Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Spitting in the Soup" by Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson has written about cycling for years, mostly for magazines, but also the book "The Argyle Armanada" about the 2011 season of the Garmin cycling team.  With all his cycling expertise I was eager to read his latest book, "Spitting in the Soup" on doping in sports, knowing it had to be laced with cycling lore.  Cycling certainly does get plenty of attention, but it is far from the focus of the book.  Rather, that goes to the Olympics, though there is, of course, considerable overlap between the two.

I did learn a few things about cycling, the most startling of which was that Jacques Anqutil was blood doping back in the '60s while winning The Tour de France five times, or at least according to Eddie Borysewicz, coach of the 1984 US Olympic team that caused a national uproar when it was revealed by "Rolling Stone" magazine that it had blood doped. Johnson talked with the 77-year old dynamo and said, "his memory of the chain of events leading to blood doping is still clear."  Blood doping was not against the rules at the time, but still a shady practice that was not widely practiced.  Anquetil had always been open about his use of drugs, but I had never come across this admission.  When I read this, I immediately emailed my friend the English cycling authority Les Woodland who has written over twenty books on racing, including one that Johnson footnotes, "The Crooked Path to Victory, Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bicycle Racing," to ask if he knew of this.  He did not and doubted its veracity.  

Borysewicz told Johnson he met Anquetil in the early '70s when he was visiting Jean Stablinski, another Tour veteran.  He asked Anquetil how he sustained himself through the long racing season.  He told him he always had two blood transfusions, one of which was before The Tour.  It is shocking that Borysewicz didn't reveal this as part of his defense when "Rolling Stone" broke the story.  Equally shocking is that if Borysewicz thought blood-doping was a means to success, why did he never introduce it to the Americans he was coaching, including Greg LeMond, until just before the Olympics, when there was an uncertainty of how the racers would react to the transfusions.  And most shocking of all is that Johnson didn't pursue any of these issues.  

But so it goes throughout this sprawling, rambling, unfocused discussion of doping that veers off onto  tangents on the Puma/Adidas wars and Mormonism and the making of the Wizard of Oz (16-year old Judy Garland was doped!) and many others, bloating this 400-page book that would have been even fatter had not his publisher cut several chapters. Johnson can't seem to make up his mind what his point is or where he is going.  One of his theses is that drugs were once accepted and that it was the professional thing to do, but then the time came that drugs became a scourge and those who resorted to them were considered pariahs.  That's not entirely true.  Anquetil was a rare exception to be open about it.  When the Pelissier brothers revealed all the drug taking they did to the highly-respected investigative reporter Alfred Londres after they dropped out of the 1924 Tour de France it was a huge story.  That doesn't fit in with Johnson's thesis,  so he ignores it.  

I had anticipated Jonathan Vaughters, head of the Garmin cycling team who made racing clean the foremost plank of his team, to be a prime source for this book. He knew him well from writing a book about his team.  Vaughters is one of the smartest minds in the sport and raced during the EPO era and has spoken most articulately on his own dabbling with drugs, but he receives just one bare mention as someone  who continually fretted about the drug issue.  Vaughters thoroughly researched any drug before he used it, their safety and their effectiveness. He knew what a difference they could make. He could have enlightened Johnson on many issues.  Vaughters set the record for the fastest time up Mont Ventoux until it was broken by Iban Mayo, but said it wasn't something he was proud of because it was drug-assisted.  When Johnson came to Chicago's Garmin store in April of 2012 on his "Argyle Armada" book tour, I asked him if he had ever discussed the issue with Vaughters.  It was a surprise he hadn't.

Rather than going into the trenches and asking riders about their quandaries and their reactions to drugs, he relies on academics for most of his information. His sources include Arthur Mandell, a psychiatrist who worked with the San Diego Chargers in the early '70s and wrote a book about it, "The Nightmare Season," Christopher Thompson, a professor at Ball State whose book "The Tour de France: A Cultural History" is footnoted sixteen times, and Dr. Charles Yesalis, a professor at Penn State who is a steroid expert.   

He turns to the Spanish scholar Bernat López as his authority on EPO.  He maintains that it is a myth that the rash of young cyclists dying in their sleep in the early '90s was related to EPO. He says it was media hype to discourage riders from taking the drug.  He could have asked Bjarne Riis, who was known as "Mr Sixty Per Cent" for pushing the perceived hematocrit safe limit of fifty per cent, about how he decided how much to take and how the new drug was perceived by cyclists.  EPO would thicken the blood and could clog the heart.  He cites the famous quote of the Italian doctor Michele Ferari, who was Lance Armstrong's guru, comparing EPO to orange juice--"EPO is not dangerous. It's abuse is.  It is also dangerous to drink ten liters of orange juice."   That is an acknowledgement that it is a drug to be wary of, like all the drugs he traces in this book from amphetimimes to steroids.

He cites Chicagoan Danny Van Haute as an early blood doper.  His father-in-law was a physician, so he had him perform the procedure preceding the trials for the 1984 Olympic team.  He was flying faster than he ever had, qualifying for the pursuit team, turning a lot of heads.  Van Haute has been the director of the domestic Jelly Bean team for years, the team that Phil Gaimon mentioned in his book "Pro Cycling on Ten Dollars a Day" whose doctor hinted to him that he had symptoms of asthm and that he could prescribe the popular medication among cyclists that would make him ride faster.  Gaimon would have none of it.   Van Haute would have made another good source for Johnson, but he too is ignored, as is the asthma issue.  The Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, who dominated the Giro d'Italia for several years, was suspended in 2007 for using excessive amounts of asthma medication. Rather than writing about the iffy morality of the many cyclists who claim to have asthma, Johnson writes about the similar thinking of the growing number of high school students who get doctors to diagnose them with ADHD, which allows them extra time when they take their SAT tests, enabling them to get higher scores and gain scholarships and entry to better colleges. 

The longest of the book's twenty chapters is on the use of steroids in baseball and the national fascination with the McGuire/Sosa home run battle in 1998 to break Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in a season.  This embrace's Johnson's argument that spectators are complicit in the athlete's drug-taking.  They had no issue with the bulked-up athletes for the entertainment they provided.  Johnson doesn't know baseball as well as he knows cycling, as he referred to the early baseball commissioner Ford Frick as "George Frick."  And he makes the outrageous claim that in 1996 Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles hit a lead-off home run in twelve straight games.  It was amazing enough that he did it in four straight games, as no one has ever done it more than twice.  

Johnson's cycling commentary isn't without its mistakes as well.  He wrote that Armstrong went on to be world champion after his recovery from "near-certain death" on page 351.  He won the World Championship in Oslo in 1993.  He was diagnosed with cancer after the 1996 Olympics.  How his editors at Velo Press would let this slip by is unimaginable.  It nearly discredits the entire book.  Johnson also wrote that the French three-time winner of The Tour de France, Louisson Bobet, went on to become a journalist.  It was his brother Jean who became a journalist.  A quote from his book "Tomorrow We Ride" adorns a wall in Armstrong's  bike shop in Austin.  Johnson is also a year off on the year the head of the UCI Hein Verbruggen let Armstrong back-date his cortisone excemption in The Tour, writing that it happened in 2000, when it was the year before in Armstrong's first Tour win.

