Monday, September 30, 2013

A Police Escort on the Home Stretch

I wasn't overly surprised when a car pulled off the road near where I was camping on the outskirts of Victoria, Illinois and I heard the heavy step of someone approaching my tent with a high-powered flashlight.  As I feared, someone had summoned the police.

When I had disappeared off the road to set up camp a half hour before in virtual pitch dark, a car had just happened to be passing and seemed to slow a bit to give me a look.  This was isolated rural America, where someone evidently took issue with a stranger lurking in the vicinity.  

I emerged from my tent before the officer ordered me out.  I was confronted by a husky, boyish-looking young man, who seemed like he wanted to be a nice guy but knew it was his role to be stern. He asked if I knew I was on private property.  It wasn't clear that I was, as I was in a clump of bushes on the other side of a village limits sign.  I told him I had been caught by dark, as I had been, and didn't think I was trespassing on anyone's property and that I would be gone first thing in the morning.  

He said he'd had a complaint from the person who owned the property.  He could recognize that I posed no threat to anyone, and said he would call the complaintant to see if they would let me stay.  Then he asked me my name.  I asked if he'd like to see some ID.  He responded almost with embarrassment that he hadn't thought of that.  When he saw my address, he assumed that I no longer lived in Chicago, as it was nearly 200 miles away.  It was beyond his conception that I would be biking there and that I had already biked over 1,300 miles from Colorado.

He called in my particulars to his dispatcher and learned I wasn't wanted for anything.  Then he called the property owner and gave her my story.  He couldn't convince her though to let me stay.  He apologized and said there was a state park just up the road that he would lead me to.  It was so small that it wasn't on my map.  It had no official campground, but that was of no concern to me or the officer.  It was nice to get a little further down the road, as I was in a final hard push to make it back to Chicago in time to join Janina for a dance performance at the old Shakespeare Theatre put on by her dance instructor from Hubbard Street Dance.  I didn't care so much about the performance, but I did care about pleasing Janina, who I hadn't seen in nearly a month after a fabulous two weeks together at Telluride.  If I hadn't had that deadline, I would have camped a little earlier in one of the many cornfields I had been passing.  The camping was so plentiful, I had no qualms about riding until the final few drips of light remained in the sky.  

Despite my deadline, I did not let that prevent me from stopping at a handful more Carnegies, including two I had visited two years ago on my way back from the Ozarks before I had a digital camera.  I was nearly twenty-five miles into Illinois before I came to my first in Monmouth.  It wasn't the local library, as it had a fine library already, in fact the first in the state, established in 1868, well before Carnegie started providing them.  But Monmouth College accepted funds from Carnegie for its library in 1905.  It didn't stand out as most do, as it was designed to fit in with the rest of the campus architecture.  It was still a fine, sturdy building, but long ago supplanted as the university library by a much larger facility.  It has been renamed Poling Hall and now serves as an administration building.

Monmouth also takes pride in being the birth place of Wyatt Earp.  I didn't take the time though to detour to his home.  Twenty miles up the road I likewise bypassed the home where Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, saving that too for another visit, and limited my site seeing to its Carnegie.  Unfortunately it had burned down in 1958 and been replaced by a non-descript one-story building without a speck of character.  I biked past it without recognizing it as a library.  That would have been impossible to do if the Carnegie with its pillars and majesty had still stood, as is the case with the majority of Carnegies.

My post-dawn start the next day brought me to Galva and its Carnegie before eight a.m.  

It was in a quiet residential neighborhood.  As I sat at its doorstep trying to tap its WIFI, a woman next door emerged from her house.  She was the town librarian and was coming in to work early.  She gave me the password for the WIFI, a series of numbers that began with my bicycle messenger number, 567, and let me take a peak inside.  The library had been expanded, almost doubling its size with an addition that was a near replica of the original.  She told me it had been done in 1929, twenty years after the library had opened, thanks to a donation from a local.  The town's population hadn't grown much since then, and the current size of the library was perfectly adequate.  I asked to see where they had hung the standard Carnegie portrait that had been provided to all the Carnegie libraries in 1935 to commemorate his 100th birthday.  Not all the Carnegies have it on display.  Galva's was just around the corner from its entry.  As some do, she said they vary where they hang it, so he doesn't get bored with the same view all the time.

The larger town of Kewanee was granted such a large library with a $30,000 grant in 1908 that it hadn't needed to be expanded over the years.  It is a grand, stately building that would be the pride of any town of any size with a beautiful domed ceiling over the central part of the library.

The small town of Sheffield, with less than 1,000 people, was given just $4,000 for its library, that likewise has not needed an addition.  No where on it does it even say its a library, leaving that to a posted sign to the side, that also said, "Having fun isn't hard, when you have a library card."

After Sheffield my final one hundred miles was on a diagonal that I had previously biked when I was in a race to make it home by Thanksgiving past Carnegies in Spring Valley, Peru, LaSalle and Marseilles. I didn't have to make a detour of even a block to renew acquaintances with the Carnegie in LaSalle

and the Carnegie in Marsailles.

The next time I'm in Marsailles, its Carnegie will have new blinds, thanks to a just completed fund drive.

It was the final of forty-two Carnegies I visited in twenty-two days and 1,500 miles.  As always, it is nice to be home, but as each trip does, it reinforces how wonderful it is to be out and about exploring on the bike, seeing the new and the familiar, spending the better part of each day pedaling away in the great out doors, not only exercising my legs, but all my mental faculties.  It never grows old. When I return, I am eager to get back on the road.  

I don't have to wait long as Janina and I have a weekend trip planned to Midewin State Park, repeating a ride we made last January that included a visit to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery for veterans, where her parents are interred.  We'll have the fall foliage to look forward to as well as more daylight and much warmer temperatures than we experienced in January.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Carnegie Library that Led to Hundreds More

Arguably the most significant of the 1,689 libraries that Andrew Carnegie funded in the United States is the one in Fairfield, Iowa. It is ground zero when it comes to his world-wide construction of libraries.  It was the first in the United States that he built outside of his steel empire in Pennsylvania and the first community that he had no connection with and the first he constructed at the bequest of another.

