Monday, April 30, 2018

Macon, France

This is the fifteenth time I’ve made the ride from Paris to Cannes.  I’ve varied my route every year always excited about what new discoveries I’ll make. I didn’t have to wait long, as my first came less than ten miles into my ride when I passed through the village of  Coupvray, and unexpectedly came upon the Louis Braille Museum.  It was in the home of the man, or boy, who developed the Braille system.  Braille was just fifteen when he devised the system of upraised dots in 1824 while attending a school for the blind in Paris.  He was frustrated by the present method of tracing one’s fingers over upraised letters.  It was particularly difficult to write in such a manner.

As always in France, one never knows when one will come upon a museum or monument to someone or something of significance, one of the many joys of traveling in France.  My trip was off to a great start, after fearing it was in jeopardy the day before when I received an email from Air France informing me my flight had been cancelled due to striking pilots.  When I called Air France to reschedule my flight I was relieved to learn the strike was presently effecting only ten per cent of flights and that I could take a flight through Detroit on the day of my original flight, delaying my arrival in Paris just three hours, not enough to cause me to be late to Cannes, as I’d allowed ten days to bike the 650 miles.

But I received another fright when I checked in with Delta for my connecting flight and was asked by the young clerk, who looked more suited to be working at a Walmart than an airline check-in counter,  if I had a visa.  I told her one didn’t need a visa for France.  She said that was only the case if one were returning within ninety days and my return flight was ninety-six days away.  Usually I am gone just around ninety days, but Cannes was early this year and The Tour de France a week later than usual due to the World Cup. 

I was certain there were years when I had stayed away more than ninety days, so asked, "Are you sure," hoping this wasn’t some new Trumpian regulation to limit Americans from spending money overseas.  She dabbled away at her computer and then handed me my seat assignments without saying anything other than asking me for my credit card to pay for my bike, evidently not wishing to acknowledge she had been misinformed.  Fortunately, the bike wasn’t an issue, as I had noticed too late that the Air France website stated that under certain circumstances one had to alert the airline forty-eight hours before flying if one were flying with a bike. It seemed unimaginable to the clerk that one would be going away for such an extended period.  She wanted to know if I would be staying in a hotel every night knowing how expensive that could be.

I was glad to be spared the seeming 90-day technicality, and the 48-hour advance notice technicality, but not the technicality from the crew inspecting my bike box and duffle bag that one is not allowed access to one’s luggage after turning it over to the airline.  I realized I had neglected to put an ID tag on my duffle bag and rushed after it as it was being wheeled to the special X-ray machines.  As the porter was unloading my gear for the inspectors, I tried to attach the tag to my duffle, but one of the TSA inspectors gruffly halted me, as if I were trying to thwart his inspection, and said he’d put the tag on for me.

I was surprised when I joined the long line of passengers for the TSA inspection that I was waved into the short line for VIPs.  I checked my ticket and noticed I had been upgraded to business class for my trans-Atlantic flight after the short one-hour hop to Detroit.  That was fine compensation for being rescheduled on a non-direct flight.  Except before I boarded that second flight I was told that my seat assignment had been changed and I was back with the commoners.  At least the flight wasn’t full and I had an empty seat beside me that I could somewhat stretch out on after dinner on the relatively short six-and-a-half hour flight.

I had just one more concern--would my bike survive the extra handling of two flights.  It arrived in tact, along with my duffle, at the oversized counter, although the French give extra large items a less insulting, more dignified name--"baggage hors format."  It harkens to the French term for the toughest of climbs in The Tour de France of "hors categorie"--beyond category.  The French also have a flattering, rather than denigrating, term for "wide loads" on the road of oversized trucks--"convoi exceptionnel."  They probably have a term for the obese that doesn’t impugn, perhaps “corps exceptionnel.”

Not that the French are adverse to insult.  A couple days into my travels when I was deep into La France Profonde, I paused along the road at a driveway to a house to shed my windbreaker.  As I was stuffing it into a pannier an amiable older gentleman in a blue workman’s smock ambled over and asked if I needed to rest.  I told him that I just needed to take off my jacket.  He asked where I was from.  At the mention of Chicago he blurted “Al Capone” and cradled his arms into a machine gun and slowly panned from side to side.  

“No, no,” I replied.  “It’s now known as the home of Michael Jordan and Obama.”

He said he had friends who lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  I asked if he had ever visited them.  

“No, I’ve never been to America,” he proudly replied, “There’s nothing good to eat there.  I’m 75 years old and I’ve never had a coca-cola or eaten at McDonald’s.  I have a garden and eat as much as I can from it.”

“Do you ride a bike?” I asked.