One myth that I was happy to have Johnson dispel is that the extreme demands of The Tour de France don't necessarily shorten a rider's life.  The Scottish 1984 winner of the King of the Moutains Jersey Robert Millar maintains that one's life is shortened by one year for every Tour one rides.  I often feel that way myself after riding The Tour route with my loaded touring bike, as I have done the past thirteen years. Johnson cites a French study that found the 786 French riders who raced The Tour from 1947 to 2012 had a 41 per cent lower mortality rate than the overall French population.  

Johnson points out that is counter to the theory that all the drug-taking of the riders is detrimental to their health.  At times it seems as if Johnson is defending, or at least condoning, the use of drugs.  But he makes no suggestion, as some do, that there should be no restrictions.  In his epilogue he concludes that drug taking should be restrained, if only to save the young.  Even now ten percent of high school athletes jeopardize their health taking steroids and growth hormones.  It would be much worse if it were made socially acceptable.

Johnson's bio on the book jacket identifies him as a category two racer.  He avoids any mention of his time on the bike or anything personal other than that his wife and two sons "have had to listen to him rattle on for years about society's dual love affair with pharmaceuticals and sports." "Rattling on," for better or worse, is a good description for the book he wrote about the subject.  

Saturday, December 3, 2016

"The World of Cycling According to G"

G is Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas.  He was a key member of Team Sky on each of Chris Froome's three Tour de France wins and was a teammate of Bradley Wiggins on the four-man British pursuit squad that won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. He rode his first Tour de France in 2007 as a 21-year old and has only missed three since, but one of those was Wiggins' Tour win in 2012, as he was preparing for the Olympics, where he won another team pursuit gold medal.

These career highlights could easily have been the focus of his book "The World of Cycling According to G," but they receive scant mention.  Instead, Thomas concentrates on the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes life of a professiomal cyclist. It is narrated in an anecdotal, conversational style broken into short chapters, some devoted to people (Froome, Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, David Brailsford), some to places (Tenerife), and others to miscellania (how it is to return home after weeks away) and sundry aspects of the sport (Pain).

In this refreshingly casual "memoir" most of his insightful minor detail is devoted to life off the bike rather than in the peloton.  He reveals that so much of a professional cyclist's life is spent on the road in strange hotel rooms, he has developed the skill of finding light switches.  On those rare visits home after prolonged spells of hanging out with the guys, one must be wary of inadvertently calling a girl friend "mate."  It may imply a measure of intimacy among his teammates, but not for a loved one,"and they will let you know it," Thomas warns.

Food is a common theme.  He's not allowed too much of it, so it is always on his mind. Shedding weight and then keeping it off is a key component of his job.  He complains that he is always hungry, that he must eat like a ballerina.  He calls Team Sky's legendary two-week training camp in the Canary Islands staying at a barebones hotel without internet on the top of a mountain "a fortnight of pain and starvation."

Three of the four mentions of tears in the book relate to food--all of pleasure over a treat when he's allowed to break his monkish diet.  One is a simple jam tart, another is piadina.  The non-food instance of tears is Cavenish sobbing in his hotel room atop the Stelvio Pass after losing the points jersey in the Giro. Thomas never admits to tears of exhilaration over a great result.  After one of Froome's Tour wins, he was thrilled to be able to gorge on pizza at the team bus on the Champs Elysees.  Another of his fond memories was his pre-race dinner as a junior when his mum would go to a Chinese takeaway to fuel him up on barbecue ribs and egg-fried rice.  "What I'd give to be able to eat like that now," he laments.  The weeks preceding Christmas before training becomes one's sole focus is a reprieve from "small portions."

Food is the one subject where he divulges some of the secrets of the Team Sky regime.  They prefer rice to pasta, as it has less gluten and clears the stomach more easily.  The team also favors cherry juice, because of its high levels of antioxidants, but not just any cherry juice.  It prefers juice from Montmorency cherries, as they are slightly superior to others.  When it comes to yoghurt, Greek is the team's choice, as it is more natural and less processed. The team's protein drink has a special ingredient to clean one out, but Thomas doesn't reveal what it is, just that it can lead to issues with smells.  Nor does he divulge when in the day it is best to eat protein for your body to most effectively absorb it, just that Sky believes there is such a time.

Avoiding airline food is among the tips Thomas offers, as it is too salty and doesn't have enough nutrients.  He also advises to cut back on coffee intake in the weeks before a stage race so one's body will get a bigger kick from it when used during the race.  And he warns not to take a caffeine gel closer than twenty-five kilometers from a stage finish, otherwise it won't take effect until one's back on the team bus.  

He gives a detailed description of the luxury of the team bus, with individualized seats for all the riders, a ready stock of fresh rice, WIFI, a shower and a pair of washing machines, one for dark clothes and one for whites, that run twenty-four hours a day during a stage race.

There's not much gossip in the book.  He doesn't take sides in the Froome-Wiggins rivalry, avoiding the controversy of Wiggins being left off Team Sky for the 2013 Tour that began in Yorkshire, despite being the defending champion.  Wiggins is only one of three Tour champions never to ride it after winning it. The book has no index, so I had to make one of my own.  Froome is mentioned on twenty-one pages plus the six-page chapter devoted to him.  Wiggins appears on four more pages, but his chapter is one page less than Froome's.  Froome comes out ahead in the number of photos--three to two.  Thomas has nothing negative to say about Wiggins, but he does take a jab at Froome, saying he's from South Africa, then admitting that he knows he's from Kenya, but it's his retaliation for Froome referring to him as being English in his autobiography.
Thomas is proudly Welsh.  He compares the loudness of the Italian fans to the Welsh fans at Millennium Stadium when the Welsh team runs out to face England.  That was one of many rugby, soccer and cricket metaphors that I, as an American not so well versed in those sports, had to guess at.  They may have slightly hindered my understanding of what he was getting at, but they lent the book a little extra charm allowing Thomas to remain true to his voice and not condescend to a wider audience.  

I wouldn't want an American version sanitized of such expressions as "Crashing is as unavoidable to a cyclist as losing your wicket is to a Test batsman."  Nor would I want footnotes to explain "tackles that Welsh centre Jamie Roberts routinely soaks up," or "wind gust as effective as a Sam Warburton tackle," or Wiggins comparing his move from Garmin to Team Sky as like "going from Wigon to Manchester United." It was nice to have the the book peppered with "bloke," "chap," "telly," "arse," "sod it," "punters," "bollockings," "properly chuffed," "faffing about," and "too poosh to push."  They all added a measure of authenticity to the book and made me feel like I was getting a straight story.  

At thirty, a year younger than Froome, Thomas still has a few years in him at the top of the sport.  After nearly finishing on the podium in the 2015 Tour, there is still a possibility for that to happen.  Thomas doesn't bemoan his bad luck of suffering a crash in that Tour on Stage Sixteen that knocked him out of contention.  He only mentions that the crash was caused by the French rider Warren Barguil, who got the line wrong in the corner on a descent and blindsiding him.  But rather than taking him to task, he expresses gratitude for the fans who helped pull him back up from the ravine he had fallen into.  He seems to be a man without grudges or guile.  Such is the positive tone throughout the book.  He doesn't deny how hard racing is and all the sacrifices he must make and the suffering he must endure, but in the end he feels lucky, as all should, any time he can ride his bike.  

