Friday, April 17, 2015

National Library Week

The last few days of my thousand mile ride back to Chicago from Atlanta coincided with National Library Week, a perfect week to be library-hopping through Indiana and Illinois.   Many of the libraries on my route were celebrating it in some manner.  One had a chicken-joke contest with the winners receiving an Easter basket of eggs and other chicken-related items.  The library in Clinton, my last Carnegie in Indiana before slipping into Illinois, offered cookies and juice without any restrictions on where one could partake of them, defying the usual "No food or drink" admonition of most libraries.

The Clinton library had somewhat bastardized itself with an addition that mirrored the original library. One couldn't enter the library through its original entrance up a set of stairs as it had been blocked and replaced by a street-level, handicap-accessible entrance right alongside the old entrance.  It was admirable that the library board chose a design that reflected the building's original design, but it could leave one feeling confused, thinking he was seeing double.

My now favorite library in Merom acknowledged that it was the week honoring libraries with a simple display on its well-decorated circulation desk.

I should be documenting all the Carnegie "circ" desks, as they are invariably marvelously crafted works of art with an array of drawers and special features that could keep a pack of monkeys busy for hours opening them all. The circ desks were constructed as mini-fortresses, strategically placed as was characteristic of the times, so the librarians could stand guard over their books. Kim was delighted to demonstrate her many favorite idiosyncrasies of her desk.

Beyond Clinton I turned on to highway 36, the Ernie Pyle Memorial Highway, that passed through the small town of Dana, his hometown just a few miles from the Illinois border.  A museum in the town is devoted to the Pulitzer Prize winning WWII correspondent who died during the War, shot by a sniper in Japan.

Shortly after crossing into Illinois I turned north on to highway 1, which would take me all the way to Chicago within a mile of my apartment, 150 miles away.  Right on the highway in the town of Ridge Farm was a matchbook-sized perfectly-proportioned gem of a Carnegie, as fine of an example of a Carnegie as one could find.  There were no other buildings nearby, heightening its splendor.  With a population of 900 it is the second smallest town with a Carnegie.  Its librarian well knew that Merom was the smallest, but she didn't know the next smallest after hers.

I had the library all to myself even though it was late in the afternoon after school was out.  The librarian had to turn on the WIFI for me and give me a password, which is regularly changed to discourage the general public from sitting in their cars using the WIFI rather than coming in to the library.

She gave me directions to the much, much larger former Carnegie in Danville, population 33,000, sixteen miles up the road.  It was right by the new library on Vermillon Street, named for the river that passes through the city.  Carnegie would not be pleased at all to know that his library was now a War Museum and had large guns in front of it.  Carnegie devoted the last years of his life advocating world peace, conferring with world leaders on both sides of the Atlantic trying to avert war. He was most distraught that his efforts failed.  He died in 1919 a somewhat broken man despairing over the senseless carnage of the First World War. 

On the eastern outskirts of Danville was one of the more unusual Carnegies, a library on the vast grounds of a huge medical complex of the Veteran's Administration that dated to the early 1900s, old enough to have served veterans of the Civil War.  It was like a small community with a library of its own.  The now vacant library sat in the middle of what resembled a large collegiate quad.

Just one final Carnegie, the twenty-ninth of these travels, remained on my route, and it made for a grand finale, not only with its simple majesty, but its extra warm neighborly feel. It was a couple blocks off highway 1 in Milford, a town of less than 2,000 residents thirty miles north of Danville. A fireplace flanked by two comfortable chairs lent it the air of a den. A biography of Carnegie and a book on the Carnegies  of Illinois were featured on a coffee table in front of the fireplace.  Carnegie's portrait hung on the wall to the right. The friendly librarian said that one of her patrons, whenever she enters the library, turns to the portrait and says, "Thank you Mr. Carnegie."  

A note on the library door warned of a cat on the premises, though the librarian said it was shy and rarely seen.  It hid in a box under the circ desk when others were in the library.  After hours she knew its favorite spot was a chair with a red cushion, as she had to brush hair out of it every morning.  It was the second resident cat of the library.  The first had been most friendly, often sitting on the laps of patrons.  Many used to come in just to pay it a visit.  

It didn't gain the renown though of a cat by the name of Dewey, who resided in the Spencer, Iowa library, and was named for the Dewey Decimal System.  He was immortalized by the best-selling book, "Dewey: The Small-Town Cat Who Touched the World," written by the town's librarian Vicki Myron in 2008 two years after Dewey died.  The Milford library had a copy.  After the librarian fetched it for me, her husband happened to drop in, a farmer who looked as if he might have played defensive tackle in the NFL.  He was as cordial and unpretentious as his wife, the epitome of small-town wholesomeness. We chatted about my travels and a bit about his farming.  He was waiting for the soil to dry before he could plant.  This was turning into more of an ice cream social without the ice cream than a visit to a library.  As always, I wished I could have lingered all day and then returned the next.  When I finally forced myself to leave, I turned to Carnegie's portrait and said, "Thank you Mr. Carnegie."  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sullivan, Indiana

At last, after years of visiting Carnegie Libraries I can now say without any hesitation that I have a favorite, at least based on which gave my heart the largest leap of delight at that moment of first laying eyes upon it.  There hasn't been a one of the more than four hundred that I have visited so far that hasn't given me an instant surge of satisfaction, often expressed with a spontaneous utterance of "Wow," at that initial glimpse of its distinctive features.   Each of these seminal buildings, many of which are on the National Registry of Historic Buildings, stand prominently in their community, and are as much of a joy to come upon as any national treasure, such as they are.

