Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kosciusko, Miss.

Friends: The two main streets through the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa are University Boulevard and Paul W. Bryant Drive. Bryant was Alabama's football coach from 1958 to his death of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 69. He won six national championships and is considered by many to be the greatest college football coach of all time. His 323 victories in 38 seasons as a head coach at four universities were the most ever until 80-year old Joe Paterno of Penn State recently surpassed him.

A few blocks east of the 93,000-seat Bryant-Denny football stadium is the Paul W. Bryant Museum, opened in 1988. It is one of the most popular attractions in the state. Though it primarily focuses on the career of Bryant complete with a recreation of his office, it is also a tribute to Alabama football. The school has won 12 national championships, more than any other college. Its 40 bowl appearances are more than any other school. Only Michigan and Notre Dame have a higher winning percentage.

Alabama first fielded a team in 1892. The team's first national championship came in 1925 culminating with a 20-19 win over Washington in the Rose Bowl. All of the South took pride in Alabama's success. A newspaper headline screamed, "Alabama splatters myth of Western Football Supremacy." Three years before Alabama suffered a woeful loss in a bowl game. One reporter wrote that Alabama didn't have much of a football team, but that it had "A Million Dollar Band." The band has adopted that as its nickname ever since. Waydell sent out a couple of "Million Dollar Band" post cards.

Alabama last won a national championship in 1992 under Gene Stallings. He is one of four coaches to lead Alabama to a national championship. Each is immortalized with a statue along a walkway approaching the football stadium. Each game day the football team walks past them all on their way into the stadium to their locker room through a vast plaza thronged with fans lining a walk of honor. Present coach Nick Saban hopes to join their ranks this year. He has already won one national championship at LSU several years ago before he left the college ranks to coach the Miami Dolphins. His team is presently undefeated and ranked second in the nation.

The 60-year old woman who oversees an historic, antebellum mansion on the fringe of the campus that we stopped at, said she thinks Saban is so great he could surpass Bryant's record of six national championships even though he has yet to win his first here at Alabama. The state is full of such believers. Saban was recently the cover story of "Forbes" magazine. There were stacks on sale at the museum. Every head coach in Alabama's history is profiled in the museum, even those in the recent past with barely .500 records. The coaches receive much more prominence than any of the players. Frank Howard, one of Bryant's predecessors, who also won a couple of national championships, was the Gipper's roommate at Notre Dame.

So many great quarterbacks have played at Alabama it is known as Quarterback U. Among the greatest are Bart Starr, Ken Stabler and Joe Namath. Oddly, none of them won the Heisman Trophy. The only Heisman trophy winner Bryant coached was John David Crowe at Texas A. & M. in 1957, the year before Bryant came to Alabama. He also coached at Maryland and Kentucky.

No mention was made of the first African-American to play for Alabama. When I asked the receptionist if she knew who it might have been, she said, "Someone just asked me that last week. I'll have to go get our curator to find out." She returned with a 40-year old husky guy wearing an Alabama polo shirt. Wilbur Jackson was the first to play in 1971. The first black athlete to compete for any Alabama team was a basketball player in 1969. He is presently the coach of Alabama's woman's basketball team.

The curator, like so many people we've met in the state, are ecstatic about the return to greatest of Alabama football after a prolonged dry spell. They've lost the last six games to their interstate rival Auburn. "That's a sore point," the curator said. He also mentioned that Alabama hasn't won a game in November the past two years. This Saturday's game should break that streak, but he wasn't being too cocky about it. It is homecoming weekend. The day we were on campus was election day for homecoming queen. All the sororities had large signs out front promoting their candidate. Pairs of young woman stood around the quad holding bed-sheets with a candidate's name. Cars everywhere had candidate's names written in white paint on their windows. A crew was stacking wooden pallets about 30-feet high for Friday night's bonfire in the center of a huge quad. Most of the school's 25,000 students will be there along with the football team and the band and a free musical act. In the past they've had Willie Nelson and "Alabama." Alabama may be as football-mad as Indiana is basketball-mad. For a state with a population of only four-and-a-half million people it has had an extraordinary history of athletic success and producing exceptional athletes. Five of the top fifteen athletes on ESPN's list of the 100 greatest athletes of the century are from Alabama and none of them are football players--Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Willie Mays and Carl Lewis.

The Bryant museum had stacks of programs left over from the last home game free for the taking. It provided appropriate reading material in the tent that night. Our campsite was down a logging road in a clearing just beyond an enclosed deer hunter's blind on stilts with slots for rifles on three sides. It was full of spider webs, indicating it hadn't been used in a while, sparing us the concern of being someone's target. An hour earlier as we snacked in a meadow along the road, a pick-up pulled up alongside us. The driver asked, "Didn't I just see you folks back at Fosters?" Its not the first time someone has told us they'd seen us miles or even days before. We told him we planned to camp down the road and wondered if it was hunting season yet. He said, "Its hunting season all year here, but you don't have to worry about being bothered."

In the morning when we left out campsite I left the football program in the hunting blind. Waydell commented, "Too bad we don't have any porno to leave too." I had been telling her I often find discarded porno along the road and that I like to redistribute it leaving it in unlikely places. We've only seen one porn magazine so far, as we were approaching Cairo, and didn't stop for it. It could well have been jettisoned by someone who had attended a symposium on pornography at Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale the night before. It was a debate between porn star Ron Jeremy and anti-porn crusader Craig Gross, founder of XXX Church.It attracted such a huge crowd that the police had to be called in to control gate-crashers. The two previous biggest draws at SIU were Maya Angelou in 2007 and a forum on marijuana a few years earlier.

