Friday, April 12, 2019

Eastern Tennessee

Tennessee was the beneficiary of twenty Carnegie Libraries.  Fifteen of them still stand.  Four of them lay along a fifty-mile stretch in the far east of the state in a valley of a sort just west of the Appalachian Mountains.  Amidst this stretch of Carnegies is the birth place of Davey Crockett on the outskirts of Limestone, also the new home of artist friends from Chicago, Michael and Wendy, who moved there a year ago seeking warmer climes and cheaper property values than Chicago and also within range of the Appalachia Trail, which Wendy had hiked from start to finish a few years ago.  It continues to beckon her and inspire her painting.

They found a luxurious home built into a hillside on a quiet rural road of pastures and forests and small churches. Ever since their move Janina and I have been eager to visit their new idyll.  We had contemplated joining them for Christmas, as we have done over the years, but opted to delay until more amenable weather for outdoor activities.  It would have made a nice 1,300-mile bike ride there and back, but we didn’t have the time for such a luxury, so made a drive of it.  

We were able to go via Shelbyville, outside of Indianapolis, where Michael had recently erected a towering sculpture that has been receiving accolades world wide.  It stands in front of the town’s visitor center along the Big Blue River and represents the wind and rain that characterize the region.  We could see the swirling metal tubes representing thunderheads atop the edifice from half a mile away as we approached.  It was magnificent even in the overcast afternoon gloom, and positively spectacular when illuminated after dark.  

We had helped load more than a dozen of Michael’s smaller sculptures, including a cooker and a couple of fountains, that had dotted their yard in Berwyn for their move to Tennessee and were curious to see them in their new habitat.  The sculptures hadn’t been fully arranged, as their property is still taking shape as they finish building a studio and plug away at other projects, including restoring the original farmhouse that they plan to convert to a retreat for artists.  

Before searching out the area’s Carnegies we devoted Day One of our visit to a rigorous five-hour hike up a rugged steep trail ten miles from their home that brought us to within a few miles of the Appalachia Trail.  We didn’t encounter another soul, allowing Wendy’s dog Max to scamper along without leash.  As we approached the summit we noticed an article of clothing beside a boulder. It was Max’s sweater that Wendy had removed to sit on when they last hiked the trail three weeks ago.  She hadn’t realized she left it behind.

Janina and I would have stopped at the Carnegie in Johnson City, twenty-five miles north of their home, before we arrived, but we missed a turn and didn’t care to double back.  I was happy to make a bike ride of it, and luckily I did, as we would have been needlessly delayed trying to find the Carnegie.  I had to ask half a dozen people where it was, including two people at the city hall, before I found someone who knew.  

It was a mystery to most, as the Carnegie Library hadn’t been the town library, but rather the library on the grounds of a large complex for disabled veterans.  It wasn’t until I dropped in on Johnson City’s library that an older librarian, summoned by a younger, did I find someone who knew of the Carnegie, though she had to resort to the internet to find its precise location.  As always, my search allowed me to explore the environs, stopping in at an art gallery of work by veterans and also at the town’s original library that bore a resemblance to a Carnegie.  It now served meals to the needy. I was there at lunchtime and was invited to join them when I ducked my head in to see if this could possibly have been the Carnegie even though it bore the name of a judge with a plaque out front honoring him, not Carnegie.

There was no mistaking the Carnegie a couple miles away, not only by its pillars and stately elegance, but also with “Carnegie Library” chiseled into its facade.  It was now a lecture hall and was in use when I slipped in to give it a peek.  

The other three Carnegies were to the south of Wendy and Michael, another fifty-mile circuit that I did the next day.  The riding was fabulous on the lightly travelled hilly roads.  I could positively romp along with my bike free of panniers and some 3,000 miles on my legs from my recent ride around California and Arizona.  

It was another circuitous effort to find the first of this set of three Carnegies.  It was on the campus of Washington College in an isolated outlying area of Limestone.  There was no direct route to it through the hilly terrain.  When I found the small campus of just a handful of buildings early in the morning there was no evidence of anyone being there other than a lone parked car that could well have been abandoned.  It looked as if the school had closed down.  It wasn’t until later that I learned it had become an evening school for adult education.  There was an empty lot at the location I understood to be the address of the Carnegie.  It was actually up a hill and camouflaged by two wings added in the 1920s converting it into an administrative and classroom building.  

It was built from a grant given to two college libraries in the area, the other Tusculum College in Tusculum.  The latter was a still breathing, fully-functioning college and so was the library, which had had a large expansion to it in 2004.  

A few miles down the road the larger city of Greeneville complete with a Walmart and a recently opened Aldis had outgrown its Carnegie over forty years ago.  The local newspaper had taken possession of it and used it for storage.  One of the librarians at the new library had been a member of the Girl Scout troop that helped transport the books from the old library to the new, half a mile away.  She was very happy to share her memories of that experience and her youth in the Carnegie. She felt lucky to have become a librarian in the town she grew up in.  I often meet librarians who grew up in the town where they serve and have had a long-time intimate relationship with their library.  There is no holding back their fond recollections.

I had visited ten of the other Carnegies in Tennessee on my two rides through the state to the School of the Americas Vigil.  The only one remaining is in Jackson in the far west of the state.  If we didn’t have to be back to Chicago in time for a class Janina has been taking at the University of Chicago on Moby Dick, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, we might have included it on our drive back.  Fortunately not, as I do prefer to arrive at a Carnegie after a long bike ride.  It’s not far from the Mississippi and a few other Carnegies on the other side of the river that await me.  Jackson will exert some pull, as it will allow me to complete my fourth state in this Carnegie Derby tomgo alomg with Illinois, Indiana and Colorado.