Iowa senator James Wilson, who lived in Fairfield, ought be eligible for library saint hood, along with Carnegie, for asking Carnegie to fund this library for his home town, in effect launching Carnegie's unprecedented library philanthropy.  That was in 1892.  By 1903 Carnegie had funded 44 libraries in Iowa, raising the number of public libraries in the state to 77.  In the next fifteen years Iowa gained 59 more libraries, all but six provided by Carnegie.  And so it was across the nation, a quarter-century library boom thanks to Carnegie.

Fairfield's library was a three-story hulk of a building that might still be used as a library today, but instead now houses a museum and collegiate offices.  The new more patron-friendly, one-story library is just two blocks away.  It emphasizes the modern computer-oriented age with "ain'tjustbooks" as the password for its WIFI.

Carnegie also provided a library for the now-defunct Parsons College in Fairfield, one of seven academic libraries he was responsible for in Iowa and the only one that has been razed.  It met its demise in 2000 some twenty-five years after the campus was taken over by the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) that was initially established by the Yogi of the same name in Santa Barbara in 1973.  It acquired the Parsons campus a year later, bringing to Iowa its unique Consciousness-Based theory of education with Transcendental Meditation practiced by all its students, faculty and staff.  

I gave the campus a wander in search of its library before learning that the original was no more.  MUM may have the most diverse student body anywhere with nearly two-thirds of its 1,200 students from outside the US.  Along with a contingent of 77 students linked to the college from South Africa, more than eighty countries are represented in its student body.  As I meandered about the campus, I overhead quite a few conversing in their native language.

The campus conveyed an otherworldly aura.  There was no hint of a party atmosphere.  The literature promoting the school emphasized the satisfaction the students have with their experience there.  It cited a survey that said 73% of its students said they would choose this school again, compared to 32% for other schools--86% said it prepared them for caring for their physical and mental health compared to the 22% national norm.  That was the most lopsided of all the survey questions.

As in Nebraska, pride of place wasn't restricted to school, but also spilled over into state and community.  The state's NPR station was featuring a week-long series of one-hour shows on famous Iowans.  The only show I caught was devoted to famous fictional Iowans.  Number one was Ray Kinsella from "Field of Dreams."  Others were Captain Kirk from "Star Trek," Marian the Librarian from "The Music Man," Gilbert Grape from "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," Hawkeye of the Avengers comic strip and Radar from "M*A*S*H."  They were all said to personify qualities typical of Iowans--strength of conviction bordering on stubbornness, purity of heart, loyalty, sincerity, wholesomeness, hard-worker, and a degree of healthy innocence and integrity.  

Local radio shows emphasized state pride except when they were complaining about President Obama and his health care program.  A Des Moines station did a story on its Saturday Farmer's Market.  There are some 8,000 such markets around the country and its had recently been ranked number two among all of them, second only to one in Seattle that had the advantage of being coastal and including fish.

Mount Pleasant presented the eleventh and final Carnegie library on my route across Iowa.  The first eight still served as their community library, but the final three had all been replaced.  Mount Pleasant's, built in 1903, was now part of Southeastern Iowa Community College.  It was solidly built and looked as if it were good for another century or more.

The town didn't build a new library, but rather converted a portion of its former high school into a library. It seemed to be haunted by delinquent students, as there were signs declaring it a Bullying Free Zone and warning that "Disruptive minors" would be banned for one week or permanently, signs I'd never seen before in a library.

From Mount Pleasant I had crossing the Mississippi as the next great event to look forward to before I could begin feeling the anticipation of the Carnegies of Illinois.  It is always a great moment to cross the Mississippi.  East to west or west to east does not matter.  As I entered Illinois for my home stretch, I could feel a surge of my own state pride.  I've been cycling past corn waiting to be harvested through four states since eastern Colorado and by far the heartiest has been that of Illinois.  It was more than eight feet tall, a veritable forest almost to the roadside, providing a legitimate shield from the wind. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


The first words out of the first person to speak to me in Iowa were, "I rode RAAM a few years ago."

My ears heard "RAAM" but my brain registered "RAGBRAI," as among cyclists Iowa is synonymous with this acronym for the Des Moines Register Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa that just celebrated its 40th anniversary this July.  I fully expected to excite Iowans left and right as a reminder of this great event and to be continually having conversations with people who had participated in it or had relatives or close friends who had.

So it was no surprise to immediately meet someone who wanted to talk biking.  But before I responded to his greeting, I thought maybe I had misheard him and asked, "Did you say you rode RAAM."

"That I did," he proudly affirmed.

I stuck out my hand and said, "Congratulations.  That's quite a feat."

I would have offered congratulations to anyone who had ridden the 400-mile Iowa ride across the state from the Missouri River to the Mississippi, but not with the same ardor or respect as for someone who had ridden RAAM, the non-stop 3,000 mile Race Across America, a truly super-human feat.

The man I was talking to had been part of a two-man team in 2008.  I asked him how much sleep he got.  "Not much," he said.  It wasn't something he'd do again, though he did crew for his daughter since, who was part of an eight-person team.  Surprisingly, neither of them had bothered with RAGBRAI, even though their home town of Glenwood, where we were chatting, was an occasional starting point for the ride, near as it was to the Missouri.  

We were standing in front of the town's Carnegie library, the first of eleven on my route across the southern portion of the state.  Its blood-red brick exterior was extra bright in the setting sun.

It had a matching brick addition to its rear.  Two small statues of a boy and a girl sprawled on their chests engrossed in a book adorned each side of the steps leading to the library's original entrance, still in use, with an auxiliary handicap-accessible entry to the side.

The RAAM-rider had never done any touring.  He wanted to, but was leery of having to carry weight on his bike and camping.  I assured him that camping was one of the best parts of touring.  I was afraid he would invite me to camp in his back yard denying me my nightly pleasure of finding a place to camp where no one had ever camped before.  But he was headed to a bar to meet some friends and apologized for having to cut short our conversation, as he was late already.  He asked though if he could take my picture.  He said he had a gallery of photos in his barn of interesting people he has met.

