Friday, September 29, 2017

Mexico, Missouri

If I had known I'd be passing through Mexico, Missouri I might have been more inclined to have headed down to Patagonia, Arizona, not far from the Mexican border, at the start of these travels to complete a pairing of Latin American-named towns that evoke a rush of fond memories, having biked hundreds of miles in each.  A couple of long-time friends, who are ardent travelers, have taken up residence in Patagonia, but neither could assure me they would be there after Telluride. It still would have been nice to have gained an acquaintance with the town and also to add some Carnegies in Arizona and New Mexico to my collection, but I opted instead to cut several hundred miles from my ride so I could reach Bloomington, Indiana in time for its annual Hilly Hundred weekend.

I was drawn to Missouri's Mexico by its Carnegie library. It was vacant and looking a bit neglected and  rejected, especially compared to the adjoining grand Carnegiesque library that had replaced it. At least it hadn't been razed.  I wasn't able to inquire if the library had any plans for it, even though I had ridden hard to reach it before five and its presumed closing time, as it had been closed for the day so the staff could assist with the move of books to a branch library in the neighboring town of Vandalia.

Mexico, with 11,000 residents, was the largest town I had passed through all day, big enough to have a country club and also a parking lot twelve miles out of town for carpoolers.  I had spent the day riding small county roads through tiny towns, including Dalton with a population of seventeen. The only food available was the meager selections at a lone Casey's General Store and a Dollar Store.  They have driven out local stores all along my route.  Casey's was in a town of just a couple hundred people.  I asked the teenaged girl at the checkout counter if there was a library in the town.  "We don't have anything here," she scoffed.  A few minutes later, as I sat outside the store drinking a chocolate milk and reading "Catcher in the Rye" she passed by with the garbage.  She came to life and blurted, "I love that book."

I thought I had made a mistake when I ventured off the main highway for this more direct route on tiny roads when I hit a stretch of gravel.  Fortunately, it only went on for five miles and was relatively flat. But I rode very warily remembering my tumble on gravel in Nebraska last year that came near to breaking a collarbone.  There were stretches of roller-coaster steep hills that also made the shorter route longer than the long route.  It gave me a taste of my weekend of hills in Bloomington to come and made me happy that I'd be riding them shed of all my gear.  But it was a nice stretch with no more than two or three vehicles per hour and worry-free camping.  I'm beginning to wonder if I'm going to manage this ride without anyone calling the cops on me for illicit camping with less than a week to go.  Usually it's happened by now lately in my US travels.

With only thirty-five Carnegies, compared to the sixty-six of Kansas, of which I stopped at nine, my route across Missouri will intersect with just three.  The first was in Parkville on the campus of Park College on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River towards Kansas City.  As with most of the academic libraries Carnegie funded, its architecture blended in with the campus architecture and wasn't particularly recognizable as a Carnegie.  Such libraries are still statuesque structures, but they don't distinguish themselves from all the buildings around them as the public libraries do.

I had not much more than an hour before dark to find a place to camp after crossing into Missouri and visiting Parkville.  All the suburban developments on the other side of the river from Kansas City  caught me by surprise. They went on for miles and miles broken only by malls with the usual franchises. I thought I'd be back into rural America heading north out of Kansas City, but the sprawl of new cloned two-story homes in vast developments continued unabated.  I was lucky to find a pocket of forest with a trail blocked by a gate and a "No Trespassing" sign that I could go around for a nice quiet campsite other than a distant barking dog.

During the night a front passed through bringing rain and a drop of temperature.  It was below sixty when I broke camp, necessitating not only a long-sleeve shirt for the first time in a week, but my windbreaker. Clouds filled the sky for the first time since I left Telluride over two weeks ago.  At last, fall conditions.  Now just the hills, and not the heat, were sapping my energy.  The much more fertile soil of Missouri was reflected in corn over head-high that helped blunt what little breeze there was.  Forests also made the terrain look much more habitable than Kansas.  But the towns were still small and on the fade.  The Carnegie in Excelsoir Springs was vacant and nearly as forlorn as the one in Mexico.  A "For Sale" sign was in its window.  All of the "historic downtown" was equally shabby, though not uninviting.  One could find a home for a song here.  The town's new standard library was on its outskirts near its Dollar Store and other franchises. 

The small towns I've passed through are truly dying, but the larger towns are full of "Now Hiring" signs, from fast food joints to small factories, something I hadn't seen in years past on my commute back to Chicago.  One receives very mixed signals on the health of the economy.

