Saturday, January 25, 2014

Wrapping Up Three Weeks On the Road

Quite often a search for a Carnegie library leads to a discovery that almost upstages the library.  So it was on day one of our travels at our first Carnegie in Brownsville, Tennessee with the Mindfield Sculpture Complex, a staggeringly intricate maze of towering metal structures down the street from the Carnegie, now the town's Chamber of Commerce.   It happened again towards the end of our trip in Fulton, Missouri, a few miles east of Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri in the center of the state.  We made a slight detour up to Columbia to visit a couple of colleagues of Janina's from Chicago who had moved there two years ago to work for the university.

Fulton is a college town too. Despite a population of just 13,000, it is home to a pair of institutions of higher learning (Westminster College and William Woods University), and also the National Winston Churchill Museum.  When we noticed the Churchill Museum on the map, our immediate reaction was to wonder what it was doing in Fulton.  We speculated it might be that Fulton was the home of his mother.  She was American, but she was actually born in Brooklyn. 

Instead, Fulton established a Churchill Museum to commemorate his visit to the town in 1946 with President Truman, when he gave a speech proclaiming the erection of an Iron Curtain across Europe.  The term had been used before, but this speech brought the term into prominence and is known as "The  Iron Curtain Speech."  The museum resides in a huge cathedral, almost as majestic as a Carnegie, formerly of London, the Church of St. Mary Aldermanbury, dating to 1181.  It had been destroyed by the great fire of London in 1666, rebuilt by Christopher Wren and destroyed by bombing in 1940.  The rubble was amazingly transported from England and rebuilt in Fulton in 1966, a feat worthy of a Herzog film.

It is accompanied by two statues of Churchill, the one on the left above and another beyond at the far corner of the cathedral.

Several panels of the Berlin Wall also reside in the Cathedral's plaza.

It was all an extraordinary discovery, though not our first Churchill encounter of the trip.  We also came upon a couple of his paintings in the Dallas Museum of Art, part of the Wendy and Emery Reeves Collection from their French villa.  It even included a box of Churchill's painting supplies.

Our three weeks on the road, driving nearly 4,000 miles, included multiple pairings of such unexpected oddities.  There was also the private jets of two people of prominence--LBJ and Elvis.  We saw two stray calico cats that Janina was tempted to adopt.  We patronized two Trader Joe's (Baton Rouge and Dallas) and two Landmark Theatres (Dallas and St. Louis for ""Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Great Beauty").  We paid homage to the graves of Richard Halliburton and William Faulkner.

Quite a few other things came in greater multiples.  We found ourselves in three cities with assassination sites (King in Memphis, Long in Baton Rouge, JFK in Dallas).  We passed through four state capitals--Baton Rouge, Austin, Jefferson City and Springfield.  Four noteworthy bike shops dotted our travels as did four state university campuses--Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Missouri. We tromped through art museums in four cities--New Orleans, Fort Worth, Dallas, and St. Louis, two of whom had recently opened up new wings.  

We were accompanied through the new wing  of the St. Louis Art Museum with CJ, one of three of Janina's college professor friends we visited during our travels.  When Janina noticed two twenty-year olds sitting on a bench studying a painting, she asked if they were artists, one of her areas of expertise.  They said they were theater students. That perked up CJ, as he is an actor and knows the St. Louis theater scene.  That led to a delightful fifteen minute conversation/lecture with Janina and CJ unable to resist their roles as educators.  

Noteworthy sculptures was another theme of our travels.  The St. Louis Art Museum offered an extraordinary Andy Goldsworthy of twenty-five tightly packed limestone arches each ten feet high in a courtyard between the new wing and the old entitled "Stone Sea."   A New Orleans sculpture garden included a giant safety pin by Claes Oldenburg.  The downtown St. Louis City Museum contained a mass of contorted sculpture extravaganzas inside and out, including slides for children of all ages, that left Janina gasping in wonderment.

Not a day passed that we didn't have at least one encounter with a fascinating character who we couldn't stop talking about as we drove along.  There was so much to discuss and digest, we rarely turned on the radio.  We met so many kindly librarians, Janina regretted she hadn't shot portraits of all of them at their desks or in front of their stacks.  It would have made a fine gallery, worthy of any museum.  

