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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  9/1/2008

The tyranny of extremism

We have a little tempest in a teapot steaming away in our backyard just now. It's another of those classic us-versus-them confrontations; "us" being cyclists and "them" being whoever it is that doesn't like us this week.

This one involves a short length of paved path through a private development. The path connects on one end to a larger development and public roads that lead out from the Santa Rosa area into the Valley of the Moon, where there are many fine cycling roads. On the other end, it connects to Annadel State Park and Spring Lake Park, where there is a very nice road and a network of public paths that lead all the way back into the city. Because of its key location as the link between the city and its parks and the rural landscape east of town, this little path has always been popular with all manner of cyclists, from tourists to racers.

There are other alternatives to getting from A (Santa Rosa) to B (Valley of the Moon). The most obvious is Hwy 12, the main, two-lane artery that connects the city to the other, smaller towns ranged down Sonoma Valley. It's an extremely busy highway, but it does at least have wide, smooth shoulders. Going that way would mean being on the highway for a couple of miles. It's decent riding if you don't mind the nearly constant stream of 55-mph traffic.

There are also two more short bike path links from the state park that bypass that little development. One is a very narrow sidewalk skirting an RV storage lot. The path is apparently owned by and the responsibility of the storage lot owner. About a year ago, our club received a letter from some representatives of the community out there--I cannot now recall exactly who--requesting that we refrain from using that path because it's too narrow and that there had been too many close calls with elderly walkers on the path. The club's response was: we don't represent all cyclists in the area, but within our club, fine, we won't use that path; we have other, better options.

The third option is a partially unpaved path leading to a footbridge over Santa Rosa Creek that is on the property of the local water treatment plant. It has a No Trespassing sign at one end which, as far as I know, has never been enforced and is universally ignored by walkers and cyclists alike. The poles guarding the ends of the bridge are so close together that a cyclist must dismount and sort of wiggle the bike through them. Neither the highway nor the two alternative paths is as popular with cyclists as the main one.

The development through which the most popular path travels is a community for seniors. They like to walk the path and use it to enter the state park. It's very pleasant. Unfortunately, they haven't been too thrilled to be sharing their path with the many cyclists who use it as a link to the rural roads further east. Their complaints are the usual ones we know so well: the cyclists go too fast and are rude and inconsiderate and scare the walkers, etc. There has been a simmering tension amongst the residents of the development for years about what they consider the unacceptable and unpleasant encounters with riders on the path. Lately, some within that community have finally decided to close the path to cyclists.

We didn't get to where we are now in a vacuum. Many concerned people on both sides of the issue have been discussing the matter at length. Our club President and the head of the local cycling coalition have both met with representatives of the seniors community on a number of occasions, trying to find some way to avoid a final, confrontational stand-off. City staff has been involved as well, as all of these properties are in the city. (Unfortunately, when this development was working its way through the city's permit process back in the late 70's or early 80's, the city rather foolishly relinquished any control over an easement for this path.) But in spite of the good-faith efforts of all involved, the most adamant of the residents in the development have carried the day: signs recently went up saying that bicycles are prohibited on the path.

As you might expect, the cycling community is all in a tizzy about this. We have used this path as the default link for heading east out of SR for years. Most of us haven't been here long enough to remember a time before the development was there...when the only option was Hwy 12. Most cyclists, me included, assume this is a matter that can be amicably resolved, or, worst case scenario, if it has to go to court, that we will prevail. I'm no lawyer, but I think the law states that if a private path accesses a public park--in this case a state park--then it cannot be closed to the public. But then, they're not closing it to the public precisely, only to cyclists.

I am of course as peeved as the next biker that these doddering old farts have slammed the door on our preferred bike route. But being something of a doddering old fart myself, I can at least see their point...appreciate their grievance: many cyclists probably do ride too fast on that path and probably do sneak up on elderly walkers without any warning, startling them, perhaps even making them feel as if they need to leap out of the way. I've been a walker on enough paved paths and dirt trails to have been on the receiving end of exactly this sort of bike-bully behavior. It's not pretty. It's seriously aggravating. Makes me want to slip a stick right in their spokes...

Well...anyway, here we are at this impasse. Most of us have continued to hope that it could all be worked out somehow; that the crankiest of the curmudgeons could be calmed down and gently edged off center stage so that more reasonable people could come up with an acceptable compromise. But then something happened that made that compromise all but impossible. In the dead of night, someone went out and sawed the sign down and threw it into the nearby creek.

When news of that little caper hit the local grapevine, I felt so discouraged and disgusted. Before, there was at least some hope of brokering a solution; some way to keep discussing the matter; of listening to one another. But once that midnight vandal tore down the sign, all hope of a courteous, creative conversation went right down the drain. Now the hotheads are in charge. Now, bunker mentality rules the day and nothing resembling intelligence or compassion will be welcome in the arena. Now it's a war, with no backing down.

I don't know who the person is who decided sawing down the sign would be a good idea. I suppose we must assume the person is a cyclist. My guess would be that the idiot who sawed down the sign is also the sort of cyclist who does ride too fast on the path and does buzz past the elderly walkers without warning. The world is full of jerks, and a fair number of them ride bikes.

I suppose their thinking--if you can dignify their thuggish impulses as thought--is that "they started it first" by putting up the signs. Okay...maybe they did. Maybe they were wrong to do so when good people were still attempting to work out a solution. But didn't we learn as children that two wrongs don't make a right? How could anyone with even the IQ of a hamster imagine that sawing down their sign would encourage the seniors in that community to reconsider their position?

The thing that really bugs me here has very little to do with cycling or property rights or even who's right or who's wrong on this one. What bugs me is how quickly and easily the hotheads--the extremists--can muscle all civil discourse aside and reduce the matter to a friggin' cat fight...all yowling and clawing and flying fur. A few entrenched cranks in the seniors community and one or two boneheads in the bike community have completely crashed the party...highjacked the process and elbowed all the rest of the decent, cooperative, hopeful people away from the table. This is the tyranny of the extremists...a world where everything is either black or white, poles apart, and no common ground in the middle is possible. And it is all manipulated and choreographed by a tiny handful of haters, fundamentalist idealogues of one stripe or another.

I don't really want to turn this into a political set-piece, but it does occur to me that our little teapot tempest is going down precisely at a rather historic moment in our nation's history, and I see a bit of a connection. We have been presented with a remarkable candidate for President who, if one accepts his rhetoric, proposes a new era of conciliation and mediation and bipartisan compromise; who proposes an end to the politics of extremism. I don't know whether he can win the election, or, if he does win, whether he can make his vision of a new world a reality. The extremists are very entrenched and very powerful, and they have a great deal at stake in keeping the world a place of blacks and whites and fears and hatreds.

I hope he wins and I hope he is at least somewhat successful in implementing that vision. I hope we can all in our lifetimes experience a paradigm shift in our world where civility and integrity and intelligence trump fear and hostility and mean-spirited pettiness; where grumpy old grouches and cowardly vandals are not calling the tune for the rest of us.

Meanwhile, we await further developments in the battle over the bike path. I hear that the first sign has been replaced by a bigger, sturdier one, which so far has not been chopped down. I have yet to see any of the signs. I rode out there earlier this week, but I took the little footbridge across the creek and avoided the hot-button section. I plan to ride the forbidden path in the future, but for the moment, I don't mind giving it a miss, just until things settle down and people are willing to talk to one another again. May we see that day, sooner than later.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net



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