Friday, July 22, 2022

Two Wheels Good, Jody Rosen

There can’t be too many books celebrating the bicycle, though one always has to wonder what prompted the latest and what qualified the author to address the subject.  “Two Wheels Good” may have been inspired by the so-called bike boom during the pandemic, which the author of the book, Jody Rosen,  called “without question the largest in history.”  This surge of interest no doubt led him and Crown Publishing to think there would be an audience interested in reading another book passing itself off as a history of the bike. If nothing else he came up with a catchy title.

Rosen has written bicycle-related stories for the New York Times magazine and the New Yorker and claims to ride his bike every day around New York City, qualifications enough to write such a book.  He is an avid enough cyclist to proclaim “cycling is the essence of a New York existence…to live in New York without a bike is to only half-experience the city.”  

He doesn’t reveal his deep passion for the bike until the third to the last of the book’s sixteen chapters when he breaks from his reportorial mode and turns personal detailing his close relationship to the bike, which included a stint as a bicycle messenger in Boston one summer when he was nineteen.  As with many messengers, myself included, it was the best job he ever had, though he wasn’t particularly good at it. He rode so dreamily his dispatcher asked him, “Don’t you want to make money,” as one is paid by the delivery.  The job did confirm to him that he “didn’t want to be off a bicycle.”

The book might have had been more engaging if he had personalized it from the start rather than making it a series of what could be stand-alone magazine articles—venturing to Bangladesh to profile a rickshaw driver, to Scotland to profile the stunt rider Danny MacAskill, to Montana to profile a couple who met on the 1976 Bikecentennial coast-to-coast mass migration of cyclists and married, to an island in the Norwegian arctic in the dead of winter that is a bicycle haven, to Bhutan to document the unlikely bicycle scene in the Himalayas.  

He passes on the cliche of going to Copenhagen and Amsterdam and describing those bicycle idylls that all cities should aspire to, but does go to Beijing, a former bicycling stronghold, where the bicycle is being choked out by everyone now wanting to drive around in a car.  The bicycle is now regarded “as embarrassing, old-fashioned, ‘for losers,’ ‘for the poor.’”  Bike-share is trying to get people back on bikes, but it almost seems that as many bike-share bikes get thrown in rivers as are ridden.  

One chapter is sixteen pages of odd stories about the bicycle from newspaper clippings from the 1890s.  A story from the Nebraska State Journal quoted the president of the Women’s Rescue League that bicycle riding by women is “leading them headlong to the devil.”  She was seeking an act of Congress to forbid women to ride bikes.  If Amy Goodman had been around at the time she would have gladly given this dissenter a voice on Democracy Now if only to pose her favorite question, “What are you demanding?”

Rosen inserts a wide breadth of bicycling anecdotes, including Frank Zappa strumming a bicycle wheel on the Steve Allen show, speculating about the whereabouts of two exercycles on the Titanic, Annie Oakley blasting clay pigeons while riding a bicycle.  Though he pointedly warns early on that his  book will have nothing about bike racing, he manages to insert Maurice Garin, the winner of the first Tour de France.  

The book starts with an array of creation theories as to the origin of the bicycle, most of which he debunks, including the myth of Leonardo da Vinci having drawn one up.  There are way more claimants to being the inventor of the bicycle than one could imagine.  Even the Russians and Chinese join the fray, pointing to obscure countrymen as the first to create a bicycle despite all evidence pointing to a German, Karl Friedrich Drais, who concocted a two-wheeled device in 1817 that one could sit upon after propelling one’s self by foot.  Pedals came later added by a Frenchman in the 1860s.  So many books have been written about these early years, each seeking a fresh angle, I just wanted to skim over it all, wondering what Rosen would find to write about in the coming pages.