I continued 40 minutes down the road before dark, leaving highway 34 to go down a gravel road to find a place for the night in an overgrown field I saw a few deer romping through.

Iowa had gotten off to a wonderful start with a strikingly nice Carnegie, a good conversation with a genuine cyclist and an idyllic camp site.  The wonderful Carnegies kept coming, with not a one demolished, and pleasing camp sites available whenever I was ready for one, but in the four days since, as I have nearly completed my transit of the state, there has not been a single mention of RAGBRAI or cycling unless I initiated it.  I had been braced to have to put up with people continually telling me I was lagging way behind, like two months, though I had been looking forward to people asking me if I knew about the book that had just been written about the history of RAGBRAI, as I would be able to tell them the author, Greg Borzo, was a friend.  Even though 25,000 people participate in RAGBRAI every July, it has not converted locals into ardent cyclists, nor even made them extra-friendly towards cyclists.  It has been a surprise.

But still the cycling has been perfectly fine, other than battling a strong headwind that has kept my daily average speed the lowest of the trip, right around ten miles per hour.  It is jeopardizing my weekend return to Chicago and a dance performance by one of Janina's teachers.

But the Carnegies have not disappointed, other than having staggered hours, not the standard nine to seven or eight, allowing me entry to just a few of them, forcing me to just peer in to the others just imagining their homey warmth and denying me the pleasure of giving the Carnegie portrait a nod.  Of the eight I have so far visited, only Albia's had Carnegie chiseled into its facade.

The libraries in Villisca, Oscelo and Charitan identified themselves as a "Free Public Library."  Villisca hadn't had an addition, though one had been proposed if the funding could be found.

Malvern and Red Oak were simply identified as "Library," while the monumental Ottuma library included the word "Public," with the "U" spelled using the letter "V."  

Ottuma, like Villisca, hadn't had an addition, but only because it was so large when it was built with a $50,000 grant, five times the usual amount.  Ottuma had been a large important city on the Des Moines River.  It was still a sizeable city, but hadn't outgrown its grand original library.

The Red Oak library had had three tasteful additions since it was built in 1909, the first a hasty fifteen years later, then on its 50th and 100th anniversaries.  I was there on a Sunday when it wasn't open, but was joined by two teen-aged boys out front using its WIFI.

The Malvern library didn't expand until ninety years after it was built in 1916.

The substantial  Charitan library was only open from one to seven the first three days of the week, then ten to six on Thursday and Friday.  It was a block from the town's main square with a gigantic courthouse and city hall in the middle and surrounded by small shops, including a Trek bicycle store, many of which would instantly be put out of business if a WalMart moved in.

I was able to relax on a couch in front of a fireplace at the very homey Osceolo library.  Fireplaces in these old libraries are a regular feature.  Even moreso are distinctive globes of some sort out front providing illumination.

I'm closing in on Illinois and three more of the 108 Carnegies that were built in Iowa, three less than Illinois.

Last night I camped in an open field near a stream just over a hill that blocked me from being seen by traffic on the nearby small rural road.  It was the first time in Iowa that the sun dried the dew on my tent before I took it down.  For the first time since I left Telluride I found an NPR station.  One of the stories this morning was that REI has rescinded its lifetime no-questions-asked return policy on its merchandise, reducing it to just one year.  That means I won't be able to return this tent when its zippers go, as I have been able to do several times over the years.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Done with Nebraska, on to Iowa

If there hadn't been so many people in the buffet line waiting to be fed, I might have joined in and had my first meal in a Carnegie Library, or at least in an auditorium-sized room adjoining a Carnegie, that was a dining area for an organization affiliated with the Catholic Church that serves the needy in Lincoln.

The still magnificent Carnegie, a former branch library,

has been renamed the Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach, taking its name from an Irishman who lived from 1856 to 1925. After overcoming alcoholism early in his life through prayer, he assumed the role of a 6th century Irish monk, while continuing to work in the timber yards of Dublin.  The Catholic Church has adopted him as an inspiration for alcoholics and addicts throughout the world.  The present Pope holds him in such esteem he wrote a paper about him early in his career.  In 1975 Talbot was declared Venerable, making him eligible for sainthood.

The center serves dinner 365 days of the year from 5:30 to 6:30 and lunch from 11:30 to 12:30.  I happened to show up at 5:45 and had no time to linger with a couple more Carnegies to track down in Lincoln before dark.  Besides food, the center provides medical attention, reading classes, nutrition consultation, showers, hair cuts, counseling, and assistance for housing, though it does not offer any itself.  A sign on the entry warns "No sleeping." It feeds about 150 people a day, with more towards the end of the month when people exhaust their food stamps.

It was one of three former Carnegies in Lincoln that had made the transition from library to another function.  The next on my agenda was now the Marketing and Communications office for Union College, founded by the Seventh Day Adventists in 1891.  It had a set of three sections of steps up to its entry from the sidewalk.

I was initially thwarted in my efforts to find it,  as I was given the wrong address by someone at Nebraska's Library Association.  I had been put in touch with the Library Association by a librarian at Lincoln's Main Library, who couldn't find the information on the Internet.  I spent more than ten minutes on the phone with the Association, as a woman tried to locate the address for it and another local Carnegie that the librarian at the Main Library couldn't locate.  She finally thought to go to a book on Nebraska's Carnegies called "A State of Readers, Nebraska's Carnegie Libraries," by Oliver Pollak.  It was great to learn about this book, but disappointing that no one at any of the Carnegies I had visited in Nebraska had mentioned it.  Such books exist on the Carnegies of Illinois and Indiana and are an invaluable resource.

Unfortunately the book had the incorrect address for both of the Carnegies I was trying to track down, though by just a block or so.  Both were on 48th street--this one reportedly at 3800 South.  There was a library at about that address set off from the street on the campus, but it had a date of 1936 on it and did not have the dignified look of a Carnegie.  After circling around the campus a bit I found the actual Carnegie further south down 48th street with an address of 3938 on it.

