Why a Bike Ride?

Summer of 2009:
More adventure. The plan: Ride from St. Louis, MO to Upper Saddle River, NJ, via Ann Arbor (to visit my brother), then across Ontario and thru Buffalo to Hobart College (Geneva, NY), then south to the Delaware River, which I'd follow into NJ and continue southeast to home. From Ann Arbor, it is the reverse of the route I took across America 2 years ago.
With a meeting to attend in St.L., it seemed a good idea to ride back.
St.L. departure date: 6/15. Estimated distance: about 1,150 miles, or one-third my Cross-America trip. Theoretically, the wind would be at my back. The hope: a 100-miles-a-day average and 12 days in the saddle. Total elapsed time: dependent upon weather and equipment outages.
My son says it will be dry every night and drenching during the day, the other side of the road will be smooth whereas I'll ride in under-construction rubble, the wind will be in my face, and all roads will be uphill. With my luck, could happen.
No official money-raising, but if you want to contribute, the trip ain't cheap.
I will make the blog entries at sporadic points, with fuller descriptions at trip's end.

Summer of 2007:
It was a personal challenge, short and simple. I needed to prove to myself that this 70-year old man wasn't over the hill yet.

So, while I was at it, I appealed to 4 different constituencies to pledge financial support for my ride. The consitituencies do not overlap in any way. I raised money for:

The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, of which I was the President (2006-8): (http://www.ethicalfocus.org/). ECS is a caring humanist community that believes in deed, not creed, as expressed in social action.

Upper Saddle River, my home town, in support of all the volunteer services: the Fire Department; the Ambulance Corps; the Rescue Squad.

The Interact Club, at the Bergen Academies (a county high school with competitive admissions, where I am a substitute teacher). The club helps the hungry and homeless, and also pays the fare for children from the 3rd world to come to the US for medical treatment.

And last but not least (they are all equal in my mind), I hoped to kindle the giving for my alma mater, Hobart College, so we could present them with a sizable class gift in June, 2008, at our 50th reunion.

So you now have both the real reason ... and the good reasons.

And while I was at it, I wanted to try to show up those who said I wouldn't make it on the (ambitious) schedule I set for myself. I didn't, making an average of only 81 miles per day, when riding. I was done in by the steeps, the weight I carried, some bike problems, headwinds and afternoon thunderstorms. Color me humbled.

And now that the ride is over, I slake my need to write by adding occasional longer-view essays based upon the experience.

To summarize the trip, I covered 3,467 miles, solo. My route ran from home, in Upper Saddle River, in northeastern NJ, to Buffalo, across Ontario, then through Michigan to Wisconsin, across Minnesota, Nebraska, and into Colorado at the northeastern corner. I went southwest from there to Denver, then south to Albuquerque, and due west to L.A., across the Mojave Desert.

I lost approximately 4 days to weather, 3 days to visits en route with my brother in Michigan and my oldest son in Denver, and about 3 days to various bike issues. That leaves 39 days for being in the saddle. Never had a leg issue. Ate like a pig and lost weight.

A great experience. Read on.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Most Beautiful Thing I Have Ever Seen

She: “I have a great interest in all the beautiful things in the world, but I have never traveled.”
Me: “Why not? “
She: “I don’t know ... I’m just a farm girl ... and I am afraid of new places.”

Besides having a small farm, she worked in the purchasing department at Archer Daniels Midland, in Decatur, Illinois. She had bought me a beer after I stopped at the first bar inside the town limits to ask about motels in the area. It was the end of the third day of my solo bike ride from St. Louis to New Jersey. We had talked about traveling and she picked up on that I have done a bunch, in the US and abroad.

She: “What’s the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?”
“Besides my wife? And besides the most thrilling moment of my life when I held my just-born son in the delivery room ... and when he immediately stopped crying and became still?
“And how he smelled … and how he felt to me when I repeatedly brushed his smooth infant’s cheek with my face when I held him, which I never got enough of?”

She: “Well, I meant art, I guess. Like, how about Michelangelo’s David. Have you seen it?”
“To tell you the truth, it was magnificent, but I don’t have a trained eye. I had seen copies and they looked perfect to me. And I had seen so many photos of the statue that actually seeing it “in the flesh” was sort of anticlimactic.”

