Try Orion

Send in the Clowns

Bicycle nomads, Texas utopianism, and the post-petroleum era

by Mark Svenvold

Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion magazine




I AWOKE TO BIRD SONG and slant January light cutting through the brush that surrounded our hut—a circular, thatched roof on poles, no walls, concrete floor, modeled after the traditional palapa of northeastern Mexico. Across from me, Pete the Feral Boy snoozed away in his bag. His tall bike—two bike frames welded on top of one another in a high-riding style popular among alternative bicycle youth culture—was loaded with Indian clubs and ukuleles and, dangling from the frame, assorted articles of clothing that Pete had found on the side of the road or in dumpsters. A few feet away, David Santos was removing a cooking pot from its stowed position on the front wheel of the Gravity Rocket. Far off, I could hear tractor-trailer rigs screaming down Carretera Nacional 85, the main highway from Monterrey, Mexico, to points southeast. Somewhere above us, above the mist just clearing from the orange groves and the deep green foothills of Tamaulipas, hawks carved the thermals rising up from the sun-blasted peaks of the eastern Sierra Madre.

I looked across the dim space of our hut and rubbed my eyes. Santos was now on his knees. As a joke, he’d placed each knee inside one of Pete’s white cast-off shoes that had been acquired at the dollar store in Del Rio for exactly one dollar, so that Santos, with his puffy cheeks, dark, scraggly beard, and Mexico City soccer jersey, suddenly looked like Tattoo from the old television show Fantasy Island.

“Welcome to Shangri-La, Mr. Svenvold,” Dave said in his best munchkin voice and then got up to gather twigs for a fire.

Shangri-La, of course, was in the eye of the beholder. From one point of view, ours had fallen into a considerable state of disrepair. The hut had been built a few years earlier as part of a municipal park but, in the way so many things seem to go in Mexico, funding had evaporated. Scavengers had raided the construction site, removing anything of value, trashing everything but the hut. The forest was doing the rest—weeds had nearly hidden the picnic grounds and the abandoned foundations where the public bathrooms were meant to be, the hut hemmed in on all sides by a green gauze of huisache and cypress and towering maple. But from the point of view of a bicycle nomad like Dave Santos, this was a little bit of perfection. Belonging to no one, it belonged to anyone who knew of its existence, a discovery he now shared with me. Part of its condition, part of its magic as a treasure, lay in what I knew or did not know about such huts. If I knew that the hut was an architectural gesture toward part of Mexico’s distinguished pre-Columbian past, an ancient form, in other words, then our night spent under the palapa could be viewed as one of life’s special dispensations—like walking through a dense forest and stumbling upon Machu Picchu, or Chichen Itza, and having it all to one’s self, to contemplate, as David Santos often liked to do, how well, how rightly, how miraculously and sufficiently the ancient forms of techne served us here, in the first decade of the third millennium.

To be sure, the place was a ruin. The weeds barely hid the cracked urinals, the stream we had to cross to get there was a burbling septic mess, and whatever was left of the state of Nuevo León through which we’d just passed had been piled in the slag heaps of “dark Satanic Mills”—Blake being an all-too-appropriate patron saint—and coal-fired power plants that were belching out the poisonous consequence of North American free trade. As for the empire to the north? Well, things were looking grim. Even as a certain resident looked into news cameras with a rare and deadly combination of ferocity and perplexity and mouthed words of hope and prosperity ahead, the smart money quietly understood that the great colossus of American imperial power was now stretched and burdened and groaningly poised, like so many other empires, for collapse. Peak oil production had likely come to pass, and its more than likely dire economic consequence—the steady, inevitable decline in a material upon which an entire global economy depended—had sent investment bankers, hedge fund and state pension fund managers, and other overseers of America’s second-largest accumulation of capital in the fewest hands scrambling for ways to safeguard their vast fortunes against what many considered an inevitable, oncoming . . . surprise.

“We’re screwed,” a friend who manages money for the rich told me. By “we,” of course, he did not mean the wealthy clients whose portfolios he oversaw. If things got bad enough, they could flee somewhere—to the far distant forests and valleys and mountains of Chile, for instance, or to some other outpost. Rather, by “we” he meant, I guess, the rest of us, belonging to the hapless species Homo sapiens petroleum americanus, whose magnificent machines have, over the years, inadvertently rendered us a nation of nincompoops, who, as Dave Santos regularly pointed out, no longer knew how to do the simplest things, no longer possessed the knowledge that nearly every illegal Mexican laborer possesses.