The visitor center in the first town we came to in Mississippi (Columbus) was the former home of Tennessee Williams. He's just one of several authors on a poster that called Mississippi
"The State of Authors." Faulkner of course is another, along with Richard Wright and Eudora Welty and a few others. Two of the rooms in the visitor center were devoted to Williams' career. There was a photo of Williams as a young man with a friend, each holding a bike with a bedroll and clothes lashed to the rear rack. They were headed on a bike trip to Mexico. Columbus is also the birth place of Memorial Day. Following the Civil War locals honored both Union and Confederate graves in the local cemetery, leading to the establishment of Memorial Day.

Out of Columbus we suffered the worst 25 miles of our trip, riding the shoulder of a two-lane divided highway to Starkville, home of Mississippi State University, with the non-stop din of trucks and cars flying past us at 70 miles per hour. The traffic provided a bit of a tail wind, so I put my head down and pedaled hard trying to get this stretch over with as fast as possible. We stopped after three miles in the shade of an underpass to shed a layer of clothes. Waydell commented, "This isn't fun at all." When we finally turned off nearly an hour-and-a-half later, Waydell came up alongside me and said, "Can we take a break here. I feel like I've been riding for my life trying to keep up the last twenty miles." I had given a periodic look back to make sure she was still on my wheel or nearby and she had been. For all the 700 miles we have come I have ridden at my usual pace and she was there. But these were unusual circumstances. She said she felt like the racers in the Tour de France suffering with all their might to keep up. And she did with another exceptional effort. When we stopped at Starkville at 3:30 we had come 71 miles.

There were four Triple-A approved hotels in this college town. The next town with a hotel, Asherton, was 25 miles away and it was not in our Triple-A book. We were in no rush to be anywhere. We could stay here if we wished. Waydell said, "Let's take a break and then decide." Thirty minutes later after a lemonade and some nuts she voted to push on. We arrived in Asherton at dark, four miles short of her second century in three days, and were relieved to discover the Asherton Inn was still in business and had a vacancy. When we checked in the Indian proprietor asked if we wanted the weekly rate, as did the bulk of his clientele. We asked if he had no-smoking rooms. He did not. Our room was saturated with tobacco, but it didn't reek as badly as the one in Florence. We figured we could endure it. We were just happy to have a warm place, as the night before the temperature fell below freezing. There have been record low temperatures all over the South the past two days. We didn't even object that the heater didn't work in the room or that the TV only received eight stations, all cable, denying Waydell a network show she likes, "Pushing Daisies." When we awoke in the morning the temperature in our room was 60, quite balmy compared to our tent the morning before.

Mississippi is the sixth and final state we will pass through on this trip. It brings to twelve the number of states that Waydell has bicycled in, as many states as Alabama has won national championships in football. Her twelve includes Alaska--a short day ride in Skagway when she was on a cruise up the Inside Passage. She'll add number 13 this January, maybe keeping up with Alabama's football team, when she takes a real vacation in Hawaii and bikes down a volcano.

We are closing in on the Natchez Trace Parkway, the nation's longest national park. Over dinner at a nearby diner, the proprietor recommended we enter at the small town of French Camp. He said he used to ride the road all the time on his Huffy, but not any longer. He too enthusiastically assured us we were in for a wonderful ride on The Trace.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Friends: One of the bonuses of staying in a hotel is the weather channel. Saturday night in Florence we learned a switch in the weather was due Monday with a strong wind from the northwest bringing colder temperatures. The cold didn't much matter to us, but we were thrilled to learn about the direction of the wind. We were headed south and that wind might be just what we needed for Waydell's century.

We intended to make Sunday a semi-rest day. Our plan was to leisurely explore Florence a bit before heading south to the Helen Keller House and Shrine in nearby Tuscumbia, only open from one to four on Sundays. We were due for a rest after six straight days spent largely on the bike, something Waydell had never experienced. Though she spends her work-week sitting in an office, her twelve-mile daily commute and long weekend rides had so far adequately conditioned her for this ride. Her only complaint has been some soreness in her glutes and the mystery bruises that have splotched her legs. Popping a Tylenol along with her morning vitamin pill has kept her going.

We didn't sleep as late as we might have Sunday morning, as our next door neighbors were up before seven loading their van for the weekend Renaissance Fair in the park in front of the library. But we probably got a better night's sleep than if we had stayed at the first hotel we tried in downtown Florence. It offered weekly rates and had the seedy look of a place that might attract some late night altercations. A couple of semi-homeless looking guys had a small barbecue going by the stairs we had to haul our bikes and gear up. We tried three different rooms before asking for our money back. The first reeked of tobacco, the second the faucets in the sink didn't work and the third the TV didn't work. A janitor, who had failed to get the sink to work, tried to connect a second TV. When that failed, we said enough. Henceforth, we'll try to stay at hotels recommended by Triple A.

We began our Sunday morning wandering about Florence in search of a grocery store. We were told the only one in the area was at the Wal-Mart. It was two miles up the road from our hotel. We missed it and had to ask directions. It was a bit obscured up on a hill. But once we were pointed in the right direction, all we had to do was follow the traffic, as that is where everyone was headed on a Sunday morning before church. People just get friendlier and friendlier the further south we go. We couldn't even walk the aisles of the Wal-Mart without someone asking about our trip.