When we stopped at a pecan orchard in Oklahoma just across the border from Texas to buy a couple pounds of pecans, the wife of the husband-wife owners so appreciated our interest she gave us a half-hour tour of their operation.  Pecans are the American nut, grown no where else in the world.  Two-thirds of their 150,000 pound harvest had been bought by the Chinese.  Their 17,000 tree orchard is so beautiful, weddings are regularly conducted there.

Though this was by no means a Carnegie-quest, we managed to stop off at twenty-one of them, at least one in seven of the eight states we passed through, all but Kentucky.  It was the first time I had visited a Carnegie in Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma, bringing my total to 23 of the 48 states with a Carnegie.  That puts me near the half-way mark, but I'm well below the half-way mark of Carnegies in the US, having gotten to only 218 of the 1,689 so far.

Janina has become infected by my Carnegie quest and admitted that it almost seemed as if each Carnegie we came upon was more magnificent than the last.  Each distinguishes itself in some stately manner, proudly emanating a quiet dignity that immediately gives one a jolt of uplift the moment one spots it.  Each stands eminently above all the other nearby buildings.

Last Sunday Janina and I were able to string four of them together as we made our exit from Texas, angling northeast across the state to Caddo Lake State Park, home to the state's only natural lake.  It being a Sunday, none of the libraries were open.  Our first was in Bryan, just north of College Station and Texas A&M.  We had no address for the library, just the confidence it would be near the town center, as most are.  It is far more satisfying to be seeking the recognizable features of a Carnegie than to be seeking an address.  After bisecting the center of Bryan on its main east-west artery and not spotting it, we headed south on its other axis and there it sprung up in four-pillared grandeur with "Carnegie Public Library" ornamenting its facade. 

We sat on a bench in front and tapped into its WIFI for our first Internet check of the day.  After soaking up its eminence for several minutes we went across the street to a hotel cafe for Janina to fill her mini-thermos with coffee.  Then it was on to Franklin.  The town was on the fringe of the highway.  We didn't even realize we had reached Franklin when Janina's eye caught the features of a building that had the aura of a Carnegie.  Indeed it was.  As with Bryan's, it had not been added on to and its facade prominently identified it as a "Carnegie Library." It was uncharacteristically several blocks from the town center, truly standing apart and above all the other buildings in the town.

Tyler was a sizable city, but we were still able to hone in on its Carnegie without having to ask anyone.  The library is now a Historical Society.  It had been added on to, but the city still outgrew it.

We needed help finding the fourth Carnegie of the day in Marshall, as we didn't realize it had been built as an academic library on the campus of Wiley College, one of the few black colleges west of the Mississippi.  We found the new library in Marshall and used its WIFI to locate the Carnegie.  It's not likely anyone would have known, as it is now an administrative building unadorned with any Carnegie inscription.

We began the next day with a bike ride along Caddo Lake, where we had camped beside one of its beguiling bayou-like arms.  It was less than twenty miles to our seventh and final of the thirteen remaining Carnegies in Texas in the small town of Jefferson.  It had undergone a stunning $500,000 restoration a few years ago.  It was Martin Luther King Day, but the devoted librarian kept the library open.

Its upstairs meeting room was in pristine condition and served as a great asset to the community.  As is so often the case, we were delighted that the Carnegie had drawn us to this small gem of a town.  It was lunch-time so were were able to acquaint ourselves with a first-rate cafe that had a meat loaf lunch special with yams and mashed potatoes and coconut cream pie.  It was another dose of small town America at its finest.

Our time on the pecan farm later in the day delayed our arrival in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and its Carnegie until dark.  It had a huge addition to its side that didn't match the old, but one could still appreciate its fine features.  We could well return to appreciate it in the light of day as we feel beckoned by the town's Cherokee Museum.  We might have overnighted there if we weren't pressed to be in Columbia the next afternoon. 

We did take a quick detour from Interstate 44, one of the few Interstate stretches of the trip, to give the Joplin Carnegie a look.  It was closed and fenced in, awaiting a new tenant after most recently housing the International Institute of Technology.  It is a sterling building that needs a worthy tenant.

