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  • Writer's pictureThomas Sweeney

The Lost Chapter - Ride to School

Today marks TEN YEARS since I last drove my car to school! To honor the occasion, below is an excerpt from Lisbon to Shanghai in Four Summers that was cut from the manuscript. It was originally the beginning of Part II: The 2015-16 School Year.

On May 18th, 2015, two months before I left for Lisbon, a man named John Jacoby was gunned down while riding his bicycle on a county road southeast of Fort Collins. Several weeks prior to Jacoby’s murder, a woman was shot through her car windshield while driving on Interstate 25. Days before I left for Europe, a motorcyclist and pedestrian were both shot by an unknown assailant in Loveland. The motorcyclist survived; the pedestrian did not. I was more than glad to leave Northern Colorado and spend the summer cycling around Europe and North Africa, where I felt safe.

When I returned to school that fall, the shootings were still unsolved, and I pedaled to work in constant anxiety, sometimes wondering if the hum of tires on pavement approaching from behind would be the last sound I ever heard. When I went to our Thompson School District kick-off meeting at the Embassy Suites in mid August, not far from the site of Jacoby's murder, I pedaled out of my way to take a picture of the memorial there. I wanted to use the image in my Ride to School slideshow, a photo montage set to music, to make sure the incident didn’t fade completely from our collective memories.

My Ride to School videos had, over the years, become an identifying trademark of mine. I created the first one at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Prior to that, I still drove my car to work when the weather turned nasty. But in the fall of 2012, I made it to December without driving, and realized that if I could make it to Christmas break, I would have a shot at making it the whole year without driving.

On the evening of December 18th, I had to stay late for a meeting. On my way home across the vast expanse of prairie that separates Loveland from Fort Collins, it started to snow. It wasn’t supposed to snow until the next morning, so I had ridden my Soma cross bike with racing tires rather than my circa-1990 steel Trek 800 suspensionless mountain bike with knobby tires.

My fists gripped the handlebars while I navigated the narrow shoulder of Taft Hill road with cars whizzing by at 60 mph in the dark, their headlights illuminating speckles of snow hanging in the air. Five miles from home, while descending one of the many hills that characterize this stretch of road, my rear tire started to go flat.

I pulled to the side of the road and proceeded to pump up my tire. It held for a mile. The snow fell harder, cars honked at me for being on the road at all, and I accepted the fact that fixing a flat under these conditions wasn’t going to happen. I stepped off the pavement, into the darkness of the prairie, and called Kendra.

“I have a flat tire. I’m on the side of the road.”

“Do you need a ride home? I can come get you.”

“Oh, no. That’s not why I called. I just wanted you to know that I’m going to be late."

Inwardly I muttered, ‘I’m not about to let five miles stand between me and a perfect non-car year.’

I could hear Kendra sigh into the phone. “I assume you don’t want dinner?”

“I’ll figure something out when I get home. See you in a bit….”

“Bye. Be safe.”

Stepping a hundred yards off the main road made me feel like I was lost in another world. Darkness surrounded me, and the red taillights of the cars on Taft Hills streaked by in the distance. Big snowflakes danced downwardly from their crystalline perches high in the darkened sky. A ceiling of heavy grey clouds, dimly lit by the city lights, cast the world in an ethereal hue. I walked my bike across the prairie, hiking in my cycling shoes. My thin toe covers, meant to keep out the cold, were torn alive with every step.

With that one evening, I set myself on the path to make it to the end of the 2012-13 school year without driving. That also happened to be the same school year that I started taking pictures on every single day of my commutes, inspired in part by a college friend who had been taking a picture of his daughter, eyes in the exact same spot, every single day since she had been born. I chose one photo from each day’s ride and made a video collage. I added Bon Iver's version of Come Talk to Me to the background for added ambience.

I emailed my Ride to School video, named after the file name of the photos, to the Sarah Milner staff and was surprised by the positive response I received. Their enthusiasm motivated me to make another montage for the 2013-14 school year, which I posted on Facebook. Every time a “Like” icon popped into my feed I’d get a wallop of dopamine, a sensation that I assumed was just a normal, healthy response. Over the years people’s “Likes” and comments would motivate me to keep on pedaling and keep on taking pictures. I never gave much thought to the addictive response I had to those “Like” icons.

For what it’s worth, taking pictures each morning truly was all about the photography, not the response on Facebook. In their own small way these little slideshows filled me with some small purpose each morning, and with each passing year it became an integral part of my identity. Since most of the photos were taken in Loveland, I had acome to feel like I was living in two cities, that I had two homes. Fort Collins was where I slept, Loveland was where I spent my waking hours.

Between the two, I had successfully blended my passion for cycling with my love of photography. That the photos became popular folklore among the school staff only further fueled me. By the time the 2015-16 school year rolled around, these photos were just another habit that I had to feed. Driving to school was no longer an option, even if there was an active shooter on the loose.

Please visit for more videos. You can also see some of the best photos from my daily commute by clicking on the Ride to School tab.

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