Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How far you get

You can ride a bike all year, of course, but snow is no fun. We decided go to in October, early November, a not advisable time but not completely inadvisable.

The day came at last, late October. Little Mighty, 25, arrived in Philadelphia, with her shiny red 1965 Schwinn 10-speed girls’ bike, all smooth and sprightly, with its upright shifters and brake extenders on the handlebars and pants protection wheel on the chainring. To this assemblage she had added some prim zip-up saddlebags that carried everything she needed, which at this point was about everything she owned. I had the Trek I had saved from the dumpster and which had now carried me through a large chunk of the west.

Ultimately Little Mighty was bound for Mexico, Ecuador and Columbia, but that was later, after the bike ride. She was a svelte little dynamo who gave an excellent impression of indifference when her clothing began to fall off as she walked, and, as I found out, as steady under duress as she was breezy, unwilling to notice inconvenience, unwilling to notice even the most jarring discomforts.

For fun she volunteers as a farmhand in South America and for work she cooks aboard tall ships. She had just spent two months sailing the Pacific in a wooden ship and whipping up crew-jubilating meals out of tumbleweeds. That is of course an exaggeration but not much. We are both sailors, I am sorry to report.

I cast a doubtful look at her bike. Early in life it had probably never taken its young owner farther from home than the corner store. It looked clean and capable enough. But God save me from rookies. God save me from riders who set out cross-country on a tank from Walmart wearing sneakers and a 50-pound backpack. How much time would I spend finding the shortest walkable distance to our destination after she got too tired to pedal? Where would I find the numbers of local cab companies? Who should I call when the emotional crisis occurred?

We got everything ready. Which direction should we go? South, of course. Ever south. South toward the waning sun, to a destination still vague but probably North Carolina.We set our caps south. We set everything we had south. Everything but our sails. We needed a break from those.

And so began the great No Pressure Tour, a vagueish sort of bike tour starting in Philadelphia, featuring Little Mighty and myself. You will not credit, reader, how two giant northeastern cities, connected by highways, connected by bus schedules, and train schedules, and flight plans, and gas prices, and weather patterns—you will not credit how two giant northeastern cities might also be connected by streets, ordinary streets that you might walk upon.

But they are. On streets, so it had been said, one may in fact travel from place to place, indeed from city to city, without ever resorting to that methamphetamine-with-rest stops that is the modern interstate highway. It’s like walking around your block 90 or 100 times and finding yourself in Chicago.

We set off from 30th Street Station and wound southwest through streets that had once been the main gates into town, Grays Ferry, Paschall, Lindburgh, Elmwood. This was the route George Washington took when traveling from Mount Vernon to New York, on the way to his inauguration. Brick town homes gave way to wooden Victorian ones, and then to plain wooden ones. The level of repair went from City Historical to Urban Neglect to Suburban Tidy. And so the miles passed until we reached The John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, that exuberant patch of wilderness beneath the main landing approaches at Philadelphia International Airport.

And then twisky-twee like a corskscrew we rode along the graveled paths, with a wrong turn here and wrong turn there, marveling the luxuriance of green just a javelin throw from Interstate 95, and the marshy lowland that was the original landscape through much of the northeast. We saw exotic birds in the swamps.

And then back to the street, and so on down along the western side of the Delaware River. We followed long streets of respectable residences, giving way to light industrial roads. And then to Chester, where a tunnel might be the best route through. Then we found a path along the waterfront that took us through the old Chester Waterside Station coal burning electric plant. It’s an office park these days, unless the utility workers must all wear business suits now, because that’s what we saw as we rode past: a complement of office workers in office casual dress, relaxing and smoking on the great fortress causeways of the power plant.

We missed our intended host and spent the night in chain hotel, a neo-Greek sort of place that had everything of a classical nature about it that could be rendered in cinder block. The night was peaceful, though we were still somehow astonished by the knowledge--the proof, now--that you can arrive at place without getting into an automobile. It didn’t seem right. We felt like cheaters. The staff were chirpy, happy and friendly.

Little Mighty had brought her own computer, and we planned our next day’s route, consulting everything the Internet could bring us. A good breakfast next morning and then: South.

We rode past Newcastle and through Newark, then into Maryland, past Elkton, past Northeast, much of this on a federal highway that by some accident has wide shoulders. We finally got to some country roads near the Susquehanna River and wandered northish to Perryville and more chirpy happy friendly.