The Carnegie in Fulton had an addition that tried to blend in with the original.  The librarian we spoke with mentioned that until the late '50s, the town's black residents had to enter the library through a back door.  The daughter of one of those blacks now works as one of its librarians. 

My final bike ride of the trip was a 36-mile circuit of St. Louis the next day in sub-freezing temperatures to the four of its seven Carnegies that had evaded me on previous visits to the city.  Its main library built in 1912 is a veritable palace and one that I am eager to visit again.  I didn't have enough time to fully absorb its many exemplary features.  The outside of the building is ringed with an all-star line-up of writers--Goethe, Moliere, Hugo, Racine, Shakespeare, and on and on. Each of its four exterior walls is also inscribed with a quote extolling the virtues of books and reading and libraries.  

Chiseled over the three welcoming arches is a quote from Frederick Crundan: "Recorded thought is our chief heritage from the past, the most lasting legacy we can leave to the future. Books are the most enduring monument of man's achievements. Only through books can civilization become cumulative."

Carnegie is quoted on another side of the building: "I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves.  They never pauperize a taste, for reading drives out our lower tastes."  Longfellow is also quoted praising "the sweet serenity of books."

As has happened several times on this trip, I was warned about venturing into a certain neighborhood.  I might have heeded such advice after dark, but I had no qualms about riding a stretch through blocks and blocks of mostly boarded up buildings on the north side of the city between the Cabanne branch and the closed down Divoll branch.

The Carondelet branch way to the south had a similar portico to the Cabanne branch, unlike any other Carnegies I have come upon.  None of the libraries allowed WIFI use without a library card, so I couldn't keep Janina and our hosts appraised of my progress and return-time for our museum outing, arriving back to their house just as they were finishing lunch.  There was plenty left for me, though I had been well-fortified by Nancy's fruit-laden oatmeal, some of which I ate at my various stops.

Our drive back to Chicago the next day took us past the Cahokia Mounds.  We had stumbled upon three other sets of mounds along the way.  The Emerald Mound towards the end of the Natchez Trace Parkway is second in size to the Monk's Mound in Cahokia.  There were also mounds just across the border from Cairo, Illinois in Kentucky. We also climbed a mound by the state Capitol Building in Baton Rouge.  Upon it were two canons.  

Though it was just single digit temperatures I climbed the 150 plus steps to the top of the highest of the many Cahokia Mounds and had a fine view of The Arch and downtown St. Louis and the surrounding snow-covered farmland and Interstate 55 just below me.  It had been decades since either Janina and I had been to this World Heritage site, one of only 21 in the US. It was accompanied by a most impressive visitor center with an excellent movie and many superb exhibits explaining the Native American mound culture.  Those of Cahokia accommodated over 20,000 people at its height.

The final stop of our three week road trip, other than for gas, was in Lincoln, just north of Springfield, to see its Carnegie.  It was a fitting finale, crowned with a rare dome and a circulation desk to die for.

Its exterior proved Janina's premise that every Carnegie we came upon was more magnificent than the one before.  The library had expanded across the alley behind it into an old Wieboldt's store.  It had celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003 and looked good for at least another 100.  A plaque in front of the library stated,"The library's history typifies the combination of national wealth, grass roots initiative and cultural ideals which generated the free library movement and its goal of a free and educated American society."  We saw those qualifies reflected in a multitude of ways throughout our foray through small-town and big-town USA.  Our trip could have hardly been better, other than maybe spending more time on the bikes.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Austin, Texas

Lance may have been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, but seven framed Yellow Jerseys, representing each of his wins, still prominently hang in his Austin bicycle shop Mellow Johnny.  It couldn't be otherwise, as the shop takes its name from Lance's mangled pronunciation of  those Maillot Jaunes, French for Yellow Jersey.

The glitzy and spacious interior of the shop belie its rather humdrum exterior, retaining the rough facade of its previous existence as a beer brewery then homeless shelter in the former warehouse district of Austin on the fringe of its downtown business district.  The shop is so centrally located that it provides showers, six of 'em, three for males and three for females, for commuters at the cost of just one dollar.  The shop opens at seven a.m. for the early birds, and is actually open more than an hour before that for those who wish to come in super early for some training in the store's basement workout center.  It is so popular that its six a.m. session is fully booked.

