Friday, April 22, 2011


Friends: Finally, after 6,000 miles over three tours in the past eight months since acquiring my Surly touring bike I had a one hundred mile day, 120 miles to be exact, on my final stretch to Chicago. It was a long day of biking mostly into a breeze from the north from eight a.m. until nearly nine p.m. I hit Chicago's magnificent Lake Front Bicycle Path at it southern extremity in the waning hours of light for a glorious ten-mile entry into the city. If Chicago was nestled along the eastern tip of Lake Michigan rather than its western side, I could have had a sunset to watch.

Instead, I could feast my eyes on the dazzlingly lit skyline of the city of Big Shoulders, taking special satisfaction knowing that I had been in every single one of those downtown buildings as a messenger and considered each a friend. I knew all their lobbies and elevators and special features. It made for a grand finale to another wonderful three weeks and 1,350 miles on the bike. Small-town America makes for as fine cycling as anywhere.

I made the ride to visit a few friends and also to condition myself for next week's six hundred mile ride from Paris to Cannes. A century finale proved that not only are my legs ready for it, but for The Tour de France as well, as 120 miles is the average length of most of its twenty-one stages. I'll lose a bit of my conditioning watching movies all day for twelve days, with my only biking being the three mile ride in from the campground I'll be staying at and back and the occasional dash about town to a distant theater, but I'll have five weeks to fully recharge them once I'm done with the cinema extravaganza before the start of The Tour the first week of July.

France was well on my mind as I cycled. I began prepping my tongue for France by asking librarians for the "toilet," as the French call it, rather than the American euphemism "bathroom" or "restroom," despite the sometimes startled looks I would get for using the somewhat gauche term Americans like to avoid.

I also brought along two books on France to read. One was Lonely Planet's 500-page cycling guide to France, the initial 2001 edition with all the prices still listed in francs. It was the second cycling guide Lonely Planet published, after New Zealand, and just one of several in its vast library of travel guides. I wasn't in search of roads to ride, rather interesting and odd sites that have escaped me during my past seven summers of biking all over France.

I succeeded in finding a handful. One is a giant sculpture of a cyclops at Fontainebleau just south of Paris. Another is the cemetery where Van Gogh and his brother are buried north of Paris. And I'll search out Le Sportsman, a sports book store in Paris with a huge cycling section. I'll also have a wealth of museums to check out.

The back cover of the book promised to explain the Tour de France. It devotes eight pages to it early on and scatters mentions of it and its heroes throughout the book. It is fairly well-versed in its machinations but doesn't get everything right. It says Van Impe was the King of the Mountains ten times (p346). It was six. It says Anquetil beat Poulidor on the Puy de Dome (p336). Poulidor prevailed by forty seconds, though Anquetil kept the yellow jersey. It says there is a statute of Bobet and Coppi at the top of the Col d'Izoard (p346). There is a plaque to the two of them a couple miles from the summit. These are all storied, significant events in the lore of The Tour, that any true fan of the sport knows as well as his parent's birthdays.

And there are the usual index oversights. It includes the book's mentions of Anquetil and Poulidor and Merckx and Hinault and DesGrange, but not the mentions of Armstrong, LeMond, Bobet, Fignon, Indurain and Pantani. Index inconsistency is one of my favorite pet peeves. At least it does acknowledge Mont Ventoux and the Col de Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez.

France is famous for its museums, not only in Paris, but all over the country. They can pop up in the smallest of towns and be devoted to any odd topic--berets, the postal service, the Resistance, postcards, wine, corkscrews, skiing, perfume, cartoons and the usual museums of art and those devoted to a famous individual. There are hundreds of them. Unfortunately, it didn't reveal any bicycle museums I hadn't visited. In fact, I knew of several the book didn't mention. It did mention a couple of plaques to The Tour de France that were new to me, though it failed to include quite a few I knew of. It had the usual faux pas concerning The Tour, but was more race savvy than many books.

I also brought along a book on the French Revolution. There are hundreds. I try to read at least one a year. This was the classic "The Sans-Culottes," by Albert Soboul. I was so busy visiting Carnegies and reading local literature, I wasn't able to complete it or get to the third book I brought along, one of Jan Morris's many travel books.

My final day included four Carnegies. I've already reported on those in Rennselarr and Monon. The final two were in Hebron and Crown Point. The Hebron head librarian, Pam Ferber, was the first true Carnegie devotee I met on this trip. When I asked her that question I ask at each library, "How was your community lucky enough to get a Carnegie?" she lit up and said, "It's a wonderful story. The local woman's group at the time put great effort into raising the money, getting the necessary subscriptions from people in the area to meet Carnegie's requirement of being able to maintain the library once he provided the funds for its construction. One man mortgaged his house to be able to buy this property for the Carnegie. There was a house on it that had to be torn down. The Carnegie Corporation approved their request in 1917, but with war-time shortages, the library wasn't completed until 1922. It was one of the last built in Indiana."

I told her I had visited the last one built in Linden and also the first in Clarksville. She was delighted to meet someone who'd been to so many Carnegies and asked, "Are you a professor?" She said she'd love to go on such a quest as I've been on, but never had. She took me around the library and proudly pointed out two original desks and an original magazine rack and checkout table. As the library in Brookstone, when Hebron expanded in 1995 it totally sealed up its former entrance and tried to hide it with landscaping. Above its arch was "PVBLIC LIBRARY." The new entry retained the same spelling of "public." In the lawn in front of the old entrance was a rock with a plaque that stated, "This tablet placed in recognition of donations received from the Carnegie Corporation." The Carnegie portrait in the new entry was one I hadn't seen, a formal corporate-looking Carnegie without the standard book of the usual portrait.

The Carnegie in Crown Point was overwhelmed by its huge addition in 1973 behind it that made no attempt whatsoever to blend in with the original building. The original building is now the administrative office for the library and is off limits to the public. It is a quite gallant red brick building most worthy of the National Historic Registry of Buildings if it isn't already on it. It dates to 1908. A vinyl banner beside the new entrance celebrated the 2008 centennial of the library.

This was my third bicycle tour of searching out Carnegies in the Midwest. This fall after my month in Telluride working for the film festival I'll search out as many as I can in the west on my ride home via a visit to friends in Seattle. Rather than finding four or five a day, as I could in Indiana, it may be just a Carnegie every three or four days. But that will be fine. I'll be riding my bike in the great outdoors and seeing all sorts of delights and visiting libraries unique in their own way. Our libraries are a national treasure. Few countries can compare.

Later, George

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rennselaer, Indiana

Friends: This is the fourth college town I've passed through in the past one hundred miles since DaPauw in Greencastle. Next came Wabash in Crawfordsville, then Purdue in West Lafayette and now St. Joseph's here, former training camp for the Bears. If it weren't for Carnegies, college towns could be the theme of this tour. I didn't realize how many I have visited until I gave it a thought. It began with Annapolis, then George Mason, VCU, UNCSA, Marshall, IU and a few more.

These I haven't been searching out, they've just been along the way. Many of them are towns with Carnegies, as three of the past four have been. West Lafayette was the exception. It was fortunate I didn't have to go in search of one there in that sprawling city, as I passed through its outskirts in the early evening when I was eager to push it down the road to get within a day's ride of Chicago.

But finding the Carnegie is never a difficult task, as among the stipulations Carnegie put on granting a town the funds to build a library were that the town provide the location and that it had to be within two blocks of the center of the town. Some have stretched it by a block or two, but I know that if I head to the heart of a town, the Carnegie will be near.

The Carnegie in Crawfordsville was on the town's main thoroughfare. It was a genuine monument of a building, a truly stately white stone edifice with four large bay windows and two pillars. It was the first of the 164 Carnegies built in Indiana in 1902. Its inscription was simply "Carnegie Library," a rare one without the word "Public" included. It is now a county museum. One of the museum's exhibits was a space suit of astronaut Joe Allen, who attended DePauw. The new quite impressive library across the street was built in 2005, next to a very stodgy Masonic Temple.