They all exude an unmistakable air of proud, yet restrained, dignity. One can't help but be moved, not only by their elegant, distinguishing features, but by the aura that accompanies them accumulated over the decades from having a special place in the hearts of generations of citizens from its community.  It has always been impossible for me to say which of the many I have paid homage to has stood out from all the others and given me the greatest thrill of discovery, at least until yesterday afternoon when I spotted the Carnegie in the small town of Merom, Indiana and saw my name on its message board, sending my heart to a greater height than any other Carnegie has managed.  

I didn't have to wonder how it could have anticipated me, as Emily, the head librarian at the Vincennes Carnegie thirty-three miles south (built in the collegiate gothic style according to a plaque posted in front of it),

told me she would let her childhood friend Kim, Merom's librarian, know that a Carnegie fanatic was on his way.  I wasn't prepared, however, for the greeting that awaited me.  Kim and I had talked at length with unrestrained devotion about Carnegies in her office.  Merom was her favorite, as it was her childhood library, and her mother was its librarian.  Merom is noteworthy for being the smallest town with a Carnegie.  When it was built in 1917 it had a population of less than five hundred people and is presently about half of that.  Its small town idyll  was reflected by the unlocked bike plopped down on the sidewalk in front of the library by some kid eager to rush into his library.

As with the majority of the towns that have drawn me because of their Carnegie, I felt lucky to have made the acquaintance of this out-of-the-way town.  It sits on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River, which forms the state line between Illinois and Indiana.  There was a lovely park giving a view of the lazily meandering river.  Merom once had a small Christian college based in a castle of a building that is now a conference center.  For decades the town has had a summer program attracting assorted luminaries. It is a rare town with a surviving general store/cafe, a nearly extinct species killed off by the ever encroaching Dollar Stores and Casey General Stores, as much of a menace to Americana as Walmart.  The town would have died long ago if a power plant hadn't been established nearby in the 1970s. It is surrounded by farmland and not on the route to anywhere, though well worth the effort of seeking out.  I will happily return.

I felt the same about the not much larger town of Owensville, another  classic, that I had visited the day before.  Its Carnegie had a block all to itself, nobly perched in the middle of a grassy park in the town center.  

Seven miles down the road, Fort Branch was another small town that hadn't grown much over the years and could boast a one-room Carnegie much as it was when it was built in 1917.

The Carnegie in Poseyville, seventeen miles away, broke the string of Carnegies that hadn't been added on to.  Its lovely yellow brick facade was a bright contrast to the red brick of most of the others in this region.

I had begun my latest Carnegie foray across Indiana with a series of four red-brick Carnegies before the yellow of Poseyville.  Immediately after crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky, rather than proceeding into Evansville for its two remaining Carnegies, I headed ten miles up river to Newburgh.  On the way I passed a cluster of Native American mounds in Angel State Park along the river that dated to pre-Columbian times.

Newburgh's Carnegie was now part of its City Hall with the wide river and a pedestrian walkway behind it.

Ten miles inland the Booneville Carnegie had been converted to the town's police station.  Booneville is the county seat and had a typical gaudy and grandiose courthouse in the town center, a stark contrast to the simple elegance of its Carnegie.  The county courthouses of Indiana do seem to vye to outdo one another.  One doesn't know whether to be impressed or overwhelmed by their screaming audacity.  They are almost more intimidating than welcoming. 

The pair of Carnegie branch libraries in Evansville both resided in large parks that they had all to themselves and had not been added on to despite the open space.  The first on my route was the East Branch in a quiet residential neighborhood.

And the second on my way out of town to Poseyville was the West Branch on a main thoroughfare with a set of picnic tables out front.

My first day in Indiana, from noon on, included four Carnegies, more than I had seen in three days in Kentucky.  Day two was a stellar five-library day, with all still serving as libraries.  After Poseyville, Owensville and Fort Branch came Princeton, a larger town necessitating an addition to its library, unseen from its front side.  But a canopy over the entry broke its tradition from its past.

The best riding of the day was the thirty-five mile stretch mostly on a quiet secondary road I had all to myself to Washington.  I stopped for a barbecue sandwich to escape a light rain in a small general store packed with authenticity.

 A sign on its front porch offered an invitation to "Sit a spell" on its pair of rocking chairs.

Two old-timers in overalls came doddering in with one bragging he could still move faster than the other.  A younger guy sitting alone reading a newspaper kidded the waitress about her age, which also seemed a regular routine.  The town-tinkerer in each of the small towns I passed through had a line of over-hauled lawn-mowers sitting along the road for sale.  The occasional farm wife fetching the mail from the mail box along the road also reminded me this wasn't suburbia.

Washington's Carnegie was another that sat majestically in the middle of a large park.  Its large, most compatible addition, actually enhanced its majesty, giving it the air of a French chateau.

Sullivan's Carnegie near sunset the next day likewise had a little extra grandeur constructed with limestone and adorned with a dome, a rarity among Carnegies.  As with the Carnegie in Vincennes, it acknowledged its significance with a plaque posted out front giving its history.