“Yes indeed.  I bicycled 2,000 kilometers from here to the Camino de Santiago across Spain.  And as you probably know we have the greatest bike race in the world and it’s free.  You can stand along the road and watch it go by.  In America nothing is free.  It’s money, money, money.”  

My country may have been an affront to him, but not me as an individual.  “You don’t look like an American,” he said.  “You’re too skinny. If I weren’t in the middle of a job I’d get on my bike and ride along with you for twenty kilometers or so.  I could show you a better road than what you’re on.”

I asked him if he at least liked American movies.  “They’re the worst!”   he erupted.  “They’re brainless, full of nothing but sex and violence.”

It’d been a long time since I’d encountered such an old-school, free-talking Frenchman, a charming stereotype that is not all that common, or at least so forthright. I couldn’t imagine an American going off on a French visitor in such a manner, not even the current resident of the White House in a one on one encounter, but he was a personification of French pride and superiority.  I couldn’t even get him to criticize his own president.  When I asked if he thought Macron was doing a good job, he replied, “Half and half” as he twisted a hand back and forth.  He, of course, thought Trump was an abomination.

My first destination on my way to Cannes was the small town of Cuy just north of Sens and about one hundred miles south of Paris.  I had recently learned from a new book about the inaugural Tour de France in 1903 by Peter Cossins that the rider who finished second in the first two editions of The Race, Lucien Pothier, was buried there and that the town plaza had been named for him.  Years ago I had  visited the grave of Maurice Garin, the winner, but knew nothing of Pothier.  The plaque overlooking Cuy’s modest plaza in front of a school said nothing of him coming in second, just that he was a “pioneer of The Tour de France.”  Perhaps it wished to avoid the issue that he along with the first four finishers of the 1904 Tour were all disqualified for cheating, including taking a train.

His grave was equally modest, making no reference to his cycling exploits.  It was distinguished by being the only red-hued tomb among the rows of grey stone.

From Cuy I continued south through up and down terrain while angling east towards the Rhône, which I would follow to Valence and Saint-Paul Trois-Chateaux, the only two Ville Étapes on this year’s Tour route that I could intersect on my way to Cannes.  They had both previously served as host cities for The Tour in the recent past since I began following The Race.  But I am always curious to see what early preparations they have made for The Tour’s arrival in a little more than two months.

As I descended to Macon I came upon vineyards for the first time indicating I had reached the warmer, temperate half of France.  The tourist office in Macon offered a 92-page booklet listing eight circuits of between 15 and 55 miles linking the many vineyards in the region.  Wine may be emblematic of France,  but my favored beverage is menthe á  l’eau, the dazzlingly refreshing  drink one makes by adding mint syrup to water.  It stimulates nearly every taste bud in my mouth and down my throat, many that I forgot existed, and keeps them in a state of delighted exaltation unlike any other food or beverage. That syrup was the first thing I added to my provisions when I came upon a supermarket.   750 ml bottle can keep my water bottle full of mint drink for five days.  I’ve been craving it since I saw a bottle in a French supermarket in Senegal going for twenty dollars compared to one dollar in France.  It is so delicious, and near addictive, it was very tempting even at that exorbitant price.  Obviously there are those in Senegal willing to pay it. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Trio of Books on Cycling’s World Championships

The past year has seen two more books on the history of bicycling’s world championships, joining "The Curse of the Yellow Jersey" by Graham Healy from five years ago.  The latest are "Chasing the Rainbow" by Giles Belbin and "Cycling’s World Championships" by Les Woodland.  All are British with a slight British slant.

None can be classified as a definitive history, rather falling into the category of pleasant, anecdotal reads.  Woodland is unsurpassed with finding rare, offbeat and quirky tales, such as Louison Bobet’s superstition regarding the number 41, always keeping a wary eye out for whoever was wearing the number. At 123 pages, his book only whets one’s appetite, wishing it were two or three times that length.  He has written more than twenty books on cycling that bounce along in a similar raconteur style.  Healy and Belbin are neophytes by comparison, but still have nearly ten books on cycling between the two of them. Their books are straightforward journalism compared to Woodland’s flowing style sharing his vast knowledge of cycling lore.

But one won’t feel unnourished reading any of these books. Belbin pads his book with nearly a dozen eight to ten page interviews with various World Champions, male and female, as well as the grandson of the 1938 World Champion Marcel Kint. Along with winners Stephen Roche, Cadel Evans and Felice Gimondi, he also interviewed Barry Hoban, who could comment on riding with Tom Simpson when he won the Championship in 1965.  He also peppers his narrative with statistical trivia, both meaningful and meaningless. When he doesn’t have an anecdote, he can always resort to a stat.