Petroleum americanus had become, it seems, a victim of convenience, worrying more about comfort than the larger picture.  Because it had been more or less fashionable to do so, petroleum americanus had purchased enough large SUVs to squander the rough equivalent in crude oil of two Arctic National Wildlife Refuges, emitted 45 percent of the world’s greenhouse-producing gasses, and generally continued to befoul the planet in riotous disproportion to citizens of other countries despite all the warnings—great sheets of ice calving into the oceans, catastrophic storms homing in on North America like giant Frisbees, the sixth-largest mass extinction of species fully underway.

Surely one needed a special lens, a philosophy out of Voltaire, to discern from all this one’s arrival in Shangri-La. But this best of all possible worlds was, in fact, exactly what David Santos was celebrating as he woke me in our palapa, grinning from ear to ear. Yes, he was being ironic. But more to the point, he seemed to say, wasn’t it also grand that he’d found a way to embrace our predicament?

GIVEN THE UNSETTLING STATE OF THE WORLD, I’ve spent the last few years shopping around, as it were, for my own little handbasket to ride into hell. In New York City, at Critical Mass rallies and with radical bicycle gangs like Black Label, I’ve begun to discern the contours of a movement of mostly young people who believe that the American pursuit of happiness has taken a decidedly wrong turn somewhere on the interstate and gotten lost among the tract homes dotting the subdivisions of Eden. For the radical few, the bicycle is an important part of the solution. The bicycle, that technological throwback from the nineteenth century, is for them a literal and metaphorical organizing principle for a new vision of the world, one that stands not simply against the most obvious form of petro-consumption, the automobile, but that heralds and celebrates—in advance of its actual arrival, and with bright little bicycle bells and radical cheers—a new, post-petroleum era.

They are people who have turned their backs upon petroleum culture, who, by doing so in a world that has been made safe for consumption, for a besetting tyranny of convenience, have instead profoundly inconvenienced themselves and are trying, in John Updike’s phrase, to be “model citizens of Thoreau’s utopia of doing without.” They are grassroots, agitprop do-it-yourselfers, tinkerers, roboticists, jugglers, musicians, radical gardening disciples, fluffy anarchist trash worshipers, and practitioners of slow food and slow time. They are thrift store habitués, living comfortably and happily off the salvage stream. In dumpsters, on city sidewalks, and on the shoulders of American highways, radical bicycle activists lay claim to the materials of construction to build their huts and their yurts and their geodesic domes in the woods. In a world where one hardly knows where to start the work of redemption, salvage has, for them at least, rediscovered its link to salvation.

They move about in god knows what numbers, in antic, vanguard brigades of traveling informational protest parties and parades, in groups that emerge like mushrooms overnight then vanish into the demos. They are “post-oppositional,” inclined to throw parties instead of rocks. They embrace an entire mode of being that requires of its practitioners a lifestyle devoted to subversive theatricality, with the hope that, by riding around on a bicycle that has been painstakingly decorated to look like a giant butterfly, for instance, we all might, at some fantasy tipping point, run off and join the circus, too. They are wonder actuators, joggling those who pass them by in automobiles. It’s full-time dream work, yet it requires knowledge of practical skills. It helps if you are able to weld with a torch or sew costumes, for instance—to juggle, to play an instrument, to read the schematics for commercial or household electrical circuitry, to modify bicycles, to spend long hours outfitting them so that they might appear like fantastic bugs. To ask them what they do for a living, as I did a few times out of nervousness or habit, is to provoke from them an awkward silence, to betray, in effect, what seems like an unbridgeable divide between my work-a-day life—saddled with its burdens and deadlines and vistas of deferred happiness—and theirs. An ocean exists between the New Bedouins and squares like me. They don’t do anything for a living. They live for a living.

And who wouldn’t want to join this circus, with its strange combination of activism, whimsy, determination, and adventure? It was as if, in a series of parallel universes that floated alongside the one big bankrupt universe that you and I trudged through daily, bicycle radicals, wearing harlequin clothes and pedaling tall bikes serenely through stalled midtown traffic, had rediscovered a brighter future and, in the archetype of the clown, a powerful agent-provocateur with which to bring it about.

