Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Highways Ruin Everything

Fastcompany posted a photo essay of how highways have ruined neighborhoods in St. Louis. I saw some of this summer, but I also so a lot more. Here are  few pics I took of two other places where highways ruined everything.

Welcome to Wheeling, West Virginia. Former capital of the state and home to the hall where the state was created. Pressed between the Ohio River and a classic West Virginia hill, the core of the town is a collection of great nineteenth- and early twentieth-century brick buildings. But the downtown is mostly gutted and home to the sorts of lost souls that keep people with wallets far away. People are trying to bring the town back but it is an uphill fight. But my word do they have some great buildings to work with. I hope they succeed. One big hinderance is the run of I70 which cuts the downtown in half. But unlike in the story of Solomon, there was no loving person to step in and stop the sword from killing the baby

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Dark, urine reeking, and garbage filled, this horrible bridge ensures that people on the residential side seen here, will do most of what they can to not walk under the over pass and into the taller downtown as seen below.

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Standing in this little slice of hell is like standing in some sort of WWI no man’s land, except instead of separating combatants, this glaring stupidity only keeps apart two stylistically linked parts of a city. Because the river and the hill make the city so narrow, I70 really did cleft Wheeling in twain, and left it to bleed to death like urban road kill. Cars whiz by all the live long day with no reason to bring people into this forgotten extended crack den. Thanks Highway! Well done!

Case Two: Zanesville, Ohio. As forgotten places go, Zanesville is pretty forgotten. In fact, most the city has been replaced by interstate exchanges. Big empty parking lots sit under and near them and where there once were homes and families, there now are ridiculously overpriced chain hotels which,  sapropytically live off the cars zipping by that need to stop only for the night. So a living city was killed in part by highways that carved it up, but then the highways create an economy based on people getting past the place as fast as they can. Thanks Highways!

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In Zanesville as elsewhere, an organically created city that took generations to develop was sliced in half by these covered deserts. Here though is a little hint of what the clearly inspired builders of old Zanesville created and what has been lost.

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This imaginative little bit of vernacular whimsey now sits, alone, next to cars (and trucks (left, as in my photo) that whiz by uninterested. They don’t even stop for a sandwich.

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Fredericksburg’s Stone in Focus

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If all problems were all easy to solve, there would be no problems. This case is one that presents me with mixed feelings, mostly since I have been considering this for years. The centerpiece here is round block of sandstone at the corner of William and Charles Streets in Fredericksburg, Va. It stands in front of what used to be hotel, but is now a locally owned grocery and apartments. I have lived all over town in my long association with my home away from home, but I have never gotten to live in this building. It sits at the center of a great patch of Civil War era photography—in fact some of the town’s most famous pics were right there in a lot across Charles St. Sadly, no one took a photograph of this corner, and there is very little documentation about the stone as well.

But that does not mean it has no story. It has long been understood as having served as an auction block upon which enslaved Africans were stood so as to be presented to bidders. The warehouse down Charles St is also said to have served as storage area for enslaved Africans before sale. It is all plausible enough—there were enslaved people sold in town, and on this corner in fact. Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 12.56.18 AMAs NPS historian John Hennessy points out, there is not much else to lock in the story of the block. The local memory though is pretty strong, and needs to be given due weight—indeed, it has. There is a rival story that the block was a stepping stone for carriages and horses, but we can just push that aside since there is nothing about that role that would prevent the block from serving as an auction block as well at another time.

I am not going to take on the question of a thing being a thing. Let’s for the sake of argument say that it is. Or rather, even if it might not be, it certainly has been considered to be genuine long enough and widely enough to have entered the public discussion as what it purports to be (clear…?). What I am interested in though is the memorialization question. Long ago I began asking students, while standing at the stone, to give me reasons to keep it there or to move it. They were always creative and now I wish I had had them write the answers! The one thing that always bothered me though was a curatorial issue. Out in the open air, exposed to the elements, and with cars zipping by, I always felt that the stone was being treated with slight regard.

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Mountvernon.org

Take the LW stone at Mount Vernon (discussed in chapter six of the book I am writing now! plug plug). It maaaaay be a seventeenth-century survival, or it might not be. In either case, curators wisely moved it into storage and filled it place in the Mount Vernon cellar with a carefully matched and crafted  doppelganger. I have always sort of wanted the same thing done for the Auction Stone—if nothing else just to protect it from a drunk driver.

But now something else has emerged. A group of citizens is asking that the stone be removed from where it seems to have stood (probably stood) since the middle of the nineteenth-century. I first learned of this movement on Facebook and I had a lot of questions. Significantly, the leadership of the group is African American—specifically the contemporary community theoretically most honored by what the Fredericksburg.com editorial rightfully calls an “ugly artifact from an even uglier era in the city’s history.” In this view, the stone is a chastisement and a grim reminder of bad things in an “ugly” past.

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Fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com

Its presence is an act of atonement of sorts in stone through an ever-present reminder of past sins. But what the people asking for its removal are saying is that, rather, the stone is a needlessly painful reminder of a past that is not so distant from some residents’ contemporary experiences. The people who do not bear the lingering social, financial, and perhaps genetic effects of American Slavery I (1500—1865) and American Slavery II (1865–c1968) might need visible reminders of the past they have the good fortune to be able to otherwise forget. But others may be living more within other more immediate reminders, making some aspects of the past more present for them than for their neighbors. For those people, one stone more or less does not remove, forget, or erase the past. Instead, it might make the present less painful on a daily basis. The editorial suggests an answer—a recontextualization of the stone. The current plaque by the stone is by all measures insufficient. Thus, something richer and more informative is a categorical good. I use the stone each year to spark student conversation, and making the site a more useful teaching tool for everyone appeals to me. But at the same time, moving forward on this will require listening long and carefully to some of the concerns raised by voices within the African American community. It will require walking into those discussions without a “remainer” fait acompli in place. City officials might hear of very real pain which some citizens feel over this, and that that pain is not about a distant abstract past that needs to be remembered, but rather about how that past’s shadow is visited unevenly on people in the present. I have no idea what the memorializing outcome might be, but if that discussion was real and given time to mature, it would be a huge step forward in and of itself. It could be the stone upon which a new consensus could be built.

 

Duel (1971) As Environmental Parable

I happened upon a 1971 made for TV movie called Duel. I was looking for something else, but the film caught my eye. It starred Dennis Weaver and was Stephen Spielberg’s film directing debut. The story and screenplay were written by Richard Matheson who had published a short story version in Playboy earlier that year and had a considerable CV including Twilight Zone notches on his belt. duelThe whole thing was filmed in two weeks for $450,000 before an ABC TV broadcast on November 13, 1971. I asked around and quite a few friends had not only seen and recalled the film, but more than a few quite fondly remembered it.

Good—they should. The movie is great. Since this entry is going to ruin the ending, best to go ahead and watch it quickly before reading on. I’ll wait, it is on YouTube ….Done? Ok, good.

So, recap. Weaver plays David Mann, a salesman driving through the California desert to get to a sale. He drives a bright red Plymouth, and a few commenters noted that the car itself is a sort of co-star. Early on we learn that Mann and his wife are having a rough time, but that is all for background. Spielberg later said he wanted Weaver to play Mann because Weaver had a flare for portraying anxiety on screen.