The shop's name is not the only play on a foreign language.  The coffee shop in the front of the shop goes by Juan Pelota, a pun on the Spanish for One Ball, which Lance was left with after the removal of one of his testicles due to cancer.  There is no evident wordplay though on the password to use its WIFI--spaceman. 

The French may regard the garbled Englishism of that most sacred of garments as a slur, but they ought to be honored that the lone quote on the walls of the shop, a poetic ode to the transformative power of the bicycle, is from the French racer and journalist Jean Bobet, younger brother of  Louisson Bobet, three-time winner of The Tour in the 1950s.  Bobet the younger was a better writer than rider.  He wrote a most exemplary memoir evocatively titled "Tomorrow We Ride," a favorite expression of his brother after he retired.  That too would have looked fine up on a wall of the shop.  If the store had been more Lance-centric, it might have included some of his favorite sayings--"Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever," "Go hard or go home," "Whatever your 100% looks like, give it," and the like.

The coffee shop had a handful of customers sipping its brew, all glued to their computers. Otherwise Janina and I were the lone customers in the shop packed with Mellow Johnny ware and bikes and accessories.  The coffee shop also offered a wide array of bicycle magazines.  There was also a chart of an assortment of weekly training rides of various distances and speeds open to all that departed from the shop, just as the Richardson Bicycle Mart offered.  

We had a pleasant, unhurried conversation with two young employees, who Janina termed "sweet," exuding more of that Texas and southern wholesome friendliness we've so often encountered that is such a marked contrast to what we are accustomed to. They clearly enjoyed working at the shop and were deeply ingrained bicycle enthusiasts.  Even though the shop rents bikes, they were pleased Austin had just started a city-wide rental program the month before similar to what Chicago and New York instituted earlier in the year.  It thrilled them whenever they saw one of the hundred or so bikes being used.

It was my third such Texas bicycle shop experience in four days. The day before I'd had another at the Hill Country Bicycle Works in Fredericksburg, a thriving German-themed town of 10,000 inhabitants.  It was a much smaller shop than the two others I'd visited, with just one employee on hand in the slow offseason.  I was lucky it was one of the co-owners, Lisa Nye-Salladin.  She did have one customer come in with a flat hour during our half-hour of bike talk, but the interruption allowed me to give the shop a thorough investigation.  It was adorned with six Lance posters and others of Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis and Tyler Hamilton and others tainted by drug use. Lisa and her husband Adam got their start in cycling as touring cyclists, but later became involved in racing, so much so that Lisa served thirteen years on the board of USA Cycling getting to know many of the principals of the sport and gaining a full understanding of all its facets, so isn't one to condemn those who "cheated," even devoting the shop's bathroom to posters of "cheaters."

Though Austin was less than one hundred miles away, Lance's current home and home during his racing career, he wasn't known to train on the region's famed hills.  He did pay one lone visit to compete in a mountain bike race staged by Lisa and Adam after his first retirement as training for his first attempt on the Leadville 100.  When Lance's manager contacted the Salladins telling them Lance wanted to ride their race, they thought friends were pranking them.  It took a second communication to prove it truly was a Lance representative.  He arranged for Lance to preview the course with Adam, the best mountain biker in the region.  Adam had a three-and-half ride with Lance all to himself and was thoroughly charmed.

I stopped in to meet Lisa and Adam on the recommendation of Lance-expert Jim Hoyt, the first of my bike shop immersions.  He told me that not only were they experts on cycling in the Hill Country, but that they were touring authorities as well, having completed a thee-year round-the-world tour before opening their bike shop. I was curious if their travels had included the Philippines, my next destination.  They hadn't, but it was still wonderful to hear Lisa so enthusiastically recount many of their experiences from twenty years ago.  They began their trip in New Zealand in February of 1992.  They next went to Australia, then Southeast Asia and on over to India where they spent four-and-a-half months after only intending on spending two weeks. They flew from Delhi to Nairobi and proceeded south to Cape Town, arriving in South Africa just as apartheid was ending.  