It was two days of riding from Excelsior Springs until the next Carnegie in Mexico.  And after Mexico there would be no more until I cross the Mississippi into Illinois.  Even with all my meandering around my home state over the years nine Carnegies await me that I have yet to visit across its southern extremity as I head to Indiana.

This ride is distinguishing itself not only of being free of a brush with the law, but also without a flat tire, a virtual miracle having crossed a long stretch of goat's head terrain. I also went over a thousand miles before my first roll of electrician's tape, something I was actually in need of as I'd used what I'd brought in Telluride.  So far I have two license plates for Dwight and have collected three neckerchiefs, including a rare albino one, and two more bungee cords in addition to the two I left with Joel.  

And as has happened several times before on these Carnegie  quests, I heard Ralph Nader pay homage to Carnegie. He mentioned him in his podcast of August 5 when he was interviewing David Callahan, author of the book "The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age."  It wasn't until the end of the hour interview that Nader lauded Carnegie for funding "2,500" libraries in the United States and Canada.  The precise number of Carnegie-built libraries is 2,509 with 1,689 in the US, 126 in Canada and the rest in Europe, Africa, New Zealand, Australia and a few island republics.  He accurately quoted Carnegie from his book "Gospel of Wealth," where he wrote, "The man who dies rich, dies disgraced."  Nader added, "I don't think anything has been written better by a billionaire."  Nader also praised Warren Buffet for his philanthropy.  He gives each of his three children $100 million a year for their charitable organizations.  One of his daughters has funneled $500 million dollars to women's groups supporting abortion, more than anyone else.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Kansas City, Kansas

In this recent stretch of extreme heat no sound has pleased my ears more than the rattle of ice in my metal water bottle after I have crawled into my tent and pulled the bottle out of my pannier, hoping the ice in the drink I put in it an hour or more earlier hasn't melted. Even if I don't hear the sound, I know the drink will be considerably colder than the water in the three bottles attached to my frame, but to have a drink with ice in it when I have yet to cool down after a long day of being roasted is almost too good to be true. The chilled fluid soothes the throat and dissolves the misery of all those hours of being baked by the sun. It is always a challenge to just sip and make the drink last as long as possible.  No alcoholic could enjoy a drink more than I do my ice-cold drink in my tent at day's end.

At least when the sun sets, the temperature becomes more tolerable and at some time in the night I actually have to pull my sleeping bag over me. The morning hours are still somewhat cool until ten or so making me glad to be on the bike even though I know I am soon doomed to the inferno. It is no wonder that hell is hot and not cold.  One of the worst things of these hot days is I must ride in those morning hours and can't stop at a diner for a stack of hotcakes.  The bounty of calories is almost enough to get me through the day, but equally pleasurable is the dose of local color in small town cafes where most of the patrons know one another and though they may be seated tables apart speak loud enough that anyone can pick up on a conversation. To speak in modified tones would be unsociable and grounds for accusations of plotting or being secretive, inspiring someone to,blurt, "What are you whispering about over there?"

After five days of blistering heat a slight decrease even of a couple of degrees was reason to celebrate.  I still rode from ice-filled drink to ice-filled drink, but when a service station didn't have a table to sit inside in air conditioned comfort, it wasn't such a disaster to have to sit outside in the shade.  I was ever in search of water to pour over me.  I wasn't so happy during the blitz of heat when I arrived at the Carnegie in Canton after it had closed and neither of its water spigots were dispensing water.

The library had none of the flourishes (columns or bay windows or high ceilings or elaborate light fixtures or dome) of the more prominent Carnegies.  It blended in with the neighboring homes, but it was still a small gem.  The town took extra pride in it, as it was the last of the 1,689 libraries in the US that Carnegie funded in 1921, and erected a sign out front to that effect.  Canton was in such decline with most of the businesses empty and adorned with "for rent" signs that the library was only open four days a week for a total of fifteen hours.  But at least it's WIFI hadn't been curtailed, nor did it require a password.

I was lucky a small grocery store across the street was open until seven.  It did not have a soft drink machine with an ice dispenser, but it did have a tankard that dispensed purified water for 59 cents per gallon.  There was no charge for my small water bottle.

If the winds hadn't been so fierce, or if I had known that my friend Laura, who I met through Facets over twenty years ago had grown up in nearby Peabody,  I would have ducked back south on a diagonal road to its Carnegie.  But I chose to stay north and head to the two Carnegies in Emporia, as I knew I could include Peabody on my next Carnegie foray to Kansas when I followed a corridor of them through Sterling and Hutchinson and McPherson. 

I had no luck finding the former Carnegie on the campus of Emporia College as the address given for it on Wikipedia had a church and none of the students I consulted on a Saturday evening when all the administrative offices were closed knew anything about it.  I had to settle for just the former public library Carnegie, looking somewhat like a castle, now a museum right next to the new library.

