Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Back home

Friends: Yesterday was the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of JFK and it wasn't overlooked in Dallas. An organization was hosting a program entitled "JFK--The Assassination Remembered," featuring three of the particulars from that day--one of the neurosurgeons who treated Kennedy, a former Secret Service agent who protected Oswald's family in the days after the assassination and the man who was handcuffed to Oswald when Ruby shot him. Unfortunately, I was aboard Amtrak speeding home and missed it.

My final hours in Dallas were spent eating a picnic lunch on the grassy knoll, just four blocks from the Amtrak station, watching the many tourists, mostly families with children, coming for a look, taking photos either with the sixth floor book depository window in the background or the white X painted on Elm Street where Kennedy was shot. There were several assassination aficionados hanging out acting as freelance tour guides, some with placards that had diagrams and newspaper stories.

When I visited the site the day before on a quiet Sunday morning I initially had the place to myself. It took a few minutes to orient myself. At first I didn't think there was anything there to commemorate the spot other than that eerie white X in the middle of the road way. It is in a small park on the fringe of the downtown dedicated to the first settler in Dallas. Kennedy was shot where the first house in Dallas once stood. After some exploration I discovered a plaque acknowledging the assassination. There was also a map indicating a memorial three blocks away designed by New York architect Philip Johnson, who also designed the 190 S. LaSalle Building in Chicago, one of my favorites. Its lobby was featured in the Costa Gravas movie "Music Box." There is also a museum at the book depository devoted to the assassination. It includes a free exhibit in the lobby chockful of extraneous details. It reveals Jackie cadged a cigarette at the hospital she and the President were taken to. For $10 one can go up to the sixth floor and gaze out the window Oswald shot from.

For a city of one million, downtown Dallas was surprisingly sedate for a work day. It boasts a handful of 50-story buildings, but I saw no bike messengers and no hubbub of traffic. I could peaceably bike its streets as if it were a Sunday morning. There were parking lots with all-day parking for four dollars, barely enough to pay for half an hour in Chicago. There was a pleasant mix of the old and the new, glitzy skyscraper and old west.

I was searching for a loaf of bread to finish off the last of my peanut butter and honey. Someone at the Amtrak station told me a grocery store had just opened up in the downtown. It was significant enough news to have been featured on TV recently. That gave me a nice little exploratory mission and the opportunity to have a few last conversations with the locals. The friendliness and openness that had been the hallmark of rural Texas held true in the urban. I was in no rush, as my train didn't depart for several hours. Whoever I stopped to ask about the whereabouts of the grocery store was happy to engage in a little extra conversation, offering a tidbit of two about their city. Not a one was abrupt or in a hurry to be on their way or wary at all of being approached by a stranger. It was a good final dose of what made Texas such a pleasure and will have me eager to return.

Though my friends Mike and Jill, who moved down six months ago, naturally miss aspects of Chicago, they are finding plenty of things to like about Dallas. The dollar buys a lot more down here than in Chicago. Their mini-mansion with a swimming pool cost them less than a one bedroom condo in Chicago. I had arrived in time to be able to enjoy it and their company for a couple of nights. They were the last of my eight sets of friends I visited along the way. All welcomed me with such great warmth and hospitality, it hardly seemed as if I'd been away.

Later, George

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Mansfield, Texas

Friends: My nine day 800-mile blitz of Texas from El Paso to Dallas is within site of the measly skyline of Dallas. It is ending all too abruptly. I feel as if I've barely gotten a nibble of this state whenever I open up the map and see all that it has to offer. It is two-thirds the size of France, where I have racked up 10,000 miles of cycling the past two summers. That too has been just been a good start for all that is to be seen in France. With its vast empty spaces Texas doesn't compare to the richness of France, but it would still take several months to do it justice.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Texas, though I had biked through its northern parts some 20 years ago. I knew it was now the Land of Lance, but I didn't know if that would make it a bicyclist's mecca or not. I know that Lance trains with motorized accompaniment here as belligerent drivers are not unknown. But he lives in the Austin area, where there is a sizable bicycle activist community Activists sometimes aggravate motorists and turn them spiteful and vengeful toward anyone they encounter on a bicycle. I have experienced no such thing in the predominantly isolated sectors I've biked. Not even in my several hours of night riding did I prompt any horn blasts, curses, swerves, thrown objects or such.

Texans in general, aside from a couple of figures of authority, who were more comical than threatening, have offered a delightful blend of Southern hospitality and Alaskan individualism. Unlike California and Arizona, which are overrun with recent transplants from other states, the Texans are deeply rooted and committed to their state and relatively undiluted by outsiders. Nor do they draw many tourists obliging them to cater to their desires with cappuccino and various phony and contrived attractions. The people here are just living the lives of Texans. They know
their heritage and are proud of it and happy to share it. They are a genuine and unpretentious people. I will be happy to return and further explore their state.

Though most towns seemed struggling to get by, they retained an authentic air of livability, as the locals were adapting to lives without the affluence they might have previously enjoyed. It has been rare to see a large supermarket. The dollar stores have taken over with their perfectly fine non-brand name merchandise. The town of Comanche, with a population of 4,000, had three such competing stores, all part of chains seen throughout the state. Comanche was one of many towns I wish I could have lingered in. It had taken its name from the Indian tribe. A Historical Plaque on the outskirts of the town described the Comanches as "the Lords of the Plains." The local librarian, however, couldn't remember the last time a Native American had been a resident of Comanche.

There were scores of historical plaques along route 67. I was always happy to see another, especially when I had head winds, using each as an excuse to take a stop. Many related to the road, as an original route of the pioneers or the discovery of a pass or a place in the river that was passable for livestock. They also told of the first settlers and how towns were named and of geological sites. Many went on at considerable length.

So I have camped my last unless Mike and Jill allow me to pitch my tent in their back yard. It has been a hard push without a day of rest and less than 11 hours of light each day since leaving Phoenix 13 days ago. My legs were a bit leaden this morning, but for the first time since Monday I've had a tailwind, so I've been romping these last 50 miles, without about 25 to go. I'll be happy to go meandering around Dallas on my unladen bike tomorrow morning, Sunday, before the Bears game. And then my body will welcome the 22-hour train ride to Chicago.

Later, George

Friday, November 18, 2005

Comanche, Texas

Friends: The clots of populace on route 67 have thickened enough that I'm being re-introduced to the stop light, a device I hadn't encountered for over 400 miles. Wal-Marts have begun popping up again, not that I could easily forget them, as the highways are amok with their trucks advertising they are hauling goods for less. And trees are once again appearing, sometimes in clusters that could be considered a forest, the first I've seen other than in towns or around ranch houses in over a thousand miles across the Mojave desert and Arizona and New Mexico and the western half of Texas. They aren't as majestic as the pines of California that awaited me once I climbed out of the deserts of Nevada, but they are most welcome greenery.

The highway at times is even widening to four lanes, which isn't wholly necessary. But they are an indicator of development and the roadkill plummets in such areas. There have been stretches that have been corridors of death akin to a war zone with carcasses so frequent there is a perpetual stench in the air of putrefying flesh. The deer in particular, in these parts, aren't well-educated at all. I've seen them in broad daylight dart across the road without abiding by that dictum drilled into every first-grader to "stop, look and listen" before crossing the street. They are usually in groups of two or three and if one goes the others blindly follow.

Deer aren't the only casualties along the roadside, but their numbers are far greater than the combined totals of all else--skunks, rabbits, coyotes, armadillos, various feathered creatures, cats, dogs and jackalopes. One fifty-mile stretch was in a class by itself for roadkill. And I contributed to it myself.

As I neared a town, my eye was suddenly caught by a big black evil mutt of a creature bolting out of a farmyard as if shot out of a cannon off to my left on the opposite side of the road. His ears and tail were flying parallel to the ground and he wasn't barking, always a bad sign. He was charging with an all-out fury and determination such as I've rarely seen, as if I were dogdom's devil incarnate, responsible for centuries of whatever woe could possibly be the dog's lot.