From there it was seventy blocks north on the fairly busy 48th street to 2719 North for the other Carnegie. On the way I passed the National Museum of Roller Skating.  Once again I had a faulty address and had to do some searching.  The library was actually on the other side of the street and a block down at 2820 and was now the offices for an Engineering Company.  It wasn't visible from 2719.  I picked the wrong person to ask if there was a former library in the vicinity.  It was a Friday evening and he was on his way to a liquor store with his girl friend.  I told him I was looking for a Carnegie library that was supposed to be in the vicinity.  He just sneered at me, saying "So what," oblivious to the nearby historic and magnificent Carnegie.

I didn't have to search out the suburban Havelock Carnegie, as it had been demolished and replaced by a new library on the same site.  The same was sadly true of Lincoln's main downtown library.  It had been a grand, monumental building funded by an $86,000 grant, bigger than that of Colorado Springs.  If it had been preserved, it would be one of the finest buildings in Lincoln, if not all of Nebraska. 

I had a final two Carnegies to look forward to the next day before crossing the Missouri River into Iowa on a toll bridge (25 cents for bicycles). I continued on the Cornhusker Highway, Route 6, out of Lincoln.  All sorts of businesses, and even roads, take on the Cornhusker name, the nickname for the University of Nebraska. My final day in Nebraska began with an hour-long morning radioshow called  "Gromaha," hosted by two ardent civic-minded boosters of Omaha.  They welcomed a series of guests asserting what a great place Omaha was to live and have a business. They managed to go the whole show without mentioning Warren Buffet.  But the college football team could not be overlooked, something that is a virtual state religion.  One of the show's topics was the sale of pizza at the games and how sales are up when the team is winning.

Husker football seemed to come up at least once a commercial break on any local radio show, especially this week after the team suffered a devastating loss to UCLA, squandering a 21-3 lead and then someone releasing a profanity-laden tirade by the team's head coach from two years ago after the Cornhuskers came from behind to beat Ohio State at home after the fans had seemed to give up on the team.  The big issue was who taped it and why they waited so long to release it, rather than the coach's rant.  A lesser issue brought up by one radio host was over fans releasing the red helium balloons many take to the games after the team kicked a field goal for their first score of a game, when the tradition is that they should be held until after the team's first touchdown.  He claimed the Pope issued an edict condemning such impatience. 

The Carnegie in the small town of Ashland was quite charming and in its original state,

but so small and little used that the waitress and the cook in the town's lone cafe, where I loaded up on biscuits and gravy, as they were a better bargain than hotcakes, couldn't tell me where it was, even though it was just three blocks away.  An old-timer in the cafe gave me directions, down one block then over two and just past the church.  The town has a site picked out for a new larger library on its Main Street, but was awaiting funding for it.  Unlike many of the Carnegies in Nebraska, it did not have Carnegie chiseled into its facade, but did have a marker in a flower bed out front acknowledging its lineage.

The Carnegie in Plattsmouth had had two additions over the years that so seamlessly extended behind it, matching the original red brick, that they hardly seemed like additions.

A plaque by its entry paid tribute to the original librarian who served for over fifty years.

There were also two dignified portraits honoring her in the library, one a photograph and the other a painting.  The present librarian said her successor also served for fifty years. She has a long ways to equal them, but would be pleased if she did.  I had the library all to myself as it was Saturday afternoon and the Cornhuskers were playing.  With no competition on the WIFI, I was able to have an uninterrupted Skype call with Janina out front of the library with cicadas chattering away and an occasional freight train passing.  It was our first chance to Skype in a while, enabling me to catch up on the four classes she is teaching at Columbia this fall and also hear more about the three profiles she wrote for New City's recent issue on the movers and shakers of  Chicago's art community.  One of her subjects, the owners of the Dempsey-Corbett gallery, ranked seventh.

Now its on to Iowa and another stretch of Carnegies and cornfields.

In my final miles of Nebraska I passed a restaurant that holds an annual "Testicle Festival." Though it is the Cornhusker state, beef contributes more to its economy than corn.

Carnegie funded sixty-nine libraries in Nebraska.  I was able to check in on seventeen of them. Five had been torn down.  Only four of them still were used as libraries with two still in their original state without an addition.  Of the eight that were being used as something else, all retained their striking stature other than the one in Lexington, whose exterior had been dramatically altered.  Most still had Library chiseled into their front facade.  The thrill of discovering each was as strong as ever.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Acts of Kindness

I was comfortably sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the dinky Alda post office seeking shelter from a gusty, wet northly wind with my fixings for lunch spread in front of me--a loaf of bread, peanut butter, honey and some apple sauce.  As I was spreading the peanut butter a woman in a work uniform with her company name on her blouse came around the corner and surprised me with the question, "How long has it been since you've had a hot meal?"

That's something I've never been asked.  As I pondered if the two 99 cent hot dogs I ate at a gas station yesterday counted or if I had to go back to the day before when I gorged on a stack of hot cakes, she said, "I'd like to pay for whatever you'd like at the grill next door."

I was perfectly content with what I was eating, but I didn't wish to discourage such magnanimous gestures.  One of my roles as a touring cyclist is to make people feel good.  Sometimes it is by doing something someone has dreamed of doing or that they wish they could do.  Or, as in this case, allowing someone to do a good deed.

"That's very kind of you," I replied.  "Thanks a lot."

I hadn't even noticed the restaurant. It was just a small, dirty-spoon of a grill attached to a meager two-pump gas station, about the only business in this dot of a town.  When I walked in several minutes later, the woman behind the counter said, "You must be the cyclist.  Marie said you could order whatever you'd like."

The menu was several daily specials on a chalk board and the usual grill items posted on the wall behind the counter.  I could have had a chicken-fried steak or any one of a number of burgers, but I went for the burrito.  This being beef country, the burrito was bean-free and mostly hamburger meat with a few sliced black olives and shreds of cheddar cheese and lettuce.  But the most unusual thing was it was served barely warm.  No complaints from me though.