They flew back to America from Africa.  As they cycled from Florida to San Francisco, their starting point, they passed through Kerrville, Texas.  The town bike shop was for sale.  It was still available when they completed their trip, so they decided to buy it and take up residence in Texas, even though Lisa had grown up on the east coast and Adam on the west.  It brought an end to their touring, but they've had no regrets, enjoying the business so much, opening a second shop, the one where we were talking, two years after buying the first.  When they retire they look forward to biking Europe, which they bypassed on their world tour, and riding The Tour de France, one subject I knew more about than Lisa.

At one point in our conversation Lisa mentioned she had baby sat for Tyler Hamilton, as they grew up in the same town in Massachusetts.  When Tyler began making a name for himself in the world of cycling, even before distinguishing himself as Lance's chief lieutenant in his first Tour win in 1999, her mother alerted her to the news that the five-year old Tyler Hamilton she used to babysit for was now a world-class cyclist.  Years later Lisa reintroduced herself to Tyler at a Las Vegas Interbike show.  He had no memory of her, but the following year when he saw her again at Interbike, he immediately called out, "My babysitter."

One of the most notorious climbs in the Hill Country was just fifteen miles from the shop up to the summit of Tunnel State Park, named for a former railroad tunnel that had been retired from train traffic in the 1940s.  It was now the summer home to over three million bats, presently wintering in Mexico.  Texas could be called the State of Bats, as 32 of the 53 species of North America bats reside in Texas, the most of any state.  The route sheet I picked up of an 88-mile loop that included the climb  described it as Beyond Category.  It was no where as extreme though as some of the climbs of Bloomington, Indiana's Hilly Hundred.  It was just a half mile long and a five per cent grade, providing some explanation for why Lance didn't go out of his way to train on these not overly demanding hills.

There was no camping at this state park, but with over ninety such parks scattered around the state it wasn't far to another.  We were somewhat tempted to backtrack to Enchanted State Park, named for the Ayers Rock of Texas, a huge granite rock that rises nearly five hundred feet and requires a half mile hike to reach its summit.  It was a spectacular place to camp and has been the site of sacred ceremonies by various peoples going back to pre-Columbia America.  It was another of the many wonderful discoveries we have made in these travels.

It was another of the many wonderful discoveries we have made in these travels.  Among the oddities was as Air Force Half, LBJ's private jet on his ranch outside Johnson City, a town of just 1,000 people named for Johnson's uncle.  It was the second noteworthy personal jet we've come upon.  The other was in Memphis across the street from Graceland, that used to fly Elvis around.

It hasn't been so bad intermixing the driving with biking.  After a couple hours in the car it makes a good bike ride all the more liberating.  Lately the ratio of time spent on the bike has been double of that spent in the car.  Janina injured her knee doing some dancing in Dallas so she has been restricted to short rides around our camp sites and doing a lot of reading while I'm off on my rides.  Yesterday she constructed a small shrine of piled rocks at our campsite in a state park that suffered a forest fire two-and-a-half years ago.   It could well inspire others to do the same.  It would be a good project for the army of Boy Scouts who arrived after dark and were gaily going about their chores early the next morning.  We didn't mind at all to have the quiet interrupted by such boisterousness.

The Texans certainly take advantage of their parks.  Two of the parks we had camped in earlier in the week were booked for the weekend.  But it is the peak season, we were surprised to learn.  We slipped the off-season rate into our after-hours envelope at the Enchanted State Park before we more closely studied the charts and learned the lower rate applies to the hot months of June through August.

There is a palpable state pride in all things Texan.  It is a state of historical markers.  Each is numbered and there are over ten thousand of them.  Zach, the 28-year old son of Greg in Dallas, said that every high school student takes a course in Texas state history.  The most popular tattoo of the people he knows is the Texas state flag.  A large supermarket chain is called H.E.B., standing for "Here Everything's Better," what could well be the state motto.  Not only do Texans consider things better in Texas, but also bigger.  "Texas-sized" is such a common term, it was used to describe the baked potatoes on the menu in the cafeteria of the grand Dallas Museum of Art.