Here we settled in satisfied, and comfortable in knowing that for the first time we had actually hit a target we aimed for. Once again the free Internet brought us more possibilities than we knew how to use, and for the next hours we planned exotic jaunts through Virginia by way of Sacramento and Disney World. Later we walked the non-exotic 100 yards to Denny’s for dinner, then went to bed happy and woke up to a driving rain.

Here it was. Rain. The make or break. The wheat from the chaff. The men from the boys. The women from the girls. The parking lot splashed and spattered with it. We knew what we had to do. There is only one thing to do in a case like this. We went back to bed. And all day the rain came down, heavy and thick. The rivulets ran in the gutters and into the storm drains. For a while we paced. We checked Facebook 70 or 80 times. We texted friends. The day wore on.

And then, next day, the rain had ended but puddles remained. Sunshine struggled, struggled. In place of rain there was now a constant 20 knots of wind from our intended direction. Already the dead leaves were flying off the maples and sycamores. Grasses bent horizontal. Ah, well. Wind will not soak you or give you flu. Wind’s discomfort lasts but a moment, unlike rain’s. (By this time our choices were dwelling among the least hurtful terribles.)

We suited up, executed the departure checklist I had written out the previous evening after becoming exceeding wroth about losing my phone charger, loaded the bikes and pedaled out. Our first job was crossing the Susquehanna River, the only unrideable part of the trip.

On maps and biking guides you will often find the assurance that, despite Maryland’s tenacious resistance to letting cyclists pedal across the river, several local bike shops will transport you, free or cheap, with 48 hours’ notice.

But faced with the prodigious fact of a long no-bikes-allowed bridge whizzing with motor traffic, or a 40-mile additional upriver pedal to an equally terrifying crossing of the Conowingo Dam, all that bike-friendly help disappears. The bike shops have moved on. The help lines to the Maryland Transportation Authority are dead. The MTA agent at the bridge itself answers your question with a flat No, then sends you for more help to a phone that rings forever. (It is ringing even now.) The trains don’t accept bicycles; the buses don’t run on weekends. All of this, plus rain, plus being too long indoors, plus your dying phone, plus your lost phone charger and your new bandana made of (you just realized) uncomfortable polyester, makes a challenging day.

At the Route 40 toll plaza we found no one to make big eyes at and get sympathy from, as had been our primary plan. (Little Mighty is a master at this.) A cop just then arriving told us we couldn’t cross, as of course we knew. And so, the cab. The cab came directly, a stationwagon, into which we squeezed our bikes—one longitudinal in the bed, another sideways in the backseat—and ourselves—one atop the other in the passenger seat—and prepared for the impossible passage.

The driver vouchsafed to us the many great places we might go for a bite or a sip, if we were inclined to abandon these ridiculous riding plans, my god look at that wind. Where did we want to go, anyways?

The Bridge Diner, I said.

Doesn’t exist anymore, he said. Gone.

Whatever is left of the Bridge Diner, I said. The ruins of the Bridge Diner.

I need an address, he said. There’s a Waffle House there.

We want to go to the Waffle House.

They’re building a Royal Farms where the diner was.

Let’s go to the Royal Farms.

Eight minutes later we were across. Before we had unloaded our stuff a cyclist dressed in foul-weather clothing screeched up and declared he was glad to see someone as crazy as himself out in this wind. Where did we intend to go?

When we told him he insisted we’d have no trouble. Insisted. Then he screeched off. We found the streets our map wanted us to. The turning cues seemed to correspond with our presumed direction. We got rolling. Not 10 minutes later as we lay into the breeze whistling through a housing tract a woman opened a window of her SUV and asked if she could take us wherever we were going. Anywhere, she said. She couldn’t stand the thought of riders out in this wind. By this time we were making a solid 3 miles per hour, which meant only 12 more hours of riding today. We thanked her and declined.

At the end of that street we turned left, somewhat off the main thrust of the wind and gained speed, though every 200 feet another gust smothered us to a stop. We could feel the bikes swerving and shying with every puff. The traffic in its endless flight came up behind and disappeared before. The shouldered highways gave way to unshouldered ones. On.

Over the hills, through the dips, the steady rush of traffic belittling our plebeian little two-wheeled-pumping-of-the-feet transport. If we amounted to anything in this world we would be in one of those big cars. We would be whushing past those poor suckers on bikes, those idiots too weak and poor to own an automobile. What is a pansy tin machine like that, with less than one horse of power, compared to the astronomical great power of an august and magnificent internal combustion engine, with its spinning fans and its harness of electric pulses and its thresh-work of pounding pistons tuned to maximum force? What it a simple pedal machine compared to tech-now-low-gee?

