Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Appalachia, Va.

Friends: Not long after I crossed back into Virginia from North Carolina on my way back to Chicago I found myself on Route 58, a Highway with two names--"The Crooked Road" and "The Virginia Music Heritage Trail." The 34-mile stretch leading to Damascus, "The Friendliest Town on the Appalachia Trail," had so many squiggles there was a warning discouraging trucks. The speed limit was a mere 15 mph for 2.1 miles before Grayson Highland State Park.

Its high point of 3,500 feet at White Top is the starting point for a very popular bike trail, only occasionally visible from the road, that descends 2,000 feet to Damascus, 17 miles away, and then continues on to Abingdon for another 17 fairly flat miles. I stuck to the highway not aware of the bike path until it was too late. The bulk of the minimal traffic on the road was vans ferrying bikes and riders to the summit and transporting them back to Damascus from Abingdon. There are three bike rental and shuttle service companies in Damascus. The largest, Adventure Damascus, has a fleet of 300 bikes. Most weekends they are all booked--$17 for the bike and $23 for the shuttle. They have hourly departures and pick-ups.

The bike path has had several incarnations before evolving into its present, highest use. Originally, 250 years ago, it was a footpath for pioneers, including Daniel Boone. In 1900 a railroad was built on the trail bed to serve the logging industry. When logging died in the 1970s, it was converted to a bike trail. It is called the "Virginia Creeper National Recreational Trail," as the trains used to creep up its fairly gentle grade.

Abingdon, the oldest town in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was another of the many southern towns I've passed through featuring a statue of a Confederate soldier in a place of prominence. Here he stood beside the county courthouse. They are very similar to the statues of young men cradling a rifle in many French towns honoring those who died in the World Wars. Even though Abingdon has a population of only 8,000, it attracts enough visitors to have a 12-screen multiplex on its outskirts, along with a vintage 3-screen theater in its center. Along with many current releases, the multiplex was offering "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Ten Commandments." The downtown theater was showing that Southern favorite "Driving Miss Daisy" on one of its screens.

There are many other reminders that this is the South. Women regularly call me "Dear" or "Hun." Yesterday, the elderly waitress who served me a heaping plate of biscuits upon realizing I was traveling by bicycle gasped, "My goodness child, you're not actually biking in this weather, are you?" The temperature had dipped into the 30s that night and had barely climbed into the 40s. I awoke with a thick crust of frost on my tent and a layer of ice on the water bottle I left on my bike. People naturally and unhesitatingly offer me a friendly word, and more than the usual, "How fer you ridin'?"

As I sat eating a burrito at a Taco Bell a guy asked if that was my Lincoln parked outside, not recognizing a cyclist when he saw one, only that I wasn't from these parts and Lincolns aren't all that common. He said he wished he could afford such a car. A couple minutes later a 79-year old guy asked me if I were German. He noticed my Ortlieb panniers and the "Made in Germany" on them. Having never seen a touring cyclist, he assumed I must be a foreigner. He said he had two ten-speeds at home that he no longer used and had a spare tire which I was welcome to. After moving over to join me he said he had worked as a bicycle messenger in LA in 1946 when he was 18. He had traveled the world and spoke six or seven languages and was sorry he couldn't practice his German on me. Kentucky is just a few miles away.

Later, George

Friday, October 26, 2007

Winston-Salem, N. C.

Friends: Lyndon and Stephanie, who are both actively involved in the Arts, appropriately live just off the Avenue of the Arts, in Winston-Salem, known as The City of Arts. At one time the city was justifiably synonymous with tobacco, though not so much anymore. Still, there is plenty of evidence of its former dominant industry--tobacco warehouses and the name Reynolds everywhere. There is even a nearby town called Tobaccoville.