I accelerated to what passes for an all-out sprint on a fully-loaded touring bike. I didn't know if my survival instinct could summon a surge of energy to outrun this ferocious critter. I quickly glanced over my shoulder to see if there might be a vehicle coming from behind to provide interference. No such luck. As I looked up I noticed an 18-wheeler barreling towards us at full speed. It had a chance to be my potential savior.

For you dog lover's out there I'll say I was rooting for the truck to cut him off. But for all you bicyclists and delivery personnel and others who have been terrorized by crazed territorial canines, I will say I was exhorting that trucker with all my might, "Come on, come on, get 'em, get 'em." This could be life or death for either of us. As the three of us converged, with only I continuing at a pell-mell pace, I could see the other two slam on their brakes, the dog's feet flying out from under him as he entered the road-way. I caught the whiff of the trucker's brakes being applied, but the scene was surprisingly noiseless. There was no sound of screeching brakes or yelping. As I looked back over my shoulder I saw the upraised legs of a dog-no-more. I looked back several more times to see if its master came rushing to the rescue, but there was no motion to the scene, not even a quiver from the dog. I felt as if I had been saved, but tried not to celebrate.

In all these miles only once have I encountered someone who couldn't direct me to the local library, a guy working road construction in Nevada who exclaimed, "Do I look as if I'd know where the library is." But yesterday I had to ask twice to find the library in Ballinger as I didn't think I'd been correctly directed. But lo and behold, the stately, two-story, columned building that I had mistaken for a church was the library. It was one of 32 Carnegie-funded libraries built in Texas in the early 1900s. Only twelve other remain.

Ironically, it was presided over by the orneriest, least-likely looking librarian I have ever encountered, a pot-bellied Bubba of a fellow who might have been a part-time or former sheriff. He was sitting in an office with his feet propped up on his desk talking on the telephone. As I approached him to ask about the Internet, I heard him say, "I've got to go. I've got a situation to deal with."

When I asked to use the Internet he wanted to know if I had a library card. "Not to this library," I said.

"Well, I'll let you use it but no chat rooms and no pornography."

Half an hour later after, I'd barely settled, in he kicked me off, saying there were others waiting to use the computer even though there was no one else in the library.

My second library for the day was the first I've encountered that didn't have computers. They had an annex with computers but it wasn't open.

Despite the lack of a favorable wind the past three days, I'm within 150 miles of Dallas, so I ought to arrive at Mike and Jill's Saturday before dark in plenty of time to watch the Bears game Sunday and get a taste of Dallas before my Monday train. Just one more night in my tent. I'm already growing nostalgic over the memories of the past two months and 4,000 miles, but also looking forward to the next venture, wherever it may be.

Later, George

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mertzon, Texas

Friends: I'm 400 miles into western Texas and the countryside remains arid and cattle-free, but it is now populated by giant preying-mantis structures bobbing up and down like perpetual motion machines pumping oil. Some of the largest oil fields in Texas were discovered in this region in the 1920s. The oil is down to its last gasps, like most of the towns on route 67, which slashes diagonally across the state and will take me all the way to Dallas.

I'm under 400 miles to go and the towns, or what remains of them, are now coming every 20 miles or so, dramatically altering the complexion of my riding after nearly 1,000 miles of towns every 50 to 100 miles. Not only do I have to carry considerably less provisions, but I don't have to force my pace to make it to a town when I know its stores or library will be open. I can also count on shade and protection from the wind much more frequently when I wish to stop to eat or rest.

The more frequent dots of civilization came when I needed them most, as yesterday I encountered the strongest and most prolonged headwinds of this trip, a nor'easter that kept my speed under ten mph all day until just before sunset when they slackened enough to allow me to jump to twelve mph for an hour-and-a-half into the dark. It was a cold, wintry gale that plummeted the temperatures to below freezing last night. I awoke with frost on my tent and ice in my water bottles. At least they didn't freeze solid as happened to me in Patagonia when I was pushing to make it to the Straits of Magellan in June as winter set in.

It was out with the tights and wool cap this morning for the first time on this trip. My hands were numb before I even started riding, scalded from disassembling my frigid tent poles. Even with gloves on, I could only momentarily touch them without my hands smarting from their intense cold. For the first hour on the bike this morning I had to alternately ride with one hand on the handlebars and the other behind my back, out of the wind, crunched into a fist, trying to regain some feeling. It was two hours before the ice in my water bottles thawed. I couldn't wait for it to warm up before riding, as I've got a train to catch Monday and every hour on the bike matters.

The temperature plunged during the night when the winds switched from the south to the north. I'd had a sensational south-westerly wind all day out of Marfa pushing me along at over 20 mph for several hours, making for another easy 100 mile day. The winds had my rain fly flapping against the sides of my tent as they made their switch. I kept waking thinking I heard animals moseying around my campsite, another of those where I had to unload all the gear on my bike and hoist it over a fence and a cattle guard and ride a few tenths of a mile down a dirt road that had only the faintest of tire tracks.

Even as I took down my tent yesterday I was battling the winds. After one-and-a-half hours and 15 miles I came to the town of Gavin, whose only remnant was a shack of a saloon right out of Tarantino's "Kill Bill." A screen door flapped in the wind. A dilapidated, dust-encrusted pick-up, that may or may not have been abandoned, sat out front. I didn't care if it was open or not. I was just glad for a wall, if nothing else, to rest against out of the wind. When I mounted the porch I noticed the door was ajar. I opened it to discover a wiry old coot with dancing eyes and a friendly smile standing behind the bar as if he were expecting me. "Damn windy out there, ain't it?," he greeted me.

"Sure is," I replied, then warily asked, "Do you serve breakfast," thinking I could be in for either the best or worst stack of hotcakes in my life.

"Nope, all I serve are drinks. I'm only here as I'm waiting for the Budweiser delivery. He comes every Tuesday between nine and ten in the morning."

I settled for a soft drink and plopped down at the bar.

"Are you from Alaska," he asked.

"No, why do you ask?"

"A couple of years ago two guys came through here from Alaska walking to the tip of South America."

"I spent a couple of summers in Alaska," I told him, "so I may be considered part Alaskan." Then I excused myself to go out to get some nuts to munch on as I drank.

"I've got a burrito here you can have if you want. It's still warm."

As I unwrapped it, I noticed it was missing a couple of bites, but that didn't matter.

Bill said that he opens at four Tuesday through Sunday just when the roust-abouts are getting off work from the oil fields and stays open until the last customer leaves. He explained that this had once been cattle country until 14 years ago when a drought began that hasn't let up. A few of the ranchers have sheep and goats on their property, but they keep them close to their farmhouses, "to protect them from coyotes and Mexicans." He lived 11 miles away in the next town.

Among the many deer skulls and baseball hats and dollar bills and photos of the local high school football teams from over the years adorning the walls was a sign dedicated to "Bill and His Sweetie."

"Who's the Sweetie," I asked.

"My donkey," he said. "I dress her up and enter her into donkey beauty pageants, and have won a few."

Bill offered to give me a ride into his town, but I wasn't even tempted, though I would have enjoyed prolonging our conversation. He had moved out here over 30 years ago from Boston and hadn't returned since 1979. When I asked him what I owed him for the drink and burrito he said, "It's on the house."

Later that day a guy at a resale/junk shop that he ran out of his house wouldn't accept money either for a Modern Library book on Aristotle. It hasn't been all Texas hospitality, however, as the sheriff in this town followed me into the library and wanted some ID. He examined my driver's license closely and took a few notes. He wanted to know what I was doing here and where I had spend the last night. I didn't admit that I camped out on the golf course outside Big Lake, which has long ago dried up, but told him I'd camped at a rest area near there. He wanted to know if I'd had any trouble with the police in my travels. He may come back at any moment after running a check on me and grab me by the neck, so I better get going.

Later, George

Monday, November 14, 2005

Marfa, Texas

Friends: The welcoming sign to Marfa announces itself as "What the West Was." That is as debatable as any town motto, though Hollywood has chosen Marfa to represent the West many times. One of the most noteworthy was the James Dean western "Giant."