"Even when cycling is your job," he writes, "that sense of release when you climb on your bike and pedal away from the mundane real world is still the same...It wipes the mental slate clean. Two wheels and a triangle of metal to some, an escape chute to all us riders."  Cheers to that!

Friday, November 18, 2016

"Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier"

Jon Day loved being a bicycle messenger, "every moment of it." After being on the job for a year, he began to wonder if he should make it his life's work rather than just an interlude between university courses while he tried to decide what to do with his life.  He stuck with it for another two years, finally extricating himself to become a lecturer at Kings College in London and free lance writer for the London Review of Books and others.  

He recounts his stint as a messenger, while also pondering the might and majesty of the bicycle, in "Cyclogeopraphy," a seven-part essay, published as a pocket-sized 160-page book.  He doesn't dwell much on his addiction and his dilemma of whether to give himself up to it or to do something more socially acceptable.  Instead, he mostly meditates on his privileged position of being able to roam the city on his bike and to have his thought focused on others who have placed the bicycle on an altar--H. G. Wells, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Paul Fernel, Tim Krabbe, Vittorio De Sica and others.  He even searches out Fernel for a chat when he's in London and drops in on noted author Iain Sinclair, who specializes in psychogeography and is an authority on gadding about.

He never uses the word addict, but he portrays many of its symptoms.  The job became all-consuming, so much so that he began to feel better on the bike than off it.  He doesn't quite reach the level of addiction that I did during my eighteen years of bliss as a messenger, of dreading those words from my dispatcher at the end of the day that there was no more work and to go home.  I never wanted my day of rocketing around the city delivering parcels to end, not out of greed, as I was paid by the delivery, but out of the craving to keep the endorphins surging that had me in a state of peak exhilaration.

While Day feared becoming a decrepit older messenger, I looked forward to being a fifty-year old messenger doing as many deliveries a day as my age, just as golfers who cross into their seventies anticipate the challenge of shooting their age.  And then when I reached fifty, I looked forward to turning sixty and still being at it.  Unfortunately, I fell a few years short of that second goal, as the industry dwindled to the point that I could no longer continue to come and go as I pleased.  One year when I returned from another several month absence of biking around Europe and following The Tour de France, I was told I would have to commit to being full-time and not going off for months at a time when the whim struck.

In its heyday the company I worked for my entire career employed sixty messengers and four dispatchers (known as controllers on the other side of the pond).  It was down to less than a dozen riders with just one guy dispensing orders.  I had to make a decision of whether to make the messengering my entire life, as was surely tempting, or continue to maintain my free and footloose existence.  I had been diligent about saving and investing.  I had reached the point where I was doing the work because it was fun, not because I needed to pile up more dollars, so I made the hard decision to bow out and to not take work that others needed more than I.

Not every messenger appreciates the job as much as Day and I did.  For many it is a last resort, a refuge for "the forgotten, people who have fallen through the cracks of the system."   It is akin to "running away to sea, or joining the circus."  Being on a lower rung of the societal order may be an act of rebellion for some, but it can also be a heavy burden.  It is a dangerous job, but Day's experience in London was similar to mine in Chicago--we both knew more messengers who committed suicide than who were killed on the job.

Day doesn't say in so many words that he misses the job, just that he still dreams about it.  He's not old enough, just 32, to call it the best job he ever had, as many do, including the New York Bike Snob, but it's not likely that he could say of any other job he's had, that he has loved every moment of it.  We can thank him for taking the time to write this ode, but it is hard not to feel a little sad that he couldn't remain true to his love.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Shut Up Legs," by Jens Voigt

"Shut up legs" was the motto of long-breakaway specialist Jens Voigt, so it was only natural that he made it the title of his memoirs recounting his cycling career, which came to an end in 2014 when he set the hour record.  He devotes two chapters to the achievement, one more than to his wife and six children, but doesn't mention that his record was broken multiple times within months.

So it is with this standard autobiography that doesn't scratch much beyond the surface. On the second to the last page of the book, before the acknowledgements and all that, he writes that along with his 65 victories, including three stage wins of The Tour de France and two stints in Yellow, he broke his collarbone three times, but not once does he mention them in the previous 225 pages.  

He doesn't neglect, however, his horrific crash on a descent in the 2009 Tour that left him unconscious, calling it one of his most painful memories. Along with all the grisly details, he adds that Lance Armstrong was the only cyclist, other than his teammates, to send him a message of concern while he was in the hospital.  Earlier he mentioned that Lance twice tried to recruit him to his team, but he in no way defends his doping or character, other than to say, "He's not the devil."  Fellow German Didi Senf will be glad to hear that.

Voigt is firm, though, in his condemnation of doping.  Later in his career when he became a team elder he would address his teammates at their early season camps and threaten to come to their homes and burn them down if any of them doped and put the team and his livelihood in jeopardy.

Descending was not one of Voigt's strengths.  As his career wound down his tolerance for risking his life on descents diminished.  When his speed approached forty miles per hour he was out of his comfort zone and when it reached fifty he told himself, "I don't want to be doing this anymore."  Still he clung on much later than most riders, until he was 42, riding in 17 Tours de France, the most of anybody along with George Hincapie and Stuart O'Grady.  When he was 41 he extended his career one more year knowing he could still "dish out the pain" and felt the "need to suffer more before I can be happy with the decision to stop."  He added, "My body promised me that it could keep it together for one more year as long as I promised to release it from all the stress, suffering and responsibility at the end of the year."  

He also knew age was catching up to him when he began falling asleep in the team bus after a race.  That cut into his reading time, one of his favorite pursuits, so much so that  at one time he thought he'd like to open a bookstore.  Instead, he's stuck to cycling, working as a team advisor and TV commentator.  One of the best things about retirement is that when he travels now he doesn't have to stay in his hotel room and conserve energy.  He can actually go sightseeing.

Unlike some cycling biographies, he doesn't wax on about his love of being on the bike, and going off on long rides simply for the joy of it, such as Chris Froome and Sean Yates do in their books.  Training became a chore.  He was glad to leave all the painful efforts behind.  There was no chance of his making a comeback.  "I simply don't want to hurt or suffer anymore," he wrote.  He does claim though that that was his strength, and that he had a pain threshold ten to twenty per cent higher than most others.  He doesn't claim to eat pain for breakfast, as some cyclists do, but it is a steady part of his diet and frequent theme of his book, as is the case of most cycling biographies.

Despite many significant wins, including the Peace Race and the Tour of Germany and the Critérium International five times along with his Tour de France successes, not once was he brought to tears by a win.  As a youth growing up in East Germany, his father told him, "Boys don't cry."  He asserts early on that only one thing brings his to tears, the birth of his children.  He doe cite one instance of emotional, triumphal tears, those of Bobby Julich's family as they gaze up at Julich and Voigt on the podium at Paris-Nice. Julich took the win thanks to the efforts of Voigt leading him up the final climb, when he thought he could have left him behind and won the race himself.  But Julich was the team leader in this race and had sacrificed himself for Voigt in other races, so he was happy to do it for him in this one.