Some are rather standard--George Speicher was the first to win The Tour de France and the World Championship in the same year (1933), Eddie Merckx, Jean Aerts and  Hans Knecht are the only ones to have won the amateur and the professional world championship.  Others are curiosities--Jacques Anquetil was the first to win all three Grand Tours, but he never won the World Championship.  Some have nothing to do with the World Championships--nine riders have accomplished the Roubaix/Flanders double in the same year, but Merckx is not one of them, no one other than Miguel Indurain accomplished the Tour/Giro in back-to-back years (1992/1993).  Some raise the eyebrows, but are basically irrelevant--Merckx, Gimondi and Bernard Hinault are the only ones to win The Tour, Giro, Vuelta, World Championship and Paris Roubaix.

Healy proves it is a myth that winning the World Championship is a curse, as more winners have had a better year after winning the jersey than those who had a year worse than the year when they won it.  Of those who had a worse year, none can top that of Jean-Pierre Monsere, the 1970 winner who died in a race the following March when hit by a car that strayed on to the course.  Monsere’s mother paid a visit to the woman who drove the car, both crying uncontrollably according to Healy.  Both Belbin and Healy mentions tears over Simpson’s win, though none to the same person.  Healy quotes Simpson as saying tears were welling up in his eyes after he crossed the finish line.  Belbin attributes tears to his manager and the president of his supporter’s club, but not to the winner himself.  Woodland cites three instances of crying--Moreno Argentine as he crossed the finish line in first in Colorado Springs in 1986, Evans on the podium in 2009 and Victoria Pendleton as a known crier.  Healy includes a photo of Bettini crying at the Tour of Lombardy in 2006 in the World Champion Jersey, emotional over the death of his brother in an automobile accident the week before.

Belbin finds a quote from an Italian journalist covering the first World Championship in 1926 won by the Italian Alfredo Binda that emphasizes the link of tears with cycling--"You can view it as an exaggeration to cry for a cycling race, but all of us Italians present at that time felt a lump in our throats and a tear in our eye."  Belbin only cites four other instances of tears though. The first was by Simpson and then three by women--Mary Jones in 1982 and Jeannie Longo in 1985 after their wins and then Nicole Cooke in 2005 for finishing second.

The first woman’s World Championships were held in 1958.  Belbin gives the women much more attention than the other books.  In lengthy interviews with Marianne Vos and Catherine Marsal he delves into the suffering of the sport.  Vos told him, "You have to suffer and you have to go through a lot of pain.  Marsal explained, "You unplug your brain from that feeling of pain and the you can go to another zone."

The men he interviews also bring up the suffering one must endure.  Gimondi said, "I suffered because it was so tough."  Stablinski said that however hard the sport was, it wasn't as hard as working in the mines. Belbin considered suffering such an intrinsic aspect of the sport he lapsed into overusing the word in relation to punctures.  It should solely be reserved for those propelling the bikes, not for inanimate objects.

Healy was more interested in the doping that made the suffering more tolerable.  He quoted Simpson, "Tell me where you draw the line between dope and tonics.  Even the experts don’t agree on that one."  Healy also brought up payments between riders to let one win a race.  All three authors range wide in their commentaries to broaden one’s understanding of the sport.  They all have a love of the sport, and used a book on the World Championships to share it.  There can not be too many such books.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Another Friend in the Home Stretch

I’ve been able to drop in on friends on all of my recent tours--Craig and Onni, Florence and Rachid and Yvon in France last summer, Joel, Bill, Peter, Chris, Elwood and Robyn, Michael and Susan, Dwight and Susan, and Jeff on my fall ride back from Telluride, Bruce and Sounkalo in Mali this past winter, and Rick, Jeff and Kirk on my just completed spring ride.  I marvel at my good fortune of having such a vast array of such fine friends.  And then in my home stretch I heard from another friend who happened to have flown in from Florida on a writing assignment. He was staying in Lansing, Illinois, just across the border from Indiana, which I would be passing through. He was doing a story for the Campus Crusade website on someone who had started a program helping the homeless in Chicago Heights 25 years ago. 

It was about 25 years ago that I met Mike and his wife Michele at the Telluride Film Festival, where we were all volunteers.  They are among the many exceptional people who are drawn to the festival who I enjoy seeing year after year.  They’ve missed the last few years, too busy with work, so it was wonderful to be able to catch up with him.  He was staying at a hotel right on my route making our rendezvous seem as if it was preordained.

It is always inspiring to learn what Mike is doing.  When he was living in Colorado Springs, his church work extended to counseling military personnel at the large base there.  After he moved to Florida he now counsels the incarcerated along with his journalism that has taken him all the way to Africa. His gentle demeanor is a solace to all.  It was another reminder that meeting friends while traveling makes as much of an impact on me as any sight I might see.