Like the Carnegie in Canton, the Carnegie in the similarly-sized Lyndon had a prominent sign out front letting the world know of its origins.

It hardly needed the sign, as it had all the luster of a Carnegie.  I almost thought I was in France when I noticed its opening hours were interrupted by an hour for lunch.  France is frequently on my mind on my Carnegie quests.  As I enter a town with a Carnegie,  I brace myself for the sudden exhilaration of spotting it, knowing it will be the most historic and magnificent building in the town, just as I anticipate a town's cathedral in France, always a grandiose, monumental building, and like the Carnegies of America, in the town center.  One might think the French with their love of reading would similarly honor their local library, but that is not the case at all.  France does have one Carnegie, in Reims, built after WWI to replace its destroyed library, and it is a gem, just a couple blocks from its World Heritage Cathedral.  But otherwise the country's libraries are nondescript or modern glassy buildings, frequently referred to as a "mediatech" in the modern lexicon.

I found the Carnegie on the campus of Baker University in Baldwin City early Sunday evening, my third of the day after Lyndon and Ottawa.  Ottawa's was now a Cultural Center sitting in a large park.

Baker's Carnegie was now an administrative building and had been replaced by a much larger library next door.  I was able to tap into its wifi to call a reader of this blog who lived twenty-five miles away and had invited me to visit. 

I had been pushing it to try to make it this evening and had already biked seventy-four miles, my best day since the heat had hit.  I had an hour-and-a-half of light left.  If I got close enough to his house in Olathe, world headquarters of Garmin, within the sprawl of Kansas City, by dark, I was hoping there would be street lights or enough ambient urban light to keep riding.  It would make for my first hundred mile day of these travels.  I am always happy to have such a goal.  Arriving at his house after dark would be a nice triumph.

When dark hit I was still in semi-rural terrain.  After being blinded by the brights of several approaching cars, I opted to camp behind an abandoned car mechanic's garage.  Rather than feeling defeat I felt the exhilaration of a ninety-mile day in ninety-degree heat.  It was still a triumph to arrive at Bill's house the next morning, especially being greeted by a Tour de France flag that he had acquired when he paid The Tour a visit in 2008.  We didn't know each other at the time, otherwise we would have rendezvoused at L'Alpe d'Huez, where we both were in the year Carlos Sastre attacked on the climb to win The Race. 

Bill had been laid off by Sprint and Erickson six months ago and was still enjoying his severance package, so was free to lead me into Kansas City and its lone, still-standing Carnegie, twenty miles away.  It's not likely he can find work in his field, so he's been taking courses to become a paralegal.

He had a garage full of bikes.  He chose his prized Rivendale for our ride.  We made it a leisurely four-hour ride alternating between bike paths and quiet residential streets and shortcuts that he knew.  We passed through suburban developments similar to those featured in "American Honey," one of last year's best movies about dispossessed youth traveling the country selling magazine subscriptions.  Bill hadn't seen the movie, but he had had such people come to his door.  It was hot enough I was hoping we might pass a lake for a dip.  If we did, Bill said, it would be a man-made lake, as Kansas did not have a single natural lake.  Instead we had to settle for a drinking fountain in a park for a dousing.

Though Bill hadn't taken to the bike until 2002 as a means to get a little exercise, he had become fully immersed in the pastime.  Besides taking his son to France for The Tour, he had driven to California in 2010 for the Tour of California.  His wife doesn't accompany him on his travels, as they house a couple of handicapped foster children and one of them always has to be on hand to take care of their needs.  Though we had never met, we rode along like long-time pals thanks to our bonding over the years through the bike.  Bill exuded a wholesome Midwestern warmth.  I was in no great hurry other than to escape the sprawl of the Kansas Cities divided by the Missouri River before dark.  Bill hadn't intended to accompany me all the way to the Carnegie, but he got me all the way there, even enlisting the help of a cyclist to guide us the last few miles to avoid the larger hills that laced the terrain the entire way.  They had never met, but they had a mutual friend in the cycling community.

Bill was enticed to accompany me all the way to the Carnegie, as his favorite military surplus shop was just a couple blocks from it.  It was a huge warehouse with all manner of merchandise, some of it vintage items not for sale--a bike, a jeep, a motorcycle and various armaments.  The Carnegie resided in a depressed neighborhood and was vacant, but retained all its splendor.