I wanted to meet them. I wanted to ride with them, to witness the hazards of their post-oppositional way of life. I could have done this in any number of vaguely unreal, marquee ecoplaces, like Burlington, Vermont, or Portland, Oregon, where cycling has increased 257 percent in the last two years, but a contrarian impulse pointed me, instead, to an unforeseen hotbed of bicycle-borne utopian striving. I’m speaking, of course, of Austin, Texas.

I had been drawn to Austin by a peculiar epic prose poem called The Wheeliad, composed by radical activist David Santos and published on the Internet. The Wheeliad, I would learn, owed a great deal to the Mexican tradition of the corrido—a type of border song especially popular during the Mexican-American War, in which news of Mexican bravery and good humor in the face of often overwhelming odds got passed from singer to singer, like an oral underground newspaper. Santos had adopted this dusty, antiquarian form, salvaging the corrido’s defiant spirit to spread the news about bicycle nomadism. The Wheeliad blends art with technology, myth-making with news-making. It’s a “how-to” utopian building plan that gives the idea of bicycle migration legs, arms, and wheels, such that an outsider might be forgiven for imagining waves of bicycle nomads pedaling out from Austin, engaging in “seasonal nomadics,” harnessing the Earth’s energy, riding tail winds that regularly blow through Texas in the winter—the legendary Texas northers. The bicycle nomads, so goes the song, make “stealth camps” as they travel, or “instant biosquats.” They gather roadside plants like latter-day Euell Gibbonses—“roasted squash seeds . . . are great nomadic protein/lipid sources”—calling the practice “feral horticulture.” They live off the land, or at least live very cheaply off the endless salvage stream of American consumption and disposal that makes every day a kind of re-enactment of the providential and limitless supply envisioned in the hobo anthem “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

In winter, they migrate to new food sources, to the warm tropics of Mexico, where all manner of fruit is hanging off the vine, and in the process they consume no petroleum and minimal resources. Months later, they return, following a reverse southerly flow of warm Gulf air moving inland in the spring, arriving in Austin in time to plant a new season of crops in their radical gardens. Hitching a ride on these large weather patterns allows them to perpetually inhabit an Edenic “tidal zone between eternal spring and endless summer,” a beautiful symmetry, indeed: cycles of migration accomplished on cycles.

They wear “trash worship Chapetes,” body armor made from discarded plastic, for the rough brush country of the Rio Bravo valley. They speak of “MicroHedonics”—the use of “tiny amounts of resources to perform epicurial bathing, washing, gourmet cooking, etc. under rough conditions.” It is, according to fellow bicycle nomad Edward Sapir II, “an experiment in political and personal sustainability.” It is a way of life that renders the practice of bicycle nomadism not just a new slacker enthusiasm from the town that put the term slacker on the map, but a logical and necessary phase of utopian striving.

As far as I could tell, Santos was the first person in history to have made the bicycle a central component of a utopian dream. I e-mailed, called, and left messages on the phone numbers he’d given me. Weeks passed. Then out of nowhere he called from a phone that, he made a point of telling me, was solar powered and so might lose its signal if a cloud passed over. I cut to the chase: “When are you leaving on your next migration?” An oceanic pause, after which Santos started delivering a monograph on monarch butterflies. “We’ve been looking for them, waiting for them,” he said finally. I recalled early hitchhiking experiences, stepping into a strange car with strange people. If somebody said something about monarch butterflies, you just sort of nodded and went with the flow.

So I booked a flight, crossed my fingers, and, in January of 2006, flew to Austin. After a few days’ preparation, I joined a group of five riders and headed off to Mexico. Dave Santos rode a finely tuned touring bike that was made mostly out of found materials—that is to say, trash—a bike with a Styrofoam fairing that had been a theater prop and looked like the head of a giant mutant squirrel (it cut the wind, frightened dogs away, turned people’s heads). This was the Gravity Rocket. I rode a sleek, silver Specialized mountain bike that had been prepared for me by a man with a fantastic handlebar mustache. Behind me, Heather and Todd, a young couple from Tucson, Arizona, pedaled cautiously along the shoulder of Highway 290, and behind them was Pete, who looked as if he’d just emerged from under a leaf pile.