On my return circuit to Michael and Wendy’s I met up with Janina and Wendy at Davey Crockett’s birth place, a state park along the Nolichucky River.  It’s campground was nearly half-filled with RVs.  The cabin of his birth in 1786 had been replaced by a replica.  The small visitor center had a map showing the several places Crockett had lived In Tennessee before his death in 1836 at the Alamo.  He served in Congress after he had moved to the far west of the state.  When he lost his seat in 1835 after voting against the Indian Relocation Act pushed through by Andrew Jackson, he ventured to Texas and joined up with those living in territory seeking independence from Mexico.  He was a well-known, virtual folk hero even then, but his martyrdom at the Alamo truly elevated him to a larger than life figure.  There have been more than twenty films about his life, including four silent films while he was still alive and another with John Wayne playing him.

He is neck-to-neck with Daniel Boone as the most glorified frontiersman. Boone was a Kentuckian who died in 1820.  Though they were both painted by the renowned portraitist Chester Harding, they never met.  A plaque near his birthplace stated that Crockett was two or three inches taller than the 5’8” Boone, as if that settled the issue of who was pre-eminent.

We could have spent days hanging out with Wendy and Michael and further exploring the region.  We’d especially like to join them when they set up Michael’s portable cooker on the Appalachia Trail and offer barbecued chicken and more for all the hikers.  It’d be fun too to spend a couple of Sundays dropping in on the multitude of small churches that abound in the area to hear their  preachers and size up their congregations.  Wendy caused a stir when she suggested to the church she chose to join that they put up a sign saying “Welcome to All” with a rainbow on it.

We were afforded a glimpse into the local culture when we dined at a restaurant that had a Wednesday senior catfish special of $6.99.  The place was packed.  We were so absorbed in our meal we hardly had time to study the many wall hangings and our fellow diners, though Janina had the sense they were all staring at us.  We biked the six miles to the restaurant and had nothing but pleasant reactions with what little traffic there was.  Wendy is already making a name for herself, being the lone member of her church who bikes to the services.  She and Michael will soon be integral members of their community. Janina and I will try to make an annual visit.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Flagstaff, Arizona

As I cycled out of Prescott I was given another opportunity to get in some practice for my return to France in a little more than a month when I came upon a roundabout.  There have been a few in these travels, maybe two or three a week, and all fairly new.  Each has been at a relatively busy intersection proving their great utility allowing traffic to slip through without having to come to a halt or of being regulated by stoplights or stop signs.  The non-stop flow of traffic resembles a well-orchestrated dance. 

Prescott’s roundabout was very French, decorated with a sculpture linked to a museum of Western Art at the intersection.  My taste buds know France is imminent as they are beginning to express a craving for menthe รก l’eau, that zesty emerald green drink that will be my beverage of choice for three months.  My taste buds never tire of the minty brew that will be featured in my prime water bottle.

I knew I had a final climb to 7,000 feet to Flagstaff ninety-five miles away, but I didn’t know I had an extra climb that high less than halfway there just before the still rustic Western town of Jerome, now a tourist attraction.  It was a startling way to start my day after camping in some trees outside of Prescott.  I was so famished when I descended to Jerome at 5,000 feet a little after eleven that I went in search of my first stack of hot cakes in these travels.  

The first diner I came to that didn’t have the pretensions of a tourist-trap had just stopped serving breakfast, but a server directed me to a restaurant down a side street that served breakfast all day.  It was packed and had only one empty table.  Luckily it had a nearby electrical outlet, otherwise I couldn’t have stayed, as my iPad needed charging and I knew there were no open libraries ahead on this stretch, so had to find an eatery where I could charge.

From Jerome the descent continued for over a thousand feet to a valley floor, followed by a climb to Sedona, a fully Disneyfied tourist town.  It had become an alpine ski village.  The city itself went on for four miles, everything on both sides of the four-lane highway that bisected it prettified as if made over by a team of Ralph Loren designers.  Even the McDonald’s yellow M had been made turquoise. 

And then beyond for miles and miles through Oak Creek Canyon the way was dotted by mini-trophy homes and hotels that called themselves spas and retreats and yoga centers.  It was a full-fledged desecration of the once pristine canyon.  The scenery was still spectacular, and as I climbed the 2,500 feet up to Flagstaff, twenty-five miles away, I was glad all the more that I hadn’t taken the train home from Phoenix or Tucson, and had extended these travels a couple of hundred miles.

I camped seven miles up the canyon.  It was thirty-six degrees when I resumed riding and it got colder, down to freezing, as I climbed.  Signs warned of ice on the road.  It was a genuine hazard.  It wasn’t until I escaped the tight canyon after another nine miles when the road departed from the creek and steepened considerably that I reached the sun and could warm up and not worry about ice.  Near the summit an overlook was lined with permanent concrete tables for Native Americans to sell their wares.  There was a lot of turquoise.  

Turquoise is such a predominant presence in Arizona that the lone neckerchief I found along its roads was of that color, still knotted, blown off the head of someone on a motorcycle.  It was a welcome contrast to California. California is as blue as a state can be what with a Democrat governor, two Democrat Senators, both women, and 46 of its 53 Representatives Democrats, but as far as neckerchiefs it was a red state for me. All I came up with along the road were red, five of them, all in the northern part of the state.  In the south there were none, just terry-cloth wash cloths of many hues, some sort of commentary on the difference of the two halves of the state.

My final few miles into Flagstaff were on historic Route 66, my third acquaintance with it on this trip, the first in Chicago on the way to the train station at its inception and then in Santa Monica where it ends.  Flagstaff had stenciled emblems of 66 on its stretch and a large mural paid it tribute. 