Just ten miles north of Crawfordsville in Linden is the last Carnegie Library built in Indiana twenty years later. The small town of 781 doubled the size of the library with an addition in 2007. The rather basic, put still dignified, red brick building, identified itself with the standard "Public Library." The portrait of Carnegie inside was one I had yet to see--just from his waist up standing in front of a table with an open book.

West Lafayette was thirty miles up the road. After I passed through its sprawl I rode along the Wabash River accompanied for a few miles by Purdue's women's rowing team. I slowed my pace a bit so I could go at their speed, watching the women giving it their all heaving on the long oars at the command of their coach in an accompanying skiff. It was another of the great pleasures of being on a bike. If I'd been in a car I would have had just one fast glimpse of them. I was similarly gladdened to be on a bike when I passed a few Amish in their horse-drawn carriages in Ohio, drawing a friendly wave and being able to actually see their warm, contented expressions.

I squeezed in one last Carnegie before making camp an hour after the rowers. It was in Brookstone. It was the first Carnegie I'd visited that had completely blocked off its former entrance when it expanded, putting an arcade of high bushes around it so no patron would be tricked into trying to enter by its former entrance even though above it was "Public Library."

I then had an early morning Carnegie in Monon, arriving before it opened. It's "Public Library" over its entry spelled "public" as "PVBLIC," as a few do. It had added a red brick addition behind it. The substantial library was quite a contrast to the bare bones town hall and police station across the street in this town of 1,718. It did boast a GM car dealership though.

The Carnegie in Rennselarr is now the Carnegie Center hosting a gallery, a foundation and an arts council. Built in 1904, it was a fortress of a building, significant enough to be included in the National Registry of Historical Places. When I have time to check, I'll have to search out how many are on the list. I will have quite a few nominations if the list is short. Just inside the entrance to the building on the post of the staircase is a bronze plaque stating "This building is the gift of Andrew Carnegie 1904." On the opposite side of the staircase is the same painting of Carnegie with a book on his lap that I first saw in Linden.

The town's new state-of-the-art library is just a block away. As I've been pecking away at the computer a lady came in searching for the guy with the bike. She said she often puts up touring cyclists and asked if I would be lingering for the night. I told her I was hoping to make it back to Chicago by dark. The young man at the computer next to me wished me good luck when he completed his session before me. It was more of the charm that makes traveling by bike so satisfying and infectious. Though I am happy to be off to France next week for more, I could easily spend the next three months meandering about the US rather than in Europe and have an equally fine and fulfilling time.

Later, George

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Greencastle, Indiana

Friends: As I suspected, Dwight did have a collection of license plates mounted on a wall in the smallest of the three out-buildings on his seventeen acre farm. He was happy to add the plates from Ohio and North Carolina I'd scavenged along the road to his montage going back over twenty years.

Even though he is just a recreational farmer, all of his buildings, and much of his property, is being put to productive use. He has a bio-diesel operation in one of his buildings, converting cooking oil he scavenges from his friend Jeff, a pizza parlor baron with nine restaurants in Bloomington and the surrounding area. I'd been eager to meet Jeff, Dwight's bicycle touring partner for a couple of months this past winter in Thailand, but he was attending a restaurant convention in Ann Arbor. He is quite an entrepreneur. He owns an 80-acre farm across the road from Dwight with a micro brewery and water buffaloes, the only water buffaloes in the county. He's able to make his own mozzarella cheese from the buffaloes.

Dwight's third building provides refuge for his chickens and ducks and guinea hens and also stores the wood he uses to heat his house. Dwight is largely self-sufficient. His farm provides 80% of his food needs. He has three freezers in his basement stocked with batches of beans and soups and produce. He has a good supply of frozen corn on the cob still in their husks. It was the highlight of our all home-grown dinner, sweet as if it had just been picked that day.

We took a post-dinner stroll about his property, through his fruit orchards and out to his "Communist Plot," a several acre garden he shares with any friends who care to join in. His black lab romped in the brush hunting for rabbits and mice. Two of Dwight's friends were happily planting in the late evening light. One had brought over several five gallon buckets of food scraps from a local organic restaurant for the chickens. When Dwight dumped them out for the chickens he quickly squashed the egg shells so the chickens wouldn't associate them with their own eggs. They quickly went for the egg shells before the lettuce and tomatoes and all else. Dwight wouldn't want his chickens to associate the shells with their own eggs, as they might be inclined to attack their eggs for the shells. When that happens, it is off with the head of the chicken and into the frying pan.

As always, Dwight kept me boggled at his energy and his expertise and his vast knowledge of so many subjects. He had just read Keith Richard's autobiography and gave a fascinating dissertation on it that makes me want to get my hands on the book as soon as I get back to Chicago. It is no wonder that Dwight was the most popular professor of Indiana University's business school until he retired two years ago, annually winning a $2,500 award.

Only three classes in the entire university received higher ratings from the students--two were courses on music, one rock and roll and the other on the blues, and the other was a class on human sexuality taught by the Kinsey Institute affiliated with the university. Dwight thrived on the teaching and may return on a part-time basis, provided it doesn't restrict his travels. Next up he hopes to make a couple month bicycle trip in Africa next winter. He sure makes me proud, having been his touring mentor. It is no stunt for him. He is a genuine connoisseur and has made a few converts himself, including his son and some of his students.

At present he's working on his memoirs. It won't be his first book. That was "Escape," about his escape from Mexico City's maximum security prison back in the '70s. Only one other person managed to escape from the prison--Pancho Villa. Timothy Bottoms played Dwight in the movie of his book. His memoirs will be equally fascinating, detailing his life as a life-long activist beginning as a member of the SDS, burning his draft card and hanging out in a hippie commune in New Mexico on property bought by Dennis Hopper from his "Easy Rider" earnings. His FBI file is 1,300 pages long. He's wanted in half a dozen countries. Besides Mexico, he's wanted in Taiwan and Norway for activities with the Sea Shepherd Society sinking ships. Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd, devotes several pages of his autobiography to Dwight. It goes on and on.

I could have spent days with Dwight, but I have a flight to catch to Paris in less than a week, so headed out a little less than 24 hours after I arrived. We had hoped to take a ride into Bloomington, five miles away, but the weather was nasty, and besides a visit to a computer store for a device that would make the lap top he was sending me off with wi-fi compatible, he had a few fruit tree saplings to pick up, so we drove in. I was two days late for the Little 500 bike race immortalized by the best movie of all time--"Breaking Away." And I was a little early for a local election. One of the candidates had a bicycle on his campaign posters around town. I wished I could have voted for him.

At the computer store Dwight and a former student of his made Dwight's six-year old IBM laptop fully functional for me. That will certainly make my life easier, no longer having to be dependent on my roommate's computer and those of the library. It may be a bit too heavy to travel with beyond this final 200-mile stretch home, but who knows.

When I arrived in Bloomington, before I headed out to Dwight's farm I continued my Carnegie quest, tracking down Bloomington's former Carnegie Library, now the Monroe County Historical Society Museum. It is just around the corner from Bloomington's new library, built in 1970, a couple blocks from the town center and on the fringe of the sprawling IU campus. The Carnegie is distinguished enough to be on the National Registry of Historic Places, as should all the Carnegies.

I headed directly up highway 37 for twenty miles after leaving Dwight's to the Martinsville Carnegie. A 1990 addition allows it to still serve as a library. Its a white stone building with four pillars at its entrance and a dome. Having been an early Carnegie, built in 1906, it had a few extra flourishes, including "Carnegie" chiseled into its front facade along with "Public Library." Carnegie preferred not to brandish his name. The entry had eight wooden columns under the dome. The Carnegie portrait was one I had never seen, not the usual one of him holding a book in his lap, but of him standing behind a chair.