Besides the time with friends, this trip will be remembered for its extreme weather--the coldest April in the Midwest since 1881.  The first three days offered close to normal temperatures for this time of year, but the final four days of this 526-mile ride were in conditions that would discourage any sensible person from taking a bike ride, split between two days of riding in sleet and rain with the temperature hovering around freezing, followed by two days of riding in snow flurries into a strong headwind. The flurries were a welcome relief from the rain, but the effort of riding into the wind had me debating which were the worst conditions--the cold rain with a tailwind or being dry but having to exert myself so strenuously.  If it had been ten degrees warmer in the rain, that would have been my preference, but being wet in the low 30s was dabbling with hypothermia. Still, I ended each day filled with the glow of any good ride, even night six when I camped in sub-freezing temperatures after sleeping in doors the previous three nights, two at the homes of friends.

It gave me a chance to test my new sleeping bag, which is rated to 30 degrees.  I stayed warm, but I needed to keep on my tights and sweater.  I was almost happy that the bag wasn’t overly warm, as it will be my sleeping bag this summer in France, where the nights will be cool, but rarely less than 50.  I was also testing a new tent, an updated version of REI’s Passage Two that has been my choice for over fifteen years.  The zippers give out after three or four years of close to 150 nights a year.  Each version has slight improvements that take some adjusting to and that I’m not sure I like, though I eventually do.  

This one has new hooks for attaching the tent to the poles that are more secure but require more effort to attach.  It also has different pockets in the ceiling that prevent me from so easily dangling items to dry.  The doors are more round, putting less stress on the zippers, my biggest concern.  Knowing all the testing that REI would put into any changes, I have to trust that all are for the better.  My cycling shoes also gave out in Africa.  Their replacement seemed perfectly fine and then even more so when my headlamp shined on them on the corner of the tent and I discovered that the shoelaces are speckled with reflective material as well as the backside of the shoes.  They nearly sparkled.

So my gear is all ready for my ride from Paris to Cannes next week and so are my legs.  I began this ride with a hundred mile day and ended it with a century, though the last few miles were a ride to the post office to send off my tax returns after I’d had dinner with Janina.  It felt great to be riding well after dark.  My legs didn’t want to quit.

My final two days included four more Carnegies, making it fifteen for the trip, twelve in Michigan and three in Indiana, bringing my grand total to 526 of the still standing 1,364 in the US.  Two of them had been grossly disfigured by additions to their front sides to make them handicap-accessible.  They didn’t merely put in ramps or a side entrance as most Carnegies have done, but slapped on large edifices utterly obliterating the majesty of the original building. The Dowagiac, Michigan Carnegie had become laughably surreal with a tunnel leading up to the former entrance, an unforgivable abomination.

The large addition to the front accommodated a row of computers, the periodical room and the checkout desk.  The upstairs of the original library was now the children’s room, the library’s saving grace, while the lower level, a windowless dungeon, had tables and shelves of books for adults.

The Westville, Indiana Carnegie’s frontal addition didn’t so severely obliterate its majesty, as one could look at it from the side and somewhat appreciate it, but it was still an architectural blunder, a wart on a princess.

The Carnegies in Goshen and LaPorte more than made up for the blunders of Dowagiac and Westville.  Goshen’s Carnegie was the first built in Indiana in 1903. It was designed as if it would be a marvel for every one in the state, worthy of a pilgrimage, then and now, rather than the first of 167, more than any other state.  It now serves as the city hall, but is still cared for like a precious jewel.  The dome in its rotunda is inscribed with the favored writers of the time--Goethe, Homer, Hugo, Milton,  Virgil, Irving, Emerson and Dante.  It’s significance is acknowledged with a two-sided plaque giving its history and honoring Carnegie in the lawn out front, just as at the LaPorte Carnegie fifty miles to the west.

LaPorte’s was one of the last built in Indiana in 1920.  It has a large addition to the back, but remains a library.  I arrived right at nine when it opened, except I didn’t realize this part of Indiana was on Central time, so it was eight a.m.  I didn’t have time to spare as I had eighty miles more to ride.  I couldn’t linger outside even though it was a sunny day, as a nearby bank sign gave a temperature of 28 degrees.  Westville was twelve miles further, but the small town library didn’t open until three this day, so I was shutout of my last two Carnegies. The strong wind from the west of the day before gradually shifted from the north and then by mid-afternoon miraculously all the way around from the east pushing me along and allowing me to arrive home before dark.