Even if I weren't staying with two people who are so artistically inclined, I would have been well aware of the prominence of art in this community. Biking in from Greensboro, I passed the North Carolina School of the Arts, then the large modern visitor center for Old Salem and as I began the climb into the downtown and its futuristic Wachovia Tower I passed a giant teapot. Trade Street (the Avenue of the Arts), just a couple blocks from City Hall and the heart of the city, was lined with galleries for several blocks. There were signs for the Reynolda Art Center where Stephanie works as a museum educator. Not far away is the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art, SECCA, where Lyndon has worked for years installing its exhibitions.

Lyndon was in the middle of hanging dozens of photographs for this weekend's opening of an exhibition featuring North Carolina photographers. He was eager to finish, as he had a friend who needed help preparing her gallery for a Friday opening of her own. And I was happy to lend a hand as his assistant for both projects. SECCA resides in the former mansion of the Hanes underwear family, who still live nearby. Several large, warehouse-sized galleries, that any curator would love to have, along with an auditorium, adjoin the family's former living quarters.

I've had a most satisfying and nourishing two days hanging out at SECCA with Lyndon and the SECCA staff in its grand galleries screwing hooks into the walls, putting up photos, mounting some behind Plexiglas, and walking around with a cup of white paint and a brush touching up all the scuff marks on the walls. Walking through a museum or gallery will never be the same after this experience. The only disappointment was that of the dozens of photos I helped hang only one contained a bicycle--a French gendarme at Versailles in 1971.

We found time to visit Stephanie at her museum in the former estate of the R. J. Reynolds family complete with a bowling alley, indoor swimming pool and shooting gallery. Its not too far from Wake Forest University. Stephanie was busy preparing for a Friday evening open house for Wake Forest freshman and their parents. President Truman took a nap on a couch at the house when he attended the opening of Wake Forest. Indonesia's ambassador will be visiting next week. Stephanie will show him around. Thursday night we attended a gallery opening of a local art organization. Many of the artists were in attendance. An art critic from New York helped curate and jury the exhibition, giving a $1,000 award to her choice of the best of the show. The place was jammed with SWAGs--Southern Women Aging Gracefully.

Lyndon and I have worked together for over 15 years at the Telluride Film Festival and have shared a condo a few of those years. He is easily the most beloved of the 500 Telluride staffers and the most genuinely friendly person I have encountered anywhere. He shone as brightly here in Winston-Salem as he does in Telluride. Everyone knows Lyndon at Telluride and it didn't seem much different here on his home turf. He has a kind word for everyone he comes across, friend or stranger. He also knows where to find a bargain for anything and everything. The prize was an all-you-eat Friday night flounder feed for six dollars in the small town of Lexington halfway between Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

As we were having breakfast Thursday morning at a local diner waiting for several of his cronies for their weekly gathering, he asked two elderly women at a nearby table what they had in a small brown paper bag on their table. "It's tomatoes," they said. Lyndon laughed and pulled a similar paper bag out of his sealed thermos showing them he too had smuggled in a couple of slices of tomato for his sausage biscuit, the house special, two for $1.10. Later in the meal as they left, they offered Lyndon an extra slice that they didn't need. For years I've wanted to experience Lyndon on his home turf. It has been as good as I could have imagined. I'm not altogether sorry I've waited this long to visit, as otherwise I wouldn't have been able to share the experience with his charming and delightful bride of seven months Stephanie. Now I can look forward to returning.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Greensboro, North Carolina

Friends: "Friendly Bicycles," one of the premier bicycle shops in Greensboro, takes its name from the street where it was originally located. But even if it weren't named for that street, one of the main thoroughfares of this city, it would be a most inspired name for a bicycle shop.

Even to the non-devotee the bicycle conjures images of warmth and friendliness. It is almost a universal symbol for youth and innocence and simpler times along with joy and freedom and flight from earthly concerns. With "Hospitality" virtually synonymous with the South, it was no surprise to find a street named "Friendly" here. I assumed it was as common a street name throughout the South as "Main" is everywhere else. But Les, the gray-haired proprietor of "Friendly Bicycles," explained the name was drawn from the early strong Quaker presence in Greensboro. The Quakers are known as the Society of Friends. They still maintain a college in Greensboro and continue to exert a strong influence on the community. Les didn't know if "Friendly" was a popular street name elsewhere, nor even if any other shops in Greensboro had adopted it, as he had.

