As Santa Fe sits in the smoky shadow of New Mexico’s largest-ever wildfire and the nation sweats out record high temperatures, climate change has been on the minds of many locals. Though it’s probably too late to drag our collective selves back from the abyss, strategies for changing our individual and community dependence on fossil fuels are sharpening.
So, here at SFR, we were delighted when Spencer Windes wanted to share his story about the year he spent in Santa Fe and elsewhere on an e-bike—a decision driven, in part, by his desire to do his part.
The bike arrives in May 2021 and takes about an hour of assembly. It cost $1,299 but now runs $1,499. (Spencer Windes/)
Windes, 52, is a writer, filmmaker and professional fundraiser. Windes left Santa Fe in 2011, spending time in Amsterdam, New York City and LA, then returned in 2021.
What follows is something a little different for our cover: It’s a yearlong diary of sorts, with Windes taking you along on his e-bike journey beginning in May 2021.
It’s a coincidence that the week the e-bike comes, someone crashes into my car.
It arrives in a large brown box. Designed in Seattle, made in China. An hour of assembly later, I step up into the saddle. The sensation of electric assistance is hard to describe. Yes, it’s a bike—you pedal, you steer, you lean into the curves. But you also fly, feeling like Lance Armstrong with the injection mark still aching in his bicep. I need the help—I’m middle aged, overweight, and my knees have played 12 years of rugby.
Two days later, someone takes out my parked Kia. They hit it hard enough to damage the underbody and somehow still drive away. I call the Santa Fe police, and an officer tells me to fill out a form online. That’s it, no investigation. The bike is now my transportation.
Palace of the Govenors, May 2021. (Spencer Windes/)
After work, bombing down Alameda, the cottonwoods erupt in their ersatz blizzard of snowy seeds. The days grow warmer and I take the bike up onto the dirt trails around town. I’m blinded by the sun and splash through a puddle, mud shooting up my backside. It’s surprising, the details you notice from the saddle—the fine weathering of metal, the pale dust that settles on every surface, the Trompe-lœil tricks rich people apply to their new houses to make them look old.
New Mexico must have the least legible road signs and license plates in America.
Riding in Santa Fe is a delight. The weather is great, the city is pretty flat, without too many killer inclines. You can ride across town in 20 minutes. There’s easy access to open land. It’s beautiful, everywhere. The old, tight city center is easier to get around on a bike than any other way. It could be a two-wheeled paradise, except for the cars—and the people who drive them.
Three times in recent weeks I’ve come across the aftermath of crashes that were being swept up by cops and tow trucks and once an ambulance. One morning, a dude in a Jaguar convertible pulls out of a side street, looks directly at me and hits the gas. No harm, I had spied him and left room to slam on the brakes. But the entire time he performs this action, he picks his nose. Full on, past the knuckle, booger spelunking—like a raccoon digging in a trash can.
A heat wave hits the Northwest, 121 degrees Fahrenheit in British Columbia. A firestorm devours the town of Lytton in 15 minutes. The heat wipes out clams and mussels, bakes starfish to death and damages the salmon run. Six hundred people die that week in Washington and Oregon.
Caught in the rain at Garcia Street Books, May 2021. (Spencer Windes/)
A driver hits me with their car.
I’m OK, no injuries, just a bit sore. She’s doing maybe 10 mph when, during a sudden downpour, she strikes me in a crosswalk. I go over my handlebars and land on her rain-slicked hood, leaving a large dent on her fender. I stand up and walk it off, no worse for wear than after a good tackle.
A security guard witnesses the accident and asks if I want an ambulance, and when I decline, the police. I think about what the SFPD had done, or not done, with my hit and run. I look at the driver: an older woman, shaken, and I don’t see any reason to cost her more than her dented fender.
I give her a pass because of her admirable choice in automobiles. She’d been driving a compact Japanese wagon with a low front hood, one of those boxy Scions. If she had been in a truck or SUV, I probably wouldn’t have gone onto the hood but onto the ground, or even under the wheels. If she had been driving a brodozer, one of those jacked-up, wall-grilled, gas-guzzling, road-hogging monuments to (mostly male) insecurity, I’d probably be dead.