The forty degree temperature seemed almost balmy, the warmest it had been in four days.  France will seem downright tropical, as Paris is already enjoying 70 degree temperature.  Not only will the sun’s warmth be welcome, so will the warmth of the people, who embrace a touring cyclist as some one on an adventure or perhaps a pilgrimage, unlike the perception in the US of someone who is destitute and is reduced to traveling by bicycle.  As I sat against the wall of a service station eating a peanut butter sandwich early in the trip, a young man with a baseball hat turned backwards, who pulled up in a black pickup truck, came over to me and said, "I have a spare two dollars on me I’d like you to have.  Bless you."  I’ve learned not to refuse such offerings, as it hurts the giver’s feelings.  I accept it and find someone to pass it on to--this time to my friend in Mali who is trying to raise $5,000 to send over a container of goods.  He is more than half way there.  His most worthy organization is called Drums for Solar.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Dowagiac, Michigan

I awoke on Friday the thirteenth in Hell, a tiny town on Hell Creek amongst a cluster of small lakes forty miles south of Lansing. There were no town signs, perhaps because they were too often pilfered.  The town had a campground, but I chose to wildcamp, as a sign at the campground said, “Casual attire required.”  I was concerned my biking outfit might not qualify as “casual.”

I had descended to Hell at the recommendation of my friend Rick in Lansing after visiting the Carnegie in Howell fifteen miles to the north. It was in the opposite direction I was headed, but I had time to spare before meeting up with Rick the next day in Dansville for a ride to his home.  He said the camping would be much easier around Hell than I had found it the night before in this thickly settled region of people willing to commute long distances to their places of servitude.

Hell was not only notable for its tavern and casual campground, but also for a restaurant that claimed to have “the best home cooking on earth.”  I was eager to see if it’s hotcakes transcended all others, but unfortunately it wasn’t open.  If Howell played the bragging game, it could justifiably gloat over its Carnegie—a true gem in the upper echelon of Carnegies, constructed of local stone and crowned with a mini-dome.  The extended addition behind was well hidden preserving its dignity.

The town had enhanced its frontside with a stand alone clock tower and well-maintained landscaping.  It’s foyer under the dome was majestorial as well, with notable light fixtures and hand woven rugs and comfy chairs along with a Carnegie portrait in a corner.  This was a full-fledged shrine/temple.  Sitting in its grandeur couldn’t help but inspire one to lofty thoughts.

A special display promoting the library’s genealogical services further honored Carnegie.

The next day after my time in Hell, I arrived at the Dansville library, a former bank, at noon, two hours before Rick was due.  My route had taken me through other small towns with personality. The Community Church in Gregory had an oversized Little Free Library.   The local barber (Hairworks) advertised, “Let us tame your mane.”

The small Dansville library didn’t open until three.  It was warm enough to sit in the sun and eat and read and take advantage of the WiFi zone outside the library entrance rather than retreating to the town cafe.  I considered heading towards Lansing to meet Rick, but I wasn’t certain of his route.  Good thing I hadn't, as he came via a different way than I had anticipated. He arrived right at two clad in tights and windbreaker.  I was wearing tights, but had hoped it would warm up as it had the day before allowing me to ride bare legged for the first time since Africa.  But a severe storm that would plunge the temperatures and bring a cold rain was on its way.  It was already clouding up and growing cooler, enough so that I had to put on a vest shortly after we started.

Rick was astride his Seven, a bike he races on and also tours with having to use a special rack as it does not have eyelets to attach the standard rack.  He’s the rare cycling fanatic who only has one bike.  He’s been riding this since 2002.  Some time this year it will register 100,000 miles.  Rick has less than 5,000 miles to go and has a pool among his friends trying to guess when it will happen.   Though Rick lived in the Chicago area in the ‘70s and was one of the preeminent racers in the Midwest at the time with Olympic aspirations, we didn’t get to know each other until I started blogging and a mutual friend of ours suggested he read it.

And the person who set up my blog happened to be a friend of Rick’s as well, Jeff of the most worthwhile website outyourbackdoor, who also edits Bicycle Quarterly.  He lived in Lansing as well and would be joining us for dinner along with another ardent cyclist who tours and races and follows this blog. Rick briefed me of our evening to come as we pedaled along mostly side-by-side on the lightly traveled rural roads that he knew like the back of his hand.  We were so absorbed in conversation he didn’t always alert me that we would be turning.  He’d apologize saying, “I keep forgetting you can’t read my mind.”  We are kindred spirits enough that it wasn’t a far-fetched notion.