I was hoping to pass a campground on the way into Flagstaff so I could have a shower before my thirty-three hour train trip departing at four a.m., but the only campground was a barebones county facility without such an amenity.  That meant I’d have to keep my baseball cap on for the entirety of the trip.  I went directly to the train station in the center of town adjoining the tourist office to confirm I didn’t need a box for my bike, but it was unattended until three p.m., as it serviced just two trains a day, one arriving at eight p.m. heading west and the other eight hours later heading east.  

That gave me a few hours to explore town, checking out a couple of resale shops and an Army surplus store in search of a larger duffle than what Tim had provided me.  The surplus store had one for $99, too much, and the resale shops had none.  I’d just have to make do with what I had.  The Goodwill store had a huge inventory of goods, all in large bins, that was sold by the pound—$1.39 for clothes and accessories.  There were quite a few people sifting through the jumble. I didn’t have the patience, but I did find a pair of shorts and a JanSport dayback, the two weighing in at a little over a pound.

After a respite at the library I returned to the train station.  The ill-tempered attendant confirmed that my bike could be hung in the baggage car, but with nothing on it, and that the Southwest Chief, departing out of LA, had generally been running on time, at least into Flagstaff.  But he gave the bad news that the train station closed after the arrival of the eight p.m. train and didn’t reopen until two a.m.  Rather than a motel, I gladly opted for the hostel, just two blocks away.  So I got a shower after all.  Then I had the dilemma of sleeping and trusting the alarm on my iPad to wake me or staying up.  I tried to sleep, but after an hour gave up and returned to reading the 2014 Pulitzer-winning “The Goldfinch” on my iPad, which I’d been pecking away at the entire trip.  I would have liked to have taken a day off and finished it, but always had a destination to reach that couldn’t wait.  There wasn’t any bicycling to speak of until near the end when the wide-ranging plot climaxes in Amsterdam.

I was filled with the satisfaction of another good trip and also the eagerness for some normalcy with Janina.  Returning via train wouldn’t be the same as flying home, as I customarily do—the last two winters from Africa and the previous five from the Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Turkey, Beijing and the Philippines, quite a string of faraway places.  I would actually be longer in transit covering just 1,500 miles.  There wouldn’t be anyone serving me meals or movies to watch on the screen on the seat in front of me, but it would be a prolonged sit allowing my body its first rest in weeks. And all the while I would be looking forward to my bike ride home, less hectic from the train station than the airport, though of the same distance—seventeen miles.  And I know while I’m riding I’ll be anticipating the next adventure while savoring the one just completed.  It may not have been terribly exotic, but it still answered all my cravings for a good bike ride.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Prescott, Arizona

When I booked my train ticket from Flagstaff to Chicago in Yuma I allowed myself five days to bike the 330 miles to make it.  Under ideal conditions I could do it in four days, but since it involved considerable climbing from sea level to 7,000 feet with dips in and out of valleys with multiple big climbs along the way, I thought it best to allow myself some leeway. Sixty-five miles a day was ten miles less than what I had been averaging, so I could breathe somewhat easy, though a lot hinged on the vagaries of the wind.

Day one out of Yuma had me greatly concerned as I was blasted by a fierce headwind from the north. With the gradual climb I was straining to ride much more than seven miles per hour.  I kept waiting for the road to level off or even turn downwards, but it only slightly relented from time to time.  The wind brought a chill with it that forced me to wear tights for the first time in a week.  Not even my strong exertion generated enough heat to make me want to shed them.

I was out in the wide open desert with nothing to block the wind.  I passed through an army “Proving Grounds” for testing weaponry, where I camped amongst some bushes.  It wasn’t the first time that dark has caught me in such a place.  It has happened in France and Israel.  I have come out unscarred each time, so felt no concern.

I had a stretch of over sixty miles without services before Quartzsite on Interstate 10.  With the cold temperatures I didn’t feel concern about running out of water if I didn’t make it to Quartzsite before dark and had to camp a second night in the desert. The only shelter other than a closed down gas station was a checkpoint staffed by the border patrol thirty miles from Quartzsite.  It was a relief to sit against a wall protected from the wind to eat and rest.  Around four the wind slackened and I felt like I was flying going ten miles per hour, allowing me to reach Quartzsite an hour before dark.  I was very disappointed to see the welcome sign to Quartzsite gave an elevation of only 900 feet. Since it felt like I was climbing the entire way I was hoping I had at least gained 2,000 feet.

I filled my water bottles and got two hot dogs for $2.49 at a truck stop.  I had to ride on the Interstate heading east with a slight tailwind for twelve miles before picking up my road north.  I was getting worried about having to ride in the dark before the exit when I was granted a surprise exit after eight miles at Gold Nugget Road.  The road south was dirt, indicating little traffic.  I only had to go a few pedal strokes before finding a spot for my tent.  I had managed 65 miles for the day putting in almost eight hours on the bike, just what I needed to average.  Gone were my hopes of 80 mile days and making an earlier train so I would arrive back in Chicago in time for a Lithuanians documentary on cycling’s domestiques that was playing at the Film Center’s annual EU Fest.

I feared my legs would be toast if I had to endure another such day, and making my scheduled train would be in great jeopardy.  I was also concerned how depleted my legs might be after the day’s hard effort.  They were fine in the morning and the gale from the north had fizzled to a mere breeze.  The scenery was much prettier when the wind wasn’t blasting me. And it was nice not to have to keep two hands on the handlebars and to be able to pluck morsels of food out of my handlebar bag and to be able to reach down to my water bottle for a drink as I pedaled along.