“So what else would you say is the most beautiful?”

My mind raced. There were so very many works of art, and so very many places. How could I choose?
Besides, for me, there were equally as many vistas and aspects in nature that blew me away. I didn't think she wanted to hear that.
I had a statue-of-David experience with the Mona Lisa too. In fact, it was so inaccessible that it was not even appealing. Between the glass protection and the crowd control, and even how it was displayed, there was no way to appreciate it.
And maybe I have an off-center reaction to things anyhow. For example, I was utterly taken by the seemingly infinite variety of patterns of the parquet floors in the Hermitage (in Leningrad, as it was called when I was there in ‘86, at the beginnings of glasnost) … and the doorframes … and the equally varied tray ceiling treatments … and the parade of urns on both sides of the many stairways (or perhaps, more accurately, the ascending promenades) … and … and …
Visit Catherine’s Palace and the summer environs of (now-called) St. Petersburg, and even without acquiring an understanding of the massive and impossible-to-imagine restoration that was accomplished, you will throw rocks at Versailles.
Try the exquisite mosaics on any number of mosques in the Middle East for evoking involuntary gasps of wonder at the intricacy and beauty. Or the special churches in so many other places, with their carvings or precious marble interiors.
I had one experience that is as vivid now as when it happened. I get chills even now as I write this. The tour guide closed the door behind us after we entered the baptistery at Pisa. He signaled for quiet. He arched his neck upward and sang four consecutive notes, pausing briefly between them. You could almost literally see the notes swirling and circling upward. They melded into a chord, as though four singers simultaneously launched their separate notes. And he repeated that miracle a few times. Such a simple thing, really. Amazing!

As for the beauty in nature, there is no end of it. I have been blessed to see so many things. Where does one start?
The sunrise over the desert in Saudi Arabia. If it were a painting, you would say it could never exist in nature ... it is too surreal ... almost cartoonish. The shafts of darker and lighter orange light are sharply demarcated more by the dust in the air than the clouds (rarely seen in that desert of nothingness): Breathtaking! No wonder the nomads were awed by the heavenly display and had religious experiences.
And its opposite: the sunsets viewed from Jeddah, west across the Red Sea. It is called the Red Sea because of all the dust in the air over it, blowing on the wind from Ethiopia, northern Sudan and Egypt. The light is refracted at sunset and the water’s surface appears a true blood red.
On one occasion, I sat on the beach after hours of snorkeling. The sky was lowering. Looking across towards Africa, I saw a flock of flamingos on the horizon, outlined against a vertically narrowing yellow background. Just above the sea’s surface, they flew arrow-straight to the north. There was just enough light to see their pink/red feathers. It was my only sighting of flamingos in my 15 months there; a fleeting, ethereal goose bump occasion, permanently etched in my mind’s eye. Did I mention that it was Xmas eve?
Look below the surface of the Red Sea … see the reefs … the dazzling variety and beauty of the creatures and the hard and soft corals. I have seen Cousteau’s stunning Red Sea documentary. You would think that it might have truly captured that beauty. But put your head in the water: Not Cousteau – or anyone else – could do it justice!

One very clear night, after the pavement ended on Old Stagecoach Road, I continued driving, on into the deep dirt tracks and up into the Rockies behind the Broadmoor Hotel, in Colorado. The “road” leads right into the maw of an abandoned mine’s entrance. Returning, you have to back up all the way – maybe a half-mile. No fear – the ruts are so deep, the car can’t climb out of them. You can drive it with your hands off the steering wheel.
I was there because it was an especially clear night. Once around the first bend, all trace of light from the resort was gone. The star points were close-set, in a sky resembling pavĂ© jewelry. They looked so low; you felt as though you could simply reach up and grab a handful. Eerily seeming near, yet vast and limitless … and humbling. It was whisper quiet … truly awesome … and I ached not having someone there to share it with.

But you don’t have to go to exotic places or be adventuresome or appreciative. Take the time to ponder the ocean shore most anywhere, but especially when the water is angry. Take in the breadth of the mountain peaks from any vista that includes them.
See a mountain meadow ablaze with wildflowers blooming.
Spot a truly wild creature in its element and think a little about the local ecosystem that supports its existence.
Get far enough away from all hearing of human activity and be still in the woods for a spell.
Or truly contemplate a tall tree.