Pete rode a tall bike that was badly in need of repair, but it would do well enough until we could find a metal shop and some front brakes. Until then, he gingerly changed his front derailleur with his toe and generally attracted attention wherever he went. He wore dark, loose-fitting sweat pants and he favored a long-sleeve thermal top that had been washed in creeks many times and on which was inscribed, in indelible marker, THERE AREN’T ENOUGH BIKE LANES. It was peasant garb with circus overtones that were amplified by the presence of Indian clubs, which one often found spinning from his hands as he stood by the side of the road. He could juggle three Indian clubs and four of almost anything else, he carried and played beautifully two beat-up ukuleles, and he dove into streams when he wanted to bathe, letting the chill January air dry his body, a scavenged Marlboro sometimes dangling from his lips.

Inside somebody’s home, or inside a restaurant—basically inside any enclosed space—Pete became a liability. He’d knock things over. He’d leave smudges of bicycle grease on light switches. Twigs, grass blades, and leaves fell from his hair and pants. Pieces of food seemed to spring magically from his fork into the air. Tall and strongly built, his hair a shaggy mop, faint wisp of beard on the chin, he looked beatific, like an eighteen-year-old Jesus, as Jesus might have appeared with his disciples, a hygiene-challenged transient idealist slacker. Pete, like the proverbial innocent from the adage, didn’t know what a turnip truck was or what it meant to have just fallen off one, but I would often find him alone, staring into the middle distance, juggling clubs recently dropped at his feet, as if he had, indeed, just fallen off something—just touched down from some distant spot at the far end of the galaxy, perhaps, and was listening for a return signal.

A ragged group from the get-go, we plunged into the momentum of the road, into the changes of cadence brought on by topography, into the Texas Hill Country, which, on a bicycle, meant a steady, ongoing, and deeply intimate reacquaintance with one’s own specific gravity, with the rhythms of breath and body, pedaling, pumping, gearing down, surmounting, gliding, powering along through space. With each hill, my pace slowed, the gyro-steadiness of my wheels degrading so that on especially steep grades I began to wobble and dart a little on the shoulder, try as I might to keep a straight line, and this seemed to drive passing motorists a little bonkers. Not to blame them. We formed, for people in cars, a singular, slow-moving, and strange-looking impediment with no useful explanation for itself. We weren’t sleek, spandex-covered corporate racers riding tight in each other’s draft. We looked goofy and homemade. Dave’s Gravity Rocket could have easily been mistaken for a parade float accoutrement, crazily off course, ridden by someone who could pass for Fidel Castro. My panniers were bulgy, asymmetrical, homemade jobs. Todd and Heather had tattoos aplenty, and Pete, shirtless on his tall bike, put a carnival exclamation point on the matter. With our cheapo bicycle horns calling to each other, we were an odd, wavering danger, a motley affront to the passenger class.

As we pumped our way out of the Colorado River valley, one curving hill after another, you could feel the heat of the afternoon commuter traffic pouring off the pickup trucks that were obliged to hunker behind us in a slow idle, waiting for oncoming traffic to clear, and then, in an angry, full-throttled holler, roar past us. At intersections, we were a moving mirage with a strange destination that people kept mishearing.

“Where you headed?”

“Mexico.”

“Where in New Mexico are you going?”

“We’re not. We’re going to Old Mexico.”

“Old Mexico? You can have that place.”

When you look as weird as we looked, people want to know your business, and it’s helpful, especially in Texas, to have an answer for them. It sets them at ease, even if it sounds slightly preposterous, which it did, to my ears, every time I said it. “Mexico” filled for the moment a blank that needed filling. If I’d said “Moscow,” or “the moon,” it wouldn’t have mattered. The real destination, the goal of this enterprise, as the saying goes, was the journey, bicycle migration itself, but in truth, we arrived every day at our goal: a threshold zone of utopian dreamscape, the shiftless world of hobo campsites under bridges, of vanishing into a landscape, a place where labor had become obsolete, of stopping as you please, for any reason—to admire the burnished sunlight while resting in a pair of exploded reclining chairs abandoned in the middle of the Sabinal River valley, or to watch an ostrich-sized emu, some rich Texan’s exotic aviary escapee, step tentatively into the road.