His upbringing in East Germany, where life was centered on the common good and the collective, self-sacrifice was engrained in him, which inspired him throughout his career as a cyclist.  When he was fourteen he left his family to attend a sports school.  He missed home, but it laid the foundation for what he was to become, including learning "how to suffer."  He didn't realize the deprivations of his life on the other side of the Iron Curtain until The Wall came down. He was astounded by the abundance of food, but he was most shocked when he began reading history books and discovered how he had been lied to growing up.  He holds no grudges though, nor does his home town of Dassow, where in 2001 a street was named after him.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Rochelle, Illinois

After crossing the Mississippi from the once thriving, but now diminishing city of Clinton, Iowa, to the smaller, but healthier town of Fulton, Illinois, I came upon the first Hillary Clinton lawn sign of these travels and then another and another.  Illinois is a Clinton state even outside of Chicago.  It is also a state whose small towns ardently support their high school football team. There were more signs supporting the "Riverboats"  in Fulton than Clinton signs.  Milledgeville abounded with signs exhorting its team, the "Missils."  Other towns expressed their high school football fervor with TP'ed trees and shop windows with exhortations.

For the first time in four states I was coming upon towns that had an appeal, that had some character and offered a mild enticement to linger for a few hours or days or even to disappear to for a few months to see what life was like in them or to take up a new life as Edward Norton considered in Spike Lee's masterpiece, "The 25th Hour."  Maybe it was because my trip was drawing to a close and I didn't want it to end. But that wasn't entirely true, as Janina, as usual, was drawing me like a strong magnet.  I had hoped to be home by the first of October, making it a three-week ride.  My injury deterred that, but only by a couple of days.

After my return I'll be eager to load our bikes in her car and return to Polo, a town of 2,000, thirty miles from the Mississippi  and one hundred from Chicago.  Not only did it have a pristine Carnegie with a simple "Carnegie" above its entrance,  it was near enough the stunning White Pines State Park to call itself "The Gateway to the Pines."  Polo also distinguished itself with an Islamic Center across the street from the Carnegie, not a sight one often comes upon in rural America.  I was there Sunday morning and there was no one to ask how it came to be there.

It's Carnegie had a small, addition that blended in to its backside to provide an entrance for the handicapped.  The Carnegie in Fulton had done the same thing.  It's gray brick exterior was so well-maintained I wouldn't have guessed it was over one hundred years old except for its 1909 cornerstone.

My final Carnegie and thirty-second of this ride came in Rochelle, a city of 9,500, seventeen miles west of  DeKalb and Northern Illinois University.  It had long ago outgrown its Carnegie, but still utilized it with a large addition that fully matched the original, including ornate decorations below the roofline around the entire building.  It maintained its prominence as the most distuished building in Rochelle--a temple and a shrine in the spirit of the majority of Carnegies.

My last campsite of the trip was through a soybean field to a dilapidated barn.  As with nearly every campsite once I left the mountains of Colorado, I was regularly woken through the night by freight trains blasting their horns as they approached an intersection.  Freight trains are thriving.  At times as many as three would pass in an hour.  Their engineers must love to toot their horns, as they would occasionally acknowledge me when they'd pass on a lonely road with no traffic for miles.  

I braced myself for the heavy traffic of Chicago's sprawl that extends for thirty miles or more in three directions, all except to the east blocked by Lake Michigan.  I am so accustomed to the sprawl, that I fully accepted what I was in for, just as I have been with my bruised shoulder, having endured such an injury three times before.  I'm glad the injury didn't prevent me from finishing off my ride, which has become a virtual commute I have done it so many times.  But unlike the normal commute, there is an inordinate amount of variety and satisfaction in each.  I am already plotting next year's route that will take me to the lone Carnegie I have yet to visit in Colorado, down in its southeast corner, and then a ride across Kansas rather than Nebraska.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Clinton, Iowa

My days on the bike are defined by any number of events--the Carnegies along the way, something I might find along the road, my camp site, a food treat, a conversation, an extraordinary site or happenstance.  The past ten days have had the added spector of the healing process of my shoulder.  Every day has shown improvement as my shoulder regains strength and mobility, allowing me to do some simple task I couldn't do before.

It was heartening to be able to open doors or to even carry something with my left hand.  I could gauge my progress by the amount of weight I could lift, starting with my sleeping pad and now finally able to manage a full rear pannier.  It is a joy to be able to lift my tent in the morning and shake out the debris before dismantling it.  It is a relief to be able to pull on my socks with both hands and to reach over with my left arm to unzip the tent.  I was happy to be able to push my bike up a steep embankment in the morning after camping in a cornfield without hardly a grimace.  It's nice to once again be able to reach back to a rear pannier while still straddling the bike.  

It wasn't until last night though that I was brave enough to attempt to pull my sweater over my head and wriggle my arms into it.  I didn't have much choice as I was cold and wet.  I was prepared to stay in a motel for the second time if one had presented itself, or, better yet, an old-time rooming house, as some of these small towns still offer.  But I had no such luck, camping once again behind a closed down service station.  I could have wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and hoped that would warm me up, but first I attempted my sweater. Lo and behold, it went on with only just minor wincing, not even a grimace.  That's the best news of all, as I have been starting my days chilled in forty degree temperatures, letting exertion warm me up.  Now I can put my sweater to use and a long sleeve t-shirt if it's really cold.  The final test will be if I can push Janina's lawn mower when I return.

Despite my rapid recovery, I'm riding with a cloud of wariness that is somewhat distracting.  I don't want to fall on my tender shoulder or gimpy knee.  Any fracture in the pavement raises an alarm that I might catch a tire and go tumbling.  The gravel shoulder is a constant reminder of my fall and warning to be alert.  When the wind is strong from any direction, a passing 18-wheeler can redirect a blast of it at me, threatening to blow me off the road.  I wouldn't stay upright long dashed into the thick  quagmire of gravel beside the pavement.  Route 30 across the state has too much traffic, and especially big trucks, to recommend it to cycling, but with its string of fifteen Carnegies, it was a route I had to take. Not everyone was happy about it.  All too many motorists have blasted their horns at me.  One would think cyclists weren't welcome in this state.  

A genuine ogre of a farmer ordered me off his property in a rage when I tried to camp behind a couple of his silos.  I was caught by dark and was desperate for a place to camp, as the corn fields had had no gaps in them for miles.  I thought the silos, which were surrounded by heavy farm equipment, were far enough from his home that I wouldn't be noticed or minded.  But his wife happened to be looking out as I approached them and sicced her hulk of a husband on me.  He was big enough that he didn't need to come with a rifle.  "What are you doing?" he demanded, just as I was beginning to set up my tent.  

"I was caught by the dark and needed a place to pitch my tent.  I didn't want to startle you and ask if it was okay.  I'm just passing through.  I'll be gone by first light."

"I want you gone right now.  You scared the shit out of my wife.  I don't care which way you're going, I just want you off my property."