The Carnegie here in Greencastle, home of DePauw University, is on a block next to the post office and behind the Masonic Temple, large enough for a substantial extension, so it can still serve its intended function. It is another beauty. Now I head up route 231 for a half dozen or so more before reaching Chicago.

I was lucky last night to find an abandoned barn to camp in. The ground was soggy all around after an inch rain fall the night before. The wind whipped up in the night from the north bringing more rain and a plummet of the temperature.  It was 39 degrees when I set out this morning. With the cold I bought half gallon of chocolate milk and three pounds of macaroni salad at a bargain price, knowing I wouldn't have to down them right away.

Later, George

Monday, April 18, 2011

Columbus, Indiana

Friends: Indiana is The Land of Carnegies. It has more than any state, 167, nearly ten per cent of the 1,689 built in the US. Yet Indiana's welcome sign at the Ohio border I crossed at yesterday chose "Boyhood Home of Lincoln," to identify itself, cosying up to its neighbor to the west, "The Land of Lincoln."

I've been in the state less than 24 hours and have already visited three Carnegies, or sites where Carnegies once stood, as the Carnegie here in Columbus was torn down in 1969, replaced by a magnificent library designed by I.M. Pei, funded by the founder of Cummins Engines, located here in Columbus. But the Carnegie is well-remembered. The friendly reference librarian gave me a brochure with a photo of it and a history of the library. She didn't know how many libraries Pei designed, but she was very proud of hers. Pei was already a well established architect in his 40s when he designed this.

Brookville, ten miles into Indiana, offered the first Carnegie on my Indiana route. As I biked down the town's main street I passed quite a few banners celebrating the town's bicentennial in 2008. I suspected the Carnegie might have been built to celebrate its centennial, but the plaque out front said it was dedicated in 1912, starting with 600 books. It didn't say when the seamless addition behind it was added. The red brick building resided on a slight hill, allowing it to overlook a McDonald's across the street. Rather than advertising the fish sandwich special in honor of Easter that most of the McDonald's have been promoting in the 1,000 miles I have biked, this one mentioned that April 19 was National Hiring Day. Through Virginia the fish sandwiches were 99 cents. In North Carolina they were two for three dollars. In Ohio the price had risen to two for $3.33.

It was Sunday, so rather than taking my break inside the library, I sat on a bench out front dedicated to the memory of Herman "Whitey" Stivers. Bricks with various benefactors' names were inlaid in front of it. A tree across from the bench had a plaque "In memory of our friend Clair Ariens." Behind the tree was a gurgling brook cascading down from the well-manicured landscaping around the library. It was a most pleasant spot to spend half an hour eating and reading.

Before I saw any library signs as I closed in on the downtown of Greensburg I came upon a fire station with the firemen outside. They told me the Carnegie was just two blocks away, "the yellow building on the corner." It had been awhile though since it had served this large community as its library. It was the City Hall for a few years and is presently a private residence. It still had "Carnegie Public Library" chiseled into its front facade. Built in 1903 it had four pillars and a green dome and a pair of lamp fixtures along its staircase entry.

Before I left Ohio I added a couple more Carnegies to my list. The one in Wilmington was a modest yellow brick building with a red tile roof on a large enough plot of land several blocks from the city center to be able to add two wings more than doubling its length. They matched so perfectly I thought this was a rare Carnegie that was built with a bit of sprawl to it. Only when I saw the photo of the original Carnegie next to the standard Carnegie portrait of him holding an open book on his lap did I learn otherwise. A framed copy of Carnegie's letter granting Wilmington the funds for a library hung beside the photo and the portrait.

The Carnegie in Lebanon had a premium location on the corner across from the Town Hall. The dazzling soft yellow brick building acknowledged Carnegie with a chiseled "Carnegie's Gift MCMVI" above "Public Library" flanked by a pair of books embraced by wreaths carved into the stone. There had been space down the block for an addition with the same yellow bricks. Beyond the parking lot was a "Library Park" with a gazebo. This was a community that took great pride in its library.

If only the town of Hamilton, Ohio, named for Alexander, one of the Founding Fathers, had had a Carnegie, it would have been my favorite town of this trip. A grand boulevard passed through the town with various sculptures and a towering monument dedicated to those who have served in the military with a soldier atop across from the Visitor Center. There was a log cabin nearby and a bike bath along a river. A plaque paid tribute to preeminent author William Dean Howells who grew up in Hamilton before going on to write 35 novels while also serving as editor of "The Atlantic Monthly" and "Harper's." His autobiography, "A Boy's Town," was devoted to Hamilton. One could take a walking tour of Howells' sites.

All through this trip I have been asking myself. "Where are all the bicyclists." I haven't seen more than what I could count on two hands, and without needing my thumbs. But in Hamilton early on a Sunday morning I saw in the distance the great heart-warming site of a young girl on a bicycle with her father behind her just releasing her from his grip. She didn't seem to be moving though. And she wasn't. It was a realistic sculpture entitled "First Ride," at the start of the bike path. Both father and daughter had joyous smiles. Every town should have such a sculpture depicting that most momentous moment in everyone's life when they first learn to ride a bicycle.

Now I am closing in on Bloomington and long-time friend Dwight, my most ardent convert to bicycle touring. I introduced Dwight to the passion fifteen years ago on a two-week ride around the eastern end of Cuba. Dwight has kept at it, returning to Cuba with his bicycle and taking rides around the US and into Mexico and to Costa Rica and Ireland and Eastern Europe. The past two winters, since he retired from teaching computer science at Indiana University, he has spent bicycling Southeast Asia, mostly Thailand, but Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia as well.

I've been scavenging items along the road the past two days for Dwight. He lives on a former pig farm and has several acres under cultivation. I've gathered a few bungee cords, a box cutter, a strap with a winch, a girlie magazine, a few rags and hunks of metal he might be able to use in his workshop, balls for his dog, and two license plates. He has a couple of barns. I don't recall if he has the usual license plate collection that many barns have. If not, I'll be happy to keep the North Carolina plate I picked up yesterday, as it honors those bike mechanics, Wilbur and Orville, with the phrase "First in Flight." If taxidermy were among of Dwight's many talents, I could have harvested quite a few road kill pelts for him--deer, opossum, raccoon, dog, cat.

Later, George

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hillsboro, Ohio

Friends: Tomas sent me off from Greensboro six days ago with two pounds of nuts, some dried mango and three tubes of Shot Bloks, electrolyte chews with caffeine from Clif Bar. I immediately began nibbling on the nuts and the mango, but set aside the latest energizer from Clif Bar for an emergency, or at least an occasion when I needed an extra boost.

That came on my second day out of Greensboro when I began a five-mile, 1,200 foot climb to 3,400 feet out of Wytheville, Virginia that the woman at the Visitor Center doubted was bikable. It was steep and windy, but would have been a mere Category Two climb if it were included in The Tour de France. The supplements were hardly necessary to get me over it, but I had to use them eventually, if only to lighten my load. I didn't explode with energy as I rationed out the six bite-size gelatin tablets mile by mile, but I at least didn't feel any waning of strength as I made the climb.

I used the second of the Shot Bloks yesterday for even less of an emergency. I was flying along at twenty miles per hour with a rare strong tailwind just after I crossed into Ohio from West Virginia. I was following the Ohio River to Portsmouth for forty miles on a busy four-lane highway. Not knowing how long the wind would last, I wanted to make sure I could stay on my bike as long as possible to take full advantage of it, so I began downing more of the caffeine gels. I made it non-stop to Portsmouth, but had to give up the wind for a spell to search out the Portsmouth library, as it was a Carnegie, one of 105 scattered about Ohio, one of the most of any state.