On a bicycle in the Texas Hills, one’s contract with time slowly, marvelously dissolved. You moved under your own power, at your own speed, with your own thoughts. What was it, anyway, that had once seemed so important? All of that gone, jettisoned, and in its place came the long, sustaining silences of the hills, the emptiness of the valleys, the rivers running clear and cold, the winter light casting hard shadows from ssolitary oaks and the stands of maples and cypress. This was slow time—a purposeful declaration of independence from Babylonian time, as Dave would say, a nullification of clocks and calendars, computers and cell phones. In exchange, we embraced a localized, permanently off-the-hook, elastic mode of being that seemed attuned to the ebb and flow of sun and moon, wakefulness and rest—time that could suddenly open up like a bell, so that in the slant light of an afternoon, bicycling in the middle of nowhere, a soft breeze might blow gently across eternity.

TEXAS AND UTOPIA ARE WORDS that don’t easily go together, but history bears out unlikely connections. I’m speaking of Victor Considérant, radical French socialist and dreamer who, in 1853, the same year that Thoreau was finishing Walden, rode for six weeks on horseback over the northeastern Texas countryside in search of a place to found a society modeled after the writings of Charles Fourier. Fourier, an influential radical sociologist of the first half of the nineteenth century, was one of the three great utopian socialists—Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon being the other two. Fourier foresaw a time when men and women would copulate freely, when six moons would orbit the Earth, and the oceans would be made of lemonade. A traveling salesman by day and philosophical dreamer by night with no formal academic training, Fourier nevertheless was a deep and early influence on Marx and Engels because of his speculative writing on the relationship between work and play. He devised a utopia in which work, in fact, became a form of play. He was a visionary who died penniless and unknown.

At the time of Considérant’s journey to Texas, there were twenty-nine Fourierist colonies, called phalanxes, scattered across America, making Fourierism—or Associationism, as it was also known, or Phalansterianism—something of a heroic, if orthographically challenged, visionary fad among young people, or the young at heart. Horace Greeley was an ardent supporter of Fourierist thought and gave Considérant an office at the New York Tribune to use during his American visit. Considérant toured some of the phalanxes, traveled to Texas, and then returned to Belgium to write the book Au Texas, its title like some intoxicated utopian perfume, and The Great West: A New Social and Industrial Life in Its Fertile Regions. Nearly two hundred people responded to his scheme to colonize Texas, which involved outside investors and a complex system by which participants, some committing their last franc to the cause, vested themselves in the ill-starred community that became known as La Réunion. Settled in what is now West Dallas, it was one of several utopian experiments in Texas that failed, in essence, because of human frailty, clashes in personality, or poor leadership, as was the case here. Considérant sank into depression when things got tough and began abusing morphine, spending more and more time swinging in his hammock. One of the colonists dubbed him a loafer. Months later, with a mutiny on his hands, he skipped town, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

Considerant’s efforts bring to mind the hundreds of other failed attempts to actually implement the Big Dream of utopia—in nineteenth-century America, and in the twentieth-century hiccup that was the ‘60s, not to mention countless others that had failed elsewhere in the world. To journey down the utopian road again, to posit, as Dave Santos had, a rolling utopia as a way of life, requires, given the dismal track record, that one arm oneself against the dispiritingly slim chances for success—not an easy prospect, considering the head winds, both literal and metaphorical. How to bolster oneself against rain, the heckling of passersby (What’s wrong with you people!?), and the more than occasional shabbiness of nomadic life on a bicycle? That’s where a heroic frame of mind comes in handy, and Santos seemed to be an expert practitioner, a one-man band of heroic self-regard. It fed and fueled him. It was good to be both hero and clown together, of course. The hero, alone, imperiled himself by his penchant for grandiosity and so was best regulated by the undercutting wit and irony of the clown. It became a stay against throwing down and weeping by the side of the road, for instance.

Santos framed our enterprise against a grand backdrop of nomadic heroes of the past. The diorama included German Freethinkers, who migrated to the Texas Hills, he said; vagabond Union and Confederate soldiers, set adrift in post–Civil War America, walking the roads and earning the name “hoe boys” for the lightweight tool of itinerant farm work that they often carried over their shoulders; and every hobo ever since who road the rails. “We’ve got Charles Goodnight,” Dave said one morning, adding to his collection of nomadic immortals the man who invented the cattle drive and, near Graford, Texas, the chuck wagon. He also included John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, “the consummate nomadic type,” Dave said, “with a radical gardening idea.” And then there was us—living practitioners of a new, bicycle-borne mode of existence. According to Dave, we were the latest iteration of the tiniest 2 percent of all peoples whose idea of a good time was to pick up and leave the known ground for unknown hazards, only ours was not a quest to find new territory but to clean up—and reuse—what was already there.