My entry to Marfa from the west was less than auspicious, even though it included the first herd of cattle I'd seen since entering Texas, as the surrounding Chihuahua desert so far hadn't provided much vegetation for munching. The only billboards were a couple advertising the local Dairy Queen. I stopped at a run-down RV park to see if I might be able to get a shower, but it was so run-down it didn't provide a communal shower room. Just beyond it was a much weathered sign for the Stardust Motel, all that remained of it. There wasn't even a remnant of rubble to mark its spot. As I entered this town of 2,121, there were more closed and boarded up motels and restaurants and auto shops than businesses still showing signs of life.

Despite the early indicators, Marfa is not in imminent danger of becoming another ghost town. As I neared the center of the town I came upon a series of well-maintained art galleries. It is art that keeps a pulse in this isolated, somewhat forlorn town in west Texas. It is largely due to the minimalist artist Donald Judd, who founded the Chinati Foundation here in the '70s,appropriating an old fort on the outskirts of town, turning its grounds and huge barracks into galleries. It has made Marfa a magnet for artists. There were a dozen or more galleries scattered about town. One was in garage on the main drag through town. It opened just two months ago by a photographer who had moved from from Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place where art galleries are like a fungus. He said such a space would have cost him $100,000 there. Here he acquired it for virtually pennies.

There are abandoned and boarded up buildings all over. A pizza restaurant operates out of a former gas station at the main intersection in town, the lone stop sign along state highway 90 for 100 miles. The nearest airport is 150 miles away, the nearest movie theater 80 miles. Still, the town had quite a bit of charm. A stately, towering court house forms the town center. Nearby is the El Paisano Hotel where the cast of "Giant" stayed. It has been declared a national Historic Site. A glitzy book store with free Internet and the Brown Recluse used book store, home of the best coffee in Texas, are signs this isn't a typical, slowly dying, semi-abandoned west Texas town.

I meandered its labyrinth of streets in search of the home of my friend Keller, who unfortunately was off on a motorcycle trip, depriving me of a truly thorough tour of the town and all its lore, as David gave me of Phoenix. I could well imagine the stories Keller would have had of his neighbors and the Border Patrol compound that took up nearly a city block near the Chinati Foundation. The compound was a mere postage stamp, however, compared to the extensive quarters the Border Patrol has in the middle of the desert ten miles outside El Paso 150 miles back. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent patrolling the border.

I arrived in Marfa a day ahead of schedule thanks to tailwinds that allowed me three consecutive one hundred mile days, including one of 130 miles. Not even the 30-mile gauntlet of every franchise known to man through El Paso could deter me from 100 miles the day after my forced 100 miles to Columbus along the Mexican border in New Mexico. The El Paso sprawl extended into New Mexico and the town of Sunland. There wasn't even a welcoming sign to Texas, though I well knew I was there with the sudden profusion of Lone Star flags, a flag I was well familiar with from the Tour de France from all the rabid Texans coming in support of Lance.

I entered El Paso from the north west, where it is confined by a ridge of mountains for ten miles most of the way into the heart of the city. Then I headed east towards Carlsbad Caverns. After ten miles or so, the signs of civilization began to thin out and I thought I was freed of its stranglehold, but the sprawl sputtered on for another ten miles until the valley floor ended and the mountains began. There were recently built communities of prefab homes that went for blocks and blocks off into the desert. The sign to one management center pleaded, "Buy something." It was quite a frightening site, even more frightening then the array of junkyards with rows of bashed in cars and trucks snarling at the passing traffic. I have never seen such an assortment of bail bondsmen and x-rated bookstores. A documentarian would most certainly find plenty of material along this stretch.

Even though there is no livestock to be seen in these parts, the land is all fenced in, making camping a little more challenging than usual. One night I had to trespass through a gate that had bars wide enough to slip my bike through. I don't necessarily start looking for a place to camp any earlier than usual, as I still prefer to do it just before dark. The moon is near full and provides adequate illumination if I need to extend my search too far after the sun has set. Its almost like being in Iceland or Scandinavia in summer when it never gets least for a couple more nights.

The favorable winds will allow me to make it to Dallas, 500 miles away, before I must end this journey and board the train. I will get to visit one last friend, Mike from Chicago, whose company transferred him down here several months ago. He lives near a lake, and has a boat. It will be a nice place to finish these travels. Dallas is north and east, just the way the winds have been blowing. I was ogling a 200-mile day a few days ago when I had 47 miles under my belt by 9:30 one morning. I've had several double centuries over the years, but not in a long time. But the road turned south when I came to the Guadalupe National Park and I lost my tailwind. My average speed fizzled from 18.2 mph to 15.1 for the day, but still the highest for the trip. I was hardly lamenting my lot, however, as I was on a 55-mile stretch of highway, Texas state route 54, that was lonelier than the official "Loneliest Highway in America," route 50 in Nevada that I biked early in these travels. Only one vehicle passed me in 36 miles, a cattle truck, and then three scattered pick-up trucks the final 19 miles into Van Horne on Interstate 10. But it was Saturday afternoon and the #2 ranked Longhorns were on TV. Football is more of a religion in this state than anywhere on the planet. Anyone not glued to a TV set watching the state team would have a lot of explaining to do.

Later, George

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Columbus, NM

Friends: Another great day on the bike despite contrary winds that kept me on the bike for eight-and-a-half of the day's 11 hours of light. I made it to the innocuous border town of Columbus, New Mexico just as it was swallowed by the night, 20 after another gorgeous desert sunset.

The winds ought to be blowing from the west, but they prevailed from the east all day. They held me to nine mph for the 25 miles of the Interstate I had to ride. The winds were strong enough that not even the non-stop arsenal of 18-wheelers could blunt them. Ordinarily I am blessed by a wind tunnel adding three or four mph to my speed by the flow of the cursed semis on those rare occasions when I am forced to ride the Interstate.

The only thing distinctive about this stretch was all the grass-hoppers mating on the shoulder. I wasn't sure if they were a scourge or not. If they were, I would have been happy to run over them. If I were Mormon, I'm sure I wouldn't have resisted, as such critters threatened to devour all their crops in the early days of their settlement of Utah until a miracle battalion of sea gulls came to their rescue, devouring the insects. That is why the seagull is Utah's state bird. The grass hoppers must have liked the vibration of the road for their mating, as I didn't see a one after I turned off the Interstate.

When I exited the Interstate I headed south to Hachita, 19 miles away, turning away from the wind and upping my speed to 12 mph. But best of all, traffic volume plummeted from one vehicle passing me every ten seconds for two-and-a-half hours, to just one vehicle every ten minutes for the next 63 miles Most of the vehicles on the non-Interstate stretch were in the employ of the border patrol and were sparkling new. The majority of the rest were oversize vehicles transporting gigantic construction or mining equipment not allowed on the Interstate. With so little traffic on this route they didn't need preceding warning vehicles.

I asked a couple of border patrol officers at a mini-mart in Lordsburg, before embarking on the Interstate, if I would be able to find food and water in Hachita. One said he was here on a special detail and didn't know the area that well. Another told me there was a restaurant in the town, but he'd never seen it open. I was lucky to come upon a general store along the Interstate seven miles before I began the final 63 miles on roads that looked like doodles on the map. The store, called The Continental Divide, was the Southwest's version of Wall Drug. For miles there were
billboards advertising its many attractions (rattlesnakes, whips, Mexican imports, cactus, fireworks and, just like Wall Drug, free ice cold water).

When I turned off to this lone building it looked like it was closed, as its gas pumps had been removed. But it was open and I refreshed myself with a free 16-ounce bottle of cold water and a burrito. The man at the register told me that bicycles weren't allowed on the Interstate. There was a $500 fine and jail time. But right there at the Interstate entrance was a sign saying "pedestrians and motor-driven bikes prohibited, but bicycles permitted on the shoulder." He also told me that he hadn't been to Hachita, but he was sure there was a 7/11 there. He was as wrong about that as about the bicycles. It was another of those virtual ghost towns, with both the restaurant that advertised Home Cooking and the nearby mini-mart closed.

