Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Tale of City Mouse/Country Mouse

You'll find signs like this one all over Chicago

Those who know me, even just a bit, have seen my bi-polar sides.  Call it the city mouse/country mouse syndrome.  Growing up in Minneapolis, just a couple miles from downtown, in a very eclectic neighborhood, set me up to appreciate, if not love, a raw and edginess only a city can provide.  I grew up learning how to play Frogger in real life when crossing streets and got a thrill out of squeezing myself and my bike through narrow lanes of moving cars (shhh...don't tell my mom).  I got a rush walking on the edge.  Each risk I took--and survived--set me up to try another.  In the middle of the city, I found beauty in architecture, graffiti and all the different colors and shapes of people.

For some reason, however, the city didn't complete me.  I was born as much a country girl and couldn't wait to go milk my relatives cows, ride their tractors and search for new farm kittens.  I would come home from exploring the area as a child and my mom would always have to check my pockets for salamanders, turtles, worms or snakes.  Thinking back, my fondest childhood memories either revolve around sneaking out with friends to Uptown at night or carrying around chickens and goats.

When I got old enough to move out on my own, I was torn.  Do I move to a big city or head for a wilderness mecca?  After hanging around Minneapolis a bit too long, I took off for Bend, Oregon.  Following that, a string of moves brought me and my husband back and forth to the coasts, into the Rockies, out to Hawaii and France and finally to Madison.  I like Madison, in fact I've written about it having the best road riding I've ever experienced, but sometimes it feels like neither city nor country.  Sometimes I crave a true urban vibe.  For that, we head to Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Chicago.

A bike shop on the edge of Logan Square and Bucktown
So here I sit, in a neighborhood called Logan Square, on the Northwest side of Chicago.  It's perfect and it's what I needed.  Beautiful architecture, diverse populations (Logan Square is a cool mix of Puerto Ricans, East Europeans and hipsters), great food and lanes galore.

A mere ten years ago, Chicago's bike scene was pretty sketchy.  Bike lanes were hard to come by and unless you felt like weaving through the hoards of joggers and skaters on the lakefront--something locals just don't do--you'd be risking your life on every ride.  Now, the city is dumping money into an improved bike infrastructure (this movement was started by mayor Daley and is continued by mayor Emanuel).  The owner of the place we stayed explained that every time a major road is redone, bike lanes are added.  Couple that with the bike center near Millennium Park, the bike share program, groups like and all the small bike shops dotting each neighborhood, and Chicago is an up and coming leader on the bike friendly city map.

A regular hang out for cyclists in the Bucktown neighborhood
Chicago gets creative with their bike racks

The more time I spend here, and the more the city invests into becoming more bike friendly, the more I could see living here for a year.  Would I miss the beautiful, hilly rides West of Madison?  You bet!  Honestly, I wouldn't even try to go road riding while in Chicago.  I would instead become fully immersed into city life and would pare my bike collection down to two steeds--a fixed gear road frame for summer and a single speed cross frame for winter.  The car would be gone and we would most likely live in a ten mile radius.  My husband is even on board--although he would much prefer a city like Paris, San Fran or Sydney.  Until we take this giant plunge, long weekend trips will have to do. 

This post is dedicated to the two cyclists who lost their lives to drivers this past weekend in the Chicago suburbs of Skokie and Des Plains.  My thoughts are with their families and all the other cyclists in the Chicago area.

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