Monday, October 06, 2008

To know good, one must also know its opposite: Elmira Gulch as archetype of Kansas cyclists

When I first got into this bike-commuting stuff, I looked but for some reason could not locate a photo of Miss Gulch in full Toto-hunting mode. But my bike-bloggy friend Andrew of Carbon Trace recently posted this pic over at his place, and I thank him for helping me share it with you good people.

Back during the summer, I'd merely wanted this pic for the obvious associative Kansas=Wizard of Oz connection and also to do the ol' self-deprecating bit. But while looking at it early this morning (before I'd had my coffee, mind), something occurred to me: Just as all Kansas residents will perforce, sooner or later, have to ponder his/her position relative to the undeniable fact that his/her state will forever be linked in the American pop-culture zeitgeist to The Wizard of Oz, for good or ill, so also, I mused drowsily this morning, must the would-be Kansas cyclist interested in using bicycles for more than sport or recreational purposes come to terms with the iconic but complicated figure of Miss Gulch as a Kansas cyclist, embodying both the dreams and nightmares of bike-riders from Kansas City to Kanorado, from Northbranch to South Haven.

Let's get the unpleasant elements of Gulch's character out of the way first, since they are more easily dispatched. To begin with, it is difficult for me, at least, to disassociate her from Kansas' most familiar meteorological phenomenon--and, I'm here to tell you from personal experience, THE bane of cyclists here--the wind. It is fated: the very name of the state comes from a Sioux word that means "south wind." Viewers of The Wizard of Oz will remember that Gulch arrives at Dorothy's farm, ostensibly to collect and impound Toto. But Margaret Hamilton's entrance in the film clearly depicts her as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, which Apocalypse of course will soon be visiting the farm in the form of a tornado. Now, true: we don't ride into the teeth of cyclones 'round these parts; on the other hand, sometime you should try riding straight into a steady 20-mph wind (not a daily occurrence, but not uncommon, either) for half of your ten-mile commute. It's physically exhausting, of course; even worse, though, is the psychological toll it takes on a rider when the wind just. Will. Not. Stop.

[Aside: the other day I was heading east, with the wind blowing like that from the south--so hard that at one point I suddenly realized that I was leaning slightly into the wind just to stay upright on my bike. Weird, I tell ya.]

Gulch's ill temper, I assume, probably manifests itself as self-righteousness in other contexts; and cyclists, like some of the newly-converted of any actual or figurative religion, either can fall prey to such a tendency out of zeal or, alternately, encounter other cyclists more filled with the zeal to share the faith than they themselves are. Consider, for example, this encounter Andrew had with a fellow arguing with him over, of all things, which style of bike-rack it's preferable to park one's bicycle at. Smugness is smugness, no matter the actual rightness of that for which one feels smug.

Now, as to Gulch's dog-hating: while her complaint about Toto has nothing to do with cycling, many cyclists have to deal with dogs of various sorts while riding around. It's distracting at the very least, and often dangerous. Besides, Toto is of that breed known as the Yappy Dog, which I personally loathe. So, while as a viewer of the film I root for Dorothy and Toto because that's what the film tells me I am supposed to do, as a cyclist it's harder for me to see a problem with Gulch's wanting to lock him away.

This ambivalence I feel serves as a nice segue into noting Gulch's more positive attributes as a cyclist. First and most important, it is clear that she sees cycling not as recreation but a practical means of transportation. I mean, look at how she's dressed. The figure she cuts on her bike resembles those regularly pictured on the pages of Copenhagen Cycle Chic: professionally-dressed women wearing dresses and skirts; men in business suits. Moreover, that's no touring or mountain bike she's riding: it has her sitting ramrod straight rather than bent over in a racer's hunch, and the rear rack indicates that she regularly transports cargo besides Yappy Dogs she has judged to be miscreants.

And finally, Elmira Gulch paradoxically provides the Kansas cyclist an actual glimpse of cycling Nirvana: she feels so safe while cycling she's not wearing a helmet. While riding without a helmet is a risky thing to do in urban areas in the States, there are places in the world where cycling is so much the norm and the street infrastructure for supporting cycling so substantial, wearing a helmet is regarded as not only unnecessary but weird. If you're a cyclist here in the States, just you try watching the video below without wistfully sighing a bit and wishing that riding in the city were just a bit more like this:

Amsterdamize Bicycle TV : Riding With Marie from Amsterdamize on Vimeo.

I don't sigh when I see a helmetless Elmira Gulch, just to reassure my readers. But I do feel the desire to feel safer when cycling, and there is something about Gulch's godawful hat that makes me think, What goes around comes around. A better day for Kansas cyclists may yet be in the offing. Archetypes, after all, don't signify themselves but a constellation of images and associations, negative as well as positive. I do wish Kansas cyclists had a better archetype than Elmira Gulch--I mean, her, compared to John Henry?? Still, times being what they are for cyclists here, we'll take what we can get.

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