He devotes thirty-four pages, ten per cent of the book, to Barb Brushe and Bill Samsoe, letting them tell in their own words the story of their riding across the country in 1976 as part of an entourage of over four thousand cyclists in multiple small groups celebrating the Bicentennial.  Bill was a group leader and Barb was in a group just ahead of Bill’s.  They repeatedly crossed paths, making a connection that led to marriage.  Forty years later they repeated their crossing, though with a sag wagon and staying in hotels rather than camping.  In describing their first crossing Rosen says riders were continually “catching” flats, an unorthodox description of riders “suffering” flats.  Another red flag to his bicycling acumen is his acknowledgement in his “Personal History” chapter that “to this day I can barely patch an inner tube.”

He makes several passing references to the Critical Mass phenomenon that originated in San Francisco in 1992 and swept the world, but it’s not until his last chapter that he describes it in detail, though only giving it two pages, and never seemingly engaging in one himself.    After the first mention on page ten I checked the index to see if there would be more and was disappointed to see it wasn’t listed in the twelve page index.  Thus it came as a pleasant surprise when he did give it more than a nod.  It could have been one of those subjects, like racing, that he didn’t care to write about since it had been written about so thoroughly elsewhere.  It may have been overlooked in the index, but “corking” was not, a feature of Critical Masses, of cyclists blocking intersections holding bikes overhead so the critical mass of riders can continue flowing through.  The index also had other obscure references such as ball bearings and rain riding and ghost bikes.  

Curiously the book doesn’t include a bibliography though plenty of books are mentioned in his forty-three pages of footnotes.  Two of the footnotes are included with his email address if one would like him to send a copy of an article he had found.  I’m still awaiting a response. 

There is no mention of his fellow New York bicycle devotee David Byrne nor reference to his book “Bicycle Diaries” or his recent show on Broadway that included bicycling.  Simone Beauvoir merits a mention and Steve Jobs and Hitler and Henry Miller and Mark Twain and, of course, H. G. Welles.

He doesn’t harp on the bicycle as being a savior for the environment as much as he could.  He veers off on several tangents that the bicycle hasn’t always been good for the environment since producing bicycles causes environmental damage and exploitation of workers, rather irrelevant issues in a book titled “Two Wheels Good.”  But it is his bent to embrace all, as he does when he chooses “she” rather than the standard “he” for a generalization of all humans.  

One senses at times he ventures off topic to fill up his quota of pages, such as two pages on a relative of the stunt rider MacAskill who was a giant—seven feet nine inches tall.  He also includes several paragraphs on Drais not relevant to the bicycle story, but interesting, fleeing Germany for Brasil in 1822 because his father a judge made an unpopular decision.  One often can’t help but to think, “That’s interesting, but what does it have to do with this book?”

It’s all made up though with his occasional rapturous endorsements of riding the bike.  It can be dangerous he acknowledges, especially in New York City traffic, “but to trudge through your days without biking—that’s no way to live.”


Friday, July 1, 2022

“1001 Voices on Climate Change,” by Devi Lockwood

Devi Lockwood set out to bicycle around the world in 2014 at the age of twenty-two shortly after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard with the goal of collecting stories on climate change.  She endured for nearly two years until an amoeba turned up in her intestines in Cambodia at about the same time she began to suffer panic attacks following a harrowing van ride. She regretfully curtailed her travels, feeling like a “failure,” and returned home to New Hampshire to regain herself.

She had already gathered plenty of material for a book, largely thanks to a sign she carried that read “Tell me a story about climate change“ on one side and “Tell me a story about water“ on the other.  But she sought more material, resuming her travels for another couple of years, but unfortunately not by bicycle. 

Although the first half of the book is laced with almost enough incidents of cycle touring and endorsements of the bicycle as an ideal means to connect with people to qualify the book as a travel book, there is no indication on the cover of the book in words or in design that this is a book that would appeal to cyclists. Rather than inserting a bicycle anywhere on the cover to lure those with a bent for the bicycle, the cover is entirely blotted with an array of water drops, including one that forms the “O” in “Voices,” emphasizing the book’s theme of water.

