Sidewalked on the Green Planet
Greetings, my fellow bikers. My name is Peter G. Little, although everyone used to call me Peegee, from my initials. Ken Kifer, who I contacted via email, was considerate enough to give me this opportunity to tell my story.
Back half a dozen years ago, when everyone called me "Peegee," I was a rather overweight and unhealthy stamp collector. I was rather famous as a collector and a speaker, as I had a huge collection of stamps, lots of slides of both my stamps and famous historic and rare stamps, and the ability to talk at great length and entertainingly about them, as I knew the story of every stamp and the person, item, or view on it. Unfortunately, with my poor health, I had every possibility of not living to retirement age. I also did not like my job, which kept the money coming in for the stamps.
So, I was rather excited when I was contacted by two individuals about going back to their country and giving a lecture tour on stamp collecting. The bad news was that I would have to spend the five years in their remote country because they wanted me to go around to the various towns and talk about my stamps. They said they couldn't hope to sell the stamps without my effective demonstrations. Well, I don't mind talking about stamps, but, unfortunately, I hate airplanes travel, I don't know a single foreign language, and I dislike strange places. But they promised me a lot of money for each lecture (enough for me to be able to retire after a few years), a good translation service, and a personal escort to their country. With those kinds of inducements, I tentatively agreed, withholding the option of changing my mind if their claims were overstated and insisting on a valid contract.
They agreed immediately and said they'd be right over to pick me up. "No, wait," I protested, "It will take me some weeks to quit my current job, wrap up my affairs, and prepare for the trip. However, I would like for you to bring the contract as soon as possible, so I can pass it along to my lawyer."
Before I even finished my sentence, I saw a bright green light through my rear window and watched a small flying saucer land in my back yard. Two little green men then got out and knocked on my back door. I started to turn and run and all of a sudden, I seemed to have no control over my actions. I went and opened the rear door, helped the green men gather up the stamps, slides, and equipment necessary for my demonstrations, and then went out the door with them, my arms loaded down with slide boxes, and entered their saucer without protest.
All my possessions were placed in storage on the saucer, and I was strapped into a poorly fitting chair for the take-off. For a while, I was nearly numb, but gradually I began to look around and observe the members of the crew. They were behaving rather strangely. While I was sitting quietly in a shaded alcove, the crew members were all pedaling furiously at exercise machines while being bathed by extremely bright lights.
I eventually began asking questions, for a while only about my own plight. One of the green men told me that I was no captive, that they were just following the agreement we had made before they picked me up. I protested that I had had no opportunity to quit my job, sell my house, or put my property in storage. He told me that all that would be done for me; that I was not to worry. He also explained that they had to operate the way they did because otherwise I would have backed out of the agreement.
At some point in the trip, I finally asked about the lights and about the exercise machines. Several of them went to great lengths to explain that exercise was almost a religion on their planet and that their bodies utilized sunlight directly, so they tended to stay outside as much as possible during the daylight. On a space flight, they exercised under something similar to grow lamps.
Later on during the trip, they told me that their world's government was sponsoring my visit because it hoped to use stamp collecting to encourage space exploration. It seemed like a weird idea to me, but the green men all agreed that it was very hard to get anyone to give up on beautiful, sunlit days and long bicycle rides. Whenever the green men would travel to other other planets, they would have a long space flight (lasting about a week) and, even after they landed, would be under an inadequate sun and would have to remain more sedentary than usual as well. So, their government was using every trick to arouse interest; stamp collecting -- and the interesting pictures on the stamps -- was just one of them.
I have forgotten to mention how I was able to talk with them. Either one of them or I would hold a small hand-held device shaped like a fish that was called a "babblefish." This invention, they told me, was conceived and named by an Earthling named Douglas Adams, and one of their major reasons for visiting other planets was to find similar concepts. The Babblefish was not all that great of an invention, in my opinion. It's true that it allowed me to talk to anyone at any time, both on the trip and on the green planet, but it also frequently produced weird translations. I never could predict how people would react to my simplest questions if the words were ambiguous to the Bablefish. I might say, "How are you doing today?" And they might hear, "Who are you having sex with today?"
We reached the green planet, orbiting another sun, in just four days, so I couldn't understand why they considered it such a long trip. But the crew practically exploded outside as soon as we landed, held a brief conference in the blinding sun, and soon were pedaling furiously away from the spaceport on their bicycles. I call them bicycles because they have two wheels and pedals, but the bikes don't have a diamond frame, the wheels are small and solid, and the green people ride lying on their stomachs and pedal both front and back wheels. The only roads I saw leaving the spaceport were about eight feet wide.
I found myself alone in a tiny spaceport, not much bigger than a small town airport, but I later learned that it was the sole spaceport for the entire planet. There must have been no more than a couple of dozen small saucers there. The few buildings were one-story affairs with many skylights, which I thought rather odd. By looking in all the buildings, I eventually found the two elderly greens who managed the spaceport. There were only two old folks to run the whole port, as sedentary, indoor jobs were most unpopular.
