Away from the numbers

On the last Friday of September around 6:30 p.m., Uptown was overrun by a 300-strong army of bicyclists that goes by the name of Critical Mass. It would be difficult to pigeonhole the group’s demographic, because from the looks of it, its membership included both hardcore bicyclists and part-timers; folks from all walks of life — gutter punks, workers, students, businesspeople, anarchists, squatters, parents, kids, hippies, vegans, carnivores, etc.

Critical Mass started in the early ’90s in San Francisco, and made its way in earnest to Minneapolis this year, as the amorphous “bicycling community” has grown and started taking to the streets with an unspoken agenda of more bike lanes and trails for pedal pushers, and a healthier way of life for all. Last Friday night, the bike brigade stopped traffic on Hennepin Avenue, and at least two large American flags flew from the saddles of bikes until the cops came by and dispersed the group and got traffic going again.

The backdrop to this civil disobedience happened on a day where revolutionary-minded citizens were holding governments across the globe accountable — for murdering monks, killing children for oil, and engaging in holy wars that are horrifying in their ignorance of what every religion starts with (God’s love for all) and which will unquestionably wreak havoc on generations to come. And while some react to these end times by putting their heads in the sand and/or leaders’ feet to the fire, the not-so subtle subtext to the first two Critical Mass rides was one of nonviolent protest, and a wordless questioning of a way of life that has brought America the beautiful to her knees.

Poetically enough, many of the cars the bicyclists stopped were headed to the Uptown Theater for the opening night screening of “Into the Wild,” the film version of Jon Krakauer’s book about Chris McCandless, the 22-year-old Atlanta student who eschewed his middle-class upbringing and opted for a simpler way of life. Inspired by such outsiders/loners as Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Muir, McCandless’ adventure left him blissfully unattached and unencumbered and, ultimately, dead in the deep wilds of north Alaska.

“Into the Wild” feels especially timely, for, as writer/director Sean Penn told the Detroit Free Press, “The waste of consumption — physical and mental — is so enormous and debilitating. It’s a moment of emergency, and not just for the life of the planet. It’s for the life of the soul.”

He’s dead on. It is no exaggeration to say that our collective soul is in peril, thanks not only to the addiction to oil, but to media and materialism. All of which has been said many times before, but rarely with such personal urgency as Penn does with “Into the Wild.” To that end, the experience of watching the film is a call to confront our own values and fears: One mom said to me, “I thought what that kid did to his family was mean.” At the same time, a growing “Cult of Chris” has cropped up, its legions enamored with the idea of a purer existence than the one America has to offer.

Both things can be true. McCandless’s journey is a universal one toward freedom — of mind, spirit, and self. “I need to get away,” is how the work-weary and vacation-deprived laborer puts it, and McCandless ran with that instinct and presumably, hopefully, lived a far richer, if shorter, life than many of us do. Which is to say he lived exactly the way he wanted to, and gleaned the sort of inner knowledge that can only come from staring into nothingness and at the primal wonder of nature and himself, not at a YouTube clip. The tragedy, if that indeed is what his death is, is that he didn’t live long enough to share his discoveries.

“Into the Wild” is already being hailed as a new “Easy Rider.” which happened at a similarly caustic time of social upheaval in this country. My friend Dr. Chuck Lofy, a 70-something mystic, former Jesuit priest, and philosopher, is fond of telling groups he speaks to his favorite scene from “Easy Rider”: Bikers Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda happen upon businessman Jack Nicholson, who tells the hippies that the squares “don’t hate you because you have long hair. They hate you because you’re free.”

Freedom. That is what is at the core of “Into the Wild,” and to witness the moneyed middle-aged moviegoers bemusedly watching the “Cars Are Coffins” parade go by last Friday was to watch two versions of freedom being played out. The trick for the rest of us, of course, is to be true to ourselves and the ones we love, and to incorporate into our lives the sort of idealism and thirst for true experience that got McCandless killed.

Luckily, we live in a city where stuff like Critical Mass is always there to remind us of what could be, and by all those holy lakes and rivers that can take us as far from the madding crowds as need be.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.