Less than a mile from the library after a long steep descent Bill discovered a bulge in his front tire.  We were lucky he hadn't suffered a blowout on our high-speed descent.  He let some air out and continued on.  Rather than trying to find a bike shop and bike home, mostly into the wind, he opted to call Uber.  He didn't mind at all, as he drives for Uber, as well as Lyft, and thought it would be a worthwhile experience to be a passenger. He enjoys the work, as it suits his curious and gregarious nature.  The Carnegie was to the west of the downtown, so he tagged along a little further with me towards the downtown where it would be easier for him to get a ride, before I headed north to cross the Missouri River to track down a Carnegie in the small university town of Parkville.   

Friday, September 22, 2017

Newton, Kansas

Other than the above brief outburst of enraged sculpture along the roadside from a venomous welder in the small town of Mullinville, there hasn't been much variety to the scenery through the Plains of western Kansas.  Corn struggling to make it and soybeans and grasslands have dominated the scenery.  The soybeans respond with more vigor than the corn to the not so fertile soil. A competition is on to get a yield of one hundred bushels of beans to an acre.  The few towns look almost as withered as the corn.  Trees are a rare sight.  With little to block the ferocious winds whipping up from the south gusting between twenty and thirty miles per hour, I have been buffeted all over the road.  The temperature has been in the 90s for several days, ten degrees above normal.  What had been most pleasurable cycling for ten days has become an ordeal.  The lone salvation has been the wide shoulders, nearly an extra lane wide, giving me enough leeway not to be blown out into traffic.  

I chose not to abandon the four-lane divided highway heading into Wichita for a parallel road with less traffic, as it did not have a shoulder providing me with a life-saving cushion.  A librarian in Kingman, forty-four miles from Wichita, warned me about heavy traffic heading into the city, strongly advising me to leave the main highway in Goddard, nine miles before Wichita, but she had a much different sense of traffic than someone from Chicago.  She was 65, but had never been in a city larger than Kansas City, and had barely left the state in all her years.  When she retires next year her dream is to see an ocean.  Her choice is the Atlantic, as driving across the Rockies scares her.  

The ovenish heat and the fierce winds forced me to take shelter every four or five miles on my run-in to Wichita whenever I came to the shade provided by an overpass.  There wasn't a town or service station for twenty-eight miles.  This was a more demanding stretch than the sixth-nine miles between towns in eastern Colorado.  It was more sapping than the high nineties of Madagascar, as there was no wind to contend with there.  At least I wasn't dripping sweat here.  The water in my water bottles was nearly scalding and even though I had flavored it with Tang, it was hard to force myself to drink.

All that kept me going was the prospect of a service station with a soft-drink and ice dispenser. Even better than a service station is a McDonald's with its offer of help-yourself unlimited soda for one dollar.  It's array of drinks often includes Powerade, a less sugared alternative.  I couldn't have been happier when I saw some Golden Arches ahead.  I tried to sip and not guzzle first one and then another giant ice-filled cup of the Powerade with a splash of Sprite.  I absorbed it like a sponge.  It was a relief to be in air conditioning after roasting for four hours in the heat.  I was lured to the large city of Wichita for its Carnegie.  There had been two, but the other on the campus of Wichita State had been torn down a while ago.  

I reached the sprawl of Wichita an hour before dark.  I could have camped in a huge cemetery on the outskirts of the city, but I was concerned about how much liquid I would need to drink so opted for a cheap Indian-run motel near the airport.  There were several to choose from.  Even more important than WIFI was that it have an ice machine.  I drank and drank, so much so that I didn't eat enough, waking up at three a.m. starved.  I had hoped to watch the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam, but my selection of channels did not include PBS.  I was unable to report in to Janina, as she was experiencing a similar heat-wave in Chicago, with a record high for the day, and had her industrial strength fan cranked up so she was unable to hear the ring of her phone or the ping of FaceTime on her computer. I had to wait until the morning to talk.

I would have liked to have gotten an early start in the predawn cool, but I was so exhausted from battling the wind the previous two days that I slept until 7:30.  At least I would be heading north from Wichita for fifty miles, so my lone adversary for the day would be the heat.  I had a pleasant seven mile ride through "suburbia" to downtown Wichita and its former Carnegie, now housing a bank, across from the new library.  It retained its stunning majesty.  The new library was just a building, hardly worth a glance. 

I left town on Broadway, taking it twenty-five miles north following railroad tracks and Interstate 35, passing a rundown $25 a night motel, to Newton and another most regal Carnegie. 

It had been a historical museum since 1973, after serving as the town library for seventy years with just one expansion in 1923.  It had an exhibit on the Chisholm Trail, which I had been following since Wichita.  It was the route Texans had used to drive cattle up to Abilene, one hundred miles north, to a rail terminus.  It had been established after the Civil War when the state of Missouri put a halt to Texans bringing their cattle through the state to reach the eastern markets.  

