About Oakland
From "How America Can Bike And Grow Rich, The NBG Manifesto"

Soon, we were loading our bikes on to the ferry. We let Don go first so he could film us coming down the ramp. After he worked his bike and trailer down the short steel gang plank, we waited a few more moments for him to get his camera set up. Then one by one, my coast to coast team followed me. Then the HiWheel riders. Most of us waved as we approached Don. Our fun ride to the Oakland and Berkeley City Halls awaited us on the other side of the Bay.

We hadn’t been on the boat long before we could feel the might of its engines forcing us away from the dock. Soon the powerful steel girders of one of the world’s largest bridges, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, towering above us to our right were interrupted by the small forested island, Yerba Buena, that it then tunneled through. While just ahead lay Treasure Island, the world’s largest man-made island. Now an extension of Yerba Buena, it was once a dangerous part of the Bay, too shallow for safe passage. At one mile in length, hundreds of thousands of tons of quarried rock and many millions of cubic yards of sea bottom had been used to turn what was once a danger to boats of all sizes, into the 1939 World’s Fair and now a vacant military base.

On Treasure Island, plans for its 403 human-made acres are now being drawn up that could result in a community where 20,000 people live mostly automobile-free lives. In this utopia, energy would be generated by windmills; shops and parks would be within walking distance and downtown San Francisco would be a 10-minute ferry ride away. The fact that there is a developer in place wading through the state regulations and well-intentioned constraints that appear at every turn, communicates that this dream could actually become real by 2022, its projected completion date.

To our left a short distance away was Alcatraz, another legendary island once referred to as The Rock because it used to house America’s most dangerous criminals and just beyond stood yet another testament to man’s mastery over nature, the storybook Golden Gate Bridge. While the Bay itself was alive with beauty, both natural and man made, a beautiful mountain range encircled it and the busy cities that lay at its shores.

I wondered to myself how much of that beauty man has compromised as we tamed the Bay for our own use. In fact, the redwoods that once filled its hills and were once so prolific that according to the Spanish who discovered it in 1772, a squirrel could jump from the tops of the ridges to the edges of the Bay without ever touching the ground. I thought about this as the Oakland and Berkeley hills grew closer. While most of the forests that once covered them had been used to build most of San Francisco, there were still a few pockets of such green that had escaped the lumberman’s ax. And it was those little slices of heaven that I pedaled in and out of as I trained for my first bike ride across the US.

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As me and my team would soon disembark at Jack London Square in Oakland, I knew we were on a mission that could improve the quality of many people’s lives. Soon we would be pedaling across the Nation with a plan that would reconnect people with themselves, one another and the natural geography all of us take so much for granted.

Soon the mammoth shipping cranes that rose like steel butterflies hundreds of feet in the air marking the port of Oakland came into view. Once we soon reached them we were in a man made estuary with an abandoned air base on one side and massive shipping vessels stacked stories tall with truck containers on the other. In 1902, it was this waterway that had been dredged so that it could connect with the rest of the San Francisco Bay thereby forming an important shipping channel and turning the town of Alameda into an island.

We hadn’t been in the protected waters of the Oakland Estuary long when we could hear the ferry’s powerful engines start to slow down. Soon Jack London square, our point of debarkation. became visible. While most bike historians knew that it was from Oakland that Thomas Stevens began the world’s first ever bike ride across America, little mention seemed ever to be made about Jack London’s bicycle heroics.

It was London, the famous author who this square was named after, who first helped me to see that there might be interest in my own story. Since I had grown up in this area, in what was a lot of Jack London’s turf, there were reminders of him everywhere. With the newfound curiosity that my second chance to live had given me, I couldn’t help but discover that his true stories, what others called adventure, were similar to what I had done with my own life. As the fog of my long coma began to lift more and more after my first bike ride across America, it began to dawn on me that I too had been on an adventure. And like London, I wondered if I could teach myself how to write about it.

Greatly inspired by Jack London. I also found out he was quite a bicyclist. In fact, during one part of his life he used to spend weekends riding his HiWheel bicycle from Oakland to San Jose and back, a round trip distance of 90 miles! On dirt roads. Also back at the turn of the century, he rode all the way to Santa Cruz, at the ocean’s edge, over the challenging Coast Range, a one way distance of one hundred miles. On his honeymoon!!

As the majestic Oakland Tribune tower that once used to dominate the skyline appeared for a brief instant, I thought about how having myself been born in Oakland that I would be taking its rich bicycle legacy across the Nation with me. Indeed, it did seem fitting that I would soon be starting my ride in earnest from the same city where two of my biggest hero’s first placed their own visions on the world stage.