We were able to ride on a bike path for a spell through East Lansing, almost in honor of Rick having designed the first rails to trails route in Michigan over thirty years ago as part of his job as an urban planner.  His house reflected his bike fanaticism with a wide array of bicycle art, some dangling from his light fixture over the dining room table and a bike as an end table and many mini-bikes here and there.  Our last few miles were in a misty rain.  We were relieved not to have been soaked as the ever darkening sky looked like it could unleash a Biblical  torrent at any moment.  Before I showered though I had to pay my respects to the local Carnegie Library three miles away in the shadow of the domed State Capitol Building.  I shed my bike of its load, put my pump and spare tubes in my backpack and defied the impending storm, which considerately held off, allowing me to complete my mission.

Though it was a large two-story building, Lansing’s population increase had long ago required the construction of a larger library.  The Carnegie had been appropriated by the neighboring Lansing Community College in 1964.  A plaque in front of its blocked off entrance read, “Its simple style featured a classical facade that suggested a return to the enlightened days of antiquity.”  The only entry now was through the attached glassy college building.  It looked a little forlorn in the gloomy weather, but still radiated an air of quiet dignity.

I made it back to Rick’s before the rain hit.  While I was showering, Rick’s “squeeze,” Jeannie, and Jeff arrived and shortly after Layne.  Jeff and Layne were foregoing the weekly Friday night ride of local cyclists.  The nasty weather helped them make their decision.  The conversation was most lively as we dined on heaping plates of spaghetti.  Big news was a local 58-year old cyclist they all knew being handed a four-year ban for refusing to give a urine sample after finishing second in a high-profile race.  They had all been impressed by his placing and credited it to his recent retirement, allowing him to train more. All of us with our racing experience and acumen know doping  is an inescapable aspect of the sport, enough so that we hardly hold it against Armstrong.  As many readers of this blog, they wanted to know Janina’s reaction to all the fabric I brought back from Africa for her.  She loved it.  It’s presently stacked on her piano.  Anyone who visits marvels at it as well.  Janina has many plans for it.

It was lucky I’d had a long mid-day break and just a sixty-mile day, as our conversation continued until after midnight.  We thought others in the cycling community might drop by but the wintry spring storm curtailed all.  The big question was whether I’d be able to ride the next day or the day after, as two days of cold rain were predicted.  A prolonged rain isn’t usually too hard and usually has lapses that allows one to dry out a bit, so I had hopes of being able to ride, though Rick was encouraging me to hang out.

When I awoke the next morning the rain was just a light drizzle.  It was 37 degrees with a forecast of the temperature dipping rather than rising during the day.  My friend Kirk awaited me in Battle Creek 54 miles away.  I headed out at eight, knowing that within fifteen minutes I’d know if it were too cold or wet to continue.  I was immediately happy to be out pedaling.  I had six layers on my torso, including a down vest, but just tights on my legs.  The cold wasn’t penetrating and the wet wasn’t gathering.  I could endure this at least to Charlotte (pronounced Char-lot as in “used car lot”), where a Carnegie and motels awaited me.  A northeast wind hurried me along, but kept me from exerting myself to create extra warmth.  Fortunately I didn’t need it yet.

The Carnegie was more of a slightly embellished home than a public building.  It sat on a corner of Charlotte’s main street with no room for expansion, so it was no longer a library, but rather the quarters for an accountant and a florist.

I warmed up at the nearby McDonald’s before continuing on to Battle Creek 32 miles further.  A bank gave a temperature of 33 degrees and it felt it.  The forecast didn’t call for it to fall any further, so I didn’t need to worry about ice. At least the rain was slackening.  I had three pairs of gloves.  I switched to my wool gloves.  The ones I had started with were damp despite plastic bags covering them.  My feet were damp as well, water penetrating my booties through the holes in their bottoms to accommodate my cleats.  I felt chilled but not cold.  I rode steady warding off the cold and arrived at Kirk’s by three after taking another break at a McDonald’s for food and warmth.

Even if arriving at Kirk’s hadn’t meant surviving the inclement weather, I would have celebrated seeing my friend of many years when he managed the theaters at Facets a mile from where I had lived in Chicago for a couple of decades.  His love of cinema was undiminished.  We talked cinema as fervently as the conversation had been cycling the day before.  He fully keeps up with the movie world driving to Kalamazoo, Lansing and Ann Arbor, all within an hour, for films that don’t show up in Lansing.  He had recently driven to Ann Arbor for the latest Sally Potter film, “The Party,” which had just been at Facets, a wickedly funny delight Janina and I had greatly enjoyed. He had held off on “The Panther” though and me too.  With nothing more enticing we made that our Saturday night film at the nearby cinema where Kirk began his projectionist career in 1976.  The stand-alone theater out near the airport had expanded from its original two screens when it was built in 1970 to seven and had upgraded to deluxe seats and designated seating in all its theaters.  The local competition kept tickets at five dollars for matinees and seven dollars for features.