I had been given some very dark sunglasses even before I got off of the ship, as their sun is much brighter than ours. In the main building at the space port -- a building no bigger than a house -- I was given some extra sunglasses, in case those should break, and a hat, coat, and gloves to cover my skin, to avoid my getting skin cancer (fortunately the green planet was not too hot, in spite of the bright sun). I was also presented with my means of transportation on the planet -- a nice US-made touring bicycle, equipped with touring bags, tools, spare tires, and all -- and a map and brochure of my itinerary. I was evidently expected to pedal from one location to another, giving my lectures in the early evening (people on the green planet all go to bed within a few hours of nightfall, as they are up at first light in the morning).
Of course, I had to explain to them that I was physically unable to bicycle from one town to another, even if they were only six gurkles apart, as I was sedentary, overweight, with high blood pressure, and at great risk for a heart attack. (The Bablefish could not translate units of measurement accurately, and so didn't try. I originally thought "gurkles" must be about a mile, but later I found that they were closer to nine miles.) The truth is that I had never ridden a bicycle as much as a block before in my life.
This created a problem for them as they had assumed that any competent being was easily capable of ten or fifteen gurkles a day and as there was no alternate transportation system.
On the Green Planet, everyone walked, jogged, or used bicycles to get from one place to another. There were no ships, trains, planes, busses, taxis, trucks, or cars. Even packages were delivered by bicycle.
I asked them how a civilization could exist without modern transportation, and the two elderly greens were puzzled as to why motorized transportation would be needed. I asked how they could get along without large-scale industry and massive trucks and ships, and they were completely puzzled. They couldn't understand what they would need that was so big. I asked, "Well, how do you build freeways and bridges without heavy construction?" The answer was that they didn't have any freeways and, to cross rivers, they used small ferries rather than bridges. When I asked, "How do you get goods from one city to another," I discovered that all the cities were quite small, that most products were made locally rather than being shipped long distances, and that heavy industries were unknown. The most valuable cargo that traveled from one place to another was information, and that was carried via radio waves, from computer to computer. Because they reused everything and used growable products as much as possible, there was extremely little waste, and therefore no need for mass shipments of new products. The space ships, for instance, were giant plant pods and were grown from seeds where and when needed. Even computers and their parts, except for the chips, were made or grown locally. Bikes were made the same way; the wheels, for instance, were seeds. They also lacked our desire to acquire as much property as possible during a lifetime; instead, they tried to see how many miles they could ride.
At first, the two old green men thought that all they needed to do was to give me fitness training, but I would have nothing of it, explaining that the hard exercise required would certainly kill me.
After some discussion among themselves and some radio phone calls elsewhere, which I could not follow (the Bablefish only translated nearby conversation), the green people told me that they had a solution. On their planet from time to time someone will be injured and thus will not be able to bicycle everywhere. In addition, the very old and the mentally defective sometimes had the same problem, so the green people had developed a separate roadway system for these handicapped people. Of course, I got really hot when they used the word "handicapped," but I calmed down when they substituted the term "athletically challenged," as it is a much less derogatory remark.
I had to stay at the spaceport for the night (I think I would have anyway, as they had arranged sleeping quarters for me there ahead of time), but the next day, another little green man drove a little solar-powered cart to the port, and he taught me the correct procedures for using it. Alongside the main roadway would be a tiny path of two or three feet in width for anyone who wanted to walk or run instead of bicycle. It was on that path, and never on the main roadway, that I would have to operate this vehicle. I was instructed that bicycles always had the right of way and would never stop for me, while I would always have to stop for them. I was told that I would have to push my cart across the road any time I needed to cross it (I couldn't help but wonder how elderly or injured people were supposed to be able to push their carts any distance). I was also told that pedestrians on the paths always had the right-of-way and that I would have to stop to let them pass me.
Then I left the port, carrying a map of my itinerary plus all my supplies on the cart. Picture me riding on a sidewalk in a mainly wooden cart that was built for a child-sized body, wearing heavy, protective clothing and dark sunglasses on my overweight frame, and with the back of the cart stacked high with boxes of slides, a projector, and other gear. I found myself in a very green and strange world. As I said before, the space port was no bigger than a small county airport, and the largest building I ever saw on the planet was no bigger than a small county school. I passed through several cities each day, but none were bigger than a small town, and most of the countryside around was farmland or forest. The forests were lush and green and full of animal life, but I never stopped to investigate because the strange environment scared me so. The farms were small and had animals on them that belong in Dr. Suess. The roads were never more than twelve feet wide, and crowds of green cyclists were zipping by all the time, some pulling carts which were sometimes heavily loaded. Some families traveled on single bicycles while others used bikes with seats and pedals for every member, bikes that must have been made for them individually -- or perhaps by them, I don't know.