Like so many of the Carnegies I have visited over the years, it was a building of such majesty and magnificence that it looked staggeringly out of place, upstaging all the other buildings around it and throughout the town. It deserved vast and well-manicured grounds, as if it were a chateau or a cathedral, so one could fully appreciate its beauty. These libraries do bear a small-scale resemblance to the cathedrals the French built centuries ago, many of which have been declared World Heritage Sites. I would like to hereby nominate our Carnegie Libraries as a World Heritage Site.

Despite its size, the United States lags behind France and Italy and a few other countries in the number of sites that have been deemed World Heritage worthy. Many of ours are natural wonders, such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. We don't have many man-made sites, in contrast to other countries. These Carnegies would certainly qualify. They are well worth seeking out. Hardly a one fails to elicit my usual reaction at my first glimpse of a World Heritage Site--an immediate gasp of wonder and then the drop of my jaw and a slight loss of breath. Yes, they are positively breath-taking.

The Carnegie in Portsmouth, like the one I visited in Huntington earlier in the day, was an early Carnegie, built in 1903, before Carnegie began to tone down their extravagance, so it was extra spectacular. It included a dome with an interior balcony, though it was presently off limits. Unlike the Carnegie in Huntington, this one was still used as a library, as it wasn't confined by other buildings and could be expanded to accommodate the town's growth. Additions had been tastefully added to its two sides and rear in 1995. They blended in, only embellishing its grandeur.

When I left the library, I still had a tail wind as I turned onto highway 73 slashing diagonally across the middle of the state, but it only last for 20 minutes as the skies darkened and it clashed with a wind from the north bringing on a sudden torrent of rain. I was lucky to have a rural volunteer fire station to duck under for the fifteen minutes of its initial fury, before settling into a slight drizzle. I still had an hour-and-a-half of light to ride in. If the tail wind had persisted I was gunning for my first century of this trip and the first century ever for the Surly I inherited from my friend Gary last summer. This is the third trip I've ridden it.

The first was last fall from Charleston to Chicago. I could tell then it took a bit more effort to ride than the Trek I've been touring on for decades, though it gave a smoother ride, thus justifying its reputation as a deluxe touring bike. Its most distinguishing feature is its stability on fast descents. My Trek starts shimmering at thirty miles per hour. I can hit forty on the Surly and still feel as if I've yet to hit thirty. It rides like a Cadillac, and like a Cadillac is a bit hefty. I wouldn't dream of trying to keep up with The Tour de France on it.

I also gave the Surly a ride in Turkey this past winter as I wasn't going to be pressed for time. That confirmed that it took more effort to climb than my Trek. Since this present ride is simply a training ride for Europe, I went with the Surly once again. I can't wait to hop on the Trek in less than two weeks when I leave Charles de Gaulle Airport for Cannes. It will feel like a Ferrari. I could have had my first one hundred mile day on the Surly yesterday even with the loss of the tail wind, but I stopped after 95 miles with half an hour of light remaining to take advantage of an ideal campsite in a state park on a thick bed of pine needles. I feared muddy camping otherwise.

Though I had the state park to myself, I was awoken shortly after dawn by the sound of a jet revving up for take off. I was out in isolated rural Ohio. It didn't seem as if there would be an airport for such big aircraft anywhere near. Every ten or fifteen minutes I heard another roar of a jet. When I began my ride I heard more such sounds, but saw no aircraft in the sky. A few miles down the road I came upon a side road with a sign saying "General Electric Testing Area." What they were testing I can't imagine.

Later, George

Friday, April 15, 2011

Huntington, West Virginia

Friends: I included Huntington on my route across West Virginia as it was one of only three cities in the state with a Carnegie Library and the only one that wasn't out of my way. The library isn't the only notable attraction in this sizable city on the Ohio River. It is also home to Marshall University, named for an early Supreme Court Justice. The main street into town was Hal Greer Boulevard, a basketball star from the 1950s, who went on to star in the NBA. Not only did he attend Marshall, but he grew up in Huntington. He's not the only Marshall athlete to make a significant splash in the world of professional athletics. Randy Moss, the notorious NFL receiver, also attended Marshall. Nothing has been named for him yet.

Marshall is also known for the 1970 crash of a plane that killed all 37 members of its football team and its coaching staff and a number of supporters. It is memorialized by a tulip-shaped fountain behind the student union. It is turned off every year at the moment of the crash and not turned on until the following spring. The visitor center had a poster of the 2006 movie "We Are Marshall" about the team's revival.

I saved my visit to the Carnegie Library until I had a good meander around this appealing college town. It was one of the first of the Carnegie's built in 1904 and was one of those lavish emporiums that made Carnegie later more closely review architectural plans for his libraries, restricting the use of his funds more for books rather than for looks. This two-story stone building was a virtual palace with four pillars marking its entrance and names of great writers chiseled on three sides just below its roof line--Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, Homer, Schilling and more. Though the building is no longer used as a library, it has lost none of its grandeur, overshadowing the present much larger library across the street in the heart of Huntington at 5th Street and 9th Avenue. The Carnegie is now home to Huntington Junior College.

The weather has been cool enough of late that I'm back to wearing my tights and long-sleeve jersey, at least to start out the day. I can wear them with extra pride with the Garmin rider Johan van Summeren winning the Paris-Roubaix race this past Sunday, the greatest win in the team's history according to its director and founder Joanthan Vaughters, greater even than winning the team time trial at the Giro d'Italia a few years ago, allowing Christian Vande Velde, my benefactor, to wear the pink jersey for a day.

The cashier at the check-out counter at the local Foodland supermarket in Chapman yesterday recognized me as a cyclist. Even though I only had three items--two pounds of potato salad, two pounds of chocolate milk (a quart), and a can of spaghetti--she asked, "Would you like me to put your items in two bags for you?"

"One will do," I said.

"I just seen by the way you was dressed that you was on a bike and thought it might be easier fer you to carry your stuff in two bags, one for each hand. Where you biking to?"


"Chicago! Are you messing with me."

"It's the God's truth. I started in Washington, D.C., so I'm gaining on it."

Here I am into my fourth decade of biking all over and people are still incredulous to learn one can ride a bike further than the corner store. I knew better than to tell her any more about the extent of my travels. I'd learned my lesson the day before. I made the mistake of telling another such unenlightened soul that this was just a little warm-up trip for three months of biking in Europe and that in the past eighteen months I had biked across China, around Lake Victoria in Africa, and all over France and Turkey.

"That's crazy," he replied. " You got to be crazy to think I'd believe that."

"I kid you not. That's been my life for nearly 35 years, biking all over the world."

"Like I said, that's sounds mighty crazy to me. Why would any one want to do that."

"It's a great way to get around. Some people like to row a boat. I like to ride a bike."

"Yeah, I know. But to China. Crazy, man, crazy. I ain't heard nuthin' like it. That's quite a story you have. I ought to call the local paper to do a story on you. Are you going to be around a spell?"

I'm accustomed to people responding to how far one can travel on a bicycle as "amazing," but not as "crazy." I was beginning to become suspicious of his familiarity with the word "crazy." He spat out his words a little too rapidly and his eyes had the glazed look of someone who might not be all there. He appeared as if he might have spent a bit of time with crazies himself and could well be a refugee from the local loony bin. I had no idea who he might be calling, so I told him I needed to be on my way lest he might be calling some guys in white suits with butterfly nets. I also resolved to be a little more careful about who I shared the extent of my travels with.

Later, George

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Logan, West Virginia

Friends: "Lucky fer you I came along when I did and was able to give you a lift," the man behind the wheel of the pick-up truck who had just stopped for me said as I slipped into the cabin of his truck after hefting my bike into his cargo hold. "If a cop had seen you ridin' on the interstate here, he would have given you a ticket fer sure, that is if you hadn't been keeled first. This is a downright dangerous tunnel. You'd have been lucky to get out of it alive."