It’s 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley, a new planet-wide record. Due to a pipeline rupture, the Gulf of Mexico catches on fire. I ride out the Rail Trail. It’s a good monsoon and fat, cool drops of rain pelt me in the face. July 2021 is the hottest month ever recorded.
The author, Spencer Windes, with an improved understanding of the kinetics of hurtling metal. (Courtesy Spencer Windes/)
Another near miss on the bike, except this time the culprit is a doe. A deer. A female deer! She leaps from the brush onto the trail like a drop of golden sun, startling me as I slam to a stop. I’m glad no one’s around to hear my startled cry of “watch out deer!” Now that nature has joined the conspiracy, I must be ever more vigilant.
My car comes out of the body shop. I pick it up and notice that I drive like an idiot. Not a particularly bad one, mind. I’ve never caused an accident, never hurt myself or anyone else. But I’m a different person behind the wheel—dumber, meaner and much more stressed out. I come home in a bad mood, not with the pleasure of an evening ride. I don’t want to drive anymore, but I know that owning a car means I’ll just fall into the habit again.
I sell the car.
A Sicilian town sees 124 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever in Europe. The citrus growers are having to pulp their crops since the fruit has cooked. The parish priest makes an appeal to the USA and other major climate polluters to protect God’s first gift, the earth. To save his town.
The bike is parked on Water Street and a stranger leaves a loaf of banana bread in the basket. Should I eat it? I ask the Santa Fe Foodies group on Facebook. Opinion is split. Some people would never eat the bread. Some consider eating it an act of faith in our collective humanity.
To eat or not to eat? Mystery banana bread on Water Street, September 2021. (Spencer Windes/)
I eat the delicious bread. At the end of the month, a dozen antique Mercedes 300SLs come through town, part of an owner road trip. A journalist friend is traveling with them, and I ride over to meet him and look at the cars. They are items of extraordinary beauty, jewel-toned metal whose supple shapes could have been formed by the erosion of wind and rain. I adore cars, even as I find it harder and harder to live with them.
The summer I was 15, I worked on a farm. The farmer, Lyndon, owned a pickup—a stripped-down, two-wheel-drive Chevy with crank windows and no options. I asked him why he didn’t have one of the jacked-up 4x4s that pervaded every parking lot in America. After all, the farm was crossed on unpaved roads flooded by irrigation water; winters were long, the snow banks high.
Lyndon thought about it, and then responded in his Idaho drawl. “It’s only guys who don’t know what they are doin’ that need all that fancy stuff. I don’t, because I know how to drive. And if I ever do get stuck, well, I own a tractor.”
In America, 10% of drivers use as much gas as another 60% combined. These “superusers” often drive jacked-up trucks and SUVS, the kind Lyndon disdained. They collectively burn about one-third of every gallon of gas.
On Halloween, I ride my bike up Canyon Road. It’s full of kids in costumes, pulling their parents along, collecting that fat east side candy. But no one has closed the road, and on this evening, on this narrow street crowded with children, drivers still shoulder their way through.
I dismount. The kids are delightful. Their parents are justifiably wary.
In Florida, a man drives a brand-new Tesla through a house at 116 mph, killing two.
Winter means putting fenders on the machine. I’m getting 20 miles out of a charge on the bike, not bad for a big guy who requires a lot of watts to displace. I plug in every night and don’t think about it. The fenders keep off the slush, and the knobby tires help keep me upright.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Riding a bike is creating your own wind, so riding in the cold is about sealing up. I buy gloves with enough of a flair to cover the wrist opening of my jacket. I wear comfy long underwear I bought for camping. I tuck my pants into my boots and wrap a scarf up to my chin.
A pothole spans the bike lane on Camino de la Cruz Blanca. (Spencer Windes/)
Santa Fe’s winters can be cold, but the sun usually shines, the snow melts quickly, and if you avoid the nasty patches of ice that lurk in the shadows, it’s not a bad place to ride through the bowels of winter.