At least there was shade to eat, drink and rest in, though I could only allow myself 30 minutes as I had 44 miles to go to Columbus and less than five hours of light. The landscape had been flat and with a minimum of vegetation. With the border patrol out in force camping wild seemed out of the question. I crossed the continental divide 13 miles south of the Interstate. At that point it was running east-west, rather than north-south as it does for most of its route. I was hoping the winds might run the other way, just as the water does, once I crossed the divide, at the summit of a long, imperceptible climb to 4,520 feet, not even a 500 foot gain from the Interstate. It put me on a plateau with no immediate descent. The winds had diminished, but hadn't switched direction as I fantasized, when I resumed riding. The head winds were light enough that I could maintain a 12 mph average.

A historical marker said that even in its heyday in the late 1800s when silver and copper were mined in the area, Hachita, meaning little hatchet, had a population of just 300 people. There was no indication how many resided there now, though enough to justify a post office. If I were a photographer I could have spent the better part of a day photographing all the decrepit buildings in this town. Very rarely do these western towns admit their population. The signs on their outskirts prefer to only divulge their altitude and the year of their founding.

From Hachita I turned due east right along the Mexican border. Along with the border patrol the U.S. Army was on hand. Every few miles there was a tank or two pointed south with a soldier perched atop scanning the barren landscape. They also had radar screens to detect motion. Every once in a while a soldier would wave at me. At the lone checkpoint along this 45-mile
stretch the two lonely border guards kept me for five minutes. I was the first bicyclist they had ever encountered, despite the ideal cycling along this stretch.

With so much personnel patrolling the border I didn't see how anyone could get through. The guys said they still do. "Where there's a will, there's a way," one said. There was a dirt road alongside much of the paved road that the border patrol cars slowly drove along looking for footprints and checking the occasional culverts with human-sized pipes passing under the road. They seemed to be about the only hiding places for miles. The tanks would also rumble along these stretches. The driver of one also waved as he passed.

I was actually looking forward to a night in a town as the Poncho Villa State Park is here along with hot showers. To find the library open until 7:30 was an added bonus, as were the $1.50 home-made burritos at the Pancho Villa Cafe. Poncho Villa made this town famous by raiding it. And tomorrow 54 more miles along the border await me before I cross into Texas at El Paso. Now I don't have to worry about finding the library there and leaving my loaded bike outside to file this report on this exceptional day on the bike, just one mile short of 100, though I may hit
the century mark yet if I have to ride too deep into the campground to find a campsite.

Later, George

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Duncan, AZ

Friends: I received the good news that bicyclists are allowed on Interstate 10 in New Mexico from a fellow touring cyclist, who had just come that way. He was eating a snack in the shade of a historical marker telling of a husband and wife killed by Indians in the 1800s nearby. There have been several such markers on this route, but none honoring the massacred and displaced Native Americans, not even on the 45-mile stretch through an Apache Indian Reservation.

Being able to ride on the Interstate for about 25 miles past Lordsburg, 36 miles from here, will save me 50 miles of zig-zagging. I'm not particularly looking forward to an hour-and-a-half of 18-wheelers zipping past me at 80 mph every ten seconds, but with my time running short to get home by Thanksgiving, those saved 50 miles are very significant. Those Interstate miles will be followed by about 150 miles of very lightly traveled roads, mostly hugging the Mexican border. I'm not sure what chance there will be of encountering "illegals" crossing the border, especially as I'm wild camping, but with the moon nearing full, if the camping seems ill-advised I can just keep riding. But I'm excited about whatever awaits me. New Mexico State Highway 9 from Hachita to El Paso has been beckoning me every since I laid eyes on its light gray thin line on the map. It appears to be one of those roads that touring cyclists live for and justifies our existence.

For the third time in the three thousand miles I have biked since leaving Telluride two months ago I encountered a ghost town when my map promised otherwise. The first was in Utah, then there was the one in California after 29 Palms that I was at least forewarned of, though somewhat belatedly. The latest was Florence Junction, about 50 miles east of Phoenix.

Thankfully I hadn't drunk my water bottles dry by the time I reached it and thankfully the service station, that was about all that comprised this dot on the map, hadn't been torn down, so I had some shade to rest in before continuing on to the next town, just 15 miles away. But still I was more than ready for my 48-ounces of ice cold Gatorade as I approached Florence Junction and most chagrined to have to make do with the tepid water in my water bottles to wash down the last of the hard boiled eggs David and Anna supplied me.

I have many more stretches of 50 miles and more between towns through New Mexico and west Texas, but with the cool of November, they are miles that I look forward to. Even though I have climbed back up to 4,000 feet after being down at 500 feet most of my time through Arizona, the terrain remains desert and desolate. But the gain in altitude also means cooler temps.

There was a 30-mile stretch yesterday after the Apache Reservation to Safford of cotton fields. It is harvest season. Stray white balls of fluff are scattered along the road and box-car sized bails of cotton dot the fields. I could push on well past sunset last night knowing I could pull off and camp behind any of them.

The Land of Enchantment awaits me. New Mexico is just across the border.

Later, George

Monday, November 7, 2005

Superior, AZ

Friends: The high '80s isn't even a simmer here in the Valley of the Sun. Its got to be a lot hotter than that before Anna and David turn on their a/c. And its not that they're simply conditioned to the heat after 14 months out here. Without the humidity, such temperatures are very comfortable. It's a dry heat you know.

But still, the sun's rays are intense, and if I stopped pedaling and let them feast upon me without my breeze, I would overheat. The shade is pleasantly cool in these temps. It helps that there aren't the prolonged day light hours of the summer time letting the concrete and asphalt heat up and retain their baking temperatures. It cools off into the '50s at night, making it down right chilly. When it gets up into the hundreds, however, Anna and David leave their a/c on all the day, whether or not they are home. When they go out they'll set the thermostat at 90, which actually seems cool when they come in from the outdoor inferno, at least for a spell. And then the thermostat goes down.

I do dehydrate faster than I realize, as it is surprisingly easy to down a 48-ounce Gatorade from the self-serve soda fountains of the Circle K convenience stores that are happily ubiquitous in Arizona, gracing nearly every town and dotting just about every other block in the sprawling metropolis and suburbia of Phoenix. They are a most cherished oasis, especially after a 30 or 40 mile dash from one desert town to another. Convenience stores with self-serve ice and soda are one thing that France lacks that would raise my enjoyment of cycling there a notch or two. The 7-Elevens of Thailand with their self-serve Big Gulps and bags of ice were one of the highlights of the country.  It was even hotter there than here and had a humidity to match the heat. Never was ice so welcome and craved. The Circle K's of the American West offer the bonus that all sizes of drinks are 99 cents. It was a momentous day when I came upon one that had a 64-ounce cup, half a gallon, four pounds of Gatorade that I usually add a jolt of coke to. Now I enter every Circle K hoping for another 64-ounce cup, but I haven't encountered another, just mere 48-ouncers.

Phoenix is presently celebrating "Guitarmania," its version of Chicago's "Cows on Parade." Scattered about town were eight-foot tall electric guitars painted by different artists. They weren't as distinctive as Chicago's painted cows, as not a one lured David and I to pause and give it a closer look in the day-and-a-half we spent exploring Phoenix and environs on our bikes. The only ones we gave more than a passing look to were those around the baseball stadium, where we paused to peer inside. The eight-year old stadium is in downtown Phoenix, about a mile from David and Anna's apartment. Its retractable roof was open, but could be closed in seven minutes if need be. It offers the cheapest ticket in major league baseball, a bargain even greater than 64-ounces of frigid, flavored fluid for 99 cents. A couple hundred one dollar tickets go on sale the day of each game. The next cheapest ticket is $11. A security guard said people will buy the one dollar ticket and then go sit in an unoccupied better seat. David, who has accompanied me on my free ticket ambushes of Wrigley Field, wasn't fully aware of this unbelievably good deal, and had yet to take advantage of it. Its almost enough to lure me back.

Our meanderings took us the ten miles to Tempe, where Anna teaches history at Arizona Sate. She couldn't accompany us, as she was buried in grading papers on fascism in post-war Italy and Germany. If I could have stuck around until Tuesday I could have watched the "fascist director" Leni Reifenstahl's "Olympiad" of the 1936 Berlin Olympics with her class.