He took this quest seriously. One morning, after heating up a mulligan stew of boiled chicken bones and tossing in some roadside grass for flavor, Dave poured my portion into a wobbly old Styrofoam takeout container that immediately leaked my breakfast onto the ground. Each extra use, he admonished, “was another victory.” Then he sampled the stew. “The grass,” he said with an evaluative pause, “kind of sticks in the back of your throat.”

Santos slept each night under the stars, his mind darting among the constellations, making connections. By morning he was near full to bursting, waiting for me with an agenda of things to discuss. As we got underway, he would offer some little conversational hook as he passed by on the Gravity Rocket: “You know, when Bukowski got famous, these Swedish groupies came to see him, to pleasure him . . . ” but then he’d streak down a hill and I’d be left with the beauty of the Sabinal River valley and Swedish groupies pleasuring Bukowski.

Conversation on bicycles had a stretched and open syntax, one containing short bursts of more or less interesting information germane to whatever theme Dave had picked for the day, followed by long contemplative silences. He called it “intellectual aerobics.” One of Dave’s themes, that the imaginary and the tangible were interchangeable, the ideal a palpable province of the real, was a point that seemed more than a little relevant to the whole subject of the rolling utopia that was—or was trying to become—bicycle nomadism, for a singular, tangible fact confronted our utopian movement, such as it was: there were only five of us pedaling toward Mexico.

On the previous year’s journey, there had been as many as two dozen, a loose confederation of radical bicyclists from Biosquat, a five-acre patch of reclaimed land near the Austin International Airport dotted with yurts and bicycle parts that Dave and a drifting population of transient alterna-kids called home. Others had come from the Austin-based Rhizome Collective, the Yellow Bike Project, and Bikes Across Borders. But nobody who had participated in previous migrations felt compelled this year to repeat the experience. The painful truth is that while he may have been a mechanical genius (he was also an accomplished stone mason, iron worker, and roboticist), when it came to people skills, the kind of social engineering required for utopia building, Santos was an unequivocal disaster.

Dave was puzzled, for instance, by my morning routine. As a general rule, I found it helpful to drink a cup of coffee first, before being steered to some of Dave’s favorite topics—to Nietzsche, or to Heidegger, or to the Mayan discovery of Hilbertian space, or to flat universe cosmology, or to quantum probability wave amplification as a convenient metaphor for bicycle nomadism. But Dave preferred to fill the gap of time before my first cup with verbal performance pieces that, at any other time of day, I would have welcomed. Fifteen minutes was all I really needed to answer a few basic questions of my own: Where was I? Who was I? Who was this strange, bearded man smiling and heading my way? It was as if some virtuoso trumpet player had wandered into camp and started blowing right into your ear as you stood there, stunned and disoriented, still rocking in the coracle of sleep.

Dave lived so intensely in his own mind that he had no sense of how much an audience could absorb. Or when. One needed a word or phrase to suggest what it felt like to be around him, something that conveyed the feeling of boot camp, the iron frost of the ground still gripping one’s bones, and the faint wisp of some gyroscopic process that was the whirring mind of Santos, a logorrhea with the laughing heart of a machine—efficient, useful, but also, and importantly, merciless—liable to unload a stream of information until you wished that words had never been invented.

We adapt to our strengths and weaknesses, of course. Dave borrowed from the world of engineering the phrase “problem orientation” to describe his penchant for focusing—to the exclusion of every other concern—upon a perceived problem and finding an immediate solution for it. The allegiance to problem orientation is, in part, what makes engineers, scientists, and computer programmers so often seem like sociopaths—for problem orientation, adopted as a way of life, leads one to negotiate the delicately complex strata of human affairs at every instance like a coast-guard cutter slamming through pack ice. Dave tended to dwell upon the daily minutia—where you should park your bike, what type of water bottle to use, how to fold your tent, how to pick apart a chicken—his suggestions occurring so regularly and with such compulsive attention to the closest aspects of life that they became their own burden, something one carried around, just as in Eden, that first utopia, God, one gathers, must have been a complete pain in the ass.

