I started waking up before dawn when I was 17 years old. That summer, I worked on the docks down in Seattle alongside my father, who was the line manager. We processed fish in a cavernous, refrigerated space roughly the size of what I imagined a rich person’s “great room” would be. The work, unfortunately, wasn’t great. On our feet for as long as 14 hours, we started at six in the morning, which meant we caught the 4:45am bus from our house in the suburbs in order to arrive in time to don hairnets and arm gaiters before sliding into our respective spots on the processing line.
The wake up call was ungodly, especially for a teenager, and I routinely stumbled out of the front door in a kind of half-sleep, shuffling along in blue coveralls that smelled of sturgeon and dragging a brown paper bag lunch at my side. But by the time we reached the bus stop, I’d gained enough consciousness to catalog my surroundings. My dad was perpetually lost in a paperback novel. The sky was midnight black, shifting slowly into royals and indigo. I often thought of Sylvia Plath’s line, “The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve.” Dawn was covert in a way that a sunset never is – it tread lightly. It whispered. And at 4:30 in the morning, so did just about everything else.
There was an unspoken reverence for the inky hours just before the sun appeared. The people we encountered were kinder, quieter and softer towards us. Devoid of traffic and other forms of human clutter, the world seemed spacious and hopeful. I learned to love the feel of that optimism, the cautious sensation that everything was still possible.
In college I took a job at a vegetable stand in Pike Place Market and always requested the opening shift, stacking apples at 6:00am through the winter while my breath appeared in front of me. Later, when I moved to Portland and didn’t know a soul, I managed my depression by running through the cozy neighborhood streets at 3:30 or 4:00am. Occasionally, I passed another runner and we would nod or wave, a solemn acknowledgement of our solidarity. I didn’t even need to talk to them, but knowing they were out there in the world made me feel less alone than any of the crowded and contrived social gatherings I forced myself to attend.
By the time I really started riding bikes, I was almost 30 years old and I’d spent more than a decade enjoying my best hours before first light. It made perfect sense that I would do the bulk of my training in that coveted and starlit timeframe, but I didn’t know many cyclists who were willing to roll out early enough to be home before the first wave of car commuters even started sipping their coffee, so I rode alone. Traffic didn’t bother me much when I was commuting to and from work, but I couldn’t help but be annoyed by it when I was out on longer journeys. Like many people, I rode for joy and fun, but also release. I pedaled to work out problems, forget about worries, calm my nerves. Being surrounded by cars didn’t facilitate any of that. In fact, it usually made it worse. I liked to get out ahead of the fray.
Early mornings in the saddle presented some challenges, especially in the winter which was my favorite season due to the disappearance of the fair weather crowds. Cycling is colder than running by nature and, despite relatively low traffic volume, visibility is still of high concern. I bought bright lights, reflective tape and thicker gloves. I wrapped my wool-shod feet in plastic bags before shoving them into winter cycling boots. I filled my water bottle with hot water and packed a small thermos of tea in the center pocket of my jersey.
The payoff for my effort was immeasurable. Downtown was silent and motionless, street lights flicking pointlessly through their cycles of red, green and yellow. I passed through noiselessly, like a ghost, on my way into the west hills. I climbed from sea level to 1200 feet under canopies of Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar and listened to the wind in the branches. On Skyline Road clouds loitered low and thick so that the white of my front light cast a perfect cone of illuminated atmosphere in front of me. When I stopped to drink the tea, my ears were filled with that sound which can so elude us in our daily lives; silence.
Pedaling toward home as the sun rises may be the perfect expression of optimism in a world that can feel increasingly bleak. All that road in front of you, all those hours to work towards something better.
In the past decade I’ve learned to appreciate the various forms that cycling can take; the gasping agony of a cyclocross race, the spirited camaraderie of a fast group ride, the transcendent zen of a technical mountain bike trail, the rolling lark of a coffee shop ride in the summer. But the pre-dawn solo mission remains the central pillar of my practice. It is an untouchable time of day, protected by its apparent absurdity and therefore guarded from interruption, co-option or conflicting responsibilities. Those hours before first light are always there for you – quiet and probably cold.
These days I have a small crew of Dawn Patrol companions. Life has gotten fast and full for all of us with family, parenting and professional ambition. But that window between 4:00 and 7:00am is a sacred portal into another world where we exist without pressures or expectations. Like those mornings at the bus stop with my father, we speak in whispers because it’s the only volume that feels appropriate. And somewhere in that slow blue dissolve, we pedal into hopefulness and happiness the likes of which no amount of therapy, meditation or medication could ever deliver.
Heidi Swift will lead a week of ladies-only adventure and fun in Catalonia, Spain this May. For more details, check out the trip page!