But Texans aren't overly brash in their state pride.  It gives them such a strong measure of self-respect and confidence that they hardly need to brandish it.  Nor does it diminish their respect for others.  I've never been called "Sir" so often, nor Janina "Ma'am," and with an unobsequious sincerity.  Not only does the 60 degree weather make Texas an attractive place to be in the winter, so does the demeanor of its residents.  We'll be sorry to leave.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Plano, Texas

It was no surprise that there was no sign on the outskirts of Plano announcing "Birth place of Lance Armstrong."  But it was a surprise to discover it was a sprawling town of a quarter million people without any real central district, just a serious of shopping malls and clusters of businesses along the many six-lane highways intersecting it. I had envisioned it as a small Dallas suburb from my memory of how it had been portrayed in Armstrong's "It's Not About the Bike," and other biographies.

It was certainly smaller when Armstrong was a youth thirty years ago, but it has grown large enough to support three public libraries.  Neither of the two I perused had much of a collection of Armstrong books. One chose to feature atop a book shelf Floyd Landis's defiant 2007 autobiography, "Positively False" proclaiming his innocence, over any of Lance's books.

I was hoping to find some plaque or monument honoring Armstrong in the town he grew up in.  But there was no such thing to be found, past or present.  The local Plano bike shop that he patronized growing up did not acknowledge him in any way.  What Lance memorabilia it once had on display was long gone, though none of the employees, nor anyone else in Plano, I spoke with expressed any animosity towards him, just disappointment.

But it was a different story at the huge Richardson Bike Mart in the town just south of Plano where Armstrong's mother bought him his first BMX bike and that also sponsored him early in his career.  The store is owned by long-time Armstrong supporter Jim Hoyt, who loaned Armstrong the money for his first car and served as a father-figure, mentioning in an aside as we talked, "I raised Lance."  Though they've had some differences over the years, they remain on good terms.  Lance was a surprise guest at a group ride celebrating Jim's 60th birthday a few years ago.  They most recently spoke over the holidays when Lance called to let him know he was doing okay, other than not being able to compete.

Hoyt now owns three bike stores. I was most fortunate to discover him at his flagship store when I stopped in. He couldn't have been more affable nor generous with his time, happy to talk Lance and bicycling.  He acknowledged that he took down the seven signed yellow jerseys from each of Armstrong's Tour wins after his Oprah confession last January in response to assorted Internet threats, but other Lance jerseys still hang around the shop, including his World Championship jersey.

There was also a painting of Lance over the door to a back room and one of Lance's early bikes hanging from the ceiling in another room.

Hoyt is often mentioned in Lance biographies, including the latest indicting Lance, "Wheelman," by two Wall Street Journal reporters.  He said he declined to be interviewed by them and that all the material relating to him had been culled from other books, including Daniel Coyle's "Armstrong's War," a book that did not have his favor. 

We discovered that we had both been on L'Alpe d'Huez for the 2004 Tour time trial, Jim at the Dutch Corner and I at the summit.  Jim had arrived by helicopter to the summit and then descended to the Corner.  He was also in Paris at Lance's first Tour triumph in 1999.  He hadn't planned on attending The Tour that year, but when Lance devastated his competition on the first mountain stage at Sestriere, a friend of Jim's decided to fly over and Jim arranged to make the trip too.  He had to trick the gendarmes by feigning an illness to get beyond the barriers to join Lance and the Postal team at their team bus on the Champs Élysées.  I could hardly believe I was hearing these first-hand stories so fondly recalled by someone so close to Lance.  Jim was clearly enjoying sharing all his experiences and didn't want to stop talking.

As we walked around his Texas-sized bike shop, several times bigger than Lance's Mellow Johnny store in Austin, I kept looking for a Tour course marker.  Jim said he had had a few hanging at one time and some from the Giro as well, but now the only Tour memorabilia he had on display was a Champion supermarket banner, sponsor of the Climbing competition, that was a delight to see and further stirred the memories.

We also talked touring.  One of the photos behind Jim's desk was of the bike he toured on back in the '70s.  He said he went off on his bike for a several day tour when he had reached a critical crossroads in his career and had to decide whether to relocate to Chicago and accept a promotion with Schwinn, who he was working for as a sales rep, or remain in Texas and buy a small bike shop.  He decided to stay in Texas.  The small store he bought has now grown into one of the largest in the country.

