically useful to have a flame thrower hidden inside of some bagpipes.

Suitcase Backpack on a Bike
This is definitely not DC

You know, it wasn’t that bad. I looked less like James Bond and more like a third grader with an overloaded book bag. But until I come up with something better — like a bike cargo trailer — this is my new ace in the hole. And I suspect I might never try public transportation in Tucson.

Suitcase as Grocery Hauler
I even loaded my suitcase with groceries on the way home

The very next day I had another guitar-related transportation need — but with less consternation. I hauled my acoustic guitar to work so that after work I could meet my friend Paul at an open mic event.

I transferred my commuting essentials from my regular backpack into my guitar backpack, and also a change of clothes.

The day will come when will I need to haul more than just one large thing. Perhaps a large thing and a couple of medium things. Or, God forbid, two large things! When that day arrives, carrying everything on my back won’t work.

Guitar Hauling Shadow
Guitar Backpack Shadow

I’m working on acquiring more appropriate gear for carrying cargo.

The open mic event worked out fine. (Tusconians: It was at Sky Bar.) Paul and I listened. We performed a few songs. I had a couple of beers. It was getting late. I was tired.

And then…

Paul offered me a ride home. I accepted. It was out of his way and I knew it. I folded the Montague bike and put it in the trunk of Paul’s car.

When Paul dropped me off, I went straight to bed. And I realized as my head was hitting the pillow that Paul probably was still driving himself home. If I had refused his ride, it would have meant my head on my pillow 30 minutes later, and Paul would have been home 30 minutes sooner.

There was no justification for accepting his ride home. I just wanted to get home as soon as possible, and the inconvenience to Paul didn’t factor in my mi
nd — because I had a bike and he had a car.

Rather than be the car-free independent, I let myself be the carless martyr. Worse: I may have confirmed a belief that a car is necessary for life in Tucson. Car freedom is harder in Tucson than it was in DC, but I know it’s possible.

When I chose a folding bike for Tucson, I imagined that it might be handy to put it in the trunk of a car — occasionally when that convenient feature worked for everyone. Now I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that I expect to put this bike in my friends’ cars whenever I decide cycling is inconvenient. I’m kind of kicking myself about that.

But when you have the beginner’s mind, you allow yourself these mistakes; you learn from them. I’d like to think it won’t happen again. But this is a large city.

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