Friday, December 25, 2015

Rebecca Rusch--The Queen of Pain

There is no crown atop the head of Rebecca Rusch on the cover of her book "Rusch to Glory" signifying her as the "Queen of Pain," as she was anointed by "Adventure Racing" magazine, and as her publisher VeloPress identifies her in its ads for the book it regularly places in "Velo" magazine, its sister publication.  It's not a title that her modesty allows her to accept.  Even though she has won world championships in three different disciplines--adventure racing, mountain biking and cross country skiing--she maintains a strong humility and doesn't consider herself a queen of anything.  She regularly mentions her vulnerable side, even writing, "I still experience fear almost daily."  As impressive as a crown might be, even more so for her are the world champion rings on the cuff of the jersey she's wearing on the book's cover.

She managed to keep "Queen of Pain" off the cover of her book, but not the somewhat trite phrase "pain cave" on the back cover.  Pain had to be there some where, as overcoming the pain that all-out exertion inflicts upon endurance athletes figures prominently in her narrative.  It's a wonder she wasn't featured in the November "Why we love to suffer" issue of "Velo."  She writes, "You have to be willing to suffer...My biggest advantage is that I know how to suffer and persevere...I break down and feel pain like everyone else, but I just don't quit."  Despite the abundance of pain, she holds off addressing the "Queen of Pain" issue until halfway through her book, a title she balked at, but is willing to go along with to please her sponsors and supporters.

Her relationship with pain began when she ran cross country for her high school in Downers Grove outside of Chicago.  One of the defining moments of her life came when she quit a race in her senior year "to stop the pain," not from an injury, but from her struggles to keep up with the leaders.  It left such a bitter aftertaste that she never wanted to quit a race again. Even though she developed into a world champion, she was no prodigy.  She briefly competed for her college, the University of Illinois, but without encouragement or distinction, so left the team.

After college she was drawn to rock climbing, which introduced her to the world of adventurers.  That led to her being invited to join a team for the blossoming sport of adventure racing--navigating wildernesses for several days, sometimes having to repel down mountains and paddle down rivers. The four or five person teams required one female. She soon distinguished herself enough to put together a team of all women and one guy, upending the notion that women were "mandatory equipment."  Her first team competing in a race in Morocco was a disaster with both her female teammates reduced to crying fits before quitting.  She referred to their performance as a "shit show." But the next team she put together finished fourth in a race in Patagonia, winning the respect and accolades of all.

Her never-die spirit has served her well in all her endeavors, keeping her going during an 18-day paddle on a board through the Grand Canyon with two other women, a feat that had never been attempted before nor since, and on a several day first ascent of El Capitan.  Any one of her remarkable adventures and competitions, not the least of which was spending a year rebuilding a truck, could have filled an entire book.  The several pages she devotes to each is hardly enough.  She doesn't even have space to write about her skiing exploits other than an off-handed mention that among her world titles was one as a masters cross country skier.

The second half of her book is mostly devoted to her mountain biking.  She didn't take up bike racing until the age of 38 when the sport of adventure racing faded away.  She wasn't ready to retire from competition, especially since she had a year left on her Red Bull sponsorship.  A friend suggested she try 24-hour mountain bike racing, since she was so adapt at dealing with sleep deprivation.  Even though she had done a fair amount of biking in adventure racing, she never cared for it.  She hated it more than any other sport she tried, and in fact hadn't ridden a bike in years when it was included in one of her first events.  She was always happy when an event didn't have a biking segment.

But her tenacity and ability to push herself to her limits was particularly suited to the biking.  She won the 24-hour national championship in her first year of competition and then the world championship later that year in 2007.  It wasn't until 2009 that she attempted the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, the highest profile mountain bike competition in the US, if not the world.  It was much shorter than what she was accustomed to and preferred, not much more than eight hours for the leaders.  The longer the race the better for her, but she won it at the age of forty, sharing the podium with Lance Armstrong, the men's winner. It was the first of four straight wins, the most by any woman.  The next year she set a course record and shared the podium with Levi Leipheimer.  She called it the most painful day she ever had on a bike, but also one of the most rewarding.  

Her string of Leadville victories came to an end in 2013 when she finished third.  She was proud of her effort, as she had trouble finding the motivation for the "extra one per cent it takes to go as fast as possible and really make yourself hurt on race day," after learning that a good friend of hers was killed in a biking accident in Ketchum, Idaho, her adopted home town.  Only her boy friend convinced her to race, rather than going home.  She finished the race in tears, not for finishing third, but for the loss of her friend and the joy of competing.

She mentions crying almost as much as suffering.  Sometimes they are linked and sometimes not.  She cries over a death that she witnessed of a fellow competitor in an adventure race.  She cries when she has to back off on a pitch on El Capitan, when her team has to pull out of a race, as she feels tendinitis coming on. She cries when she sees the banner with her name on it across the start line for a 100-mile race she put considerable effort into organizing to celebrate her favorite trails around Ketchum. In 2013.  She cries regularly during a competition in Vietnam, as her father had died there, shot down during the Vietnam War.  She cries when she sells the truck she had rebuilt and lived out of in her nomadic days of subsisting on ramen and tuna.  

Her body is covered with scars, but her favorite is the one on her left thigh from a grinder that continued spinning after she turned it off while working on the truck.  As with all her exploits, including her present work as a fire-fighter in Ketchum, she makes no big deal of engaging in activities generally considered to be in the male domain.  She does point out that women should not feel limited or confined, but she is not preachy.  Hers is an inspiring story for anyone.  The biggest surprise is that it wasn't put into book form until after her 2013 campaign.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Biography of Bernard Hinault

After biographies on Tom Simpson, Fausto Coppi and Eddie Merckx, along with several other books on cycling, William Fotheringham tackles Bernard Himault in the simply named book "The Badger."  One might think it would have been the easiest of his books to write, since he'd been interviewing him for nearly twenty-five years ever since he began covering The Tour de France in 1990, including once at his home in 1993.  He had a further connection to Hinault, having raced himself in the early 1980s with a French club in the north of France near where Hinault grew up.  He had additional insight into Hinault having translated the autobiography of his nemesis Laurent Fignon, "We Were Young and Carefree," that had much commentary on Hinault.  But Fotheringham lamented on his acknowledgements page that writing the book wasn't all that easy, as "the stresses and strains mount" with each book.  I hope that doesn't mean this could be his last book, as they have all been worthy contributions to the writing on bike racing.

