Saturday, November 26, 2011

Home Stretch

Friends: One question all touring cyclists get used to being asked is, "How many miles do you ride a day?" My answer is an off-handed, "Oh, about 80, depending on the conditions, but I know that if need to I can always do 100."

I had a chance to put that to the test once again on Thanksgiving, when I began the day a little over 100 miles from home and the invitation to a Thanksgiving dinner with a reader of the blog and 24 of his vegetarian friends, none of whom I had met. It would be a mild challenge to arrive before dark with less than ten hours of light, but it was a challenge I heartily welcomed, making for a fine home stretch run after another fine tour.

I had had occasional email correspondence with Ross over the years, so I somewhat knew him, but was happy for the opportunity to finally meet him, as well as to share in a feast with a group of interesting folk, a great final travel experience. Ross had tried to arrange a visit for me with his mother in Fargo, North Dakota last month when I was riding route two across the top of the country, but it hadn't worked out. I was happy for his persistence.

I set my alarm for 6:30 and was on the road by sunrise at seven after camping behind a dumpster at a construction site east of LaSalle on route six just south of Interstate 80. There was a nightmarish non-stop bumper-to-bumper river of headlights on the interstate the evening before, but it had slowed to a trickle by morning. Fortunately it was far enough away I couldn't hear it, nor was it close enough to be a distraction as I pedaled along, as had Interstate 44 right next to Historic Route 66 earlier in the trip in Missouri.

I had two last Carnegies to pay homage to, the first in Marseilles, after about an hour. An old codger, who told me he was living in a building dating to 1903, two years older than the Carnegie, let me know I was just a block away. He also gave me directions to the laundromat, a block down and a block over, where I hoped to give myself a wash.

The Carnegie identified itself with PVBLIC LIBRARY over its entry and above that a nice light fixture and 1905. The entry to the fine tan brick building was given an additional air of majesty with a pair of globe lights on pedestals and a flagpole and planters. It had had a small addition behind it, not detracting at all from its prominence as the most distinguished looking building in the town.

The laundromat was open and I had it all to myself. I took out my nearly frozen bottle of honey and ran hot water over it, while I washed, giving it a chance to soften up enough so I could squeeze it out without giving myself carpal tunnel. I had enough bread and peanut butter left to make myself three sandwiches, finishing off both, almost enough fuel to get me home, along with a few oatmeal cookies I had left.

I had less success finding the Carnegie in Morris, as it had been torn down, though it took me a while to get confirmation of that finally at the town's police station. A Vietnamese women at a open hair dresser across the street knew nothing about it, nor did two people smoking out on the porch of their house nor a young women at a convenience store.

I was squandering time, but I could not give up on my quest. It would be the last of sixteen Carnegies I had searched out in Illinois in the past six days. I hadn't found them all, as besides the ones in Springfield and Pekin and Morris that had been torn down, the one in Greenview never existed, as I had gotten it confused with Greenville, one hundred miles to the south. But I at least had a nice conversation with a cyclist in Greenview who had ridden RAGBRAI and was signed up for the annual three day tour of the Finger Lakes in northern Wisconsin this June. I could have pitched my tent in his back yard if I had wanted.

Even though the Carnegie in Springfield had been torn down nearly 40 years ago, I felt like I knew it better than any of the Carnegies I did see, as I spent an hour in the new library's history room paging through several folders of articles tracing the history of the library. Springfield was a thriving city of 30,000 people when its Carnegie was built in 1904 with a grant of $75,000, just one of 52 of the 1,689 Carnegies built in the US with a grant of more than $50,000. Most grants were $10,000.

It had been an architectural monstrosity, in a style derisively called Carnegie Rococo with a mixture of marble and columns in at least 16 architectural styles. It was said that, "Any architect who saw it has practically thrown up." It was built to accommodate 40,000 books. When it opened it had 35,000 books and was soon overwhelmed. By 1940 more than 135,000 volumes were crammed into the building.

I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt trying to find the Carnegies in Alton and Peoria. The one in Alton was actually in the adjoining community of Upper Alton, above the Mississippi, and was on the campus of the dental school of Southern Illinois University. It was now a biomedical library after starting out as the library for Shurtleff University. It retained "Carnegie Library" on its red brick facade flanked by two pillars.

I arrived in Peoria at 7:30 am after my night in a warehouse. I was lucky to find a bushy-bearded fellow beside a van that appeared to be his home outside the library in the heart of the city who knew that this wasn't the site of the Carnegie, but rather it was a couple miles away. My ride took me past the Cubs' dazzling Triple A minor league stadium that seats 8,000 and past a street named for Richard Pryor, born in Peoria. The Carnegie was identified as the Lincoln Branch Peoria Public Library. The four-pillared building sat on a slight rise in the middle of a couple square block park that it had all to itself. Hidden behind it was a vast addition. It was closed, as the old building was undergoing a vast restoration.

After Alton, the first of my Carnegies after crossing the Mississippi, there were still functioning Carnegies in Jerseyville, Carrollton, Winchester and Jacksonville, each with its own charm and personality that gave me a glow upon making their acquaintance. As interesting as any of them though was the Carnegie in Chillicothe, as it was now a used book store--Waxwing Books with a website of the same name listing some of its 30,000 titles and including a photo of its proprietors, the Popps, Richard and Wendy, out front of the building. They bought the building in 2005 just after it went on the market. They had just moved to Peoria, 17 miles to the south, after discovering South Dakota wasn't such a good place for a book store. They had relatives in Peoria and decided to relocate there. Shortly after they arrived, the Carnegie became available. They couldn't have been happier with their good fortune.

Fifty miles after Chillicothe I had a run of three Carnegies within five miles in Spring Valley, Peru and LaSalle, the tightest cluster I have ever encountered. The one in Peru likewise now housed a business, this one Video Services offering VHS duplicating and DVD transfers. The new library in Peru though still honored Carnegie with his standard portrait holding an open book on his lap. Those in Spring Valley and LaSalle had both doubled in size with virtual clones of their originals added alongside.

The librarian at LaSalle was a true Carnegie enthusiast. She went on and on sharing anecdotes of the library, telling me about its small reading room with a fireplace that they dared not use and advising me to make sure to give a look to a couple of cases of over 200 clocks all manufactured in LaSalle. As I slipped away to prowl about she said, "If you have any more questions come back. I'm on the circ desk until we close."

All these Carnegies were on my mind after I left Morris and closed in on Joliet for my final forty mile run into Chicago. From Joliet I thought I'd take route 171 on into Chicago as it passed through Lemont, home of Christian Vande Velde, where I'd paid him a visit two years ago (see the October 1, 2009 entry for a full report). I wouldn't barge in on him, but I imagined I might catch him out on a training ride or perhaps a run to the store for some last minute Thanksgiving fixings. I was wearing one of the jerseys he had given me, but unfortunately the near freezing temperatures had it buried under a sweater and a vest. Otherwise if one of his friends or relatives had seen the jersey, they might have been curious enough to stop and ask if I was a friend of Christian's and perhaps invited me over to their gathering. I pedaled merrily along fueled with fantasies of sharing a Thanksgiving Day meal with a Tour de France hero and his family.

When I came to Joliet I began to see signs telling me I was back on Historic Route 66, a special Joliet version saying "Kicks on 66" in honor of the song about Route 66. Joliet even had a Kicks on 66 Visitor Center. Since I had ridden 66 for over a hundred miles in Missouri, I couldn't resist the lure of following those signs all the way back to Chicago, even though that wouldn't take me through Lemont. I began to regret that decision though about 15 miles later when Historic 66 took me on Interstate 55 for a couple of miles. The entry ramp had no signs barring bicyclists, and even if it had, I would have ignored them for such a short stretch. I had a wide wide shoulder all to myself and had to negotiate only one exit ramp before escaping.

Not only was it meaningful for me to be riding Route 66 once again, it was also meaningful that before Joliet I had crossed the Illinois and Michigan Canal, as my riding partner on those first Route 66 miles, Jim Redd, The Don, had written a book on the I and M Canal back in 1993 called "The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Contemporary Perspective in Essays and Photographs."

As I closed in on my century, I was on schedule to arrive at Ross' apartment in down town Chicago on State Street just a few blocks south of the Harold Washington Library, where several copies of Jim's book can be found, before dark at 4:30. The traffic was minimal as I headed in on Ogden, then turned on Roosevelt, taking me me past perhaps the most unsettling sight I saw during these travels--a Best Buy with a block long line of people, some in tents, waiting for its Black Friday opening, and a Channel Seven news truck parked nearby.

Ross said his gathering would be at the fourth floor hospitality room in his building. When I arrived everyone was already seated at one long table. I didn't mind at all that dinner had already started. I was somewhat concerned that I might have to stand around on tired legs and make conversation when I desperately needed to get off my feet after having ridden 103 miles in the past nine-and-a-half hours. Ross gave me a grand introduction, followed by applause. Then I hit the buffet table and collapsed into a chair.

There were quite a few cyclists among the vegetarians beside Ross. One was a former San Francisco bicycle messenger. He was presently working as a salesman, but missing the messengering. I could give him all the ins and outs on messengering in Chicago. He had resisted it, under the assumption that it wasn't as lucrative as in San Francisco, but I assured him if he worked hard enough, it could be.