Neither Kirk nor I care much for the generally mind-numbing superhero movies and this one, despite all its acclaim and box office craze catapulting it to the third highest grossing film of all time already, didn’t win us over.  As Kirk said, “I could have lived my entire life without seeing this movie.”  We won’t be enticed by the many sequels to come.  We have seen countless movies together, memorable and forgettable, so we didn’t regret this outing in the least.

Unlike the day before, I awoke to a rain coming down too hard to dare riding in.  The forecast was for it to wane by two.  By one it had dissipated to a slight sleet.  The trees were covered with ice, but the road surface retained enough heat for it to remain ice free.  I had loaded up my bike hours earlier awaiting the chance to hit the road.  Once again I set out with the knowledge that I’d know within a couple of miles if it was within my tolerance to keep riding.  With the precipitation more ice than rain, it didn’t wet my tights, so I was in business. I had the options of motels in Kalamazoo, twenty-two miles away, or in Paw Paw, where a Carnegie awaited me, twenty miles further, or before Dowagiac, another twenty-six miles.  Halfway to Kalamazoo the sleet stopped and I started warming up enough to pull the zipper down on my jacket a couple of inches.  I took refuge in another McDonald’s in Kalamazoo for a McChicken and some warmth. By the time I resumed riding the road was dry.  Riding the bike was once again a joy and not a grim test of fortitude. Not only was it “Paw Paw here I come,” but Dowagiac as well.  Life was not only good, it was wonderful.

The standard red brick Carnegie in Paw Paw has been the Carnegie Community Center since 1995.  It had been well-maintained and was as welcoming and inviting as an old friend.

Three chain motels just south of Paw Paw along the interstate beckoned, but there was nearly two hours of daylight remaining.  With no rain to contend with for the first time in two days I couldn’t not keep riding.  I knew there was a cheap independent motel north of Dowagiac.  The lone review of the Peck Motel said, “This is the dirtiest, nastest (sic), unlivable place I have ever been.  I wouldn’t even allow my dog to sleep here little (sic) alone a human being.”  This I wanted to check out.  I arrived at 7:45, fifteen minutes before dark.  It was a typical small town motel. There were only three cars parked and a Vacancy sign.  There was Christian literature in the entry. A sign saying no smoking in the rooms meant I wouldn’t have to ask for a non-smoking room.  The owner was Caucasian, not Indian.  He said he didn’t accept credit cards.  When I asked about a senior discount, he said I could have a room for forty, rather than the posted fifty dollar rate.  

He kindly led me to a perfectly fine room and put down a matt for my bike.  He turned on the heater and the tv.  Whoever had written the scathing review clearly had a personal grievance and not to be believed.  It provided a fine finish to Another Great Day on the Bike, sixty-four miles.  Knowing how intimidating the weather had been, Rick had emailed mid-afternoon—“So how far did you get before the weather won??? I am not betting against you; I am just saying you are human.... and without submarine.” As I have learned over the years, one shouldn’t let the weather be a deterrence.  It has to relent at some point.  Rarely do I regret persevering.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Detroit’s Six Still Standing Carnegies 

Detroit is a city of demolished and boarded-up buildings (though not as severely as I feared), so it is no surprise that three of the nine libraries Carnegie funded in Detroit have been leveled and one of the six remaining is boarded-up.  The boarded-up library may have been the most distinguished of the lot, other than the grand main library.

Like the other four still standing branch libraries, it was constructed of red brick and was free of the pillars and domes and other flourishes that highlight many of the Carnegies.  They all had large windows and high ceilings and, those that I could get into, fine woodwork within, and exuded that Carnegie aura of majesty.  For several their most distinctive feature was a sculpture outside or some art within.

The first I came to, the Bowen branch, after biking sixty miles up from Toledo, the nearest city I could get to via Amtrak, as the Detroit line didn’t accommodate bicycles, had a fragment of a Diego Rivera mural with the tiny figure of Rockefeller at the bottom.  The now Hispanic neighborhood had a surge of population shortly after it was built, necessitating an expansion ten years later, the only one it has experienced.  It could use new bathrooms, as the men’s room in the basement was a tiny cell without a sink.  When I told the librarian I was visiting the Carnegies of Detroit, she was more enthusiastic about a handful of libraries built in the 1930s that I ought to visit, a couple with cork floors and one built in the Tudor style.  Detroit has the fourth largest public library system in the US with twenty-one branches, but I only had time for the Carnegies. 

The Conely Branch three miles away had had no addition.  It sat in a large park. There was a sculpture off to the side of two teens perched on a tree stump, both with a book.