Beyond Quartzsite small towns appeared every twenty or thirty miles as if I were back on the Plains though they had distinctly Western names— Hope, Salome (with the slogan of “Where she danced”) and Aguila. Dollar Stores appeared here and there, a trend that California has managed to resist.  Aguila with a population of just 798 had a most attractive library that was thronged with youngsters saving me from going two days without a library.

The minimal traffic was mostly large RVs pulling a car.  Quartzsite was lined with RV parks for retirees escaping the cold for the winter and there was another cluster of them when I left the Interstate and headed northwest on 60.  Arizona was a cheap place to winter.  Gas was 50 cents a gallon less in Arizona than California and the fine for littering was just $500 compared to $1000.  And the 420 calorie McChickens at McDonalds were back to being just a dollar, compared to two for three dollars.  But best of all was the negligible traffic and the easy camping.

Day two took me to 3,000 feet before the real climbing began on day three into Prescott. I began the day with a steep seven mile climb that gained 1,700 feet and then another of 2,100 feet before dropping down into Prescott at 5,300.  A strong headwind on the first climb had me worried about making it to Prescott before dark.  But half way up the climb I was shielded from the wind and then it disappeared when I dropped into a valley for an hour before the next climb.

The descent into Prescott was through a thick national forest.  At the upper reaches of the  climb at over 6,000 feet patches of snow lined the road. In the far distance towards Flagstaff less than one hundred miles away was a high peak doffed with snow.  It was another eight hour day on the bike.  My 2,500 miles in California had raised my fitness to what it needs to be to follow The Tour de France and to ride all day, even when the hours of light for biking are just twelve compared to sixteen or more in France.  It is always a great pleasure to be able to spend all day on the bike without tiring.  I’m blissed out when I retreat to my cozy cocoon for the night.

I pulled into Prescott too late to take advantage of its new library, two blocks from its majestic Carnegie on its main street on a slight incline. The classical building ceased being a library in 1974, though it retains “Public Library” on its facade. It has become an office building. It’s tenants include a law firm, the corporate offices of Tim Coury and  Chino Farms/land and cattle.  A sign out front besides a plaque recounting the history of the library advertises “Vacancy.”  The plaque gave credit to Julia Goldwater, a member of the local women’s club, for writing a letter in 1899 requesting funds for the library.

I could relax about making my train, as I had two days to ride less than one hundred miles to Flagstaff, though it included two big climbs to 7,000 feet. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Yuma, Arizona

There’s hardly a worst feeling a cyclist can suffer than coming out of a building and discovering his bike has been stolen.  The heart plunges and the gut feels wrenched.  One desperately looks around hoping he is mistaken about where he locked his bike.  But no it’s gone and life will never be the same.

I endured a mild case of the stolen bike syndrome when I arrived at the address for the El Centro Carnegie only to discover an empty lot with a fence around it.  I had biked over a hundred miles anticipating the thrill of meeting another Carnegie only to be slapped in the face.  It had been razed some five years ago after suffering irreparable damage from an earthquake.

No one had bothered to update Wikipedia, as it reported it still functioned as a library.  It was the second time in these travels that I had searched out a Carnegie only to learn it was no more.  The other was in Oakland, where only a couple months before my arrival it had been leveled to make space for a tiny village of huts for the homeless.  That wasn’t as devastating a blow as this, as I was hopping from Branch to Branch in Oakland and could shortly enjoy the discovery of another Carnegie.

Though this was a great disappointment, at least there was another twelve miles south in Calexico on the border with Mexico. It would wrap up my California Carnegie-Odyssey, number eighty-one in thirty-four days biking 2,327 miles crisscrossing the state. 
It was a fine one to end on, a small reddish-tan Spanish-Revival style unique to California sitting gallantly in the corner of a park without the distraction of any other building.  It was identified with “Carnegie Library” over its entrance, a pair of ornate wooden doors up a small flight of stairs flanked by a pair of light fixtures, all the dignified features of a Carnegie.  

It was brightly aglow from the setting sun, just as I felt.  It climaxed a great month of riding all over California, gaining an intimacy with the state and meeting up with quite a few friends along the way.  I had bid farewell to Tim earlier in the day along the Salton Sea near where he had camped across from a gigantic sink hole besides the railroad tracks. A large crew was busily at work trying to fill it and stem it from further encroachment upon the tracks. They had a large pile of rocks and a stack of metal pilings.  

Of the eighty-one Carnegies I visited, all those still standing in the state other than four in its northern extremity, thirty-seven were still libraries, though one was a law library and another a research library.  Nineteen were museums and five community centers.  Others served in some capacity for the local government—police station, chamber of commerce, visitor center, city offices or city hall.  Three were vacant and seven had fallen into the private sector, including one as a residence.  They ranged from palaces and temples to some shoddy, uninspired buildings, but they were all significant, century-old buildings, many on the National Register of Historic Places, as was my finale in Calexico.

I was sorry not to share this moment in Calexico with Tim, but he needed to get back to San Jose.  I could gaze down the street from the library to the border three blocks away.  The town across the border, Mexicali, was blocked by a pre-Trumpian wall topped with curls of wire such as one sees around prisons.  Calexico has a population of 40,000, but it’s downtown along the border was very quiet. There was no activity to speak of, pedestrian or motorized.  A block from the library were two budget motels. I was leery about burrowing into the bush for the night along the border with all the patrols, so was reconciled to staying in a motel.  I chose the Don Juan.  There were no cars out front, nor any in the motel across the street.  I pretty much had it to myself.  