I am always awestruck by the talent and creativity that bespeaks art and all the artisans' constructs ... maybe because I have so little capability and recognize the vast gulf between my deficiencies and the gift of talent their creators possess.

I could not rank artisanship ahead of nature, nor behind. They’re just different things. Seeing the best examples of either is not nearly as satisfying as sharing the seeing of them.

I told none of this to my Decatur lady. I needed time to reflect, though I knew while we were talking that an essay would be my reaction to her question. It haunted me some during subsequent days of biking. It also bothered me that she was so fearful of getting out of her own comfortable space that she could not have similar experiences of discovering beauty for herself, in person. Would that I could be her agent in the effort.

Sad, really.

Day Six (6/20, Saturday)

Bright sun, spotty clouds, less heat and humidity, but still energy-draining. Obviously the problem was as much me and my condition, as it was the weather. The route was a lot of zigzags ... all county roads, first east, then north, then east, etc. The paving was more good than not, but few areas had decent shoulders.

I started trying to determine potential motel stops at 3:30 or so, with no luck. By 6pm the nearest place was 20-25 miles away. I was at a bar. A whole pizza was given to the guy next to me (gratis from the management). He offered slices to everyone near him. He looked like Grisly Adams, with a never-trimmed gray beard – not much of a talker. Good pizza though. It went well with the beer. Doh!

I reached a major intersection of 2 wide roads, but still no motels near. There was one maybe 17 miles due north (I had wanted to go east at that point), but there was no choice. I decided to hitch. It seems that half the vehicles on the roads are pickup trucks in middle America and further west, so prospects were good. It was getting dark. Within 3 minutes of sticking out the thumb, I caught a ride with Bob, a young guy, maybe 19 years old. He was towing a trailer and on his way to fetch his other truck that had died in Michigan City, where I was headed. This truck sounded and ran like it might not make it, but he assured me he did all the rebuild work on it and it was in much better shape than it looked (and sounded). He took me straight to a lower cost motel that he used. It was a rather fine place, actually, but there was very poor cell phone coverage, the fridge never got really cold, and I couldn’t find a place for a cold beer anywhere near, though there were lots of establishments. This turned into a junk food dinner, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Day Five (6/19, Friday)

Decent start time. Wanted breakfast at the Dairy Queen, but closed. Hit the MickeyD, which I normally avoid like the plague. A large group of older men talked with me, and I got good route info … a bridge was out on the route I had planned.

On the way, I called a friend in NJ, who was my back-up for emergency repairs at the building of the Ethical Culture Society, for which I am responsible. All the rain in the east caused flooding in the basement when the water table rose to the surface. Our building was draining the town. We settled on a sump pump to sit in the window well, but it was very shallow and he had to find a switch that would operate in a narrow range and at a low level. It was sure a relief to have a capable guy to fall back on.

Late afternoon coolness set in. I went after a sun block of SPF 100 I’d seen advertised on TV, but it wasn’t out on the shelves yet. Settled for an 85. Not nice stuff – heavy, icky. Kinda late in the game to be worrying about it, but I began the drill anyhow. I had already blistered on the arms and legs. The neck was tender too, and my nose had already peeled. The worst was my head. I always forget about the aero slots in the helmet and the sun burns my scalp in strips. No issue, until I go to scratch my head. Owwww. Somehow I remember to bring the spray sun block when I go skiing, but not on a bike ride. Dumbkopf. Well, it is worse on the mountain, because the UV rays increase intensity 5% for every thousand feet above sea level. Betcha didn’t know that.

I passed a lot of time today by reliving my memorable vacation in 1977, when I left Iran for the first time in 4 years. It was a 5-week trip, 4 of which were sans kids, in Europe. I then thought about various problems or things I was undecided about, and had a few revelations/solutions. I gotta do that more often – think long and hard and repeatedly. Somehow I was able to think outside the box when riding.

