When December prompted ice and gasping gusts of Lake Michigan wind I kept biking. Fourteen miles to school along the twist of Chicago’s lakefront path, and then back again.
Following the screeching curve in Lake Shore Drive as it holds back harsh winter waters from the Gold Coast neighborhood, the lakefront is just a fifteen-foot wide concrete slab tilting towards the lake. As November edged its way past Black Friday the waves sloshed and crashed up over feeble breakers and onto the concrete bend, freezing in a slick sheet sloping to the water. I’d get off my bike and walk with my hand pressed against the wall that held the heavy traffic of the Drive in, tennis shoes slipping as I cautiously nudged my way to stability. By December the concrete was buried under a foot of clouded ice, beds of snow heaped on by Midwestern storms and frozen solid. The hardened shell of ice and snow cracked and split, splintering at harsh angles around lumping detritus. I learned to carry my bike on my shoulder, the cold of the top tube searing through my jacket.
In the winter morning before the sun had risen, the bare trees and the crunched grass were washed in shades of steel blue and sepia, the pavement before me exposed by the harsh yellow of my bike light. As the sun made its appearance, the city stayed a palette of grays while the low clouds lit up from below in a stew of violets and reds, illuminating the endlessness of the lake.
There’s no real topography to speak of in the city, no natural hills or gullies. Only the water. The Chicago River, which has been conquered by bridges and canals, churns a murky green, inhospitable for fish and carrying pop cans in its flow. And there’s the Lake. It shapes the city; it is built into and carved out of, bound by undulating park land, gawked at as every building and every person cranes their neck to see its surface. The northern green of wealthy Chicago suburbia is pushed vertical into the terra cotta shine of skyscrapers and then low again in Bronzeville and Hyde Park, Chicago greystones and squat public housing. And then the lake glides its way to the dark masses of the Gary, Indiana smoke stacks. Lake Michigan is the relief from the endless movement of the city.
The diagonal streets that cut across the perfect eighth mile grid are the arteries of the city, originally Native American footpaths, organic and practical. On Milwaukee Ave., an ancient buffalo route, I would watch the delivery bikers with the big fixie frames painted in neons, their ratty Keds and angled lean over cork handlebars, hovering over the space where a saddle used to be. The adventurers of the city who blew hot breath into cold hands and sped down dim streets, wearing ripped jean shorts over tights and cycling caps flipped backwards. They never stopped at lights, they sprinted by the tethered pedestrian and the inconsiderate driver. I followed them, squeezing between CTA buses and the cracked curb, weaving between middle lanes of bumper to bumper traffic. They were unafraid.
I started biking to school my junior year of high school to prove that I could bear the brunt of Chicago’s temper. It is a city of drained marshes, of entire neighborhoods moored on piled soil where the lake once was. I sledded on manmade hills, perfectly rounded, I walked by recreated prairie plots. I was swallowed by the endless grid of the city, but I still felt the swollen summers and the biting winters. The natural is painful in Chicago –– it’s the discomfort that tells us where we are and what we’re a part of.
There are the parking spots overtaken by feet of hardened exhaust-stained mush, the tunnel that connects Michigan Ave. to Lake Shore Drive filling with feet of water as it rains. The wind, whistling down the canyons of skyscrapers, pulls car doors off their hinges and shakes trees until they crack. It’s a wind that buffets and tears, bending walkers at the waist as they head straight into the gust, hair whipping in a tangle. Those who have settled within twenty-five miles of Lake Michigan are as tough as they are wary, constantly proving themselves while cowering from the violent spikes of rain and sleet and frightening February thaws and heat waves. Whenever it’s cold we reference a colder time, recounting how long we lasted during the polar vortex. Whenever there’s snow, we bring up the Snowpocalypse. We are people who pause while walking our dogs to feel the cool damp of a lake breeze on chapped cheeks. We sigh and say, “It is nice today.”