I had to sit on a couch outside my room near the office to access the WiFi, enabling me to call Janina and report that I wasn’t going to make it back for her birthday on the 17th, the first I’d missed in seven years, as the cheapest remaining seats on trains to Chicago from Phoenix and Tucson within that time frame were going for $900.  Spring Training had filled the trains.  I’d have to bike up to Flagstaff, where the fare was a much more reasonable $154.  I didn’t object to the climb to 7,000 feet, as it would take me through Prescott, one of just four cities in Arizona with a Carnegie.  

I’d get to half of them, saving those in Phoenix and Tucson for another time.  The first was in Yuma, fifty-five miles from Calexico, along the border with Mexico and California.  The first fifteen miles out of Calexico were past irrigated fields, then the terrain turned desert.  A frontage road paralleled Interstate 8 for over thirty miles.  When it expired before a canal I had to ride on the Interstate for a few miles.  It was no fun, as the shoulder was very rough, ruptured every twenty feet with a hump from a break in the pavement.  I had to slow considerably, but was still jarred every couple of seconds.  At last another frontage road appeared, but I had to return to the Interstate for a few more miles. At least it’s shoulder was smoother.

A “Welcome to Arizona” sign greeted me when I crossed the Colorado River, not a very noteworthy river at this point.  It was less than a mile to the Carnegie, or what remained of it. It had been totally consumed by several additions and bore no resemblance to a historic building.  Its Carnegie origins were totally ignored.  It had been given the name of “Heritage,” though it looked thoroughly modern.  

A set of photos mounted on a wall behind the circulation desk showed its transformation.  It was utterly unrecognizable from what it had been, like someone who’d had an extreme sex change.  The first alteration in 1949 added columns to it, making it look more like a Carnegie than it had originally.  But then the next change removed the columns and added an extended porch across the front of the library, a necessity in these parts as shelter from the sun.  The latest alteration added a long covered entry.  The building’s sole plaque acknowledged the patron who donated the money for the canopy entry.  I will have two hundred miles to recover from this disappointment before the next Carnegie in Prescott.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Along the Salton Sea

The past two nights I have had to push my bike up a steep, rocky embankment and then over three sets of railroad tracks to reach a place to pitch my tent in semi-desert terrain. Lifting the bike over the tracks is no easy task as they are much higher than one might suspect. It’s much more of a strain in the morning when I’m still a bit stiff, but still worth the effort.

My first foray over the tracks I could camp amongst some bushes, but the second along the Salton Sea in more desolate terrain with little vegetation, it was the steep embankment that shielded me from the vision of whoever might be out.  Both offered enough isolation that I had no concerns of my headlamp being spotted.  I could sit and eat and read in total relaxation after a thoroughly satisfying day on the bike.

It has been a relief to escape into wide open empty spaces with plenty of breathing room after days and days of sprawl down the coast and out of Los Angeles.  But even approaching the Salton Sea through the desert hasn’t been wholly bereft of development, as there was a thirty mile stretch of it beginning with Palm Springs to Palm Desert and beyond including a hodgepodge of communities with names developers thought might entice retirees and others to take up residence—Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Mecca, Coachella, La Quinta, Thermal.  I rode streets named for Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Sonny Bono and Gerald Ford.  The vast oasis of palm trees were a pleasing site, but all the new construction could only make me think “Will it never end.”

The developers have been relentless in this state either to accommodate the non-stop flow of new residents or to attract even more.  California appears to be packed to the bursting point, but that isn’t stopping more from coming.  The roads are at near peak capacity all day.  The amount of traffic is boggling.  My head is continually spinning wondering, “Where could all these people possibly be going and where are they coming from.”

I finally had a relief from the tyranny of the car when I came to the Salton Sea and took the lesser used road on its eastern side, a little longer than the road on the west, down to El Centro and Calexico, two large cities at the bottom of the state well inland from San Diego, who both have Carnegies, the last of my California harvest. I could have opted for an official campsite along the lake, whose surface is over 200 feet below sea level, in the fifteen mile long state park along the northern half of the lake, but there was too much daylight remaining to stop, so I did as I prefer, found a campsite of my own.  The desert terrain was desolate though there were a few run-down homes along the lake before the park and a woefully weathered sign advertising that Lots had once been for sale.

This was the second one hundred mile stretch between Carnegies in these travels.  It came after a set of four within fifty miles beginning in Claremont with the Pomona College Carnegie.  It was the grandest building on this small campus of 1,700 students that accepts less than ten per cent of its applicants, a lower percentage than the Ivies. It’s gargantuan four columns would have been the pride of any Roman Temple going back to antiquity.  A plaque by the entry to this now political science building simply stated “Presented by Andrew Carnegie,” the first time I had seen his gift acknowledged in such a formal manner.

A plaque on the Carnegie in Upland four miles to the east also had a unique lofty tone to it.  It stated the library, built in 1913, was the city’s first civic building and “represents the desire of Upland residents to have an education center for the community.”  It has been replaced by a very austere, institutional building a block away that could be mistaken for a penitentiary, quite a contrast to the warm, inviting appeal of the original, which another plaque honored saying the building “continues as Upland’s center of community life.”

I didn’t make it to Colton’s similarly warm, attractive Carnegie until dark, so I had to scramble to find a place to camp in the midst of this fifty-mile stretch of cheek by jowl mass of development.  My map showed several possibilities—a cemetery, a golf course, a high school football stadium and several churches.  On the way to the cemetery I spotted a boarded-up night club with a large fenced-in field behind it.  The fence was collapsed near the fence protecting the golf course.  The fence on the golf course had a sign warning trespassers would be jailed.