Now that I have reached the more populous eastern half of Kansas my days will be filled with multiple Carnegies.  My nostrils will be spared the stench of feed lots and the piles of manure dumped by fields.  I had to be wary where I camped, lest the wind shift in the night and I be assaulted by unwelcome aromas.  I have so far been spared goatheads, those prickly burrs that can adhere to tires and turn them into a sieve.  They have bedeviled me in Nebraska on previous rides back to Chicago.  My tires did pick up a handful when I wheeled my bike onto the property of what I thought was an abandoned house, but I was able to brush them off before they penetrated.

Not only did the Newton Quickstop service station have 79-cent 32-ounce drinks, but it offered the first bargain hot dogs in nearly one thousand miles.  I am always hoping for 99-cent dogs when I walk into a service station.  The Quickstop deal was three for three dollars, an offer I didn't have to think twice about.  The 99-cent hot dog may be a thing of the past, but this was close enough.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Montezuma, Kansas

I added nearly one hundred miles to my ride across Colorado bringing it to over five hundred, dipping down to Trinidad, almost on the border with New Mexico, to visit the only Carnegie of the thirty-five in the state that I had yet to get to. It took me over the 9,941 foot Cucharas Pass on a road known as the Highway of Legends, that I had nearly to myself.  It also provided me with my quietest and most pristine campsite in a lush pine forest on a thick bed of pine needles.

Trinidad sits at the foot of the Western Range due south of Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, all genuine metropolises.  It sprawls for nearly five miles along Interstate 25 that connects it with its northern big brothers, but it is more small town than large despite the string of fast food franchises that  cluster along the interstate just a couple of blocks from its Main Street.  It's Carnegie, a block off Main Street, built in 1904, has only had a modest Adobe addition to its rear providing a handicapped entrance and a little extra seating and book capacity.  It nicely blends in with the stone of its original construction.  It stands across from the city hall, the other stately building in town.

I could only peer in at its high ceilings and magnificent wooden shelves, as I arrived in town after closing time, less than an hour before dark.  I was concerned about finding a place to camp, so when I saw a rundown motel with folk out front barbecuing and children playing, I was enticed to give it a try, but it was all booked up, seemingly by full-time residents.  I didn't mind at all heading out of town into the wide open flats.  Before I had left the sprawl I came upon a closed-down restaurant that I could camp behind.  It was a harbinger of things to come as I headed out into the lightly settled high country preceding the Plains.  I passed abandoned homesteads every ten or fifteen miles.

They provided places to camp in the days to come.

Not everyone though had abandoned their homes and gone away.

From Trinidad it was 69 miles until the next town of Kim on a road that I was riding for the first time.   I supplemented my four water bottles with a half gallon of an orange drink reputed to have Vitamin C from a Dollar Store, the only place for food in many small towns in rural America.  The person at the cash register is programmed to ask, "Did you find everything your were looking for?"  For once I was able to say "No," as I hadn't been able to find the Ramon.  The clerk said the local fire department had been in the day before and bought a bunch, but he was able to find me one last five-pack.  That meant I would have enough food for the long stretch ahead of me, which was followed by another 51 miles before another town.  It was lucky I had the reserves, because when I arrived at Kim shortly before dark its grocery store had closed.  

I was happy to make it before dark, even though I would have had enough water to make it through the night. Though the sun shone bright all day, it wasn't excessively hot.  It was a challenge to find shade other than what my bike provided.  The only natural shade I came upon was a  string of trees along a creek bed and then at a closed down art gallery at the only intersection in the 69 miles.  The quiet of this wide open empty space was only broken every ten or fifteen minutes by a rare passing vehicle.  I had hoped to have a gradual descent from the 6,000 feet elevation of Trinidad, but I only lost four hundred feet to Kim while the road had undulations of two to three hundred feet.  The air had been still and relatively cool until mid-afternoon when a strong head wind kicked up reducing me to eight miles per hour.  But at least my water was holding out and there was no necessity of rationing it or not having enough to make it through the night if I didn't reach Kim before dark.  

When I arrived at the speck of Kim half an hour before dark. It wasn't much larger than its name.  I stopped at the only business that was open, a garage with a mechanic out front working on a flat tire.  I filled my water bottles and asked if it was okay to camp in the town park.  The mechanic said he had a campground back a block.  It wasn't marked.  Two large RVs were parked there, local residents.  It included a small cell block with two bathrooms and a shower.  He told me that if I needed food a rodeo was being held a half mile up the road.  That would have been an irresistible strand of Americana, but I was too exhausted to leave my tent, especially in the dark.