His sister, presently on sabbatical from college, had just bought a bike and was eager to start riding after a several year absence. Ross and her brother were heaping all sorts of advice on her, especially to be patient with it if it took her awhile to get used to her seat, or if she was initially intimidated by traffic. I didn't have much to say.

I've learned over the years that either one has it in them to like cycling or one doesn't. There isn't much I can say to convince anyone that the bicycle is the answer to all their troubles, though I know it is. Their conversion has to come from within. I let my life speak for itself. They were impressed by my devotion to the bicycle and didn't seem to regard me as some sort of kook. I've inspired a few over the years to take to the bike or to give touring a try, but many of those for just a short period, after initially promising to be a fellow zealot. A bad incident or bad weather can quickly turn them back into an unbeliever and back to their car dependence, renouncing what they had at first embraced with great and extreme fervor, almost regarding me as a messiah in their gratitude for the great joy and freedom the bicycle had at first brought them.

Ross is a strong advocate of the bike though without the mania of a television evangelist. He's taken the crusade to wherever he is, whether in Chicago or Indiana, where he once owned a pharmacy, or traveling or wintering in Florida. He still has a hint of his North Dakota accent and maintains the easy-going demeanor of someone who grew up in a non-urban environment. His emails always close with a quote or two extolling the virtues of the bicycle. One of my favorites is one of his own: "A bicycle gets you there and so much more. There is always the thin edge of danger to keep you in the moment and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again; potholes are personal. You feel like a kid again while getting fit and strong."

That's as good a close as I can give to another great tour. Though it was only three-and-a-half weeks and less than 1,500 miles and not far from home, it was as satisfying as any of those of months and months and thousands and thousands of miles in some distant land. The point is to spend hours and hours day after day regarding the world from over my handlebars freed of all earthly concerns other than the basics while reveling in the beauty of the countryside and the goodness of its people, and that I achieved. I can't get back to it soon enough.

Later, George

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chillicothe, Illinois

Friends: As I sat in my tent last night I was feeling more pleased than usual at my resourcefulness and good fortune at having sniffed out a most noteworthy campsite under the most dire of circumstances. Adding to my great good cheer was I had been fully reconciled to having to spend the night in a hotel.

I had been rained upon all day, even delaying my start a couple of hours.  I actually considered spending the day in my tent hidden by a row of six foot tall bales of hay if the rain didn't let up. The temperature was barely forty and the wind was blowing from the north, making it feel even colder, not the most inviting of circumstances to get out on the bike. Once I did though, as always, I discovered the conditions weren't as bad as I imagined, or at least that infallible joy of being on the bike made it seem so.

I needed plastic bags over my wool gloves to keep them from becoming fully saturated and to keep my hands warm. The booties over my shoes kept my feet somewhat dry, though the holes in the bottoms to accommodate my cleats allowed enough water to seep in to dampen my shoes and socks. My feet were more cold than warm. My torso was fully dry, but not my legs.  My tights were wet, though they were of such a quality that my legs didn't feel cold.

I had retreated to the warmth of indoors only three times all day. The first at a Casey's General Store just long enough to buy a burrito and a quart of chocolate milk, which I nibbled and guzzled as I pedaled along. Then the Carnegie library in Delavan, a town of 2,700, just double what it was when the library was built in 1914. It is a rare Carnegie that hasn't had an addition. There was no sign for the library, forcing me to stop to ask. No one was out and about in such conditions, so I ducked into the local laundromat where I saw a woman reading. "It's just down the street," she pointed. "Its the nicest building in town. I've been going to it since I was a little girl."

The three ladies tending the library were equally enthusiastic and kindly. The head librarian explained it was called the Ayer Library, as a Mr. Ayer at the time of its construction donated over $10,000, more than the Carnegie grant, for its operation. She said the library was on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Then she pulled out a book on all the Carnegies in Illinois, "The Carnegie Library in Illinois" by Raymond Bial written in 1991, a book I had never come across. It had a full page photo of the eighty-five still standing at the time and a one page history of each.

I wasn't fully dried out when I went back out in the rain, headed to the Pekin library seventeen miles away, my third and final refuge from the wet. Its Carnegie had been torn down and was replaced by a large, glassy building that will never end up on the National Register of Historic Buildings, as many of the Carnegies have. From Pekin I followed the Illinois River for ten miles to Peoria. It was less than an hour until dark. I figured I could find a cheap hotel in Peoria, what with Bradley University and Catepillar based there.

But I wasn't counting on the low overcast making dark come much sooner than anticipated. Most cars had been driving with their headlights on all day. I only made it halfway to Peoria, not feeling safe at all on the two-lane highway with no shoulder in the near dark. Much as I had been looking forward to a warm hotel room to dry out all my gear, when I saw an abandoned gas station off the road down towards the river, I decided to give it a look. As I approached I noticed a series of factories that looked closed down as well.

It was an industrial wasteland, a genuine oasis for me. One factory was surrounded by barbed wire and signs warning "No Trespassing," but another was unfenced. I was looking for a secluded overhang to pitch my tent when I discovered a door next to its loading dock was open. There were a few lights on, but there was no evidence of anyone being around or it being in use, other than rows and rows of pallets of plastic tubing wrapped in plastic stacked to the ceiling filling about half of the warehouse/factory.

I pedaled around looking for a hidden spot to pitch my tent. I found a dark corner several rooms down from the entry. At the entry was a stack of cardboard sheets, just what I needed to insulate me from the frigid concrete floor and also to absorb the moisture in my tent floor. How lucky could I be. I was still reveling at having Another Memorable Night in My Tent after Another Great Day on the Bike, when at nine p.m. I heard a golf cart patrolling the premises. My heart slightly plunged, but then I thought "this ought to be interesting." Would this be a kindly security guard or would he kick me out or even worse call the cops. His headlight swept past me, but not on the tent. He circled around and let me be, leaving me with a feeling of relief but also of mild disappointment.

Later, George

Monday, November 21, 2011

Athens, Illinois

Friends: For years my long-time friend Chris has been reading snippets from my touring dispatches and sharing incidents from my travels with his three children, now aged eleven to seventeen, whether they wanted to hear them or not. Will, the youngest, wasn't entirely certain I actually existed, but rather was simply some alter-ego of his cycling-obsessed Dad, no more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

So Chris was quite happy when I passed through St. Louis and had time to pay a visit, not only to see me, but also so that he could introduce me to his children and verify that there really was a George the Cyclist. I was equally pleased to meet up with Chris once again and also his parents, Ellwood and Robin, who if things had been slightly different would have been my brother and sister-in-law. Robin is the sister of Crissy, my fellow free-spirit, whose life's we shared for nearly three decades until she succumbed to cancer several years ago. Robin was so endeared to her kid sister, as was anyone who knew her, that she named her first-born after her, adding extra significance to my friendship with Chris.

Robin and Ellwood couldn't be closer or more genuine friends than if we were legally bound by some official vows and paperwork. The same can be said of Chris. We don't see each other often enough, though we do stay very much in touch through the Internet. Before I was unveiled to Chris's children I was able to first drop by the office where Ellwood and Chris maintain their investment firm and begin catching up. Then it was dinner with Robin and Ellwood before venturing over to Chris' home, two doors down from home run king Mark McGuire.

I hadn't had time to shower or even change clothes, so I still had on my adventurer's costume of tights and cycling jersey, attesting to my authenticity. Besides Chris' family of five, his wife's parents had just arrived from Connecticut for the Thanksgiving week. They too had been subjected to Tales of George. They weren't skeptical of my existence, but maybe to the extent of my travels. They've done their share of world traveling, most recently to India several times visiting grandchildren and a daughter and son-in-law who taught there the past three years until moving to Senegal to do the same. I was eager to hear of their experiences, especially to learn if Senegal would make a worthy next destination for me.

As we sat around the family's grand twelve foot long dining room table Robin kept trying to keep me on topic as I talked about being attacked by a wild boar in France and knife-wielding thugs in South Africa and other stories. It was all too easy to get sidetracked. Somehow I was talking about bicycling in Cuba with my friend Dwight, an eco-terrorist who is wanted in six countries for single-handedly sinking a whaling ship in Norway and a drift-netter in Taiwan and escaping from Mexico City's maximum security prison, one of only two persons to accomplish the feat, the other being Pancho Villa.

"Whoa," Chris exclaimed. "How did you ever meet him?," then asked his name, so he could google him. When I said, "Dwight Worker," Robin commented, "There's a picture of the two of you on your Facebook page, isn't there." She was right about that. Dwight is soon to become even more famous, as the National Geographic cable network is going to feature him in an hour segment of its "Locked Up Abroad" series.

The stories flowed fast and furious like an untapped oil well. I didn't have to fake my passion or enthusiasm recounting my experiences thanks to a sincerely interested audience. No need to win them over. All the while Chris' aspiring-photographer daughter was shooting away and Chris was holding up his telephone recording my ravings. It wasn't an entirely novel experience, as I've experienced similar semi-celebrity status in foreign lands in places where Westerners are rarely seen and the population is well-equipped with telephones that have recording devices. It was quite common in newly affluent China, with everyone wanting to try out their new toys.