It was dark so no one could see me struggling to heft my bike over the sagging fence into the post-industrial field full of rubble.  There were no trees to hide behind, but I was far enough into the field to feel secluded.  An hour later someone shined a flash light on my tent and asked, “who’s there.”  It was a watchman.  I told him I wasn’t homeless but was just passing through and would be gone first thing in the morning.  He told me there was a homeless encampment nearby on the other side of the fence.  He said he didn’t mind if I stayed, but if the owner came along he’d call the police.

I didn’t think that was too likely on a Saturday night, so said I would take my chances, and if he did, hope I could appeal to his good will.  The guard hinted that if I gave him some money, he would tell the owner I was okay.  I pretended I didn’t hear that.  Then he asked if I had a cigarette.  He seemed to be an agreeable sort, so rather than uprooting myself, I remained.  I had no more interruptions and a good night’s sleep.

It was a fine start to the day to lay eyes on the stately Carnegie a little over a mile away.  It was another Carnegie turned into a local museum.  I had hoped to be there by three the day before for a program on the community trying to secure a $4 million grant for a soccer field.  Tim attended.  He said there were a lot of children with their parents excited about the possibility and willing to do whatever it would take to gain the grant.

The final Carnegie in this stretch in Beaumont near the end of the sprawl that extended one hundred miles to the east of Los Angeles had been expanded in 1966 and had had other improvements over the years allowing it to continue as the town’s library, including the addition of an elevator in 2008 and drought-resistant landscaping in 2010.  Its proud history was documented on a mini-billboard on the side of the building.

Ten miles from the library, the route I had selected to Palm Springs took me through the Morongo Native American Reservation.  The guard at the gated entry told me bicyclists weren’t allowed to pass through the reservation as a couple of cyclists had been hit a few years ago. He told me about a frontage road along Interstate Ten that my GPS didn’t indicate went through.  That was actually a flatter and more direct route.  The road was rough, but had virtually no traffic.  It paralleled the busy train tracks and provided a place to camp as well.  Though it’s never good news to have to backtrack, I was not regretting it even though I was subjected to the buzz of traffic on the Interstate beside me.  I knew I would have a fine place to camp and could keep riding right up to dark with little worries, capping Another Great Day on the Bike.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

La La Land

I began my incursion into Los Angles in search of the eleven Carnegies in its environs from Malibu after camping in a patch of bushes below Highway One across from Pepperdine University.  It was a last-minute discovery just before I was about to begin a climb up to Santa Monica State Park for the night, as the coast line up until then had been thoroughly built up or too rugged for camping. Though I knew the park would be nice, I wasn’t looking forward to the effort to get to it, as for the first time my legs were feeling drained after the long, hard rides into the night the past few days.  Being able to camp a little early and being spared the climb was a much-appreciated reprieve.

I got an early 6:30 start the next morning hoping to be ahead of the rush hour traffic, but it was already thick and furious, as if every motorist was late for being on the set by seven.  The ride was made even more perilous by the blinding sun rising directly into my face.   After 45 minutes I had the great relief of a bicycle path along the wide beaches of Santa Monica.  When I reached the legendary pier I ventured over to Main Street that led to the day’s first Carnegie, the pleasingly blue Ocean Park Branch.  It was closed and undergoing a nearly completed renovation. 

It joins the ranks of California Carnegies with a plaque dispensing false information, stating, “Although small Carnegie Libraries were once found in small towns across the United States, this is one of the last remaining in California.”  It was impressive enough in its own right, not to have to further inflate its significance with the extreme exaggeration of being among the few surviving in the state, considering there are 86 of them, of which I had already seen 73.

It was a few blocks over to Santa Monica Boulevard, my route for the next fifteen miles to the first of three still standing Los Angeles Branch Libraries funded by Carnegie.  Three others are no more.  There was plenty of traffic, but it was quite tame compared to Highway One.  I had the luxury of a bike lane from time to time.  It took me through Beverley Hills and past countless over-sized billboards promoting movies.  And there were regular reminders that this was Historic Route 66, something I am accustomed to as the route I ride into Chicago from Countryside, where I’m presently residing, is dotted with similar signs.

The Cahuenga Branch right on Santa Monica was strikingly majestic.  It’s architect, Clarence Russell, was one of the designers of the canals of the Venice section of Los Angeles . Hollywood recognized its appeal, as it posed as a police station in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” from 1984.  Its not the only Carnegie to be embraced by cinema. The demolished Santa Rosa Carnegie plays a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “A Shadow of a Doubt.”

I slipped out of Los Angeles to the north for Carnegies in Eagle Rock and South Pasadena.  Eagle Rock’s had been transformed into an Art Center. The Carnegie in the affluent suburb of South Pasadena was on a large parcel of park land allowing it to be expanded and still function as a library.  As I was locking up, Tim, last seen in Gilroy over a week ago, materialized.  I knew he was back on my trail, but I thought I’d see him at one of the upcoming urban Carnegies.  But he chose this one for our rendezvous as he well knew its charms, as it is within range of one of his favored encampments in the region.

He had a duffle and a backpack for me, replacing those that had been stolen in San Francisco.  He knew the duffle wasn’t quite as big as my other, but it would accommodate most of my gear for my train trip back to Chicago, and what it couldn't hold, the larger backpack might have room for.  It was a great relief to have that concern addressed.  I had stopped at several resale stores looking for duffles and had been told they are a very popular item and don’t last long.  Tim was fortunate to have found what he had. 