But Dave’s focus on the small came with a wider moral view, and as a role model for life conduct he had embraced the first hero-clown of them all: Socrates. Radical bamboozler, loiterer, occasional stonemason, heroic pursuer of truth, comic foil to establishment values, likely father of the scientific method, of Western Civ. and all the rest, Socrates, in an imagined pantheon of the moral and the just, occupied the First Chair of Unassailable Positions. If you were going to turn your back on a culture, Socrates was the perfect man to have in your corner. Using the Socratic method, Santos would transform a harmless fireside question, for instance, into a line of thought whose purpose, one realized a little too late, like a fish rising to a baited hook, was to maneuver you into a position of difficulty upon which—Dave seemed only too happy to show—you had impaled yourself. Now imagine camping with Socrates. For days on end.

After just two days, Todd and Heather had had enough. What began as a dispute between Todd and Dave about water bottles (“You’re taking all the fun out of this trip,” Todd yelled in exasperation), continued later over campsite selection, and ultimately ended in mutiny. The couple rode with us a few more days, but in Kendalia, Texas, they loaded their bicycles into the back of a stranger’s pickup and disappeared down the road. That left three of us—me, Dave, and Pete the Feral Boy—staring blankly into the horizon, three being, it almost goes without saying, the smallest unit of measurement by which we could reasonably call ourselves a group of anything, nomads or otherwise.

SURVIVORS OF UTOPIAN MISHAP SPEAK, with remarkable consistency, about the problem of the individual—the need, when push comes to shove, to assert one’s will, even irrationally, “illogically,” as Spock might say with a lift of the eyebrows, and how this trumps every Crystal City, every Oz we might concoct. Maybe something perverse in us saves us, also, from becoming what Dave once described to me as his own ultimate anarchist utopian vision: the idea of the Earth becoming a superorganism, without hierarchies. “Individual people,” he said, “would be like mitochondria in the body.”

“Utopias, in fact or fiction,” Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times, “have never been able to deal with individuality or private life or dissent. They construct a world in which there can be no disruption.” Maybe some tangible, irreducible diamond in our psychological makeup guarantees the failure of such arrangements.

Amazingly, I endured three weeks of cycling with Dave Santos, who, in the process of explaining the mosaic of radical anarchic bicyclist thought, drove me and nearly everyone else away from it. By the time we got to the border crossing at Del Rio, Texas, I had entered the denouement. In the days ahead, I would begin a slow process of detachment from my companions and reconnection with the system of dates and itineraries and schedules and deadlines that had been temporarily suspended. Dave could sense this, it seemed, and grew irritable as my time with him shortened, as if my early departure were a betrayal, which it was, in a sense. He’d spent a lifetime shedding the burdens of “the demonic system” toward which I seemed so willing to return. I soldiered through a few days in Mexico, but by the time we got to the palapa at the foothills of the Sierra Madre I couldn’t wait to get away from this man.

Things would come to a head at Linares over my decision not to extend my trip by a few days so that Dave could show me El Cielo Biosphere Reserve outside of Ciudad Victoria. I would decline to explain why, and would request, moreover, that we hitch a ride into Victoria so that I would have enough time for the bus ride back to Austin in order to catch my flight to New York. Santos would spend our remaining time together punishing me for this decision.

Outside of Linares, we were unlucky at hitchhiking, and I spent a cold, miserable day pacing back and forth at a Pemex station as Santos did and said everything he possibly could to add to my misery. “You’re more concerned with getting comfortable again,” Dave said to me at one point, “with being back in a comfortable chair on an airplane.” Trucks rolled past us. We were squared off, facing each other. “Being comfortable,” Santos said, “was of a higher order of importance to you than examining your actions—the fact that your comfortable plane ride was actually helping to load the atmosphere up with CO2.”

“You’re a complete asshole,” I said to him.

He returned the compliment.

We were both right. It had descended to that level, yelling at each other as the trucks passed and Pete stood off to one side in awkward silence.

“I was hoping for more of a transformation in you,” Dave said to me at last.

“How so?”

“That, maybe, you’d start composting in the kitchen, or start using a composting toilet.”

Eventually we got a ride to Ciudad Victoria, where I left my bicycle and most of my equipment and took an afternoon bus to Matomoros, then a taxi across the border to Brownsville, Texas, where I boarded a Greyhound for the long night ride back to Austin. I took a taxi from the bus station in Austin to the other side of town, where I collapsed on the couch of a friend. I was back. Composting toilets in Manhattan, I thought with a smile—and then drifted off.