He was right about the tunnel, the mile-long East River Mountain Tunnel just before the Virginia/West Virginia border. It had no shoulder, though it was well-lit and the mid-morning traffic was light. I've survived much worse, but I was still much obliged to this guy coming to my rescue shortly after I slipped onto Interstate 77 when the road I was on, Route 52, joined up with it, not knowing that a tunnel awaited me. I feared I might have a brief interstate interlude before 52 separated off towards Bluefield, but it was either take that risk or take a twenty mile detour with considerable climbing.

The woman in the Visitor Center at Wytheville forty miles back had assured me bicycles could go this way. She had been right about the free ice cream cone at the Big Walker Mountain Lookout Country Store if one mentioned the Wytheville Visitor Center, so she'd won my confidence, though I well knew she was more accustomed to catering to Civil War buffs than to bicyclists. Her town was dotted with signs documenting Civil War battles and skirmishes. She said they'd already had one reenactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the war and had more planned. All through Virginia I had seen "Civil War Trails Route" markers and plaques. Many towns had statues dedicated to their sons who died fighting for the Confederacy just like those in nearly every French town acknowledging their World War I and World War II dead.

The sharpest evidence I've passed though in these travels, reminding me of bygone times and that I was in the South, was a road sign for Hanging Tree Road just north of Hillsville, Virginia. I had already passed through the town so I couldn't ask anyone if it was a description of some unique tree or the purpose the tree served.

Highway 52 through West Virginia is also known as Vietnam Veterans Highway. It would be a stunningly beautiful ride in the fall with the steep hillsides flaming with fall foliage down to the creeks and rivers the road follows, but it is still a quite enjoyable ride with the trees just beginning to bud. I had to share the road with coal trucks and pass under huge conveyors transporting coal from one side of the road to another at various mining complexes. The homes are largely mobile homes interspersed with the occasional substantial home with swimming pool looking almost like a mansion in comparison. Towns can extend for two or three miles with the homes lining the road through the narrow gorges they are built within.

The county seat of Welch found a flat bulge in the mountainous terrain for a bit of a downtown. It had blocks and blocks of fine two-story brick houses reflecting the once great prosperity it enjoyed. Though the mining is in decline, the town still had a captivating character and shine to it and about the most friendly librarian I have encountered. When I told her I was from Chicago she asked how long the Chicago library allows its patrons to use a computer. I told her it allows two one hour sessions a day. She said, "You can use our computers as long as you like as long as no one is waiting."

After I had sat down at the computer she came over and asked, "Do your Chicago librarians give you hugs and kisses?" I hesitantly replied, "No." "Well we do here in Welch," and then she handed me two Hershey kisses in a small packet with a slip of paper saying "National Library Week" and a photo of the Welch library.

When I left the library a fifty-year old guy was standing by my bike waiting for me. "I was curious about your travels," he said. After I told him, he said, "I'm gonna hike the Appalachian Trail next year. Its something I've been meaning to do fer years. I was all set to go a couple years ago but my brother got killed and I had a lot of things to take care of. But next year fer sure."

"A lot of people start, but not many finish," I replied.

"I know. I've read every book there is on the trail. I know I kin do it. I live in the backwoods. I do a lot of hikin' and I run four or five miles every day. My doctor tells me I should quit the runnin' as its bad for my joints, but I like it too much."

"Have you chosen a trail name?"

"I know all about that, but I haven't decided on one yet. I reckon it will come to me or one will choose me."

"Do you know when you're going to start?"

"I'm still tryin' to figure that out. There's a boy in the next town over who hiked it last year, I got to talk to him. I know it will take about six months, but I know I can do it."

"You sound like you have a better chance than most people. I'm sure you'll have the time of your life and wish you'd done it long ago. You could be a star, helping and encouraging everyone you meet along the way."

"I think so too."

He certainly seemed sincere and looked quite fit. I just hoped he wasn't one of those talkers who tells everyone he meets of some grand ambition that he'll never accomplish. I've met plenty of those over the years. I'd like to think he only opened up to me because he recognized I would be one to appreciate his dream. I certainly could and was glad to have shared in his happy anticipation of what could be the greatest event of his life.

Later, George

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Mayberry," North Carolina

Friends: Highway 52 leading into Mount Airy, North Carolina, up along the Virginia border, turned into the Andy Griffith Parkway taking me into the heart of town that all of a sudden became lined with stores named Mayberry something or other. There was Mayberry 5 and Dime, Mayberry on Maine, Mayberry Souvenirs, Mayberry Country and even a Mayberry Mall on the outskirts anchored by K Mart and JC Penny.

Mount Airy is the hometown of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for his mythical town Mayberry featured in his widely popular TV show in the '60s that epitomized wholesome small-town America where he reigned as its sheriff. It is a wonder that Mount Airy has not renamed itself Mayberry, though one would think it has by everything named for Mayberry about town. Griffith is honored left and right. Besides the Parkway, there is an Andy Griffith Playhouse and an Andy Griffith Museum and a statue of Griffith and Opie both with fishing poles and a plaque reading--"A simpler time, a sweeter place, a lesson, a laugh, a father and a son."

A few blocks beyond the Museum and Playhouse is the house Griffith lived in from 1935 to 1966 at 711 E. Haymore. The modest one-story home with an American flag dangling from a pole jutting from a corner of the house can be rented by the night or the week. A sign out front says reservations can be made at 800 565-5249. One hardly needs to visit the museum or his home though for a full dose of the Griffith experience, as Main Street is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants packed with Griffith memorabilia--some with soundtracks from the show playing non-stop.

Main Street rivals South Dakota's sprawling Wall Drug Store dispensing all manner of kitschy souvenirs--t-shirts, license plates, coffee mugs, paperweights, frig magnets, posters and more. Not all are specific to the show. There are Elvis souvenirs and fudge and scented candles and signs such as "Bless My Home" that tourists are always suckers for. There are almost as many souvenirs related to Griffith's deputy Barney Fife, "Bloodhound of the Law" as one t-shirt reads, as to Griffith. There are signs for Fife Home Security, Barney Fife Avenue and a whole platoon of t-shirts. One can dine on Barney Burgers at Barney's Cafe or get a haircut at Floyd's Barber Shop or satisfy one's sweet tooth at Opie's Candy Store or chow down at Aunt Bee's Barbecue or get a tour of the town in one of Wally's Service Station Squad Cars.

The most popular place to eat is The Snappy Lunch, home of the famous pork chop sandwich. The restaurant opened in 1923 with nickel bologna sandwiches and ten cent hot dogs. It was Griffith's favorite place to dine and is the only local business specifically mentioned in the show. Its walls are lined with photos from the show. It is open from six a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Its two rooms of booths were packed. One of its features is free refills on all drinks.

Mayberry Days in September gives full celebration to the show with a parade and special events. One of the highlights is always the Barney Fife look-a-like contest. While in Mayberry one can also visit the world's largest open face granite quarry and hike up Pilot Mountain, a huge nipple in the sky. There are also pumpkin and wine and autumn leaf festivals attempting to draw visitors. As I strolled the town's streets, locals repeatedly greeted me with a "Welcome to Mount Airy," maintaining its image. But it wasn't too much friendlier than most of the towns I've passed through in this southern sojourn.

Later, George

Monday, April 11, 2011

The RiverRun Film Festival

Fiends: The RiverRun Film Festival of Winston Salem, North Carolina is proof that one doesn't need premiers by high profile directors or big time actors for a most worthwhile film festival. A fine selection of films presented by enthusiastic cinephiles can make for an excellent cinematic experience. The currently running 13th annual RiverRun Film Festival includes some sixty features, old and new, from all over the world screening for ten days in five main venues and a few other locations, including one outdoors. The festival got off to a great start this past weekend drawing swarms of appreciative audiences, thrilled and delighted to have been introduced to a film that if not for this festival they might never have had the opportunity to have seen. The lobbies were thronged with exuberant film-goers discussing what they had just seen and what they were looking forward to seeing.