While winding and twisting on the roads, Mann finds himself stuck behind a hulking late model fuel truck. It is a dusty dirty rattly behemoth anticipating the vehicular cast of Road Warrior. The truck has the  word “flammable” just visible through the grime. The truck belches out oily smoke which flows into Mann’s car. He coughs and wipes his hair and utters the awkward line, “talk about pollution!” Finally, Mann sees his line, and passes the truck. Spielberg makes sure we can hear the thundering engine and rattling panels as the camera passes by. So far so good. But soon, the truck suddenly passes Mann, and now the two are locked in game of road rage on an epic scale. Feature-Schober-Image-5-750x400Mann soon realizes that his nemesis is out for more than lane space as the truck tail gates him at close to 100 miles per hour, rams his rear bumper, and even tries to shove the stopped Plymouth into the passing cars of a train at a railroad crossing. The truck even tries to kill Mann while he is in a phone booth and stalks him in all ways. Spielberg said he was very much influenced by Hitchcock and followed the ‘less is more’ approach. For example, we never see the truck’s driver—the monster is seemingly autonomous—an effect that only heighten stress an alienation. We see the driver’s boots in one scene, his arm waving Mann (unknown to him of course) into on coming traffic, and his face ever so faintly and quickly in a rear view mirror once (perhaps an accident). The overall effect is an ever more anxious Weaver/Mann battling a nameless faceless non-human machine clearly out to kill him for no discernable reason.

Critics, and Spielberg himself, all talked about how this was an allegory of man’s battle with technology. Our own machines are trying to kill us and we are seemingly helpless to stop them. In this case Mann (get it?…..man!) is alone in the desert. David (get it? …. David!) is battling his own mechanical Goliath. But as we all know, David wins, and in this case, in the end, Mann triumphs over machine. The theme is pretty obvious and all clear and intended and stated outright.

But I saw Duel also as having a different level of meaning in this age of climate change. 1971 was just before the great gas crisis that altered the overall discussion about gas consumption. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was almost ten years old, and this was the year that the Keep America Beautiful organization first aired its now legendary “Crying Indian” ad featuring Iron Eyes Cody. People_Start_Pollution_-_1971_AdThe mid-sixties saw an awareness that “smog” and car exhaust were linked and an increase in urban temperature inversions led to tightening of emissions standards and a stated need to clean the air. 1963 Clean Air Act, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Act of 1965, and the 1967 Air Quality Act all worked towards that goal, and the 1970 creation of the Environmental Protection Agency all show the increasing awareness that something was very wrong. When Mann says “talk about pollution” he was not the only one who was. But at the time, most Americans would have understood pollution as smoke and trash—a mess and a health hazard. Few if any would have thought about climate in the broadest sense, let alone permanent and irreversible change to the planetary climate system. Indeed, it would still be six years before Exxon would learn about, and begin to cover up, the links between gasoline and the climate.

So, along comes Speilberg and makes a movie about Man/Mann at war for his life with a machine. But look again–gasoline is the peril–not just machines. First off, it is significant that the truck is itself a fuel truck (notice too, the parallel in the words “Duel” and “Fuel”). With its hidden driver, it is gasoline itself that is pursing Mann and trying to kill him. The fuel is also, as it is in nature, covered in dirt but delivered only by noisy machinery. The menacing word “flammable” on the truck’s back and side of course is a harbinger of danger, but it also is an illusion to heat—for us, a warming planet. At one point, truck/gasoline tries to push Mann into the passing train. In this scene, three forms of transportation are all in juxtaposition. Mann is on his Plymouth—the personal transport fit for a Pilgrim–what can be more American? Gasoline tries to kill Mann, but the more fuel-efficient train steadfastly rolls by oblivious to the drama at its side.

Finally, Mann’s battered Plymouth’s engine overheats and the oil is all gone. We watch as liquid and smoke pour of the slowing car and Weaver puts in that angst performance that Spielberg wanted him for. As Mann climbs a hill with the truck in hot pursuit, the Plymouth ceases to be a gasoline-powered vehicle (in two shots the fuel gauge says empty but in a subsequent one the red needle points to F). duel-1971-dennis-weaver-killer-truck-steven-spielberg-first-filmAs soon as Mann crests the hill, his now gas-free unpowered car can coast in neutral and at dangerously high speed down the other side and only then the distance he needs. At the base of the hill, after a small wreck, and a hairpin turn, the Plymouth uses the last of its power to get up a road, and, with the help of Mann’s briefcase pressed on to the gas pedal, is slammed into by the truck (Mann having leapt out already). Gasoline and the car then careen over a handy cliff. Mann ultimately is only saved from death when he frees himself from the car and from gasoline, and when he frees himself from gasoline, the peril ends, and he is safe. True, he is also alone in the desert without a car, and the end of gasoline has dramatically changed Mann’s world, but the immediate peril is gone. The car and gasoline have driven him to a world of deadly heat and empty valleys, but at least he is alive. This is climate change. 

I don’t think any of this analysis was intentional, but it is all there. The man vs, machine theme is unmistakable and the path is set for Jaws which is really a very similar film. But Duel also makes a great environmental parable too. Now I have to watch Jaws again.

Skin Wall Tires–a visible shame I brought on myself.

It is with great shame and embarrassment that I confess to having given in to simple fashion. I bought and mounted a pair of Clement 700c x 28mm skin wall tires. They just look so damn good. I’m sorry world. I am one of those guys now.

My rule of thumb for bike gear has been each thing has to prove its worth before I buy in.. Bike shorts are great to avoid chaffing and sores and once you are onboard with shorts you will soon realize that bibs are far better. Likewise, jerseys have pockets that are so helpful and they wick perfectly. And so it has been for years now as my closet and draws have filled with bike stuff. The same has been true for on-the-bike goodies. I mostly ride Shimano 105 mechanicals, but I might make the move to Ultegra—but honestly I know there is no real advantage for me to go to Dura Ace. Likewise, if a box of Campagnolo Super Record fell from the sky, I would happily mount it on the bike and learn to use the fiddly little thumb shifter thing—I dunno, I have never tried it. But in reality there is no good reason other than vanity for me to shell out the three grand needed to show off such a gorgeous and flashy group set. Let’s talk again when I am averaging 25mph over a 40 mile ride. Meanwhile I can set up a Gofundme! There is a guy at Flatwoods we have nicknamed by his bike make—I wont say it here to protect the innocent. What makes him stand out is how clearly outclassed he is by his bike—no way can that man make that bike do what it is meant to do. No one wants to be that guy—the guy who bought in so visibly well above his abilities. So some consumer caution and awareness of one’s place in the Strava pecking order is a noble thing. Far better to perform notably on moderate gear and impress that way than to be a Credit Card Cavendish. And silly as this may seem, don’t think that people are not looking and judging—oh they are!

Thus, most of what I have on the bike and on me makes sense and is task-specific. But not the tires on my black commuting Surly Cross Check. To all who know, it is clearly the bike of a slave to fashion, a trendy loser in material dialogue with a bunch of snobby cycle elitists.