Half of our route to Tempe was on a bike path, some paved and some dirt, along a canal right under the flight pattern of two columns of aircraft just overhead, one after another hatched from the wild blue yonder, landing at the Phoenix Airport, just on the fringe of the downtown. We were on the campus Sunday afternoon just as the NFL Cardinals game was letting out from ASU's stadium. There were numerous packs of pedicabs, more than I'd ever seen, empty and loaded rushing to transport fans to the distant parking areas. They were so spread out that the congestion of the thousands leaving the stadium didn't much slow those of us on bikes. The most popular jersey among the fans was #40 of Pat Tillman, the player who forsook his NFL career to join the army and was killed in Afghanistan.

Not far from the stadium was a six or seven story upside down pyramid--Tempe's City Hall. Another architectural marvel was the Frank Lloyd Wright designed campus auditorium. Equally noteworthy was a park, complete with Japanese gardens, a couple of blocks from David and Anna's apartment that sits atop Interstate 10, totally muffling the roar of its twelve lanes of traffic, including one lane each way for HOVs (high occupancy vehicles).

Now its on to New Mexico and then El Paso and Marfa and maybe Dallas.

Later, George

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Big Bear Lake, CA

Friends: I arrived in LA via Topanga Canyon, a ten-mile climb up from the ocean. I turned on to Ventura Blvd. It was fifteen miles to Burbank. It was a surprisingly pleasant ride with a minimum of traffic. The yellow-brown pall over the vast valley was thin enough to see through.

Leaving the city Monday morning was a different story. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, as I made my exit via Sunset Blvd. I was hoping Sunset would go on at least as long as Ventura had, especially when it presented me with a bike lane for a spell, but it turned into Ceasar Chavez Blvd in downtown LA. I stopped to ask an LAPD officer on a motorcycle if Chavez was the best route east out of the city. He couldn't offer me anything better, but warned it would take me through East LA. "Be careful, it isn't the safest place in the universe," he said. Nothing along the way gave me any pause or any alarm. The only gangs I saw were clusters of workers hanging out in front of a couple of Home Depots looking for work. Some were straddling bicycles, ready to pedal to a work site if it weren't too distant. Since I had been comped my two days in LA by my friend who works for Warner Brothers, even put up at the company hotel, I had no need to join their ranks.

It was 72 miles of urban sprawl to San Bernardino, where I could finally start my climb out of the valley. About halfway there after Ceasar Chavez Blvd had changed names several times, it suddenly became "Historic Route 66." There was a glut of stores along the way with the road sign on their facades, trying to attract attention. The only place I stopped was at a 99 cent grocery story, the latest chain throughout California, where everything is 99 cents. I was able to restock my peanut butter, honey and bread for a quarter the price of the typical grocery store. Yogurt was 3 for 99 cents, baked beans 2 for 99 cents. Even batteries came in packs for 99
cents and boxes of cereal and 64-ounces of Hawaiian punch.

I set out at 9:30 Monday morning, after a 90-minute tour of the Warner Brothers lot. My friend Lance, who oversees the sign department and was one of my Telluride roommates this year, was just going to give me a quick look, but we both lost track of the time as we meandered from one site to another. Work starts at six a.m. for most of the people on the lot, so there was plenty of production going on already. We ducked into a giant warehouse with a 1.2 million gallon tank of water where the "Perfect Storm" was filmed and the "Poseidon Adventure" was presently being filmed. We walked through the "West Wing" set including the Oval Office, where a cluster of writers and producers were watching footage on a monitor.

We walked down side streets emulating suburbia where countless shows have been shot. We glanced in Clint Eastwood's office, a private cottage right next door to that of Stephen Soderbergh and George Clooney. Ron Silver's was nearby. Lance knew it well, as he had slipped a manuscript into his in box several years ago. When ten days later he had a message to meet him at one p.m. that afternoon Lance was certain that he was about to be fired for violating the company's policy of taking advantage of his position. There were six executives at a big conference table and they asked him to pitch his movie. Lance was totally unprepared to do that, but they were sold on it enough to give him $20,000 on the spot. He was staggered. That was three years ago. He has received a $20,000 check every year since as they continue to re-option it. If it ever gets made, Lance could have another script in the making.

Warner Brothers employs 7,000 people at this location, more people than most of the towns I have passed through in the 2,000 miles I have come so far. There is a Starbucks on the premises. There were bicycles all over the place, but no motorcycles, as they are too noisy.

I was lucky I didn't stick around for the official tour as I just made it to San Bernardino by dark. I had been hoping to climb up into the national forest, but ended up camping on a construction site.

It was a 5,000 foot climb in 14 miles to The Rim of the World Road and then another 1,000 feet up to a vantage overlooking Big Bear Lake at 6,700 feet. It was grueling enough that there was a sign at the start of the climb advising motorists to turn off their air-conditioning for the next 14 miles to avoid over-heating. That's not necessary this time of the year, but I'd like to see the cops enforce that if it were made into a law. They do enforce the seat belt law here.

Among the many things I like about cycling in California are the elevation signs in the mountains. Besides the summit elevation, there are occasional signs at 1,000 foot intervals reminding people where they are at. The first one here came at 4,000 feet.

From here I'll descend to the Mojave Desert. It has been relatively flat for ten miles along this dam made lake. But I am ready for a good descent and the emptiness of the desert once again.

Later, George

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Hollywood, CA

Friends: When I'm off on one of these bike adventures camping wild, I can't always bathe as often or as thoroughly as I'd like. Cleaning my clothes is much less of a challenge, as I can generally find a sink or a faucet every day or so to give them at least a cursory hand wash. Clean clothes in the morning is almost as good as a shower. I'll only wash my clothes, however, if I can count on them drying by the end of the day, since I don't carry much more than a single back-up attire. Drying isn't usually much of a concern, as I can readily dry my wash either on my body, when it is warm enough, or dangling in the breeze atop my gear held on by a pair of my trusty bungee cords.

In the desert clothes can dry in moments, but down the northern coast of California this rainy time of the year, body heat is about my only hope of drying anything, and even that is an iffy proposition. So neither me nor my garb has been getting cleaned as often as I'd like these past nine days since I've resumed my tour of the west. Fortunately I have friends to visit every 250 miles or so, where I've been able to shower and wash and rest and even watch the World Series. Oakland was my first stop, visiting a friend from my college days, my predecessor as head manager of Northwestern's football team. Yesterday I visited friends from the Telluride
Film Festival
who live outside of San Luis Obispo. This weekend I have a pair of friends to visit in LA. Then its on to Phoenix and then Marfa, Texas and finally Dallas.

My mind is kept well occupied anticipating the visit to come and reflecting on visits past. When I haven't had a friend to overnight at, the camping has been exceptional, one night amongst the redwoods, another in an avocado grove, once in a forest of eucalypts, but always near enough the ocean that my tent is drenched each morning from fog drip. Even after the fog burns off by mid or late morning, a breeze off the ocean can keep the air misty all day. If the sun comes out, there isn't enough warmth in it for drying even my flimsy neckerchief.

The 50 degree temps don't discourage many of those with convertibles from putting their tops down. There is quite an array of sports cars galvanating along the windy, climby coastal route. Rarely have I been subjected to one testing its limits. I've seen more Corvettes this past week than I see in a decade in Chicago. This is the off-season, so the traffic is fairly limited. It also meant that the Henry Miller Memorial Library just south of Big Sur was closed--more than a small disappointment, especially since a local newspaper said its restroom "defies description." But there were still hundreds of elephant seals sprawled along a stretch of beaches south of the Hearst Castle and a cluster of condors, each with a number stenciled on a wing, perched among the rocks a little south of Big Sur. They have been successfully reintroduced to the region and are very camera-friendly.

I've only encountered two sets of cyclists in the 600 miles I've come since resuming my travels, and was able to cycle along with each for a spell. I unknowingly spent a day with one of them a year-and-a-half ago atop L'Alpe d'Huez. He wasn't touring on his bike then, though he'd brought it with him. He drove within 20 miles of the Alp, until he was stopped by French police, who weren't allowing anyone without credentials to drive any further. He biked the rest of the way and was amongst the million or so fans on the mountain the day Lance won the time trial to its summit and clinched his sixth straight Tour win.

