Wednesday, November 12, 2014


If the short-lived PBS television show from a couple of years ago that featured biking in different locales had out-lived its first six episodes, Louisville would have been a worthy subject, especially after the just completed conversion of an old railway bridge to a pedestrian and cycling bridge over the Ohio River connecting Jeffersonville, Indiana to Louisville.  Any community would be proud of the new bridge.  Lights in deluxe fixtures hang from crossbeams every thirty feet and music is piped in. The pavement is smooth and the views sensational. A trickle of pedestrians were putting it to use when I made my crossing early Monday morning.

It gave a nice vantage of the equally world-class renovated river front in downtown Louisville complete with a performance venue and parkland and walkways and flowing water and a long row of plaques identifying corporations and individuals who had contributed thousands of dollars each to fund it.

A first-rate bicycle path intersected it and followed the river for several miles, some of it through wooded terrain. I startled a beaver moseying beside the path and then another, further down the road.  I wasn't as surprised as I might have been to see such creatures as I had just learned from Ralph Nader on one of his weekly podcasts that the once nearly extinct species were making a strong comeback.  Back before the white man invaded their domain millions inhabited North American.  Ralph called them brilliant civil engineers, as their dams nurtured the landscape. When their furs became a much valued product, they were nearly wiped out, just as happened to the buffalo.   

At one time their numbers had declined to not much more than 100,000.  But now they are back up to over six million.  Ralph went on and on, as is his custom, extolling the virtues of the beaver and lamenting what a travesty it was that we no longer benefited from their engineering prowess.  But he was most incensed that he hadn't been taught this as a schoolboy and took mighty offense that it was excluded from textbooks.

His podcasts are a non-stop stream of all that he regards wrong in the world, not the least of which is that no one pays him any attention. He has written letters to every president in his lifetime making suggestions about things that could be improved, but not once has he received a response.  Senators and Congressional Representatives don't return his calls.  He can't understand why he isn't invited to appear on the Sunday talk shows.  He's equally upset that Charlie Rose has only had him on twice and Terri Gross not once.  At least he can vent once a week for an hour on his podcast.  They are highly informative and entertaining, but not always sensible.  

I was unaware of them until Tim mentioned they are part of his weekly diet of information.  They have provided me with much listening pleasure the past few days, as there is a large library of them available.  I have yet to come upon a mention of round-abouts, something that Ralph ought to champion, as the man who hounded Congress into mandating all cars be equipped with seatbelts in 1966.  Not only do they make the roads safer, one of his high priorities, preventing motorists from running red lights and stop signs, they increase fuel efficiency allowing motorists to maintain their momentum and not having to stop. and they also beautify the landscape.  I'll be putting Ralph on the case if he fails to bring them up.  They ought to merit a mention as often as his many favorite subjects of corporate crime, corporate welfare, repeal of the 1947 Taft/Hartley Act, Dick Chaney the war criminal and on and on.

I followed the bike path west without Ralph in my ear or anyone else. enjoying a tranquil ride to the first of the nine libraries Carnegie funded in Louisville.  Only four still serve as libraries, but at least none have been torn down, as was the case with two of the five he provided Indianapolis.  I'd already had a Carnegie for the day in Jeffersonville before I crossed the river.  It was a domed beauty overlooking Warder Park in the town center.  Lights at its base illuminated its bright white limestone at night.   It is now a state building where psychiatric evaluations are conducted.  Two homeless guys in the park directed me to the bridge just a few blocks away and also told me where the best place was to take wire for recycling, though I had only asked about the bridge.

I wasn't sure how far to follow the bike path before turning off to find the Portland Branch and there was no one on the path after I'd gone a couple of miles to ask and began to start wondering.  But then the path ended feeding me onto Northwestern Parkway, the street the library was on just a few blocks further.  

It was perched on a slight rise in a residential neighborhood on a corner lot with a few trees that had already begun shedding their leaves.  Metal grates covered the lower windows and a bright yellow sign besides the entry identified it as a "Safe Place."  The neighborhood didn't look so dangerous, but maybe it was.  The library didn't open until noon on Mondays.  I took a photo and then made my usual walk around its perimeter searching for any distinguishing features.  As I returned to my bike a young woman approached the library and turned up its walkway.  "Are you the librarian?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm arriving a little early.  You can come back at noon if you'd like to come in."  