From the Wal-Mart we headed two miles north to the Wilson Dam, built from 1918 to 1924. It is 137 feet high and nearly a mile long blocking the Tennessee River. It creates more electricity than any other dam under the Tennessee Valley Authority. Nearby is a huge Marriot and the 30-story Renaissance Tower, the highest building in Florence. A park overlooking the dam includes the Florence Walk of Honor recognizing noteworthy locals. There were several generals, the chief engineer of the Panama Canal, a Pulitzer Winner (Thomas Stribling) and Sam Phillips, "Father of Rock and Roll," founder of Sun Records and discoverer of Elvis Presley. If this were France, Jonathon Rosenbaum would have been amongst them.

Biking around the neighborhoods we saw many "I heart Sarah" signs, but not a one for Obama. The lone mention of Obama was a "Pray for Obama for President" bumper sticker on a painter's van driven by an African American. No dogs bothered us in town, though many have given us chase out in rural areas. Waydell was happy to discover that so far they have all focused on the person in the lead, which is usually me, rather than trying to pick off the one behind. But that doesn't prevent her from speeding up, sometimes coming up alongside me, letting me provide further interference. The dogs to worry about are those that don't bark, concentrating all their efforts on catching us. Once when Waydell was in the lead and she saw such a dog come a chasing she muttered, "Oh God," before going into sprint mode. They certainly enliven our day, as we do theirs, but aren't really anything to be much concerned about.

It was homecoming weekend for the local university, but the campus was very quiet. The only activity was a trickle of people visiting the school's mascots--a pair of lions. They reside in a large fenced-in enclosure with a waterfall and a pool and a handful of toys. They were slumbering this morning, perhaps exhausted from being hauled over to the football stadium for the previous day's game. They are only on display during the daylight hours, then are sequestered in their night-time dens. There were several different brochures describing them and answering the most asked questions, some a bit contrived. One of the questions was, "What is the color of their eyes at birth?" The answer--"They are born with blue eyes. They eventually turn green, then amber."

We arrived at the vast grounds of where Helen Keller was born and grew up just as a bus load of 50 Canadians from Saskatoon on a 30-day tour of the US was arriving. We were able to join their tour after we paid the five dollar admission. We were given green stickers with a water pump verifying we had paid. The water pump is significant, as it was at the water pump on the property that Helen learned her first word--"water." She was born in 1880 and suffered an illness 19 months later that left her blind and mute. She had an IQ of 160 and an equally extraordinary will to learn. One of her axioms was, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." She was the first deaf and blind person to graduate from college (Radcliffe) in 1905. It was 50 years before the next. She wrote books and was a strong advocate for the deaf and blind. She was friends of ten presidents and countless noteworthy figures. She died in 1968.

Wydell and I with our green stickers on the grounds of Helen Keller's childhood home.

The milk shakes of the Palace Ice Cream Parlor, just a few blocks from Helen Keller's home, are on the list of "100 Things to Eat in Alabama Before You Die." That was a must for Waydell. But it is no longer open on Sunday. The hours for Sunday in the window had recently been whited out. Its not the first business we've encountered that has cut back on its hours. While we sat outside on a bench munching energy bars, a father and his small daughter strolled up looking forward to an ice cream cone and a banana split. They were locals and were as disappointed as we were that the Palace was closed.

The father was wearing a T-shirt that read "Bama is Back." "Is that a new T-shirt," I asked, knowing that Alabama is having its best season in several years, and is currently ranked number 2 in the nation. "No this is an Auburn shirt from a few years ago," he said, "Referring to how badly Alabama had been doing." The Alabama-Auburn rivalry greatly divides the state. An easy way to start a conversation is to ask someone who they root for. We talked for about 15 minutes. He told us there was a Sunday night fireworks display in the park. This was a camping night, so we had no time for that. He gave us directions out of town on back roads towards the small town of Crooked Oak, warning us of a hill just before a fork in the road. Waydell is experienced enough now to laugh at the hill when we came to it, as it hardly compared to many we had already climbed.

We biked for about an hour until dark, finally encountering a hill that forced Waydell off her bike, but only because she waited until it was too late to get into her lowest gear. That's not likely to happen again. We camped in a thick forest of oaks. All night long acorns plopped around us until about two a.m. when a northerly wind came blasting through shaking the trees and bombarding us with acorns. It continued for about an hour. When the wind slackened, all the acorns had fallen and we had no more interruptions. The cold north wind plunged the temperature from the low 60s to the low 40s.

The 200 feet from our campsite to the road was the most treacherous stretch we had encountered in our entire trip, pushing our bikes through low-lying strands of thorns. I hadn't initially seen them when I plunged into the forest before a motorist came along. They had lacerated my calves before I realized how thick they. Waydell was much more careful, though she did scratch herself as well during the night getting up to relieve herself.

It was another tights day, so our legs didn't have a chance to attract anybody's suspicions that we might be escapees or refugees of some sort. A little after we passed the tiny town of Crooked Oak and were approaching the larger town of Russellville, a town that people had been telling us had been taken over by Hispanics, a 20-year old in a Corvette pulled up alongside us and shouted through the open passenger window that he'd like to have a word with us. He had seen us pass as we was having breakfast and chased after us. He said he and his dad did a little touring and wondered what we were doing passing through their small town. That is a question we've been asked before. His dad had ridden the 444-mile Natchez Trace trail from Nashville, Tenn. to Natchez, Miss. with his wife as a support vehicle. He, as many others, highly recommended it. Since it passes through Jackson, Mississippi, where we'll catch the train back to Chicago, we'll ride at least a little of it. The young man said he hadn't ridden his bike in several months. He biked to school once and everybody made fun of him for it, so he hasn't since. We were looking for a place for breakfast. He knew of only one possible place, Dot's, other than several fast food franchises. When it wasn't on our way, we had to settle for Jack's, crammed with people having sausage and biscuits.