I spent the first weekend of the festival at its main three-plex hub at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts wearing a volunteer t-shirt and a volunteer badge around my neck assisting my friend Lyndon, who was overseeing the venues. Between counting empty seats and cleaning theaters and directing-film goers from the bus shuttle stop to the theater I ducked in and out of theaters sampling a healthy dose of the weekend's fare, seeing snippets of some movies and a few in their entirety.

One of the highlights was being able to see some of "The Class" again, the sensational Palm d'Or winner from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival about a young idealistic French school teacher playing himself trying to tame and inspire a Parisian classroom of children of immigrants. It was one of two Palm d'Or winners on the schedule, along with last year"s "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" from Thailand. It was the first time a Palm d'Or winner had played this festival. "The Class" was part of an eight-film retrospective on current French cinema. "The Class," as with "Read My Lips," was introduced by a professor from the School of the Arts and was followed by a superb commentary.

Festival director Andrew Rodgers, who once worked for Chicago's International Film Festival, did an exceptional job in trying to make every film presentation something out of the ordinary, introducing many of them himself with a personal and insightful touch. He was able to program one of his favorite films, "All the President's Men," linking it with the documentary "These Amazing Shadows" about the National Film Registry, as the Woodward-Bernstein film had recently been added to the registry. The film was one of his inspirations as a journalist, his profession before he became involved with film.

It was exciting to see this 1976 film on the big screen in the festival's largest venue, a 300-seat theater at the University. It was exciting, too, to see a bicycle wheel beside Bernstein's desk at the Washington Post in quite a few scenes. It was never mentioned, but I knew from having read the book that Bernstein had been frustrated with his career as a young journalist and was about ready to quit it and ride his bicycle across the country until the Watergate story fell into his lap. Rodgers himself had had a similar longing, but has yet been able to fulfill it.

I was only able to see the first hour of the movie. Bernstein never rides his bike during that time, nor was I able to find out from anyone who saw the rest of the movie if he ever does. Robert Redford, playing Woodward, in one scene lays his hand on the bicycle wheel and somewhat fondles it while talking with Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman. Behind Bernstein's desk is a somewhat surreal painting of a hefty guy bent low over the handlebars of a bicycle--all telling detail that add to the authenticity of the movie.

Rodgers also programmed a couple of other significant documentary/feature film pairings. One was "American Grindhouse," a history of American exploitation cinema. The film he chose as an example was Russ Meyer's "Motor Psycho" from 1965 about three motorcyclists in the California desert preying upon buxomest women and killing a few people along the way. Only twelve people had the courage to see the fine print of this film from the archives of the University of North Carolina Art School. It was introduced by one of the archivists. It was a transitional film, he said, from the "nudie-cuties" to the "roughies."

Rodgers also selected the documentary "Cameraman" about Jack Cardiff that has been a big hit on the film festival circuit from Cannes to Telluride. Director Craig McCall gave a quite animated introduction and Q&A with many fascinating stories from how he wore a kilt on the red carpet at Cannes in 1998 when he accompanied Cardiff for a tribute to how he succeeded in getting an interview with Martin Scorcese for the film. He said Scorcess gets thirty or more requests a day from film-makers who'd like to interview him. Even tho Scorcese wrote the introduction to a biography of Cardiff, he still had to be hounded to find time for his segment in the movie. Scorcese provided the print of "The Red Shoes" from his private collection to the RiverRun Festival, one of the countless films that Cardiff did the cinematography on during his illustrious career that began in 1918 as a child actor in England. He worked into his 90s, passing away just a few years ago.

Another exceptional documentary was "Kinshasa Symphony" following the only all-black orchestra in the world in the Congo preparing to play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for an outdoor audience. The German directors of the film couldn't attend the festival as they were in Germany for an awards program, but the Congolese director of the orchestra was in attendance.  He spoke alternately in French and English with the help of a Congolese translator. I'm glad I wasn't on the jury trying to decide which was the best documentary.

Another contender was "Nenette" by the French director Nicolas Philibert, who had another documentary showing in the French sidebar, "To Be and To Have" from 2002. Nenette is a forty-year old orangutan who has resided in a Paris zoo for most of her life. The camera doesn't leave her for the entire film. Though there are interviews with her keepers and overheard comments from those gazing upon her, the humans are never shown.

There were also a couple of significant documentaries fresh from Sundance including "The Flaw," a less cerebral and more entertaining version of "Inside Job," the Oscar-winning documentary detailing the cause of the present economic crisis. The "flaw" was a term Alan Greenspan used in testimony to Congress that he and his fellow economists did not detect, that real estate values could not continue to keep going up and up, leading to our recent economic failure. This fast-paced film was full of graphs and cartoons and movie clips and a barrage of boggling statistics. Income inequality is a theme of the film. It reveals that 15,000 Americans earn 700 billion dollars, half the gross national product of Brazil. The film asks the question, "How has the American elite been able to get away with it." But it recognizes that even though there is a resentment towards the wealthy elite, the less well off sure do like to see TV shows and magazine spreads on the mansions of the rich.

"Misrepresentation," also from Sundance, was a personal film by a young woman frustrated by the inequity in the number of women in politics and sexual inequality in general. She too heaps on the statistics--only 31 women have served as governors in the US compared to 2,317 men, 53% of 13 year olds are dissatisfied with their bodies, compared to 78% of 17 year olds. It was one of several disturbing and unsettling films.

The most extreme was "The Whistleblower" a true story about a young woman police officer from Nebraska played by Rachel Weisz who accepts a position with a UN peace keeping force in Bosnia at a salary of $100,000 for six months tax-free. She discovers a deeply entrenched sex slavery ring servicing the UN soldiers and run by them. She's assisted by Vanessa Redgrave and David Straithern in trying to save the prostitutes and prosecute their abusers, but is lucky to get out of Bosnia alive. "The Game of Death," a French documentary about a reality game show about contestants administrating increasingly heavy doses of shocks to fellow contestants for giving the wrong answers to questions at the insistence of the game show host and the audience also leaves one wondering how much hope there is for the human race.

That's quite a few films to have seen in two days, but it left me wanting more. There were many more enticing films playing over the next seven days, but I had to be on my way. I'll just have to wait until Cannes, just a month away, for a truly full immersion into the wide-ranging and provocative world of cinema. The twelve plus hour days Lyndon and I served flew by. Screenings began at ten a.m. and didn't end until nearly eleven p.m.

It was a half hour drive for us into the festival from where we were staying over in Greensboro. We set out at 7:30 Saturday morning so we could sneak in a couple of yard sales before reporting to duty at nine, a passion Lyndon has that is almost as great as mine for the bicycle. He has been in search of a bicycle trailer so Stephanie can transport young Sullivan. He has several resale shops in Annapolis on the alert. Our first stop was the Robin Hood Baptist Church rummage sale on the outskirts of Winston Salem.

"That's my kind of church," Lyndon said, "take from the rich and give to the poor."

There was no trailer but Lyndon can't go to a sale or a resale shop without buying something. An original yellowing Betsy Ross thirteen star flag caught his attention. "How much for the flag?" Lyndon asked.

"You can have it," the woman seller said, "I couldn't sell The Flag."

"I understand," completely," Lyndon replied. "I wouldn't sell it either."

At a garage sale we happened upon, Lyndon picked up a roll of paper on a rack for a quarter for Sullivan. We could have kept at it all day if we didn't have RiverRun responsibilities.