She is a strong advocate of the bike, paying tribute to it in many ways, including saving her final thanks in her two pages of acknowledgements at the end of the book to her grandfather for teaching her to ride a bike.  It is well-nigh inexplicable that she would abandon the bike after it being her featured means of transport in New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia for nearly two years. Not even when she resumes her travels in China, a former stronghold of the bicycle, does she take advantage of it to get around, nor in Denmark either, where the bicycle is a dominant feature.  

After writing so much about how the bicycle drew people to her and how she loved being outside all day with “no windshield, just immersion,” the no-bike second half of the book came as a disappointment.  It was hard to fathom that she could lose her loyalty to the bike after expressing such devotion to it,  and didn’t at least rent or borrow a bike in her further travels.  The bike as a means to combat climate change could have been a prominent theme of the book.  She shouldn’t have let a page pass without demonstrating the utility and wisdom of riding a bike, not only for the good of the planet, but for one’s personal well-being.

She gives no reason for abandoning the bike as a means of immersing herself into the many countries she later travels including Morocco and Turkey and Peru and Scandinavia.  It wasn’t because of any frights she had while cycling.  Those only occurred when she was off the bike, the worst when monsoon rains in Laos forced her to take a fourteen-hour van ride to cross into Cambodia.  She was crammed in the back seat next to an American who she accused of “mansplaining” for a condescending remark he made.  He responded by calling her a “feminazi cunt” and tried to strangle her when the trip ended in Phnom Penh.  The driver was no help, as he had earlier thrown a can of coke at her head irritated that she checked on her bike at every stop when more cargo was placed on top of it.

She had another unpleasant, but more benign, experience earlier when traveling by cargo ship.  While in New Zealand she met Chris Watson,  the author of the book “Beyond Flying,” a collection of essays discouraging travel by air, who tells her that “flying is by far the worst thing that many of us do for the planet.”  That convinces her to cover the 1,200 miles across the Tasman Sea to Australia by boat and to try to avoid flying for the rest of her trip.  She launches a kickstarter campaign to pay for her expensive passage on a cargo ship and raises the funds in “a day and one hour.”  She’s the lone female, which was unsettling at times.  

She manages a couple more legs on sailboats but after four months of trying to find passage to Thailand by sea gives up and flies. The ease of flight is hard to avoid, even for someone committed to doing as little harm to the planet as possible.  Later in the book she admits to flying from New York to San Francisco without any explanation for not taking advantage of Amtrak.  It may not be as egregious as flying, but she also reveals that she went to a Starbucks in Instanbul forgoing the countless local coffee establishments.

The book was published by Tiller Press, an off-shoot of Simon and Schuster, that specializes in non-fiction on “real-world problems.”  She and her agent spent quite a spell trying to find a publisher, commenting that it felt like they suffered “1,001 rejections,” mostly on the grounds that books about climate change don’t sell.

She does make her book readable, not bogged down by statistics, but rather anecdotal evidence that the climate is changing from the “1,001” people she meets during her travels who respond to her sign.  Most of the stories are about how much hotter it has become and how water is becoming scarce or in the case of the island republic of Tuvalu, raising the ocean level threatening its survival.  

She begins the book in Tuvalu at the suggestion of “my then girl-friend,” the first of several mentions of her sexuality.  She does no biking on these nine coral atolls that comprise ten square miles and receives just 150 visitors a year, some who merely stop in to add to their list of countries visited. It’s highest point is thirteen feet above sea level, which is gradually becoming less elevated as the ocean inches upward. The stories of water there are not only of the sea rising but the loss of well water that used to supply the islanders their drinking and bathing needs. The only non-salt water now available to the islanders is from rain, which everyone assiduously collects. She stayed with a family, as she often does, sometimes through the cycling “Warmshowers” community.  To shower she snuck into a Telecom building at night along with one of the family members who worked there.