My morning commute is only 3 miles each way, though mostly on high-speed roads with little or no bike space. It’s uphill in the morning, which gives me enough of a workout that I’m wide awake by the time I get to the office. The evenings are a blast, shooting down into town. I often detour through the Plaza and pause to take a seat with the bike parked next to me. People come up often to ask about the bike. Their eyes light up when I talk about it. I’ve become an evangelist, just as I was as a Mormon missionary in my misspent youth.
Traffic deaths are up 12% so far this year, but that’s America. The EU has slashed traffic fatalities more than one-third in the last decade. Helsinki, population 643,000, doesn’t lose a single life in an entire year. The EU also wants to kill the gas-burning car by 2035. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says without radical change, we’ll miss the 1.5-degree goal, which is already a bad place to be.
Rich Americans produce five times as much carbon as the bottom 50%. Demand for leather car seats is destroying the Brazilian forest. A city in Indiana cut injuries almost in half by installing roundabouts. An opinion writer in the New York Times suggests we buy every American an e-bike.
First travel since the pandemic, off to the Netherlands. From my front door, I employ a series of non-automobile transports, and I spend Christmas at my friend Eric’s in Utrecht, picking up a rental bike for a few bucks a day. It’s a terrible place to ride, the Netherlands, almost always wet, windy, and crowded. The winter days last just a few hours, and many of the roads are surfaced with brick. But because everyone rides—tiny little kids, elderly people, moms with the whole family sitting in the cargo box—it feels like the best place in the world.
We take the train to Paris. On the Rue de Rivoli, six former lanes of car traffic are now a bike superhighway. When I first went to Paris in 2007, the city stank of cars. Now, it feels half-transformed. The air is cleaner and you smell the river. In two decades they’ve cut car trips nearly in half. It’s not perfect—the French will always practice a form of wheeled anarchy—but we can change cities and put walking, biking and public transit first. Amsterdam was paving canals for freeways 50 years ago until people organized a movement called Stop de Kindermoord, which means stop killing kids. They fought to reclaim the roads for people and by doing so made their city a much safer place to grow up, to get around and to smoke a fat joint and gaze into the canal.
We make the choices we make.
A fool, I move houses in the dead of winter. Here, finally, the bike is useless. A friend has left me her car while she’s out of town, and for the big stuff I borrow a truck. I haven’t gone car-free—between the occasional access to borrowed cars and car sharing, I use one when I need one, just far less than before.
After running around in a heated vehicle though, the first winter ride is a challenge. With the sun dropping so early, the evening commute is sketchy. Beware east-west streets and drivers with the dying winter sunset in their eyes.
The University of Chicago calculates that air pollution is an even greater killer than car crashes, taking an average of 2.2 years off of all our lives.
Russia begins the destruction of Ukraine. Putin is a golem made of oil. Lots of the world’s worst people are made of oil, not just the Tsar of All Russia. Saudi princes, corrupt Venezuelan big shots, Texas congressmen.
But it’s not just these bad actors who are tarred by oil. It’s the normal humans who are invested in it all—the Dutch royal family, a teacher’s pension fund, the guys who fix the machines. They’re good people (well, I won’t vouch for the Dutch royal family) but it’s their talents and resources that cement fossil fuel into place.
A gallon costs a nationwide average of $4.34, a new high. But we haven’t raised the federal gas tax since 1992 and have some of the cheapest gas prices in the world. Friends make their livings off of oil. I don’t know what to say to them. In February, even riding a bike can be grim, but it’s a grim world.
Tonight, I almost kill an old man.
I’m in a friend’s car, the first time behind the wheel in weeks. I’m at a stop light, and in the next lane is a huge truck. The truck takes off with a belch and cloud of smoke, but then slows. I’m coming up next to him when, from behind the truck’s massive hood, an old man, walking with a cane, steps right into my lane.
It’s an insane thing to do, jaywalking across six lanes of high-speed traffic in the dark. He’s drunk, or his faculties are awry, or he no longer values his life enough to care.