Later, George

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Greensboro, North Carolina

Friends: The southern spring weather has been topsy-turvey, one day the winds blowing with gusto from the north and then the next day with equal fervor from the south, as winter and spring battle it out. When from the north, I need to layer up with tights and sweater and gloves and wool cap. When from the south, I can shed to shorts and bare arms.

The temperatures have been cold enough for frost and warm enough to make a "79 cents for any fountain drink" advertisement at service stations a site I long to see. I'll load a 32-ounce cup to the brim with ice and some flavorful drink, quickly down the drink as if it were the middle of the summer and then have ice to cool water for an hour or so in my thermal water bottle.

At last, my final 45-mile run into Greensboro, my weekend base with Tomas, the warmer weather seemed to be winning out. The winds settled into a gentle breeze from the west. Still a headwind for me, but not a force that left me exhausted at the end of the day. Even after five days of conditioning, one such day left my body needing eleven hours of sleep. Spring is far enough along in these parts for people to be out cutting their grass. One guy told me he had already had to cut it twice this spring, well ahead of Chicago.

Tomas lives on the western side of Greensboro, in High Point actually, the third city of the Triad that also includes Winston Salem. It wasn't the most pleasant of cycling cutting through Greensboro on four-lane and two-lane highways without shoulders. Tomas has been in Greensboro for five yeas after living in California most of his life and still hasn't adjusted to its less than amenable cycling.

He had just returned from a month in China working twelve-hour days overseeing a factory that produces micro-chips for his company, breathing all too much pollution and cigarette smoke and no opportunity for riding a bike, quite a deprivation for a guy with five quality bikes adorning his home, three in his garage and two in his living room, with another on the way, a bamboo bike.

But before his China assignment he'd had a good immersion into the bicycle culture, attending the seventh annual North American Handmade Bike Show, this year in Austin. He'd attended several other of the shows, where he'd had a chance to meet the man who specializes in bamboo bikes, Craig Calfee. His bike is due to arrive Monday or Tuesday, almost enough to tempt me to stick around to see it and give it a ride, but I need to get back to be on my way before then.

Unfortunately my weekend in the Triad will be too cinema-preoccupied for any bike riding, working the River Run Film Festival with Lyndon. And a report will have to wait on that too.

Later, George

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Friendly Virginians

Friends: Lucky for me the road in front of the Ashland library had a sign indicating it was a bike route south to Richmond. It made a welcome antidote to the busy four-lane Historic Route One, the Jefferson Davis Highway, that I'd been biking the last thirty miles from Fredricksburg. It provided a leisurely ride the final sixteen miles to Virginia's capital city and home of Virginia Commonwealth University, whose basketball team had been the sensation of the NCAA basketball tournament.

VCU had surprised all experts making it all the way to the Final Four after being an extra, almost token, "First Four" selection to the expanded field of 68 teams, and had been much criticized for being selected. If VCU had only beaten Butler on Saturday, Richmond would be going bonkers in anticipation of the championship game later that evening as I passed through. I was still glad though to add Richmond to my route to see what residue VCU fervor remained.

The bike route followed some railroad tracks for a mile and then ventured off on a series of county roads, well marked all the way. After several miles I caught up to a hefty fifty-year old guy biking along on a department store mountain bike that was a size or two small for him. He was making the ride from Ashland to Richmond himself. He had taken his truck to a mechanic in Ashland and was returning home. He had a Garmin GPS device in his pocket to make sure he didn't get lost. He wanted to know if I was "one of those long distance cyclists." I admitted I was and that I was biking from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, visiting a few friends along the way.

"You're a lucky guy," he said, "to be able to do something you want to and not because you have to. I just got divorced after twenty-eight years of marriage. All I've been doing for years is things that I had to do. I'd like to travel some, maybe even by bike like you."

"If you bought yourself a better bike you'd be amazed how much easier and more pleasurable riding a bike can be. There's no reason you couldn't bike anywhere you'd like to go. My bike has taken me all over the world, up the Alaskan Highway, to the tip of South America, across Australia and China and India and just about anywhere you could imagine."

"For real. That's amazing. I've heard of people like you, but I've never met one. Who would have thought one would come along on this road. This is the longest bike ride I've attempted and I'm enjoying it."

We rode along side by side for several miles without perturbing a single motorist. I briefed him on the ease of camping and pointed out a few forested spots along the way that would have been ideal for disappearing into for the night. I assured him that bikes are quite formidable vehicles that can persevere for thousands of miles without need of repair other than flats and broken cables that can be easily handled along the road. I told him that if he could manage these sixteen miles on his clunker he could manage any distance on a quality bike.

"You have the one essential quality, the willingness to give it a try," I said. "Most people wouldn't dream of attempting a sixteen-mile ride having never ridden more than around the block."

He told me that if I liked Picasso, I ought to check out a Picasso exhibition presently passing through Richmond. It was a big event for the city. It was from the Picasso Museum in Paris that was undergoing renovation. In the mean time its collection was on tour. Richmond was one of four cities on the east coast that was granted the privilege of showing it, he proudly said. "There were only two paintings that I'd hang in my house," he said, "But I'm still glad I saw it even though it set me back thirty bucks." He said it was down Broad Street near the State Capital. "The Capital is a mini-version of the White House. Hollywood frequently uses it because there's a lot less red tape filming here than in Washington."

When we got to the outskirts of Richmond he directed me towards Broad Street and hoped that we would meet up again somewhere in the world on our bikes. Broad Street took me right past VCU University. There were banners hanging on light poles of every player on the VCU team. There were also banners proclaiming, "Who Says We Don't Belong?" and also "We (heart) Our Rams." Across from the basketball stadium a guy sat besides a cart selling Italian ices. He confirmed I was on the right way to the Capital. "How's business?" I asked.

"This is just my second day selling," he said. "I bought the cart on Craig's List. I used to own a restaurant but I got tired of dealing with employees and have been a stay-at-home dad the last few years. I thought I'd give this a try. Its been enjoyable so far. People have been coming by to see where the ruckus was after Friday night's loss. A bunch of students set a fire right in the middle of the street here. The cops had to use tear gas to disperse the crowd."

I asked if he'd attended any of their games. "I saw a couple, but its going to be hard to get tickets now after this year." I felt like I could have chatted with him all afternoon, just like the fellow I had cycled with. He too mentioned the Picasso exhibit, but warned me that it might be too late in the day to get in as it was quite popular. I told him that was okay as I was most interested in seeing the Capital.

The Capital was a magnificent building, stunningly similar to its replica in DC. I had a pleasant ride around its grassy grounds, getting a much closer look at it than Obama's house in Washington. I took a rest on a nearby bench. While I sat reading, an older lady surprised me with a "God bless you." She plopped down a paper bag beside me and hurried off barely giving me a chance to say thank you. In the bag were two cheese and baloney sandwiches, a small tin of peaches, two small tins of wieners, a toothbrush, a razor, a pen, a bottle of lotion and a plastic container of pastries with an expiration date of two days ago. It was my dinner banquet later that night in my tent at another fine forest campsite. I enjoyed it all, even the two-day old pastries, something ordinarily bound for the dumpster. It capped off another great day on the bike.

Later, George

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Visits to Two of Virginia's Seven Carnegie Libraries

Friends: Lucky for me the tourist office in Manassas was open Sunday morning. If it hadn't been, it is unlikely I would have been able to track down the site of its torn down Carnegie library. Not even the woman on duty in the tourist office knew where it was or even that there had been a Carnegie in Manassas. She had to go to the Internet to find out.

It was Wikipedia to the rescue. It lists the 1,689 Carnegie libraries scattered around the US, state by state, most of them built nearly one hundred years ago. Virginia has seven. The one in Manassas had been an academic library built for the now defunct Manassas Industrial School, a school for "coloured youth," founded by a former slave, Jeannie Dean, in 1894. The school lasted until 1966. It was such a significant institution that Dean was honored by FDR at the White House, and its location is now part of the Manassas Museum System. None of its four buildings still stand. They are only remembered by concrete ridges forming the outlines of their foundations. The largest by far was the Carnegie building, which housed not only a library, but classrooms as well.