Les certainly lived up to the name of his shop, gladly chatting, sharing his vast knowledge of local lore while poring over a cycling map of the region, advising me what to see and how to get there. One of the places he recommended was the Guildford Courthouse National Military Park where a Carolina Cup criterium bicycle race is staged every September on a 1.9 mile course. I was hoping also to find the U.S.Pro Cycling Championship Course in the area, but I had my "Greens" mixed up. It is not held in Greensboro, but rather Greensville and in South Carolina, not North. That was a little disappointing, as I knew that George Hincapie, the only teammate of Lance to ride with him on each of his seven wins, lived near that race course. I was hoping I might encounter him out training. Other pros lived in the area and trained with Hincapie, making it a hotbed of US cycling.

But cycling still has some prominence here in Greensboro. The local Barnes and Noble bookstore had more cycling books, including several I was unaware of, than any book store I've encountered. It also carried the widest array of cycling magazines that I have seen anywhere outside of Europe. Along with several English publications there was a very polished racing quarterly from Australia. But it wasn't the cycling that brought me to Greensboro. It was rather, first, to visit my friend Tomas, long-time cycling compadre, and then Lyndon, long-time Telluride compadre, and his new wife Stephanie over in Winston-Salem, part of the Triad of cities including Greensboro and High Point.

I pushed hard yesterday, biking 86 miles from south of Roanoke, Virginia to arrive at Tomas' home 45 minutes before dark, happy the terrain leveled somewhat at the North Carolina border, allowing me to get my average speed for the day up to almost 14 mph, the best in days after the steep ups and downs of southeast Ohio and West Virginia and Virginia. It was the fourth different place that Tomas and I have had a reunion since meeting in Puerto Escondido, Mexico in January of 1981, back when Puerto Escondido was little more than a secret surfing spot and haven for vagabond travelers. I was wintering there with Crissy. Tomas had biked down from San Francisco on his way to Guatemala. I joined up with him for the 175-mile stretch over the Sierra Madres to Oaxaca on mostly unpaved road, what was then known as the roughest bus
trip in all of Mexico. It was a test ride for me before tackling the more than 1,000 miles of dirt and gravel of the Alaskan Highway that I planned to ride that summer.

Tomas and I have rendezvoused a couple more times over the years in Puerto Escondido. I also
visited him when he lived in Cupertino in Silicone Valley, as I bicycled down the Pacific Coast.
The past three falls we have met up at the Telluride Film Festival, where Tomas manages the
concessions stand at the Opera House. Tomas would somewhat like to be the bike bum that
I am, but he has engineering skills that are too much in demand. He is one of a handful of authorities in the world on flip chips, an integral part of cellular phones. He has worked all over the world for a variety of companies, including Motorola, taking bicycle breaks whenever he can. He took a job in Greensboro a little over a year ago with RF Micro Devices. One of the allures of the job was that it required him to oversee their plant in the Philippines, necessitating several visits a year. He just returned from a month there.

Tomas lends his engineering mentality to the bicycle and his given me countless equipment tips over the years. I have him to thank for my 48-spoke tandem rear wheel that has virtually alleviated broken spokes when I am touring. I also have him to thank for my deluxe Gore-Tex jacket, that he was able to get me for half-price when he was on sabbatical from the engineering, working at REI.We have so many shared interests and so much going on in our lives, we talked for hours last night without once having to reminisce on our past great rides together. Maybe we'll do that tonight, though not likely as we are set to have dinner with Lyndon and Stephanie over in Winston-Salem.

Later, George

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rainelle, W. Va.