Outdoor experience in Chicago was only legitimate for me if it was intensely uncomfortable. This discomfort is eternally connected to my bike, to the lakefront. But it’s overwhelmingly linked to watching as my twin brother’s legs turned an orange umber, his arm hair bleached a startling white from the sun, his calves caked with mud, as he began to run the fourteen miles to school and the fourteen miles back again. He has long feet, long toes, which pounded against the sidewalk and the frozen dirt. They blistered and they hardened. David ran in shoes, he ran in sandals, when we were sixteen he started running almost thirty miles a day every day. His cheeks sucked into the hollowed craters of his jawbones, the cinnamon parchment of wind weathered skin pulled tight over bony features. His beard grew long and curled blond over a creased face. I wouldn’t have ever biked to school if I hadn’t witnessed the satisfaction of eating oatmeal after a completed run, seen how good it felt to transport yourself on your own terms.
I would leave home when it was still dark, after David had already left carrying just a sandwich in the running backpack looped tightly over his shoulders. I left with a thermal shirt pushed up to my elbows, thick socks forced into narrow moccasins. I had these floppy mittens with Canadian flags on them squeezed over my first layer of gloves. In 30 degrees my skin prickled and rubbed raw and pink.
At school my back was soaked with cold sweat under my backpack, my chest crunched and tight from the weight of my books. The dampness would turn icy after I dismounted and I would shiver past lunch. My hands sometimes would refuse to uncurl. I cried hot tears as I held my fingers, after being whipped by the cold, showing signs of frostbite, under the bathroom tap as the needles and sparks of pain receded.
David ran for solitude, to focus inwards. He ran when the gusts were so strong he couldn’t hear the traffic on Lake Shore Drive, he ran as mist settled down over the South Loop, obscuring the buildings and settling the city into damp silence. He ran at five a.m. in the middle of winter under the blanket of gray skies to avoid the throngs of beach goers on the lake front path in June and to be alone in a place that had one tiresome trail, that didn’t cater to someone who wanted to run uninterrupted.
David ran to run, and I biked to prove to myself that I could. I competed with him, pulling myself excruciatingly into a world of physicality. He biked too, sixty miles along industrial corridors and out to Wisconsin and through south Chicago, and I couldn’t push myself to those lengths. I biked so that I could unlock my bike from the frozen rack at nine p.m., loop my clarinet case strap over the handlebars and churn my legs stiffly home down Halsted Street. So that I could be miserable. I constrained myself to a radius I could understand, I turned right in looping circles, navigating the city block by block through fields of potholes, to washed out squares and boulevards. I exposed myself to more painful weather, furrowing myself deeper into the city’s pockmarked streets.
On the Monday when school started back up after Christmas junior year, I got off my bike at Grant Park because I was cold and because I was tired. I walked to the Metra Electric Line at Museum Campus/11th St. and rode the train the rest of the way to school, leaning my bike against my knees. The harshness of the lakefront no longer gave me the satisfaction that I was looking for. After that, biking didn’t have to go hand in hand with discomfort.
When the spring came I was fast enough to travel places and slow enough to witness the sterility of glass developments and the mosaic of curtains and blinds and potted plants in the windows of the three flats, the short wooden bars huddling up against new brick townhouses. I saw the boarded-up mansions of the Gilded Age elite and the converted corner houses that are now daycares and after school programming, the streets where iron grills are pulled down over shops at night, the strip malls with all the hardware stores by the river, the slick sweat beneath the highway ramps, the neglected Southside parks, flat and fraying. I clutched at it, the burdensome humidity of the late summer and the gloom of autumn transitioning to winter, the grass sidewalk strips growing tall in spring and winding around the remnants of frozen trash.
Sometimes I’d sit with my bike on the rocks overlooking the navy blue-black of the Lake at night and watch the planes coming into O’Hare airport.
As I became familiar with the city I laid claim to, keeping up with my brother became an obsolete challenge. David and I are different people and I found my own way of interacting with the outdoors and with Chicago. I learned self-reliance alongside him, and then I was free to understand the city on my own terms, to wrap myself in its fabric. I came of age in Chicago through the glide of rubber tire over pavement.
When Julia was vegan in high school she dreamt of meatloaf. Now she dreams of being able to unlock her bike from the Davenport courtyard. She has lost the key, along with many other necessities. Tell her how to regain these items at firstname.lastname@example.org.