It was the twelfth Carnegie I had come upon in three days in the tiny corner of Indiana near the Ohio and Wabash rivers, not even ten percent of the 167 in the state, the most by far of any state.  It was as many Carnegies as I had visited in the previous ten days through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.  And unlike those in the other states, most of them still thrived as a library.  How sweet it is.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Henderson, Kentucky

Easter is held in such reverence in the Bible Belt that the pastors of the region set aside their competition to attract customers with catchy sermon titles on their message boards and nearly universally simply adorn them with "He Is Risen."  There are a few benign variations such as "He Arose!,"  and other Easter-related variations that push the bounds on the ban on wit and word-play from pastors who just can't control themselves--"The Tomb Is Empty" and "Jesus--He Is the Sonrise"--that might earn one a hearing before the Sermon Review Board.

This deference to Easter included not just the week before, but the week after, making this a comparatively lackluster two weeks in the Bible Belt.  Without clever sermon titles ("Satan Subtracts and Divides, God Adds and Multiplies") diverting my thought from my private reveries, that duty has largely been left to road kill. The first two days of these travels with Don Jaime were devoid of roadside cadavers, as they do not turn up on bike paths. 

If it weren't for road kill, I wouldn't have known that armadillos had made their way to Alabama.  Otherwise its just been the usual coons, possums, squirrels, skunks and deer along with the occasional dog and cat.  There was a string of bloated and decaying deer alongside the thick forest of the Audubon State Park near the Ohio River.  The exceptionally warm spring with some days of eighty degree temperatures heightened the stench of the massacred.

I haven't needed the tights or long sleeve jersey or heavy gloves that I have in the past on these spring training rides, though I have worn my down vest a couple of nights in my tent.  The spring showers have been limited to just one afternoon in Alabama, and it was so warm it was almost refreshing.  

Even though I have been averaging over eighty miles a day in these ideal conditions, my three-day swath across Kentucky only included one Carnegie a day.  The first in Hopkinsville was vacant.  The town was fully cognizant of its significance and splendor and had just won a $50,000 grant to restore it for some other use than a library, as it had a new much larger library a few blocks away.

It was a pleasant town with few franchises and quite a few small local restaurants.  It was on the Trail of Tears and had a park named for it.  Don Jaime and I had earlier intersected with the Trail in Georgia.  It would make for a worthy ride.

The Carnegie in Owensboro has been turned into the city's Museum of Fine Art with a large addition behind it.  Its two-tiered inscription on its front facade acknowledged the era of its construction one hundred years ago when "public" libraries were a rarity with "Open to All" and "Free Public Library."  It is rare to come across a Carnegie with both pronouncements. Few even feel the need to use the word "free." Kentucky isn't exactly in the Plains, but among the sculptures outside the museum were a pair of bison.

As I was headed to my final Kentucky Carnegie in Henderson along the Ohio River just across from Evansville, I was listening to a Ralph Nader podcast from February 14 that I had missed while in the Middle East.  One of his subjects was how he and some of his Princeton classmates were collaborating to raise money for a class gift.  He said it was the duty of those with wealth to share it.  He called it "moving from success to significance."  And lo and behold, he cited Andrew Carnegie as perhaps the ultimate example of this and offered his quote, "a rich man who dies rich dies in shame."  He told how Carnegie, who was the wealthiest man of his time, gave away much of his fortune to build libraries.  Nader has a tendency to talk off the top of his head and did it here as well, when he said he had built 3,000 libraries in the US, when it was actually about half of that, still a significant number, nearly doubling the number of public libraries in the US at the time.  His show of February 28 had a lengthy segment on the huge number of American prisoners being held in solitary confinement.  His guest told of one such person who is a very gifted writer.  Nader, with his bleeding heart, asked how could such as nice guy be so confined.  His guest said because whenever he is put into the general prison population he gets in fights with his fellow prisoners and guards.  End of the conversation.

The Henderson library had a Main Street address adjacent to the town park.  It had a large addition to its back, hidden though by the grandeur of its front side.  

I was eager to cross into Indiana, the state with the most Carnegies other than New York, where my diet would rise from one to several a day.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ridgetop, Tennessee

After the initial perfunctory conversational parryings the friendly old-timer with a braided beard, who had initiated the conversation as I sat drinking a pint of chocolate milk outside the Dollar Store in Ridgetop, Tennessee noticed the hammer strapped atop the gear on the back of my bike and asked, "What ya doin' with a hammer?"

"I found it along the road and was looking for someone to give it to.  Could you use it?"

"I sure could.  I'm fixin' to tear down a shed. It'd be perfect for that."

"Its all yours.  I've been carrying it for a couple of days and it may have gotten me in trouble with an officer yesterday, so I'll be glad to let it go."

He was my second happy customer of the trip.  The first was Don Jaime.  He was willing to lug a wrench I had found, saying he could use it back at his Bed and Breakfast, little knowing that he'd need it sooner than that--to remove the pedals from his bike at the Amtrak station in Birmingham so it would fit in a box for the trip he decided to take to New Orleans after we went our separate ways.