Friends: The rugged, mountainous terrain of West Virginia has blocked the radio waves of the larger stations carrying the baseball playoffs. About all I can pick up on my mini-radio in the evening hours in my tent are small local stations. One night I listened in on the inaugural broadcast of a community radio station in Clay as I camped a few miles out of the town along a river behind an abandoned shack of a house.

Three locals were encouraging everyone in the area to contribute to the station, if only as announcers reading commercials. One of the in-studio voices said, "We have a lot of talent in the area. Some people think we are all just a bunch of hillbilly hicks. But last summer when we had that music talent show there were a couple that were real professional." Someone suggested that the station would be a good opportunity to share recipes and gardening tips. Another suggested programs on canning and tanning animal hides.

If someone wanted to have a program on local history, there would be plenty of material.
Historical markers abound telling of the pioneers and town founders and of those of renown who have passed through. Much of it is Civil War-related. I've had the opportunity to camp several places where General Lee and his troops overnighted. It was still undeveloped and thickly forested, not much different than it was nearly 150 years ago. There have been plaques announcing George Washington slept here and that Gen. Stonewall Jackson's mother is buried nearby and that the town of Grantsville was named after Gen. Grant.

The luxuriantly forested mountainsides are a kaleidoscope of colors with the leaves changing.
Neither New England nor Door County nor any other region known for its fall foliage could be more spectacular. And W. Virginia tops them all, as it is uncontaminated by cutesy B & B's and boutiques and billboards and gawking tourists and signs advertising moccasins and fudge and cappuccino. Nor has the countryside been despoiled by trophy homes and cottages or designer log cabins. The residences are modest-sized, unpretentious homes and shacks and fortified mobile homes, nearly all with a dog on a chain or behind a fence. I can go the better part of a day without seeing a fast food franchise or other reminders of the runaway consumerist forces that dominate the lifes of most. I buy my provisions at general stores that have served their communities for decades. The planet hardly seems in peril off in these hinterlands.

This is a region of people who enjoy the out of doors. Kayaks on car rooftops are a common site.
People continue to appreciate seeing a touring cyclist, giving me friendly toots as they pass. I
still must be on the alert for evil forces. The devil comes in many guises. I've had several
encounters here in West Virginia, though none playing a fiddle. The first was a 30-year old guy driving a Jeep with a kayak on the roof and a bicycle on a rack on its rear. The driver stopped in the middle of the road after passing me on a long, steep climb. He jumped out and asked, "Would you like a ride? I've got space on my rack for another bike." I didn't even slow as I replied, "Thanks, but I'm having a nice ride." I stayed as far from him as I could, going around his parked Jeep on the passenger side, not caring to catch even a whiff of him. I did notice a bulge in the back of his baseball cap as he turned from me to get back in his vehicle.

Later that day as I sat outside a general store munching a peanut butter sandwich a woman with her hair in a bun driving a pick-up truck asked, "Can I give you a ride somewhere?" She hadn't even asked where I was coming from or where I was going. I had been hoping to make it to North Carolina by the weekend so I could go for a nice ride with my bicycling friend Tomas. But it was further than I anticipated and the going was much slower with all the climbing, so it didn't look like I was going to make it. Still I couldn't be tempted by Lucifer or any of his agents to abandon the bike.

Later, George

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Grantsville, W. Va.

Friends: That traveler's axiom that locals are friendliest where travelers travel least holds true for West Virginia. For the first time in ten days and over 700 miles through four states I have begun receiving friendly toots from motorists and twice I have been invited to spend the night at someone's home.

The first offer of lodging came just after I had crossed the Ohio River to St. Mary's, just a few miles up river from a double towered nuclear plant. As I exited the local IGA grocery store with my dinner of a can of baked beans, some potato salad and yogurt, a 40-year old man awaited me at my bike. He said, "Tell me about your travels." He said he had a touring bike, but hadn't done any touring on it. "Are you the town bicyclist?" I asked. "No, there are a couple others, but they like to ride harder than I do. They're always trying to get me to go riding with them though."

