Carmen Mills was not a name I heard until I started this project, in early 2017.
To me, even her name has a stately quality to it. As with any founder, it hints at the stuff of legend.
Wasn't Carmen Mills name-dropped in some Lemonheads, or TPOH song? Maybe Carmen Mills is what the city renamed the north end of Victoria Drive.
One would think. Because Carmen is both the cause, and the expression, of the blossoming of Vancouver's cycling and active transportation culture in the 1990s and early 2000s.
A one-woman wrecking crew, is how I think of Carmen — 'all five-foot-nothing' of her, as she put it. Seems about right, but who noticed? I've known a few five-foot nothing women. Usually living proof that size is no measure of might.
Carmen is why, in the mid-to-late 1990s, when all else failed, B.E.S.T. at least had its literary groove on, with The Spoke'n' Word newsletter. In 1999, she dressed in dinosaur gear as part of the Dinosaurs Against Fossil Fuels party, and the City of Vancouver mayoral campaign of one T. Raax.
So it's fitting that her name carries weight. Such is the power of words. And ideas.
I know, and you know, that riding a bicycle and foregoing car ownership opens up the world to you — financially, physically, spiritually. It makes everything possible. But it's so funny, because the prevailing wisdom is exactly the opposite.
The prevailing wisdom, Carmen reminded me when we met this summer, is just words. It means nothing unless you follow them up with some kind of action.
It's a physical thing, cycling. Until you get somebody on a bike, they're not going to get it. It's counter-intuitive in a way. How can something that takes physical effort and takes longer be better than flexing my ankle on a gas pedal.
How can that be better? It just doesn't make sense. You have to do it. You have to take someone by the hand.
I teach people that. I tell them not to think about it, just do it. Don't think about it too much, you'll get it.
During our conversation, despite the alluring power of her stories unfolding before me — the history part that I was there for — I was struck instead by where she landed. She was continuing to directly impact people, physically, through her words and ideas.
Nothing's really changed for her, except she's impacting a Car Free Day's worth of people, personally, as the days go by.
Words transforming into action is a bit of a theme with Carmen.
I don't like being an I-told-you-so kind of person, but when I heard about the Olympics, ... I thought this is going to be the best thing to ever happen to our city. Because they shut down the viaducts for safety reasons, and guess what? It didn't matter.
Everyone was like, you can never do that. It's like you can never get rid of the Molson Indy, it's a great economic driver. Guess what? It's gone.
You can never shut down the viaducts, people need them, they're part of our roads - infrastructure. Unthinkable. Guess what? Doesn't matter.
And when there was the transit strike, I remember standing at Union Grocery with my jaw dropped, watching people ride by to work, on their children's banana-seat rusty bicycles, with the forks backwards, their helmets on backwards. I had never seen that.
I remember seeing ...middle aged guys in suits, riding insane bicycles. People just did what they needed to do. But, some of them got hooked. Gateway drug — some of them liked it. What do you know?
Action is like that. It can make you do crazy things. Or things others think are crazy. Like start a magazine at the cusp of disruption in the publishing world.
Nobody that I've ever heard of, up until that point or since then, has ever started a magazine with zero capital, zero investment. We didn't have a credit card, I don't think ever.
We had no investment. I just said, OK, how about this. How about we go and see how much money we can get from ads, and from asking our friends to kick in fifty bucks. Then we see how much money we have, and if we have enough to publish an issue, we'll publish an issue.
And then we'll see what happens. And that's what we did. For two years.
We've all heard a variation of the old Tao Te Ching proverb - "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". For people who are immersed in spiritual practices, as Carmen is with Zen Buddhism, it's not a hoary cliche. It's how they live. It's how they get around.
It's cycling, in a nutshell.
It's a physical practice. It's a direct experience of the world. I didn't get into biking for any kind of altruistic reason, or to get into shape, or anything. I got into it because it felt good, it made the world great for me. There was that feeling when you're riding that you're part of the air, and you're part of the road, and you're part of the city and it's part of you.