We had biked 12 miles when we stopped for breakfast. We hoped we were within 90 miles of Tuscaloosa, our intended destination for the night, but a closer look at our map showed it was 105 miles away. That was going to make for an extra challenging century, unless the tail winds were direct and exceptional, and the terrain not too hilly. We were due for a motel, so we had to push all the way to Tuscaloosa, a good incentive for Waydell. We had 11 hours of light. If we could average 14 miles per hour, we'd spend 8 hours pedaling.

We had a long climb, what the locals call "the mountain," out of Russellville. The terrain leveled off as we followed a train track. Waydell commented that she could now appreciate the flat riding around Chicago. One of the biggest surprises of the trip for her is how smooth the country roads have been, in contrast to the rough, bumpy, pot-holed roads of Chicago. We were able to fly at 20 miles per hour for a couple miles before coming up against another series of hills dropping our average speed to less than 13.5 miles per hour. For the next 60 miles we'd inch our average speed back to 14 miles and then be set back. This wasn't going to be as easy as we hoped it might have been.

We stopped at a one-person rural grocery store at noon that had no milk or juice, just a lot of cardboard box bins of items at extremely reduced prices, some boxes with all items priced at a quarter or a dime. We picked up a handful of 220 calorie energy bars for a dime and a grapefruit energy drink for 49 cents. A car out front had a bumper sticker, "No Obama-Nation" with a photo of Obama and a slash through it. I asked if they had any for sale. "I wish I did. I can't keep them in stock," I was told. The woman ahead of us in the check out line asked the cashier, "Did you hear Junior got saved? He doesn't watch TV or movies no more. All he wants to do is read the Bible." "You got a good Christian family," the cashier replied. "Maybe he'll become a preacher."

We had come 50 miles. We thought we'd take our next break 30 miles later. A few miles before, we came to a service station. Waydell suggested we take advantage of its bathroom. In the hallway leading to the bathroom was a large portrait of General Lee. Underneath was the caption, "If I had foreseen what would happen, I never would have surrendered at Appomattox. I would have fought to the death." Among the many Dixie bumper stickers on sale was, "American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God."

I had been leading out Waydell since breakfast and we were both doing fine. When we saw a 32 miles to go sign to Tuscaloosa at four o'clock after we had come 80 miles we felt confident we were going to make it. As we neared our 100 mile marker, I peeled off and let Waydell break the barrier. She raised a fist and gave a "whoopee," but didn't care to stop for a photo. It was another 12 miles before we found the Best Western we had been looking for. There wasn't a worthy nearby restaurant to celebrate at and it was best for Waydell just to lay back. I went in search of pizza. It was another momentous day on the bikes.

Later, George

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Florence, Alabama

Friends: As we were closing in on Florence, Alabama it suddenly dawned on us that we might have crossed into the Eastern time zone. Waydell could have checked the local time on her cell phone, as its satellite GPS feature keeps precise track of her location and could have let us know what time zone we were in. But the phone was buried deep in her handlebar bag. She tried rummaging for it as we rode, but couldn't easily dig it out or extract it from its case. We could have stopped, but if we'd lost that hour, we couldn't spare a moment in our race to reach the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Alabama before its last tour of the day this Saturday afternoon at three p.m. If we missed it, the next one wouldn't be until Tuesday, two days away.

It was a little before two Central time and we were seven miles away. We were having a great day, our best yet, having come 63 miles already. We had been riding since 7:20 that morning after camping behind a Pentecostal church three miles north of Mildgeville, TN. It had been our coldest night of the trip--47 degrees in the tent when we arose at 6:40 and 41 degrees outside the tent. We were forced to put on tights for the first time. It wasn't a bad thing for Waydell, as she has been developing mysterious bruises on her legs. We didn't want to raise anyone's suspicions that I might be urging her on with extra force.

We whipped off a quick 20 miles to Savannah, TN, where we stopped for a hearty breakfast--Waydell an omelet and biscuits and gravy and I a three-stack of pancakes so huge and thick I could only eat half of them and could barely stuff the rest in my Tupperware bowl. It was fuel enough to get me to Florence. It looked as if it was going to be our first meal in two days since Cairo without someone coming over for a friendly chat. The waitress hadn't even expressed any extra cordiality or curiosity in our biking to insure a tip. I learned why when I went to pay our bill--a 20% gratuity was included in the bill, a sign of tough times that even on small bills people couldn't be trusted to leave a worthy tip.

The morning before in Dresden we spent half our breakfast in conversation with a local retired couple. Even before we were served, a woman from a nearby table came over to talk, at first standing over us and then pulling up a chair. She told us about a cyclist on a recumbent they had met two years before who had been traveling from Flagstaff, Arizona to New Hampshire. "He had a pony tail and looked like a hippie, though he said he taught at a small university," she said. She called over to her husband to ask if he could remember his blog. He said he couldn't, but mentioned that the guy had written about meeting them on his blog. "He told us he had been a lawyer in San Francisco," he said. "I couldn't believe it, but there it was on his blog. We bought him lunch and we're going to buy your breakfast. And we'll take care of the tip as well. We only ask that you pass the kindness on to someone else. That's what the other cyclist said he was going to do."

