Car culture is American culture, and it's going to kill us all.
Yes, a driver's license and unencumbered access to a motor vehicle give us more personal freedom. But it's worth remembering that the system designed to foster that freedom comes at great expense to anyone outside it. Think of driving as "transportational privilege." And, no, the people who have it don't see it.
That's what I learned by pedaling deep into the sweaty, gasoline-scented pits of summertime in the faded America of blockbuster movies, cigarettes and cheeseburgers.
I immersed myself in car culture by bike, riding over 100 miles to six spots designed specifically for customers in cars. I pedaled out to the drive-in theater in Newberg, two drive-in diners, a bank drive-thru and an East Portland drive-thru bodega. I didn't wear a helmet, but I did wear an earbud in only one ear. While what I saw didn't scare me off my bike seat, it also didn't convince me I should surrender my privilege to pilot a vehicle. But it did open my eyes to the challenges cyclists face.
For the hardcore, biking to places meant for cars is a fun form of subtle protest. Here's my experience.
Jim Dandy Drive-In: Like a John Mellencamp video, but with video poker
9626 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-253-2126, jimdandydrivein.com.
By car: From I-205, take Exit 23A and merge onto Sandy Boulevard headed east. Jim Dandy is immediately on your right.
By bike: Take the I-205 bike path east to Northeast 96th Avenue. Turn right at Sandy Boulevard; Jim Dandy is immediately on your right.
This drive-in burger stand on Northeast Sandy has been around since 1937, when car culture was shiny and new. It was here before the freeway rumbling along a few blocks away, and before the useful but not especially scenic bike path laid alongside that freeway. It's surrounded by an asphalt moat no sane person would ever want to cross on foot.
Jim Dandy is pure Americana. It smelled of grease, and felt Happy Days wholesome until I spotted a sign warning kids not to enter the lottery room around back.
On the way home, Google sent me on a fancy new bike route along Cully Boulevard with green paint, sidewalk integration and lots of white markers. This lane intersects an unpaved, rocky street (62nd Avenue). On that corner lives a family with at least two youngsters, whom I watched sit on their porch eating Otter Pops in triple-digit heat.
(Dea's) 755 NE Burnside Road, Gresham, 503-665-3439; (Cruiser's) 2515 SE 136th Ave., 503-761-1151; (Price) 11518 SE Division St., 503-761-8816.
By car: Take I-84 east to the Fairview Parkway exit, then to Dea's In & Out; head south to Burnside for Cruiser's Drive-In; head south to Division and turn west for Price Is Right Cigarettes.
By bike: Take the Springwater Corridor east to 7th Street in Gresham, then go north on Eastman Parkway and east on Burnside Road. (You could also just take Burnside.) From Dea's, head south a few blocks until you hit Division, then head west to the other two spots.
There's a reason the streets of inner Portland are so convenient for cycling, and it mostly has to do with when they were platted. Neighborhoods like Buckman and Slabtown were designed for pedestrians, horses and street cars, not automobiles. But the development of East Portland occurred after the rise of the automobile, and so you find wide, fast-moving roads heading out to Gresham. Much of outer Division and Burnside streets has been retrofitted with bike lanes, but cars whiz by at 50 mph. It's an area where an SUV carrying what looks like Santa and Mrs. Claus pulls up to caution the riders around you about the dangers of the situation.
Dea's In & Out is great, though. It's not far from the Springwater Corridor, has a bike rack, and the cheerful employees answer whatever questions you have with a smile.
Despite its name, Cruiser's Drive-In is not actually a drive-in, though one parking spot is so close that you could open your car door into the restaurant. There's an internet jukebox, Cruis'n USA arcade cabinets, and classy pics from the '60s that contrast with the bland, stainless steel of the open kitchen. Across the street is a Dairy Queen with a bike rack, which I'd have preferred.
As I left, I was reminded how rough this area is for anyone without a car. I watched a young family run across five lanes of Division while wearing sandals. Two of the kids were helping carry a trash bag. Three cars honked at them.
Price Is Right Cigarettes was closed before I got there, so I didn't get a chance to see if they'd serve me a beverage and some smokes through the drive-thru window while I was on a bike.
While my muscles and saddle soreness had been relieved with cannabis and the fact that I'm in decent shape, this whole day felt like a survival test. I was prepared for the heat—it was 100-plus degrees—and the length of the route, but not the adrenaline kick I felt every time my body thought it was in danger—which was nearly every time cars came near me.
99 West Drive-In: Ambitionz as a Ryda
3110 Portland Road, Newberg, 503-538-2738, 99w.com.
By car: Drive south on I-5 and take Exit 291, turning right onto Highway 99W and travel south for about 15 miles.
By bike: The complicated route involves biking into the West Hills and navigating through countless intersections in Tualatin and Sherwood. You'll love the multi-use path through a housing development called Woodhaven, but will struggle to "share" the highway by riding on the shoulder next to speeding trucks.
The first drive-in theater opened a century ago, and at their peak there were about 4,000 of them in U.S. Somehow, there are still about 350. And Newberg's 99W is the best, apparently, as voted by readers of USA Today.
Getting there by bike, though, isn't great. First, you have to ride up and over the West Hills, then wind your way through the Willamette Valley to Newberg. During that ride, I was constantly on a shoulder next to 55-mph automobiles, slaloming through roadkill and sucking exhaust. I was also buzzed by a spandex-clad cyclist traveling at a high speed in the opposite direction.
And that's before construction. Just over the hill near Newberg, traffic cones sit on the asphalt where shoulder meets the earth, pushing cyclists into the street with fast-moving vehicles.
Angry at drivers, annoyed by that spandex-wearing cyclist and nearing my physical limit, I pushed on during my return ride, eventually coming to a shared path in Portland's South Waterfront, where a sign directed me to dismount. While walking my bike, I pulled to the side and flattened myself against the fence to take a picture of that sign, and was passed by seven cyclists as I did. No one has the high ground here, and everyone is out for themselves. People in cars just usually have more power.
After 90 miles of cycling, I figured I'd be more worn out. My legs were tired but not cramping and my ass was tender but not pained. I was really starting to hate cars, though.
Chase Bank Drive-Thru: The Revelation
7515 E Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver, 360-750-3030, locator.chase.com/wa/vancouver/10145.
By car: Take I-205 north to Highway 14 west, exit at South Lieser Road, drive north to Mill Plain Boulevard and turn left.
By bike: Take the I-205 bike path to Vancouver, then follow a rather complex route to Mill Plain. Be sure to look up more specific directions.
For my last ride, I made a 26-mile round trip to Chase Bank in Vancouver. The ride reminded me of having pit passes to a NASCAR race, where I recall marveling at the teamwork and skill of the pit crews, and being assaulted by the inhuman power of the engines. That was like being at the center of a hurricane, and yet somehow it felt more comfortable than the I-205 bridge bike path. The half-concrete tube provides protection from motor vehicles, but the isolation and unending whoosh of tires and engines feels like getting tossed around in the surf.
And that was the nice part compared to my ride along under-construction Mill Plain Boulevard.
The night after that ride, I dreamt I was driving my car, riding my bike and traveling on foot. The car hit the bike, which hit the pedestrian, who punched the driver. I experienced each incident separately, switching from aggressor to victim each time I was knocked out. It repeated a few times, and I woke up mad and confused. I wanted to blame someone, but I knew who was at fault.