We also shared memories of riding the thousand mile stretch of Vietnam from Saigon to Hanoi, which we had both ridden a few years apart, Jim as a Vietnam vet and I as a venturesome touring cyclist.  His most recent long-distance tour was a coast-to-coast ride across the US from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.  I told him I had driven down to Texas with my girl friend to get in some winter cycling and training for a ride around the Philippines next month and asked if he could recommend any place for some good miles.  He immediately suggested Fredericksburg, 250 miles south.  It is known as the cycling capital of Texas and has a number of good routes through the hills.  It had the added benefit of a bike shop owned by a couple who were ardent touring cyclists, having completed a three-year tour of the world before settling down.

Jim was another of the many warm and gregarious Texans and southerners Janina and I have met in the past two weeks as we drove down to New Orleans and on to Grand Isle, the lone resort on Louisiana's 300-mile Gulf coast, and then over to Dallas, where we are presently visiting a friend of Janina's from her art school days at Indiana University.  It was a twenty-five mile ride from his house in Irving to Jim's bike shop.  Despite the sixty degree temperatures, I was the only person I saw on a bike there and back and on up to Plano, my longest ride in a couple of months.

Janina's  friend Greg teaches art at the University of Texas Dallas branch.  He keeps up with his own art as well, having been named the best artist in Dallas three times in the past ten years by a poll of readers for a Dallas newspaper.  He is most famous for his Cow Pope, transported in a Pope-Mobile, that he debuted in Houston's annual Cow Parade a few years ago and still makes appearances here and there.  He also has the distinction of appearing in the Ninth Inning of Ken Burns' baseball documentary in a photo as a ten-year old standing in line for Mickey Mantle's autograph, one of the most memorable events of his life. 

Even though we are traveling by car and aren't using our bikes as much as we'd like, it has been a great road trip full of encounters with fascinating folk and delightful surprises, including an outrageous sculpture garden in Brownsville, Tennessee called Mindfield, a life-long project by a fellow named Billy Tripp.  We were drawn to Brownsville to see its Carnegie library and as part of an homage to the travel writer Richard Halliburton, who was lost at sea in 1939.  Brownsville was his birthplace.  Fifty miles south we visited his grave in Memphis, as well as a memorial at Rhodes College.   The Brownsville Carnegie was the first of a handful I have added to my life list.  I tracked down three more in New Orleans and others in Vicksburg and Lake Charles.  The only one we've seen so far in Texas was in Palestine, one of only thirteen that remain standing of the thirty-two constructed in the state. Like all but one of those I've seen on this trip, it no longer serves as a library, but still remains a beautiful, prominent building in the town center.

Another theme to these travels is assassination sites.  Dallas is the third.  The first was Memphis. The hotel where Martin Luther King was shot is now a Civil Rights Museum. Huey Long was shot in the state capital building in Baton Rouge in 1935.  It is the tallest state capital, 27 stories high.  Long had it built in 1932.  He is buried in a garden facing the capital.

We had one of our better meals of the trip in the capital cafeteria served by inmates in their jumpers.  It was as southern as could be--beans and rice, lima beans, greens, corn bread and banana pudding.  We also had several bowls of gumbo along the way and a fine cat fish sandwich.  We have been camping in state parks and have had a few nights indoors at cheap Indian-owned motels and a night in a hostel in New Orleans that did not have much heat.  Many of the travelers, unprepared for the record sub-freezing cold, were walking around the hostel wrapped in blankets from their beds.  It was cold enough further south in Grand Isle to kill all the butterflies in the town's Butterfly Dome.  It was the first time the dome was bereft of butterflies since Hurricane Katrina.

The joys of travel are many.  None are greater than meeting up with friends along the way.  Besides Greg we also connected with Bob and Catherine in Baton Rouge and Robin and Ellwood in Dallas.  Bob and Catherine had just moved to Louisiana from California.  Bob was one of several Trader Joe's managers brought in to open up its first store in the state. Robin and Ellwood just happened to be flying in to Dallas from St. Louis the day after we arrived en route to a family reunion.  Bob and Catherine were loving their new environment and Robin and Ellwood were in equally good spirits on the start of a month of travel.  We had a wonderful time catching up with all. 

We've got another week of fun times before Janina has to be back teaching at Columbia.