The Duffield branch, four miles further, was marked by a railing interweaved with a sculpture of tree limbs.  It too had not been added on to, though it had been renovated ten years ago.  The walls had been left blank with no art or portraits of presidents or significant locals or even Read posters.

The Utley branch two miles away on Woodward, the main east-West avenue through Detroit, was now a childhood care center with a handicapped accessible entrance to its rear and a playground on one side.

I followed  Woodward toward the city center to its main library across the street from the Detroit Institute of Art, which featured an exhibit on the costumes of Star Wars.  Students of nearby Wayne State University strolled by.  The Italian Renaissance style library  constructed of Vermont marble was designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the US Supreme Court.

I continued east on Woodward past the Tigers stadium trying to stay clear of the tracks of the light rail system. It was quite perilous in front of each stop, a platform that slightly jutted out making the gap between the track and the side of the road quite narrow.  With my panniers sticking out, it was even more dangerous.  I turned north off Woodward to the boarded-up Ginsberg branch, which wasn’t so easy to find as it was on a small side street that only ran in haphazard segments with a haphazard numbering system.  When I finally found it I had to pass through a break in a high fence that surrounded the property, as the two buildings on it were boarded up.  

As I was photographing it a security guard appeared, shouting, “What are you doing?”  He had never seen a loaded touring bike and feared I was a transient looking for a squat.  But he turned out to the friendliest guy I had encountered since leaving Chicago.  He was enthralled by how far one can range on a bicycle, and we had a pleasant conversation on the bad rap Detroit has taken, as it is much more vital and alive than perceived.

He was just the antidote I needed, as I had had a run-in with one testy person after another, beginning with the Amtrak clerk I had dealt with in Chicago revising a ticket I had bought for Janina to St. Louis.  She wasn’t happy about having to do it and complained about all the effort it took.  Then as I lined up to board the train to Toledo a young man who was among a crowd who had prematurely lined up ahead of seniors and people with children and was blocking the entry threw quite a fit when my bike brushed him.  Our different skin pigmentation might have had something to do with it. The woman he was with had to calm him.  I’d earlier had an unpleasant encounter with a fellow touring cyclist, a guy my age traveling with his wife, who went on and on about non-camping tandeming excursions they’d had in New Zealand and France, renting a bike upon arrival and trying to stick to bike paths.  He asked if I’d done much touring.  I told him a bit, and that I’d just returned from two months in Africa.  That didn’t stop his soliloquy, not even my slight interjections indicating I too had toured in New Zealand and France.

The  majority of librarians I encountered were also somewhat narrow-minded, wary of engaging me in any manner when I expressed interest in their Carnegie heritage. What is happening to human decency?  There was an unmistakable lack of respect for Carnegie.  Not one of the six Carnegies I visited, including the Main Library, acknowledged Carnegie in any way—not with a plaque or his portrait or his name anywhere on the library.  The strong labor interests in the city evidently suppressed any homage to the steel tycoon.  One of the branch librarians even told me that the city had refused his grant for the Main Library.  I told her Wikipedia still referred to it as a Carnegie-funded library.  She called over to the library to find out and was surprised to learn that Carnegie had indeed contributed to its funding.  The librarian wasn’t alone in being misinformed.  Another branch librarian told me the same thing when I told her the Main Library was next on my itinerary.  The two librarians I spoke to there acknowledged Carnegie’s contribution, but unlike most small town librarians did not light up with pride that theirs was a Carnegie.  

It wasn’t until the Carnegie in Mount Clemens, twenty miles north of Detroit, that Carnegie pride resurfaced with a large plaque out front celebrating his contribution to this library and hundreds of others all across the country, although it got the number wrong.  It was 1679, not 1681.

The library was now an Art Center, but there was no mistaking its former life as a Carnegie Library.

A gentle breeze from the south had not only brought almost spring time temperatures of the 50s after nothing but 30s and 40s since my return from Africa three weeks ago, it propelled me to 97 miles by then with still an hour until dark. I had more vigor in my legs than I could have hoped for after an uneven night of sleep—four hours on the train before its arrival in Toledo at three am and then another four hours in the station on a bench.  I had to go another ten miles from Mount Clemens before I could find a place to camp.  I bypassed a most inviting cemetery and a thick forest a couple miles beyond, as there was too much traffic to slip into them without the risk of being reported by a suspicious motorist knowing what I was up to.  The forest I chose in a park along a river was not as isolated as I would have preferred, as I could see the lights of a couple of homes through the trees, but it was late and cold enough by then not to worry about anyone being out.

I’ll be camping out one more night before I’ll be sleeping indoors when I visit Rick in Lansing and then Kirk in Battle Creek as I head home visiting a handful more Carnegies and getting my legs tuned up before leaving for France a week after I return.