For a while, I enjoyed myself, but then one trouble after another spoiled the day. No one warned me about all the problems I would have.
As I said, I was supposed to stay on the sidewalk at all times, except when crossing the road, and then I had to push the cart across, yielding to every cyclist. Well, I discovered that cyclists were always very uncooperative whenever I had to cross their road, never slowing down and always shouting for me to get out of the way. And I had to cross the roadway very often, for every street, every road, and often in the middle of a block, for no apparent reason, except that there was only one path on one side. Each time I crossed a street, I had to get out of that cramped little cart, watch for a wide break in traffic, and then push very hard to get it across.
To make matters worse, the paths were usually in terrible repair, unlike the roads, which also caused me to have to frequently get out of the cart and push it. Sometimes, in rainy weather, I would have to push for long distances while getting filthy dirty at the same time. I often arrived at my lecture in a terrible condition and with a horribly bad mood.
To add further pains, I discovered a fair number of pedestrians, most of them jogging, and I didn't get along well with them either, as they always considered me to be blocking their way but never allowed me any room to pass if I was going their way, not that my vehicle was much faster than a walking pedestrian anyway.
And finally, the paths did not always run from town to town but would often stop in the middle of nowhere, at the last house for a distance. Then, I would have to get out my map and figure out some other round-about way of getting there, which added hours to the trip.
I would have quit near the very beginning, except the green people were paying me very well to make my appearances, enough that I would be able to retire when I finally got back home. Besides, who could I hand in my resignation too? I never saw the person who had hired me; I just received a good payment -- in US cash or green dollars (which were blue), at my choice -- at each meeting.
However, due to my transportation problems, I was often late for meetings and even missed a few. If I was late, the amount was reduced, and if I was too late, I was not paid at all.
One time when the path ended just a few miles from the town and the only alternative was to miss the meeting, I used the pavement for a couple of miles and was arrested and hauled into court. There I was sentenced to the worst punishment the planet offered -- a week of confinement in a dark room without any opportunity for exercise. However, they let me have a TV, so I was as well off as back at home, except for the goofy programs, which were mainly about bicycling, sports, and fitness training. Actually, I sort of enjoyed the week's rest, but I did not enjoy the humiliation that the authorities put me through.
All of my trauma in getting from place to place eventually had a good result, however. Due to having to push my cart so much, including up some steep hills, plus the non-fattening diet of the green planet, I began to shed pounds and add muscle. In the beginning, I was worried about this loss of weight and tried to make it up by eating more (my appetite had become much greater anyway). I quit huffing and puffing on the hills, and I noticed that it was getting easier to push the cart.
My exasperation with the cart got so bad, that I asked for the bicycle back. Immediately, I noticed a sea-change in the green people's attitudes towards me. Before, they had done nothing to help except to supply the cart; now, they were willing to go to great lengths to help me travel by bicycle. They planned the meetings closer together for a while, they got cyclists to stay with me and help me between towns, and they practically towed me whenever I ran out of energy.
As I could use my opening remarks to say whatever I wanted, I would tell my green audience about my travel experiences and the need for better facilities for those with disabilities, pointing out that on Earth, disabled people could travel freely everywhere and that motorists and cyclists had equal rights on the roadways.
I must admit that they usually considered my arguments illogical. They said that cyclists were traveling too fast to have to slow for slow motor vehicles. Besides, it took a cyclist a lot of energy to work up some speed, while it cost me nothing to stop and start, since I had an electric motor to push me. They also didn't see any problem with the elderly and handicapped having to push a cart a short distance. However, the equal rights argument had some effect, and some admitted after the lecture that maybe something could be done, but they didn't know what. "We can't afford to build a separate roadway system for the handicapped when there are so few of them" was a common remark.
By the time I finished my tour, I was averaging over 15,000 miles a year of cycling, and I had become thin and powerful. When I returned to Earth, I decided to make a tour of the US by bicycle, just as I had toured the green planet.
Then I discovered that I was having many of the same problems on my bike on earth that I had been having with the cart on the green planet. Although legally I had the same rights on the road as any other user, motorists would barely miss me by inches at high speeds and would swear and throw stuff at me. Taking a bike path to avoid a dangerous road was a futile exercise, as most bike paths were in deplorable condition and as they also frequently had dangerous road crossings.
I also talked with various disabled people around the US, and I discovered that they certainly did not have the ability to get anywhere they wanted to go, no matter what their rights are supposed to be. Thus I realized that I had not been telling the truth when I had talked about the earth to the green people.
Now I am thinking about another tour of the country by bicycle to speak about fitness, equal rights, and stamp collecting. By the way, no one calls me Peegee anymore; They call me Peter.