It was the second act of out-of-the-ordinary generosity in two days, putting Nebraska one behind Colorado, but with a couple of days to go.  The day before a retired guy, who had pulled over at a historical marker, waved me down as I  passed, holding out a bottle of cold water.  It was a ninety degree day, so I greatly welcomed his offer.  As I approached his car he pulled out a bottle of Gatorade as well, as if he were a magician, and asked, "Or would you like some Gatorade?"  Before I could answer, he said,"Here, have both, you look good and thirsty."

He was an exceptionally friendly guy who said he made a practice of driving around the Kearny area in hot weather looking for joggers to give cold drinks to.  He rarely encountered cyclists, though he was one himself and his teen-aged son and daughter were national-caliber BMX riders.  He said if I needed a bike shop I should go the Bicycle Shed and tell 'em, "Johnny sent me," and added, "Put whatever you need on my account." I actually did need a bike shop, as I was down to my last two patches after putting four on one tube thanks to an encounter with a patch of the goat's head weed.  But I couldn't take advantage of his extra generosity, especially when I didn't get much of a reaction from the bike shop owner when I mentioned Johnny.

Johnny said his wife didn't approve of his stopping and talking to strangers, particularly after he picked up a hitch-hiker on Interstate 80 who turned out to be an escaped felon.  Johnny said he never would have known it, as he seemed to be a nice guy.  He didn't admit he was on the lam until Johnny stopped and bought him an ice cream cone.  The escapee said he wasn't guilty of his crime and had managed to give the prison the slip when he was being transferred.  Johnny drove him a bit further before letting him continue on his own.  

I happily sipped my cold drinks while Johnny happily told me story after story.  The other day he brought home somebody who had a surfboard on top of his car.  Johnny had once surfed when he lived in San Diego and wondered if this surfer had come to Nebraska to ride the rising Platte River. No, he was just passing through.  When I noticed the face of my cyclometer had switched from displaying mileage to giving me the time, indicating it had been inactive for fifteen minutes, I figured I ought to get to the Bicycle Shed before it closed.

A day later, after I passed through Grand Island, I crossed over the Platte River, still at a trickle, and bade it farewell.

The surge of water wasn't due for six days, and there was no telling how much would be left in it.

Grand Island was a cosmopolitan city by Nebraska standards with a university, an art museum  (Museum of Nebraska Art--MONA) and a grand old Carnegie that was significant enough when it was built for President Teddy Roosevelt to be at its ground-breaking in 1905 with a shovel.  Among those on hand was Elizabeth Abbott from the library board and mother of Edith, who left her fortune to the city to build a new library, which has been named in her honor.  The lobby of the library has her bust and a pictorial display of her devotion to the Carnegie.

The Carnegie now is home to a financial company.

Earlier in the day I visited the Carnegie in Shelton, a town that has not grown much over the years and has adopted "A Slice of the Good Life" as its slogan.  Its Carnegie remains much as it was when it was built in 1913, though it has added a Coke machine out front to entice patrons.  It was another constructed of brick mirroring the street in front of it, similar to many of the small Nebraska towns I've passed through.

The Carnegie in Aurora, a town that had out-grown it, was also off on a network of brick streets and now served as the Faith Community Church. 

It still looked magnificent and was unaltered other than an intricate ramp to its side for the handicapped.

Three of the four Carnegies on my route yesterday still stood, more than the day before, with only the one in Gibbon torn down.  At least its new library had photos of the former library that stood on the plot of land where the new one had been erected in 1998.

The Carnegie in Seward now houses a property management company.  The new library is just down the street a block from the town square that has a sign pointing north with the distance of 4,135 miles to Seward, Alaska.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Staying Ahead of the Surging Platte River

For five days now, since I reached Brush, Colorado Saturday afternoon, I have been riding along the South Platte, then Platte, River with an eerie shadow of foreboding, knowing that an unprecedented and unfathomable avalanche of water would soon be funneling through, overflowing its banks and  causing untold flooding.  All the corn fields and pasturelands that I've been gazing upon and the very road I've been riding could soon be transformed into an ocean of water.

Yet there is minimal concern by the locals.  There is no mass evacuation or sand bagging going on. The last cataclysmic flood was fifty years ago and few have a memory of it.  It is difficult for anyone to imagine their lazy, benign river, which is presently a dry river bed thanks to Colorado hoarding its water in reservoirs,

will soon be a torrent of water.  In these arid parts, people are conditioned to welcome, if not crave, any moisture, so this sudden bounty is almost a blessing, an answer to their prayers.  If it comes with a little flooding, so be it.

The water is progressing at less than three miles per hour.  I am well ahead of it--by more than 48 hours.  The surge is now reaching the Nebraska border just beyond Julesburg, a very quiet, semi-abandoned city.  I passed through Julesburg  Sunday evening, arriving just before five, hoping its non-Carnegie library might have Sunday hours.  No such luck and no luck either tapping into its WIFI, as it required a password, as has been the case at about half the libraries I have visited during  these travels.

Early reports this morning were that the river at Julesburg had exceeded its record crest of 10.44 feet set on June 20, 1965.  The river passes the town a half mile or so to its south.  No word if the water has reached the town proper.  It was a much depressed place with more than half the stores vacant.  I spoke with an older local whose forebears had settled in the area in the 1880s.  He was much chagrined with what had become of the town, not the least of which was it having a marijuana dispensary.  He was of the thought that a flood could be the best thing to happen to the place.  He still was upset that the town had refused the offer of a Carnegie library nearly a century ago, not constructing the present library until 1935.

Earlier in the day I passed through the small town of Crook.  As I sat outside its post office with my tent and sleeping bag spread out front drying, several men arrived with sand bags. They were in a frantic rush and advised me to clear out, unaware that high water wouldn't reach them for a couple of days, the only people I've encountered who seemed concerned about an impending disaster.   I also had a few items drying inside by a wall of PO boxes that they asked me to remove.  On a table inside was another example of rural generosity--someone had left a box of zucchini and corn and peppers.  I helped myself to a couple ears of corn.  They were sweet enough that they didn't need cooking.  I scraped the kernels from the cob with my knife and added them to my ramen.  