This week's Hollywood Reporter has a story about "George the Cyclist," film reviewer. A film critic/reporter who kept seeing me at film festivals around the world with my bike and followed my Cannes reviews at figured I was worthy of a story. I'll be biking through LA this weekend. I don't have any delusions about being discovered, though one never knows who might be looking for what in LA-LA land, but I'll be curious if anyone recognizes me, as the story is accompanied by a photo taken at last month's Telluride Film Festival. After a Chicago Tribune story about my travels a few years ago people were continaully asking me in the weeks afterward as I was messengering if I was the bicycle messenger who traveled the world that they had read about, some even jumping out of their car to shake my hand.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Hollywood Reporter

Oct. 25, 2005

Cinephile pedals to world's film fests

By Patrick McGavin

CHICAGO --George Christensen has an athlete's lean, chiseled body and tapered legs. His long hair and beard project a solitary intensity. Growing up in the affluent north suburbs of Chicago, he developed a warrior code. He craved movement and action and hated anything he regarded as passive and inert, like watching television.

Movies offered something else. After seeing Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" as a teenager, he got hooked on the power and intensity of the moving image.

Now the 55-year-old biking enthusiast and movie lover has ingeniously found the means to combine his two passions. Several years ago, he began flying to major cities and then biking to as many international film festivals as was physically possible. "I am a bicyclist who likes movies much more than I am a moviegoer who likes to bicycle," Christensen says.

A Chicago-based bicycling messenger, Christensen typically rides his bike about 15,000 miles every year. He has cycled vast distances in pretty much every corner of the planet. (In March, he trekked to the Andes, in Ecuador. He has also cycled from Bombay to Calcutta, from Australia to Iceland, and in the Himalayas.)

Christensen recently returned home from a whirlwind tour of Europe in which he covered about 6,000 miles on his bicycle. He also "covered" more than 50 films at the Festival de Cannes, where he achieved a sort of notoriety in the cinephile blog community where he was known under the nom de guerre "George the Cyclist." Writing short, provocative pieces about the films he saw for the Rashomon web log, he would seek out content involving bicycles wherever he could find it.

Pointing out a short scene from Michael Haneke's prize-winning film "Cache" (Hidden), in which there is an angry exchange between an African cyclist and the movie's upper-middle-class protagonist played by Daniel Auteuil, a sequence seething with rage and social rupture, Christensen says directly: "It is, after all, a Haneke movie."

For the second consecutive year, Christensen has flown to Paris and traveled the 600-mile distance to Cannes on his bicycle. An arduous and dangerous route, Christensen ascended high atop the French mountains, where the altitude produced extreme change in temperatures. Traversing through snow-covered terrain, Christensen nearly suffered from hypothermia. On the descent, "it took about an hour to get the feeling back into my hands," he says. That didn't prevent him from replicating some of the Tour de France passes in the Alps and Pyrenees as a means of decompressing after the festival.

"I tour to experience different lands and cultures, and films allow me (to do) the same thing," he says. It is a wanderlust that has taken him to festivals in Berlin, Rotterdam, Thessaloniki, Greece, and to the Midnight Sun Festival in Finland, among others.

Last month he was beckoned back to the States to Telluride, Colo., for the open-air, mountain film festival, where he has been on staff in the shipping and receiving department for 11 years. "It takes a staff of 500 to put on the festival, and Telluride only has a population of 1,500, so two-thirds of the staff is recruited from elsewhere," he says. He loves the program's special events, and the opportunity to interact with other movie lovers.

"I am a bicyclist who likes movies," he says simply.

Cannes Profile

Cannes Film festival
By Patrick Z. McGavin

Final update June 11, 2004

Exhausted, avid for any kind of break, the natural tendency is to seek out familiar faces. The sight of George Christensen proves pleasant and oddly affirming. A romantic Chicago figure for being a die-hard cinephile and indefatigable bicyclist, Christensen is a volunteer usher at Facets and during the Chicago International Film festival. He has an athlete’s thin, tapered body, and long, lanky blond hair. His dedication is legendary. A couple of years ago he drove for two-days through a fierce snowstorm from Chicago to Park City, Utah to attend the Sundance Film festival.

Cannes plays primarily to the professional elites, though it attracts a class of dreamers and romantics eager to define their own experiences. Christensen has traveled all over the world on his bicycle, though mostly in third-world countries. “Going to Europe is so conventional,” Christensen says during coffee one afternoon. Christensen left Chicago in late April, and joined a friend, a younger film enthusiast and bicyclist, in Paris. The two completed the trek from Paris to Cannes on their bicycles over a period of about ten days.

The festival as quest fits a pattern with Christensen. Once before, he flew to Helsinki. Christensen rode his bike 700 miles, passed the polar circle, in Lapland, for the Midnight Sun Film festival. He has also taken his bike on festival sojourns to Berlin and Rotterdam. “It’s a great asset to zip from one venue to the other,” he says, almost nonchalantly.

“Biking here, it was the first week of May, but in the mountains, it was cold enough to snow. We were not even that high up, about 4,000 feet. We had about a 20-mile descent from there, and the first couple of miles were in sleet. We had frozen hands and we were shivering uncontrollably. We had an hour descent without being able to generate any body heat. What pushed us was knowing in a couple of days that we’d be in Cannes at the beach,” Christensen said.

Christensen graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the mid-'70s. He hoped to become a sportswriter, though the freedom and allure of the open road was too compelling. In 1977, Christensen took his first significant bike journey, a national cross-country tour. He has been hooked ever since, working as a Cannonball bicycle messenger to help subsidize his epic trips. At Cannes he bought a market badge that cost roughly $350. He has been watching about five or six movies a day. He has seen about eight to ten Competition films; the rest have been parallel programs and official festival sidebars. To save money, he and his friend stayed at a campground a couple of miles outside the city.

“I have to be careful about where my obsessions take me,” he says, pausing. “I’d rather live a writer’s life, and not have to write.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fallon, Nevada

Friends: After a month in the cozy confines of Telluride's box canyon high in the Rockies working for its renowned film festival, I have been enjoying the past ten days crossing the expansive deserts of Utah and Nevada with vistas that go on for miles and miles, as I pedal my way to visit friends in northern California, as I have done the past two years. This 1,250 mile ride is almost becoming a commute. I feel as if I know every turn and rise in the road. Though I have yet to camp in the same spot twice, I have stopped at most of the same restaurants and markets, as they come along only every 70 miles or so.

Telluride left me with the usual swirl of exemplary moments to reflect on as I ride along. I'd already seen about a quarter of the movies at Cannes. There were those I was delighted to see again and others I didn't need to. Having seen so many of them left me time for other fare and events, such as the thee-and-a-half hour documentary on Bob Dylan by Martin Scorcese that will air on PBS this month. Seeing it on a big screen at the festival's largest venue and having it introduced by Dylan expert Griel Marcus made it the optimum experience. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, who appears several times in the movie, was also in attendance as was Roger Ebert and his wife. The following day Griel Marcus and Don Delillo, who was Telluride's guest director this year, spent an hour discussing it at the county court house before a standing room only crowd of 80.

The day before the court house was packed to hear William Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman go at it one-on-one. Macy was there with the film "Edmonds" and Hoffman with "Capote." They were pals having appeared in "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights" together. They told of seeing each other give awesome performances on the set, blowing everyone away. When it happens, everyone remembers, as it happens so rarely.

Joan and I lined up 45 minutes before the program was to start and were the last ones to get seats. Anyone who had seen them in the afternoon seminar the day before on a panel with Aaron Eckhardt and Helena Bonham Carter hosted by Columbia Film Professor Annette Insdorf would have wanted to be there. They were both out-spoken and lively discussing their many roles. The panel of actors at the seminar all spoke of their relationship with directors and how they are as demanding of directors as directors are of actors. They lamented the pain of working with ill-prepared directors, as happens all too often, particularly on independent films with young directors. Too many takes are all their bane. Macy in particular derided directors who kept actors late trying to do something fresh and original. "'Make art on your own time,' I tell them," he said.