There was no debate to the issue, so I quickly packed up and headed down the road in the dark.  Half a mile away I came to a cleared lane through a soybean field that was perfect.  I pushed my bike up over a rise so I wouldn't be seen from the road and celebrated this quiet, idyllic spot.  Ten minutes later, just as I finished putting all my gear into the tent, a pair of headlights closed in on me.  I figured it was a farmer crossing his field, but as the car approached the driver flicked on a revolving red light on his dashboard to signify he was a cop.  A young man hopped out with a badge in his hand.  By the time he reached me, a large pick-up truck pulled up behind him and out emerged the ogre.  

The officer was soft-spoken and kindly.  He could tell I was no threat, but he had to do this guy's bidding even though I was no longer on his property.  He apologized that people around here are very suspicious of strangers and that even though I wasn't doing any harm and would be gone without this farmer knowing I had been there, I couldn't stay.  He said he'd drive me to the next town a couple miles away where I could camp in its town park.  As I took down my tent, we had a friendly, neighborly conversation while the ogre silently glared in the background.   I told him about my Carnegie quest and that there were over one hundred Carnegies in Iowa including the first one Carnegie funded west of the Mississiippi.  The only Carnegie he knew was the motivational speaker.  He told me about taking a church group of twenty teens to Europe and how they had roughed it camping at churches.  

As we drove to the town of State Center he offered to stop at a Casey's service station and buy me some food.  I told him I had plenty.  After he dropped me off he shook my hand and said it was nice to meet me.  His kindness though did little to blunt the hostility of the farmer.  He really had it in for me to have known where I had disappeared to and to have called this officer, who was off-duty and a neighbor of his.  I didn't know whether to be more upset by his animosity or his fear that I might be a threat, one of them terrorists.  He was another example, like the many motorists who take umbrage at my presence, that RAGBRAI has not fully endeared cyclists to all in Iowa.  The officer confirmed that the rowdiness of many of the thousands of riders, many of whom come from out-of-state,  antagonizes the conservative side of many Iowans.  It is a Trump state after all.

My lift to State Center got me close enough to Marshalltown and its Carnegie that I arrived in time for breakfast at a downtown diner--two of the biggest pancakes I have ever encountered.  They were enough for breakfast and lunch and filled me so well I didn't need to nibble on the nuts and raisins in my handlebar bag.

It's Carnegie too was a grand edifice, a two-story white-stoned building with a corner entrance, above which was "Gift of Andrew Carnegie."  It now serves as offices for the local government.

Twenty miles away Tama's much smaller Carnegie had also been retired.  It was on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood with no room for expansion.  There was no interest in purchasing it for enterprise.  When no buyer came forth when it was replaced sixteen years ago, the next door neighbors purchased it and used it for a woodworking shop and for a spell as a day care center.  They have done little to maintain it.  The front entrance is overgrown by bushes and the side that adjoins the owners is cluttered with cars.  But it still exudes a glow of nobility.

Then came the longest stretch on 30 between Carnegies, over fifty miles to Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in Iowa with a population of 130,000.  It was recovering from the second worst flood in its history.  The low-lying downtown along the Cedar River was closed off.  School had been out all week. The flood waters had receded and with the blocked roads not being vigilantly attended I was able to cross the still swollen Cedar on the 2nd Avenue bridge and reach the Carnegie on 3rd Avenue.  On the way I passed the still sandbagged Paramount Theater.  It had cost $35 million to restore it in 2008 after the city's worst flood.  There was enough warning for this year's flood to remove all its seats and take them to the second floor.

Just four blocks away there were no sandbags around the former Carnegie, now part of the city's large Art Museum.  It's roofline bore the names of the usual (Dante, Homer, Virgil, Shakeapeare, Irving, Goethe) and one surprise (Komensky).

The adjoining town of Marion also had a Carnegie, though it too had been replaced.  It now offered religious services for the First United Methodist Church, though it's entrance was still graced with "Carnegie Library, Free to the People."

I angled back to route 30 and Mount Vernon to Cornell College and the library funded for the school that also served as the town library.  It faced onto the quad of similar red brick buildings and was now the Norton Geology Center and Anderson Museum.  The new library also served the college and town in this pleasantly wholesome small town.

The Carnegie in DeWitt was being renovated by its new owners to host special events.  It was in the center of the town half a block from a diner that was packed on Saturday morning serving breakfast.  It's three-stack was modest enough that it was a rare hotcakes meal I could finish.

It gave me more than enough energy to reach Clinton, sixteen miles away, without having to nibble.  It's majestic Carnegie was the first since Ames, six Carnegies ago, that still functioned as a library, and was large enough that it hadn't been added on to.  It was the first building visitors saw when they crossed the Mississiippi from Illinois.  Seven of the fifteen on my route across Iowa still served as libraries.  It was a spectacular finale.  I have three that I have yet to visit on my remaining 150 miles  across Illinois beginning with one in Fulton, just across the river.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ames, Iowa

At the first cafe I stopped at in Iowa I was startled by a burst of laughter coming from a table of two elderly couples and the almost joyous exuberance of their conversation.  That wasn't something I had encountered in Nebraska.  The Nebraskans weren't necessarily repressed and downtrodden, but their economy certainly seemed so, as reflected by the sorry state of most of their towns and their Carnegie Libraries, and that couldn't help but be reflected in the demeanor of its people.  In comparison with those in Iowa, they seemed to be more coping with life than enjoying it.

The towns in Iowa were pulsing with life and weren't run down as were those in Nebraska.  The grass was green and the paint wasn't peeling and faded. Vacant store fronts were a rarity.   Small towns had coffee shops and other non-essential businesses, such as florists, that implied a healthy economy.  And the Carnegie libraries had a shine to them.  Most had had an addition to cater to the growth of the towns, while those in Nebraska hadn't had that need.  The people aren't so much to blame, but rather one state having rich and productive soil and the other not so much so. Even iowa's late fall withering brown corn stalks were much hardier than those of Nebraska.

With folk seemingly scraping by in Nebraska, as if they're just trying to hold on, clinging to a frontier-mentality, people have a common bond and look out for one another. When I had one final flat tire late in the afternoon as I neared the Iowa border, two motorists stopped to offer help.  One even offered a Subway sandwich he had just bought.  A few days earlier someone else asked if I needed money as I sat eating a peanut butter sandwich under a tree. He was astounded I was bicycling to Chicago.  He didn't think such a thing was possible.  

My flat tire was an exclamation point on the bad luck that has dogged me on this trip.  I thought my slow-leak woes were behind me when I put one of the three brand new tubes that I had bought at Walmart a couple of hours before in my rear tire. It wasn't totally necessary, as I had been nursing a super-slow leak for several days that only required a small amount of pumping at the start of the day and then again mid-afternoon.  But during a rest break I decided to replace the tube and be done with this extra pumping that was a strain on my injured shoulder. Two miles down the road I could feel the tire going soft.  When I took out the tube and reinflated it to find the puncture, I discovered the tube had a blemish in it and I hold been sold a tube with a hole in it.  