I had hoped the local radio stations would be thrilled with this huge story that had fallen in their laps, giving young energetic reporters a chance to distinguish themselves, but they are hardly covering it.  The local radio stations only speak of "possible flooding," with the same tone as climate-change doubters. No one is on the scene where the river is cresting, nor is any one calling locals for on the scene reactions.  I'd kind of like to be back 150 miles witnessing the rising waters, but I can't stop riding my bike. I happened to catch the weekly interview of the superintendent of Ogallala's high school, a town on the South Platte.  The newsman asked him what he would be doing about the flood.  All he said is that he'd try to get students to help stuff sand bags.

Since this is such a rare event, no one can predict what will happen, whether the waters will spill onto Interstate 80 (which was built after the last flood in 1965) or overflow the railway tracks or will  soak into the parched river bed and countryside.  It is an incredibly active rail line.  Several freight trains pass every hour carrying open cars of coal and enclosed cars of I know not what.  There is so little traffic on my road, the local alternative to Interstate 80, most of the engineers give me a toot when they pass.  

It was a much busier route back in the mid-1800s when thousands of Mormons and settlers followed it when it was known as the Oregon Trail. Historic signs pay tribute to it as well as to the short-lived Pony Express.

The town of Gothenburg has transplanted a nearby original Pony Express station to its park.

Gothenburg is a rare Nebraska town with a sense of preservation.  It is the only one of five towns I have passed through in Nebraska so far that once had a Carnegie Library, that continues to use it as a libary, albeit with a huge, modern addition with no pretensions of matching the original. It still had a nice, hospitable warmth, matching its WIFI password--"Welcome!"  It was just a few blocks from the Pony Express station on the same Main Street through the town.  

Earlier in the day I visited a Carnegie in North Platte that has served as a Children's Museum since 1998.  The new library is right behind it but not attached.  Like most of the Western Carnegies, it was a solid brick building with minimal embellishment.

The woman overseeing the museum is a kayaker who will try to restrain herself from getting out on the swollen river when it reaches North Platte this weekend and joins up with the still flowing North Platte River.  She's not concerned about the speed of the current, but rather all the debris in the river, especially strands of barbed wire.  

The Carnegie in Cozad, ten miles beyond Gothenberg, had been torn town and replaced on the same site by a library provided by a local benefactor who the library is named for.

The Carnegie in Kearney has also been torn down and replaced on the same site by a glassy monstrosity.  At least it pays homage to it with its original circulation desk sitting alone in a place of honor on the second floor.

It also placed the wooden archway to its entrance as the entrance to its fiction room.

The Carnegie in Lexington still stands but it has been desecrated and rendered fully unrecognizable by a law firm that took it over. It resides two blocks from the new sprawling library that fills an entire block.

I'm better than half way across the state.  Ten more Carnegies are on my route, including a possible three in Lincoln.  I'll be leaving the Platte in less than fifty miles at Grand Island when I continue directly east to Lincoln rather than following the river to Omaha.  I suspect, as do most others, the flooding will be well dissipated by then, though there is no telling.  As everyone likes to proclaim, this is a once in a thousand year occurrence, up from 500 years, an all too common refrain about all the extreme weather of late.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Rain and More Rain in Colorado

Dark skies and the threat of rain forced me to camp a little early along route 115 out of Penrose.  It had rained off and on all day beginning as I chowed down on a stack of hotcakes in Florence that could have choked a horse.  I lingered in the town library for a couple of hours digesting all the calories as it rained some more, happy for the opportunity to give my legs some welcome rest after five days of demanding riding in mountainous terrain.

Late in the afternoon I began a gradual climb out of Penrose from 5,000 feet to Colorado Springs up at 6,300 feet, thirty-six miles away.  I had hoped to close within twenty-five miles of the big city before camping, but the imminent rain curtailed me five miles short of my goal.  I fell short too of reaching the Fort Carson Military Base, whose border extended for over twenty miles along 115.  It was rough, rugged high desert terrain.  I found a bushy tree to camp under after pushing my bike over a rise through a mine-field of cacti.  I brushed against one limp-armed strain and it latched on to my calf and then the back of my glove when I attempted to remove it.  I feared flat tires in the morning, but I was spared.  It was no small relief to awake with still fully inflated tires.  It would have been an extra miserable start to the day repairing a flat in the rain.

It had sprinkled intermittently all night and was back at it with the dawn.  It kept me in my tent a little longer than I wished, though I was forced into a quick evacuation when I noticed water had begun to pool inside the foot of my tent beginning to soak my sleeping bag.  A glance outside revealed a small lake threatening to engulf my tent.  The hard desert terrain was no longer absorbing the water.  The rain was light enough I was in no panic, though I did hop to it, packing and disassembling my tent with a little more vigor than usual.

After yesterday's off-and-on rain I didn't expect this to last more than a few miles.  There was a steady flow of early morning traffic, all with their lights on.  I climbed into a darkening, rather than a brightening sky.  The rain followed suit, growing heavier, rather than diminishing.  Before long it was coming down in torrents.  It wasn't a mere downpour, but had escalated into a furious deluge such as I had never experienced in a gloom that was nearly dark as night.  It was hard to imagine where all this water was coming from, especially in a drought-ridden region. 

Fortunately there was a wide shoulder, and I was climbing a moderate grade, so my speed was at a minimum and I was generating some body heat.  I had on a t-shirt and a long sleeve shirt under my high-quality Gore-tex jacket that kept my torso and head dry.  But it was a cold rain and I could feel a chill coming on.  I would have loved to have stopped and put on my wool sweater, but that would have been impossible without becoming instantly soaked by the torrential downpour.