After going 69 miles without services, 51 miles didn't seem daunting at all.  It took me to the significant town of Springfield, complete with a library in the town's municipal center.  I had dropped to under 4,000 feet as I closed in on Kansas and came upon some straggly cornfields.  Those with irrigation were much more healthy than those without.  It wasn't until I crossed into Kansas that the corn and soybean fields became more prominent than the wild grasses.  For over fifty miles through Colorado I passed through the Comanche National Grasslands, almost taking me back to pre-Columbian times.

It was only fitting that my first campsite in Kansas was tucked into a cornfield.

I went down a dirt track a quarter of a mile from the road before I found a nook to nestle in as dark descended, further secluding me.  Not long after the sun peeked over the horizon the next morning a truck drove past as I was eating breakfast.  Surprisingly, it didn't stop, nor did it summon a police officer as has happened to me on other occasions by someone perturbed by an intruder.  Such a thing wouldn't happen in Europe where people are accustomed to touring cyclists.  In the US someone, especially someone older, traveling by bike is suspect--homeless or illegal immigrant or ne'er do well of some sort, maybe even one of them terrorists, or so people fear in these times.

I had camped fifteen miles out of Montezuma. I stopped at its town park to wash and replenish my water.  A retired farmer who had moved to town seven years before stopped for a chat.  I asked if there was a cafe in town where I could get a stack of hotcakes.  He said if I continued down the road and turned just past the high school there was a cafe a couple blocks further.  "Is that Main Street," I asked. 

"I don't know the name of the street," he replied.  "It's some Indian name.  I can't keep them straight."

There was also a library a block further, but not a Carnegie.  Kansas has 66 of them, but only ten in the western half of the state.  I'll have to go over one hundred and fifty miles further to Wichita to the first one I haven't already visited.  Then I'll have a cluster, including the final one that Carnegie funded anywhere in 1921.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Alamosa, Colorado

For the third time in the past ten years my route back to Chicago across Colorado from Telluride took me over Wolf Creek Pass, one of the Rockies' most notorious climbs. Knowing what awaited me didn't make it any easier.  The second time may have been easier than the first, since I knew that despite its reputation, it wouldn't be any more demanding than many another storied climb I've managed in the Rockies and Alps and Pyrenees and Andies and Himalayas and elsewhere, but taking it on for a third time I well knew that a formidable task awaited me as I approached this ten-mile ascent over the Continental Divide.

It came on the fourth day of my ride back.  I wasn't sure if my legs were gaining strength or if they were on the wane from all the climbing I had done in the two hundred miles preceding the Pass.  My cycling muscles had somewhat atrophied during my month of tending to the shipping office of the Telluride Film Festival for the twentieth-sixth time.  Though I had been physically active lifting heavy boxes and making deliveries on my bike, my mileage had been minimal, especially compared to last year when Janina and I had an eight-mile commute from our accommodations in Mountain Village to the shipping office.  It was nice to be housed in town this year, less than a mile from "work," but our bicycling suffered.

It never takes long for me to regain my fitness on a tour.  I knew that Wolf Creek Pass would be a test, regardless of my conditioning.  I began the gradual ascent to the 10,550 foot summit from Pagosa Springs, twenty-two miles away, two hours before dark. My goal was to find a place to camp within ten miles of the summit.  The first fourteen miles were through a valley of cattle ranches before the grade jumped to six per cent for the final eight miles.  When I reached that ten-mile point, barbed wire fence still lined both sides of the road.  

There were no cattle to be seen, just inviting pasture land with clusters of trees.  If I couldn't find a gate, I'd happily pass my gear, then bike, over the fence, as I've done on occasion, but there was no gap in the traffic long enough to accomplish the deed without being seen.  Instead, I burrowed into a clump of bushes and trees below the road alongside the fence.  I'd have to turn off my headlamp whenever a vehicle passed, but it was still an amply secluded campsite, and one that felt secure from prowling bears.  My first night, forty miles before Durango, I had slipped a loop off a barb wired gate into a forest.  And the night before I had passed into a forest through a gap in a fence.

My present campsite may have been on the makeshift side, but the surrounding scenery of mountainsides covered with aspens and pines framing a tight valley had all the splendor of an idyllic alpine setting.  And so it had been all the way from Telluride, soul-embracing scenery that would entrance any landscape artist. I had to remind myself not to take it for granted after weeks in the national park beauty of Telluride, knowing full well that it would soon all be a dream when I descended to the bland sameness of  The Plains.  I knew the transition from the spectacular would commence after my descent from Wolf Creek into more arid, though still mountainous terrain.