Let me explain. There are four major components to a wheel—and each plays a role in how it rolls and how well it does that. Wheels are hubs, rims, spokes, and tires. Each in their time, but for now, tires. These are the action zones of a wheel—the main stress area and the most fiddly part. Tires, like bar tape and water bottles, are temporary friends. Your bars or derailleurs may be with you for some time, but your tires will come and go. Most people are happy if they get 2000 miles on a tire—you can find riders marveling at tires that have lasted twice that while others feel a bit ripped of at tires run bald at half that. It all depends on the roads one rides, how one rides them, and the many varied properties of a tire. Most are rubber one kind or another and many have all sorts of elaborate rip stoppers and puncture protections built in. But it is all give and take. Want a bomb proof tire than can run over molten lava filled with nails and barbed wire—pretty much what riding on the shoulder of most major American roads feels like—well, there is a tire that can do that. My Schwalbes for example are up to that task. But bombproof comes at a price. Kevlar walls, 1/8 of an inch insulation, deep tread, magic puncture protective potions all add weight to a tire and make it roll slow. So you want speed? There are tires for that too—nice tires too—slick, no tread, narrow (but not too narrow) widths, side walls so thin you can almost see through them, wafer thin bands of rubber. These can roll so fast it will make your head spin too. Just don’t touch a thorn or a bit of glass. Pop, psssssssssssss. You might think that it is hard to feel these differences but you would be wrong—oh so wrong. The differences are very pronounced.

Last year I rode about 1500 miles on my commuting bike on regular roads on a pair of Continental Gatorskins in 700c x 25mm. They were/are great. I had no flats at all and never wanted for speed. I use my commute as a series of sprints—even though the steel bike and knapsack are less than ideal for the task. The Gatorskins did well and looked sharp. But there were nevertheless a few areas on my route that were a bit rattling. With tires at about 90psi the jolts made it all the way to my teeth in most cases. So after the long ride this summer I wanted to try something a bit more absorbing. I had a pair of Maxxis 700c x 28mm on hand, and so I mounted those and felt a big difference. Softer and more noticeably more cushioning than the 25mm immediately. That was when I went a bit deeper.

Most tires are rubber treads with either rubber or reinforced side walls. Skin walls though harken back to an older way of making tires—that is why they are so popular for vintage bikes. Skin walls laminate a rubber strip to a liner of treated cloth. The thickness of the cloth and the treatment can vary—the thinner the cloth, the lighter the wheel since rubber is heavy. The little 60 TPI you can see on the tire packaging refers to the thickness of the cloth–60 being moderate. It is sort of like a stitch count. Some tires use cotton, some synthetic, and some use silk–it all depends on what the tire is designed to do (but silk is a bit of a costly indulgence for anyone other than a pro with a team doing mounting). The result is a tire that has a black rubber strip and the distinctive “skin” (white skin as it happens) colored side walls that invoke a retro charm. On the practical side, the softer sides mean they can absorb more shock—if 28s are soft, then 28 skin walls are just that much softer. The softer sides mean the tire compresses with more ease–more compression means more bump absorption. Softer sides though also mean a somewhat weaker and more vulnerable tire. It is all about choices, swings and round abouts.

I rode them today for the first time. I have a simple test. The Cross Check runs its rear break cable over the top tube. There are little rubber donuts you can get to keep the wire from bouncing on the metal and making a little ringing noise when you hit bumps. I don’t have those donuts—my bike rings its way over rough surfaces. Or at least it did when I was running the Gatorskins. Today’s ride on the Clements was totally silent. Silent! Same roads, same cracks and bumps, but the tires absorbed enough of the road that the cable was totally quiet. To me that is a huge endorsement. But whom am I kidding. The tires look great. I will be lucky if they last 500 miles and if I don’t have a blow out miles from home in a rain storm—those are eventualities I am signing up for my putting skin walls in my wheels. But they look so good!

Zack Gallardo who keeps a nice bicycling vlog on youtube has a fun skin wall confessional here. He hits the high points and might add a bit more info than I did—and do it in a fun vid format. His conclusion though was that in the end, the skin walls were not worth the hassle. I am on the other end of the equation, but we will see where I end up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Last Day, Harpers Ferry.

Riding the C&O Canal Towpath.

The last day. What a thing to write. For around two months riding this bike and carrying this load has defined my existence. I am a cycle tourist. I am riding across the country. Any eyes that have seen me have seen me in this light. Any people I have met I have met in this context. Of course there are other contexts, but being out here day after day silences those. From time to time, other topics have emerged. Washington and history have come up, religion too. But these are always somehow encased in cycling. Sometimes that is because they only can happen during breaks. Other times, because I see them as momentary diversions from the routine—an intellectual break from the internal monkey chatter of my own mind. People ask why am I doing this. I have no good answer for that. Xander had one. He could hand over a card about Dago and that established some sort of context to which non-riders could relate. The cause justifies the effort in people’s eyes, and as a result the effort makes some sense to them. Without a cause, well, the whole thing seems nuts to so many. There is a good reason why the main online information clearing house is called Crazy Guy on a Bike. We are told we are crazy in almost every conversation.

One person somewhere asked me what cause had me out here riding and I answered “Mashiach—the coming of the messiah.” I am not sure why that was my answer although it could have been the music I was listening too. There was one point outside of Larned Kansas where I was inspired by Kobi Oz to throw my arms outward to heaven and yell at the top of my lungs “Ani rotzeh Mashiach!!” (I want the messiah). For Jews, this is a call for an end to human suffering, a unity of all humanity in the same one love, and the realization of the world’s project. It is a call for perfection and resolution—and not in some individuated elsewhere out of sight afterlife that some have access to and others do not, but rather it is a single universal shared real-time real-life real-world experience. When it happens it will be all over Twitter and your Facebook friends will be sharing the news.

Beller Messiah

Ilex Beller’s “Quand le Messie Viendra” (When the Messiah Will Come).

There is nothing out-of-world or particularly extra human about Mashiach—he is a dude, a living flesh and blood guy who you can fist bump when he reveals himself and sets about fixing the ills of the world. What is more, Mashiach is not something we just throw in there—some idle cosmic thought. Maimonides enjoins us to anticipate the revelation of Mashiach–may he come speedily in our days–at every moment, to live life in the full and confident knowledge of his impending arrival. It is pushed farther. In the old days, the sentiment was that Mashiach would arrive just as things got their worst. This way, each new suffering and persecution was itself a small step towards something better, the ultimate healing that would end all suffering. We have worked that desire into a thousand daily rituals. How we hold a cup on blessing wine or how we tie our little woolen strings are all small ways to bring about Mashiach. Each time we act with kindness, say the correct blessing, or notice and rejoice in the beauty of the earth and one another we push the world a tiny bit closer to Mashiach. And when we fail to act that way, we leave work undone. Shameful. The old idea that when things got bad enough Mashiach would reveal himself sort of died in the ovens, and it is far more common to hear people now say that we ourselves have to bring about Mashiach by making the world ready for him. I like this idea quite a bit. Ghandi said “if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” That has been boiled down to a false bumper sticker “be the change” faux-taion, but the message is clear. It also pretty close to what our sages and saints say about Mashiach—we need to be it, we need to make it, we need to take the steps to make Mashiach happen, and in that way, we are all part of Mashiach. So, yeah, I guess in a way Mashiach is a reason for riding, but no more so than anything else.