The road had become a river of water.  I dreaded a descent of any sort, increasing my speed.  If I washed out, I didn't want to hit the pavement with more than minimal speed.  I had little faith in my brakes slowing me much.  When I came upon a dip, I was relieved it was just a short, gentle descent followed by more climbing, sparing me the need of testing my brakes.  The heavy rain and all the water on the road helped to slow me.

Though the conditions were horrific, I was enjoying being out in the elements.  I was more than holding my own, making progress and keeping just warm enough.  I knew it was dangerous, not only staying upright, but also going hypothermic. At least it wasn't as perilous as a night-time ride in Lesotho a few years ago on an isolated dirt road in a cold drizzle with no traffic and no village for miles when I had a wet sleeping bag and was in a highly-desperate life-and-death situation needing to find a warm, dry place for the night.  I could stop any time here and try to wave down a vehicle.  Two SUV police cars had passed me without paying me any mind, so maybe the conditions weren't as fearful as I suspected.   I felt alarm when I noticed the water cascading down the road had turned brown and was a bit deeper as I neared the intersection of a dirt road that added its river of water to that on the paved road.  An 18-wheeler passed just as I reached the confluence of these two torrents of water and blasted me with a thick spray speckled with debris that almost knocked me over.

After I passed the confluence with the dirt road the water on the road thinned to what it had been. I felt a reprieve from the danger of the rushing water toppling me.  By now I'd been riding nearly half an hour. Rather than feeling miserable, I felt a glow of satisfaction to be demonstrating to all the motorists that a cyclist could endure this.  I was pedaling along at a good steady clip giving no evidence that it was anything but a nice ride.  I wasn't bemoaning my fate at all, rather thriving on it. 

Then I came around a bend and saw a pick-up truck with a horse-trailer stopped along the road.  As I neared,  a woman with a classy cowboy hat hopped out of the driver's side of the truck.  I couldn't tell if she was having problems and might need my help, or if she had stopped to rescue me.  She spoke first and said, "Do you want to put your bike in the back of the truck?"  She didn't need to ask twice.  That was a most sensible thing to do.  I had once before accepted a ride while in Bolivia, also on a rainy day, on a long steep descent from the altiplano on a dirt road that had become a river of muck.  I had shredded my brake pads and was dragging my feet to keep my speed manageable.  A truckload of men on that  occasion leapt out to come to my aid.  I didn't consider that they might be kidnappers,  only that the conditions were most treacherous and they were behaving like Good Samaritans.

And so was this woman.

She was a life-long rancher,  who said she couldn't imagine being out in such conditions on her horse, let alone a bicycle.  She said she had never seen rain come down so hard or so thick, nor had she driven with such limited visibility.  It was indeed a storm of epic proportions.  The following day I learned that Fort Carson recorded ten inches of rain that morning.  The rain that fell over the next several days was unprecedented, amounting to more than twenty inches in some places.  It was said that such a storm comes along every 500 years.  She welcomed the rain, as the region was in drought conditions, though at the time neither of us could know how cataclysmic the storm would become, wiping out bridges and shutting down dozens of roads including two Interstates and requiring military helicopters to evacuate hundreds of people.

She was a cattle rancher, who was in charge of her family's operation.  She couldn't have been more amiable or considerate or real.  As we drove along, she took a phone call from an associate and discussed the purchase of calves.  She wasn't interested in an auction at Salida, as she'd had a bad experience purchasing calves there that had introduced disease to her herd.  She told me how ranching had evolved over the years.  She now practiced "high-density grazing," a concept introduced by a South African.  It involves bunching one's cattle in smaller pastures for a short period of time, allowing them to nibble the grass half-way down and also trampling the turf so it would make it easier for moisture to seep in rather than run off, and then moving the cattle to a fresh pasture.  She could divide her pastures into any size she wished with temporary electrical fences.  She spoke passionately and eloquently.  She was clearly devoted to ranching and loved talking about it.

Since 1995 she had opened her ranch to tourists to experience the life, going out on the range on horseback.  One couldn't have a better introduction to ranching than through this woman, Elin Ganshow.  Her ranch is Music Meadows and is located in Westcliffe, about sixty miles south of where she picked me up.  Her website is She was headed into Colorado Springs to do some shopping.  After about ten miles we had out-run the storm and it had dissipated into a slight drizzle. Rather than dropping me off I let her take me the last ten miles into downtown Colorado Springs and its Carnegie Library.  She dropped me off just a couple blocks away from it a little after nine, just after it opened. 

I was still wet and needed to dry out and warm up.  The Carnegie had been built in 1905 and remained the anchor to a huge glassy generic metropolitan addition.  The original building had a rather modest front, particularly since it was constructed from a large $60,000 grant as a large urban library, in contrast to the usual $10,000 that funded the vast majority of small town Carnegies.

The Carnegie portion of the library was now a research center, entered only from inside the library, as the original entrance was no longer open.  I had to put my pack in a locker before I was allowed into  the Carnegie section.  One of the librarians told me to be sure not to miss another smaller Carnegie, built a year before this one, less than three miles away in the old part of the city.  

Though the sky was darkening and another cloudburst seemed imminent and it was in the opposite direction that I was headed, I gladly paid it a visit.

It sat majestically on a small hill and had the character and dignity of a typical small town Carnegie and was unmarred by any additions.  It was across the street from a park in a residential part of the city and was packed with mothers and children.  Its lights seemed extra bright illuminating the interior yellow walls in the heavy overcast.  

I was lashed by another heavy downpour as I headed back into the downtown district of the city.  My original plan was to bike due north seventy miles to Denver along the Front Range and visit its handful of Carnegies, but with all the rain that had fallen and clearly more on the way, I chose to flee the nearby mountains where the stormy weather seemed trapped, and head due east into flat terrain and away from all the rain.  It was a wiser decision than I realized, though I didn't entirely escape the rain.

