Remnantology

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

Monthly Archives: August 2017

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.

Photo Jul 29, 18 03 52

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 In fact, most the city has been replaced by interstate exchanges.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!

Photo Jul 26, 20 07 24

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. 

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