He warned me I had lots of hills ahead and wondered if I had ever done any climbing before. Rather than blowing him away with the facts, which he might have had a hard time believing, I merely replied in the affirmative. He asked if I knew about the website crazyguyonabike and wondered if might have contributed to it. I had an affirmative to that as well. He knew all about touring having read extensively of others' tours, but had yet to go off on one of his own. He hoped I could stay over and share some of my experiences. I wish I could have, if only to convince him to get on with it, maybe even the next day with me, but I had to tell him I was pressed to get to friends in North Carolina, and had to maximize my riding time.

I had to tell a retired World War II veteran the same thing the next day. He said a Japanese cyclist had passed through his town a few years ago and he let him stay in his tee pee in his backyard. He made the same offer to me. He was in a wheel chair and hadn't been on a bike in years. If I hadn't stopped to remove a link from my chain, I never would have met him. As I worked on my bike, he said I could do any repairs on my bike at his place, as he had every tool known to man. The site of all those tools was as enticing as spending a night in a tee pee. He ranted on about his displeasure with the war in Iraq and all else. He was particularly perturbed that Saddam Hussein was given a cell with carpeting and was fed better than he eats.

Although I passed some coal mining in the hilly terrain of southeast Ohio, I haven't encountered any coal trucks on these narrow roads of West Virginia, just a few logging trucks. Deer season is imminent. Quite a few stores advertise themselves as game control sites. The deer are quite plentiful and tame, not only around my tent at night but hopping across the road in broad daylight. Once the firing commences, I may have to be a bit more careful in my campsites.

Later, George

Monday, October 15, 2007

Oberlin, Ohio

Friends: Halloween may be a couple of weeks away, but its not too early for many homes out in rural and small-town America to already have transformed their front yards into some sort of tribute to the occasion. Ghosts and goblins and ghouls and graveyards with an array of tombstones abound. There is no shortage of pumpkins on display, some carved and others painted, along with a variety of giant plastic inflatables.

The decorations aren't as plentiful as those devoted to the bike along the Tour de France route,
but many are as ornate and extravagant and would most certainly attract the TV cameras if there were a parade or race passing by. Many are as passionate here about Halloween as the French are to their bike race. And the Ohioans are equally devoted to their Buckeyes. Once I crossed into Ohio from Indiana, I was greeted by flags and banners dangling from porches celebrating the number one-ranked gridiron Buckeyes. This is most certainly football country.

Only rarely have I noticed a bicycle on those porches or parked or ridden anywhere. For over 400 miles across Indiana and Ohio bicycles were an extreme rarity until I reached the college town of Oberlin, a town that announces itself as being home to the first school to accept students of both sexes and all races. It also has historical markers celebrating itself as a key stage in the underground railroad for liberated slaves.

If I hadn't included the Bicycle Museum of America on my route I might have been wondering if the bicycle was even known in these parts, or if it had been driven to extinction like the passenger pigeon. The dogs though knew enough to bark at me, and if unchained, to give chase, but with tailwinds all the way they had no hope of catching their prey or even giving it a fright.

I knew better than to hope I might encounter a fellow touring cyclist, as that is a breed virtually
extinct except in certain isolated pockets such as the Pacific coast line or the Bikecentennial Trail or New Zealand, but I had been hoping to see school kids out and about on their bikes and the occasional enlightened adult riding down Main Street to the P.O. or grocery store or wherever else people go in small towns that haven't been turned into dead zones by a Wal-Mart. White picket fences and expansive old trees with a swing and porches and bikes are supposed to be the emblems of small town America. Where was I? What would Norman Rockwell have to paint if he were still around?

In all these miles since leaving Chicago, the only person I came across upon a bicycle was a little girl riding on the sidewalk late in the afternoon in some small community. Her mother was walking beside her with a hand on her shoulder keeping her fledgling upright. Upon seeing me the girl jerked a hand from her handlebar and gave me an enthusiastic wave and hello, which I gladly returned.