I told her I was biking around to the Carnegies in town. She blurted, "I love Carnegies. I have a PowerPoint presentation of all the branch Carnegies in Louisville.  I could email it to your if you'd like."  She went on to tell me about upcoming events at her library with the enthusiasm of a schoolchild and advised me on the best route to take to the next one.  She couldn't have been more charming.  All had been friendly in Indiana, but this was my first dose of Southern Hospitality that I know so well from previous trips.

I followed 35th street for two miles to Virginia and then continued a mile to the Parkland Branch, now the quarters for the police professional standards unit.  Its upper facade still identified it as "Louisville Free Public Library."  Below the roof line on the front and the two sides were chiseled Literature, Philosophy, History, Art, Travel, Biography, Religion, Science, Art.  It was a nice contrast to the usual authors that more often identify libraries.  

I interrupted a somewhat heated argument of a young couple walking past to ask directions to the next library.  I figured I was doing them a favor to distract them.  They immediately let their anger subside and tried to decide whether Jefferson Street was four or five blocks away.  They ended their debate,  proving they could come to an agreeable decision, by deciding that one of the blocks was a short one, so it was four-and-half blocks away.  It was more like fourteen, but at least they pointed me in the right direction to the Jefferson  Branch four blocks after Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

Jefferson was a main boulevard leading downtown.  The library adjoined a cemetery that went on for two blocks.  It too was referred to as a "Louisville Free Public Library," even though it was presently vacant despite its prime location and most dignified exterior, the most impressive of the three so far.

It was less than three miles to the  palatial main library, completed in 1905, with the first batch of the branch libraries following three years later.  The main library too had a "Safe Place" marker on its exterior.  The interior included a grand marble staircase flanked by murals.  It was huge to begin with, but had an even larger modern addition to its backside filling out an entire city block.  It was a most worthy library for any city.

Less than a mile to its west was a branch that was the first Carnegie, and perhaps the first library of any sort, built for African Americans.  

At the time of its construction it was known as the "Colored Library," as chiseled over its door, though now removed.  The library is now known as the Western Branch.

Its librarian was intensely proud of her library and its heritage.  She said that the African American community of Louisville put in a strong bid of having a library of their own, not feeling overly welcome at the main library.  They took great pride in this library.  She took me downstairs to a room full of framed photos from the early years of the library and an extensive archive.  She said when she gives tours to fellow African Americans and recounts the history of the library, it often brings them to tears.  She had my eyes crinkling too at her sincere passion.  One photo was of the first librarian and his staff.

Crystal was as warm and hospitable as had been Kate earlier in the day and urged me to return to spend more time with her archives and in Louisville itself, especially to see the Muhammad Ali Museum, which I didn't have time for.  Her father went to school with Ali and gave her the middle name of Ali's second wife--Belinda.  Crystal felt honored to have charge of this historic library and recalled with equal fondness growing up with the Parkland Library.  She knew it was no longer a library, but didn't know that the police department now had offices there.

My route to the next Carnegie took me past the childhood home of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, who was born in Louisville in 1856 and served on the Court from 1916 to 1939, two years before his death.  One of the many historical markers all over Louisville called my attention to his home.  I also passed a Franciscan soup kitchen with a crowd gathered outside.

Just a few blocks further stood the east-side "Colored" library built six years after the west side library, and the last of the Carnegies constructed in Louisville. It was a very austere, unornamented box of a building, the most plain of any Carnegie I've seen.  It was presently closed and unoccupied.

It was a strong indication of the lack of equal treatment of African Americans in pre-World War I America, as a much nicer Carnegie branch was available just four blocks away in Shelby Park, where evidently the African American community didn't feel welcome.  It is now a community center.