Tim reported there was a statue of President Obama at nearby Occidental College that he attended for two years before going on to Harvard.  It was out of my way, as was the Rose Bowl, and I didn’t have time for any detours with two more Carnegies to get to then a 35-mile ride out to Yorba Linda, where I would be spending the night.  I’d be arriving well after dark as it was.  I also had a meeting at my last Carnegie with Matt of Landmark Theaters, a long-time friend whose office that I very much would have liked to have visited didn’t fit Into my library circuit.  I had actually biked past his apartment on Stoner near Wiltshire and Santa Monica, but it had been too early for a hello. 

It was five miles back into the city to its Lincoln Heights Branch recessed on a corner lot.  Its entrance was flanked by two wings that curved outward, lending a majestorial luster to the building. It’s high ceilings and spaciousness made it all the more inviting for a prolonged stay, but there was none of that on this day.

It was ten miles past the train station and to the west of downtown LA to the Vermont Square Branch.  I had been warned to be wary as it hugged Compton, but there was nothing to give me alarm, unlike my rides through the West Side of Chicago.  The neighborhood around the library was quiet residential with well-kept small homes and tidy yards.  The library was equally pleasing.  Matt was awaiting me.  He had never been to this neighborhood, but felt no concerns, and he had reason to be wary as he’d had his bike stolen the day before outside of a Ralph’s where he lives. 

Matt was wearing a jacket bearing the Landmark logo.  He’s been in charge of the payroll of it’s nationwide operation for over twenty years and very much enjoys his work, especially the perk of having a pass to all the Landmark theaters and being able to share such a pass with me, for which I am truly grateful.  It was a shame I didn’t have time to take him to dinner at the finest restaurant in town.  We often see each other at the Telluride Film Festival where we met years ago. Like Barry Jenkins he’s a graduate of its student program.  Rather than making films he writes about them when the opportunity arises.  Writing runs in the family as his father was the featured columnist of the Durango daily newspaper, where Matt grew up. 

It was 4:30, less than two hours until dark, when we parted. My 35 mile ride to Harold in Yorba Linda was due east beyond Anaheim and Disneyland to Yorba Linda.   I was hoping to stop off at Anaheim’s Carnegie, but had to put it off until the next day as it was slightly south of my route and it would be after dark by the time I reached it.

The traffic was thick and slow out of the city on not the best maintained of roads.  There was no beating the dark, so I didn’t need to feel rushed, just take the miles as they came.  After eight miles when I reached the beginning of the suburbs the road improved and the traffic thinned and my speed increased.  There was no bike lane, but the traffic gave me space.  I could at last speed up to fifteen miles per hour, but with regular lights couldn’t maintain that average.  

The lights on my bike and plenty of reflectors had me unconcerned about being seen.  There were ample streetlights for me to see the way, so I could fully enjoy the pedaling, almost floating along in the dark. This was a rare tour where I’d had to ride into the night.  The only other significant occasions when I’d had any night riding was down Baja and in Patagonia when the days were short and I had a full moon.  Those were almost mystical rides, in Baja past giant segura cactus casting bizarre moon shadows, and in the stunning landscape of Patagonia. 

By seven I needed to stop for a hit of chocolate milk and to let Harold know I was still over an hour away and not to wait on me for dinner.   I had been hoping that this might be my first 100-mile day of the trip, but I fell seven miles short.  I was fully energized by my evening ride when I arrived at Harold’s house and would have been happy to keep riding.  I semi-jestingly suggested that we bike over to the Anaheim Carnegie so I could register a century.  Fortunately he wasn’t in favor of that, especially since it was thirteen miles away.

My first image when he opened the door was of a small wooden bike from an art fair under a table.  There was another mini-replica bike outside by the entrance.  They were among many bicycle artifacts on the premises, as many as his wife would allow, including a cracked frame mounted in his garden and an arrangement of old tires and tubes and chains adorning a light fixture by the side door to his garage, which continued eight bikes and a workstand.  His WiFi password summed it up—bikrheaven. Though we had never met, I knew he would be a kindred spirit based on all I’d heard about him from his sister Kitty in Chicago.  She did not exaggerate in the least his devotion to the bike. 

He and his wife had moved to this very house 27 years ago from LaGrange, a suburb neighboring Countryside, partially for the more amenable biking weather.  He had just retired from his life as a physician to have even more time for biking.  We chatted away as I savored a bowl of homemade thick pea soup, just the two of us as his wife was visiting her brother in Florida.  He hasn’t undertaken any long bicycle tours, but he’s had his share of adventures.  One was climbing Kilimanjaro with his daughter, who requested the trip as a present for earning her PhD at USC.  I had actually seen a slide show of his climb presented by his brother-in-law Bobbie at the Lincoln Belmont Library where I’ve given a few slide shows, not remembering if Bobbie had mentioned that he’d been a part of it.

Harold couldn’t have been a finer host.  He led the way the next day to Anaheim, partially on a bike path along a river he’d never seen so full of water.  I’d miswrote the address of the Carnegie as 2401 S. Anaheim, when it was actually 241, but that gave me more a flavor of the environs passing Disney Way and Gene Autry Way and catching a glimpse of a towering pinnacle that was part of a mega-church.  Any number of miles would have been worth the effort to see the beauty of the Carnegie, now a museum, letting all know with giant letters out front.

Harold accompanied me for nearly another hour making sure I was on the right road up to Claremont for a series of four more Carnegies within the never-ending LA sprawl.  He and his wife still have enough of a connection to Chicago to have acquired a townhouse in Arlington Heights and to come for visits for a month or more.  He keeps two bikes there.  We’ll have plenty of biking together in the years to come.  

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Oxnard, California

Six fully-lycraed cyclists wearing rain jackets were gathered in the parking lot of the Peach Tree Inn of San Luis Obispo at nine a.m. They were attending a week-long training camp  conducted by my friend Randy Warren.  This morning began with a Skills Clinic.  I had arrived just in time to join the session after a sixteen mile ride from Atascadero over a high pass then down a steep descent on 101.