I could have waited out the rain in the downtown Carnegie, but I biked past to nearby Platte Avenue, route 24, my exit route, and proceeded east riding in the wet that I was now well accustomed to.  I did need to eat, so when I came upon a Taco Bell after several miles, I took a break from the rain and had a burrito.  I was in no hurry to resume riding, so had another burrito as the rain continued to pour. I was tricked by an occasional pedestrian walking along without an umbrella into thinking the rain had relented. Rain is so rare in these parts, people seemed to enjoy being out in, like someone from the tropics who rarely experiences snow thrilled to be out in a blizzard.  Shortly before noon the restaurant was overrun by students, none with rain gear, from a nearby high school.  That was enough to send me on my way, even though it was still raining lightly.

For the next six hours it rained off and on.  I was able to lay out my tent and sleeping bag and let them somewhat dry at a service station.  While I sat and ate someone gave me a large luscious locally grown peach similar to what Janina paid two dollars for at a roadside stand outside Telluride.  

That was the second, but not the last, extra-friendly gesture granted me this day thanks to the nasty weather. The final came at the end of the day right at dark about an hour after I had made camp, once again a little earlier than usual, rushing to set up my tent before the rain resumed.  I quit early thanks to a head wind that had begun to gust and swirl, giving me concern about finding a protected place to camp out in the flats.  When I saw a fenced-in, closed-down warehouse just off the road that offered some protection from the wind, I decided to make it my campsite even though I wouldn't be as secluded as I prefer. There was a break in the fence I could duck under and some grassy, not-so-saturated terrain for my tent.  Though I wasn't totally hidden, in these inclement conditions I didn't fear anyone making an issue of my camping somewhat in the open. 

The warehouse was on a dirt side road that had a "Dead End" sign.  I could see one lone house about a quarter of a mile away.  After I was well settled in the owner of the house noticed me and drove up in his pick-up and invited me to his home.  I might have accepted if it weren't raining.  I was cozy and comfortable in my tent and didn't want to take it down in the rain.  There was the danger I might be flooded though if it rained too much.  He told me that if at any time I wished to come to his house, not to hesitate. I thought that might be a possibility when the winds started whipping my rain fly and my radio was interrupted every ten minutes with a flash flood warning.  The warning didn't apply to me, as I was over thirty miles away from the mountains and the water cascading out of its canyons.  The turf I was camped on was softer and more porous than the hard desert terrain I had been on the night before, but it was still a long night.

The next day the rain continued, though it was intermittent and never more than a light drizzle.  The waitress who served me hotcakes wasn't concerned about flooding at all.  It had rained so little the past few years, she wanted the rain to keep falling.

 When I reached Limon, seventy-five miles east of Colorado Springs out in the flats, I turned north to the next Carnegie in Brush, seventy-five miles away up along the South Platte River.  It was a little risky to be joining up with the Platte, as it would be carrying a good portion of Denver's rainfall.  There were no reports on the radio of evacuations or flooding along its route yet.  When I reached Brush I noticed sand bags outside doors of businesses.  

The librarian at the Carnegie told me not to be alarmed, that the bags were left over from a previous alert that proved to be unfounded.  Her library had been greatly expanded and was now called the East Morgan County Library, though its original entrance identified it as a Carnegie.  It was several blocks from the Main Street through Brush in the center of a beautiful large park.

From Brush I angled northeast following the Platte River, though it was a quarter of a mile away and lined with trees preventing me from seeing how high or fast rushing its waters might be.  Interstate 76 was on the other side of the river, up above the arid terrain.  I could see a steady flow of 18-wheelers speeding along in both directions between Denver and Interstate 80. Forty miles later I came to Sterling and my seventh and final Carnegie in Colorado on this trip.  Wikipedia said it was now a bed-and-breakfast.  That was no longer the case.  Like the homeless shelter that the Florence Carnegie had been, it proved an unsuccessful venture and was now just a private residence.  It had served as Sterling's library up to 1976, but still retained Library on its facade and had been immaculately maintained.

It had a plaque besides its entry acknowledging it as a National Historic site. 

The home resided across the street from a large park that was taken over by Sterling's annual Sugar Beet Festival.  The Platte was less than a mile to the east but no one seemed concerned about a wall of water rushing through.  I camped ten miles out of town between two towering stacks of hay bales for what I assumed would be an ideally protected campsite.  I somewhat thought the same the night before beside a cornfield just as a fiery red sun ducked below the horizon.

It was my driest and most tranquil campsite in days, but I didn't realize I had pushed my bike through a treacherous patch of goat-heads to reach it.  I was greeted by two fully deflated tires the next  morning.  Each tube was punctured multiple times and my tires were studded with the prickly knobs of the goat heads.  It had me regretting not camping in one of the many abandoned houses in the semi-ghost town of Last Chance ten miles earlier, as was my initial impulse.  But I was enjoying the first tail wind of these travels and kept going until sunset.

I had no concerns of goat-heads between the mounds of hay the next night, as they were on a sandy surface without any vegetation.  But it turned out to be another cursed place to camp, as the stormy weather continued with a post-midnight rain that the sand retained not allowing it to soak in.  At two a.m. I awoke to a sopping wet sleeping bag and pad.  I was another flooding victim and had no choice but to move my tent to ground with better drainage.  If there were none nearby, I'd just have to start riding until I found some. Fortunately there was grassy terrain less than one hundred feet away.  I converted my duffle bag to a sleeping pad.  My synthetic sleeping bag provided just enough warmth despite being wet to allow me to resume sleeping.  

The rain continued the next day and had locals concerned about the river swelling.  Some were putting out sand bags, but the local radio stations weren't sounding any alarm, nor were there police cars trolling the road with a warning.  I could see a steady flow of traffic on Interstate 76 a mile away on the other side of the river going in both directions.

I did come upon a trio of ranchers rounding up their cattle to move them to higher ground away from the river.

The line of trees in the distance is guardian to the Platte River and up above it is Interstate 76.  I crossed into Nebraska shortly before dark last night and am now following Interstate 80 and the Platte.  I'm at least twelve hours ahead of high water.  I'm also following a rail line that is between my road and the river that people say will serve as a dyke.  We shall see.