Rain was another of her water stories from a woman who’d arrived in Sydney in 2002 during a severe drought.  A torrential downfall brought everyone out, even office workers in suits and dresses, to dance with hands up to the sky so thrilled to have water.  A couple people respond to the water question with stories of tears.  A 70-year old woman told her, “My biggest water story at the moment is shedding tears when I heard my grandson play the piano as part of a symphony.”  Another woman recalls giving birth, breaking water and ending the birth with tears, “my fourth water.”

The sign Lockwood wears around her neck became such a part of her at times she’d forget about its presence.  Once as she was sitting under a tree reading she was startled by a woman asking “what is that all about” referring to her sign.  She tells her a story of gently washing her just-deceased mother.  Her water question struck a non-climate change chord with many.   Another was about a guy’s younger brother who died from a pot of boiling water falling on him, the water having to be boiled to purify to make it drinkable.

She is told multiple times that it’s not advisable for a woman to travel alone. She knows that plenty do and that she does it not only for herself but for “all the women who are unable to do so.”  She bikes for several weeks in Australia with a Belgian woman she met through Facebook who is less leery of stealth camping than she is.  Their time together gives her greater confidence to stealth camp on her own, coming to prefer it to staying in Australian caravan parks, as she found them to be “hostile places for a solo female.”  

If this had been a true travel book she would have devoted more than two paragraphs to her time with the Belgian.  She didn’t even credit her with a water or climate story. Her many descriptions of sunsets and sunrises in the first half of the book were however symptomatic of a travel book.  There were thirty-one in the first 159 pages, but only four in the second half when she didn’t travel so much as fly to environmental conferences.  She had been so attentive to the sun’s comings and goings, as one is who is outdoors all day, she used the sunset as a metaphor for her reaction to the abundant use of vowels in the Tuvalu language.  She wrote, “The vowels in this language taste as delicious in my mouth as sunsets are bright.”  One sunset was so stunning she wanted to throw herself into it.

How much of a difference this book will make is hard to say, maybe no more than the messages she wrote on telephone poles and highway guardrails as she cycled—“Just play” / “Slow is beautiful” / “Read more poetry”.  She was just happy to give voice to so many, hoping it could inspire others to think about the issues they raised.  Only one library in the Chicago system has acquired it—the Chinatown branch.  But like every pedal stroke it is a motion forward. 

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Moline, Illinois


 As I cycled the thirty miles from Muscatine to Davenport along the Mississippi,  I stopped at each of the series of state campgrounds hugging the river to see if they had sites available over Memorial Day weekend for Janina and I.  The first three only had a handful of sites presently occupied, but all were booked full starting Friday.  

It was a relief to discover that the fourth I came upon, the Buffalo Shores Recreation Area, a county campground, didn’t take reservations.  It operated on the old-style, first-come-first-served basis. Once one claimed a site, they could hold it for fourteen days, so there were people who had come early to stake out a site, paying for a few extra days, and then leaving.  

Half of its sixty-five sites already had been tagged through the weekend, even though they weren’t occupied.  The campground hosts couldn’t guarantee that if Janina and I showed up Friday, when Janina will be driving in from Chicago, that any sites would be left.  I could chance returning on Thursday in two days, but that was a bit iffy too.  Maybe I’d come back Wednesday, the next day, and hang out for two days before Janina’s arrival.  

I had a couple of other options to check on before having to make that decision. I went on-line to see the camping situation at the large Mississippi Palisades Park halfway between Moline and Galena that we had stayed at before.  Two of its 165 sites were still available. I clicked fast to book one before anyone else beat me to it, only to learn they were special handicap-accessible sites only available to the handicapped.  

Next I tried an Army Corps of Engineers campground just north of Moline. And bingo, it had several sites available and there were no catches.  What a relief.  I didn’t have to sweat out going back to the county campground ten miles south of Davenport, and Janina didn’t have to remain in suspense of whether or not her escape from the city would be derailed.  We could be happy that we’d be spending the holiday camping.  And we could also be happy that so many others had a similar desire, almost enough to give one hope for the future of mankind.