I continued my tour of Louisville heading east a couple of miles to the former Highland Branch in an affluent neighborhood of mini-mansions. The library had been converted into deluxe offices.  One was an investment firm that had a large portrait of Carnegie at its entrance, as if to imply it could make one a Carnegie.  There was also a design firm and a real estate office among the eight tenants.  Unlike most of the other branch libraries it only identified itself as a "Public Library" without the "Free" qualifier.

I arrived at the ninth and final of Louisville's Carnegies shortly before two a little later than I anticipated I would, where Tim awaited me. It had been a fabulous circuit on bike paths and bike lanes and sharrowed lanes for at least some of the way that could be completed in less than twenty-five miles starting and finishing at the bike bridge.

Tim had restricted himself to just two of the libraries, the pair that were closest to the river.  He had left his car in Jeffersonville and biked over the bridge and then biked along the river up to the Portland library, the first one I had visited, and then back and on to the Crescent Hill Branch, also in a nice enough neighborhood that it did not bear the "Safe Zone" emblem as did all the other still functioning libraries.  

After he heard my enthusiasm for the Western Branch and its treasure of a  librarian, he decided to swing by it before returning over the bridge to his car.  And I was glad that he did, as I was regretting that I hadn't given Kate at the Portland library my email address so she could send me her Carnegie presentation.  Crystal at the Western library told me Kate was a good friend, so I knew she would be happy to forward my email address on to her.

Out front of the Crescent Hill library was a message board encouraging the book life--"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.  The man who never reads leads only one."

Tim and I arranged to meet next at the Shelbyville Carnegie thirty miles away.  It had warmed up to over sixty.   I was glad to shed my tights for the first time since I left Chicago a week ago.  I had already stripped down to just one layer on top after starting the day with five.  It was the last gasp of summer, as a polar vortex down from Alaska would plummet temperatures to below freezing by Wednesday, as we had been hearing in the news and from friends as far distant as Ecuador for several days as if it were a marching army of doom.

As I neared Shelbyville with the sun nearing the horizon, I was sorry I hadn't thought to suggest to Tim that he have his bike loaded up and ready to bike out of town with me for a few miles where we could surely find a place to camp.  He had had a similar idea and was getting ready to assemble his gear for the night, feeling no concern about leaving his car parked overnight in front of the library in this small town.  

Its library had the majesty of a larger town library with a dome and a couple of undetectable additions.

It also featured a tiled mosaic under the dome as one entered acknowledging the library was a gift from Carnegie for "the advancement of learning."  His portrait hung in the reference and genealogy room.

On the outskirts of town we passed a large cemetery that went over a hill that we could have easily disappeared into except that the gate was closed and there was a stone fence around the front of it.  We could have gone around the fence when it ended, but there were a couple nearby houses and it was still light enough for us to be seen, especially Tim, who was wearing a reflective vest.  We weren't desperate for a place to camp just yet, so continued on.  Less than a mile later we came to a dirt road that wound its way though fields of cut corn and still standing wheat.  It might have led to someone's homestead, but we saw a couple patches of trees that promised possible camping not too far off.  When we stopped to check we discovered a creek and terrain too marshy for our tents.  We walked around the side to higher ground and found just what we were looking for, some flat clear patches through the bushy exterior of this cluster of trees well hidden from anyone's eyes.  

It was our best camp site yet, even with a skunk coming by and giving us a blast some time during the night and a deer barking its disapproval and a farmer doing some post-sunset harvesting of his wheat.  Tim was at first worried the tractor headlight might catch the reflective tape on the sidewall of his tires, but when he exited from the relative warmth of his tent to lay his bike down he could tell we were well recessed and protected by our forest to have any worries.  And in the morning he was raving once again at what a marvelous campsite this was.  If he had been on his own, he would have spent the evening in town at a bar or restaurant and then pitched his tent in some dark corner in the town proper, protected by the late hour, rather than the seclusion of his campsite.  He agreed this was as good as it gets.

1 comment:

Bill Burns said...

You should consider posting a picture of particularly nice campsites like this one you describe as so idyllic. I think, at least, it'd be nice to "get the picture," even though the one you paint on the mind is fair enough. Happy trails, gentlemen!