So the alleged craziness ends today. I stayed last night in the Harpers Ferry Hostel. I have been at the Teahorse in Boliver many times before but somehow always managed to not find the HFH. It was easy to find though and easier to be in. Great people to chat with and a chance to wash the mud from my clothes and not have mosquitoes. In the morning all I faced was an easy 60 miles and I would be at Georgetown and done. Sarah and Rami would meet me there and we would figure out what next then. I know this section of trail very well having done it several times when I was at Mount Vernon and on other tours too. The ride up to HF, a night at the Teahorse, and back in the morning made for a nice pair of back to back century rides and a nice break from research. Sometimes though, knowing a trail can make it dull. Fortunately, this section of the C&O though is by far its loveliest. The navvies worked hard to cut some lovely passes through hard stone and the result for us are some quite haunting sections. My personal favorite (and I am sure I am not alone) is just south of Great Fall where the stones limit tree growth to scrubby pines and as a result it feels almost like a mountainside in Colorado—except of course for the heat and humidity.

I jumped off the C&O at the little boat ramp and got on the paved trail that runs parallel. It is only a few short miles and I am disgorged onto a street under a high overpass and well below Georgetown street level. There are cyclists and cars everywhere and I could not remember how to get up to street level. One guy pointed out the steps at the side and the little rail they have so that you can roll up a bike. The problem for me is that the rail bang against the wall and a bike with panniers is pretty wide. So I had to lean the bike away from the wall and push. One flight. Two flights. Then I was level with the C&O again making me feel pretty foolish for going on the paved trail. Sarah and Rami were making their way over the little bridge over the canal and we all smiled a lot. I had to push the bike up two more sets of stairs and by now it was close to 5 and all of DC was rushing to get home. More pushing and I was at the Ukrainian embassy next to Francis Scott Key Park that I consider the head of the C&O trail. I reached the street pushing and not riding and like that, it was over. I suddenly stopped being a guy who was crossing the country by bike and instead became just a sweaty guy in silly clothing. In a short instant I had lost my identity. My relationship to my bike suddenly changed and tomorrow seemed less distinct.

I had arrived—but unsurprisingly few seemed to care. When Mashiach comes the world will turn. When I arrived, we had to hurry to the car and rush to strip the bike down to fit in the back. The parking spots were transforming into a traffic lane and we needed to move. As we piled panniers into the back and pulled the wheels from the muddy frame a traffic cop came over to remind us of the obvious. “Lady! We are doing it now!” I exclaimed in a way that made Sarah laugh at my obvious New Yorkerness in the use of the word “lady.” Into the traffic, stop lights, challenging left turns, gas stations, the usual. I sat in the back of the car feeling a bit resentful and in denial, wearing souvenir garments and clutching my mud spattered pannier. I am not done–just paused. The clock ran me out and forced me to stop, for now. But time is an illusion and the tour goes on. I will be back on the road–speedily in our days, amen ve’amen!

 

 

 

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. C&O Canal Lock 61

Riding the C&O Canal Towpath.

I had forgotten–Maryland  is this reason people don’t go camping. Think of it: make a little list in your mind of all the reasons you, or others of your acquaintance, spurn the out-of-doors. Incessant heat, clouds of mosquitos and black flies, air so humid that nothing ever dries, mud, rain–all of these probably top the list. Well, I am hiding in my tent at 8pm so as to get the bugs out of my ears and skin. It is not so bad while riding, but once you stop, they assault you. I got the tent up I am skipping cooking dinner so I can just hide in here. I did manage to do my comedy routine at the muddy river bank though. Clothes off, slipping, landing on my naked butt, getting up, slipping again–all quite dignified and of course just as I planned it. I got the collected trail dirt off me, but the slip and slide allowed me to collect some new mud. I went up–buck naked–to the water pump to clean up. Of course I had the campsite to myself, so my aggregious lapse of modesty was not seen–at least as far as I know. But just in case a small team of bird watchers were subjected to a rude surprise, or some stealth campers had their view ruined, all I can say is, I hope you enjoyed the tan lines. 

The Canal side campsites all have water pumps–the old style ones that require some vigorous pumping on the long handle before the water flows. These are wonderful, the water is fine (iodine does not bother me) and they are a boon. But they are annoying to work solo. You see, many humans come equipped with only the two arms. That means that if one arm is busy pumping, that leaves only one to take on other tasks. If the goal is only to fill a water bottle, then that is not too bad. But anything more complicated, such as washing a muddy set of riding shorts or cleaning mud from a naked backside can be rather more tricky. Operating the pump gets even trickier if you add to that the need to keep an eye up and down the trail lest a group of nuns come walking down the path or a string of Japanese tourists on all-terrain Segues whizzes past. These are purely hypothetical situations of course, but I share them here just in case the Park Service is considering a new water distribution system that more fully enables the cleansing of objects, appendages, and various fissures.

The towpath is its own special challenge. Whereas the Great Alleghaney Passage (GAP) and the Katy are packed crushed stone, and the various Ohio trails and the Motour are mostly paved, the C&O is nothing of the kind. It is made up mostly of mud, sticks, and bits of dead mules. At intervals, when a pot hole gets particularly deep or one of mules finds its way off, the park service brings in gravel to fill the void. Other sections have packed sand while still others are almost entirely fairly loose gravel. The whole 180 mile long track is prone to deep sticky potholes when wet. All of this means that the run is a constantly changing array of unpleasant surfaces. The rain I hid from in Ohio fell in Maryland and collected in nice deep puddle trap all the way from Cumberland, Maryland to DC.

The GAP was a singularly easy and pleasant ride. I climbed to the peak over about 85 miles and I had made the Divide and gone through the Big Savage Tunnel I loved the 20 mile descent to Cumberland. I won’t confess my speed, but it was fast. Somewhere along the line my rear shifter had rattled loose and stopped working. Nevermind. Speed did not require down shifting and the trail rolls right up to the Cumberland Trail Connection bike shop who have helped me on past tours and in whom I have total unfailing confidence. Once the shifter was back in the game (and I picked up one their pretty cool shop team jerseys) I was back on the road. I had been playing leap frog with a nice group of Ukrainian cyclists and I had just passed their whole line “on your left, on your left, on your left” when my rear inner tube popped like a gun shot. I was worried about possible Midan flashbacks, but only good cheer and humor at my perdicament resulted. Once the spare tube was patched and up and running it was off to hike over the closed Pawpaw tunnel–1.5 miles of what the park service called “steep and strenuous trails.” Don’t sugar coat it guys! 

The towpath ditches were frequent, deep, and flooded. Early on though, I became aware of the small elf sitting on my right shoulder. I don’t recall seeing him there before, but he made a sudden appearance as soon as I hit the C&O. Whatismore, I noticed that everyone else on the path had an elf too. This was new–and I am pretty sure no one really seemed to notice. 