I could have a stress-free two days hanging out in the Quad Cities resting my legs and reading awaiting Janina, who couldn’t come any earlier as she didn’t want to miss her Thursday University of Chicago class on the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I had been wanting to get to Moline for awhile, as its library is just one of a handful of libraries in the US that has the cycling memoir, “The Wind at My Back: A Cycling Life,”  by the English novelist Paul Maunder published in 2018.  Maunder is a regular contributor to the highly literate cycling magazine “Rouleur.”  I am always  happy to see his by-line, and evidently many others are too as, a website that is an archive of the holdings of libraries all over the world, listed libraries in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Germany and cycling-mad Slovenia with copies of his book.  

Fortunately the book was on the shelf allowing me a fine day immersed in its 259 pages. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the pleasure at Moline’s grand downtown Carnegie, as it had been replaced in 2005 by a sprawling two-story library on the outskirts of the city with all sorts of amenities including a pair of exercycles with trays to lay a book upon and read while one pedals away.  I could hardly object to the setting and the consciousness of the librarian who had acquired “The Wind at My Back.”

The book was laced with Maunder’s acute insights into the cycling life, ringing up observations that are at the forefront of my thought as I pedal along.  Though he’d never done any touring, thInking a three-hour ride brought him happinesses enough, he expresses many a thought of the touring cyclist.  He wrote that he always rides with head up through villages as “there’s a whole range of human quirks to be observed.”  He’s always monitoring the wind and tries to guess when he’s about to turn into it “whether it will feel like riding though maple syrup or molasses.”  

Much as the book is  about his life as a cyclist, beginning with riding with his father and his friends when he was but ten, it is as much about his life as a writer .  He acknowledged that he identifies himself as a novelist, though none of his four novels have found a publisher, a startling revelation. He was forty-three when he wrote this memoir and had only stumbled into writing about cycling a few years before when a friend suggested he try his hand at it.  And there he found his niche.  

In his teens when he took up racing he had the ambition of becoming a professional cyclist.  At nineteen he realized he didn’t have the ability for that and hardly biked at all while at university, devoting his leisure time to attending raves and doing drugs.  He resumed cycling after college and realized it defined who he was. When he spoke all too much about cycling at his writer’s group, someone asked if he’d rather be a writer or a professional cyclist.  Without hesitation he replied cyclist.” He has fully come to terms that he failed at that as well as at becoming a novelist and winning the Booker Prize, as he’d initially hoped. 

The book was much less of a full-on cycling memoir than I was anticipating.  Whole swaths of his cycling life are overlooked.  He mentions Greg LeMond was his hero, but leaves it at that.  He hardly writes about his racing career, only the race in the summer of 1992 he dropped out of, never racing again.  

There is no mention of his first race or any of his wins or what made him think he could represent England at the world championships.  It’s not until page 195 that he mentions a cycling holiday in France as an eleven-year old with his family.  His father rode a tandem with his younger sister while his mother completed their foursome on a bike of her own. 

His father surprised him by intersecting with the Dauphiné-Libéré, a week-long pre-Tour de France race, where he’s thrilled to get his picture taken with two of the stars of the time, the Australian Phil Anderson and Irishman Stephen Roche.  He tells Roche he’d like to ride the Tour de France some day.  Roche told him he had the same ambition when he was his age. 

There’s not a single mention of Merckx or Coppi or Anquetil or much of the lore of the sport that cycling memoirs generally pay homage to.  He grants a couple sentences to Henri Desgrange, founder of The Tour, and his intent to make it a test of human endurance, but gives him short shrift too.  As fine a writer as Maunder can be, he could have woven more of the sport’s past into his narrative and given that past new meaning.

