The month of May marks annual National Bike Month, during which people in cities all over the country are encouraged to ride more, learn about bike safety and mechanics, and commute to work. I myself have been a bike commuter for almost twenty years, first when I lived in Seattle, riding through rain, sleet, and hail to get to my high school teaching job, and now climbing through a mountain pass to get from my home in Santa Monica to my job at the Skirball.
I am often asked why I ride my bike to work (and if I’ve totally lost my mind or have a death wish), especially in the last few years during the massive construction project along the 405, which has made the 405 corridor bumpier and more haphazard (and hazardous).
For me, riding my bike has always been a mix of personal pleasure and public service. I enjoy the exercise of it, the hour or so of vigorous riding to begin my day. But I also see it as a way to honor that very core Jewish value which we at the Skirball try to impart through our programs and exhibitions: that of taking care of the earth and each other. I feel, perhaps naively, that I’m doing something (albeit a small something) for our planet: a bit less CO2 emitted from a tailpipe, a few more friendly exhales in the direction of the plants along the road, a bit less stress put out into the world.
I start out each early-morning ride pedaling through the dark in Santa Monica with a red light on the back of my bike and a headlamp strung up around my helmet. From the wide and mostly well-marked bike lanes of the Santa Monica streets, I ride through Brentwood and then into the Veteran’s Administration in Westwood. A few years ago, when I was in graduate school at UCLA, bikers were allowed to ride through the cemetery as well, but they’ve since closed the gates and now it’s only possible to ride through the property on the west side of Sepulveda. I find that the experience keeps me thinking about veterans, considering our notions of freedom, and thinking about the sacrifices so many of them have made so that I can live in a free society. Last year, the Skirball began a project with one volunteer arm of the VA hospital, where visitors to the Noah’s Ark galleries could prepare “comfort bags” for veterans filled with toiletries, knick-knacks, and essential items. This partnership was inspired, in part, by my rides through the complex.
After the circuitousness of the VA, my ride takes a decidedly linear turn as I begin to climb up Sepulveda Boulevard. Since freeway lane construction has begun, it’s become a journey filled with potholes, strategically placed orange triangles, and a variety of large trucks, some carrying cranes or huge traffic signals. Sometimes I feel as if I am the last man on earth among the machines, but then I get a wave from a worker in a hard hat or a warning with a flashlight, and I know I’m still among humans. The view in the mornings can be spectacular, and the Getty Center up on the hill looks particularly beautiful as I ride by.
I’ve had a handful of experiences along Sepulveda that I could only have encountered from the seat of a bike. Once I saw two coyotes playing just beneath the shoulder of the road. Dawn had broken and I watched them—somewhat terrified but mostly curious—as they wrestled with each other, snarled their teeth, and pawed at one another playfully. It was exhilarating to be so close to the creatures we so often talk about in Noah’s Ark at the Skirball. I’ve also been witness to a number of brushfires over the years. One morning, when Sepulveda was still closed off to traffic, the CHP officers allowed me to ride through as they cleared burnt branches from the road. It felt a bit like I was riding on the moon. Another time, I accidentally rode face-first into a wire that had been downed after a storm. Two fellow bikers stopped, gave me some tissues, and helped me wash my cuts with water from their spare water bottles before I continued on. It’s like a brotherhood among us bike commuters; we take care of each other because we know that usually the car traffic will pass us by.
The most joy I take coming to work by bike occurs when I turn off of Sepulveda Boulevard into the driveway of the Skirball Cultural Center. From this vantage point, it’s easy to see that the complex was designed to be an oasis in the city between the Valley and the Westside. The beautiful landscaping, the tall trees that line the driveway, the butterflies and birds that flit around the arroyos—all of it provides me with the greatest sense of relief and calm, even though I’m huffing and puffing from climbing up a mountain. The environment at the Skirball is precious, bucolic, a place where not just cyclists but everyone can come and enjoy a respite from the hullabaloo of life in the L.A. megalopolis.
So next time you visit the Skirball, consider biking here. Our food cart serves the best PB&J in town (the perfect mid-ride food!), the iced tea is always freshly brewed, and on hot days the mist from our rainbow arbor is always there to cool you off. We even have a ram in Noah’s Ark made out of a bicycle seat! And who knows, you might just see my bike in the parking lot or catch me whizzing by, smiling as I race down the hill.
If you are intrigued, there are many resources to learn about bike travel around L.A. Check out some of the links below, where you can read about plans for adding bike paths and lanes to existing roads (including Sepulveda Boulevard). The city is undergoing a renaissance of biking, with events like Ciclavia attracting a hundred thousand participants and efforts such as Bike to Work Day and Bike Night at the Hammer gaining in popularity each year.