It was a Friday night, so the kids didn't have to devote themselves to homework or get to bed too early. Will though had to keep his fingers limber on the piano in preparation for a recital the next morning. If not for the early hour of the recital, Chris could have biked with me across the Mississippi to Alton. Instead he just had time enough to accompany me to within five miles of The Arch, nearly twenty miles from his home in the western suburbs of the city.

We were joined by one of Chris' regular Saturday morning riding mates, an avid racer who was wearing a Tour of Missouri cycling jersey. Christian Vande Velde had won the first week-long Tour of Missouri several years ago. Chris' friend had heard plenty about me too. He greeted me saying, "Any friend of Christian Vande Velde is a friend of mine." As we rode along he said he had learned the phrase "plus vite" from reading my blog. He was indeed a close reader, as I could well remember the one time I had mentioned that phrase when a teen-aged boy yelled it at me as I was climbing a steep mountain during The Tour de France, telling me to go faster.  Our ride was a fine capper to what seemed like much, much more than a mere day in St. Louis with as fine a group of friends as one could wish for.

Two days into Illinois and I've already added six Carnegies to my Life List. At one point in Carnegie's dispersal of libraries across America, Illinois had more than any other state. It was eventually overtaken by Indiana and California, but remains in third place tied with New York and Iowa with 106. With luck I'll be able to visit ten or so more in the next two hundred miles. The library here in Athens is not one of them. It is less than ten years old and was constructed in part with funds donated by McDonald's. Part of the deal was that the library had to exhibit a Ronald McDonald. He is sitting out on one of the two benches in front of the library. The librarian said, "The kids love him."

Later, George

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Hoppy Wanderer

Friends: The Don had an epiphany in Clinton, Arkansas, the evening after we went our separate ways and has adopted another identity, "The Hoppy Wanderer." Here he recounts how it came to be, a moment he refers to as the "Immaculate Conception."

Standing out front of a Motel 6 in a dry county in Arkansas is an unlikely place to start the "Hoppy Wanderer" project, but something about pavement as far as the eye can see inspired me: a landscape of McDonald's, Hardees, Taco Bell, and, just over the horizon, a Super Walmart, all joined by the lifeline of petroleum: the vehicles, corpuscles in the asphalt veins that supply these organs of commerce with their nutrients.

But beyond the neon clutter I could see a backdrop forming. I raised my right hand to shield my eyes from the glare of the Waffle House parking lot lights to see the sunset, and a welcome sight appeared in the foreground: a bottle of Shiner Bock from Spoetzle Brewery (est. 1909) in Texas. I held it high and the sunset became a new dawning: the birth of the age of the Hoppy Wanderer. I had just pulled the Bock from the bottom of my right pannier, attached to my Cannondale mountain bike, in my room (#116, complete with HDTV, microwave, and, conveniently, a refrigerator). This bottle, and five of its companions, along with one renegade Samuel Adams Stout, had been buried there since leaving Pinewood Cabins in Mountain View, two dry counties and two days ride north.

How did that beer end up in your pannier in a dry county? you may ask the Hoppy Wanderer. This is a good question because not even the non-God-fearing minority of store owners responded as desired to my knowing wink and "under the counter" hand motion when asking "Oh, come on. Really? Just how dry IS this county, my friend?"

My last bicycle tour with George Christensen, a fellow Chicago cyclist, was from Minneapolis to Chicago, ten years ago. Since then he's toured all over the world, and I bought a hotel in Ecuador. Now we're on a "reunion" tour from St. Louis to Little Rock, through the Ozark Mountains. An unlikely riding partner for the Hoppy Wanderer, since George neither mountain bikes or drinks beer or smokes, all vices hard-wired into the Hoppy Wanderer's knees, stomach, and lungs, respectively.

But ya basta this digression: the point is George does not like to live a day off his bike, so when I told him I planned to spend the day doing single track through the Fall colors of the Ozark National Forest, he offered to make a "beer run" from this "black hole for alcohol" (as he so alliteratively put in his blog) to the nearest liquid oasis at the Baxter county line, twenty miles away. If I hadn't already been convinced of the existence of a God by the clever Bible snippets on a multitude of holy highway marquees we'd passed, I was when I returned to Pinewood Cabins after the eight-mile single track loop to a refrigerator with a six-pack of Sam Adams Stout and one of Shiner Boch, the last of which I'm shading my eyes with as I watch the sunset.

My life was surely blessed, if not by God, then at least by George, but as frequently happens, I had to make a difficult choice: which to open first? Unlike the Bock, the Stout had twist-off caps. This wouldn't normally be an issue but my Leatherman was obviously not designed with the Hoppy Wanderer in mind, and has no bottle opener. So the choice was manifest. Thus, destiny determined, by elimination, that Shiner Bock, was to be the inaugural brew of the Hoppy Wanderer's many future bike & brew product investigations, in a dry county in the Bible Belt. An Immaculate Conception if ever there was One!


"Drank One, Thanked One"

Cameron, the U.S. Marine, and his girlfriend just returned from a cigarette run in their Hummer and I'm sitting with them at the Capprichio Bar in the Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock because they just bought me a Diamond Bear Pale Ale, locally brewed 2 blocks away. ( "A balanced classic English Ale, medium bodied with both sweetness from the malt and a pleasant hoppy aroma. O.G. 13.4P, I.B.U. 33") They're looking at the 10ft by 20ft mirror on the wall behind the bar and fantasizing about having it on the ceiling of their bedroom.

I tried that one go and order another Diamond Bear. Am I really sitting here drinking with a Marine Bud-Liter with a Hummer? Travel, especially doing micro-brew research alone by bike, sometimes yields strange bar-fellows. Cameron and Shiela are at the Peabody because they were attendees at the Marine Ball last night, and it appears have been drinking ever since.

We all go for a smoke outside and Cameron gives a homeless man $20 and tells him to go get drunk. He asks me for a cigarette and I say I only got non-filter Camels is that OK? "Beggars can't be choosers," the beggar says.

To spark conversation I tell Cameron I live in Ecuador, expecting the usual puzzled look. But he knows that's where the Galapagos are and goes into a creationist lament about how he was raised a Southern Baptist but on the other hand Darwin had some good points.

Back at the bar, in front of the big mirror, he introduces me to his friend, Tracy, also a Marine. But he's studying Geology at Hendrix College in Conway, an upscale suburb of Little Rock I had just ridden through on my way in. ("Does that make you a Marine Geologist?" I asked). He notices I'm the only bar-fellow having micro-brew and he tells me about Bosco's, a brewpub down the street. I'm out the door and when he and Sheila join me later I've already half-glassed their Hop Harvest Porter, dark and full-bodied, brewed with "citra" hops, "cones" fresh out of the field, dried and cured. (O.G. 1062, I.B.U. 35).

As I contemplate the porter in my glass I'm reminded of mountain biking in the Ozarks last week, and an especially contemplative moment when I stopped to sit on a rock outcropping I assumed was an ancient granite slab, the bedrock underlying the trail I'd been riding. Across the valley (or "holler" as they say here) the trees were still in foliage and a slight breeze was making them shimmer, as if alive (well, they are, aren't they?) in the sun, itself receding to the southwest. Since I happened to be sitting next to a geologist, I mentioned the rock to him, curious if he had any idea how old it might be. He said the rocks in the Ozarks aren't granite at all, but sedimentary, formed under ancient oceans and revealed when the oceans receded. A little more Ozarkian geology-talk and my porter-level recedes and reveals the bottom of the glass, and I have to get to the Amtrak station to head to Chicago so so-long Tracy come down to Ecuador to study volcanoes sometime. "Drank One."

The train's 30 minutes away and the harried ticket agent's got a bike box, but no tools and I'm on my own as far as boxing the bike. Twenty minutes away and I have no pedal wrench. Fifteen minutes away and where's my allen wrench? I'm trying to remove the pedals with the pliers on my Leatherman when an Amtrak porter shows up with a 15-mm open-end and removes the pedals. Five minutes away and a young Amish man helps me put the bike in the box. But no tape! The train's loading and where's the ticket agent to check the bike? The porter says maybe he can send the bike on the next train and runs to find out. He can't find the ticket master, and I'm watching the train pull out. But the porter went beyond the normal porter duties, and I thank him. "Thanked one."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Farmington, Missouri

Friends: For four days I enjoyed relatively flat terrain as I skirted the southern fringe of the Ozarks in Arkansas, but after I crossed back into Missouri south of Poplar Bluff, the hills began again. I ventured off onto county roads identified by letters rather than numbers that took me through towns that were nothing more than a small church.

For more than fifty miles of steep ups and downs from Lake Wappapello to Marquand I had the roads nearly to myself without a general store or cafe for fuel or warmth in the sudden wintry temperatures. I was down to one bottle of water. I began stopping at churches in search of a water spigot without success. I knew if need be I could stop at one of the occasional homesteads, but before that was necessary I came upon a campground on the outskirts of Cascade, the only cluster of homes to qualify as a town along the way, though without any stores that weren't boarded up. The campground only had an outhouse and no showers, but there was a water tap.