That has been the most extreme case of southern hospitality we have encountered so far, but there have been plenty of other examples. We've had several people offer us accommodations, but it has always been too early in the day for us to stop. Just as we were finishing our interruption-free breakfast in Savannah, we heard a guy, who had just entered the restaurant, tell a waitress, "No we don't want to eat, we just want to talk with those two over there." We looked up as two guys, one elderly and the other much younger, approached us. "We saw your bikes outside and we wanted to talk to you," the younger began. "I ride a bike too. I'm about the only cyclist in this town, but I'm trying to get others to bike too. I once rode from New Jersey to here." He asked what direction we were headed. We told him we were going to Alabama on route 69. He warned us to be careful. "There are so many accidents on that road it is known as Bloody 69," he said. "It has lots of bends and its narrow and there's no shoulder. I live along it and I hate to bike it."

"We've heard about it, " I said, "but we were hoping there wouldn't be too much commercial traffic on a Saturday morning." "Maybe not, but it's still dangerous. If you can survive this road, you can survive any road in the United States." He said he wished he could ride along with us for added protection, but that he and his dad were headed to the local flea market in Crump to look for bikes. We had passed it on the way into town, and were sorry ourselves that we couldn't give it a look. It was huge, strung out for over half a mile along the road. The guy we were talking to said he recently bought ten mountain bikes that were on sale in the Nashbar catalog to sell in town. The only bike shop in town had been driven out of business by Wal-Mart. Now there was no one to repair bikes except for him. It was just a side business, as his main occupation was trimming trees. He tried to be a bicycling ambassador, riding his bike as much as he could, even with a trailer hauling up to 200 pounds. He was another who said he would have offered us a place to stay if it had been later in the day.

It was 22 miles to Alabama and they were 22 of the most enjoyable miles we have ridden on this trip. "Bloody 69" gave us not a single fright or pause. There was hardly any traffic and the road was accompanied by a very ample 12-inch shoulder most of the way. Waydell even set a record for her fastest descent of the trip, nearly 40 miles per hour. She flew past me, as she is much more aerodynamic without front panniers. Aerodynamics trumps weight, as I weigh at least 20 pounds more than Waydell and am carrying perhaps 30 pounds more gear--our tent, tools, food, maps, books and other sundries.

We also had a tail wind for the first time since our first day out of St. Louis. We were having a glorious, rollicking, rural ride, until we were struck by the fear that we might have lost an hour thanks to the time zones. As we reached Florence, Waydell called out that we should have turned left rather than following the road towards the Tennessee River. We stopped to study our map. Before we could pull it out, a police officer on a motorcycle materialized. He gave us directions to the Frank Lloyd Wright House, less than half a mile away, and also the great news that it was 2:30, not 3:30.

We arrived shortly with twenty minutes to spare before the day's last tour. There was a note on the door saying "Tour in progress" and another that read, "Next tour at three p.m." We sat and munched on nuts and dried apricots, figuring we might have a private tour. But we were soon joined by two other couples and a young Asian man with a big camera around his neck who prowled the grounds taking pictures of this modest, one-story, L-shaped house and its spacious grounds .

Our tour guide, an older well-dressed and heavily made-up woman, a SWAG (Southern Woman Aging Gracefully), asked if any of us had visited any other Wright houses. All of us had. She said this was one of the first examples of Wright's Usonian houses, a more affordable version of his prairie homes. It was built in 1940 and was occupied by the original owners, the Rosenbaums, for 59 years, the last 16 years by the widow. When she needed to move into an assisted care facility in 1998 she sold the house to Florence for $75,000. The city spent $750,000 repairing it. As with most of Wright's flat-roofed homes, there had been extreme water leakage. Rather than repairing the leaks, Mrs. Rosenbaum simply put out another pail or bucket to catch the water. The house has averaged 5,000 visitors a year since it was opened to the public six years ago.

On a piano in the living room was a photo of the Rosenbaums, husband and wife and four young sons. When I asked the guide what had become of the sons, she said, "One is a social worker in Europe, another works for the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservatory Society touring the country giving lectures and wrote a book, another son is a movie critic in Chicago for some newspaper and the fourth passed away. He was an important lawyer. He really made something of himself." After the tour was over I told her we were from Chicago and read the movie reviews of the son there and wondered if she could identify him in the family photo. She couldn't. I also told her that he had recently turned 65 and had retired from the newspaper he worked for and that he was quite well known and had written several books. She said, "I didn't know that. I always learn something new on every tour I give. But its usually about Frank Lloyd Wright, as there are lots of people who come who have been to many of his houses."

The house cost $14,000 to build. Wright never visited the site, but sent one of his chief young assistants, a Mr. Goodrich, to oversee its construction. He was there for all eight months of the job. It was such an event, it drew crowds as it was built. The parents of Mr. Rosenbaum owned a handful of movie theaters throughout the South. He graduated from Harvard with honors and wished to become an English professor at the local college, Florence State Teacher College, but it didn't hire Jews, so he worked in the family business until 1960 when the university reversed its policy of not hiring Jews. The College was renamed the University of North Alabama in 1974.