I should have been wary, as when I opened the box the tube came in, I could see that someone had already opened it and ineptly stuffed the tube back into the box.  I assumed that whoever had bought it hadn't meant to buy a presta valve tube and had returned it.  Instead, they returned it after either discovering it had a hole or puncturing it themselves.  "Only at Walmart," one might say.  And only on this trip with so much I'll-fortune starting with a brake pad wearing out on a long steep descent and even worse snapping a brake cable on another long descent and the frustration of following Interstate 70 and being detoured onto 80 and pulled over for it and then nearly breaking my collarbone and continually pricking my tires with goat heads and having my tent crumbled by violent winds and rain.  Ah, the joy of bike touring.  Yes, it is a joy despite all the adversity.  Pedaling a bike for hours and hours out in the hinterlands is always revitalizing and knowing that the planet is my campground equally so. Biking long distances is an emphatic Declaration of Independence that never grows old.  Even if I didn't have Carnegie Libraries to search out, I'd still be at it.

The first I came to in Missouri Valley after crossing the Missouri River into Iowa had a huge addition with the original entrance turned into a garden emphasizing its grandeur.  It's not an uncommon redesign of a Carnegie ensuring that patrons will use the new, stairless, handicap-accessible entrance.

To the right of the circulation desk above a coffee-maker offering a cup for one dollar hung an original portrait of Carnegie without identifying him.

The Carnegie in Logan twenty miles away had the standard portrait that the Carnegie Foundation offered to all the Libraries in 1935 on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth hanging in its entry.  Its addition in 1989 matched the original brick of the library and wasn't detectable looking at it straight on.
Cupcakes and cookies and lemonade filled a table to honor the departure of one of the librarians, further accentuating its neighborly feel.

Continuing on route 30 another twenty miles took me to the distinctive Carnegie in Woodbine with an addition to its side in 2001. 

Unlike Logan, which had Carnegie chiseled over its entry, Woodbine identified itself with a CPL emblem just under its roofline.  A plaque beside the door announced the building was on the National Register of Historic Places.

Further down 30 in Dunlap was the first Carnegie without an addition and that no long served as a library.  The Word of Life church now held services there.  

They had let it fall into disrepair. It was on its way to becoming a ruin with crumbling bricks and peeling paint and missing light fixtures, one missing even a bulb.

Denison was back to a Carnegie with full dignity.  One could look upon it without realizing it had a large addition behind it.

The Carnegie in Carroll was addition-free, but it was now the Carroll County Historical Museum.  It's facade on three sides was adorned with authors--Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Longfellow, Virgil, Dickens, Goethe, Plutarch, Irving, Emerson, Eliot.

Below the windows was a little extra ornamentation of carved books with  a "CL" for Carnegie Library.

Continuing on 30 I came to the magnificent Jefferson Carnegie with a large modern addition attached to its side.

On its backside were five banners promoting reading.

At about the half-way point across the state in the college town of Ames was another temple of a Carnegie with a large glassy addition.

Even in this college town I saw no Clinton posters.  I haven't seen a one in over a thousand miles, just ones for Trump, though not much more than one or two a day.  I was camping in a cornfield and missed the debate.  When I asked a librarian the next morning who won, she said, "No one.  We're in big trouble."

Monday, September 26, 2016

Blair, Nebraska

My left shoulder remains sore and painful and has limited use, but it's improving by increments every day. I can now raise my arm to my ear when I need to reinsert an ear plug and I can drop to my bar end shifter without having to inch my fingers down the handlebar to reach it.  Bumps in the road no longer send jolts of pain to my shoulder and I can lift small amounts of weight with my bum arm.

It is still a semi-excruciating struggle to thread my arm into my jacket or even my vest.  It would be nearly impossible to put on my sweater or a t-shirt.  But all of that is incidental since it's not preventing me from riding the bike and finishing off this 1,500 mile trek from Telluride to Chicago.  I can't stand on the pedals, as it puts too much weight on the arm, nor can I pull with it.  Fortuntately, the terrain is mostly flat, so that's no great handicap.

Sleeping can be painful, as I forget I have an injured arm and move it without thinking and receive a jolt of pain for my mistake.  I haven't had a good night's sleep since my crash.  I had my worst night's sleep of the trip two nights ago when a strong wind whipped the rain fly into the tent all night and at times buckled the tent poles against me.  It just wouldn't quit.  Just before dawn the gusts turned violent and unleashed a torrent of rain.  With the tent suddenly a sieve and threatening to collapse on me I had to put on my Goretex jacket while trying to hold the poles upright as rain trickled in soaking my sleeping bag.  It rained some more during the day.  The sun never appeared, so I was unable to dry my sleeping bag or sleeping pad or tent.  It forced me into a motel for the first time in fifteen nights since leaving Telluride.  It was in David City, a town with a Carnegie.  It was my third of the day, the most of this trip.  Only one still functioned as a library, my first of the day in Clarks.

It was another basic red-brick building, but unlike the Carnegie in Ravenna, there were steps up to the entrance, the symbolic rising up to knowledge, and it was framed by a pair of faux in-set pillars, lending it a modicum of majesty.  It stood on the corner of the main intersection of this small, barely-gasping, town. Like just about every small agricultural town I have passed through in Nebraska, it was withering on the vine.  None offered much of an inducement to linger other than their Carnegie or if I were a sociologist studying what induced people to stay.  There were no hours posted for this Carnegie, just one of those clock-signs in the window of the door indicating it would reopen at one.

A couple hours later I had to drop down four miles from the highway I was following at this point across the state to check out the Carnegie in the slightly larger and healthier town of Stromsberg.  It forced me into a strong south wind, the same one that had blown all night.  Knowing I'd have it at my back on my return to my east-west artery made it somewhat tolerable.  But shortly after I arrived in Stromsberg, while I shopped at the local supermarket largely staffed by high schoolers, a storm hit, and when it calmed after half an hour, so did the wind.

I waited out the storm under an awning, as the library wasn't open on Saturday.  It had replaced the Carnegie a few years ago.  The Carnegie had stood vacant since. A local had finally come forth and  was presently converted it into a book store and a bakery.

Like every one of the nine Carnegies I had visited so far on this ride across Nebraska, it was pretty much in its orginal state without an addition other than an air conditioner.

By the time I left Stromsberg, there was a hint of a breeze from the south, giving me a little assistance, but not the turbo-charge I had been counting on.  After a couple of hours I had the option of turning north to the large city of Columbus for its Carnegie and the guarantee of a motel for the night or continuing east to the town of David City and its Carnegie, but taking a chance on finding accommodation.  I opted for the smaller town, saving the tail wind to Columbus for the next day, rather than having to push into it back to David City.  I thought I made the right decision when I found a small Indian run motel in David City that gave me a discount for paying cash.  But the wind switched during the night and I had a strong headwind for twenty-five miles to start my day.  A frolicsome hour-and-a-half ride became a brutal three-hour forced march. I'm not one to say that it always seems like I have a headwind, but I had been cursed by ill-winds for a couple days that seemed to be purposely turning on me.

At least the Carnegie in David City broke the trend of red-brick boxes.  It was still red-brick, but it had large windows and an ornamental entrance and a distinguished roof.  It houses Immunotec, a company that sells wellness products. It had the Ten Commandments on its new glass door.