I knew if I were truly desperate I could have dared to drink from any of the many streams I crossed, all with low-lying bridges and signs warning "Impassable In High Water." Each had a measuring rod sticking up going to three feet. This was truly the back country. The temperature was only in the 40s, so I had to keep moving to stay warm, just taking a couple short breaks to eat and rest the legs leaning against the south facing wall of a church to shield me from the stiff north wind that had cooled the temperatures dramatically. Just two days before it had been in the eighties. It was a most strenuous day, but I managed seventy-five miles with all the time on the bike. How strenuous it had been was confirmed when I settled down to sleep and I could feel a still accelerated heart beat as my body continued to recover.

Though this had been a sunny clear day, the shift in weather had brought rain a couple days before. The guy who told me I was in for a rainy night in Walnut Ridge was absolutely correct. Even before I had set up camp, thunder and lightning were menacing the near black sky. I had to leave the road I was riding flanked by farmers' fields in the flats of Arkansas to detour down a side road that turned to dirt to reach the nearest forest. I found some high ground, so if the rain was as severe as the sky was intimidating it would be, I needn't fear flooding. My biggest concern was the dirt road turning into a muddy quagmire the next morning. I considered turning back when the road turned to dirt, but there hadn't been any place to pitch my tent where I was confident of the drainage or that was secluded enough, plus it was too near dark to go back to the main road in hopes of finding better camping along it.

It rained all night and didn't let up with the morning's light. My tent dripped a bit slightly dampening my sleeping bag, but not significantly. I slept to eight hoping the rain would abate, but ended up breaking camp in a light drizzle. Seeing the dirt road in the morning light, I was relieved to discover it was more gravel than dirt and only had patches of standing water. It was rideable. Best of all, no dirt or mud clung to my tires and clogged my fenders and brakes, as I have experienced all too many times on rough roads in isolated quarters around the world. Once in Bolivia the mud was so adhesive I had to remove my fenders, but was still unable to push my bike through the mud, forcing me to carry it.

It was a couple hours before the rain let up. The sky remained thickly clouded though, threatening more rain at any moment. I had been hoping to stumble upon a laundromat to dry out my sleeping bag and tent, but had no such luck. I did unroll my tent late in the day, drying it a bit, but without any sunshine, just a slight breeze, it was hardly worth the effort.

I was slightly nervous about attempting to camp that night with wet gear in the very soggy countryside. The furrows of the fields along the road were all filled with water, looking as if they were rice paddies. It would be a challenge to find unsaturated turf, but I was gaining on more forested terrain that promised better drainage.

I feared that I might be forced into a hotel, something I always dread. I consider it a defeat, an admission that I'm not tough enough to endure a little discomfort or risk, as bitter a pill to swallow as accepting a ride from a car. Resorting to a hotel is like buying one's way out of trouble--maybe not an immoral or unethical act, but at the least the easy way out. Far better to solve a problem with ingenuity and fortitude than by throwing money at it.

I passed through the large city of Poplar Bluff just as it was getting dark with motel after motel offering a temptation. But I knew thick woods awaited me and pushed on. The first couple of patches of woods I attempted were too spongy and on lower ground. But before I could get to thicker, higher forests I came upon a small church on a hill surrounded by a lawn. I checked the turf behind the church. It wasn't saturated and hid me from the road.

Not long after I was set up the rain began again, not hard, but steady. It soothed me to sleep. But I awoke at one a.m. with a wet arm. The rain was no longer soaking in and I was in the middle of a small lake. The front of the church had an overhang. Though it was concrete it was dry. I quickly moved all my gear, without once regretting I were in a motel, happy to have spent the night in my tent.

I am now within seventy miles of St. Louis hoping to overnight with friends tomorrow, then visit a Carnegie in Alton across the river and pick up Historic Route 66 back to Chicago.

Later, George

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Walnut Ridge, Arkansas

Friends: It is "Can Forgiveness Month," at the Walnut Ridge, Arkansas library. Bring in a can of food and one is able to "can" one dollar's worth of library fines.

As odd as that scheme might be, it wasn't the oddest thing I encountered in Walnut Ridge. As I sat outside the library putting some calories into me making a dent in the two-pound tub of macaroni salad I'd just purchased at the local Sav-A-Lot before going into the library, an older gentleman stopped by to warn me I was in for some rain this evening. He also asked if I had seen the Beatles sculpture a block away. I hadn't. He told me it commemorated the Beatles landing at the Walnut Ridge airport in 1964. "Some people think it's the most significant thing to have happened in the town's history," he said.

The sculpture was a black metal silhouette of the Fab Four prancing along, emulating the Abbey Road album cover. It was behind the "Imagine Artist's Gallery," which featured individual paintings of each of the Lads from Liverpool on its front window. The shop's proprietor, Carrie Mae Snapp, was delighted to tell me every detail I could have hoped to know about the Beatles visit. She was a 14-year old girl at the time and a Beatles lover of the first order. She gushed with as much enthusiasm telling me all about their visit as if it had happened day before.

Walnut Ridge had the only airport within one hundred miles large enough to accommodate the Beatles private jet. They had a couple days between concerts and wanted to take a break from their hectic tour at the ranch of a friend in Alton, Missouri, a town that Don Jaime and I passed through a week ago. They landed at Walnut Ridge at two a.m. after a Friday night concert in Dallas and then flew on to Alton in a puddle jumper, all that is except for Paul, who was leery of small planes and preferred to be driven.

A boyhood friend of Carrie Mae's happened to be at the airport when the Beatles made their surprise landing and immediately called Carrie Mae, waking her family up in the middle of the night, to tell her that he had hung out with and drunk whiskey with the Beatles. The next day, Carrie Mae and her parents drove out to the airport to see if the Beatles jet was truly there. Not only was it there, but Carrie Mae and a couple of her girl friends were able to sneak aboard the jet, climbing up on its wing and slipping in through its emergency exit, which they noticed was ajar. They made off with five small pillows. Her father found out later that day and made them return the pillows, though she kept the slip it came in, which she still has.

They learned that the pilot of the jet was staying at a local motel. They searched him out to see if he would tell them when the Beatles would be flying out. He said he couldn't say, but if they wanted to see them they shouldn't go to church on Sunday. That's all they needed to know. They were among about 300 people at the airport Sunday morning, about ten per cent of the town's population.

When the small plane landed, only John and Paul exited, rushing straight to the jet, hardly acknowledging the crowd. "Ringo looked tipsy, as if he were drunk," Carrie Mae said. "And then right after they boarded the jet, a red GMC Suburban, that had been parked a little distance away, drove up right where I was standing and out hopped first Paul and then George. Paul passed me before I could react, but I was able to touch George. This very hand touched George," she gushed, as if she were still that 14-year old girl who had experienced the dream of a lifetime.

From the plane John glanced out once and gave a wave, but Paul gave the crowd a prolonged look. "Every girl there claims he made eye contact with her, but I know I'm the one," Carrie Mae said.

I wondered if Alton acknowledged the Beatles visit as did Walnut Ridge. Don Jaime and I spent a fair bit of time circling about the town late one Sunday afternoon trying to find a six-pack of beer for The Don and hadn't noticed anything commemorating the Beatles. Carrie Mae confirmed there wasn't, though the ranch they stayed at has tried to auction off every bit of its content that it can connect to the Beatles.

The 1962 GMC Suburban Paul and George were given a ride in is still around. It was in Walnut Ridge this past Sept. 18, the 47th anniversary of the Beatles landing, when the Beatles sculpture was unveiled. Carrie Mae said the "Wall Street Journal" had a front page story on the event. Google "Carrie Mae Snapp and the Beatles" and you can read much much more. Carrie Mae has been featured in quite a few articles over the years. "I give a good interview," she said. Yes indeed.

She added that a documentary was made of the Beatles visit, but because of rights problems with some of the footage, it has never been released. Someone else is working on a feature film of that momentous weekend.

Later, George

Monday, November 14, 2011

Possum Grape, Arkansas

Friends: As I closed to within ten miles of downtown Little Rock approaching from the west on thickly forested route ten, neither my map nor anyone I asked could tell me how to link up with the bicycle path along the Arkansas River that went straight to the Clinton Library. I knew it was to my left, but there didn't seem to be any main thoroughfares bisecting the road I was on.

Then I caught a glimpse of a cyclist in Lyra a block over. It took me several blocks to catch up to him. He was headed to the bike path himself. He said I'd have to follow him, as it was too complicated to explain how to reach it riding through the small affluent suburb of Cammack Village up on a high bluff overlooking the river to reach the lone road heading down to the river.

He warned me that if I ever drove through Cammack Village to strictly observe the 25 mile per hour speed limit, as the cops ticket drivers if they exceed the speed limit by even one mile per hour. When we reached the river, we came out right at the bicycle bridge that crosses the Arkansas River. It is the longest pedestrian/bicycle bridge ever built, 4,226 feet long. A commemorative plaque from its dedication in September of 2006, also stated it was the only bridge ever built into a dam, and listed numerous awards this engineering marvel had won. It was a magnificent structure with supports jutting out of a dam lofting it ninety feet over the river.

My riding partner said he was continuing on to Pinnacle Mountain, a pyramid shaped mountain we could see in the distance. Just a little over a mile away was another recently completely bicycle bridge, one of three on this bike route. "If you come along with me you can bike over all three of them," he said. "The third was just completed this summer and it will take you out right at the Clinton Library."