We made it finally to Monkton near sundown, the trees filtering the late afternoon autumn light as we made the last turn into a road marked with the sign of the farm Little Mighty had persuaded to let us stay.

Well, that was the beginning. We split after Monkton. She got as far south as North Carolina, where her boyfriend picked her up and took her to Florida. I got to Baltimore, where I stayed with my brother and his wife, and enjoyed the autumn colors, the landscape daubed with reds and golds, and the presentiment of wood fires and apple cider.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The importance of finding Ernest

Ernest Hemingway came to Idaho first in the late 1930s, a guest of the developers of nearby Sun Valley Resort, then sporadically for the next 10 years, hunting along Silver Creek and the Sawtooth foothills. In the late 1950s he bought a house in Ketchum, and in 1961 died there, after two years reaping the rewards of a lifelong will to self destruction. The funeral was brisk, the burial local, the trout still ran and the geese still flew. But thus another place name went onto the map of literary reverence.

I found his grave as easily as one finds the neat Ketchum Cemetery, near downtown, a gravely slab bearing his name and often littered with pennies and pens—which are in fact an error in the liturgy, for Papa used only no. 2 pencils. By such commonplaces is communion with greatness achieved.

But the city nowhere advertises his last house's location, perhaps fearing a swarm of Papa wannabes, an invasion of acolytes, an asphyxia of aspirants. It is left to the cunning, the clever, the calculating, to find his house on their own. It is left to those with access to Google maps and a disinclination to ask the owners for a tour. Thus:

It sits alone on a small hill, this house, as it did when Hemingway lived there, despite the dazzling wealth that has thrown up its idols nearby. It's sat empty for many years, the gossiping river running ceaselessly along its front, and is now maintained by the Nature Conservancy, who can't figure out what to do with it.

I got to its driveway, with all the No Trespassing signs glinting nearby in the sun, yet with obviously no one near who could threaten me with jail—and decided not to go the whole way after all. Hemingway was in deep trouble when he lived here: depression, paranoia, attempted suicide, great physical pain, shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic, alcoholism of course. He took the final step with both barrels of his shotgun in the foyer. I didn't need to see the place to know the story. And I think: Which is more worthy of reverence, the life or the work? And how much may they be separated?

To my friend Sterling I recommended an old Esquire piece by a guy who found himself on this same pilgrimage I was. Sterling came back at me angry that, in the piece, Norman Mailer gets to call Hemingway a coward. If I want to know Hemingway, Sterling says, I should read his short stories, The Sun Also Rises, the hunting scenes in Green Hills of Africa and any of his journalism.

“That writing is all that you need to know about Ernest Hemingway,” Sterling says.

Yeah, maybe. I wish I it was all I did know. And I wish that my reverence might someday learn to be careful.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Sawtooth Tour

Sawtooth NRA, not actual size
Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It contains mountains, it contains forests, it contains broad sweeping pine-blanketed plains rising curvingly up to white blasted crags blazing in the sun and rocky overhangs with snow on the upper ranges. And then miles after miles of sloping pine forest, lonely forests of trees, until you come to a lake, several miles off the highway and circled by a pavement, with clear opaline water and reflecting yet another stark asteroid of a mountain on the other side.

Every 50 or so miles, there is a little grocery and service station built of rustic boards, until you get to Stanley, pop. 258, where there is also a restaurant. In Idaho City, pop. 63, there are also genuine frontier storefronts with long wooden sidewalks before them, and a picturesque gold rush cemetery.

Kurt, Mark and Kate, in a rare stationary moment
We started from Boise and rode 42 miles south, to Melba, toast capital of the west, then an additional 10 miles to a place called Celebration Park. My three teammates put distance between themselves and me, but we all flew along, with Idaho state flags flying above our machines.

The park, a state park, contained petroglyphs and other items of archaeological interest which you could view from a trail that wound among them.

The second day we followed an ancient still-elevated rail bed out of camp, across an old train bridge and on through the country until we reached the barbed wire barricade.

Advance notice of this obstacle, stretched defiantly across the right-of-way, had come to us before the ride in an email message from the route planner, to whom we swore left and right it would not hinder us a fig.

I had occasion to wonder at this certainty, as we handed our entire royal caravan—three recumbent trikes, a bicycle and trailer, 10 stuffed panniers, coats, helmets, cameras, water bottles, pumps, sunglass cases, all held aloft--over the dangerous wires and to a resting place further along the railbed as we shimmied and jiggy-footed trying not to stumble down the slope.

