Easy rider

I bought a moped this summer, largely because it seemed like something I would never do. I don’t usually make large impulse purchases. I avoid physical risk whenever possible. I’m scared of driving and traffic. I’m not mechanically inclined, and I haven’t visited a gas station for anything other than bottled water in years.

I did it because I couldn’t waste another summer. Every year in June, I am overcome with vestigial schoolgirl anticipation at the thought of three months of golden, lazy summer days stretched before me. Even though I know I have to work full time, I promise myself I’ll celebrate the season properly with swimming excursions, Otter Pops, picnics, farmers’-market produce, fireworks and road trips. But summer after adult summer, I end up working long hours and huddling in my house at night eating cheese-less pizza and watching movies like it were any other time of year. Then autumn arrives, and I am horrified to discover that I never even put on a bathing suit.

I had to counteract this trend. Following the longstanding tradition of American men in midlife crises who buy sporty vehicles to cement their new identities, I invested $500 in a 1984 Puch moped and my daydreams of a more exciting life.

For anyone used to driving a car, a moped represents a serious downsizing in transportation technology—less speed, less gas and less glamour. But try to imagine it from the perspective of a committed pedestrian like myself. After years of walking everywhere, the ability to cross the grid in five minutes seems like time travel. Racing down L Street at my top speed of 30 mph is like something out of NASCAR. I can’t stop grinning when I’m riding, though it increases the likelihood that I will swallow a bug.

Riding a moped has brought me everything I’d hoped it would—more confidence, more fun and a wider world to play in—and many things I didn’t expect. I’ve had to educate myself about two-stroke oil and helmet-safety certification. I’ve learned to politely put off strangers who demand to buy my moped, which happens on about half my outings. (One man even went so far as to flash a $100 bill at me, as if I’d hand the vehicle over in the middle of the street and start walking home.) I’ve rediscovered the dance of purchasing gas: pay first, pump second, go back for change. Though I have spilled gas on my shoes more than once when I overestimated the space left in my one-gallon tank, I have to admit feeling a smug satisfaction in paying less than $2 at the register when most in line are paying more than $40.

I’ve also become reacquainted with the anxiety of being a traffic novice, something I haven’t felt since my high-school driver’s-ed days. There are times when I become so intimidated by the speed of the cars around me that I simply cannot merge. I end up riding blocks past my destination and making a series of U-turns to get where I’m going.

This anxiety is lessened considerably when riding in a pack, as I discovered last week on my first excursion with the Land Squids, Sacramento’s moped gang. There were 11 of us total, and the combined sound of our whiny engines and tiny horns was comically intimidating—like a legion of mosquitoes. With that many of us, cars couldn’t help but notice. We took up two lanes as we swarmed over the Tower Bridge into West Sacramento and along the Sacramento River toward Freeport.

As the sun set over the cornfields to our right, the river raced us on our left, giving off breezes more refreshing than any air conditioner. We rode until our hands ached on the throttles, until our faces felt numb from wind, until it got too dark to see the road’s many potholes. The 30-mile round trip had no destination and lasted all evening, but I didn’t mind. I was just out to enjoy the summer.