I spent over an hour in the motel repairing punctured tubes.  All four of my spares needed patches, as many as three or four thanks to the insidious and unavoidable goatheads.  It wasn't even save to push my bike through the grass in small parks, as they could pick up an array of those prickly bastards.  I awoke one morning to both tires flat and the tires sprinkled with the heads I had picked up merely pushing my bike down a dirt road with small patches of weeds that were mined with them.

I had to cut some of my patches in half to complete the job.  Columbus would be the first city large enough since Denver with a store where I could buy tubes and patches--a  Walmart.  Before I tackled the tubes, I took my first shower since Telluride.  I forgot about my injury and squeezed shampoo into my left palm, which I couldn't lift to the top of my head.  I had to transfer it to my right hand.

The Carnegie in Columbus was the third of those I'd visited in Nebraska that was now law offices, though the building was for sale.  It had been red brick, but had been painted white. 

Sixteen miles east of Columbus in Schuyler was the eleventh and final Carnegie of the Nebraska sector of this ride.  And it was the saddest--vacant and with broken windows.  A musty smell oozed out of the broken front windows.

As I sat in the shade and finished off a two-pound container of Walmart's Amish macaroni salad I watched a non-stop parade of Hispanics, mostly in family groups, flocking to a Hispanic grocery store. At least fifty per cent of those shopping at the Walmart in Columbus were also Hispanics.

I had been intending to cross the Missouri River into Iowa at Omaha to visit a Carnegie in Council Bluffs on the other side of the river and also to seek out an Apple Store to try to regain access to my yahoo email.  That would have been a detour of forty miles, more than I cared to make since the miles haven't been coming so easily thanks to the wind and my injury.  Instead I continued due east to Blair, whose Carnegie burned down in 1971.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Fullerton, Nebraska

 Having suffered a couple of broken collarbones as well as a severe contusion of a collarbone during my years as a bicycle messenger, I well know their piercing pain.  There isn't much difference.  So when I crashed on a surprise descent on a thickly gravelled road with my shoulder bearing the brunt of my fall and felt an explosion of pain in my left collarbone, I held out hope that I hadn't broken it, which would meant the end of this ride and weeks off the bike.

I laid on my back in agony for several minutes trying to fathom how this could have happened.  I had just turned on to this unexpected stretch of gravel ten minutes before and was following a nice hard-packed lane as good as pavement, flying along assisted by a tailwind, when all of a sudden I came to a slight rise and then a descent that was thick with gravel.  I gained speed before I could brake and then was swerving out of control.  The pain in my shoulder was so sharp I didn't realize blood was oozing from my left knee and a golf-ball sized knob had popped up just below it.

It was dusk and there hadn't been any traffic on this road since I had turned on to it.  I didn't particularly wish to be rescued.  I just wanted to crawl off into the nearby cornfield and lick my wounds.  There is nothing a doctor can do for a broken collarbone other than give one a sling, and I could easily fashion one myself from all the bandanas I'd been finding along the road.

I had risen to a sitting position when I saw headlights approaching.  The driver had no choice but to stop. He was a 40-year old man in a pick-up truck wearing a reflective vest. "Are you all right?" he asked.  "Do you want me to call for help?"

"I think I'm okay," I replied.  "I just need help picking up my bike."  I knew there was no way I could manage that with just one arm.  I was already holding my damaged arm across my chest in the sling position.  I could see a clearing between cornfields a little ways away where I could set up my tent and start my recovery.

I hobbled along with a pronounced limp using the bike as a crutch.  The pain in my leg was a minor throb compared to the searing pain in my shoulder.  I pushed the bike a couple hundred feet through a grassy strip between fields and leaned it against a barbed wire fence.  Then began the challenge of setting up my tent with one arm.  Any jiggle of the bad arm had me whelping in pain.  I didn't care that I was visible from the road, as I would have welcomed a police officer, just to find out how far it was to the nearest motel in case I needed to lay up for a couple of days.

I managed to open a can of beans with one hand and added them to my ramen. There was no quick clapping to death of mosquitoes with only one hand at my disposal.  I could finally gain a slight measure of relaxation leaning back in my sleeping pad/camp chair.  I began experimenting with my bad arm and discovered I had a little range of movement giving me hope there wasn't a break.  The brightest glimmer of hope came when I laid down to sleep and after a few minutes on my back slowly eased over to my right side without any stabs of pain.  I couldn't have done that with a broken collar bone.  The weld on its previous break may have saved it.  My previous severe contusion kept me off work for two weeks.  Touring is much less demanding than measengering, so maybe I could start riding in a day or two.  Right now my arm was useless.  I couldn't lift a thing with it and any jarring of the shoulder was excruciating.

I slept solid and could keep sleeping with the dawn as clouds had moved in blunting the sun, not heating up the tent.  I slept till noon and considered sleeping the rest of the day, but I didn't have enough water for a second night.  It took nearly an hour to break camp and then an hour-and-a-half to push the bike three-and-a-half miles to the pavement, with a half hour rest break.  My leg was sore and my shoulder very tender.  Only three or four cars passed and a grader smoothing the gravel.  He was a day late.  None stopped.  

When I reached the pavement I warily threw my leg over the bike wondering if I dared attempt to ride it.  I gripped the handlebars with both hands and squeezed the brakes okay.  Leaning forward only caused minimal pain in my left shoulder.  I pushed off and I was happily, almost miraculously, back riding my bike.  It was two miles to the town of Dannebrog, population 345.  It wasn't big enough for a motel, but there was a small grocery store. The owner was wearing a "Don't Suck" t-shirt, motto of Cubs manager Joe Madden.  He was an ardent fan who makes a trip to Wrigley, 600 miles a way, nearly every year.  He said I could pitch my tent in the town park, a block away.  

It was tempting, but I couldn't resist giving my damaged left side a little more of a test.  Some might advise rest as the best healing agent.  I go with exercise, circulating the blood and moving stiff joints and lifting the spirit.  It seemed to be working.  I managed fifteen miles before dark, camping beyond the county fair grounds in St. Paul and within range of a slaughterhouse where the terrified squeals of hogs made my squeals of the evening before seem insignificant.  

It was another night of grimacing, but I was relieved that I wouldn't have to call Janina to come rescue me, as I knew she would gladly have done.  I was still done in and slept nearly twelve hours, but I could ride with a lot less pain in my leg, though the shoulder was a different story. Every bump in the road registered with it.  I didn't make it to Fullerton and its Carnegie, thirty-six miles away, until mid-afternoon.  The library had been retired nearly twenty-five years ago and was presently vacant.  Carnegie would have greatly applauded it as it had no ornamentation.  It was a purely functional two-story red brick building with no funds wasted on embellishments, though it did have "Carngie Pulbic Library" chiseled over the entrance.

It had more space than the slightly more distinguished Carnegie in Ravenna I visited a few hours before my calamity with the gravel.  The town had plans and the site for a new library, but not the funds.

A substitute librarian was on duty. It was a rare library that required a code for its WIFI.  She had to make a call to find out what it was--booksrfun.  I was there when school let out and its lone upstairs room was suddenly filled with kids wanting on to the computers.  There is no greater emblem of small town America than kids leaving their bikes unlocked and in disarray out front.