Though I was happy to lighten my load of the hammer, I was becoming attached to it. It brought back memories of a friend who advised that I take along a hammer when I biked up to Alaska a while ago.  He wasn't sure if I knew of the many challenges of the road, and if I truly ought to be attempting such a ride. Books had been written for motorists about how to outfit themselves for the highway.   It hadn't been paved back then and was over a thousand miles of dirt and gravel.  The gravel thrown up by passing vehicles shattered windshields.  Sudden downpours washed out bridges.  There were only a handful of towns on the route.  Mosquitoes and black flies were voracious.  Bears roamed freely.  When I told him I knew all this, he was astounded I still wanted to do it.  "If you want to really to make it tough on yourself, you ought to take along a hammer and hit yourself on the head every so often," he suggested.

Besides the chuckles of that memory, having the hammer also gave me a minor degree of comfort, that I didn't really need, in my tent at night.  I have spent hundreds of nights camping wild over the decades and not once  would a hammer have defended me from an attack, not even the night a wild boar charged my tent in France.  It might have made me feel a little less concerned as it circled my tent after the charge trying to decide what to do, but the hammer wouldn't have made any difference.

Never have I had to fight off a critter attracted by the food I always have in my tent, other than in bear country when I find a place to hang it. It may be good advice not to have food in one's tent, but my experience has been it is a myth. What isn't a myth is that a camp spot of my own devising awaits me every night.  If I didn't have that  faith I would have been in a motel last night.  I was caught by pitch dark before I had escaped the sprawl of Nashville.  I passed several budget motels but pushed on fully confident that a wooded area or abandoned building or church yard would eventually present itself.  Before one did, I came upon a vast military cemetery, as good a campsite as I could ask for.  Its far end, nearly half a mile from the road, abutted a forest, so I didn't have to sleep among the tombstones, as I have on previous occasions.  No ghost has haunted me, nor did I expect one this night, but silly as it was, that hammer gave me a sense of security as I zipped myself into my tent. 

I was caught by the dark as I dared to intrude upon Nashville as evening approached, drawn by my Carnegie lust.   I hadn't seen any all day and knew that the four remaining Carnegies in Nashville lay along a ten mile stretch pretty much on my route through the city.  Rather than cutting short my day and camping before I reached the city, I thought I could see them all within an hour and then have time to get back out into the countryside.

The first two were on university campuses, Vanderbilt and Fisk.  I had addresses for them, but like most Carnegie libraries on campuses they are in the middle of quads with no discernible addresses and weren't readily identifiable.  I wasted valuable minutes on both campuses floundering a bit before I pinpointed the object of my search.

I had to confirm with a young librarian on the Vanderbilt campus that her library had been funded by Carnegie.  She didn't know and had to look it up.  The library was originally part of Peabody College, a women's teacher school, that was eventually absorbed by Vanderbilt.  It was large enough that it could still be used as one of the college's libraries, a rarity among the academic libraries that Carnegie funded, most of which now serve as administrative buildings.

It was just fifteen minutes to Fisk, a largely black college.  The Wikipedia address for the library was simply the intersection of two streets in the middle of the campus that were blocked to motorized traffic.  A towering grand building that had a sign welcoming new students and their parents seemed like it could be what I was looking for. A plaque out front said it had been built in 1878, before Carnegie began funding libraries.  There wasn't any other likely building nearby,  There was no one in the building to ask if Carnegie had later funded an addition to this castle of a building that served as a library.  I circled around, then noticed a building in the quad that had the bearing of a Carnegie.  Indeed it was, though it was now an administrative building and had no Carnegie marking on it, just a plaque out front stating that it had been funded by the "philanthropist Andrew Carnegie" and that its cornerstone had been laid in 1908 by the future President Howard Taft.

It was just a mile to a branch Carnegie that still served as a library.  It stood gallantly on a corner lot in a largely black residential neighborhood.  "Carnegie Library" was chiseled over the entry of this building that remained fully true to its origins with no additions.

My final Carnegie was another branch library fifteen minutes away on the road that would take me north out of the city.  I passed under the state capital building on a hill and then crossed the Cumberland River, turning on to Main Street.  The Carnegie was on a rise itself just after Main Street turned into Gallatin Road, preventing it from being another Carnegie on Main Street, by far the most popular Carnegie address.  Like all the remaining Carnegies in Nashville, one could fully appreciate its beauty without the distraction of an added wing.

I thought I had plenty of time to get out into the countryside before dark, but the all too common ugly gauntlet of franchises blighting larger American towns and cities went on and on for miles.  I didn't mind the added miles, as it gave me a chance for my first century of the trip.  I was two miles short when I came upon the cemetery.  My legs could have easily biked to one hundred and beyond, but this was a campsite I couldn't say no to.  I set up my tent extra aglow with all these extra miles as each adds to the exhilaration of being on the bike all day.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Huntsville, Alabama

In 2014 officers ran a check on my driver's license four times in four different states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Colorado) for being a suspicious character on a bicycle.  I can now add Alabama to that list--five down, forty-five to go.

The latest incident happened on the campus of Alabama A & M after I asked a security guard the whereabouts of its former Carnegie Library.  He told me it was just a couple blocks away, then asked if I had a pass to be on the campus.  I did not.  He wanted to know how I had gotten onto the campus, as all outsiders were required to have a pass. I could give him my precise route, as I had written it down, since I had to make a handful of turns to find the road the Carnegie was located on.  He found it perplexing that I had come through one of the official entries.