Fotheringham could have made the thrust of his book that Hinault was the greatest cyclist of all time, the honor that is generally bestowed upon Eddie Merckx, who he aggrandized  in "Half Man, Half Bike."  But instead of making any judgemental, Fotheringham chooses to give a straightforward biography with some additional commentary on the state of French cycling.  Hinault certainly is one of the all-time greats--one of only four to win The Tour de France five times along with Merckx, Jacques Anqutiil and Miguel Indurain.  He wasn't as voracious for wins as Merckx, but he was as ardent a competitor. Tour winner Lucien Van Impe, who raced against them both, said of Hinault, "I've never seen inner anger like his," which fueled his racing.  When he fully committed himself to winning a race, he generally did.  When he didn't win The Tour, he finished second (twice) or abandoned, which he did once when he was in the lead. Whenever he lined up in the two other Grand Tours, he won them--the Vuelta d'Espagne twice and  the Giro d'Italia three times--an incomparable record.  Only he and Alberto Contador have won all three Grand Tours more than once.

Hinault was such a steely competitor, Fotheringham couldn't find a single case of him being reduced to tears (whether in exaltation or disappointment), as he has in all the others he has written about.  Merckx was such an emotional sort he cried when he learned Santa Claus didn't exist.  One of the most legendary photos of Merckx is of him laying in bed in tears after his eviction from the Giro for testing positive for drugs.  Merckx would no doubt have been shedding tears if he had had to quit The Tour in the lead due to injury, as did Hinault in 1980 after having won it the previous two years, making him the youngest ever to have won it twice.  

Hinault left The Tour under cover of darkness just before the Pyrenees with a painful knee, avoiding the press, not because he was afraid that he would break down in tears, but because he feared he would turn violent, upset with the questions.  He has always been a man prone to strongly and defiantly asserting himself.  One of the photos most synonymous with Hinault is of him leading a rider's strike in his very first Tour in 1978, standing at the forefront of the peloton with his chin thrust forward.  He was one of the youngest riders in The Race, but already had a take-charge, take-no-prisoners mentality.  On another occasion he barreled headlong into striking workers barring the road and then started pummeling them with his fists.  He's hardly mellowed with age, once shoving an intruder off The Tour de France stage during the awards ceremony.

He had the audacity to win the final stage of the 1979 Tour in a breakaway, even though he had The Race all wrapped up, the first Tour winner to a pull off such a stunt since 1935, something that Merckx, The Cannibal, never accomplished.  Ordinarily, the Yellow Jersey concedes the glory of winning that final stage to someone else.

So it should have come as no surprise that Hinault wouldn't defer to Greg LeMond, his teammate, in the 1986 Tour, Hinault's last, even though he had promised he would help him win it after LeMond didn't challenge him in 1985 when Hinault struggled with an injury, as he held on to win his fifth Tour.
An entire book, "Slaying the Badger," was written about their rivalry in the 1986 Tour.  Fotheringham doesn't offer any new perspective or speculation on what Hinault's intent or motivation was, as he sticks to his by-the-numbers rendering of his life.  Most of his research comes from other books and the coverage of "L'Equipe," which he quotes over forty times, often citing the writer of the article.  Many are figures of renown and peers of Fotheringham, such as Jean-Marie LeBlanc, who went on to be the director of The Tour.  

Besides its superb analysis, "L'Equipe" is noted for it's headlines.  Among those he cites is "Now, let's love him."  It came in the 1984 Tour when he was overwhelmed by Fignon, finishing ten minutes behind him on L'Alpe d'Huez, showing his vulnerability for the first time.  Even though he was a four-time winner of The Tour at the time, the French had never fully embraced him.  He was too brash and arrogant and made the winning look too easy.  When he staggered on L'Alpe d'Huez and showed his human side, the public and the press felt a soft spot for him.  His team owner, who happened to be rooming with him, revealed that Hinault acknowledged he had reached his crisis point and was close to tears.

Fotheringham doesn't quote many of his teammates, as did Richard Moore in his Slaying book.  Moore found an array of riders who raved about what a great teammate he could be, despite his treatment of LeMond.  Fotheringham does reveal that he was a rare team leader who would wash his own clothes.

Throughout his career there haven't been enough such glimpses of his humanity to endear him to the French. He is certainly held in high esteem, having been inducted into the French Legion of Honor in  January of1986 even before he retired, but he is not revered, as are many lesser riders.  In my twelve years of riding The Tour route I have never seen a banner or road graffiti honoring him, as are common for Raymond Poulidor and Laurent Jalabert, two other retired champion French cyclists who are part of The Tour entourage and remain fan favorites.  The French prefer those who struggle and show strain.  Hinault won in a ferocious, domineering manner.  He never complained or waxed on about the suffering inherent to the sport, as many riders glorify.  He did acknowledge, "It can be painful, but it hurts because I want to hurt myself.  If I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't."

The final chapter of the book is devoted to the present state of French cycling and the possibility of the French breaking their dry spell of thirty years since their last Tour win--Hinault in 1985.  Fotheringham points out that 1984 was the last year the French dominated their national Tour.  They won the bulk of the stages. Seven of the seventeen teams were French and 54 of the 170 starters.  It was shortly after Hinalt's retirement that high octane drugs took over the sport, which the French riders were less inclined to resort to than others, thus spelling their doom.  He offers a chart in his appendix of how few French riders and riders on French teams have tested positive since the 1998 Featina Affair.  With drug-taking on the wane both Fotheringham and Hinault believe the French can reassert themselves.  But to do it they must be aggressive and abide by the Law of Hinault--"Attack."

Monday, November 23, 2015

School of the Americas Protest

Over a thousand cross-bearing protesters marched solemnly outside the main entrance to Fort Benning on Sunday hoping to close the school on the base that trains officers from Latin America in the military arts.  They have been at it for twenty-six years and have accomplished little more than the renaming of the school in 2001 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.   It was the smallest turnout in years, down from its peak of over 30,000, and will be the last, as the movement will refocus its energy on immigration issues and gather somewhere along the Mexican border next year.