I have never understood the whole elf thing. My sources tell me that people actually shelve these goblins in a ritualized way on some holidays. Now I say this coming from a religious tradition that bans bread for a week each year and has us all buying 100 dollar lemons each fall–so I  am no stranger to odd rituals. In fact, I love them. But housing a bizzare free-loading stocking-capped homunculus to spy on your comings and goings is a bit much. Given my lack of elven experience, I think I took his presence fairly well in my stride. No one else seemed to mind, so when in Rome… It was hard to get a good look at the elf while riding, but when I changed my tire, and the Ukrainians passed me as I had just passed them, each sporting their own elf attired in bright yellow and blue, my own elf just sat on a tree limb grinning at me. It was not a mean grin–it was oddly friendly rather like the look on the face of the Prussian officer right before he busts Barry Lyndon. I got a good look at him there. He was dressed in a green tunic trimmed with red satin. He had little curled toed boots topped with tiny bells on the ends and big green connicle cap topped with a red pompom. “What are you looking at?” I asked him testily. I think the noise of the CSX engine right there drowned me out though. He just sat there watching and smiling. Once was I was moving again, I could feel him on my shoulder though, sitting there, leaning forward a bit with his hand gripping my jersey where he sat. Sometimes his fingernails would scrape my collarbone when he adjusted himself or reached for better purchase. Mostly he was pretty easy to ignore. At one point, we met eyes and he just blinked and kept his silly little grin. I noticed that he had disproportionately large hands–big flat pale meat hooks that sort of dwarfed his already freaskishky small body. 

We rode on this way for a the first miles of the C&O. I had some music in my ear buds and the hitchhiker was not that heavy and seemed to be keeping to himself, so I fell into my hazy riding hypnosis in which I mostly formulate stupid things to write later when I am off the bike. But then the puddles started.

I keep my tire pressure pretty high compared to other touring riders. Many road evils can be mitigated by lower tire pressure giving some cushion to a ride. But I live in fear of pinch flats–when the tire gets squeezed so badly that it bursts. High pressure works against pinch flats, but at the expense of a hard ride. That means when a hard tire rolling at about 14mph and carrying a fully loaded touring bike, rider, and an uncertain weight of humuncullus suddenly drops 10 inches into a puddle and rams into a perpendicular puddle wall, the result is a powerful alarming threatening jolt. What is more, they often came in rapid succession so that the bike bounces, the panniers flap like a Bassett hound’s ears in full gallop, and control is for the moment lost. I felt my teeth clack like Teddy Roosevelt yelling at a moose, and my vision went all rattley. I did not fall, but I have before–I could feel the rear of the bike want to upend and throw me over the bars. The simple weight of panniers at least stopped that, but the jolt to my bouncing head was concerning. Fortunately, I did not lose too much speed and was well set up to repeat the whole procedure a few yards later. I was facing a full 180 miles of C&O at this point, and if a fair percentage of it was going to be killer puddles, I will need to rethink my schedule. 

The same thing happened a few more times–slam, basset hound, Teddy Roosevelt, levitating rear wheel. The main blow, and the most annoying part, was the persistent head wallop. Then it all fell into place. Every time I slammed into a puddle, the elf reached over with his big paddle-like mitt and slammed me on the side of the head. At first I couldn’t believe it, but I paid attention during the next puddle set, and sure enough, as soon as my wheel crashed into the unyielding ground, my green totmentor cracked me on the side of the head. This went on for miles–each time the bike took a hit, my puddle elf swatted me on the head. Sometimes he would smack the back of my head and as it lurched forward, he would quickly slam my face with his other hand. Other times he would crack it left or right. Sometimes he would slam the top of my head, and one time he gave it a gold forehand back hand one two. On and on we went playing this annoying game of elven rope-a-dope. I had no choice but to ride on and hope that I can lose the elf. But as long as I was slamming into puddles, the elf would be there smacking my head each and every time.

I fiannly saw my chance to ditch the goblin  when I got to the Pawpaw Tunnel. The climb over the hill was not his cup of tea–too slow and no good chances to land more blows on my poor head. I changed my shoes for the walk and the elf hopped off my shoulder and sat down by the trail. He mumbled angrily having been thwarted at his metier, and to placate himself picked up a stick and started digging into the ground to make a new puddle hole for the next rider. I set in to pushing my bike up the narrow rocky track the federal government promised would be horrible. It was, but it offered a nice view of Pawpaw and the Potomac, and at least I was able to get away from the elf. 

After the climb, the path smoothed out a bit and I made it to the next campsite with no sign of the elf. I set up my tent at the far end of the clearing behind the trees so I hope he does not see me by the time I leave tomorrow morning. So for now I will hide under canvas and screen and hope for an elf-free tomorrow. 

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Salesville, Ohio

Riding the ACA Chicago-NY Bicyle Route.

After a great catch up visit with Anthony in Columbus–which included driving around a really nice city looking for hot chocolate and bike shops–I hit the road once again. The end is in sight, and that is both motivating and frustrating, It is a mad dash to Wheeling, West Virginia. From there on it is almost entirely trails down to DC and victory. Getting there though has me riding a squirrelly network of state roads through lovely increasingly hilly eastern Ohio. The good news: there are views and small pretty hilly farms. The neutral news: hills are back. The undoubtedly bad news: pickup trucks. Each in order. Views. After so much flat it is interesting to suddenly have horizons that lift up and assert themselves. There are few farms, that industry having moved away from here long ago. But there are lots of low tree-clad hills and it is a nice change for the eyes. Hills. Most people would say “rolling” or “gentle.” That is fair enough, but then again most people are not riding them. These being small state roads, they rise and fall more or less as the ground does. Big highways carve their way through elevation changes they don’t like. I remember being a kid on family trips on New York’s interstate system and being really fascinated by the huge cuts Eisenhower’s navvies blasted, bulldozed, picked, and chewed through the “rolling” hills north of the big city left isolated by the ridiculously conceptialized paved spider web. But few states and no counties have the money to level their roads’ paths, and so they rise and fall as does the land itself. What planners can do though, is seek out the easiest passes over the hills. Of course the planners have had some of that work done for them already–first by the Native peoples who figured out all the good routes, and then by the colonial come-alongs who appropriated that network and massively expanded it. Eventually the roads were widened and later paved and graced with a charming array of numbers and occasionally stupid names. The steeper the grade on a road though, the less likely it is to have had Native origins. These were not stupid people–and despite some colossally inflated population numbers one hears from time to time–they were also not that numerous. A few million north of Mexico by the time Europeans arrived. That meant that their main paths were few and generally went the easy way, along river runs and seeking out the passes. So, every time I have to crawl up a 10% grade road or worse, I am suffering on a fairly recent path made viable only by the advent of non-human propulsion. The ACA reputedly seeks out the roads that score best on having low traffic, gentle grades, and good shoulders. Some score better than others. The route into and out of Zanesville has scored poorly on all three metrics, The hills are steep, but in truth they are not that long and actually are pretty fun to take on–even for a terrible climber such as your humble. The shoulders have been a mixed bag though. When they are there, they are a bit narrow and too often covered in inhibiting matter. This is a huge problem on the steep downhills which can rev one up to 40 mph. One time I had to rather suddenly stop thanks to a mass of gravel that had been dumped on the shoulder covering a length of easily ten feet. Even when a shoulder is not serving as an impromptu gravel storage patch, it is often deeply cracked, glass covered, or trailing off unevenly as if the road crews just got bored and walked away before the job was done. The third metric is traffic and so, Cars: Have I mentioned that I hate them? I know they are needed–our at least they are for now–and I do make use of them myself. But we have far too many and for too many terribly irresponsible people driving them. I know nothing is going to get better for some time to come, but I can dream. When you cycle, you get to see up close all the terrible habits of the modern clueless driver. Texting, running stop signs, tailgating, trying to pass a dump truck on an incline on a narrow road, cutting corners so that you drive on the shoulder, adorning their conveyance with all manner of idiotic images (skulls are very popular in this part of the world), and more, all dance and swirl before me at corners or on the occasional shoulder. The terrain here deamads that the ACA select roads that are a bit busy–there seems to be no other choice, and a detour today thanks to a closed bridge showed me that the non-ACA roads are worse. Riding into Zanesville yesterday at about 4:30, I stopped at a store to wait until about 6:30 when most of the cars had stopped zooming by. They come in pulses–five and six cars strung together. This is because the pace is set by the first car in the line and the others are pressing in close behind waiting to seize their chance to pass. I blame NASCAR. Too many of these people have exactly the wrong images in mind as they drive home from work or stop for 12 packs of beer at a road side convince. I say cars, but really it seems that most of the vehicles here are pickup trucks. And not just shining new suburbanite Silvarodos–these are beefy loaded monsters. Some have big flat platforms on the back instead of shiney new beds. Others are loaded with specialized boxes. Still other cart trailers with lawn mowers or other gassy things in tow. Some of those trailers can be twice as long as the truck itself and make for scary passing. Watching these trucks it seems that the whole economy here is about maintaining what exists. One guy repairs a house for a dollar which he hands to a guy who mows his lawn, who then hands it to the guy who does home visit pet grooming, who hands it to the guy who fixes his toilet, who hands it back to the first guy who builds him a new garage for his extra large pickup truck. It is not the worst model for an economy all in all–at least it is at some level sustainable. They all share a few things as drivers though. They are all completely unaware that one can actually slow down on a road–these are people who see speed limits as a challenge and not a safety measure. They are also convinced that their own masculinity is somehow connected to the speed and noise their vehicles can produce. They also hate cyclists. They blast their horns, cut close, pull out onto the road before they turn so that they can block your descent or force you into traffic, yell insults, and take an almost visible joy in imperiling others. So this is what I deal with–or at least what I have to deal with unti l I get to Wheeling. 

