Views of a Ride-by Impressionist

By Robert Arellano '91, '94 M.F.A. / November / December 1998
November 22nd, 2007

Sometimes I think of College Hill as a big pile of bricks. On a clear day, the architecture's predominantly Georgian appeal presents a particularly striking contrast of red and blue, earth and sky. Ten years ago, as an undergraduate on financial aid, I carried the weight of those bricks on my shoulders with a sharp sense of duty: better make good this investment of long-term loans and family hopes. But then I went down to the Salvation Army on Pitman Street and bought a bicycle. Today, a decade and 2,000 cross-campus bike rides later, my original, uninspired conception of College Hill has been displaced by a lighter, swifter sensation.

From a car, wrote Robert M. Pirsig in his 1974 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you look out passively through a frame and "everything you see is just more TV." On a motorcycle, he added, "you're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming." This evaluation - contact, presence - also applies to a bicycle, perhaps much more so. Something about the bicycle renders drive-by places personable. Character shines through. What had been submerged in amber rises like a re-animated fossil. The very act of pedaling brings streets, trees, and buildings to life.

The cyclist's correct approach to campus is an ascent from the west. That's the way Manning built it, after all. Pumping up College Street past South Main and Benefit puts one in the proper, prostrate state of mind to behold Brown's august gateway. No need to look both ways at Prospect: the stop sign belongs to the motorists, and everybody pauses anyway, befuddled before Van Wickle's grandiose gates.

Winded after the arduous, lung-crushing crawl up the steep slope, you gulp greedy gusts of greeny air. Here you can take the walkway to the left or to the right of University Hall. The imagination reels to consider the worlds of difference set into motion by either choice. Left, through the north portal, is my own preferred choice (probably because I often make unscheduled stops at the University post office). But if a frolicking dog or an ill-placed campus tour diverts you to the southern route, pause to admire stout Slater, the choicest of dorms, the one for which lottery-conscious seniors still keep their fingers crossed.

Off you go, the animating impulse a brisk brush stroke. You are a swatch of color splashing onto a vast campus. Time for a token lap around the Green, counterclockwise, like a champion's. Legs pumping, hips swinging over the saddle, you curve past demure Rhode Island Hall, a reminder that this campus was once Rhode Island College. And that flagpole? It was once a ship's mast, cracked during a Newport hurricane in 1938. See it quiver anew at the gale whipped up by your spinning spokes. Veering again, you whistle past the elegant John Carter Brown library, boastfully bearing her precious burden of Americana. Why is the JCB, named after the bookish brother, personified as "she"? Because convention (quaint, but chauvinistic) deems that ships are feminine, and does not the JCB seem sturdy as a cargo vessel, containing, among other things, its treasure of maritime maps dating back before Columbus? There she sits, decked out in nautical splendor, moored tenuously at the edge of the Green.

Gaze uplifted by the face of the quirky clock atop paternal Wilson - upon whose lofty crown undergraduates still perch for a perspective transcending studies, friendships, and the preoccupations of quotidian college life - you momentarily let go of the handlebars: Look, Pa! No hands! Tires sizzle over stone before Sayles's great gaping mouth. Better keep moving or the stern-browed beast with its huffing Hutchings-organ lungs might gobble you up!

Approaching solemn young Salomon, the withdrawn parvenu of the family, you pop a wheelie and burst through the signboard like some wanna-be Evil Knievel. It helps to do a bunny hop, both tires in the air, the better to wow the crowds soaking sun on the steps of Faunce House - the gigantess odalisque, a huge reclining Rubens.

Hope College is a befuddled blur in your baffling dash around the fourth turn and toward the temple of Diana, modeled originally on an edifice in ancient Eleusis and restored in 1959 as Manning Chapel. Without slowing, reflect on Socrates, gymnasiums, the origins of universities. What would Aristotle have said to strapping young Phaedrus on the subject of bicycles? Cycling is an art, he might have begun, because it can be reduced to a rational system of order.

Cross the Green again, head down this time, and dart between Sayles and Wilson halls, until you find yourself confronted with the impressive posterior of Marcus Aurelius's mount. Don't forget to keep your eyes on the ground, or you'll find yourself aloft, in low orbit above stairs that elope with the road halfway through Lincoln Field, causing concrete to break into steps. Here the cyclist has to take to the grass. Look for the break in the bushes, an unmarked detour for rubber-bound sojourners.

Barrel down the bowed slope (the heart leaps at the instantaneous acceleration) and scream across the lawn. Leeds, Lyman, Lincoln: all lie in your wake. It's tempting to blast through soldier's arch at a sprint, but here the cyclist must unquestionably slow down. Beyond this burst lies a blind merge back into car country. Skid to a halt and balance on red-hot wheels. Bow over handlebars before the great temples to Sylie and Cee-Iy-Tee, ancient deities unmistakably representing the phallic and ionic.

If the coast is clear, glide off the leveled lip of sidewalk onto asphalt. Turn right and spirit past undifferentiated edifices - ivied dorms, chem labs, the new enviro-geo-chem complex - on your way to the shady lanes behind Wriston. Thayer's gradual grade builds speed. Blast past the graduate center and the newly named Vartan Gregorian Quadrangle. Just before breaching the stretch warning Do Not Enter, bail out. Reel with the sensation of leaning into the thickly pitched turn onto Power. Pedal like mad past poplars and elms that seem themselves to be pedaling past you. Keep up the momentum, climbing back to the top of the hill with a nod to number fifty-five, where you just might glimpse a popular art historian named Constance welcoming guests beneath a sun-capped flag, or her high-profile and bow-tied husband coming out to walk a brace of giant poodles.

The president's house behind you, ride the crest and set your sights back toward the Green, where John Nicholas Brown's gate beckons. Give it your all; gun it down Brown. But go slow: Charlesfield is a crossroads with just two stop signs, and you're approaching from the riskiest direction. Besides, there's a lot to see. Switch into low gear - hope your derailleur is well-oiled - and give one last hearty crank at Health Services. Give in to freewheel. Coast....

past the busy hive called Keeney...

...Annmary Brown's hospitable crypt...

...Wayland's confectionery arch...

...the alumni building with its walkway of brand-new bricks...

Now a left onto George, and without a further turn of the cogs you're on your way off Brown's knoll. Here, buckling in a deep crouch akin to the skier's tuck, bounding down College Hill, you sense that riding a bicycle is like catching the crest of a wave. Some days it can feel as if the bricks stretching out over the Green - those bricks and all the bricks of the university - are lying there solely to buoy you up.

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November / December 1998