I got to Kentland, Illinois, and stopped at the first restaurant, at the edge of town. It looked like a nicer than usual place. As I was talking with the cashier girl, some departing patrons helped out. I got a motel name, she made a phone call, and I got a reservation, then moved to sit down for dinner. Just then a man approached and asked if he could buy me dinner. He said he’d passed me on the road some time earlier and was a huge Tour de France fan, and here I was, a bike rider. I explained that I was not the usual cyclist and barely ride when not on an adventure, but he didn’t care. His French accent was so thick I barely understood him. I joined him and his wife. He himself was a piece of work. He was born in the Pyrenees and came to Canada when he was 19. He worked as a lumberjack in eastern Canada, and also was a tomato picker on a gigantic farm owned by Heinz. He said he picked 2,000 pounds a day. Somehow I cannot visualize the number of tomatoes, by weight, but I am still impressed. Eventually he went way out west and worked with Eskimos (doing what, he never said). He told me he hiked to within 200 miles of the Arctic Circle. Then he became a gold miner and worked 2 miles below ground. I wondered if that was the real depth. He also has been to every country in the western hemisphere and in Europe as well. Frenchie was now 68. His wife was American and apparently they’d only been married a few years. By the way, the dinner portions were massive. The lasagna quality was “strange” – I can’t think of a better word for it, as a food critic. But I got fed well, free! I did have to rush off, as a thunderstorm was very near and I did not want to ride even a mile in lightning, though that’s exactly what happened. Multiple simultaneous strikes, huge, and close together. Only a few drops, but scary.

The motel was inexpensive. Owned by an Indian immigrant, who had lived in Atlantic City for 17 years before buying this place. I gathered he kept going west until he found one he could afford to buy. It was a little downscale and not well maintained, and probably would stay that way, but he was personable.

Day Four (6/18, Thursday)

Another late start, again, because of an am thunderstorm. I lost some time when I realized, about a mile later, that I did not have my riding gloves and had to back for them. Damn. A 90-degree day and humid. No surprise there. But at least half the day was overcast. A blessing. I even had a breeze at my back, though mostly I couldn’t feel it till I stopped for a sip of water. Translation: faster average speed and less effort.

Another day of back roads and few motels along the way. I got to Gibson City by 7pm. I had been told there were motels there. Right on – got a room for $49. Treated myself to a Dairy Queen, across the street from the motel, then managed to gash my calf when mounting the bike to get back across the street. I had hit the front gear ring.

It takes a few minutes before the red slashes actually start to run with blood. It did leave an interesting pattern. Sort of like a scarface on the leg. Boy, did I feel stupid.

It was a 70-mile day, which wasn’t too bad considering it was a late start. And I had my usual late-in-the-day productivity. I even had a long-ish stop in mid-afternoon to lie in the grass off-road for about 5 minutes, to recoup.

Day Three (6/17, Wednesday)

Punishing sun, high temps (upper 90s), punishing humidity (high 90s). My energy got totally drained, often. I made a lot of mini-stops. These were very short, often around 75 seconds. A slug of ice water and a few slower breaths, then off again. Any longer and the legs turn into lead weights that burn when you try to make the muscles start again. It is exceedingly uncomfortable, even knowing that within 100 feet, the pain goes away. It is the lactic acid build-up in the muscles.

About that ice water: The two steel water bottles I bought are amazing. I fill them to the top with ice cubes, then top off with water. When the water is drained, I refill them with water from the two plastic bottles (which also had ice cubes in them, but they warm up within 20 minutes). The refills also get ice cold. I can do that up to 4 times! It was the smartest purchase I ever made.

Got to Decatur, Illinois, and stopped at a bar at the edge of town. I promptly met two women (mother and daughter), who were intrigued by my story and bought me a beer. I was after motel info, and got a steer to a Days Inn, at only $49. I think I had a chance to stay with the ladies, who were both employed, but liked to call themselves farm girls. They were more than stout … and strong. I didn’t need to go there and kept my mouth shut.
I have written an essay - a musing on a topic the mother brought up. She asked me, "What was the most beautiful thing in the world (I had seen)?" (That essay is posted elsewhere on this blog.) She asked me many questions upon learning about my travels. She is afraid to travel and has never left Decatur.