The waning interest didn't put a dent though in the fervor of those who participated in this annual three-day event.  The day before eleven protesters were arrested outside the Stewart Detention Center thirty miles away that houses 1,700 prisoners on immigration issues.  Workshops were held all afternoon and into the night Friday and Saturday at the Columbus Convention Center.  It was no easy task to decide which to attend with as many as ten convening at the same time on a wide range of issues--the fight for fair food, increasing the minimum wage to $15, gold mining in Guatamala, Mexico's crimes against humanity and US complicity, the victims of right-wing violence in Venezuela, torture, the left and US elections, campesinos in Colombia.

Tables lined the hallways of the center dispensing materials from a wide assortment of organizations and causes and vendors--the Progressive Catholic Coalition, the Baptist Peace Fellowship, the Deported Veterans Support Group...  One could hardly walk a few feet without being accosted by someone with a petition to sign. 

Bernie Sanders was constantly invoked and Donald Trump constantly reviled.  During the Saturday night Rythms of Resistance concert one of the singers told of someone going to a bookstore and asking for Trump's book on immigration, though he didn't know the title.  The bookseller was offended by such a preposterous request and told the guy, "Get the fuck out of here!" He responded, "That's it.  Do you have it in paperback?"  The concert also featured a short rambunctious speech by Jill Stein, running for the presidency on the Green Party ticket, as she did in 2012.

I was fortunate to be joined by fellow cyclists Dwight (in orange) and Bob (in yellow) so we could split up and attend different workshops.  Dwight had driven over from Springfield, Missouri, where he had been teaching at Missouri State University. He had spent a week in Florida testing his new hip of five months on a mini-bike tour.  He was thrilled to have culminated it with a wind-assisted, 115-mile day, his longest ever.  Bob drove down from Hammond, Indiana.  He is an equally ardent cyclist and has biked all over the world.  His next trip will be to Vietnam in January.  Both Dwight and I had biked there and had plenty to recommend.

Bob also had recommendations for us, particularly several travel websites he uses to find cheap air fares--kayak, flightdeals and travelzoo.  He has been retired from the railroad business for nearly a decade and is free to take advantage of a bargain flight whenever he sees one.  A quick look revealed round-trip offers to Moscow for $534 and Uraquay for $238.  Dwight and I had to restrain ourselves from booking something then and there.  

Bob is ever ready to hop a flight.  He has led an extraordinarily full life of adventure.  He's run marathons all over the country, including Chicago fifteen times and Las Vegas twice.  He's skied all the major western resorts and would have been skiing Whistler outside of Vancouver over Thanksgiving if he had found a cheap flight. He also had a stint as a wind-surfer until he broke his collarbone in Argentina on a bike trip nearly ten years ago that led to his retirement from the railroad after thirty-five years.  The break didn't adequately heal, so he has been advised by two specialists not to risk the strain of holding back the sail on a wind surfboard.  Vietnam offers exceptional windsurfing.  He's going to have a hard time resisting giving it a try.

Bob kept me regaled with his life of adventure on our eleven-hour drive back to Chicago.  He had only briefly met Dwight once before, so had the treat of hearing his many tales during our time together in Columbus.  Being able to hang out with two such vibrant characters was a fine reward for my two-week thousand-mile ride down from Chicago.  And so was hanging out with all the deeply committed, cause-oriented folk who had congregated in Columbus for the weekend.  Many were trying to enlist others for their particular cause.  

A young man, who was attracted by my loaded bike, hoped I would be interested in joining him next summer biking around Michigan trying to halt a pipeline.  He had ridden his bike from Detroit to New York this summer for a climate change conference as a protest against fossil fuels ruining the planet.  He had hoped I had ridden my bike to Columbus with a similar intent.  He couldn't believe that I didn't have a harangue, like so many others here, about something that irked me.  I had a similar experience at the Sundance Film Festival one year when a script scout insisted that I must have a script for sale and accused me of holding out on him.  Like film festivals, this gathering was a most energizing experience and gave a window on many important subjects around the world.  It will be hard not to bike down to the Mexican border next November for its next incarnation.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Into Georgia

It was until early on Day Thirteen of these travels, after 850 miles and seven states, that a law enforcement official pulled me over in response to a "suspicious character" report, something that has become routine when I'm out in rural America on a loaded bike.  With only three days left to my destination I thought I might avoid it this time.

"Someone saw you coming out of the woods this morning and called 911," the state trooper said.  "Are you on parole or probation?"

That was a question I'd never been asked before.  Generally I'm taken for being homeless or an undesirable, not a felon.  I tried not to laugh too hard and insult the officer.  I'm perfectly cordial and unruffled under these circumstances.  I was just happy he hadn't stopped me to order me off the busy highway I was riding with all its early morning traffic. Having to verify I was no threat to local or national security was a lot less irksome than having to find an alternate hodgepodge of minor roads to get to where I wanted to go.

I'd been on the road for forty-five minutes and welcomed a brief respite while he ran the perfunctory check on my driver's license.  He hadn't been hostile in the least, almost apologetic for putting me through this.  He'd actually seen me ride by before he received the report of a suspicious bicyclist on the loose and was ordered to check on me. He was nice enough to have been the cousin of the friendly fellow the day before at my first stop in Georgia, who gave me his phone number in case I ever passed through these parts again and needed a place to stay.

After he handed me back my license I asked when the rain was due.  There was a heavy overcast and already a mist in the air.  "Not until noon," he said, " but then its going to rain the rest of the day into the night."  It would at least not be a cold rain.  This was the first day I hadn't needed to wear my tights.  But when the rain hit, right on schedule, it did cool me off.  I only kept warm by staying in motion.  My Goretex jacket kept my head and torso dry, but after a couple of hours my soaked shorts, legs and feet were draining my body heat.  

Rare is it for a rain to continue unabated for hours on end.  If it stopped I'd be dry and warm in a jiffy.  Crawling into a tent soaked, even when it is warm, is not on my list of favorite things.  I was passing through a region of thick pine forests that would make for fine camping under any circumstances. They would provide some shelter from the rain and also a nice soft pine needle mattress, which I would need, as my sleeping pad, wrapped around my tent, was getting soaked.  But if a cheap motel turned up, I would not pass it by.  As night approached my country road intersected with an interstate and at the junction was a cluster of chain motels.  I would have preferred a small Indian-run motel, but settled on a Motel Six, which happened to be Indian-run.