It was Day Four of Randy’s seventeenth annual training camp.  Fifteen were in attendance, but only five of them cared to go out in the drizzle for this morning session.  Most of the attendees were from Chicago, where Randy had lived for over a decade working for Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance while racing and coaching.  We met when he recruited me for a bicycle messenger instructional video and discovered we had a mutual strong interest in racing and anything pertaining to the bicycle.

It was exciting to learn from his podcast that he was going to be in San Luis Obispo when I’d be passing through for its Carnegie library, and that if I timed it right I could be there for his Skills Clinic. Randy knows cycling technique as well as anyone, having coached Olympians and National Champions and World Championship medalists as well as being a National Champion on the track himself.  When he raced for Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo while getting his masters, he made such a mark that the annual award given to its top racer is named for him.

He serves on the National Board of the US Cycling Federation in Colorado Springs, and also a cycling committee in Asheville, North Carolina, where he moved to several years ago for better year-round riding conditions, as has Christian Vande Velde.  This deep immersion into all things cycling makes his weekly podcast always highly informative.

He is hard corps, mentioning on his podcast when the latest Polar Vortex hit Chicago, that he couldn’t remember bad weather ever preventing him from going for a ride, as I can say myself.  He warned though if it was raining too hard for this Skills Clinic that he would have to postpone it.  Luckily the rain was negligible this morning.  All it prevented was including how to crash, as the grass was too soggy for that.

The seven of us biked a few blocks to a church parking lot that had a bit of a hill that he could use for a couple of his exercises. The first was sudden braking at speed.  One bit of useful advice was thrusting one’s body back to curb one’s momentum, the reverse of thrusting forward at a finish line to nip an opponent.  He also used the hill for accustoming riders to bumping one other.  Everyone paired off and made several descents jostling each other, just being careful to not knock handlebars.  Everyone also practiced leaning over putting down and picking up a water bottle to enhance balance, as was also part of the track stand exercise.

Randy invited me to stay over for dinner with everyone attending the camp at a friend’s house and also to throw my sleeping bag down on his hotel room, but I had to make it to Ventura, 160 miles away by the next night to meet another friend who would be leaving the next day, so I had to be on my way, though a rest day would have been most welcome, especially since heavy rain was forecast for the rest of the day.  The rain was bad and the wind even worst, but as always, it was good to be out experiencing the elements.

There were no more Carnegies until the next day, but San Luis Obispo‘s was such a dandy that it merited a day to itself.  It was one of those that elicited a spontaneous “Wow” when I caught a glimpse of it from a block away.  It sat on a slight rise.  It’s red brick, yellow stone trim brightened the gloom of the day. It now calls itself the “History Center,” though “Free Library” remains etched on its facade.  A painted cow, one of an array around town as Chicago pioneered years ago, was on its lawn.

I wanted to make it to Lompoc that night, leaving me 91 miles from Ventura.  The head wind pelting me with rain held my speed to nine miles per hour.  I couldn’t make it before dark, but with a bunch of motels to choose from with Vandenberg Air Force Base nearby I continued riding in the dark though camping in the bush along the road tempted. I had a wide smooth shoulder and welcomed every car that passed illuminating the way.  And bolts of lightning gave occasional extra light.

After a good dry sleep I began the day with Lompoc’s Carnegie, another that was lent extra dignity by a set of extraordinary towering arbors that even merited a plaque of their own.  These were Italian Stone Pines introduced in the 1930s that thrived in these conditions.  The plaque called them “treasures in Lompoc’s landscape” and that these “rare and historic trees receive global attention for their beauty.”

The day’s rain was light and misty, but most importantly the wind wasn’t against me. I had more climbing than expected so didn’t arrive at Santa Barbara’s Carnegie, 55 miles away, until after 2:30, an hour later than I wanted.  I hadn’t the time for more than a quick glance inside this huge, renovated and expanded Spanish-Revival building that still functions as a library.   

My timing was furthered hampered by two flats, my first in over two weeks, forcing me to to ride the final half hour in the dark once again, but at least I had street lights and a bike lane guiding me to Joanna’s house on the far side of her sprawling city of over 100,000.  Joanna is a retired school teacher and sister of Jerry, a cyclist friend in Chicago who I came to know at the road rage murder trial of the driver who ran down a messenger friend of mine. Jerry and I, along with Tim, who has been playing tag with me on this trip, were among six cyclists who attended every day of the week-long trial some twenty years ago. 

Jerry is another fully committed cyclist who is always doing good for others, including serving one day a week at a homeless shelter doing bicycle repairs for free.  His sister too is an equally caring citizen who devotes a good part of her retirement to church work.  I had to arrive by Wednesday as she would be spending the next four days and nights at her church with several dozen others in a twice-annual devotional to fifteen “pilgrims” from around the state.

She grew up in rural Illinois, but had lived in California since she got her teacher’s degree.  Dinner was Midwest fare—a most delicious pot roast with boiled potatoes and carrots and corn and gravy followed by pastries and ice cream.  I couldn’t have felt more at home,  We talked until nearly midnight as if we were life-long friends.  She sent me off with leftovers and a bag of turkey jerky.  She did my laundry and kept asking what more she could do for me.  She had no expertise in patching tubes, so I had to do that myself.

There was no Carnegie in Ventura, but there was one in Oxnard an adjoining city just south.  It was a fabulous multi-columned building that was now an Art Museum.  It was just 50 degrees, but sunny, so my booties and gloves, still damp, had a chance to dry out for the first time in days as I make my approach to LA.