And then in Oberlin I stayed with friends with a six-year daughter of their own who had just gained her wings and was eager to give a demonstration. She sped off down their driveway, not slowing for a couple of blocks, with her dad and I jogging along trying to keep up, not realizing she was going to be so speedy that we ought to have been on our bikes as well. She was thrilled when her dad said he and I would bike along with her to school, and so were we. Two small
drops of hope, not much, but at least something.

On to West Virginia, George

Friday, October 12, 2007

New Bremen, Ohio

Friends: The CEO of Crown Fork Lift, a Fortune 500 company, headquartered in New Bremen, Ohio rescued the majority of the Schwinn bicycle collection that was auctioned off at Sotheby's in Chicago over a decade ago and installed it at a museum he established in this small town of 3,000 near the Indiana border in central Ohio. It made for a nice three-day, 260-mile bike ride through rural middle-America from Chicago.

Jim Dickey spent nearly one million dollars at the auction and has spent quite a lot more since building up the collection to some 350 bikes. His most expensive acquisition was a Schwinn tandem from the 1890s that cost him $108,000 at another auction. It was accompanied by a photo of Schwinn founder Ignacz and his wife astride it along with a child on a baby seat. Dickey named his museum The Bicycle Museum of America. It is housed on three floors of a building that dates to 1891 in the heart of New Bremen.

Less than half of the museum's collection of bikes came from the Schwinn collection, not all of which were Schwinns, but there is a heavy emphasis on Schwinn throughout the museum, even Chicago street signs from around the Schwinn factory--Kildare, Wabanasia, Cortland, Kostner. There is a collection of Schwinn videos, including one of a company outing in 1952 to the Riverview Amusement Park, and assorted others from over the years meant for dealers. One of the prized bikes from the initial auction was the one millionth Orange Crate off the assembly line. Along with it was a photo of a couple dozen Schwinn employees celebrating the occasion.

The museum traces the bike's lineage from the bike's precursor, the 1816 Draisine from Germany, to a 2007 version of a Biria, also of Germany. There is a room full of "Collapsables," also known as fold-up bikes. There are two Bike Fridays. There is a room of trikes. There are two rare, highly sought after Bowden Spacelanders, a futuristic fiber-glass bike from 1960 designed by automobile engineer Ben Bowden. Only a few hundred were ever manufactured. There is a Lance exhibit featuring a local teen-aged boy who recovered from cancer and was befriended by Lance.

There was a tribute to Bikecentennial and the 4,000 cyclists who rode the coast-to-coast route it established in 1976 to celebrate the Bicentennial. The Bicycle Cow from Chicago's Cow Summer hangs from the ceiling of one of the larger rooms. There was a scrapbook with dozens of newspaper clippings documenting Raymond Bryan's record-setting coast-to-coast ride, New York to San Francisco, in 1940 sponsored by the American Bicycle League. The 20-year old was hoping to do it in 20 days. It took him 27 days and 11 hours, a record that stood for ten years.

Among the many exhibits and quotes celebrating and promoting the bicycle was Susan B. Anthony's: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance." The museum's vast library of books wasn't accessible, as the building housing them is being renovated. One of the main rooms was being set up for a luncheon to be attended by 42 tomorrow. The museum has even hosted weddings. Didi Senft, the German who masquerades as the Devil at the Tour de France, was acknowledged as the inventor of the largest known bike, 7.8 meters long and 3.7 meters high.

I would gladly return to the museum to see it all again and to see what may have slipped my attention. And I may have a chance in a couple weeks as I swing back this way after visiting friends in Oberlin, 200 miles away up by Cleveland, and then bike 500 miles south to other friends in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It will end up being a nice 2,000 mile fall trip. Its not as exotic as last fall's 4,000 miles around Japan, but it is always a happy time to be off on the bike, and in my tent night after night.

Later, George