When I entered my room and turned up the heat full blast, the warmth made me realize I was much colder than I had thought.  It would have been a rough night in the tent, even with the soothing sound of rain drops.  When I checked on my sleeping bag in its rain-proof bag, I discovered it would have been a truly rough night, as my rain-proof bag was now just rain-resistant, as quite a bit of moisture had seeped through during the five hours of rain it had been subjected to.  My panniers were still fully water-proof, so I would have had plenty of dry clothes to put on and a candle to provide some warmth, but it would have been a semi-survival situation if the motels hadn't turned up.

Once again it was a long, dreary night in a motel.  It could have been anywhere USA.  All I had really seen in two days in Georgia that made me realize I was in the South was the Civil War battlefield of Chickamauga I passed through shortly crossing into the state.

It was the first and largest of the Civil War battlegrounds established as National Parks in the 1890s.  Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Shiloh shortly followed.  The Confederates won the battle of Chickamauga in 1863, but two months later the Union army retaliated and won the battle of Chattanooga right across the border, which turned the tide of the war.  

Perhaps reflecting on the theme of the terror of war was a monster spider in the front yard of a home down the road.

Another Georgian home expressed a sense of macabre with a deer skull sculpture adorning its mailbox.

One of my projects on this trip was to complete my listening to the nearly ninety podcasts that Ralph Nader began broadcasting in 2014 every Saturday.  Though the early ones are nearly two years old the issues he deals with remain topical.  They are all highly informative and entertaining. Nader has such a breadth of knowledge, he is a virtual human Wikipedia, though like Wikipedia, his facts aren't always correct.  He mentioned on one show than a twelve ounce can of Coke has eight teaspoons of sugar in it.  On the next show one of his hosts corrected him, having discovered it is actually 9.3 teaspoons.

In his podcast of Feb.14, 2015 about how he and some of Princeton classmates had contributed to a sizable gift, he cited Carnegie as an example, saying he had funded over 3,000 libraries in the US, when it was actually 1,689.  I was, of course, pleased with the acknowledgement of Carnegie and then pleased again when he brought up Carnegie in one of his first podcasts on May 31, 2014.  It was in regard to Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, who had just bought the San Diego Clippers basketball team for over a billion dollars.  Nader blasted the purchase as an example of "the rancid decay of the plutocracy," claiming Ballmar wanted to please his teen-aged son, a high school basketball player, and match Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who bought the Portland Trail Blazers in 1988.  Nader said it would have been far better to have devoted that money to building libraries like Carnegie.

The early podcasts were mostly Nader being interviewed by his two co-hosts.  It soon evolved into Nader interviewing one or two guests who supported his favorite causes--single-payer health care, election reform, exposing corporate crime, auto safety, Palestine, banking reform, independent farmers.  Most of his guests say it is an honor to be on Nader's show and that he has been an inspiration. He has certainly been responsible for an incredible amount of things that we take for granted--seat belts, no smoking on airplanes, constructions vehicles beeping when they go in reverse.  Nader doesn't gloat.  He says anyone with a fire in the belly can effect change. He certainly would have  shaken up the established order if he had gained the White House.

Listening to Nader is good preparation for my weekend gathering of cause-driven folk in Columbus.  There will be much proselytizing and re-energizing during the three days of workshops and speeches and demonstrations and protests.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Across Tennessee

As I was repairing my first flat tire of the trip by an auto repair garage on the outskirts of Chattanooga, the owner came out and offered his compressor to inflate my tire.  "I'm a cyclist too.  I know it takes a bit of effort to pump it up," he said.

He asked the usual "Where are you headed?" and "How far have you come,?" and then the increasingly common "Have you ever done this before?"

"Yes, I've been all over the world," I told him.

He was one of those who said he'd always wanted to travel by bike, but he couldn't find the time, plus he was concerned about the danger of traffic.  He advised me from continuing on the road I was on and told me about a bike trail along the river just a mile a way that he biked all the time and that would take me to the heart of the city where I was headed for its Carnegie Library

I was fortunate to have had the flat where I did, as it led to a nice relaxing ride along the Tennessee River complete with some bike sculptures, though I had more views of industry than the river.

Before I left I asked him if he knew of anyone who might have lost a hunk of money along the road I had been biking, as I had found $121.70 the day before scattered in the weeds.

He hadn't heard of anyone losing such a sum, and was impressed that I had been so lucky.  It was enough to make him ride the road rather than the trail.  I told him it wasn't the first time I had found a hundred dollar bill, but usually I only found coins.  In fact, it was a quarter that caught my eye and made me stop.  Then I glimpsed a one dollar bill.  Any bill is a rare find, so that gave me a thrill.  When I went for it, I noticed the backside of another bill, thrilling me even more.  I thought it might have been a twenty, but was disappointed that it was only a ten.  Such a response could have jinxed me, but then I saw the hundred.  I wasn't sure if it was real at first, but it was.  Then I began a thorough search.  I quickly spotted another ten, but found no more, other than another quarter and two dimes.  Such a haul of coins would have made my day.  Everything else made for a once-in-lifetime bonanza. 

Only minutes before I had been humming along with a light heart reveling in my circumstances, gliding like a winged creature on a lightly-traveled road with the temperatures creeping into the sixties for the first time on this trip. A light breeze was at my back.  My legs were spinning without effort.  I was ten days into another wonderful ride full of rich experiences that only the bike would have granted me and closing in on my destination.  I knew that in some respects it might have been a frivolous expenditure of time to be biking this distance when it could have been accomplished in a day by car, but felt that my lack of hurry and my self-reliance had to meet the approval of whatever governing force there might be.  I wondered if those bills could have been such an endorsement.

My joy in this present endeavor had also been heightened by a book I had brought along, "Bike Tribes," by Mike Magnuson, who had earlier written "Heft on Wheels," about how he lost over one hundred pounds by taking up bicycling.  He is an accomplished writer who has taught creative writing in the MFA program at Pacific University and writes regularly for "Bicycling" magazine.  He is a genuine enthusiast, who is a member of at least two tribes--cyclocross racers and "jolly fat guys" who have become "jolly fast guys."  