His suspicions might also have been raised by the hammer strapped atop the gear on the back of my bike, that I had just found along the road and hadn't found anyone to give it to.  

My color was a further object of alarm. as this was a predominantly black college.  I hadn't seen a white and asked the officer if it was an all black college.  He said, "Its a BHC--Black Historic College.  The enrollment is 95% black, 3% Caucasian and 2% foreign students."

He wanted to know what I was doing on the campus.  Seeking out its former Carnegie Library wasn't an entirely plausible reason, especially since I had come all the way from Chicago.  I told him of my quest and that I had already sought out three other Carnegies in the state. He didn't care to let me fulfill my nearly completed mission here without a look at my driver's license.  It showed I was from Chicago, just as I had told him. A driver's license in the hands of a law officer is an opportunity to run a check on it, and he couldn't resist the opportunity, if only to prove to his superiors that he was on the job.

He pulled out his two-way radio and said he had a "10-68," then read off my driver's license number.  This was the first time an officer had done this in my presence, rather than in the privacy of his car.  I was curious if I'd hear an alarm sound from the radio with the alert that this was indeed a suspicious character who had a lengthy record of being apprehended.  Evidently the government doesn't keep such thorough records yet, and since I had no other marks against me, I was cleared.  

The officer asked how long I intended to remain on campus.  "Just long enough for a photo.  If you'd like to see the photos of the other Carnegie Libraries I have visited on this trip, I can show you.  I have one of Decatur that I took earlier today?"

"You came all the way from Decatur today on your bike?  That's amazing.  You go on about your business and have a nice day."

The Carnegie was identified not only by a sign out front identifying it as "Carnegie Hall" (now a research center) but also by "Carnegie Library" still engraved above its entry.  It was on a rise looking down upon the campus.

The smaller, but equally dignified Carnegie in Decatur also still carried its "Carnegie Library" label above its entry though a sign out front identified it as the "Carnegie Visual Arts Center."  It was on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood two blocks from the old town center.  It was unmarred by any additions.

My route through the northeast quadrant of Alabama included another of the still standing Carnegies in Alabama.  There had been nineteen of them, but only twelve remained.  It was in Bessemer, a gritty steel town just south of Birmingham.  The library had been converted to the town's Chamber of Commerce in 1969.  It had less of the grandeur common to most Carnegies, fitting in with the working class nature of Bessemer.  .

My traveling companion Jim, who had grown up in Birmingham, was surprised to learn that there was a Carnegie in Bessemer, as he knew the town's character and also knew the usual magnificence of the Carnegies.  An uncle of his had lived in Bessemer.  He couldn't recall any building of a Carnegie nature from his visits there.  Unfortunately, Jim was delayed in finding flowers to put on his mother's grave so didn't  arrive at the Childersburg library by our agreed meeting time to join me on my detour to Bessemer. 

Our back-up rendezvous was at the hotel in Birmingham where Jim would be staying.  It was right beside Beer World, a huge bar with over 500 beers to choose from, right where I found Jim.  I didn't arrive until after dark.  I could have camped in any number of forests outside of Bessemer and met up with Jim the next morning, but Jim planned on flying out of Birmingham to St. Louis to meet up with some friends from Chicago, and I was concerned he might have arranged an early morning flight, so I pushed on in the dark.  There was minimal traffic and it was a pleasantly warm night, so I was delighted to be on my bike.

Jim said he had decided to skip St. Louis and hang out in Birmingham the next day.  That meant he could give me a tour of significant sites.  The first was the apartment building around the corner from the hotel where he and Marshia had first lived.  He was shocked that it had been torn down and was now a grass field awaiting development.  He was also saddened to see his favorite hot dog cafe in a sliver of a building sandwiched between two highrises in the downtown was closed down and awaiting a new tenant.  It was an institution dating to 1920.  He also pointed out his dentist's office in a high rise that he used to look out from as his teeth were drilled and also the building where his mother used to work.

Our meanderings took us by quite a few plaques commemorating Civil Rights marches in the early '60s.  At the time Birmingham was known as the most segregated city in the US.  Its population of 60% whites and 40% blacks were very much kept apart.  Jim went to all white schools and had no black friends.  Blacks had separate entrances to buildings and were barred from the city's parks.  It was against the law for blacks and whites to even play checkers together. Martin Luther King led marches in the city.  There were a number of marches of mostly children that the local authorities tried to thwart with dogs and high-powered jets of water.  The extreme racist culture had even infected Jim at the time to join the hoards of whites who lined the streets taunting the blacks with the n-word as they marched.  It is hard to imagine the Jim of today as such a person, but such was that era.  He showed me the exact spot he stood as a college student during one of the marches.  It was a block from the park where many of the marches originated, now known as Place of Reconciliation and Revolution.  A statue of King stood at one corner and statues of children being attacked by dogs and other statues filled the square.

Also in the square were two cyclists who patrol the city to provide assistance to those in need.  They can fix flat tires for cyclists or motorists and carry battery packs to jump start cars.  They also look out for the homeless, directing them to agencies that can assist them. They are privately funded by the local business association.  They brightened our day.