In 1938 Mr. Rosenbaum married a model from New York City who had appeared in Vogue and brought her to Florence. By 1948 their three-bedroom house was too small for a family of six. They expanded it at a cost of $48,000, also designed by Wright. The chief improvements were a large kitchen and a bunk room for the boys called The Dorm. A single bunk bed was built into the wall and was of a double length so two boys could sleep at each level feet to feet. Wright didn't like ladders, so the two boys on top had to climb up the side. They each had their own storage locker which also served as a long bench under a window looking out on a courtyard. The house had four fire places and much of the original furniture, including eleven Ames chairs. Most of the furniture was constructed of plywood, a favorite material of Wright's. There were extensive bookshelves with many of the original books, some in Hebrew. Many had been lost due to water and flea damage. One of the three original bedrooms was Mrs. Rosenbaum's weaving room. It still contained her loom, strung with thread. On the wall was a glamorous photo of her from 1935, the year she met her husband-to-be.

In Mrs. Rosenbaum's later years before she moved out many visitors would drop by and ring her bell asking to see the house. She welcomed them all. She wouldn't show them around, but would plop them down in the living room and answer any of their questions. When she ushered them out, she would stick out her hand and say, "Five dollars please."

Later, George

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Martin, Tennessee

Friends: As Waydell and I had breakfast this morning in one of the four remaining restaurants in Cairo, Illinois, three different guys with pick-up trucks offered to drive us over the long, narrow, treacherous bridge spanning the Ohio River from Illinois to Kentucky just before its confluence with the Mississippi. We declined them all, though we did accept the card of the diner's owner, who said we could give him a call on Waydell's cell phone when we got to the bridge if we had second thoughts. While I went out to my bike to retrieve a water bottle, one of the men with a pick-up reiterated his offer to Waydell and added, "If your husband didn't want to accept a ride because he thought I was going to charge you, I wasn't. I'd gladly do it for free." Waydell told him that wasn't it at all.

I've heard exaggerated horrors of wretched roads and horrible traffic and unclimbable hills and rebels and other dangers up the road for years. So rarely have they lived up to their reputations that I give them little heed. Such was the case with East St. Louis and Cairo too. Cairo was littered with boarded-up homes and businesses, but it presented no threat to us whatsoever as we biked down its main four-lane wide, lightly-trafficked, thoroughfare this morning past its stately library built in 1883 and a several story courthouse and century-old mansions. When we passed a motel I told Waydell that if she were desperate for a shower, she could return to the motel after breakfast and hang out waiting for someone to check out who might leave the door to their room ajar. She could quickly slip in, grab a quick shower, and be gone before anyone knew, as I've done on occasion. "I don't think I'm going to be doing that," she replied, without giving it even a moment's thought.

Cairo was clearly a city in decline, but also formerly a city that had once thrived. In 1886 Cairo had the highest per capita valuation of commercial property in the U.S. thanks to the millions of dollars of goods that passed through down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the two largest rivers in the U.S. There was a neighborhood of mansions known as Millionaire's Row and an opera house and casinos. It was one of the most lively cities in the country away from the eastern seaboard.

We mentioned to a couple of people in the diner that for miles everyone who knew where we were headed warned us that Cairo was a dangerous place. An older woman turned to a guy and said, "See I told you that was our reputation. It's hogwash. When I go out at night I don't even lock my door. Everybody knows everybody here and there are no worries." The guy was concerned that she didn't lock her door. "It may be okay to do that now," he said, "but with the way things are going, I'd start locking it."

The two of them had been mildly arguing politics. The guy thought Obama would be good for the economy, taxing companies for outsourcing jobs, but the woman didn't agree. The owner said Obama's policies would allow him to hire an extra employee or two. I asked if they attended Obama's appearance when he was in Cairo in 2004 during his senatorial campaign. Obama writes about it in "Audacity for Hope." He too had been warned that he wouldn't receive much of a reception, that he'd be lucky if anyone came out to hear him in this greatly depressed city of 3,200 that had had a population of 10,000 after WWII. The cafe owner said that some 40 people came out to hear him, which was a lot for the town, but that he wasn't one of them, though now he wished he had been.

The offer of a ride over the bridge became a little more attractive when it started to rain as we were eating our breakfast, Waydell an egg sandwich and me a barbecue pork sandwich. This BBQ joint had a minimal breakfast menu and since hotcakes weren't on it, I settled for the house specialty, served all day long. The owner said we were lucky it was raining, as it would cut down on the farm traffic on the road after the bridge. We both have good rain gear, so we just gritted our teeth and dealt with it. It just made Waydell all the happier that tonight was a motel night, as we had camped the night before behind an abandoned house 18 miles north of Cairo. It was a nice flat campsite, more amenable to sleep than our previous campsite in a forest with a bit of a tilt that the all-too-slight Waydell kept sliding down.

There wasn't much traffic on the approach to the bridge, a mile from the cafe. We could see it rising up high over the Ohio. It was definitely very narrow, but as we crossed it the vast majority of its traffic was heading north into Illinois. Only two cars passed us going south, neither at a moment when there was traffic from the opposite direction, making for an uneventful ride. We could spare a glance or two to gaze upon the many barges docked in Cairo to our left and floating past, as we climbed to the peak of the bridge and then descended into Kentucky. It was four miles to Wickliffe. Half a mile out of town a 90-foot white cross stood on a hill overlooking the confluence of the brown-flowing Mississippi and the blue Ohio. The cross was erected in 1999. Fifty-one churches in the area raised $314,000 to fund it. Bright lights illuminate it at night for the river and road traffic.