The temperature was in the 40s when I began riding the next morning, but I was quickly shedding layers after a couple of miles when the road ramped up.  At four miles per hour, a mile gained every fifteen minutes, I had two hours of hard effort ahead of me.  I took a break every half hour when a guard rail presented itself to lean my bike against, providing me a back rest against a pannier while I caught my breath and ate and read a bit.

Two cyclists on unladen bikes flew down the road, the first I had seen since climbing Lizard Head Pass just past Telluride.  I rode a few minutes up Lizard Head with a guy who grew up in Wilmette, one suburb over from where I grew up.  He had been living outside 'ZTelluride for twenty years with the enviable job of looking after the 128-acre ranch of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshalll, big-time Hollywood producers and benefactors of the film festival.  They had two films in the festival last year, including Clint Eastwood's "Sully," but missed this year's festival as they were on a film shoot.

As I continued up Wolf Creek Pass, I was accompanied by the cycling podcast of my friend Randy Warren.  I had fallen behind on my news of the cycling world at Telluride other than keeping up with Chris Froome's conquest of the Vielta, finally winning it after finishing second three times, becoming the first person to win The Tour de France and the Spanish three-week Tour in the same year since the Vuelta switched from a spring to a fall event. I had saved Randy's last four weekly podcasts to help me over this climb.  

Among the news I learned from Randy was that Taylor Phinney had been kicked out of the Tour of Britain for ignoring a flashing railway crossing and that Ben King had confessed to an eating disorder as a teen using extreme measures to shed weight and the shocking news of Andrew Talansky announcing his retirement during the Vuelta at the age of 28. Talansky had finished tenth in The Tour a few years ago and had been one of the two great American hopes along with Teejay Van Garderen ever since.  He didn't start The Tour last year under mysterious circumstances.  Evidently he had grown weary of the extreme demands of the sport.  One has to be continually asking, "Is it really worth all the pain and suffering."

Two of Randy's podcasts included interviews with young American riders getting a taste of the highest levels of the sport commenting on the suffering they had to endure.  Sepp Kuss learned that the key to success to racing in Europe was being able to "out-suffer the next guy." Chloe Dicker said that her coach Andy Sparks had taught her how to suffer "in ways I never thought possible."  I was happy that when on tour I can pretty much ride at my own pace and not have to push myself so hard that the riding becomes suffering, though Janina might not entirely agree after our experience of riding in France this past summer.

It was a fast descent to South Fork from the summit of Wolf Creek and its ski resort to a different ecosystem than what I'd been in the past month.  I would remain at 8,000 feet across an eighty-mile valley of sagebrush whose main product was potatoes.  Monte Vista, a town with a classic Carnegie Library, had held its annual Potato Festival the weekend before. 

There were rugged 14ers to the left and right.  After fifty miles I came to Alamosa, the first town since Durango large enough to have a Walmart.  I had no need of it as I was overnighting with my friend Joel, who I have worked with in the shipping department at Telluride for years.  He's a retired physician who has lived in Alamosa since 1981, just before a group of radical nuns brought 200 Guatemalan refuges to the town, who remain a strong presence and participate in a large communal garden that Joel helps out at, even though he has an ample garden of his own that was producing a bountiful crop of tomatoes.

Joel has led a politically active life since his days in the SDS when he was at Penn State in the '60s.  His conversation is as welcome as his assistance opening boxes and stuffing the 1,500 goodie bags for filmmakers, patrons and staff that is part of our job. Like the majority of people who are drawn to Telluride for its preeminent film festival, Joel has led a full and fascinating life--attending Woodstock, traveling for months across Africa, skiing, foraging mushrooms, working in emergency rooms and on and on.  Every year we learn something new of his past that we are shocked he hadn't told us before.  This year was that he passed a joint to Allen Ginsburg on May Day 1970 at Yale.  When Dick Gregory died he told us he autographed his draft card, which he later burned.  It was no surprise that Joel wasn't interested in the several American flags I had gathered along the road, but he did accept the two bungee cords I had already picked up.  He could always use reinforcements for the high deer fence he has around his back yard, which abuts the Rio Grande River.  Deer come wandering by 365 days a year.