I ran into Aaron Eckhardt at a pre-festival brunch not even knowing he was to be there. I congratulated him for the best performance of the '90s as Chad in "In the Company of Men." He said, "Thanks for remembering." I didn't even know I was a few feet from tributee Charlotte Rampling talking in the middle of Main Street one afternoon until I noticed she was with a friend who frequently escorts actors and directors. One has to be close and in the direct line of her legendary piercing eyes to know it is her. Another friend reprimanded her for smoking on school grounds more brusquely than he would have, if he had recognized her. Even though she has appeared in some sixty films, this was her first tribute and the first time she had sat through a series of clips from her career. "It wasn't so horrible seeing my face age over the years," she commented.

As always, Telluride delivered a slate of the year's best films and those responsible for their creation. In the intimacy of this picturesque former mining town of 1,500 with the nearest traffic light 40 miles away, one has the opportunity to get to know them beyond their screen image. It is four days of film euphoria over the long Labor Day weekend. It is no wonder so many film lovers and film scholars return year after year.

Later, George

Monday, August 1, 2005

Meaux, France

Friends: After three months and over 5,000 miles of pushing the pedals, often with more than casual determination and resolution, trying to keep up with The Tour or surmounting the steep passes of the Alps and Pyrenees or reaching some destination by a specified time, I may have acquired the aura of the most seasoned and toughest cyclists of them all, the Belgians, whose cold and rain and wind-swept land has produced many a champion, including the king of cyclists, Eddie Merckx. For the second time in the past month someone asked me if I was Belgian. I consider that a compliment of the highest order.

The first time it happened was during Stage One of The Tour as I sat in front of my loaded bike watching the time trial. The man asking was a producer for a Belgian TV station. He asked if I were Belgian. He said he was looking for Belgian fanatics following The Tour by bicycle. He said he hadn't been able to find any. When I told him I was American he asked if I had seen any Belgian touring cyclists. Not only had I not seen any Belgian touring cyclists, I had seen not a single touring cyclist at that point. There were plenty of Belgians in campers flying their national flag, but the producer had no interest in talking to someone following The Tour in such a common place manner. Even though I wasn't Belgian, if I had at least spoken French or Flemish, the producer said he would have loved to have put me on camera.

The second person who asked if I were Belgian was an older gentleman who noticed me wandering through a cemetery in the tiny village of Sompuis, about 100 miles east of Paris and four miles south of the national highway. I was in search of the tombstone of Geo Lefevre, the man who proposed the idea of the Tour de France to Henri Desgrange. They worked together for the newspaper that launched the Tour de France back in 1903. The gentleman knew exactly where it was. I hadn't noticed it, as I was looking for a bicycle or the words "Tour de France" on the tombstone. His epithet was a simple "President de Association des Journalistes sportifs." He was a notable enough person to have had a street named after him in Sompuis, his home town.

After showing me the grave, the man mentioned that The Tour had last passed near here three years ago. Then he asked if I were Belgian, since they were the most liable nationality to be seeking out such an obscure Tour artifact, and that my French was bad enough that my native tongue must be Flemish. He was quite taken aback that it was an American who had gone out of his way to come to this grave.

It was one of the more challenging of the bicycling memorials to find that I have sought out. My information was that the grave was in the city of Vitry-le-Francois, about 15 miles away. The woman in the tourist office there knew nothing about it, nor even knew who Geo Lefevre was. There were three cemeteries in Vitry plus a large military cemetery I could have gone perusing, but first I went to a bike store to see if someone there might know. The older proprietor instantly knew what I was looking for and where it was. He drew me a detailed map of rural roads to reach Sompuis, which made the getting there all the more enjoyable.

I had no such trouble the day before in Bar-le-Duc finding the memorial to Pierre and Ernest Michaux, the father and son who in 1861 conceived of putting pedals on the two-wheeled forebearer of the bicycle, thus making the earlier invention a vehicle of genuine utility and popularity. The local tourist office had replica of the bike in its window. The monument to the Michaux's was a highlighted item on the city map of sites to see. There was also a plaque on the house where Pierre was born in 1813. The local museum had a room devoted to the Michaux's. And to top it off, I learned of a bicycle museum in the small village of Trois Fontaines de l'Abbaye about 20 miles away, though it was only open on Sunday afternoons. I had hit an unexpected mother lode of bicycle memorials.

The Michaux monument is the oldest I have come across and could well be the first of its kind. It was erected in 1894, eleven years after Pierre died, who outlived his son Ernest by a year. The Michaux's were repairers of horse carriages in Paris when someone brought in a bicycle to be repaired. When Ernest gave it a ride he realized it would be much easier to ride if one had a place to rest his feet. After putting pegs on the front axle, one of them was struck by the inspiration to make them revolve so the bike could be propelled rather than pushed along with one's feet as one does with a skateboard or scooter and had been the case for 45 years since the two-wheeled vehicle had originally been conceived. As so often happens, they were unable to capitalize on their invention and suffered financial ruin attempting to do so.

Their monument resides at a downtown intersection a block from the oldest bridge in the city. It rises some 25 feet high. It is a contoured concrete structure with a life-sized figure behind a model of their invention resting on a platform half way up. The bike and figure are not the original, as they were melted down by the Germans during WWII.

Perusing the brochures in the tourist office of Meaux, I discovered another bicycle museum 25 miles to the south. It will have to wait until my next visit, as in less than 24 hours I will be airborne for Chicago. Charles de Gaulle airport is 25 miles away in the opposite direction. I was also unable to make it to the plaque commemorating the starting point of the first Tour just south of Paris. It will be among a handful of bicycling sites on my next itinerary, that were either closed or I was unable to reach this time. And the list will no doubt grow as I learn of more. I have cycled over 9,000 miles of French roads the past two summers, but when I gaze upon a map it seems as if I have barely gotten started. I, along with all of France, eagerly await the October unveiling of The Tour route for 2006 to learn where it will take me.

So what, you may wonder, have I discovered to be the burning issues in French society in these times? If one cares to go by the official daily newspaper of The Tour that is freely distributed along the route, it is whether or not to eat popcorn at the movies and the cost of a baguette. Those were two of the dozen or so questions asked in the daily interview of one of The Tour riders, invariably a French rider though they only comprise a quarter of the peloton. The more personal questions included what does he think about before he goes to sleep, what does he eat when home alone, does he have any good luck charms on his bike. Based on the interviews, popcorn is very unpopular and not too many riders buy their own baguettes.

Even more than last year, I have been impressed by the excessive politeness of the French. I see it everywhere. In the supermarkets when one places a divider on the conveyor belt in the checkout line the person behind never fails to say "Merci." The French are always quick and on the ready to express thanks. Along The Tour route signs of thanks were quite common--"Merci French TV," "Merci Caravan" and "Merci" to assorted and sundry officials and announcers, affiliated with The Tour. People went out of their way to tell me where to find water. Once when I paused to ask a couple of spectators high on a hillside if I could take their photo, one leaped up and started running down to me thinking I was asking him to come take my photo. And, most importantly, I can accord the motorists throughout France as being more polite than any I've encountered.

I will close, as I began, with thoughts of Crissy, whose sparkling spirit was never far from my mind. It still greatly saddens me that someone with such a light heart and such goodness and purity, who brought cheer to so many, had to struggle so hard to cope with life as it is. She didn't have it easy, so at least she is free of her battles here.

Until next time, George

Friday, July 29, 2005

Bar-le-Duc, France

Friends: Thanks to a bicycle enthusiast who didn't know when to stop when it came to collecting anything and everything related to the bicycle, the small town of Cormatin, about 75 miles north of Lyon, is home to the Musée de Vélo. It contains an overwhelming array of over 2,000 bike relics neatly arranged in a two-story stone barn of a building, whose rafters on both floors offer extra hanging space for all the relics, many of which no other museum would dream of displaying.

