Its ten minutes to midnight and the corner of 17th and Burnside in Portland, Oregon is swarming with them. Some line the corners of the street, others crowd together overflowing the sidewalks, and many more spill into the street, prompting honking from cars unable to pass and adding to the already growing buzz of energy. Bicycles. They’re everywhere.
Hundreds of bikes are here at our designated meeting area, awaiting the voice to speak from the crowd, and let us know that the Midnight Mystery Ride is ready to begin. It’s my first time at the bike ride, and everything is a mystery to me.
I’ve seen a few weird bikes in my days in Portland (okay, WAY more than a few), but to see them all in one spot is something else. There are your standard road bikes, new and old, of course, but one out of every 20 or so is of a different breed. Tall bikes, with riders sitting six feet in the air, tandems, and recumbent bikes, are just a few of the “freak bikes” in the crowd. There are also bizarre hybrid contraptions, two riders, one up high one down low, one facing this way and the other that way. There are bikes that glow, lit up by a coating of blinking lights on every piece of metal, and many, many bikes that are toting some of the most impressive sound systems I’ve ever heard, portable or otherwise.
Somewhere just a few feet from me a voice begins speaking and the bikes crowd closer. We are given an ominous warning about a “hill.” We’re told that when we see said hill, we will know it is the hill. We’re told that no matter how slow we go no one will be left behind, they’ll go slow, and it’ll be fun. I ponder how many of those statements are true and where this big hill will lead us and then we’re off.
The Midnight Mystery Bike Ride is a Portland tradition celebrating its 10th year in 2013. The rules are simple. Meet at the designated place, behave yourself while you wait, and “At midnight we ride.” The ultimate destination of the ride is a secret to all but the leaders, who change from month to month, but always celebrate the same themes of fun, mystery, and bicycle-camaraderie. The ride takes cyclists somewhere in the city of Portland, and always ends within 5 miles of the starting point. Along the route, cyclists work together to make sure that everyone is safe and cars are aware of their presence on the streets. Sometimes this takes the form of a bicyclist stopping in an intersection, “corking” the flow of traffic, so that the crowd of cyclists can maintain “critical mass” and other riders can pass without any worry of unassuming cyclists and cars meeting each other in the middle of an intersection.
Our ride has started out smoothly and I’m wondering where this hill will be. We arrive at the Portland State campus and pass through heading deeper into southwest Portland and up a slight incline. I get to the top in a few minutes. “Seriously, that was the hill?” I think. “That’s nothing.” It wasn’t the hill. A few minutes later, I’m on the real hill. We’re biking up Terwilliger Boulevard, a long curving road that leads through tree-covered hills up to one of the highest points in the city, 600 feet in elevation from where I am now.
For the next grueling 20 minutes, I force my aching thighs to move and try to look admirably at the hundreds of cyclists passing me. These are impressive people. I bike several days a week. I am not out of shape. But I am getting my butt kicked. These are Portland’s real road warriors.
I’ve resigned myself to bearing this torture, moving slowly but surely, when suddenly the surge of bikes stops and turns left; we’ve made it to our mysterious destination. Of all places, we’re stopping at the Chart House, one of Portland’s fancy-pantsiest restaurants, where people who make more than I make in a day in a single hour dine on $30 steak and $60 surf and turf from high above the city lights. The view is amazing. The restaurant seems to be closed, although I see the staff looking out the window at the hundreds of uninvited guests. Across the 20-car parking lot, which is now covered in wheels and feet, someone turns up a speaker and a dance party begins.
It’s only been a few minutes when a muffled voice coming from a man standing on a speaker, yelling into a barely-loud-enough microphone says the words “important,” and “listen” and many other things which I can’t hear over the crowd, before holding five fingers spread in the air. Something is happening in five minutes. I’m told by a friend that we’re leaving in five minutes. No, not heading back, heading onward, to the next destination. And that it will be a very steep descent. This is what was important: Go slow. There’s more than one destination? Another mystery revealed.
The ride down the other side of the hill, deeper into the city, is exhilarating. We zoom as one mass, hugging the curves and generally taking over the entire road, stopping traffic in at least a one-mile radius. It’s not long before I realize where our next mystery destination will be; we’re almost there: one of Portland’s oldest cemeteries. Cars line up in every direction, waiting as we pass through the open gates of Riverview Cemetery, the final resting place of thousands of Portlanders, hundreds of soldiers, and the city founders, people whose names are on all of the street signs we’ve passed tonight.
Our time at Riverview is brief, just long enough for me to wonder if some sort of statement is being made, stopping at two legendary landmarks. But before I’ve given it any real thought, before a voice is able to speak up and declare the meaning of this midnight voyage, we’re off again, buzzing down the twisting lanes of the cemetery to meet the Willamette River.
At the bottom of the hill, outside the cemetery, the leaders veer left. The crowd stops. It’s after 2:00 am now, and they’re leading us out of the city. The next city is miles away. I am actually less than 5 minutes from my house, but even I hesitate. But the party doesn’t come to an end just yet. Instead, one rider returns and informs us that it’s just five more minutes, and sure enough, five minutes down the road, we arrive at our final destination: a bonfire on the sandy shores of the river.
My friends and I stay awhile, standing on the edges of the circle listening to the conversations of these midnight riders. They come from all parts of town, and many from all around the country. There are serious cyclists and others who just bike on the occasional weekend, but it doesn’t matter because when a man in the crowd calls everyone family, they all respond in unison, that “Yes, the family wants a bigger fire.” There are some, I can tell, that have been up since dawn, working all day and are ready to call it a night, and others who I know won’t leave the fire until the sun rises.
On my way back to the starting point, where my car waits, the excitement and mystery of the evening fades away. I’m tired and ready to sleep. Back at the car, another group from the ride returns and silently straps their bikes onto the back of their own car. The mystery is gone; most of the masses have headed home to bed, and I can’t wait to close my eyes, but for now thoughts of next month’s mystery ride are spinning like bicycle wheels in my head.
If you wanna check out the Midnight Mystery Ride you can find info about the Portland ride here and I’ve heard there are ride’s in San Francisco and Melbourne that are even bigger and better, because they learned from the best (Ours was first of course! I think the Portland leaders are proud parents of those two).