What we hadn't seen coming—what we had reason to believe would not come—was the screaming man issuing from his trailer down the way to command our immediate return from whence we came. He seemed to be quite agitated. He directed us to just turn around and go back, just turn around or we would go to jail. Clearly this was the biggest thing that had happened to him all week. From his trailer he began to make his way over the scrub toward us. 

The railroad bridge, just before The Encounter
Now, this was not the time to debate the ascendancy of property rights over the needs of poor touring pilgrims like ourselves; nor did we think it quite politic to ask how any private person could own a railroad right-of-way. Or how we were supposed to effect a rapid escape with that barbed wire behind us. Or, for that matter, who he was and how was he able to throw us out. (Private property it may have been, I thought, but my attention is private also and he was trespassing on it.)

The thing to do, as Katie said later, is de-escalate. Kurt began this by assuring the man we were leaving, yes we were leaving, yes, leaving right now, just this minute. Meanwhile, the last of the party were joining us from the rear. Just turn around and go back, the man said, or you go to jail.

Yes, thank you, we are leaving.

We kept going. In the direction we had been going.

The man disappeared into his trailer, probably to get his gun. We were making steady progress down the road, which had become a driveway, a private driveway, upon which we were making highly illicit and probably immoral passage, toward the county highway just beyond. Four minutes later a frantic woman in a white Lexus came screaming up. She was slender and white and burning with the kind of rage that can only result from the secret belief that the world intends to destroy your flowerbeds.

Katie, the designated de-escalator, leaned into the woman's window and began emitting soothing tones. Her husband Mark stood by as diplomatic backup. Kurt and I watched. A minute later a 60-ish western-looking man went whizzing by on an ATV, trying to head us off at the pass.

More soothing sounds. In the car, the woman's voice had come down half an octave. She had grandchildren on those grounds she was saying, and they couldn't have just anyone going through. Sixty feet away Kurt rolled his eyes.

We got past that obstacle and down the road, down the long road. Night Two brought us, after a day of intermittent rain, to a state park called Bruneau Dunes which, despite this being Labor Day, was about half occupied. The park featured giant sand mountains that brooded over the little camp ground like a sky full of stars.

That evening we attended a lecture and slide show by a “UFO-ologist” in the park's observatory, and learned among much else that:
  • The US government has for many years suppressed information about our frequent visits from space beings; this information has included the unbelievable sightings, witnessed by our astronauts when traveling in space, of space vehicles and alien structures built on the moon.

  • The government is itself in possession of a planet-hopping spacecraft, built usingtechnology reverse-engineered from UFOs, along with several secret places on earth that serve as bases for this vehicle.
  • There have been a number of UFO crashes, all well and carefully documented, on US soil. The government won't tell you about them, though.
  • We have also, it goes without saying, many bodies of aliens now preserved, and have given medical attention to alien survivors of UFO crashes. 
  • A UFO researcher has initiated a program allowing all this information—including suppressed astronaut testimony--to be freely disclosed by those who until now have been sworn to keep mum. The researcher got the green light for this project when he wrote to Bill Clinton saying he would do it and got no response from the president saying he couldn't.

There was much more UFO information on offer, but Kurt and I fell asleep in our chairs during the last half hour. During this time it was obvious that Kurt's brother Mark was not in attendance, as we heard no one's head exploding, as Mark's would have.

Night Three, after another 60 miles: an empty RV park in Gooding, ID, where we slept amid the great empty cement pads designed to support large recreational vehicles.

Night Four, after yet another 60 miles, we got back to civilization again, to Hailey, where Mark's daughter and son in law fed us, slept us, and got us warm again. At dinner I announced complete satisfaction with my riding so far, and therefore my intention to quit here and remain satisfied with myself, rather than to become angry or frustrated or, perhaps, dead. Hailey had been planned as one of the possible quitting spots, so this was no problem. And Kate was also quitting here to go visit a new grandchild. I would ride one more day with Kurt and Mark and then return alone to Hailey the following day.

And so it happened. Three of us rode next morning to a campsite called Easley Hot Springs, and there spent a pleasant evening fretting about bears and hoisting our food into the trees; and next morning it was 27 degrees and my toes were frozen together.

Idaho City
This and a swelling achilles tendon brought home the wisdom of leaving early. Kurt and Mark continued on for another hundred miles, most of it uphill—I met them later near Idaho City. Meantime I rode downhill back to Hailey, stopping along the way to take pictures of trout streams and mountains.

So there it was: 311 miles in six days. Nothing for some folks but at least respectable for a cripple and invalid.