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OPINION: A brave new world on bike paths

During an otherwise relaxing bicycle ride the other afternoon, a young woman whose attention was on the cell phone in her hand nearly ran me down.

Here's the thing: She was riding a bicycle, too. We were on a hard-surfaced bike path that runs along the west shore of the Missouri River. Seriously. I had to brake and veer off the trail almost onto the pink rip-rap to avoid being struck by a phone-using bicycle rider. That may happen all the time in some cities, but it's a first in my 74-year life out here on the prairie.

I was heading home after a nice ride, all by myself, pedaling along, listening to the waves break against the rip-rap. A decent breeze stirred the leaves on the thick cottonwood tree as I passed. I had pedaled into that breeze for quite a while, but now I had it at my back the rest of the way home. I was in the moment, living large.

I saw two riders in the distance. They looked to be in their early teens, and they were riding side-by-side on the bike path. No problem, I figured. I got over to the right side of the path and figured they'd break into single file on the left. Only as they drew near did I see that the one in my lane was riding one-handed and studying her cell phone with the other hand. Her companion seemed to be enjoying the birds in an old tree. Neither saw me until they passed. At that point, the one without the phone said, "Hi,'' and probably wondered why I had run off the path. The other, the one on my side of the trail, never looked up.

Now, I spent five or six years doing safety messaging for a state agency. I know about "Don't text and drive'' and the other messages. But never in my time doing public information did I figure we'd need a safety message about the dangers of texting while riding a bicycle. It's a brave new world out here on the bike paths.

I was never in imminent danger of being run down. Still, I had to stop, and I thought about things once I'd pushed my bike back onto the path. At my age, with my uncertain balance and limited bicycle skills, I couldn't ride one-handed for much longer than the time it takes to reach down for the water bottle and take a quick drink. These two young people looked as if they could ride with one hand forever.

And if I could ride one-handed, I certainly couldn't ride and look at a phone. I need my eyes directed on the path ahead. If my eyes stray to the side, so does my bike. Besides, I couldn't hold the phone still enough while riding to be able to read the screen. And — old guy confession time — I can't work my phone one-handed. Never could.

It's rather sad that those young riders were so intent on their phones that they were missing a great afternoon. The river was high and wide, and its surface reflected huge puffs of grey-white clouds drifting across the mellow blue sky. The tree leaves rustled, the gentle waves lapped the shore and the pigeons cooed from their perches in the nearby railroad trestle. Just downstream from where I passed the two riders, a young guy standing on the bow of a drifting pontoon boat reeled in what appeared to be a decent-sized walleye. Somewhere on the other side of the river, a child laughed with pleasure. It was too lovely an afternoon to be missed.

While I straddled my bike and pondered the incident, a bull snake crawled from the weeds and slithered across the bike path toward the rocks that line the river. The snake was maybe 3 feet long. Once I'd determined that its tail contained no rattles, I just watched its passage until it disappeared into shadows between a couple of the large rocks.

As I mounted up to ride home, I thought what a lovely afternoon those two young riders missed. They missed me, too, though, and that made my day.