Of the many bicycling tribes, from hipsters to commuters to century riders and messengers and critical massers and the many types of racers, he put touring cyclists at the pinnacle, calling them the gurus of cycling and the purist of the pure.  He applauds their Independence and resourcefulness, and asserts, "They are unique in all of the sport of cycling, because at least to others, they have nothing but good things to say."  He also gives a strong approval to commuter cyclists, writing, "Next to the touring cyclist--which we have to phrase in a sort of cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness way--the commuter cyclist is the person all cyclists most want to be."

He speaks many truths.  The one quality that all the tribes of cycling share is that they wouldn't be happy without cycling.  He heaps high praise on the independent bike shop owner astutely saying they are "loved and respected by their cycling communities in ways that few business people are ever loved."  He regards "roadies" (road racers) as grotesquely self-important and the "official complainers of the cycling world."  He tried very hard to offer intimate detail on the many tribes and sub-tribes he describes and gives a lengthy list of advisers in his acknowledgements.  He mostly gets it right, though a harsher editor might have reprimanded him for his occasional lapses into sappiness trying to lend a phony feel-good veneer to some of his vignettes.

Only two of Tennessee's eighteen Carnegies were on my top-to-bottom route across this long state.  I had previously visited the one in Harriman five years ago.  It was a rare Carnegie Library with his dictum, "For the good of all," posted out front.  It was in keeping with the founding principles of this town.  It was established in 1891 as a Utopia of Temperance advocating "thrift, sobriety, superior intelligence and exalted moral character, where workers would be uncorrupted by Demon Rum."

The fire station was in the lot next to the library with a cute little sculpture smaller than a fire hydrant.

My other Tennessee Carnegie was in downtown Chatanooga.  Two plaques celebrated its significance.  One declaring it a National Historic Place and the other identifying it as "An Original Carnegie Library Building."  It had been converted into an office building in 1968 and its Library markings had been buffed off its facade.  It looked more noble on the inside, with a chandalier and fine furnishings, than it did on the outside.

Downtown Chattanooga in mid-morning seemed deserted.  There was little traffic on foot or in vehicles and certainly not on bike.  Like every self-respecting city these days it had joined the rental bike craze.  I passed several racks of them, but, as in Cincinnati, didn't see a one in use.  Their neglect was a dreary, depressing site.  

It was less than ten miles to Georgia through a gauntlet of the franchises that choke most American cities.  Then began my home stretch run of two hundred miles to Fort Bragg and Columbus.  There would be no Carnegies to add  to my life list as the only two on my route I had visited last year.  I could concentrate my attention on yard art instead, which continues to pop up.  An elderly woman ran me off her property when I encroached upon it for a closer look at the figure guarding it.

It was far more intimidating than a stick figure not much further down the road.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Across Kentucky

It wasn't until my third night in Kentucky that I had a campsite emblematic of the state--among the trees of the Daniel Boone National Forrest.  My first night I had to resort to the large cemetery in the town of Falmouth.  I was periodically serenaded by howling coyotes and jarred by chugging freight trains just below my campsite on the fringe of the cemetery, but otherwise it was a peaceable night.  The next night I hadn't fully escaped the sprawl of Lexington and made do with a pasture, having to untie the cord on a gate after being denied by several others that were equipped with chains and locks.

It wasn't until the next night that I was deep into the woods and away from any vestiges of humanity, other than the gunshots of deer hunters in the morning.  I fully embraced the honor of camping in a forest named for the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boome, the man who pioneered the settlement of Kentucky in 1775, and who spent a good part of his life in woods such as this.  Boone established the Cumberland Pass Trail into Kentucky.  His son Nathan was the first white born in the territory.  Boone was a reknowned figure even during his life, on both sides of the Atlantic.  Books were written about him, and Byron mentioned his exploits in a poem in 1822, two years after his death. Even though he had a wife and ten children, he would go off for weeks and months at a time on long hunts into regions never explored by whites.  He claims, though, never to have been lost, "just confused once for three days,"  a perception I try to adopt in my wanderings.

My route through the center of the state included four of its twenty-seven Carnegies, two of which I had previosuly visited.  I was lucky to have dropped in on the Carnegie in Paris in 2007, as it was presently closed while it was undergoing a huge, unsightly glassy expansion to its side  that I couldn't bear to give more than a glimpse to. Paris is the largest city in Bourbon County and evidently felt the need of a larger library than its cozy, unmarred Carnegie. Its librarian must be devastated.  I vividly recall being invited into his office where he showed me his collection of postcards of the library.  Whenever one turned up on ebay, he purchased it.  He couldn't have enough, so much did he treasure his Carnegie. 

There was no mistaking I was in Bourbon County.  Business after business identified itself with Bourbon in their name, the corn-based whiskey primarily distilled in Kentucky.  The drink was subtlety promoted and endorsed by Bourbon Dental, Bourbon Hairdresser, Bourbon Florist, Bourbon Taxidermy, and, of course, Bourbon Liquors.  Later, riding through Lexington, businesses replaced Bourbon with Blue Grass, also synonymous with the state.  I was reminded of its horse racing heritage, as well, with the many pastures of horses and a boulevard on the outskirts of Lexington named for the Derby champion Man of War.

I met another Carnegie-lover in Newport, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.  It was the owner of the library, now a facility for fancy events, just like the East Branch Carnegie in Cincinnati.  She had bought the library in 1998 for $650,000 and spent $1.3 million dollars renovating it. She had installed lavish furnishings and chandaliers.  She wasn't fully informed though on the Carnegie legacy.  She said his grants had the stipulation that a building had to be used as a library for one hundred years before it could be put to another use, and that she acquired it just after its one hundredth birthday.  

Neither of her suppositions was true.  This library was actually built in 1899, and Carnegie made no such demand on their years of service.  She also said that there were twenty-five basic architectural plans for his libraries.  There was no standard whatsoever.  I did appreciate though her enthusiasm and her desire to maintain this historic building.  When I started asking about it, she wondered if I had patronized the library when I was a boy.  When I told her my story, she bubbled with even more excitement and told me about a bike shop three blocks away that she thought I'd want to visit as well.