A year ago, I surely would have killed him. But from being on the bike, I see more now, understand the kinetics of hurtling metal better than I did, so I had reflexively slowed down when the truck had, the same way I slow my bike at an intersection even when I have the right of way. I was driving at bicycle speed, and stopped just in time.
The old man looks at me. He carries a plastic bag, his face hidden behind a cheap surgical mask. He looks exhausted and puts his hand on the car’s fender, leaning there for a second of support. Then he takes a deep breath, gathers himself and steps up onto the curb.
I don’t honk.
Last month the Senate passed an act to make Daylight Saving Time permanent. I’m glad. When you are out on a bike, that extra hour of evening makes life so much more pleasant.
GM starts selling a new electric Hummer—18 feet long, 10,000 pounds and 0-60mph in three seconds. On a work trip to DC, I spot one in the flesh. It’s hard to describe the mass, how much of a wall it presents to the pedestrians and bikers around it. It’s a weapon of mass destruction let loose on the streets of the capital.
Spring springs the second week of April, the branches going from bare to popcorn in a couple of days. A study says that allergy season will be earlier and more severe with climate change. I change out my crank arm after the old one strips out and replace the brake pads. I don’t make a car payment, or an insurance payment, or worry about that weird clunking sound.
A massive Texas truck pulls up beside me at a red light. It smells bad and sounds dumb. Plastered in huge letters down its side:
Dude has a wagon full of power.
He doesn’t understand why some mook on a bike just can’t stop laughing.
I live on a one-way street. The driveway emerges from between two buildings. The street itself is just wide enough for one lane of traffic and one lane of parked cars. I always stop at the end of the driveway and check for oncoming cars.
One morning, I pull to a stop, look to the right and head into the street. To my left there’s a squeal of tires. A giant white SUV slams to a stop less than a foot away, so huge its hood is at my shoulder. The driver had been driving the wrong way down a one-way street.
“Hey!” I yelp, in surprise as much as anything. “This is a one-way street! You’re going the wrong way!” For a second, the young woman behind the wheel seems embarrassed. Then, her features harden into ugly.
“Don’t tell me how to drive!” she bellows.
Another car has come up the road in the right direction. They have to inch over to avoid her because the SUV driver is now continuing the wrong way. I leap aside. There’s nothing to say. What can you say?
Santa Fe could be a paradise.
I add the year up. I’ve saved more than $8,000. Well, not saved—I’ve spent it on rent, new pants and travel. I’ve lost 20 pounds and gained 10 back. I’ve contributed marginally less to the poisoned air and the superheated climate.
I’ve also almost died several times, gotten stuck in a thunderstorm and given money to Uber. Most of all, I’ve become radicalized about road violence and the unthinking way we pay a terrible price for the automobile.
Car crash deaths are up. Road rage is up. The price of oil is up. When I’m bombing under the once-again flowering cottonwoods, none of that matters. Being on a bike will always feel better than anything else. It hasn’t been a great year. But it’s been a great year on an e-bike.
5 Observations from a Year on a Bike in Santa Fe
Slow the hell down, people. There is nowhere in Santa Fe you need to be that quickly.
Street design has progressed enormously this century, making life safer for bikers, pedestrians, and anyone not in a car. We know how to build safe, complete streets. In Santa Fe, we just haven’t chosen to do so yet.
Sometimes stereotypes are true, especially when it comes to Texans. Watch out for those bloated white plate vehicles on our narrow little streets. Your Texan is easily confused by anything other than a 14-lane highway.
People in Santa Fe love bikes, they want to talk to you about your bike, they want to ride their bikes more often, but they just don’t feel safe doing so in a city dominated by the automobile. If we build it, they will ride.
E-bikes allow people to bike longer and farther, climb hills more easily and haul more stuff. They really are a revolution, especially if you aren’t in peak physical condition. Plus, they can save you a fortune if you get out of a car more often.
TL;DR: With a few minor changes, Santa Fe could be a paradise for bike riders, pedestrians, religious processions, pet parades, skater kids, strolling mariachis, art walks, low speed cruisers, and cowboys on horseback. Let’s be the City Different and make it so.