THE BIG DREAM can be a little disorienting at first glance—Fourier with his lemonade oceans. People don’t know what to do with such stuff. Consider Ivan D. Illich, one of Dave’s heroes. Illich, who is a kind of patron saint among radical bicyclists, was the first serious intellectual since the Second World War to countermand the automobile’s dominance in American culture. His book Energy and Equity, published in 1974, suggested that the speed and convenience of the automobile had profoundly damaged the human psyche and, in turn, posed a serious threat to liberty and the democratic process. But it was his proposed solution to the problem that made him sound like a kook—that is to say, a practitioner of the Big Dream: “Participatory democracy demands low energy technology,” he wrote. “And free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.” In an increasingly suburbanized world designed around the automobile, this was an idea that seemed entirely without practical application. So it is that Big Dream dreamers often dare you to find the teller crazy, force you to draw a line of propriety, of sanity, of credulity, and say, Beyond this I will not follow, and then they hop daintily across that selfsame line (like Einstein with his train at the speed of light, or Da Vinci with his flying machine), look back at you and your silly demarcation as if you were a bird that had clipped its own wings, and laugh.

Listening to Dave was sometimes like reading Illich, or Thoreau, or radical economist Scott Nearing, or Jim Corbett, or John Chapman, with his “thick bark of queerness.” Something, one can’t help but think, has gone terribly right in their lives. And yet, like the ‘60s-era saying “Be Realistic. Demand the Impossible,” practitioners of utopianism flout the single most abiding fact of effecting change in the world—the need to amass coalitions, to shape consensus, to make compromises. Liberal progressives generally believe in electing the right people and changing the right laws, whereas those who have checked out of the culture, like Santos and the post-oppositional crowd, seem to be quoting Voltaire: “In dark times the wisest course of action is surely to tend to your own garden.” At the heart of this approach lies a contradiction: how can you simultaneously turn your back upon a culture and expect that culture to join your radical activist effort?

Santos walks lightly on the Earth, utilizes the salvage stream, pays no “war taxes,” answers to no boss. But it seems entirely unreasonable to assume the rest of us will—or can—do as much. The refusal to accept the many forms of compromise that most of us embrace makes post-oppositionalist utopians seem, at best, like heroic dreamers, whose main accomplishment is to point the way toward salvation. At worst, they are irrelevant, sewing elaborate puppet costumes and welding tall bikes together on the sidelines while the world falls to pieces.

But if we are unable to follow their path, citing, as we do, pragmatic concerns, being around Santos was to be reminded at every turn of the dangers of pragmatism—of how pragmatism morphs into expediency, which turns into exceptionalism, which turns into hypocrisy, which turns into a life that is, in relation to its ethical principles, an empty shell, a shadow life. Santos has found, in the bicycle, a perfect metaphor and organizing principle for thinking globally and acting locally, an arduous and fanatical way of demonstrating that some of the answers to the abiding problems of our time are to be found right under our noses, with the humble decisions that hundreds of millions of us make every day about what things to buy, how to stay warm, how to get from A to B. Yes, there is something useful and compelling here.

As for composting toilets, I’m not there yet, but I did buy a bicycle, and I’ve been riding it around Manhattan, discovering the city anew. I have pedaled along the Hudson River Bike Path, a newbie among bicycle commuters but feeling, nevertheless, a sense of silent fellowship. I have cruised through Central Park at night, feathered my way gleefully through stalled midtown traffic, chatted with mounted policemen on their horses at a traffic light in Times Square, shared a laugh with pedicab drivers. I’ve felt the city and its possibilities open up to me, along with a newfound sense, arriving unexpectedly, that on a bicycle, the end of the world as we know it doesn’t really look so bad.

Visit http://www.orionmagazine.org to learn more about radical bicycle activists and the post-petroleum era.

Orion publishes six thoughtful, inspiring, and beautiful issues a year,
supported entirely by our readers – we're completely ad-free!

Please consider donating to help us continue to explore the future of nature.

Mark Svenvold is the author of Big Weather and Elmer McCurdy, as well as a new collection of poems, Empire Burlesque. He lives in New York City.

Book  Image

→   Purchase from Amazon.com

→   Purchase from an independent bookstore

Article Resources