The film festival is so hectic neither of us had been able to read the program and the accompanying 110-page magazine with articles on all the films until after the festival. No matter how many films one sees, there are always a handful we regret missing.  Joel didn't realize the Student Prints included a short on mushrooms that he would have certainly seen if he'd known about it.  I most regretted missing Paul Schraeder's film, "First Reformed," starring Ethan Hawke as a small-town preacher suffering a moral crisis.  Janina and I at least attended a conversation between the two of them in the intimate County Courthouse. Being in their relaxed presence was a rare opportunity.  Schraeder knows the milieu of religion having grown up in a strict Calvinist household.  He didn't see a movie until he went to college.  He wrote a book on transcendentalism in cinema shortly after he graduated.  Hawke said he read the book twenty years ago on the recommendation of his frequent collaborator Richard Linklater.  He and Linklater at one time had considered doing a film on St. Francis of Assisi. Their hour of conversation flew by as they shared one insight after another into what made them the artists they are.  

Greta Gerwig and Rebecca Miller had an equally fascinating conversation in the courthouse that was the equal of any movie playing at any of the nine film venues at that time slot.   They were two of the nine women who had directed a film playing at the festival.  Gerwig's was her first feature behind the camera, "Lady Bird."  She said she had been inspired to direct after being directed by Miller.  She traced her fascination with cinema as an art form to "Beau Travail," one of Barry Jenkins' favorite films too.  Gerwig was as fresh and unabashed as many of the characters she has portrayed in her still young career.  Miller was at the festival with a most personal documentary on her father Arthur Miller, which was the first film we saw after the Opening Night Feed on the town's closed off Main Street, a fine start to the festival.  

We also managed to squeeze into the town park for the most mobbed panel discussion in the festival's history with Angelina Jolie, Billie Jean King, Natalie Portman and Alice Waters,  Telluride has always attracted great luminaries of cinema.  Tom Luddy, one of the festival founders and current co-director, has had an exceptional knack for bringing together extraordinary artists even before he inaugurated this festival 44 years ago.  Alice Waters devotes a chapter in her recently published memoirs to the time she lived with Luddy when they were in their 20s and she decided to leave teaching and open a restaurant.  She writes of a dinner in their home with Kurosawa and Spielberg and Lucas and of another with Godard.  

Luddy has transported this concept to his festival.  The artists who attend are thrilled to have the opportunity to meet people they admire and respect and are happy to return year after year, just like us attendees.  Werner Herzog and Ken Burns and Errol Morris and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alexander Payne are regulars whether or not they have something to present.  They are all relaxed and fully approachable.  Janina and I were treated to a private performance by Payne speaking in a thick Greek accent after Janina told him he could make the ultimate film on a Greek restaurant, considering his Greek heritage.  Payne responded, lapsing into a Greek character, saying his relatives in Greece regarded "Nebraska" as a film on the Greek family.

Two of my other festival highlights came with two of the guest director's six selections.  This year's guest director was documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer, one of three attendees who have won MacArthur Fellowships along with Errol Morris and Peter Sellars.  He gave an impassioned introduction to each of his choices.  He was joined by Rosalie Varda, daughter of Agnes, for his introduction to "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."  Varda was in attendance as producer of the documentary "Faces Places" by her mother and the artist JR, a film I was delighted to see again after having seen it at Cannes.  Rosalie appears in the Cherbourg film, that won the Palme d'Or in 1964, as a six-year old.  She spoke for nearly twenty minutes about the film directed by her father Jacques Demy.  Janina and I couldn't stop shaking our heads over her extraordinary commentary, especially after spending a couple of days in Cherbourg this past summer.

I was equally mesmerized by the post-film commentary by Werner Herzog after Oppenheimer's screening of "Even Dwarfs Started Small," Herzog's second film from 1970.  Herzog said he hadn't seen it in 30 or 40 years.  In his brief introduction he said he hoped everyone in the audience had had a shot of brandy before coming to the theater.  Oppenheimer said he watches the film three or four times a year and called it the best film of all time.  The film finished at midnight in the Opera House.  Herzog kept everyone in their seats for another half hour commenting on it.  He admitted it was painful to watch, as the film reflected the nightmare of his life at the time.

Janina will have much more to say on all this and the many films we saw in her soon to be published Telluride Journal at her website, including commentary on a superlative documentary by Wei Wei on refugees and a tribute to cinematographer Ed Lachman and his latest film collaboration with Todd Haynes, "Wonderstruck." It was one of just two films that played in Competition at Cannes this year that were on the Telluride schedule.  The other was the Russian film "Loveless," which included all the profanity that would be censored out when it plays in Russia. This was Janina's fifth Telluride and possibly the best.  She was able to stay four days after the festival ended for the first time, since the course she is teaching this fall at Columbia meets on Monday evenings. That enabled her to see an extra five films in the After the Festival Festival for locals and staff. 

A.O. Scott had a lengthy, gushing review of the festival in The New York Times.  He loves the festival so much he brings his family each year, including a son who is a collegiate film major.