I made a paltry 46 miles today of car dodging, missing hidden turns and doubling back, extra hilly detours, and crawling up climbs before 

a storm formed at about 2pm. As I passed through a small crossroad town, I spied a large and friendly looking pavilion in a park of sorts. I decided to wait out the impending rain here. Rain is my foe, and I really have no intention of adding water to the problems already inherent in riding these shoulders. My pavilion has picnic tables, electrical outlets, and a porta-san. It has a spigot but it is dry and there is no phone signal. I took a nap and the rain came. I ate a bit after waking and a second round of rain came in. By 4pm I came to realize that I was sort of stuck here for the night since the world was now wet and my maps showed nowhere close worth the effort. I thought about going to the store about three miles away in Quaker City but it started raining again as the idea formed. No Wheeling today as I had hoped. That will happen tomorrow–and maybe it will have to be the Saturday layover spot. The way forward has many towns, but no places to stay–nothing until about 30 miles south on the GAP. Tonight I will sleep on a picnic table–no cycling tour is complete until one has slept on a picnic table (my nap does not count). Up at 5 through and done with roads by noon! Ya’alla!

Now and then comes the distinctive clip clop of an Amish buggy. I saw plenty of human Amish varieties at the convenience yesterday during my rush hour sheltering. Most were young guys packed into pickup trucks coming home from construction jobs. The Ohio Amish are a bit different from the more fetishized Lancaster churches. The Pennsylvania people survive on an eastern urban desire for organic vegitables. The Ohio people though took up dairying ages ago and so their family farm economies were obliterated by mechinaized massive agri-business. Their choice was simple–hold the old order line barring modern technology and lose the community, or, adapt and survive. They adapted, and now lots of guys with the distinctive thatch haircuts and those curious green or blue button down shirts pour into convenice stores to grab a quick corn dog and a Snapple before getting driven back to homes that usually lack the technology they use on the job. Many would see this sort of accommodation as just so much stupidity. Not me though–I love it. The brilliance of Jewish legal thought is exactly this kind of careful as deliberative accommodation, and I am glad to see others working the same sorts of levers. 

One straw-hatted Amish guy walking into the store was yelled at from a pickup. “Hey you Amish!” they shouted as if they wanted to beat the snot out of him. I looked over and all the guys in the truck were themselves Amish and visibly amused at the brilliance of their joke. Did they know him? Was this some inter-order hostility playing out in a parking lot? Maybe everyone just yells at one another here as a matter of course? At any rate, the entering guy did not seem to hear them and he just bought his Pepsi and Hostess unperturbed. Sitting here under my pavilion though, the passing buggies assume their usual imagined fetishized rural aspect–a charming hold over from a romanticized past–no hint of yelling at one another, the side cash puppy mills, or the horizons afforded by hard farm work and a sixth grade education. From where I sit, I can see the horses slow down noticeably when they hit the taxing road grade–I feel you brother! I also can see how the giant pickup trucks speed right up to the back of each buggy and then aggresively tailgate so the whole world can see just how distressed is this masculine driver at having to roll slower than just over the speed limit. “Hey you Amish!” they seem to yell from their pickups. “Get out of my way–there is a dollar I need to get so I can pass it along to another guy in another pickup!”

Man Plans. God Laughs Tour, 2017. London, Ohio. 

Riding the ACA Chicago-New York Bicycle Route. 

Trigger Warning! A flying insect of some variety dies a strange and horrible death. Those with delicate dispositions or a rather wide definition of animal cruelty might want to read elsewhere where the text is rather less vomitorius (if such a word exists).

Ohio is great! Yay Ohio–you kick ass. So much of this state is graced with rail trails that I think I have done more miles off the roads than on them. That is remarkable considering that Missouri was all rail trail and the whole way from Pittsburgh to DC will be car free. I am surprised that anyone even bothers with Kentucky with its cars and hills and dogs–just come up to Ohio where it is flat, 72 degrees, and possessed of a gentle tail wind. In short, the state has thus far has been a perfect ride. Perfect that is in all respects saving one, as I shall now relate. To begin with, let me clarify something. Riding all day is relentlessly physical. Body parts become very much components of machine that is focused on one thing–turning energy into forward motion. Food becomes elemental and primarily about the kind of reward each item offers. Sugar means energy jolts, carbohydrates are slow release energy, protein is maintenance, and roughage keeps the system clear. More than anything else, vegitables appeal, although V8 and orange juice are much prized. Also, potato chips–a worthless food if ever there as one, is a frequent friend I think mainly for the salt. Gels and cycling food are always on hand too, but mostly as emergency rocket fuel. The goal of it all though is to keep the legs moving and keep that whole neck of the body’s woods working with the most efficiency and least pain possible. At home I have an ideal place–my cycling happy zone. That is at 90 pedal rotations per minute holding at a speed of 21 MPH in ideal conditions. To do that I generally keep my gearing at 50/18 or so. In cycling jargon, this high rate of “cadence” (rotations per minute) is called “spinning” and it seeks to use the power of the legs with minimum muscle fatigue. Heart rates go up and so does wind capacity. This in fact is one the main benefits of cycling and as I have gotten more serious as a rider, my resting heart rate has dropped dramatically–it was at 50 when I last checked and once it was a bit lower. When one finds one’s sweet spot, one can ride there all day. And that is what I have been doing out here–trying to nail down that ideal place–that perfect combination of gears and terrain that will allow the most efficient spinning. Out here, on a loaded touring bike, that seems to be a gearing of 44/24 on the flats and dropping the front ring down to 32 on sharp inclines. Ohio though has been efficiency heaven and making 75 miles or so a breeze. When this happens, the whole leg system goes on auto pilot and just does its job.