The forecast was for rain all day. It was not wrong. The rain alternated from a drizzle to a heavy mist, but never slackened enough for motorists to use their intermittent windshield wipers. The zipper on Waydell's rain coat broke yesterday, so she had only snaps to hold it together, making it a little less than waterproof. Her T-shirt was damp from mid-chest to her waist when we stopped for lunch, but she had no complaints. Evidently we didn't look too bedraggled, as one of the three waitresses on duty, who were all sitting at a nearby table, eating their lunch after the restaurant had emptied, turned to us and said, "We've been saying we all envy you for what you are doing."

"Even in this weather?" I exclaimed.

"We certainly do. It must be a fun riding your bikes and seeing the country," she said.

"Yes, you're right about that," I agreed.

We've heard this refrain before. A retired guy in Huntington, TN, who had worked in maintenance for Northwestern Hospital in Chicago for years, told us, "I wish I could join you. All the years I worked in Chicago, I always wanted to ride my bicycle from Chicago back to Huntington." He and his wife stopped to talk to us as we sat on a bench outside the town's central plaza eating peanut butter on graham crackers. Across the street was the Dixie Theater, named for Dixie Carter, actress married to Hal Holbrook. The two will be in town next month for a Mark Twain reading. The wife told us she used to work for Dixie's father 50 years ago at his general store in Huntington. She earned 50 cents an hour.

Waydell has a new best friend--her small chain ring. She had never used it in the two years since she had purchased her touring bike until day two of this trip as we were climbing up a long, steep hill from the Mississippi River in Chester, home of Popeye. She has always simply powered up the climbs. She had no idea how much easier it is on the legs to be in that small chain ring, once derisively known as "the granny gear." It was a rarity on bikes when I began touring 30 years ago. My first two long trips, coast-to-coast across the U.S. in 1977 and Chicago to Anchorage up the Alaska Highway four years later, were on bikes unequipped with a triple, and my knees suffered for it. When I asked Waydell what she thought of her until now neglected small chain ring, she said, "I'm liking it."

Waydell is an arch-stoic and endures strain and hardship exceptionally well, as any hardcore cyclist must, not letting wind or cold or rough roads crack her calm or set her off complaining. My greatest concern in traveling with her is that she might push herself beyond the point of her endurance. I've repeatedly reminded her, "Don't be hesitant to ask to slow down or to stop for a rest. I don't want this to turn into a death march."

"It better not," she said, "I'd hate to have to sic my father or brother on you."

I've met her father, a retired accountant, and though he's very protective of his only daughter, he didn't seem the type to do anyone any harm. I don't know him well, but he seems to be a kindly, affable gent. But he did spend his entire working life in the employ of Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, PA, so he could well have some burly steel worker friends who could make anyone shudder. I've yet to meet her younger brother. He's a 17-year veteran of the Army and has served a couple of tours of duty in Iraq. Fortunately, for he and his family, and me as well, he's presently stationed in Germany. I doubt he is anything other than a decent guy, but he could well know some rough hombres who might not take kindly to someone making life difficult for his sister.

I've inflicted some harsh cycling on Waydell over the years, including a 35-mile ride in single digit temperatures when we were caught in a blizzard biking out to a distant theater to see a Bollywood film, another of Waydell's passions, yet she keeps coming back for more. Waydell has proved her toughness time and again, so I feel relatively safe in taking her off on a long tour, despite the untold number of hardships that are possible. I am just ever mindful that I promised her a shower at least every other night. She completed 57 miles in 50-degree rain today without a whimper, making for a 75-mile day, accomplishment enough for her to end our day with a smile. Her biggest smile, though, came when I fetched her a hot chocolate from a gas station mini-market across the street from our motel just before she took her shower.

We had a lot of wet gear to dry out, including our shoes. Waydell had been using a hair drier to dry them when I returned from the library. I asked her if she knew the newspaper trick, stuffing crumpled newspaper into wet shoes to suck the moisture out. She knew about using newspaper to wash windows, but not to dry shoes. She thought she had her shoes fairly dry, but I could tell there was plenty of moisture left. "You won't believe this," I said. "In five minutes the newspaper will be saturated. This is more impressive than any card or disappearing trick and useful too." And five minutes later, "voila," I had impressed her again. We had enough newspaper for a second go, and it too emerged damp a while later. She can hardly wait for her first soaking back in Chicago to perform the trick herself.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chester, Illinois

Friends: About 80 miles south of St. Louis, just beyond the bridge crossing the Mississippi to Chester, Illinois stands a statue of Popeye the Sailor Man. A mile later at the main intersection in Chester is a statue of Bluto. A little further is a statue of Wimpy. Continue on and there is another of Olive Oyl and Sweet Pea. Come back in a few years and there will be even more scattered about town.

Chester is the hometown of their creator, Elzie Segar. Olive Oyl came first in 1919, then Popeye ten years later. Chester is so proud of them all it hosts an annual Popeye Picnic and Parade the week after Labor Day that attracts fans from all over the world. Two of Popeye's biggest fans moved here from Memphis 14 years ago and opened Spinach Can Collectibles and a Popeye Museum. They started a fan club that has nearly 2,000 members. Their website is They are spearheading the effort to erect another dozen statues around town.