As we cycled about, Jim marveled at the scarcity of people and how little traffic was on the streets.  It was a stark contrast to his ride into the city the day before.  The outlying areas were more clogged with traffic than he had ever seen.  The downtown didn't seem to be in particular decline, but it wasn't thriving as in days of yore.  As always, I felt privileged to be sharing this experience with Jim.  It was a final superlative few hours after five days of travel with as sensitive and reflective of a friend as one could have.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter Sunday in Alabama

Rather than hunting eggs, my Easter was devoted to finding a grave.  I was assisting the esteemed Don Jaime, my long-time friend and occasional touring companion (when he can get away from his bed and breakfast in Ecuador), track down the burial plot of his mother in Sylacauga, Alabama.  He had been there when she was laid to rest twenty years ago in June of 1995 at the age of 82, but had forgotten the exact location of her grave or even which of the four cemeteries in Sylacauga she had been buried in.  A search four years ago had been unsuccessful.  He had since learned from a relative which cemetery she was buried in narrowing it down a bit, but didn't have a precise location.

We had nearly made an attempt on the cemetery last November, when I biked to Fort Benning on the Georgia/Alabama border for the annual protest of the School of the Americas.  When The Don, also known as Jim, learned I was not more than a hundred miles from his mother's grave he tried to meet up with me for a bike ride over to Sylacauga, but couldn't get away from his B & B.  It has been nagging at him since, and me too.  When he needed an escape from the demands of his business a couple of weeks ago, he asked if I'd be interested in trying again, meeting up in Atlanta, and I gladly agreed, even though I happened to be in Pennsylvania with Janina on her Spring Break from Columbia on a driving trip with our bikes to attend a friend's wedding.  

It turned into a fabulous road trip, as we happened upon one seminal site after another, some planned and others not--Fallingwater (Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece south of Pittsburgh), the Johnstown Flood Museum in a former Carnegie Library, the Flight 93 National Monument, Gettysburgh, a few miles of the Appalachia Trail at its mid-point, the Carlisle Indian School where Jim Thorpe's athletic career was launched and a sampling of Carnegies in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.  

We were only able to camp once, ending up in a sleazy hotel one night on the outskirts of Canton whose only TV station played porn, much to the horror of Janina.  And we only got in one significant bike ride, but it was a doozy, circumnavigating nearly the entire route of the Gettysburg battle fields.  We were continually thanking my equally esteemed Telluride Film Festival friend Funky, famed for riding his unicycle around the South Pole, for drawing us to Pennsylvania for his nuptials.  It was a fine occasion held in a small Mennonite church in the town of Lititz, where the Hershey kiss was invented.

I barely had time to catch my breath or suffer trip-withdrawal when we returned to Chicago before resubmerging myself into the never boring world of travel.  My portal this time was Amtrak, accompanied as always with my bike. It might have been preferable to choose Greyhound, as there is no direct train to Atlanta from Chicago, and, as all too often, Amtrak couldn't keep to schedule.  I had to go via Washington, D. C., making it a thirty-six hour trip including a three hour lay-over in D. C.  It should have been five hours, but the train was two hours late, partially to arrest someone caught smoking on the train after being given a warning. My second train was also late, but only by an hour, pulling into Atlanta at nine a.m.  I did manage to sleep the two nights of my travel by claiming space on the floor behind the seats.  The late arrival didn't delay Jim and I, as he had only flown in shortly before my train and had to go to a bike shop and buy a bike and have a rack and bar ends installed.

We were both drained from our travel, so agreed to bike for just an hour or so before finding a place to catch up on our sleep--Jim a hotel, as he hadn't brought along a tent or sleeping bag, and me a place to camp.  Not too far off our route out of town to the bike trail we intended to follow stood the lone Carnegie Library still standing in Atlanta of the four built in the early 1900s. It was on the fringe of Georgia Tech University, just off North Avenue, the same street in Chicago near where I live and where Jim once lived.  We took that as an early omen that these travels were blessed.  It wasn't necessarily so, as we managed to get separated when I swung around a bus to make a left turn while Jim thought I was just passing it and spurted ahead of me and kept going without looking back to see if I was behind him.  When I checked to see if Jim was behind me he was long gone.  We were both totally mystified.  Jim didn't know where the Carnegie was and since it was no longer a library, he couldn't ask.  Neither of us had phones so we had to rely on email to communicate.  It wasn't pressing that we immediately meet up, as we knew the bike trail would be a rendezvous point, but it was still frustrating not to introduce Jim to another Carnegie, as he has fully appreciated every one we have come upon in our travels.

Like all of them, this one was immediately recognizable as a Carnegie and had a distinctive charm.  It was modest in size, but had had no additions.  It was the first I had encountered that had been turned into a bank.  It was built in 1909 and was known as the Anne Wallace Branch Carnegie, named for the woman instrumental in gaining its funding.  It ended its days as a library in 1964, when it became the Techwood Recreational Center.  In 2001 the Sun Trust Bank converted it into one of its branch.  A plaque inside the door states, "It remains today a testament to the progressive vision and tenacity of people like Anne Wallace and Andrew Carnegie to provide the opportunity for literacy."

I sat out front luxuriating in the seventy degree temperatures for half an hour eating the last of the hunk of cheese I'd brought from Chicago between slices of bread hoping Jim might find his way there.  I tried not to worry.  This was the first time in our several trips we had managed to get separated. 