Now comes the part where the trigger warning applies. Riding can be a breeze, but breezes, gusts, zephyrs, and various vents are still out there. The horrible jockeys I left behind in Kansas are a distant memory, but the air still moves even here. On this day, riding along happily on a one such gentle zephyr was a medium sized winged beastie. I am sure he rode the air from destination to destination, using its patterns to save his own energy–in his way, he was, like me, spinning, having a lovely day, and feeling in a general good way about the blue sky, the intermittent clouds, and the pleasant temperature. He had every thing to live for, and all of his two or three week life span in which to do it. Up he floated. Down he dived. Buffeted and blustered–not a care in the world. But, like the terrible gust that filled the sails of the ill-fated man-o-war Vasa as King Gustavus Adolphus and all of 1620s Stockholm watched in horror, one preternaturally strong gale (for indeed, at his size it must have seemed a gale) caught him and pushed him to a terrible fate.

I wear sunglasses when riding because I once caught a bug in the eye. Each bit of cycling kit has to prove its worth to me before I buy it, and sunglasses did that job years ago. Sadly though, there are no sunglasses for the mouth. I did once ride along the Potomac at dusk and found the bugs so bad, that I tied a bandana to my face, bandito style and rode on looking as stupid as Martin Landau in a silver-trimmed sombrero. I wore no such bandana today though. Nor a sombrero. There was no time to dodge or react. The bug flew into my mouth before I even knew it was there–such was the wind it rode. I knew right away what it was and was suitably horrified. A host of religious and physical objections make a swallowed bug a horrid thought, and so I immediately began the logical removal procedures. The brain took over. The legs stayed steady at at a high cadence and about 16 MPH. Step one was that raspy throat clear that precedes most dramatic spitting, The idea here is to reverse all downward throat movement and transform swallowing into expelling before an irreversible process begins. I can only guess what the bug was thinking, but there is something singularly disconcerting about autonomous uninvited mouth guests. The intial hack though did not seem to do the job, and I had to do that delicate operation whereby one checks one’s throat, but in such a way so as to keep everything very still. I could tell the bug was still there, and–still holding at 16 MPH–began Plan B: water. The water was intended to flush the bugger out while being very careful to not wash him down. Only in the most desperate of circumstances is the long wet swallow the way to deal with a bug. It can happen that the little rascal can get so lodged mid-throat that no hacking and rattling can dislodge him. In that terrible moment, the only way out is down, as much water as possible must be used to flume the creature down to the stomach acids that await all who venture too far down under. I was determined not to come to that crossroad, and I could tell that the bug was still as yet not committed–the battle was not lost. Not yet at least. I leaned right and reached down for my bottle, and that is when a wonderful thing happened–a joyous, delightful, and most welcome thing indeed. The legs were doing their job keeping the whole train in motion and making good time. The throat was on silent running and was doing all it could to freeze all activity in place. The hand was reaching, and the brain was controlling the whole procedure. “Slowly” it said, “careful…care-ful” it cautioned. And then, the cavalry showed up–like a miscast Martin Landau, the stomach kicked into gear. “Don’t worry boys, I got this one” it said, and with no warning at all, it heaved out a full bottle of orange juice I had propitiously quaffed a few miles back in Cedarville. The propulsive power of the orange juice forced out all that was in its way, and in a second, and with no nausea whatsoever, the bug was gone. It was nothing short of miraculous. The sudden and wholey unexpected reaction truly impressed me–and as the snail said after being mugged by a gang of turtles –it all just happened so fast! There really as no warning sign at all–just a body system working to its full potential with each part performing its tasks perfectly. I salute you stomach. 

There was a downside though. Sadly, my reach the right was not quite completed when the stomach took matters into its own hand, with the result that significant portions of the front of my bike and bags bore the worst of the incident. Still holding at 16 MPH though, I took my water bottle and sprayed down the bars and bags. Then I took a second bottle and did it again. A few miles later there was a water fountain where I filled the bottles and did a few more spray downs. Soon there was no trace left of what had transpired. In a way, that saddened me. I had a lot to be proud of. After all–even King Gustavus Adolphus had to watch in helpless horror when wind threatened to ruin his afternoon. Maybe if the collective stomachs of Stockholm had reacted with the speed and efficiancy as did mine, well, who knows, Vasa might have been saved and all her crew too. They had plenty of water on hand to clean up with too. 

Spare a thought though for the poor innocent bug just living life on a breeze. They say orange juice will keep you from getting sick. For me, that is a yes and a no. But for the bug–well, he would have been better off on a day without sunshine.  

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Richmond, Indiana.

Riding the ACA Chicago to New York Bicycle Route

Rain. I sit under a picnic shelter on the Cardinal Greenway just outside of Muncie, Indiana. Had I thought more clearly about the rain, I could be sitting in a Starbucks in town and would be a mite more comfortable. I am back in the east now–or at least the eastern Midwest–and am now again but confronting that solid gray sky that can drop water on you for hours at a time. I really hate rain. Let me say that once more–I really hate rain. There is almost no other weather I like less. When I was up in Virginia I took the cold there (20 degrees of so in the winter) as a challenge. I layered up and built up a pretty good cold weather kit. Merino wool underlayers, breathable outer layers, insulating shoe covers, lobster mittens, even ski goggles (these were indeed very silly looking but made a huge difference in facing the wind). You see, riding creates wind according to the speed at which one rides–that makes a standing 20 degrees considerably colder while riding. On top of that, I rode a lot after dark–in the coldest parts of the day. But gear was my friend and I faced the cold bravely. But rain is a totally different enemy. There really is nothing one can do to confront it other than find a picnic awning and wait. If I wear my rain coat, then I will get soaked from the inside out. If I don’t wear it I will get wet and cold from the outside in. I am not too worried about my gear–I feel pretty confident about the waterproof quality of my Ortlieb panniers and handle bar bag. But I am a rain wimp and so the wetness and the drippyness just makes me miserable. So, hello wooden able, concrete floor, and roof–you are my humble shelter while the mean clouds do their worst.  

