Robert Cantwell's first bicycle was a sturdy cream-and-brown Ranger that he and his brother chose from a catalog as a Christmas present back around 1918. Deliveries being no better then than they are now, it was spring before the bike arrived and the youngsters could take turns riding it around Onalaska, Wash., a small mill town in the Cascades. The nearest main road was nine miles away at the end of a valley, and the two brothers loved to freewheel down to it. "We never remembered that what was downhill one way was uphill the other," Cantwell says. "We used to get awfully tired going back home."
In this issue (page 36) Cantwell goes home again to the Northwest, and to bikes, for a look at Oregon's innovative bicycle-path legislation, although in the intervening years he did not have much time for two-wheelers. Ever since 1935, his association with Time Inc. magazines usually has kept his feet tucked under a typewriter table instead of on a pair of pedals. He reviewed books for TIME, worked on trial issues of LIFE before that magazine came into being and did stints on FORTUNE before returning to TIME as World War II began to do a widely praised special article called Background for War. When Hitler was rampaging across Europe, Cantwell wrote many of the magazine's foreign news stories. In 1954 he was in on the birth of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, eventually becoming a Senior Writer and, after his retirement in January 1973, a Special Contributor.
An author of distinguished fiction, criticism and biography as well as a journalist, Cantwell's particular interests are history, literature and the outdoors, and many of his memorable articles reflect one or more of those fields: the 18th-century English naturalist Mark Catesby; a nostalgic look at the famous old cavalry post Fort Riley; a portrait of the gifted Australian poet and sportswriter, Banjo Paterson, who wrote the universally popular Waltzing Matilda. Currently he is researching a story on British sportsmen in North America during the 18th century.
Cantwell, a compact, silver-haired man in his 60s, is courtly and quiet, but he vigorously denies that it is nostalgia that turns him toward the past. "History is a natural resource," he argues, "just as much as fossil fuel. It's what is there. We should not ignore it." He resists the tendency to take a superior or condescending view of what has gone before. "We minimize achievements as though the people who made them were not as bright or as gifted as we are. But when we do that, we lose valuable insights into what is going on today."
The bicycle-path story in this issue combines Cantwell's feeling for history and the pleasures of the outdoors. Not only was he an on-the-scene observer of much of the lengthy turmoil that resulted in the Oregon program—now a model for other states—but he took up the bicycle again and made a tour of the area to see firsthand where the paths led.
Now Cantwell says he is sorry he neglected bikes for so many years. He asserts that this week's story represents "a desire to enjoy doing something I could have enjoyed 20 or 30 years ago."
That's what bike paths are for.