It wasn't until later that evening after I had found a place to camp in a pine forest along the bike trail and emailed Jim my location from a nearby McDonald's that we connected and arranged to meet the next morning.  Biking the trail was Jim's choice, as he reviles the automobile. He only learned about it shortly before he left Ecuador as he researched bike routes out of Atlanta.  He was thrilled to learn that it was named for the Silver Comet train that he had ridden as a youth, a train route from Birmingham to New York that was discontinued in 1969.  The conversion of the track line to a bike trail was begun in 1998 and completed in 2008.  It is 61.5 miles long in Georgia and connects with the Chief Ladiga Trail at the Alabama border for another 33 miles, making it the second longest paved bike trail in the US behind the Paul Bunyan Trail of a little over 100 miles in Minnesota.

It made for a fine ride through hilly and wooden terrain. Jim rode at a brisk pace on his new $400 Raleigh cross-bike, as if being drawn to his Alabama roots. For stretches the bed was an artificial high ridge with steep drops on both sides keeping the grade even.  It included a few bridges over roads.  We shared the trail with quite a few early morning joggers and walkers the first few miles from its starting point in Smyrna north of Atlanta, but as we escaped the urban sprawl we pretty much had the trail to ourselves. The lone cyclists we talked to shared their water with us as we were running low. We could ride side by side and catch up since we had last ridden in October when Jim was in Chicago for a family gathering in a house they had rented for a weekend in the Indiana Dunes across the street from the cottage where Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir had lived and written their best known books, "The Man With the Golden Arm," and "The Second Sex."  That trip also included a search with Jim into his past.  We biked around the University of Chicago, which had brought Jim to Chicago as an anthropology student.  We stopped by his very first apartment where he had been robbed in its lobby as he and his girl friend and now wife Marshia had been robbed as they were moving in.

It was wonderful to be off on another ride with Jim, entertained by his great wit and wisdom and stories of his international clientele.  We rode leisurely, making the trail to Anniston a two-day ride, stopping to chat with whomever we came upon.  We spent a couple of hours in the Piedmont, Alabama welcome center along the trail when we met a seventy-year old lifelong hobo by the name of Virginia Slim, who regaled us with tales of his travels.  Like Jim he was a poet and had quite a few committed to memory, some that he had written, including a history of the Mormons, and others that were hobo classics. It turned into an impromptu poetry slam, though no one was trying to upstage one another.  Virginia Slim was so impressed by Jim's poetry that he scraped together twelve dollars from his pocket and that of a friend to buy the spare copy of Jim's book that he was reading from, a collection of poems and travelogues, "One Way of Looking at the World," even though Jim offered it to him free.  It was still a discount from its normal $20 price. 

When Virginia Slim learned we were from Chicago, he asked if we had ever stayed at the Pacific Gardens shelter.  We knew of it but had never availed ourselves of its services.  Virginia Slim said he was collecting Social Security thanks to a wife who had been a school teacher even though he had only contributed $498 to the system for a job he had in his early days for a short stint working for the park service.  He said he only knew of one person who had contributed less, Seldom Seen Sam.  On and on he went rattling off stories and names of fellow hobos, but also expressing a genuine interest in our travels.  He justifiably called himself a folklorist and had even been hired from time to time to speak. Several other local old-timers were also hanging out, welcoming and providing local color.  They were much more informed than the bleary-eyed young woman at the welcome center on the trail in Cedartown, Georgia.  When we asked her a few questions, her response was, "I used to know, but I can't remember."

We learned this was Creek country, which gave Jim a jolt of pride, as he is part Creek.  But he wasn't happy with the assertion that they were the most ferocious of Indians and had run off the Cherokees and also resisted the whites with a vengeance.  In 1813 they killed some 400 whites amassed at nearby Fort Mims, remembered as the Fort Mims Massacre, the largest massacre of whites by Indians in US history.  The Indians were finally defeated and uprooted from the region in the 1830s, in violation of treaties they had signed, after gold was discovered in northern Georgia on Indian lands in 1829.  They were sent to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears, acknowledged by a museum in Cedartown.

We were glad to be in no hurry and could enjoy this southern ambiance.  We'd had a similar experience on the porch outside a packed black barber shop in Cedartown.  We had stopped to ask where we might find a grocery store, as the one along the trail across the street was closed down.  We plopped down on a couple of chairs and were joined by a couple of older guys.  They told us the store across the street had been closed down by the Feds for food stamp violations.  It was one of quite a few empty stores we saw that would be tempting to reopen as ice cream parlors for the cyclists.  Jim also envisioned many as potential brew pubs, another of his passions.  He's also known as "The Hoppy Wanderer."  He was thrilled to find a brew pub in Anniston where we overnighted before our final push to Sylacauga.  He availed himself of the pub's five beer sampler priced at a bargain $7.  The middle of the five was a sweet potato beer.  While Jim fulfilled his duties as the Hoppy Wanderer, I dined on catfish and sweet potato fries.

When Jim last visited Sylacauga, he took a forest trail the fifty miles from Anniston through the Tallageda Forest .  We would have done the same thing this year if there hadn't been a Carnegie Library in Talageda halfway between Anniston and Sylacauga.  The traffic was light on highway 21 on Easter Sunday.  Our efforts were rewarded with a typical majestic Carnegie outshining even the many surrounding antebellum mansions.