I had told him I was meeting a friend at the library at noon. It wasn't even ten o'clock, so I had plenty of time. He wasn't all that impressed that I wanted to visit the library. "Not everyone here likes Clinton all that much. When he decided to put his library in Little Rock, it caused quite a stink, but they built it anyway."

He wasn't the only person I'd met in these travels to echo such a sentiment. A former Arkansan who was tending the desk at the Wagon Wheel Motel in Missouri on Historic Route 66 told Don Jaime and me that many people in Arkansas had voted for Clinton for President to get him out of the state.

As we bicycled along the bicycle path my fellow cyclist commented, "If you'd been here yesterday this trail would have been mobbed with cyclists. But you're in the Bible Belt, and this being Sunday, most people are in church this morning." About the only others out enjoying the path were a few woman joggers and a few Asians taking a stroll.

The bridge over the dam was seven-and-a-half miles from downtown Little Rock. I thought I might be able to see the handful of its 40-story tall skyscrapers as I crossed over it, but the bluffs and winding river blocked the view. It was still very rural, even that close to the heart of this capital city of 200,000 people. The path took me through farmlands with recently harvested huge rolls of hay and past several soccer fields and more forest. After four miles I at last came upon residences and could begin to see the Little Rock skyline on the other side of the river.

A most pleasing sculpture of a young boy on a BMX bike wearing a broad grin and a backward baseball hat stood at the foot of the bicycle/pedestrian bridge leading to the Clinton Library. The bridge had been a former train bridge, still retaining its towering grid of metal camouflaging that it was a bicycle bridge. Like the dam bridge it was a nifty piece of engineering and not without a few aesthetic touches--flower pots on its railing and pull-outs to gaze upon the river.

The Clinton Library too was a magnificent structure with the look of a battle ship perched on stanchions along the river just east of downtown Little Rock. It was part of a mile long Riverfront Park, including an open door pavilion for concerts and an array of sculptures and monuments. One of the sculptures was of a giant hog or razorback, the mascot of the state University in Fayetteville. Many message boards of businesses from banks to beauty salons shouted out "Go Hogs." More than a few companies had taken on hog-related names, none more apt than the car wash calling itself "Hog Wash."

The Riverfront Park had exhibits celebrating the town's past and its role in the Civil War as part of the Confederacy. A Wellness Walkway had placards proclaiming "It's Good to be a Loser" and "Be a Quitter," encouraging people to lose weight by eating sensibly and engaging in regular physical activity and also to quit smoking--"one of the most important things you'll ever do."

Paralleling the Riverfront Park was Clinton Avenue with a Clinton Museum store packed with Clinton books and posters and memorabilia and t-shirts. The most prominent was "I Miss Bill."
I did all the exploring on my own, as Don Jaime didn't make our appointed rendezvous time. He must have been slowed by the continuing strong winds from the south. I was able to head north from Little Rock and take full advantage of the winds, nearly doing 100 miles for the day.

And those strong winds persist today. Rather than angling against them eastward to Memphis I'm letting them blow me directly north. Chicago is now just 600 miles away. If I'm not careful I'll be home well before Thanksgiving. I had been looking forward to making Turkey Day the final leg of my trip home. The winds are due to start blowing from the north any time, and if so, I can reduce my pace and spend more time lingering, but while I have such a wind as I do now, I want to take full advantage of it. I've already spent more time in this library than I wished to. As is my motto, I'd rather be on my bike.

Later, George

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Morrilton, Arkansas

Friends: One of the great traveler's cliches is raving how friendly the people are. Of course they are friendly.  Its is a natural inclination to express curiosity towards someone who is passing through or visiting.  People naturally wonder about such a person.

But there are certainly degrees to friendliness and also genuine friendliness compared to simply rote friendliness. The friendliness of the Ozarks has been exceptional. It is the South, a region known for its hospitality. But the Ozarks are also a cousin to Appalachia, both regions dominated by people living in semi-isolation off in the hills with a natural suspicion towards outsiders. When I have biked through Appalachia I have encountered a certain degree of reserve. That has not been the case at all in the Ozarks.

When Jim and I slipped into the Mona Lisa Cafe for lunch in Shirley, a town of three hundred off on lightly traveled route 9 south of Mountain View that began with a warning "Crooked and Steep Next 17 Miles," we thought we had slipped into a family gathering, the people were so friendly, not only towards us but to everyone seated at the seven tables in the cosy two room cafe. All of a sudden we were the guests of honor with everyone from the waitress to the people at neighboring tables asking about our travels.

The owner, a woman by the name of Lisa, kept up a lively banter with everyone. Jim and I just sat back and enjoyed it all. One woman had driven up from Little Rock, eighty-five miles away, to take her eighty-year old mother out to lunch. When the mother declined the German chocolate cake desert, Lisa asked, "Are you watching your weight? Trying to catch another husband? You keep outliving them all."

Her daughter commented she had many suitors. "She makes me look tame and I'm not tame at all. She had three daughters. One was crazy, one was shy and one was wild. I was the wild one."

A bald-headed guy with a goatee, who had earlier been telling Jim and I he had hitch-hiked all over the country, responded, "Sounds like you take after your mother. I was the black sheep of my family. Everyone kept telling me, why can't you be more like your brothers. I didn't want to be like them and I'm glad I wasn't."

An older gentleman walked up to the counter and told Lisa, " I hate to say it, but that was all too good of a meal not to be able to afford to pay for it."

Lisa quickly retorted, "If you don't have the money, I'll just have to come after you to get it."

"I live off in the hills," he replied. "You'll never find me."

"Oh yes I will. I got real good at trackin' down folks when I first moved here and had a video store."

She told us that when Netflix put her out of business, she was happy to have the opportunity to open up a cafe, her true love. The walls were filled with paintings of Mona Lisa and dolls and other knick knacks. "You should have been here at Halloween," she added, "I had Mona Lisa's decorated in Halloween costumes."

When a couple asked her what they owed her, "She said $15.43, and the entertainment is free."

We've encountered such unrestrained friendliness all along the way. On our second lay-over day in Mountain View, while Jim went off to Ozark National Forest to ride some single-track I took a ride to Baxter County, twenty miles away to pick up a couple of six-packs for Jim. It took me through a small town with the name of 56. When I saw such an unlikely named town on the map, I was sorry it wasn't on our route, so was delighted for the opportunity to see it, and learn how it got its name. It was six miles before the county line.

There was a liquor store just across the county line, four miles before the next town, with a flashing sign warning "Dry County Ahead." The young lady at the liquor store lived in 56, but she said she didn't know how it got its name. "You can ask my mother. She's working in the convenience store back in 56." We had a pleasant fifteen minute chat on her varied customers and family life. She wasn't concerned at all if the neighboring county ever went "wet," as she said they had loyal customers who she was confident would remain faithful to the store.

She wasn't a beer drinker herself, so couldn't recommend a beer for me. My instructions from Jim were to get any micro-brewed beer they might have. And if they had none, just don't get anything lite or Bud or Miller or Michelob. If his cell phone hadn't gone kaput the day before, I could have tried calling him to tell him what was available. I simply asked what was her most expensive beer. It was Sam Adams and Shiner at a little less than ten dollars for a six-pack. Jim would have been happy with anything, not having had a beer for three nights, but these he was pleased with.

When I stopped in at the general store back in 56, the woman at the counter seemed too young to be the mother of the woman at the liquor store, but it was indeed her mother. She said she hoped her daughter hadn't told me too many bad stories about her. She explained 56 got its name from its school district, 56. She too was happy to chat as if we were long-time friends without any nervousness of telling me too much.

Ten miles after the Mona Lisa cafe Jim and I arrived in Clinton (though not on the "Billgrimage Route") on busy route 65, just seventy-five miles north of Little Rock. It was 3:30, two hours before dark. We had gotten a late start out of Mountain View and had only biked thirty-five miles. Jim said his ankle was bothering him and he was too tired to continue riding into the strong head wind. Since we would be soon parting ways in Little Rock, where he would take the train back to Chicago, while I would bicycle back, he said it wasn't necessary for me to continue tagging along with him at his pace.

His heart was clearly no longer into the biking. Back in Mountain View he said he wished he could find someone to drive him the one hundred miles to Little Rock. "If this were Ecuador I'd have no problem finding someone with a pick-up truck to drive me anywhere for five bucks." Jim had been dreading those last few miles into Little Rock through the heavy traffic for days and had been trying to figure out a way to avoid them.

Jim was so eager to get to Little Rock, he was willing to continue on busy 65, a road he normally would have utterly abhorred. He'd be cursing and raging at every passing vehicle until there was a danger of his head exploding. It was a relief not to be subjected to that. If he wasn't at such a low energy level he would have most certainly stuck to route nine, just an additional extra fifteen miles to Little Rock, and my preference by far, not only for the minimal traffic, but for the small towns along the way and the added bonus of a Carnegie library, one of only three remaining in the state. The fourth in Little Rock had been razed quite a few years ago.