Their store is crammed with Popeye trinkets and memorabilia and oddities. Perhaps the oddest of them all is a copy of Segar's death certificate hanging on a wall crammed with newspaper clippings celebrating the sailor man. Segar died in Santa Monica, California in 1938 at the age of 44. The cause of death on the certificate is porial cirrhosis. The owners of the store said he was known to drink a lot and that he was a good friend of Clark Gable's, as if that too might have had something to do with his death. A poster of the Popeye movie from 1980 by Robert Altman hangs on another wall, even though the proprietors say they and Popeye fans didn't much care for it. They said the town has invited Robin Williams, who played Popeye, to its annual weekend of Popeye festivities, but he has declined, as he doesn't wish to be remembered for that role. There were plans to invite Shelley Duvall, who played Olive Oyl, until it was learned she had ballooned to 300 pounds. The organizers feared that the many children who attend the festival wouldn't be able to accept her as Olive Oyl.

The museum/store resides in the town's former opera house. I wondered what might be playing at the local movie theater. "It closed down years ago," the woman said. "We're only a town of 5,000 people. I know the sign outside of town lists the population as 8,400, but that includes everybody at the Menard penitentiary and the mental institution. There used to be a movie theater 20 miles away, but that one closed too."

The Chester library had the grandeur of a Carnegie. I asked the young woman at the circulation desk if it was. "We have a couple people a week stop in and ask that question," she said, " but I'm sorry, we're not." She recommended dining at the nearby Ol' Farmhouse. The menu continued the Popeye theme with Popeye Spanish Omelet, Popeye Spinach Supreme Salad, Olive Oyl Chef Salad, Sweet Pea's Cup of Soup, and The Big Brutus Burger. The Baptist Church next door was mobbed for a Wednesday evening presentation of Heaven's Gate and Hell's Fury.

I wasn't drawn to Chester as a Popeye fan, it was simply on the route along the Mississippi that will take my companion Waydell and I to Cairo, Illinois and then east to Alabama and Mississippi. The starting point for this bike tour was St. Louis after a five-and-a-half hour train ride from Chicago. We took the jump by train as Waydell's company, Towers Productions, can only spare her for two weeks. Our prime objective is to experience the Deep South in the days before the election, so we wanted to skip the northern two-thirds of Illinois to hasten our arrival.

Waydell and I have biked thousands of miles together over the years from one end of the Chicago metropolis to the other, visiting movie theaters and other sites, but never on a tour other than a three-day Thanksgiving weekend ride of 225 miles two years ago to Indiana and Michigan. We wild-camped both nights, so it offered Waydell a sip of the touring experience and confirmed our compatibility as traveling companions. Never before have I set out on a tour with a friend with so few doubts about how well we'd get along. Waydell and I ride at a similar pace and easily accommodate each other's whims. We're two days into this tour and all is as I hoped it would be.

One of Waydell's passions is ice cream. She had hoped to sample some of St. Louis' famed frozen custard. Before we left the St. Louis train depot we asked where we could find some. We were immediately told Ted Drewes was the place to go. The threesome we asked couldn't give us precise directions, but they said there were several stores and we'd probably find one on our way out of town. As we passed through the downtown of St. Louis and closed in on The Arch and the bridge to Illinois and hadn't come upon a Ted Drewes or any place offering frozen custard, we stopped to ask someone else where we might find some. That person too immediately recommended Ted Drewes, but said there were only two stores and the nearest was several miles away and not on our route. As much as Waydell was eager to try the local frozen custard, she deferred going that much out of our way for it. The locals responded with such fervor to Ted Drewes we googled it at the first library we stopped at. It is a genuine St. Louis institution, written up at Wikipedia.

When we crossed over the Eads Bridge to East St. Louis, we expected to come upon Illinois State Route 3 heading south along the river. After a mile, as the road led us through a run-down neighborhood, we figured we better ask for directions. We passed by a group of young men lingering outside a dive of a small liquor/grocery store. We waited until we saw a young woman sitting on a porch tending to a couple of small children. We had greatly overshot the road we were looking for, as it had crossed under the bridge. We had to double all the way back and then discovered we did not have easy access to it there. We asked another woman for directions. She pointed us towards the back gate of East St. Louis Southern Illinois University. After we passed through the small university we had to make a left and then a right. Then she warned us to be careful, as we would be passing through a rough neighborhood. She told us not to stop for any reason or to talk to anyone. She probably would have been horrified to hear where we had already been and who we talked to.

We've been hearing the same thing about Cairo, that it is a dangerous place and that we should be very careful and not spend any longer there than necessary. It only makes us all the more eager to see it. It is 100 miles away. If we get an early enough start tomorrow and the winds are favorable, we might be able to make it in one day, fulfilling early on one of Waydell's goals for this trip--a 100-mile day. Her best previous effort was 99 miles on an all-day into the night ride around Chicago's perimeter. When she arrived home near midnight, she didn't care to circle around for a final mile, preferring it to be a genuine 100 miles.

The only other stated goal of Waydell's, at least that she has told me, is not to go more than one day without a shower. Not having a shower the two nights that we wild-camped on our previous tour was her only complaint. So tonight we are staying in a hotel after wild-camping last night. We had hoped to get a shower at a nearby campground, but the campground was closed, forcing us to splurge on a hotel. We had designs on another campground 34 miles from here, but we were delayed by several detours, one to Fort de Chartres and another by missing a turn, so we couldn't have reached it before dark. Our directional mishaps have not concerned us yet, as we are enjoying the pleasant biking and our long-time desire to finally be off on a long ride together.

Later, George