The Carnegie in Arcadia was only open four days a week for just three-and-a-half hours at a time.

The Carnegie in Loup City was now a law office that maintained its regal demeanor facing on to the town's main square where in 1934 there was a demonstration known as the "Loup City Riot."  

A historical plaque explained that women poultry workers were threatening a strike over their wages.  Ela Reefe "Mother" Bloor of the American Communist Party and others came to support their cause.  It resulted in a clash with local residents.  Bloor and others in her group were given jail sentences and fines, squashing "the attempt of the far left to organize farmers and workers in Nebraska."  Alexander Payne might have another Nebraska movie here, or John Sayles could have his first. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Broken Bow, Nebraska

I can now add Nebraska to the ever-growing list of states where I have been stopped by a cop while on my bicycle.  It wasn't  totally unexpected as I was riding on Interstate 80, simply following the detour signs around some road construction on route 30, paralleling the Interstate.

It was Sunday evening when I came upon the road construction.  Signs advised that the construction continued for twelve miles and also warned of $300 fines for anyone who continued on the road.  If I'd had more than half an hour of daylight remaining, I would have risked continuing on 30 with no road crews at work.  Instead I followed the detour signs for a mile to the Interstate, crossing the low Platte River on the way.  I didn't dare the Interstate in the dusk, setting up my tent behind an abandoned service station. I set my alarm for six a.m. to make an early dash on the Interstate not being fully confident that bicyclists were embraced by the detour.

My map showed the next exit was twelve miles away at Paxton.  If I didn't have a contrary wind, I could make it in less than an hour.  The air was calm as the sun rose in a clear sky dead center on the road ahead as I descended the long entry ramp to 80, a road I have driven many a time, but never biked.  The traffic was very light at this early hour, about half cars and half 18-wheelers.  The wide shoulder was nearly free of debris.  I passed up a couple of heavy black rubber bungee cords that only have minimal stretch that I rarely scavenge.  I also ignored a stray nickel, that might have been a slug. I wasn't going to stop for anything less than the extraordinary to get this over with as quickly as possible.  I kept my head mostly bowed to avoid looking into the sun, just occasionally glancing from side to side at the bland Interstate scenery of withered fields of corn and weedy pastures of grains.

The traffic gave me a wide berth, most moving over into the far lane.  Only one trucker gave a less than friendly toot, protesting my presence.  With most drivers cell phone-equipped these days, anyone could dial 911 and alert the authorities of my encroachment.  Once I had gone six miles, half-way to the end of the detour, I relaxed a bit, thinking that if I were apprehended I'd simply be taken to the nearest exit.  I still rode hard, diminishing somewhat the pleasure of being on the bike.  I was coming off my first hundred mile day and would have slept a bit longer if I hadn't wanted an early start for my possible illegal incursion.

When I saw a billboard advertising a service station and cafe at the upcoming exit, two miles ahead, I breathed a sigh of relief.  But then moments later a squad car passed me with its overhead red light spinning and then pulled over.  Two officers hopped out.  They didn't need to gesture for me to stop.  Their first words were, "Don't you know it's illegal to ride your bicycle on the Interstate?"

"I was just following the detour."

"It doesn't apply to bicyclists."

"What was I supposed to do?"

"You could have kept riding on route 30.  I should be writing you a ticket right now and putting your bike in my car and taking you back to where you got on, but my trunk isn't big enough for your bike.  I'll let you continue to the exit.  It's just a couple miles further.  But be careful.  This is a dangerous road.  Six people have been killed along here.  We're headed to the shooting range.  I don't want to have to come back and clean up your body."

"Don't worry.  I'm not enjoying this at all. I'll be happy to get back on 30.  Did the Broncos win yesterday?"

"Yes they did, but I don't remember the score."

They must have been in a hurry, as they didn't asked to see my driver's license, as every other cop has so they could go sit in their car and keep me waiting while they called it in.  All they wanted to know is where I was from.  When I said Chicago, I asked, "Do you think the Bears can win tonight's Monday Night game against Philadelphia's rookie quarterback?"  They did not know.

I had braced myself for an encounter with the law two nights before when I camped by a high barbed wire fence surrounding a tower and some trap doors.  It was far enough from the road and near dark that I felt safe until I saw a sign on the fence that warned trespassers would be subject to armed force.  I didn't plan to trespass, but as I set up my tent I heard a whirring sound.  I looked up to see a surveillance camera scanning the premises.  I feared my motion might have triggered it.  But it went into action every fifteen minutes. Either no one was paying any attention to it or if someone was they recognized I was no threat, as no one came to apprehend me, as once happened in South Dakota when I camped alongside a similar enclosure.  Soldiers in full combat gear came by in the morning and told me I was camping beside a weapons cache, as this might have been.

That was my last night in Colorado on a lightly travelled road to Sidney, Nebraska, site of the first of the ten Carnegies on this year's route across Nebraska.  It was on Illinois, the main street through a city struggling to survive.  Though it still was emblazoned with "Carnegie Libary" above its entry, it was now the town's Chamber of Commerce identified by a large sign accompanied by the slogan "Keep Sidney Beautiful" and the initials "KSB."

A plaque on the still regal building said it had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The characterless, replacement library off on a side street will never earn such recognition.

Towns and Carnegies are few and far between in the western half of Nebraska.  It was more than 200 miles to the next in Broken Bow.  I felt fortunate to find a mini-cafe in the small town of Arnold with a population of less than 500, thirty-two miles from Broken Bow after camping in a cemetery sixteen miles away.  The cafe catered to the elderly in the town, who filled several tables chattering away.  I could only pick up fragments of their overlapping conversations as I ate a burrito since there were no hotcakes on the menu--"I saw her walk across the highway to get her mail," "I hear they're moving to Indiana," "I can't place that person though I know I should," "I was busy decorating cupcakes, three hundred of them," "I'll have to see what Bob says,""We're going to take Mildred to supper."

It was going to be another 90 degree day so I availed myself of a thirty-two ounce Dr. Pepper.  I had the wind at my back until I turned south on Route Two for nine miles down to Broken Bow, a town of 3,500, large enough to have outgrown its Carnegie.  It had been converted into the Carnegie Professional Buiilding with offices for a law firm, accountants, an auctioneer and a couple of social services.  It was splendidly maintained complete with beds of flowers.

Around the corner a historical marker explained the town's name.  In 1882 when an early settler sought to name and establish a town on the spot of an earlier Indian encampment his first three choices were rejected as being too similar to other towns.  He'd seen a broken bow on the spot so offered that as a name.  There is no Native American presence in the town, though the town park is called Tomahawk and the high school sport teams are known as The Indians.  Shops had signs of Indian Power and Sink the Swedes, the nickname of a rival school.

The new generic library was three blocks away.  It was trying to raise funds to expand.  It had a display of books that had been made into movies with a sign saying "Never judge a book by its movie."

Broken Bow is ten miles from the geographic center of Nebraska.  I have forests ahead.  Broken Bow is known as the "Sod House Frontier," the beginning of terrain that the early settlers had to use sod to construct their homes, there not being much wood.