It was now a museum and art center but still had Public Library chiseled above its entry.

The only redeeming feature of the new, one-story, utterly bland library behind it were the names of the authors adorning its surrounding facade.  There was of course Faulkner, along with Hemingway, Steinbeck, Chaucer and many others.

From the library we began the final twenty mile stretch to the destination that had us on these travels.  We managed to slip through Talageda without a glimpse of its famed speedway, but we did have the sad experience of riding around its once grand town center with more than half its shops adorned with "For Rent" signs.  As we entered Sylacauga we passed the cemetery where Jim had tried to find his mother four years ago.  The actual cemetery was much older off on a side road.  A plaque in front of it said it contained nine Confederate soldiers and one from the Union side.  There were three directories beside the east and west entrances to its twelve acres, but none listed Hicks, the family name of Jim's mother.  There were several plots of Lees, the name of her second husband.  We went in search of them, but his mother wasn't among them.

Jim's memory was that her grave was near one of the lanes intersecting the cemetery, as he recalled it was just a short walk from their parked car to the grave.  We scanned all the plots near the roads and then biked around the perimeter of the cemetery without success.  After nearly an hour Jim said he was tired and hungry and wished to go for some food before resuming our search.  It was growing late and he thought it might be best to try again in the morning.  Rain was forecast for the next day, so I was all for finding it today and not in the rain.

We couldn't find an open restaurant, so had to settle for some snacks from the Dollar General.  While Jim ate I volunteered to return to the cemetery and begin a systematic search.  I have experience in such matters, having sought out the graves of Tour de France winners--Garin, Robic, Bobet, Anquetil, Fignon, Coppi, Pantani and other cycling luminaries including the founder of The Tour.  Its rarely easy, but always a thrill to find the grave.  Plus I needed some practice, as at the end of the month I would be looking for the grave of Octave Lapize, 1910 winner of The Tour, in a suburb south of Paris.

The cemetery was divided into four sections.  We knew that her tombstone was a simple stone flat on the ground, but that there might be a large Hicks tombstone nearby.  I had completed a couple of rows by the time Jim rejoined me.  It was half an hour later after I was half-way through the third section when my eyes lit upon Christine Hicks Lee.  It was my longest search ever and as satisfying a find as any.  Jim was several rows over.  He took a slow walk to join me and then knelt down to brush off the stone.

He silently communed for several minutes before opening his book of poetry to read the poem he had written about the burial ceremony. Although he had planned on this private reading, he was having second thoughts, concerned that the poem's frank edge, as with all of his writing, might not be entirely appropriate for the occasion.  But he had written it shortly after the burial to honor his mother, so went ahead with it (see below).  Jim felt like a bit of an outsider at the burial having left his southern roots decades before and not really knowing any of his mother's friends.  She had spent the last couple years of her life in Chicago under Jim's care, but the pastor administering the ceremony made no mention of Jim, his mother's only child.  

The poem was a moving and fitting memorial.  We lingered a while longer.  It was nearing dark.  Jim said he would like to return in the morning with some flowers.  He headed back into town to the hotel he had stayed at four years ago while I found a place to camp in the forest a couple miles down the road, allowing us to each end this most memorable Easter with the privacy of our own thoughts. We agreed to meet at the library in Childersburg, ten miles up the road on the way to Birmingham, where Jim would give me a tour of his old haunts.

The Burial
The tent's set up like a cemetery side show.
The hole's lined with astro-turf.
And I wonder where the dirt-pile is.
Relatives are arranged among the flowers
Like plastic hummingbirds.
The funeral director stands just outside,
Posted, southern sheriff style.
I'm unfamiliar with the protocol.
Should I shake hands all around?
Do I seem suitably aggrieved?
Should I sit with the others?
I look for a chair
But after 20 years away there's no room
For me among my southern blood-kin.
The ones who stayed behind,
Became preachers, or married one,
Lived in trailers in their mama's back yard
'Til zoned out by shopping malls.
The survivors.
Sisters suited up like upright replicas
Waiting their turn in the box
Beneath these very folding chairs
Where 80 years go their daddy Jesse
Laid out their plots like cots in a spare room,
Knowing they would all visit, sooner or later.
The preacher starts to pray her down.
Says she was a good employee,
Knew how to cook a fine breakfast,
Did her church time, too.
No words about motherhood,
Or me, her only begotten,
Standing there,
Surveying the bloodline,
Trying to cast it off.
But it's too late.
The creatures deserting her vessel
Have already started gnawing at mine.
The show's over.
The bereaved take leave before the mechanics begin.
The tent comes down. The turf comes up.
And the director admires the gravework
As he waves in a load of clay.
Alabama red.
That hole's well dug, he says. Sheared them roots clean off.
Gravity takes one last tug
And they clamp her down with a concrete lid.
Sylacauga, Alabama, 1996
[Note: this poem is about my mother’s burial. In the Spring of 2012, I took a bicycle trip from Anniston, Alabama to Sylacauga, where I intended to visit my mother’s grave. I thought I would remember where the cemetery was, but after 17 years, I could not find it. I went to the library for burial records. I visited all the cemeteries in and around Sylacauga, to no avail. I do not know where my mother is buried. This is inexcusable.]