SANTA FE, N.M. — The poet C.P. Cavafy said that a city changes when you fall in love with someone in it. It can also change for less exalted reasons: when, for example, instead of sealing yourself in the personal microclimate of an automobile, you use a bicycle to get around.
I happened to grow up in Oxford, England, a city, and country, where biking is a normal means of transport, no more a sport than bipedalism is. But it rains a lot, and I didn’t come away with a proper appreciation of the benefits of the bicycle.
But here in Santa Fe, where I live now, it’s a different story. Every day I ride three miles to my office. These days there’s an autumn crispness in the air and an almost detectable scent of frost. Along the way I pass under cottonwood trees, between adobe compounds and past the Capitol building before the morning rush has filled its parking lots, then follow the train tracks for a while along a dedicated bike trail, before reaching the rusty loft where I work. It hardly ever rains, and I have learned to love my bike.
It’s a far cry from driving. Something happens to us in cars. In Disney’s 1950 cartoon “Motor Mania," Goofy, a nice suburban gent, gets behind his wheel and as the starting motor chokes into life, he simultaneously turns into a raging monster. Yet latent aggression isn’t the half of it. It’s more about the isolation, the world being reduced to two sterile cubic yards.
America was built for the car, especially out West, where cities sprawl immensely, public transport is a travesty and driving is a way of life. It took me a while to realize that actually, Santa Fe is great for biking. And is only becoming more so. Some city officials and devoted lobbyists have been very busy improving its bicycle credentials. In 2011, Santa Fe received bronze-level recognition as a “Bicycle Friendly Community" from the League of American Bicyclists; this month, the International Mountain Bike Association held its World Summit in Santa Fe; a bicycle master plan was approved in April this year, with the intention of promoting the bicycle as a means of transport. There are dozens of new miles of bike trails and “bikeways" (bike routes along less-used streets) across the city.
Into the Old West
Why is Santa Fe so good by bike? It’s a manageable size, reasonably level and very pretty. Its immaculate light has made it famous, as have its sunsets, its glowing adobe buildings and Spanish colonial center, all of which make a great backdrop for the cyclist. Come spring, when the cottonwoods turn bright with leaf, just to be passing through town on a bike, through the blue shade of trees, on any of the bikeways or trails, is a joy. Summer evenings and mornings are glorious for riding, and the fall, with its bright colors, is fine too. Almost wherever you are, you can see the mountains.
The most impressive of the new trails, the Santa Fe Rail Trail, is an 18-mile path that runs across town from the recently developed central Railyard and snakes into the desert, finally arriving at the railway junction in Lamy, south of town. It starts as a broad, paved track and dwindles to packed dirt, following the rail tracks the whole way. You may even get overtaken by a train that runs nearby. As you move away from downtown, you start to see outlying neighborhoods rolling away over the undulating land. On the ocean, surfers occasionally report seeing dolphins skimming beside them in the waves. Here you may see lizards skipping beside your front wheel, darting off into the sandy shoulder. Chamisa, scrub, sagebrush, pinyon trees, birds and rabbits, and the Ortiz Mountains and Cerrillos Hills on the skyline: It’s a different world now. Every so often there’s an old wooden girder bridge, like something out of an old cowboy movie.
Near the end, you emerge from between the dry hills, and the whole Galisteo Basin opens before you, copper-colored, broad, with Highway 285 running across it like a margin line on a page.
At the end of the trail, in Lamy, there’s nothing like the dark cool of the Legal Tender, the atmospheric, reconstructed bar across from the station building, for refreshing yourself. There you can get a pint of draft beer and a wholesome meal, and sit in 19th-century surroundings reminiscent of a saloon bar. It was right there that many of the famous early-20th-century travelers to New Mexico arrived by train, Leopold Stokowski, D.H. Lawrence, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz among them.
A kid again
One of the joys of biking in any city is feeling like a kid again, exploring alleys and shortcuts and abandoned lots, making them your own. You see a different face of the city, one hidden to drivers. In Santa Fe, for example, take a detour down diminutive Ortiz Street, then wind around to Burro Alley, between San Francisco Street and Palace Avenue, passing the little cafe on the corner and the San Q Japanese pub halfway down. Many of the parking lots around there interconnect, so (taking care) you can cut across blocks and meander to your heart’s content.
Outside the center, there are all kinds of trails. Try the River Trail, which runs along the dusty arroyo of the Santa Fe River west of town, past feed stores and small farms, ramshackle adobe homes and horse corrals. Parallel to it and a little farther south, the Acequia Trail weaves through a quiet neighborhood to Baca Street, where you can stop in at Counter Culture Cafe for Thai soup or a generous sandwich with a pile of “haystax" fries. Arroyo de los Chamisos Trail winds through a dry gulch on the south side of town through chamisa bushes and scrub, more or less connecting the Rail Trail with Cerrillos Road.
For a car city like Santa Fe, it’s surprising just how many people are on bikes. There’s a sense of community, of other people discovering the same two-wheeled joys as you.
Over coffee outside Ohori’s Coffee Shop, Dave Bell, owner of the local bike shop Mellow Velo, told me: “Santa Fe has been a cowboy town so long, with people driving around in a pickup with a coffee and the radio on. But the paradigm is shifting, from the bicycle being a toy to something useful and purposeful."
Lisa Miles, president of Bike Santa Fe, echoed this. “Cycling is vital in a city like Santa Fe. Being car-free can be a revelation."
I’ve got both my sons biking these days. They ride to school every day, and one of our favorite activities is to jump on the saddle in the late afternoon and cruise aimlessly around the city. Well, not quite aimlessly: We might stop for a gelato at Ecco on Marcy Street, then dawdle around the plaza, past the milling tourists and shoppers, and the jewelry sellers in from the nearby pueblos under the colonnade of the Palace of Governors. Saturday mornings we might head down to the farmers’ market for a pastry and a cup of coffee, or hot chocolate, and buy a couple of giant, juicy heirloom tomatoes or a bag of apples. Between the stalls of produce and the mountains rising to the east, it feels good to know how much this little city still belongs to its setting — something the two-wheelers among us are less likely to forget.