Jim was hoping to catch the midnight train on Sunday, two days away. Ordinarily he ought to have been able to easily ride the seventy-five miles by then, even though we had only been averaging forty miles a day in these travels. The road would be flatter than it had been, as we had descended into the Arkansas River valley.

"Let's aim to meet at the Clinton Library in Little Rock at noon on Sunday," I suggested. That will give me enough time to explore the city and then escape before dark. Jim said he would do his best to make it.

I was sorry not to get his reaction to the Carnegie in Morrilton, forty-five miles beyond our departure point. It was a classic small town Carnegie, built on a small hill near the center of the town of 6,000 residents. The red-bricked building was adorned with several plaques inside and out, recognizing Carnegie and acknowledging it as a National Historic site. It was identified by "Public Library" in black block letters over its entrance.

At first I thought it was the rare Carnegie without an addition, but its back-side had been extended in 1991 with a barely detectable red-brick extension. Carnegie's portrait hung in a corner of its upstairs room overlooking several framed photos of the library as well as a two-page document telling its history, tracing it back to a woman's group in 1896 that collected books for a rotating library until they won a grant from Carnegie in 1915 to build a permanent library. Morrilton was the smallest town in the South to receive a Carnegie grant.

Though we've stopped at small town libraries nearly every day, none had the majesty, nor the history, of this Carnegie. Its been nearly four hundred miles since our last in St. Louis, about the longest stretch I've ridden in the U.S. without coming upon one. It will be a couple hundred miles or more until my next. Which it will be, I do not now. I'm still uncertain of my route back to Chicago. It could be through Memphis and then along the Mississippi or perhaps back up to Missouri and a Carnegie south of St. Louis along the river. Either way, I hope to pick up Historic Route 66 at some point in Illinois and follow that through Springfield and Lincoln's Presidential Library, the largest by fifty per cent of any of the Presidential Libraries. Now its on to Clinton's and hopefully a final meal with The Don. I scavenged a Rebel flag this morning along the road for him. He can appreciate it, as it was once the state flag of Alabama, where he grew up.

Later, George

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mountain View, Arkansas

Friends: Don Jaime was quite startled to learn that Arkansas's Fulton Country was dry when he went in search for his nightly six-pack in Salem, the first town we stopped in after leaving Missouri. It was less than an hour until dark, so we didn't have enough time to make it to the next county. We assumed that it had to be wet, as how many dry counties could there be. But we assumed wrong, as more than half of Arkansas's 75 counties are dry, a higher percentage than any other state.

The husband and wife team volunteering at the Calico Rock tourist office in the next county, Izard, also dry, said that they had been part of a periodic petition drive to put the issue up to vote for their county. But each time they had, it had been voted down. They had retired to Calico Rock from the western suburbs of Chicago ten years ago after having done some canoeing in the area and falling in love with it. The husband commented when he was researching the profile of the county's population, he discovered it had no blacks or Hispanics or Asians, though he didn't say if that had any weight in their decision to move here.

The 80-year owner of the ice cream shop next to the tourist office said he considered the region paradise and he didn't like others finding out about it and moving in. Back when he was in the army 60 years ago he was too embarrassed to tell anyone where he was from, because he said, "People from Arkansas had a reputation of having no education and no shoes." Now when he travels he doesn't want to admit where he's from, as he's afraid he'll rave about it too much and make people want to move here.

Don Jaime was desperate enough for a beer to hire someone to drive him to Norfolk, ten miles away, to the nearest liquor store, but couldn't find any takers. Nor could he find anyone who had a spare beer for sale or who knew of any bootleggers or moonshiners. As kindly as the husband and wife were in the tourist office and a couple of other locals who dropped in to talk to "the bicyclists," no one cared to give us a lift or arrange one or find a source of The Don's favorite beverage.

Ever since we entered this black hole for alcohol we found ourselves in the curious situation of intently studying our state map for county lines, hoping the next county might be wet. "Never before have I cared so much about county lines. Put that in your blog," The Don said with an exasperation he normally reserves for automobiles.

Two young girls with tattoos up and down their arms at a hamburger joint at Calico Rock, who should have known, couldn't offer any help nor could that feisty 80-year old owner of the ice cream store. A woman who provided jams and jellies and dried fruit at an artist's cooperative thought her husband might have some beer to spare, but that was a false alarm. We later surmised that they all might have feared we were part of a sting operation and that we ought to have produced our Illinois driver's licenses and assured them we weren't undercover agents. So The Don has had to survive two nights without beer and may have a couple more ahead.

The first night we were wild camping in a forest too thick to risk lighting a fire, so it was simply early to bed. The Don slept twelve hours. "I've never done that before. Put that in your blog," he commented the next morning.

Last night we sought refuge at Pinewood Cabins in downtown Mountain View, as we were drenched by a hard, cold rain the 25 miles from Calico Rock to Mountain View. The rain continued well into the night, dumping a total of four inches. We were so soaked and bedraggled, the first bed-and-breakfast we tried made it obvious we weren't welcome. We were lucky this wasn't the weekend of the Bean Fest and Outhouse Races. The 29th annual edition a week ago drew 40,000 people, filling every bed in this town of less than 3,000.

Besides being dry, the biggest contrast of Arkansas to Missouri so far is all the dead armadillos along the road. The ice cream shop owner said they began migrating into the region just ten years ago and are now taking over. "I shoot 'em whenever I see 'em on my property," he said. "They dig holes everywhere and are a great nuisance."

The Arkansas folks seem to be a take-charge lot. A sign outside a yard full of broken down cars just beyond Salem announced, "Attention. Theve or Theves. Restitution Will Come If I Don't Get You First."

The few motorists on these little trafficked roads through the Arkansas Ozarks have had no more objection to our presence than those in Missouri. The Don never imagined he could ride so many miles on pavement without being irked by a gas guzzler. He had initially been reluctant about starting our bicycling in St. Louis, 300 miles from the single track in Arkansas he wanted to ride, preferring to take the train to Memphis instead, just 150 miles away, 150 miles less of pavement he would have to ride. But I said I was very confident we'd find little traffic in the Ozarks, which has been true. Also, Amtrak would allow us to take our bikes onto a passenger car unboxed to St. Louis, while we would have had to box them and put them in a baggage car to Memphis. After my recent experience of my bike not making it into the baggage car to Grand Junction from Chicago, I wanted to avoid that possibility again.

The Arkansas Ozarks have been as superlative for bicycling as was Missouri. Arkansas seems to have a genuine bicycling consciousness. The woman at the Arkansas Visitor Center just across the border from Harvey, Missouri gave us two brochures on bicycling in the state. One listed 22 bike routes, eleven off road and eleven on road. The other detailed a 17-mile trail in Little Rock along the Arkansas River and across the Big Dam Bridge, the longest bridge in the country built specifically for walkers and cyclists, 4,246 feet long. Among the sites it passes is the Clinton Presidential Library. She also gave us a brochure/passport to Clinton Places in the state--a "Billgrimage" it is called. But she gave us no warning or information on the dry counties of the state.

Yesterday we had such a fine breakfast of biscuits and gravy The Don pulled out his camera for a photo. "People do this all the time at our hotel," he said. What had at first seemed like a silly thing to do, he can now understand. He has also found himself turning into one of his clients when we check into a hotel. If he starts asking too many questions he realizes he is becoming a dreaded "VHM"--"Very High Maintenance" client. He and his wife Marshia have five categories of clients--very high maintenance (VHM), high maintenance(HM), medium maintenance (MM), low maintenance (LM), and Poster, the ideal client they'd like to put on a poster.

They employ fifteen people maintaining their restaurant and bed and breakfast. They have expanded it from ten rooms to sixteen since acquiring it seven years ago, and within the past year have started up a brew-pub and restaurant managed by their son Jason, a chef, a few blocks away. Don Jaime says they treat their staff so well none of them want to leave.

This is a most welcome respite from the business for The Don, so only occasionally do our conversations veer off to his business life, but he can't help but revert to it when he encounters someone else in "the hospitality business," as he calls it. "Dealing with tourists all the time," he says, "It's hard not to become jaded. I don't want to, but its not easy."

As always, its been a grand time sharing The Don's company and hearing more of his exceptional and fascinating life. He's another of those larger than life characters that I feel so privileged to have come to know thanks to my traveling life.

Later, George

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thayer, Missouri

Friends: It wasn't until after Winona on Route 19, after nearly 200 miles of biking through the Ozarks, that we finally encountered a series of those killer steep hills the region is notorious for. We had been warned of brutally steep, "heart-attack," hills just ahead for miles and miles. There were hills that someone unaccustomed to a bike with low gears might have considered forbidding, but to us, it was all child's play, especially to Don Jaime, living in the Andes.

For 100 miles of Route 19, after 100 miles on Historic Route 66, we had enjoyed absolutely idyllic cycling on a gently rolling and twisting road with no traffic through thickly forested terrain following a ridge line with only a couple of dips down to rivers and then a four or five hundred foot climb back up to the ridge line. It was one of those roads where I wished I had a traveling companion to jointly revel in the fabulous cycling, and lo and behold, I did. Don Jaime was ecstatic beyond belief at a paved road without the annoyance of cars. The occasional pick-up that passed us gave a wide berth and was in no hurry to pass. The only shout from a motorist was someone who noticed The Don had dropped a glove a little ways back.