Manassas is better known for two significant Civil War battles. I camped the night before in a thick pine forest bordering the National Park at the battlefield. It was the second time in the past few months that I have defied the lingering spirits of the war dead, camping where thousands met their deaths in horrific fighting. But just as at Gallipoli in Turkey I slept without interruption or without scarred dreams, just as I do when the wild camping isn't so good and I resort to camping in a cemetery.

Manassas is also home to George Mason University, a sometimes competitor in the NCAA basketball tournament, including this year where they beat Villanova in the opening round of the East regional. The lady at the tourist office couldn't tell me who George Mason was, so it was back to Wikipedia. It revealed he lived from 1715 to 1792. "Ah, so he was a Patriot," she said, rather than a Civil War hero.

"I wonder if he signed the Declaration of Independence," I mused, knowing she wouldn't know, nor that we would take the time to search it out at the moment, though thinking I might on another occasion. Then I asked, "Would you know how many signed it, or if any were women?" With this barrage I noticed she slightly backed away and snuck a quick glance around, as if looking for an escape route if need be. She was stuck all alone in the isolated tourist office on a quiet Sunday morning being assaulted by a crazed querier in tights and wearing a helmet asking her questions way beyond her pay grade. She had to be regretting that she had drawn Sunday morning duty this week and wasn't at church.

"I was just in Maryland," I explained, "and the county of the capital, Annapolis, is named for a woman, Ann Arundell, the wife of an early settler. The county carries both her first and last name to emphasize its named for a woman. I don't ever recall seeing that before. It made me wonder if there were other counties named for women in Maryland, or elsewhere, but haven't had the time to look it up. Do you know if there are any in Virginia?"

"I've heard of Ann Arundell," she said. "But I don't know anything about her. That's interesting. After you leave, I'll do some searching. If you give me your email address, I'll let you know." She seemed to be graciously letting me know it was time for me to leave. I still had a few questions for her, but decided to save them for someone else. I was mostly curious what Manassas might be doing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War this year. It is a hot topic in the South. As I left she offered me a pen. "Just what I need," I said, "as I lost one yesterday."

I had another interesting search for the only other Carnegie on my route through Virginia the next day in Ashland. I had learned from the woman in Manassas during our Wikipedia search of Virginia Carnegies that it too was an academic library at Randolph-Macon College. Upon arrival at Ashland yesterday morning, I went directly to this college of 1,200 students. I did not have to ask to find its large new library. It was not an expansion of the Carnegie, but an entirely new building. One of the two women at the information desk knew that the Carnegie had been converted into the Administration Building just down the street.

I missed it and ended up at the Welcome Building at the entrance to the campus. No one there knew anything about a Carnegie, but had a book on the history of the school. We perused that. It didn't take long to discover the Carnegie including a photo. It had been renamed Peele Hall and housed the University President. It was a regal two story brick building with a row of five arched windows on the second floor and a pair of pillars out front. It had been fully converted into offices and bore no resemblance to having been a library. A plaque though on the exterior of the building acknowledged it had been a gift of the Carnegie Corporation in 1923.

That does it for my Carnegies in Virginia for this trip, but I know there will be more to search out in Ohio and Indiana in the days to come. In the meantime I have my third capital city to look forward to in these travels, Richmond, after having already visited Annapolis and Washington D.C.

Later, George

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Wave from Obama?

Friends: Over the years I've been forced to fix a flat tire in some most unlikely and memorable places--in the middle of a game preserve in Uganda with lions on the loose, along the Tour de France route with the peloton fast approaching, on the steep descent from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, in Cuba at dusk with a storm about to unleash a torrent and Dwight and I in search of a place to camp--but I may have just experienced a flat tire repair that will become the most prominent of such memories as I was crossing the Arlington Memorial Bridge linking Washington, D.C. with Alexandria, Virginia.

It was a most noteworthy location with the Lincoln Memorial perched majestically behind me and the Arlington Cemetery just ahead. The bridge had a wide walkway with benches every few hundred feet for pedestrians, allowing me a decent spot to fix my flat. Though it had been cold and drizzly, the sun was peeking through. I could shed my rain coat and display my bright blue long sleeve Garmin cycling jersey. Several minutes into the operation a trio of helicopters flew by low coming from the direction of the White House headed for the Ronald Reagan Airport just down river from me. I leapt to my feet to see if I could spot the Commander in Chief. Not one helicopter was distinguishable from another, so I gave a salute to each. I thought I detected a response from someone in the middle helicopter and moments later a slight dip for a closer look at me, a possible acknowledgment that the President recognized me as the Chicago cyclist who just a year ago had visited his grandmother's home in the small Kenyan village his father had grown up in along Lake Victoria and he had visited twice before becoming President. If he'd been following my blog he might have recognized me too from my cycling jersey.

It was the second time I had seen Obama, the first on election night in Grant Park in Chicago. I was just a blur in the crowd of thousands there, much further from the stage than I was now as he flew over me. But that was a momentous occasion as well. No flat tire is welcome, though I have had a few that have delayed me and led to an encounter that I was happy to have happened, such as this.

Likewise I didn't object to having gone astray a couple times two days before on my ride from Washington, D.C. to Annapolis, Maryland after taking Amtrak from Chicago to visit my long-time friends Lyndon and Stephanie. My delays getting lost leaving DC and then entering into Annapolis led to an encounter I was delighted to have had, intersecting with a pair of touring cyclists who had been on the road since November. They hadn't seen another touring cyclist in over two months, since they were on the California coast. I had no expectations whatsoever of seeing any touring cyclists on this trip back to Chicago in early spring. I saw none on a similar trip last fall from Charleston, S.C. back to Chicago, nor three years ago when I made a circuit from Chicago to Oberlin, Ohio to Winston-Salem and back. All three of us were both thrilled and dumbfounded to cross paths.

They were a young couple just getting started on a life of adventure who had met while going to school in Tacomo, Washington. The guy was from upstate New York and his girl friend from Alaska. They had spent a couple of summers working in Denali National Park and had spent six months in France, she teaching English and he joining her for some biking around the country afterwards. They had set out on these travels in Seattle, biking down the Pacific coast to the tip of Baja and then ferrying over to the mainland to bike through the Copper Canyon. The guy had just landed a job with Velo Orange, , a small, mostly mail order company specializing in odd, hard to find touring equipment, in Annapolis. While we talked in a late afternoon misty drizzle at the intersection in the road where we met just outside of Annapolis, several people stopped to ask if we needed help or a place to stay for the night. They, like me, had friends in the area. We were able to bike along for several miles before going our separate ways as dark settled in.

I had to continue nearly ten miles north of Annapolis to Arnold where Lyndon and Stephanie had moved the first of the year when Stephanie landed a job with Maryland's State Capitol giving tours of its historic domed building and curating its collection. As always, it was fabulous getting together with them and their young son Sullivan, soon to turn two. Usually I can count on seeing them just once a year at Telluride's Labor Day film festival, but I've been extra lucky to have visited them in Charleston six months ago and now here in Annapolis.

My visit allowed me the great pleasure of reacquainting myself with Washington, D.C. I had forgotten what a remarkably beautiful city it is, comparable to Paris and London and Rome with its many monuments and splendid buildings and parks. I didn't have time to give it more than a meander on my arrival and then departure. I will most certainly have to return soon. But for now it is on to Winston Salem, North Carolina for this weekend's River Run Film Festival, where I'll meet up with Lyndon once again as well as Tomas, the cycling friend I met in Mexico thirty years ago. And I'll check out a few Carnegie libraries along the way.

Later, George