There were cigar bands featuring famous racers, wine bottles, LPs and 45s of bike music and racer narrations of races, bicycle racing board games claiming they could be played by anyone from 7 to 70, coke cans with racers on them, bicycle-inscribed lighters and ash trays and pens and key chains and cookie jars and cups and stamps. You name it. There were even a couple of small revolvers dating to 1900, manufactured in the bike and arms town St. Etienne, that were specifically designed for the weight-conscious cyclist. There were piles of scrapbooks of newspaper articles and photos and post cards and team cards that will be a goldmine to future historians.

And, of course, there were dozens of bikes from every epoch since its birth in 1817. There were no video presentations in this private museum, but better yet, the man responsible for this conglomeration was gladly circulating among the rooms demonstrating the use of some of the older and odder bikes and enthusiastically describing what made each unique. He was delighted to be able to share his treasures.

There were more people at this museum than the previous four I've been to in the past two months. Cormatin isn't much more than a village and isn't on the way to anywhere, but it has a chateau that attracts tourists. The bike museum, however, seemed to be a genuine attraction of its own for the French with children, some of whom must have been holidaying in the area, as they came by bike.

Maybe Tour afterglow was responsible for some seeking it out. As I think back on my Tour experience, what stands out more than anything is the devotion of the French to this bicycling event, what an ingrained part of their culture it is and a ritual for them to go witness and pay their respect to. The French may not ride their bikes a whole lot, but, as a socially conscious people. they recognize the value of the bike and applaud those who do bike. I've encountered no other French touring cyclists and just a few Germans and Aussies, but the French acknowledge it is a noble and worthy activity that they ought to be doing, but since they don't have the motivation, they are happy to see someone else adhering to the faith.

I didn't fully realize how committed the French are to seeking out The Tour when it comes near them last year, but this year with the start in France rather than in Belgium, and being part of a gathering of thousands the evening before the race started in front of the city hall of Challans watching the introduction of each of the 189 riders on the big screen that would be erected at all 21 finish lines, I could feel all around me the honor and respect given the riders and The Tour. And that same honor and glee was reflected on nearly every rider's face as he was introduced with great hyperbole by the official revered voice of The Tour, Daniel Mangeas, a fixture of The Tour since 1976. He was at every start and finish line, spouting names and stats like an auctioneer for a couple hours straight, barely pausing to draw a breath. At the Grand Depart after each team of nine riders biked onto the stage before a packed auditorium and was introduced, they rode out through an arcade of flashing lights to make a loop around the town, including past us, cheered all the way. Whose grins were broader, theirs or ours, was hard to say. It started the whirlwind to come with a giant exclamation point.

And it was more of the same for the three weeks ahead. Only by riding the stages past all the people can one fully appreciate its widespread appeal. One can be at a start or finish line with a stadium's worth of people or on a steep climb where a whole World Series worth of fans can be gathered, but they only represent a small percentage of the tens and hundreds of thousands who line the road for up to 150 miles each day, and not for just a few minutes but making an all day affair of it. One can't help but be swept up by the devotion of the millions who are part of The Tour.

Later, George

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dijon, France

Friends: After two days of Internet wasteland I detoured slightly out of my way to Dijon, to take advantage of an Internet cafe I used last year. I doubt I'll have enough time to give a full report on my past three days, which included a couple more bicycle museums, as well as my final day of The Tour, but here goes.

I started my final day of The Tour, Sunday, biking the previous day's time trial course. I camped alongside it the night before, joined by a German couple, one of whom was wearing a Lance bracelet. There was a continual string of mostly individual cyclists out riding the course along with me and also a few people walking it, scavenging. Even though it had been lined by thousands the day before, it was remarkably litter-free, thanks to the bulging official Tour de France plastic litter-bags hanging on wooden stakes driven into the ground every hundred feet or so.

St. Etienne was at one time the foremost city of bike manufacturers in France. Mercier and Stronglight, among others, still maintain factories there. The local Art and Industry Museum is primarily devoted to the four industries that at one time defined St. Etienne--bikes, optics, ribbons and arms manufacture. The museum resides in a stately four-story chateau on a hill overlooking the center of the city. In such a setting, the bike had to be taken seriously.

The bulk of the floor devoted to the bike included the usual array of bikes dating from 1817 to the present. They were arranged by a curator who knew how to pay tribute to each. Although the museum claimed to have the largest collection of bikes of any museum in France, there was not the sense of clutter that most bike museums have with bikes tightly crammed and wedged trying to fill every inch of a museum's space. In one of the rooms devoted to the early-day bikes was a video of cyclists in the attire of the period merrily pedaling along on country roads on the very bikes in that room. Even these neanderthals, some weighing as much as 60 pounds, seemed to float effortlessly along with a grace and elegance that was as pleasing to watch as the Tour de France riders. The video included flocks of cyclists on penny-farthings and a stray cyclist or two on the original pedal-less Draisine bikes propelled like a scooter with the rider pushing off the ground with his feet as he sat on the wooden seat between the two wheels.

A video in another room was devoted to bicycle touring. It paid tribute to Paul de, known as Velocio. He was a great apostle of touring and long distance cycling. He lived in St. Etienne until his death in 1930 at the age of 77 when he was electrocuted by a street car while pushing his bike. He was a bike manufacturer and inventor and publisher, founding a bike magazine in the 1880s that survived until the 1970s. He is such a revered figure that St. Etienne celebrates him every June 5 with Velocio Day. There is a ride that day to the Col de Republique, a ten-mile climb from the city that gains 2,500 feet. There is a bust of him at the summit.

I learned most of this over lunch on a bench outside the museum from one of the museum's curators. She interrupted her lunch to go back to the museum for a computer printout of his biography for me. As she headed back to the museum, she paused to admonish, "Don't eat my cookie," recognizing a ravenous cyclist when she saw one. Included in the several sheets she returned with was his Seven Commandments of Cycle Touring. Among them were "eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty," and "avoid meat, wine and tobacco," dictums well ahead of their time.

Although the Col de Republique was south of the city and I was headed north, it was a climb I had to make. The most difficult part of the climb was deciding whether to camp in the luxurious forest surrounding it that night, as I arrived there at 7:30, or make the descent back to the city and escape the metropolis before Monday's traffic. I probably should have camped in the forest in the presence of Velocio and given my legs some rest, but I chose to push on and bike to dark one last time.

Between the climb to Velocio and the museum visit, I had the final miles of The Tour to watch. The sports bar I found in downtown St. Etienne was about half-filled as the peloton reached the Champs Elysees for its eight laps from the Arc de Triomph to the Place de la Concord. And the bar continued filling, paying further tribute to this bicycle-town, as the peloton settled down to business with assorted attacks after the first ceremonial lap with Lance and his Discovery mates shoulder-to-shoulder riding past the multitudes.

The peloton at first looked puny and almost insignificant and out-of-place on that most grand and celebrated of boulevards, wide enough for a space shuttle to land. When the Arc de Triomph towered in all its majesty in the background, it threatened to steal all the glory from the many other magnificent sites and spectacular scenery that the peloton had passed in the previous three weeks. But within a lap or two the peloton regained its prominence and all nobility belonged to it. It brought the joy and cheer of the millions it had passed along the road, whose lives it had touched, people throughout France and those who had come from all over Europe and the world to see it and who would forever remember that moment when they connected with The Tour. The Tour added to their stature and they added to The Tour's stature.

For awhile it looked like another American, Chris Horner riding for a Spanish team, might pull off a surprise victory, but it was Vinokurov who surprised all the salivating sprinters by bolting from the field after it had overtaken Horner, managing to hold off everyone else for his second victory of The Tour. He's a fan favorite. Fans paint his name on the roads as often as any of the riders. With the nickname of "Vino" the French would have to love him. His daring, aggressive style is much lauded, as few riders are capable of it. He suffered mightily in his final, all-out effort, as it took several moments for the agony on his face to be replaced by the ecstasy of his win as he rolled past the finish line.

We in the bar didn't get to see all of his celebration or Lance's final coronation, as the TV was quickly switched to a soccer game without any protest from the now full bar. My close-up table was immediately grabbed when I vacated it. There may have been a couple of cycling fans present, but now that I looked, the majority of the crowd was wearing green jerseys or green scarfs of the local team. Local sports does reign supreme.

Later, George