As it happened, my wife had called me in the morning about a problem with a credit charge on a new account, of which I was the only signatory. You know how it goes: you’re in a new store and they offer huge discounts if you get their charge card. Not only did I get 33% off everything I bought that day, but I got a $15 credit on the account for later use. It never occurred to me to register her too, and they would not let her deal with the charges and balance when the statement came. And it was wrong! So I got it fixed from beside a farm vehicle repair shop, out in the boonies. But when I spoke with her earlier, I was in the middle of nowhere, and as we talked, I felt a few drops of rain and realized that the sky was about to open up, STAT! I barely made it to a barn, about 100 feet away, exactly across the road from where I’d stopped. The downpour was intense, but exactly 12 minutes long. The farmer was not home. He did look perplexed when he came riding up the driveway later on a giant mower and saw me standing in the space where he parks the mower. He was a taciturn type, but not upset. Just quiet. Interestingly, the road surface was almost bone dry in about 10 more minutes. No mist kicked up on me from passing trucks. Nice.

Day Two (6/16, Tuesday)

Huge thunderstorm overnight and still raining in the am. I couldn’t get under way till 11:40, after that big and cheap breakfast: two eggs, hash browns, bacon, English muffin, OJ and coffee – only $7.45 Damned good bacon too, and a lot of it.

Climbing inclines is still a bit much for me; the legs aren’t quite there yet.

No wrong turns today!

I was on county roads all day. Poor shoulders, if any at all, and not always smooth pavement, but little traffic. I got a few horn beeps (salutes) but no one stopped me to talk. Sometimes they beeped me from behind. Scared the shit out of me.

Despite the late start, I made 71 miles today. As usual, I got my best mileage after 4pm … don’t know why. A sustainable energy boost comes on and I can crank out several hours of a good and high pace. Still walking up inclines. If I stood on the pedals I could ride them, but it does draw down more energy. I’d rather conserve. I forgot to mention that yesterday afternoon I caught a leg cramp and what felt like a groin pull. I rode through them, with discomfort, and damned if they didn’t pass. Nothing of that sort today, thankfully.

When the size of the dot on the map is small, you can’t tell if it is so small that there’s not a chance of a motel, or maybe it does have one or more. I had hoped this one town would work. Nada. Decided to have a chocolate ice cream and chat up the locals. A Best Western was 6 to 8 miles the wrong way (they always are). I could get there but it means losing time the next day too. So a local with a pick-up truck offered to take me there. Right on! Glen Edge made a decent pun about his name. Not well educated. Dead beer cans in the cab and pick-up bed. But good-hearted.

The Best Western was not all that inexpensive, but there was a coupon for a free second drink, and breakfast was included. When I went to the lounge area for a beer, after showering, there was a group of about 8 guys finishing theirs. They’d had a gang of pizzas and there were leftovers (a whole pie), which they offered to me. Free dinner, and my favorite food! I enjoyed the free beer too, and only $3 for the first one.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Day 1: St. Louis Did Me Wrong, Weatherwise

6/15: It was raining when I left the hotel, near the airport. Not too heavy, not too light. And heavy solid overcast, so no access to the sun for orientation.

Locals gave me directions to what was called the bike-friendly Mississippi River Trail (MRT).

I found it by a devious route (I coulda been there with less mileage), but signage was so poor that NJ's signs are superlative by comparison (and us locals in NJ know how preposterous that sounds).

I managed to turn the wrong way on the "trail," heading west. Then came torturous curves and route changes. There are NO straight-line roads in StL except Interstates. Every route curves, at some point, and ends somewhere other than where one wants to be.

I re-passed the hotel, eventually, when "Butch" gave me a good steer. Butch, (across the street, in the body shop), was referred to me by the ladies working at a gas station Kwik Stop. Although nicknames are not age-specific, I expected to find someone not out of his 20's. Butch was tall, gray and maybe in his early 60's. He was absolutely not "butch" either. The ladies told me he was a "bikist" and he'd know how to direct me.

That word stuck in my brain like a hair that sticks up the wrong way on one's head, and you feel that it is sticking up. My mind came back to it again and again. (What the hell else is there to think about when on a long-distance bike ride?) Ultimately, I decided I liked it: it is easier to say than "bicyclist" or just "cyclist" and conveys a difference between "biker" and bicycle-rider. Short, snappy, distinctive.

