Suburban Breakout
by Michael Ayers

Reading the other anecdotes here led me to look back at my own suburban roots and think about why the human world is the way that it is in America, and how I came to realize that I didn’t want to live that way. My particular experience began in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., in a town that is described in today’s highway-centric language simply as "outside the Beltway." For years, planners in that area have proposed a new "outer" beltway, so, one day, I will be able to refer to the place of my birth as just, "between the Beltways." What struck me upon reflection was the way that, living there, I slid right in to a strange dual life. A real Jeckyll and Hyde situation, if you will.

First the good part, my own personal manifestation of the estimable Dr. Jeckyll. I was born a child Naturalist, ever fascinated by the beautiful complexity of the real world. The other kids in my neighborhood decorated their rooms with posters of astronauts or rock stars, but my walls were taken up with charts of the "Wildlife and Plants of North America." In the fourth grade, while studying the legislative process, our teacher asked each of us to come up with something that we would like to see become a law. My proposal was that all bottles and cans should be returnable (this was around 1970). When the teacher said "But, Michael, some bottles are already returnable," I respectfully pointed out that I wanted them all to go back.

There was a small stream (what, in BurbSpeak, is referred to as a "drainage conduit") running along one side of our yard. As I grew older, many hours were spent scooping out the garbage that continuously flowed along with the water. Most of it was paper cups, plastic straws and styrene burger cartons festooned with the logo of the McDonald’s that was 200 yards upstream.

Eventually, as I became more ambitious, I constructed a low dam on the stream using some old logs. It was just big enough to turn the nearly dry creek into a pond fifty feet long and one foot deep. I was thrilled at how quickly animals and plants began to take hold of the once forgotten habitat. Frogs, brightly-colored dragonflies, an occasional duck, a family of muskrats, and one big old snapping turtle all stopped by, much to my delight. For this, and my father’s many birdhouses and feeders, our yard was accepted into the National Wildlife Federation’s "Backyard Habitat" program, one of the first in our area so designated.

I was even "radical" enough to suggest to my parents that perhaps it wasn’t really necessary for us to use all of those chemical weed killers, and that it might not really be necessary to mow the lawn every week.

This is only half of the story, however. There was a dark side to my childhood, my own individual version of the frightening Mr. Hyde. This was the suburbs, after all, and no one can grow up in an American suburb without becoming entwined in the twisted web of the Car Culture. I was no exception. I was one of the millions of kids carted around day by day in an automobile. Though I liked to ride my bike around the neighborhood and to the nearby parks, whenever there was someplace important to go, there I sat, in the back seat of the family car.

For recreation, our families weekly plan was to hop in the car, powerboat securely attached on a trailer, and drive sixty-five miles to the mouth of the Patuxent River on the Chesapeake Bay. There we would spend a few hours noisily joy-riding on the waves before repeating the drive home. For refreshment, there were packs of canned beverages in a nice plastic cooler. In the early days (before pop-tops), one needed to poke a hole in the can with a can opener. When the can was empty, what did we do? Throw it in the water. (Well, so much for my recycling law.) Of course, before doing that a second hole was poked in the bottom, so that the can would sink and "not get in anybody’s way." To this day I still shudder every time I think of that.

As a teenager I, like most American kids, was exposed to a constant barrage of car-related propaganda. I bought into the whole thing. I was several months younger than most of the other kids in my class, so I was among the last to get my driver’s license. My friends threw me a party on my sixteenth birthday, complete with little toy cars on a cake, just to rub the point in. I didn’t mind. I had it now, and I was finally going to be independent. Somehow, it took many years for me to realize that what I really got was dependence.

For my last year of high school, in spite of the fact that school was less than two miles from home and a school bus stopped right in front of our house, I insisted that I be allowed to drive the "extra" car to school every day. My rational was that I could then participate in all sorts of after-school activities without anyone having to come pick me up. In reality, my real desire was to be able to skip my boring seventh-period English class and drive out to the local mall and wander around aimlessly for a few hours.

My first job after college involved a suburb-to-suburb commute of 23 miles. Ninety-five percent of the distance was on interstate highways. It usually took an hour and fifteen minutes each way. Nevertheless, every morning I hopped in a car, turned on the radio to get the daily dose of pointless "drive time" drivel, complete with traffic reports to aid me in my travels, and endured the tortuous ritual. This was the time in my life when my level of fitness and health was at its worst. I was overweight, and plagued with a sore back, but somehow I never saw the connection to the typically sedentary American lifestyle I was leading. I also began to see in myself the beginning of a developing case of Road Rage. People have told me that I am unusually mild-mannered, but back in those days, when stuck in traffic, I often shouted at others, shook my fists and drove aggressively. Eventually, I knew that I didn’t want to have that kind off commute nightmare any longer.

When I returned to graduate school in rural western Massachusetts, did I do anything differently? No. In spite of the fact that I had taken up bicycling again for fun and exercise, and I could have enjoyed a daily ride along beautiful tree-lined country roads, did I still drive solo to school every day? Of course. I never even considered that there might be an alternative. This was America, after all.

During the years from 1980 to 1993 I drove virtually everywhere I wanted to go, mostly alone. In the process I added about 61 tons of carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere. That is an amount sufficient to fill five Goodyear blimps. Did I think about this at the time? Not that I can remember. Driving had become such an integral part of life that I couldn’t conceive of not doing it.

However, all of that has changed. The automobile driven by Mr. Hyde is no more. He has been exorcised, albeit unintentionally. In the process my quality of life has improved immeasurably. The critical event came as I finished school for the last time. I had several weeks of free time available before I had to start a new job on the West Coast. Since I had never been out west before, I was very excited about seeing a new part of the world. Of course, my first instinct was to make the great American "Road Trip," but somehow cruising along an ugly interstate, eating meals at Shoney’s Big Boy, didn’t seem to have any great appeal for me. Then I had what I thought at the time was a strange idea. Why not bicycle across? What better way to see the country? I had been bicycling fairly regularly for a few years, and was now in pretty good shape, so in spite of the fact that I had no experience with such a trip, I decided to do it.

Crossing the Mississippi River, I thought, "Hmm, this is a lot of fun!" Cresting the Rockies in Yellowstone, I thought, "You know, I really should try and drive less." And by the time I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time it was, "That’s it, I’m getting rid of my car, forever."

I didn’t intend for that trip to initiate a profound change in my life, but it did. And if there is any point to this story, it is that for everyone there is an experience that you haven’t had yet that will allow you to step back and look at our world from a different perspective. Maybe it is visiting a classic pedestrian-oriented European city center, perhaps it is becoming more involved with your local communities transit planning, or it could be taking a bike ride that is many times longer than you have ever thought possible.

Whatever that experience may be for you, you owe it to yourself to find it and to do it.

Suburbia will hold you hostage until you do.

Michael Ayers