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Up ahead we could see Lake Merritt. A sparkling jewel set in the middle of Oakland, it is, in what is a little known fact today, America’s first National wildlife refuge protecting more than 90 species of migrating waterfowl. In 1869 when a tidal slough that drained into the Bay was dammed up to create this 145-acre body of salt water, such a designation was required to protect the flocks and flocks of migratory birds from the hunters who saw them as easy prey. Now home to innumerable herons, egrets, geese and ducks, this true urban miracle is surrounded by parks, homes, businesses, even a Children’s Fairyland.

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Soon we were pedaling on the path, three and a half miles in length, that surrounded the lake.

“I remember when I was a kid in the 60’s sitting over there and watching drag boat races with my parents,” I said as I pointed to a grassy area where the lake spread out below stately apartment buildings that were fed by long staircases. “The used to come once a year but by 1970 or so, too many people were getting killed, I think, so they stopped ‘em. I can’t believe that’s what it took. Man I can’t believe they ever allowed that.” I shook my head in disgust as just then a giant white bird with huge wings landed in the water right next to us.

“I agree, I wonder how those neighbors put up with the noise,” Don said as he kept his camera trained on me.

“Man we’ve come a long way. As I think about it, there were drag boat races everywhere back then. You know that estuary by Jack London square where the Ferry let us off?” Not waiting for an answer, I continued, “they used to have them in another little inlet about a mile down where it rejoined the Bay. Talk about unconscious, they also had this major garbage dump there and they also were dredging the little mimi bay for fill so they could build even more homes in Alameda. And hey you know that lake that we see when we cross over the freeway when we ride from Oakland to Berkeley? That used to be a full on water ski park. Talk about noise and more oil and exhaust fumes and a lot of it ending up in the water...”

“Well I don’t think people mean to be harmful, they just don’t know. And as they learn they start making smarter choices. That’s kind of how I see our ride this summer, we’ve just been reminding people there are options,” said Don, as he slowly swept around the lake with his video camera.

Looking out on calm, tranquil waters that were sparsely populated with wind and human powered boats, it is this beautiful setting and resulting peace that Oaklanders still use to escape the stress of city life. And yet besides the yearly power boat races that once desecrated this paradise, the lake was almost doomed by the time it reached adulthood. In fact, by 1890, the lake that resulted after Mayor Samuel Merritt ordered a dam be built at 12th Street, had turned into a murky, smelly mess few wanted to be near. Brought about by pollution from the large, gracious homes that had been built around it, it had become a watery wasteland.

Having lost its appeal. ownership of the lakeshore passed on to the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. which soon began to talk about filling it in. Talk which grew increasingly serious as plans for a railroad station were drawn up. All of this changed, however, when one of the railroad barons, university founder, Leland Stanford, convinced his partners that they should donate the land to the city so that it could build a park on its shores. At which point, the lake, given a new vitality was reborn.

On weekends, the path we were riding on, marked by the occasional person out for a stroll, would normally be filled with walkers and joggers. While if the sun was out, every kind of people powered watercraft would be visible. While there were a few of them to be seen today, if it had not been a work day, kayaks, canoes, windsurfers, little sailboats, pedal boats and even Venetian gondolas would be turning these waters into a shimmering playground that glistened under the wide open sky.

What a setting for a bike race I thought as I reflected back on the Columbus Day races that used to encircle this epic setting. Put on by the legendary Peter Rich who still owns Velo Sport in Berkeley, one of the nations oldest and most revered bike shops, the bike contests ran from 1956 to 1978. Barely noticed, they took place at a time when bike racing in America did not have the benefit of television or corporate sponsorship that it enjoys today.

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As we made a left turn, up ahead, I could see the two bike cops waiting for us. Straddling their bikes they were at the intersection where we had agreed to meet.

Once we got within earshot, one of them called, “Looks like you found us, we sure couldn’t miss you.”

“You’ve got to be trying pretty hard not to see us,” I said. “Shall we just keep rolling?”

“Just keep going, one of us will get in front of you after everyone passes.”

Soon, I could see our destination, Oakland City Hall. It was a tall square building that filled up the whole block. Completed in 1914, the 18 stories that made it the first government high-rise in the United States, were not visible from our vantage point. Once the tallest building west of the Mississippi, It was seriously damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and had to be closed for six years while it received an 80 million dollar seismic retrofit.

In the large plaza area led up it to its gold framed doors, I could see people in business clothes. There were cameras set up on tripods. All of this was framed by the businesses that serviced the office workers in this area. Over on the far corner was the street level elevator that took people to the train tracks below. Over the last several years I had used it to get to the Bay Rapid Transit System, or BART as it is called locally, to travel back to my home in Palo Alto after other events or seminars I had attended here.

“Is everyone ready? It’s just about show time,” I called.