Did I mention that there were at least 3 thunderstorms that day, each of which had me seeking shelter and waiting them out? I had some luck, as I always found myself exactly across from or adjacent to adequate protection. Because of the overcast, each storm was a sudden surprise. Normally you can see them coming well in advance. Cracks of lightning do command one's attention, STAT!

About the MRT: It is not a bike trail - it is a series of car routes that run east-west and happen not to be Interstates. They are secondary routes with lousy road surfaces. Contrarily, the River Bike Trail runs north-south alongside the Mississippi, up from StL a ways. There are entrances every half-mile or so, but I hit it going south from its northern end, and the entrance there is totally hidden when going southbound, so I rode over a mile out of my way before turning back. The entrance off the roadway headed north is almost as hidden (by overgrown bushes) when coming from the south. The path leads immediately to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge; what a mental image that conjures up! It is strictly for bicycle and foot traffic. Unless some of those people were aliens, traffic included horses too, judging from the droppings. It was once a part of the old Route 66 and is decorated with signs and artwork to convey that. I took a few photos.

Now near dark, I stopped a mile or so after the bridge, but not before going through a marshy area and before that, crossing another bridge over a river side-channel. It was exceedingly steep (I had to walk it), and down to one lane (for repairs), which did not allow any room for me to get out of the way when on-coming traffic appeared. I flinched and squeezed against the pylons. Obviously I made it. My stop was at the first motel I saw, and I got my first of several bargains on the ride. They only had the larger unit available - a suite - and it cost all of $39 for the night. One registers at the adjacent bar (the door marked "office" says there are no rooms available; it is a permanent sign). The bar sold ice-cold beer for $1 a bottle! They had fabulous sandwiches at super low prices. Ditto breakfast (like: $7.35 for two eggs, hash browns, large OJ, English muffin and coffee. Plus bacon!).

I have rain gear that just happened to have worked - surprise! The neoprene booties even kept my feet dry, as advertised! But heavy rain gets me off the road - I simply cannot see when it is really pouring. Unfortunately, the gear encloses me like Saran wrap, so I was alternately cold from the wind and damp, then broiling. It does knock the water out of you, and losing weight is good, even if temporary. Would that it were permanent. As for water replenishment, I had the good fortune to buy 2 steel water bottles (made in Europe) that keep cold drinks ice cold for 3 days or more (!!) - supposedly they keep hot fluids hot as long too. I used the 2 regular plastic bottles to refill the steel ones, because as I drained them of ice water, the ice cubes were only half gone and the remainder would chill the fresh water just as well as when the steel bottle had only ice cubes in it and water was first added. Probably the best equipment purchase I ever made.

So much for Day 1: Very eventful, very interesting (in hindsight), very aggravating, very frustrating, and rather damaging. Why? I haven't mentioned the two spills I took early on, within minutes of each other. They were identical in how I flew over the handlebars, to the left, and hit the ground, but they were triggered differently.

Because the roads were so wet, when I turned to get back on the roadway from the shoulder, the tires did not bite the pavement. The front tire caught in the small crack between the surfaces and I flew. I landed, each time, on my head/helmet (the left front side ... zero injury), my left forearm, held flat and parallel to the ground, and my left upper thigh/hip. I caught some road rash and abrasions on the arm and got a healthy (?) bruise on the leg/hip, that turned a perfect blue-black-purple rather quickly, then swelled to grapefruit size. As I said, both hits were identical. Some blood on the arm, which stopped almost immediately and virtually no pain or imposition on the riding. The second fall came minutes later. This time it was because I rode through a shallow puddle ("shallow" he says?). Actually it was shallow. But the hole it hid was created by a chunk of concrete road that broke off into a larger hole, and that chunk was slice-of-pie shaped and angled. It grabbed the tire and flung it to my right whilst I was heading straight on. (Great word "whilst," no?) Same launch, same head hit, same forearm, same hip hit. Same bruised ego.

I was becoming discouraged, to say the least. Fortunately, I am not a quitter, tempting though it might have been ... at least, not then, having just set out. You'll read more on that later.