Fortunately the wall-steep hills came in just a few small batches. We had several miles of relatively flat terrain until the next batch. We couldn't complain at all though. Maybe some worse ones await us in Arkansas, just ahead from Thayer, a most amiable town where we didn't have to fill out forms to use the computer promising not to go to porno sites. It is a town of euphemisms with a church referred to as a "Worship Center," and an antique store called "Creative Poverty."

We can't say we've encountered any hostility whatsoever either on our bikes or off. We must be a rare site, grown men in tights, but no one has queried us about our attire. We've been prepared to tell them we dance for the New York Ballet and are on a holiday trying to gain some extra strength in our legs to keep up with the young up-and-coming dancers in our company.

At the Cherryville general store/cafe/post office we were the object of some extra attention. One of the hefty good ol' boys sitting at a table sipping coffees came over to our table with some friendly advice. "I hope you boys are taking your vitamins," he said. "You're going to need 'em for the hills up ahead." After a few minutes of conversation he returned to his table and told his mates, "I told them boys they better be taking their vitamins." That drew some chuckles. Then one of them said, "Yeah, if they get a heart-attack, I wouldn't want to give 'em mouth-to-mouth."

The daily special was a fish sandwich. Even though it was after noon I asked if I could have pancakes. The waitress, who also served as the cook and tended to the cash register in this one person operation, said she could whip some up. I wondered about the flour she used when she presented me with a nice fat barely tinged trio of albinos. She must have been in a hurry tending to the other customers as their color was due to their only being only half-cooked. I was so hungry I ate them anyway, dousing them with half a bottle of syrup to make their doughiness somewhat palatable.

It is not always easy to determine whether some of the homes along the road are lived in or not. Dogs are one way to tell. Near the top of one hill we could see a dilapidated shack that look abandoned until we stirred up six dogs each, tied to its own pole into a frenzy of barking and charging at us the length of their chain. As we came along side them a rotund, disheveled woman in her underwear, with a belly drooping half way to her knees, stepped out onto her porch to see what had riled her critters. One glance at us and she retreated back inside.

Don Jaime sighed, "Some of these Missouri folk make the poor of Ecuador look like gentry."

Earlier in the day The Don felt more at home when we passed the startling sight of a llama and an alpaca grazing in a pasture. They came trotting towards us. Don Jaime proudly said, " I think they recognize I'm from their homeland." He stopped and hopped off his bike to give them a closer look, grabbing a bunch of weeds to offer them. He couldn't entice them closer than twenty feet, even trying some other vegetation, hoping it might be more to their liking. After a couple of minutes he gave up.

Just after we resumed our riding a pick-up truck turned down the dirt road bordering the pasture. Don Jaime sped up and waved at the motorist. She stopped. She told us that many of the farmers in the area have such animals to protect their calves from predators. Don Jaime had never heard of such a thing and was eager to tell friends back in Ecuador all about it. Then he told me, "Be sure to put that in your blog." That has been his constant refrain. I was counting on him to post a journal of our travels, as he did of our first trip, but so far I'm our lone trip chronicler.

Two nights ago in Eminence, he decided he wanted to sleep in a hotel rather than wild camp once again. His sleeping bag isn't as warm as mine and with unseasonably cold temperatures near freezing the night before, hadn't gotten the best of sleeps. He had quite a choice of bed and breakfasts and cabins and motels to choose from, while I easily found a spot to pitch my tent just out of town along one of the two rivers that converge there, making it a popular canoeing spot.

The town only had one bar though without much of a choice of beer. The Don has just started his own brew pub down in Banos and has been checking out locals beers along the way. His four beers a night are "research." The bar closed at nine on a Saturday night, barely enough time for his research. He was invited to drink with a woman and her husband celebrating her 29th birthday. She was crying in her beer, as her mother hadn't called to wish her Happy Birthday. "Be sure to put that in your blog," The Don said.

We were surprised to see no road kill deer along Route 19 through the thick forest. The husband and wife proprietors of the general store/service station in Timber, the only place offering supplies on the 44-mile stretch between Salem and Eminence, told us that was because there was so little traffic on the road, as there was plenty of deer. Its also because the deer have retreated deeper into the woods, as the hunting season has just begun, though the first two weeks of it are just for youth. The men hate that as it alerts the deer that the hunt is on and makes it harder for them to find them once they can start hunting next week.

We had a good hour's conversation with the couple as we snacked and rested our legs. On the wall was the Tea Party manifesto. "We better not talk politics here, " Don Jaime commented. We didn't need to, as they filled us in on all the local color we could want. They'd lived there for more than 40 years. They stock their store by buying from the Wal-Mart 25 miles away in Salem. Many people complain that their food is more expensive than the Wal-Mart, but then complain if they take a day off or if they are a little late in opening. The wife said she used to read three or four books a week sitting in the store waiting for customers, but since she got Netflix, she watches three or four movies a day and hardly reads any more. She keeps a gun behind the counter, but hasn't had to use it. Her husband hunts, but uses his gun more often to kill the raccoons and possums that come around their chicken coop. When we left, she thanked us for the nice conversation.

When we arrived in Alton about an hour before dark last night The Don was worried he might not be able to find a six-pack for his evening's research at our campsite, as it was a Sunday and we were greeted by a sign listing the town's ten or so churches. But one of the town's two gas stations had a refrigerator full of beer, though mostly of the all too common standbys. The Don was worried at first that he would have to settle for Heineken. "For a beer snob like me, it will do in a pinch," he commented. But then on closer look he found Boulevard, which we had seen on the menu in Cuba and had been told came from a micro-brewery in Kansas City. Don Jaime declined it then in preference to a more local brew, but was now happy to give it a try.

About three miles out of town we ventured down a dirt road a couple tenths of a mile and disappeared into the forest. We then ducked under a drooping barbed wire fence to a patch of pine trees on the fringe of a meadow. There were a few scattered rocks that we could gather to make a ring for a fire place. It wasn't so cold that we needed a fire, but The Don has a compulsion to fire-building, perhaps due to some Creek blood in his heritage. He frequently builds a fire at his bed-and-breakfast in Ecuador. He proved his devotion to fire-building by going at it just after he set up his tent, even before opening one of his beers. Even he was surprised by his priorities.

While I ate my ramen and baked beans, the Don did his research, waiting to eat his pizza until later. And we reflected on Another Great Day on the Bike.

Later, George

Friday, November 4, 2011

Salem, Missouri

Friends: After one hundred miles of Historic Route 66 through Missouri we'd had enough. It had been little more than a frontage road along Interstate 44. It was well-labeled with blue Historic Route 66 markers, though it is just a series of frontage roads pieced together, alternating from one side to the other of the Interstate. It serves as an "Incident Bypass Route" when accidents block the interstate.

It is largely traffic-free, making it a virtual bicycle path, but the roar and tidal flow of 18-wheelers and other gas-guzzlers on the interstate along side hardly made us feel as if we were off in rural America on a quiet road all to ourselves. Nor were there many acknowledgements to Route 66 or oddball businesses catering to Route 66 devotees, as we hoped there would be, other than a Toy Museum, "For anyone who has ever been a kid," and Merrimack Caves and Jesse Jame's hideout.

The town of Cuba, where we had decided to veer from 66 and head south into the real Ozarks, was the first that truly celebrated its heritage of being a part of Route 66, "America's Main Street," the first main artery from the East to California after the era of the automobile began. Buildings all over Cuba had large murals hearkening back to the early days of Route 66.

The mural on the town newspaper building was a paper with the headline "Bette Davis Comes to Cuba." There were murals of Model T Fords and old style gas pumps. One mural commemorated a visit by Senator Harry Truman during a 1940 Presidential campaign visit. Another depicted an emergency landing by Amelia Earhart in the town in 1928. If we'd had such curiosities to gaze upon all along the route, we would be tempted to continue on despite the blight of interstate traffic intruding upon our tranquility. But not even the sign "The World's Largest Rocking Chair four miles ahead" could entice us. Maybe if we had been passing through in the summer on the one day of the year that the owner provides a hoist to lift people up into the chair at $5 a pop for a photo we would have wanted to check it out. But we were eager to get off into true rural America and escape this characterless corridor.

There was more of a Halloween spirit than Route 66 spirit. Before I visited the rest room at the service station in Gray Summit, I was warned, "Don't forget its Halloween." There were streaks of fake blood on all its walls and "Help Me" spelled out in blood. Carved pumpkins adorn most homes. The Scrooge of one town had four large pumpkins on his porch all carved with mouths turned sharply downwards.

The back side of our Ortlieb panniers each have a palm-sized white reflective patch. I've met cyclists who have etched smiling faces into them, as if they were pumpkins to be decorated. When I mentioned this to Jim, he proposed that we etch some slogan into them, one word per patch. Our initial brainstorming only produced profanity laced epithets towards motorists. That led to my suggestion 'Get A Bike.' "

"It has to be two words," Jim said.

" 'Get A' is short enough that could be one one side."

"No, we have to stick to two words."

"How about 'Bike Good' then." "That would be perfect. You can put those on your panniers and I'll put 'Car Bad' on mine."