I had another warm, sincere, southern-tinged conversation with the receptionist in the former Carnegie in Lexington, now the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.  It had served as the city's main library until 1989.  The large, imposing building had lost none of its luster.  It sat on a hill on the back half of a full city block facing a grassy expanse.

The receptionist invited me to help myself to whatever books I'd like in a room to the side with several book shelves packed with donated books. If my panniers weren't packed, I could have left with a handful of worthy titles.  This was a veritable goldmine compared to the "little free libraries" I frequent.  She told me to go upstairs for a gallery of art work inspired by Hunter Thompson.  The Center had had a reception the week before honoring his "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."  

Thompson grew up in Louisville and was in Kentucky's Writers Hall of Fame.  A wall had photos of all the authors enshrined, including Robert Penn Warren and Wendell Barry.  This was the fourth year the Center had paid tribue to a seminal book, though the first time it had a connection to the state.  The previous books had been "Catcher in the Rye," "The Great Gatsby" and "To Killl a Mockingbird."  She said Thompson's selection had been a great success. The Center had been decorated in 1971 Vegas-style.  There was live Rock music from the era and many people came dressed as Thompson.  The evening included a Gonzo competiton.

The Center offers a variety of classes and workshops for aspiring writers.  There were classes on writing kids' books, historical fiction, writing your own obituary, poetry and how to write a novel in thirty days.  One could also sign up for a variety of writer's groups (sci-fi/horror, fiction, nonfiction).  With it being a university town, there was an abundance of writers.  A brochure listed more than a dozen of them with their photos and credentials who could be hired for $45 per hour for personal mentoring.  

I have biked across Kentucky several times over the years, but had always steered clear of Lexington, not caring to get entangled in its sprawl. I had felt the same about Louisville until last November. I am glad to have made the acquaintance of both of them and will be happy to return any time to get to know them better.  But I still feel a greater affinity for Boone and being in the forest.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Cincinnati's Eight Still Standing Carnegies

The terrain turned mildly hilly as I closed in on Cincinnati from the northwest.  Rather than flattening out for the metropolis, as was the case with Denver, the hills became dramatically steep in this city along the Ohio River.  Some of the climbs up from the river and out of ravines went on for as long as a mile and had grades of fifteen per cent and more for stretches. More than once I was bathed in a burst of perspiration under my multiple layers when a climb turned suddenly steep or kept going longer than expected.  

But that didn't diminish the pleasure of my circuit of the varied neighborhoods of the Queen City seeking out its eight Carneiges, one fewer than had been originally erected one hundred years ago.  Seven of the eight still functioned as libraries.  Unlike Denver, St. Louis and Pittsburgh, who all had a grandiose main library among their Carnegies, Cincinnati's were all branch libraries.  Several of them though were as palatial and breathtaking as a Main Library.

They were nicely scattered not much  more than four miles apart and sometimes less than two. Not long after I crossed into Cincinnati from the north I was able to drop in on the Cumminsville Branch a couple blocks from Highway 27 that had been my route for over one hundred miles.  Its elongated breadth had not been added on to. I was welcomed in the entryway by Carnegie's portrait.  Across from him was a plaque that announced "This building is a gift to the people of Cincinnati from Andrew Carnegie."   

It was late in the afternoon.  Rather than trying to find a vacant lot or industrial wasteland or clump of trees for a campsite I googled "Hostels in Cincinnati."  All that turned up were hotels.  The cheapest was a Quality Inn for $45--a discount of $20 for booking on-line.  It was six miles away in the northeast corner of the city and two miles from the Carnegie in that neighborhood.  I booked it and plotted my route over to it. I had my first steep climb up to Highland Road, living up to its name.  

I arrived at the hotel at dusk.  I was eager for a hot shower and the opportunity to wash some clothes, as the cold weather had prevented me from such chores.  I had to wait to tell the receptionist that I had a reservation, as she was arguing with an unkempt guy, who looked even scruffier than me, over his accommodations. When she turned her attention to me, she almost recoiled when I told her I had a reservation, thinking this old, homeless-looking guy with a bike that looked as if it might be loaded with all his life's possessions had mistaken her hotel for a shelter.  

She took my name and could find no reservation for it. I told her I had made it less than an hour ago on-line.  I gave her my reservation number, but that didn't work either.  She said that sometimes it takes a little while for the reservations to come through and to take a seat.  She wasn't friendly at all and seemed to hope I would just go away.  After half an hour, while I was reconciling myself to the not so unattractive notion of pitching my tent behind the hotel, she told me I ought to call the on-line booking agency and have them resend the reservation.  "You can use that phone over there," she pointed.

All I got was a busy signal.  When I told her I couldn't get through, she asked if I had dialed 9 first.  I hadn't, as she hadn't told me that was necessary, nor was there anything on the phone saying so.  That worked.  The agent I talked to with a thick Indian accent called the receptionist and cleared everything up.  She didn't seem happy about it. With relief I went down a long hallway to my room.  I turned down a wing that reeked of tobacco smoke.  She had consigned me to the smoking sector even though I had  requested non-smoking.  I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of objecting.  I'd suffered worst.  My biggest regret was that all the clothes I washed absorbed the lingering particulates in the air. I couldn't blow my nose into my neckerchief the next day without a whiff of nicotine. I was happy to get clean and to dry out my tent and sleeping bag, but at the expense of my worst sleep of the trip.  The free breakfast was no better than my sleep--a mini-bagel and a handful of raisin brand and a bite-sized muffin.  The pickings were much better at the Aldi's dumpster across the street.

I spent over an hour before I went to sleep using the wifi to plot out my route from one Carnegie to the next, something I wouldn't have been able to do in my tent. I jotted down the roads from one to the next and took a snapshot of each sector of the route with my iPad for further reference.  It all paid off, as I only went astray once when there was no street sign at a turn I needed to make.  

I began my pilgrimage at 7:30 a.m. happy to clear out of the hotel at an early hour.  As I was on the periphery of the city and venturing into residential neighborhoods, I was not impacted by whatever rush hour traffic there might have been. Other than the hotel, Cincinnati had a friendly, relaxed feel similar to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.  It seemed quite habitable. I found my first Carnegie needing to make only three turns.  It was the Norwood Branch, looking as majestic as it must have when it opened a century ago, aside from  the addition of a labyrinth of a ramp to accommodate the handicapped.