The last few days have been devoted more to visiting than to riding. Xander and I finished the Chicago leg of the trip a few days ago and we rode right up to his family’s door. The ride there was 50/50. We had a very pleasant night under canvas in Morris Illinois and then shot north. More of the corn-lined Illinois roads as we made out way to Oswego. The repetition of the Upstate New York Iroquois names all over the place gives me a constant double take. Oswego though was very close to the start of the Fox River trail–a riverside paved bike path that would take us up to the roads that would lead to Xander’s home. We soon set off on the trail and it was very nice–very much like the Mount Vernon Trail and was full of little ups and downs and tight turns, The main thing I noticed though was that the river was fast moving and high. The next thing I noticed was the police baracade and the sign saying “Trail Flooded.” Of course we ignored the sign and pushed on. In this case all we really had to do was walk or ride through some sodden grass and we were fine. The next time we saw one of these signs though, the result was not so happy. The whole basin before was part of the Fox River and there was no way around. In retrospect, the best idea would have been to wade through, get wet, and carry on with the dry part of the trail. Instead though, we turned to google maps and its bicycle route feature. We have used this quite a bit and to good effect. Xander set his phone so that Google would interrupt his music and tell him when a turn was coming up–we called this “the voices in his head” and more than a few times refered to knowing where we were going thanks to the voices in Xander’s head. Reaction to this were mixed when we told others of out unique navigation strategy. Once we had decided to leave the logical bike friendly (though submerged) trail, Google got pissy. “The Fox River Trail is the way to go” the voices told us. “Yes but it is now a maritime trail–a kayak run” we said. “Ok” said Google. “I will make a new route for you, but you won’t like it.” The voices were right. We did not like it. To save time, I will now list the kinds of surfaces our route did not take us over. Molten lava, salt flats, sand dunes, mounded human corpses, permafrost. Everything else though we pretty much had to deal with. Honestly–you have no idea how much the automobile has shaped and distorted our landscape until you try to get somewhere without one. Roads without shoulders, crappy glass and poop strewn paths, high speed corners, and more. These were all roads I would never touch if I did not have to. And everytime we appealed to the Voices all they could say was “sorry, I told you to go on the Fox River Trail, but no, YOU had to leave it! YOU had to be creative. Now YOU have to deal with it.” In the end though we made it to Xander’s house in fair shape and his pleased family got to see exactly the kind of sun tan one gets on a recumant. What followed was a very sweet welcome home to the prodigal son and his grizzled companion, and it was wonderful to meet his immediate and extended family. They were all very grateful that I had riden up with him, but in truth, he was more than capable of being on his own. But at the same time, I fully understand where they were coming from parentally speaking, and their collective warmth and welcome were touching in the extreme. Thank you all. 

Soon though I was off and in Indiana to spend Saturday with another grad school friend, this time in Muncie, Indiana. Again–more time spent with great folks to whom I am immensely grateful. Stacy prepared fresh vegetables from the local farmers’ market and Dan and I spent a considerable amount of time in the company of Martin Landau, who displayed a remarklable ability to be miscast. 

So morning saw me head out to the Cardinal Greenway Rail Trail taking me about 40 miles down to Richmond Indiana. Cardinal is a great trail–paved, straight, level, and with good amenities. I started writing this under a shelter, but I finish it in a Starbucks in Richmond getting ready to cross into Ohio. It rained most of the ride. I progressed this way. Ignore it. Put down my cap’s brim to keep the rain out of my eyes. Stop–put on my rain coat since my arms are cold. I can feel my socks getting wet. Stop again–try to pull my rain coat hood over my helmet. Feel the puddles in my shoes. Just keep riding. That really is almost always the answer–just keep riding, I am listening to George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. It is great stuff and what he describes is far more depressing that riding in the rain. The antisemitism is a bit thick and it is bad to tell if Orwell is just relating it or endorsing it. Oh well, at least this Jew is not having to swindle a Russian waiter or trying to sell his daughter into prostitution–nor will he have to portray a Mexican bandito or German elephant trainer turned villian. Rain seems a small problem by comparison. One of Orwell’s friends though did complain about an American hotel guest who did not want full French meals and instead asked only for Grape Nuts, scrambled eggs, and hot coacoa in his room. Ummm…. I had to rack my brain to recall if I had visited Paris in the interwar years. I am pretty sure it was not me. 

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Morris, Illinois. 

Riding the ACA Route 66 Trail and Google Map suggestions. 

What can I say about Illinois. It has a certain presence corn corn corn corn corn corn that really captures the eye corn corn corn corn corn corn and leave one with a pervasive corn corn corn corn corn corn sense of what this place is all about. The landscape is dominated corn corn corn corn corn corn corn by one or two stand out elements corn corn corn corn corn corn corn corn that really corn corn corn corn corn corn corn define the place. Oddly though, I am at a loss for a single word to describe it–one single stalk of a word with the kernal of meaning that can reach high as an elephant’s eye and cut through this maize. Cob dammit, I feel like a husk since I lack the grit to find the right word no matter hominy times I try! Aw shucks.  ​

​Another feature has been roads that are sprayed with tar and then graveled. In time this makes a rough but solid macadam, but when new, the way is sticky and slow, I spent many miles listening to my tires popping tar bubbles as I rolled over them. Much of Illinois looks quite a bit like western Kansas in that it is flat and farm-filled. But there is more housing here and it was of a more familiar eastern suburban/rural nature. I saw very little that caught my eye or looked old. Instead, there were lots of ranch houses with those well-mowed lawns and that big tree whose base is surrounded by plants. But the fields really were endless. 

Part of our path to Chicago has us riding the old Route 66 run. I am at a total loss as to why there is some sentimental connection to this highway. Yes, there was song, and yes, it is now a sort of self-perpetuating nostalgia long detached from its original causes, but apart from that I am lost. I guess it mattered that it once was the main road between Chicago and LA, and as such it was the ribbon which bound up many a midwestern family vacation. And no doubt many a Hollywood culture maker had it as part of their psyche and so it became part of ours–sort of in the way the economy of the Planet Televison seems to rely disproportionally on the business of comedy and comedy writing. Oddly, no one can really explain to me why Route 66 should be so important. I missed my chance to go to the Route 66 museum in Pontiac–they might have explained it. The woman at the restored Historoic Gas Station in Ordell could not answer my question either. She confirmed though something I knew–that Europeans were more connected to the Route 66 idea than were Americans. For them, Route 66 connects to some romanticized Americanism whereas for us it is, umm, maybe a fantasy memory of the 50s? I dunno. How many people are left anyway with that Happy Days vision in place? It seems pretty clear to me that as a set of historical sites, Route 66 is fighting an uphill battle to stay relevant. Only a few sections still survive and here and there remain some kitschy motels and trinket shops, but since no one really travels there this way anymore there are no new memories being made. In a generation all of this will be even more mysterious. The whole thing seems linked to that confusing and ultimately unhealthy love of the automobile I saw in elderly riding gangs in Nevada. The romance of Route 66 then becomes something akin to an old racist song or those horrible 50s comedians, who, drink in hand, told jokes about or imitated drunk people: it might have been innocent enough in its day, but it is impossible for us to put the blinders back on and see through those eyes ever again. With that said, anything that leads to the preservation of an old and easily overlook vernacular building is a good thing. So, keep the motels and the gas stations say I–but let’s visit them by bicycle. We can pop tar bubble along the way and corn corn corn corn corn corn corn. 

 

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