If we'd had this discussion after our lunch in Marje's Cafe in Cuba we might have had some weight loss ideas. Pam, our overnight hostess the first night of these travels, told us that Missouri has the highest obesity rate in the country. It was fully confirmed at Marje's. Three blimp-sized women waddled in several minutes after we arrived. Not so long after a husband and wife of even more gargantuan proportions took a seat. We've both seen obesity before, but nothing to compare to this.

Jim kept fidgeting with the thermostat at Marje's as we were cold and wet. People came into Marje's saying that there was snow up the road in Rolla at a slightly higher elevation than what we were at. Not even a couple hours at the library fully dried and warmed us, so Jim suggested we splurge on a room at the Wagon Wheel Motel, a classic on Route 66 going back to the '30s. It had recently been restored. The grand reopening had been this summer with prices rolled back to what they were back then--$3.10 for a room and ten cents for pie--for that day.

The lady who checked us in didn't react at all when Jim said he was from Ecuador. They'd never had a guest from Ecuador before, but she said about 70% of their guests are foreigners traveling the route. For many who start in Chicago, the Wagon Wheel is their first night. She said a couple from Sweden on motorcycles arrived with such horrid sun burns the wife went to the emergency room. Her son is in the army in Germany and many Germans are impressed that he lives on 66. An English camera crew spent three days at the motel using it as a base for a documentary they were filming on the road.

Later, George

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

St. Clair, Missouri

Friends: Its been nine years since I joined Jim Redd, also known as Don Jaime or The Don, for a bike ride from Minneapolis to Chicago. We had a rollicking fine time and have wanted to join forces for another ride ever since. Jim has come close to dropping everything and linking up with me in the middle of a ride several times, but having a wife and running a business doesn't make it easy for him to get away. I even flew down to Ecuador, where he owns a bed and breakfast, six years ago to do some touring together, but he was too busy to get away and I had to make a circuit of Ecuador on my own. The details can be found of those travels by going to March of 2005 on the blog.

I heard from him once again as I was bicycling across Montana last month, wishing he was along for the ride and wondering if we could do something together in the near future. I never want a ride to end, so I suggested he fly up from Ecuador for a ride through the Ozarks after I returned. Jim had to find a night manager to assume his duties at his hotel, and managed to get up to Chicago two weeks after I returned from my last trip. Two weeks was plenty of time for me to catch up on everything I needed to in Chicago after being gone for six of the previous seven months.

We couldn't settle on a route and we still haven't, even though we're a day into our ride after taking Amtrak from Chicago to St. Louis. Jim is riding a twenty-nine inch mountain bike and would like to do some single track riding.  I, as always, would like to search out a few Carnegies. Jim was eager to see a Carnegie himself after reading my enthusiastic descriptions of the many I have come upon in my travels, though he admitted to a slight leeriness what with "Car" the first three letters of Carnegie's name. Jim is an autophobe of the first order. He's been car-free for years. On those rare occasions when he's had to rent a car, he leaves it to his wife to drive it.

There are thirty-three Carnegies in Missouri and just four in Arkansas. Most of those in Missouri are in the northern half of the state. There is a huge black hole in the dispersal of Carnegies across the U.S. in the Ozarks. In times past those living in the Ozarks have been suspicious of too much education. The region has one of the highest school drop-out rates in the country. Communities had to apply for a Carnegie. There wasn't much interest in the Ozarks for a library when Carnegie made available funds for libraries in the early 1900s to just about anyone who asked for one who could fulfill a few requirements--providing the land near the center of a town and an annual fund of 10% of what he provided to sustain it. He's responsible for 1,698 libraries throughout the U.S. There is one in every state except Alaska and Delaware.

There were seven built in St. Louis from a grant of one million dollars for a main library and six branches. I wasn't too confident that any of them would still be around, but miraculously two of them were on our route out of the city on Lafayette Road leading us to Historic Route 66 that we wanted to follow at least for a spell. The first was just a few blocks beyond Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals just claimed their eleventh World Series. We gave the Stan Musial statue out front a salute as we rode past. No one was about, nor hardly anywhere on the fringes of the downtown. The same was true with the Soulard Carnegie, a now closed down building, the front door padlocked. It still retained its majesty. Jim pointed out various features of its architectural grandeur, and then took a few photos.

Less then a mile away, when Lafayette intersected the main thoroughfare of Jefferson, was another Carnegie, the Barr Branch, still functioning as a library and without the need of any additions. Chiseled into the side of the entryway was "Fund for Building Given by Andrew Carnegie." The interior was a bright canary yellow, but had no portrait of Carnegie as many do, though it was no requirement.

We couldn't believe our good fortune at this unexpected dose of Carnegies. Our fortune wasn't so good though when Lafayette came to an end and we had to take Manchester. The four-lane highway was thronged with traffic, even in the pre-rush hour. Jim's head was spinning, especially since he'd had only a few hours of sleep, arising before five a.m. to catch our seven a.m. train. After an hour we were still in the thick of sprawl and traffic, over twenty miles from the down town. Ten miles later it was still a nightmare. There seemed to be no alternative.

When we saw a sign for Castlewood State Park we decided to make it our camp site for the night even though there was nearly two hours of light left and we were eager to escape the brain-numbing sprawl of the metropolis. Jim, having come for a small town in Ecuador, simply couldn't take it any more. It was three miles off the road and turned out to be for day use only. We'd just have to wild camp in the forest when dusk approached and the visitors cleared out. It was surprisingly packed with cars and bicyclists. Jim was thrilled to see it was laced with single track trails. He stripped his two panniers from his bike to get a taste before we went in search of a camp site when it got closer to dark.

While I was waiting, a cyclist of about our vintage came up and asked if I was looking for a place to stay. He said he knew there was no camping in the park and offered his house, just a couple miles away. That was our third and perhaps greatest stroke of good fortune of the day along with finding some Carnegies and Jim getting an unexpected dose of single track. The cyclist said he was training for a coast-to-coast ride from San Diego to South Carolina in April. His previous longest ride was from St. Louis to Green Bay along with the friend he would be riding with on his upcoming ride.  He was eager to talk to a couple of fellow touring cyclists.

He called his wife to alert her that he'd be dragging home a couple of wayward touring cyclists. Kim said that he'd be traveling a little differently than Jim and I, staying in hotels on a budget of one hundred dollars a day. He expected his trip to take fifty days. He and his friend already had their hotels plotted out, about seventy-five miles apart. He had hired a trainer to condition him for the ride. He was supposed to be doing intervals today. He was a fairly recent convert to the bicycle, beginning riding about six years ago when he was 54. He has become a full-fledged adherent and an avid Tour de France fan. He said he had never been a sports fan of any sort until recently, not even following the Olympics. Now when The Tour de France is on, he spends hours every day glued to the television. He can hardly believe his transformation into a sports fan.

His wife Pam is also a devotee of the bike, though not quite to his extent. She is one of the few bicycle advocates in the state of Missouri. They both bemoaned how unfriendly Missouri is to bicyclists. They knew well, as they had last lived in Portland, Oregon and before that California, two hotbeds of cycling.

Kim and Pam were slightly confused about Jim's name. I had mentioned to Kim that Jim was known as Don Jaime in Ecuador, but without making clear that "Don" was an honorific term " applied to anyone in a respectable position in Latin America. They both continually referred to Jim as "Don," which would be like referring to Queen Elizabeth as "Queen" if she had been around. Neither Jim nor I bothered to correct them. It wasn't until the following morning when we were all well rested that I finally straightened them out.

Though Jim and I were exhausted and would have been asleep by eight if we had camped, we happily stayed up well beyond that talking all manner of cycling. It was Jim's first experience of being honored as a touring cyclist. I know of some cyclists who make a practice of fishing for such accommodations every night. It is nice every once in a while, but it can become tedious having to recount the same stories night after night. One certainly earns one's shower and food. But we were truly blessed to have had this evening with Don and Pam. They couldn't have been more welcoming. When we mentioned that Jim acquired his bed and breakfast in Ecuador seven years ago to escape Bush America, they told us we were lucky to have them as hosts, as they were the only non-Republicans in the county. The gigantic cherry on top of all their kindnesses was they had a Delorme atlas of Missouri, a highly detailed manual of every road in the state. Jim worships them. He was thrilled to be able to give it a look and even more thrilled when they said we could have it. Jim pulled out a twenty dollar bill, its cover price,to pay for it, but they wouldn't take it.

Jim is serving as translator on our travels so far. Having grown up in Alabama he is much more familiar with the slight Southern lingo we have already encountered. Back in Gray Summit when we asked how far it was to the next town with a library, we were told it was in "Sinclair, about fifteen miles away." We couldn't find a "Sinclair" on the map. Then Jim realized that the woman had said St. Clair. The library here in St. Clair is beside the funeral parlor. Jim said, "Perfect. You can read until you die."

As always, Jim has me chuckling with his witty wisecracks and musing. He said to be sure to mention that the barbecued chicken at the Gray Summit convenience store was as good as any he had ever had. He wasn't sure how much he approved of the store though, as it had a shelf of food labeled "Car Snacks."

"Where are the Bike Snacks?" he demanded of the sales clerk.

(For more of Jim's wit and pontifications check out his commentary on our previous trip in July of 2002 on the blog.)

Later, George