It was just two miles and two turns plus one very steep hill to the Avondale Branch.  The stucco building was geatly overshadowed by a Goliath of a Baptist Church next door.  Its side street had been given the honorary name of Dr. Samuel Johnson, a curious choice of the countless literary figures they might have chosen.  Since the libary didn't open until noon, I couldn't find out why.

My route to the Hyde Park Branch took me along Victory Drive past Xavier College to a more affluent part of the city on its eastern side.  It was the best maintained of the libraries I had seen and had the most manicured of landscaping.  There were joggers to go along with the upscale businesses.

I ducked south towards the river and further east on a bike lane part of the way to the East End Branch, now the Carnegie Center for "receptions, meetings, events, performances and fund raisers."  It was quite ornate and in sparkling condition for hosting the city's elite.

I had another bike lane all to myself on Riverside for nearly two miles with the Ohio River on my left before I had to turn up a torturously steep climb to Taft, which continued climbing until a few blocks before the noble Walnut Hills Branch complete with columns and some ornate ornamentation.

I continued on Taft and then made a couple of turns before arriving at the stunningly beautfiul North Cincinnati Branch.  It was the only one of the lot that had had an addition.   It was as impeccable of an addition as I've encountered, actually enhancing the stature of the building, rather than undermining it, as most do.  Everything about it was striking--its yellow exterior, its elaborate light fixtures, roof, windows and landscaping.  Across the street was a row of red rental bikes--the first I had seen either parked or ridden.  And a couple blocks over, the University of Cincinnati.

The last of the eight was 4.4 miles away on the west side in another less well-off neighborhood.  I flew down a steep ravine and then after crossing an expressway had a long climb.  There were closed factories and abandoned buildings where I might have camped if I had come this way before dark . I passed another University (Cincinnati Christian), my third of the day.  Janina had told me the night before when we talked, that she thought Ohio had more colleges than any other state, partially because her daughter had attended Antioch.  Per land mass she was right.  California has the most "institutions offering degrees" with 399.  New York is next with 307, then Pennsylvania with 260, Texas with 208 and Ohio with 194.

The Price Hill Branch Library was the epitome of a Carnegie.  It sat on a hill in a block all to itself surrounded by grass.  It was branded with "PVBLIC LIBRARY." It had a simple, restrained, timeless  elegance with inset columns and high ceilings with long windows letting in lots of light.  It made a fine conclusion to my rounds about the city to these historic buildings.

I had managed to avoid the mini-forest of Cincinnati's downtown skyscrapers and steered clear of them as I followed the river to a bridge between the football and the baseball stadiums to Kentucky.  A nice park along the river linked the two stadiums.  It was too cold and blustery for anyone to be enjoying it but me.  A Carnegie awaited me in Newport across the river.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Oxlford, Ohio

Its not so easy to pull myself from the toasty warmth of my down sleeping bag when the temperature isn't much above freezing, even when there is a Carnegie awaiting me just down the road.  I can be happy though for the frost that dusts the vegetation surrounding my tent.  If it were a wet dew I'd soak my shoes pushing my bike back to the road, and I'd have the lamentable lot of wet, cold feet for an hour or more.

I may be starting my days chilled, but the pedalling soon has me warmed up and shedding layers and glorying in being on the bike. I'm a physical being meant to be outdoors and active, not cooped up in some cubicle of a cell. When I eventually shed my corporeal form I can take up a sedentary existence or whatever lays beyond.  

The worst of bicycling this time of the year isn't so much the cold, but rather the shortness of the days, abbreviating my time on the bike.  Dark comes much too early.  Its nice though to spend more than the ten or twelve hours at my campsites that is my usual time in the warmer months when I'm biking until dark and then off early in the cool of the morning.  Each campsite is a jewel that deserves more appreciation and time than I give them.  I'm always too eager to begin pedaling than to linger in camp watching the sun brighten the landscape and giving a full examination of the spot that was my refuge for the night, whether it be surrounded by trees or beside a field of corn.  The best I can do is leave some fertilizer. 

I was able to linger outside the Union City Carnegie on one of its benches and revel in the marvelous setting, as I arrived a few minutes before it opened at eleven.   It had a block all to itself, set back from the street with a vast green lawn before it.  If I had spotted this regal edifice in France I would have guessed it was a residence of royalty.  It was an amazingly distinguished-looking building for such a small, out-of-the-way town. After being subjected to the antiseptic sameness of the last few libraries that had replaced Carnegies, sitting in the cozy warmth of this historic building felt like putting my feet into a pair of beloved, well-worn shoes.

At Winchester it was back to the modern mundane in an attachment to its Carnegie that was an abomination.  The Carnegie was closed off from the addition and only used for meetings.  The entry to the new library hugged the backside of the old building.  It was all enclosed.  Those who enter could go to one side into the new library, or, if they didn't know better, such as me, climb a few steps to the old library.  If one went up those steps, he'd be thwarted by a sign that announced "Closed."  Most additions find a way to incorporate the original library and let it continue to fulfill its purpose.  Not here unfortunately. At least the front side of the true library maintained its gallant dignity of a century ago, though somewhat blighted by the wings behind it that were part of what is now the library.

The city of Richmond did not need the beneficence of Carnegie for a library, but there was a Carnegie in the city on the campus of Earlham College.  It was in the middle of the campus and was now its Welcome Center and administrative offices.  The school appreciated its significance, spending $5.6 million dollars renovating it in 2012.

The tenth and final Carnegie on my route through Indiana came in Liberty.  It faced the town's central plaza and fully functioned as it was intended.  Unfortunately it was closed for Veteran's Day so I couldn't soak up its ambiance.

Not too far across the border into Ohio I came to Oxford and Miami University, one of eight colleges in the state with a Carnegie-funded libary, more than any other state except Pennsyvania with nine.  The domed building now fittingly housed the Architecture Department.  It was the most prominent of a row of red-brick buildings that faced out onto a vast quad.  I was the only one among the streams of students on a bike.  If I were on a crusade to promote the bike, I would have given up long ago. My only crusade, foolish or not, is to get in a bike ride as often as I can. 

