There are two past times that capture the free spirit of easy living better than any other human activity, and both share many similarities as far as history and transportation go. The bicycle and the train were both monumental inventions that propelled our world into an entirely new state that allowed us tiny people the ability to move!
Yes, right around the time that the first Steam Engines were being considered, and tracks were being plunked down criss-crossing all across this country, we also had the birth of the Bicycle. Like all good things, both of these inventions were born out of necessity and were used for the express purpose of work. Mankind needs to be connected – so he lays tracks like stitches from one town to the next, zippering up the open coat of the country. I think that they even referred to tracks back then as “zippers”! As the country grew, so did its agriculture and manufacturing and eventually, industry became the boom and the products had to move as commerce began to grow. Eventually, with the railroads and the trains, we became able to transport the goods from one end of a state or city to a completely far off place – and with this travel, the world matured just a little bit.
Similary, the bicycle afforded us these same freedoms on a smaller, much more personal scale. Like all journeys from kid to adult, there was a fun little stretch of years free from responsibility that are referred to lovingly as “adolescense”. If we were kids before the railroad, and adults after, it was the bicycle that allowed people to be just a little immature as teens often are. The Victorians were famous for their bike rides, and it is no small fact that it did open the door to a cultural shift that began around the late 1890s. In the days of covered ankles, and other prudish trends, it was exceptionally rare for young people to to simply “hang out”.
With the bicycle, the youth finally had a vehicle that granted them the freedoms of a nice ride in the country followed by a picnic with friends – and all of this away from the strict eyes of their mothers, fathers, preachers, teachers, and governesses. As a vehicle for social change, the bicycle was paramount. Take, for example, the cultural effect the bicycle had on Women in society- Offering them the ability to move both physically and socially like that had never done before. Susan B Anthony writes:
“I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” A woman on a bicycle, the equal rights champion observed, presents “the picture of free and untrammeled womanhood.”
Many forget that cycling was not the niche sport it is today. It was the passion of the nation, of the world. Madison Square Garden, specifically build for 6 Day Races was just around the corner for America, and with it brought an even larger boom in bicycles. In his autobiography on the great Marshall “Major” Taylor, Andrew Ritchie writes:
It is difficult for us today to reach back in our imagination to recreate the thrill [of cycling]. A hugely popular sport… it was certainly as popular as, if not more popular than, baseball, boxing or horse racing… In a world without cares, motorcycles or airplanes, racing cyclists were the fastest humans on earth.
Cycling, like the locomotive, instilled a breath of new life into once static
people. It was a fresh approach to moving. Until then, the accepted mode of transport was the Horse. But bicycles, they were obtainable, didn't require food or a stable- and better yet, you were completely in control. Cycling also cured the ailments of society, even going as far as to be seen as a remedy for the disorders such as dyspepsia, as mentioned in an April 1894 in Ladies' Standard Magazine.
Two types of transportation with two distinct purposes: Utility and Recreation. For some time, the two did not blend. The later being seen as a means of enjoyment, sport. But this did not last. Once fully ingrained in our lives bicycle was used for short-route deliveries– and we are all familiar with the more illustrious European history of the two-wheeled machine. From the early 1900's into the late 1950's The Porteurs de Journaux or Porteurs are a perfect example where form and function would meet. They are akin to the modern day messenger- Paris newsboys who used bicycles to deliver the goings on in the world all by bicycle. When utility and fun begin to mingle, the purposes for both vehicles begin to broaden.
So, how do they relate? Well, the hobos of today and the cyclists of yesteryear are a matched pair. Rambling, wandering, exploring, being alone, being free: bicycles and trains provided the means for a person to discover the miracles of the land. From a rushing gondola, past some prairie, a hobo has a chance to slice some salami and reflect on life. The lack of responsibilities, a job, and all other usual tethers that keep people bound to stress and unexciting lives is key to the joy of wandering. On a bike, or in a boxcar, a person can either be swept away by his own momentum, or, if he so chooses, can simply let the wheels (2 or more) take him to a destination of their choosing. The need to detach is a common one among us humans, and we can't do that without first breaking out of our usual environments and then moving on to explore the possibilities of complete and total openness. A concept becoming increasingly apparent as our world becomes smaller, yet people become more detached from physical contact amongst themselves and nature. Perhaps this is why the sport of Randonneuring is seeing a revival. Subconsciously, please just want to break out and be free again.
Where have your roads or rails taken you? I think of many fun trips, by car, by plane, by bike, by train – and all of them have the same breezy sense of freedom that is nearly impossible to savor without that particular kind of movement and momentum. The random roadside monument, the sleepy town with an amazing egg and bacon breakfast complete with a cup of golden coffee, the strangers that become penpals then friends – these are all spontaneous bits of happiness that can only be collected on a nice rambling, wandering sort of road trip. While it may be a bit dangerous to hop a train these days, it is nice to know that the two-wheeled trip is still an option.
- Created by the genius mind of Brian in: IMHO