Decatur, Indiana

I've  been criss-crossing Indiana for years from top to bottom and side to side at the outset of bicycle tours and also upon their completion.  I vary my routes through the state as much as possible.  Lately its been dependent on Carnegie libraries I have yet to visit. Since the state is so thickly freckled with them, its not difficult to piece together a series of roads I have never ridden in my quest to see them all.  

Carnegie funded 167 libraries in the state, by far the most of any state.  California is second with 144, then Ohio with 114 and Illinois 111.  Only two other states had more than 100--New York 110, of which 66 were in the Five Boroughs, and Iowa with 108. I have visited well over half of those in Indiana and Illinois, but still have hundreds of miles of pleasurable riding in the years to come before my bike has taken me to them all.

I'll have the thrill of laying eyes on ten more in the Hoosier state that have eluded me on my present ride to Georgia.  Last November my route took me through the heart of Indiana, including Indianapolis, to Louisville for its nine Carnegies.  This year I'll go further east before heading south so I can pass through Cincinnati for its nine Carnegies.  Only four cities have more--Cleveland and Baltimore with 14, Philadelphia with 26 and New York City. I'll have a fine day getting to know Cinncinati through its Carnegies, just as I did in Louisvile last year and also Denver two months ago.  

I've already cut across Indiana to the Ohio border.  Rather than crossing into Ohio, I'll stick to the Indiana side of the border for four more Carnegies in addition to the six I've already visited.  Two were small town libraries modestly constructed of red brick and four were small city libraries majestically constructed of Indiana's trademark limestone.  All were magnificent.  Which was moreso is dependent upon the eye of the beholder.

I had to take a small, county road the last few miles to reach Monterey.  Its Carnegie had an uncharacteristically large number for its address--6260 E. Main.  Generally the street number of a Carnegie is no higher than 200, what with numbering systems for towns usually emanating from the town center, and Carnegie's stipulation that the library be no more than a block or two from the center.  It was no surprise the library was on Main Street, as that is by far the most common street for a Carnegie.  There are thirty-five Main Street Carnegies in Indiana.  The next most popular street address in the state is Washintgton with six.  There are three Walnut and three High Streets.  The towns with High Streets must have had an English influence, as High is what the English call their Main Street.

Monterey was barely large enough to have a town center, but its Carnegie was just a block from it in a residential neighborhood.  Its street numbers started from Highway 35 nearly ten miles away.  The building was identitied as "Library" over its front entrance.   Above its side entrance was the greeting, "Your window to the world."  What its interpretation of the world was I do not know,  as the library closed at one on Saturdays and it was later than that.

I ventured off onto another small country road to reach Roann and its Carnegie.  Like Monterey, it was so small there were no signs for its library.  I was looking for Chippewa Road but missed it, as I was distracted by a sign for a covered bridge and didn't notice it was on Chippewa.  After I passed through the town without spotting Chippewa, I doubled back and asked directions from someone who was cleaning out his garage.  Along Chippewa were a couple of antique stores catering to the crowd attracted by covered bridges. The library resided in a nice open space.  A plaque gave notice that it was on the National Registry of Historic Places.  This despite the addition to the back providing access for the handicapped.

There were no signs either in the city of Wabash for its Carnegie, but I knew  it was just off the main thoroughfare through the city.  There was no missing this grand limestone building with a green dome peaking above it. It was further distinguished by a large limestone addition and "Carnegie Library" chiseled into its front and rear facades.   Its original entrance framed by four columns had been barricaded and now resembled a porch.  A four-sided clock tower with Carnegie etched on all four faces was erected in 2009 in the name of Elizabeth Pearson, a benefactor of the library.  It resided near the summit of Hill Street, making it all the more regal.

The Carnegie in the similarly sized city of Huntington, twenty miles down the road, was vacant and had fallen into neglect.  This once proud chateau of a building was still adorned with "City Free Library" on its facade, though in its latest incarnation had served as an administration building for the local  school system.

All through Huntington I had been following signs with a quail on them to the Dan Quayle Museum of the 44th Vice President of the United States under George Bush the first.  It was just a block beyond the Carnegie and in much finer standing than the former library.

As I exited Huntington I came upon my first supermarket of the day.  I had gone all day without a chocolate milk.  It was a little late in the day for it, but it was a need I had to fulfill.  With day-time highs in the low fifties and night-time lows near freezing I bought a half gallon carton so I would be good for the next two days.  It didn't cost much more than the pints that the Dollar Stores only offered.  I also stocked up on honey and baked beans.  Along with bread and ramen and other reserves, I was set for the night,  but couldn't resist going around back to give the dumpster a look.  

Right on top was a bag of fried chicken from its deli department and several containers of dips and containers of chopped fruit.  A little deeper I found bread and several half gallon jugs of apple juice and packages of chocolate chip cookies.  If Tim had been accompanying me in his car, as he did last year, we would have had food for days.  I only had space for one loaf of bread, one juice, one dip, one package of cookies, one container of fruit and three pieces of chicken.  I had no regrets over not going to the dumpster first, as I got food I needed inside as well.  

My panniers were bulging from this bounty.  I  couldn't fully fasten them, but that was okay, as I would be camping soon.  It was near dark.  Within a few minutes I came upon an Army Corps of Engineers lake surrounded by woods.  There was a picnic area on one side of the road and a barrier blocking the entrance to a boat launch on the other.  I went around the barrier and disappeared into the woods. An hour later, as I was still feasting on the chicken mixed in with ramen and dip, I heard the rustle of leaves from some critter no doubt as excited about the chicken as I was.  I banged my metal water bottle with my knife and it scurried away.  I later scattered the chicken bones a good ways from my tent.  They were gone in the morning.

It was less than two hours the next morning to the next Carnegie in Blufton.  It now provided office space for the local government.  A sign out front advertised flu shots.  The new sprawling library, complete with an electronic message board, was right across the street.

Decatur's Carnegie was now a courthouse, desecrated with a shed of an entrance tacked on to its front. The new lackluster library was right next door.  It had been built in 1979 at a cost of $730,000.  The much more magnifcent Carnegie was built for less than $15,000 in 1905. The first librarian was paid $35 a month.  It had a painting in its lobby of the Carnegie as it was, showing the "Carnegie Library" on its facade, now covered with "Adams County Superior Court."

As is frequently the case, Decatur's library had a sculpture out front of a child reading a book.  This one was entitled "It must be a good book."