He is most fascinated by climbers rather than sprinters but gives no mention of two of the greatest climbers (Pantani and Gaul) and how they and many others of the climbing set became tragic figures.  He lumps in Indurain, Ullrich and Armstrong as strong riders who didn’t have the flair of the climbers, so failed to capture his imagination, and that is all he has to say of them.  Nor is there a peep on the drug-taking side of the sport.  As worthwhile as much of the book is, its failure to be as comprehensive as it could have been may be at the root of why none of his four novels have been published.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

West Liberty, Iowa


The road construction season inflicted me with a couple more unwelcome doses of gravel with road closures forcing me on unpaved roads.  It is beyond my fathoming that riding gravel has become a fad.  There may be a minimum of traffic on such roads, but what little traffic there is speeds by spewing up a cloud of dust and is a threat to shoot out bullets of the loose gravel.  The gravel reduces one’s speed and increases one’s effort.  Descents are wasted, as one must brake, ever wary of hitting a thick patch of gravel which can catapult one over the handlebars, as happened to me a few years ago in Nebraska nearly breaking a collarbone.

But I can thank the road construction for sending me off on a detour that took me by the birthplace of Herbert Hoover in West Branch.  The two-room cottage where he was born in 1874 is part of a large park that includes a museum and his presidential library. The grounds administered by the Park Service is just a mile off Interstate 80.  I’ve passed it many a time in too much of a hurry to stop, always thinking, “maybe next time.”  At last, the bicycle gave me the opportunity to gain some intimacy with the first person born west of the Mississippi to become president.

I passed through West Branch on my way to Iowa City, where I had the unexpected bonus of two Statues of Liberty.  The Statue donated by the Boy Scouts placed in front of the high school had begun deteriorating and had been replaced in 2010 after sixty years of enduring the elements.  The original now resides in the foyer of the school. Only a discerning eye could tell the replacement hadn’t been cast from the same mold, as they were remarkably similar.  The major difference was that the new one had a more mature face.  The girlishness of the original was a point of contention with some. If the plaque on the replacement hadn’t revealed it was a replacement, I wouldn’t have looked closely enough at the face to notice the difference.

It was after five when I arrived.  The school was locked, so I feared I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see where the elder Lady Liberty had been placed.  One had to be buzzed in even during school hours.  I received no response to my several buzzes.  As I was about to leave several students came out the locked door, so I was able to slip in and go down a hall lined with lockers to the foyer and there she was with a coat of brown paint somewhat rejuvenating her.  It was the first of the couple dozen I have searched out that was confined to an indoor space.  It didn’t seem quite right, but it was nice she lived on. 

The day before I swung by Cedar Rapids for another Statue, this one in a position of honor at the tip of a small island in the Cedar River that runs through the city, the second largest in the state.  

Its Carnegie was just a few blocks away and was now an art museum with a large addition.  It no longer bore an identification on its exterior that it had been a library other than the faint engraving of four authors below its roofline—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Virgil.  The new library faced it separated by a large park that was populated by a dozen or so homeless.  

I was glad the first floor of the new library was largely constructed of glass so I could sit by a window and keep an eye on my bike remembering all too well that I’d had my tent swiped from my bike while in a library in San Francisco and my sleeping bag by a homeless guy I’d seen lingering outside a supermarket I went in outside of Washington D.C., the only two thefts I’ve suffered from my unattended bike, not counting a thwarted theft in South Africa. 

I included the small towns of Clarence and West Liberty on my perambulations as they too had Statues to offer.  The one in Clarence gazed upon its large park on the outskirts of the town.

The Statue in West Liberty stood in front of its City Hall.  As the one inside the Iowa City high school it had been slathered by some unsightly preservative.  

It brought me within twenty miles of the Mississippi, which I’ll ride along for thirty miles up to the Quad Cities scouting out potential campgrounds for my rendezvous with Janina.  There will be a bunch to choose from on both sides of the river. And there will be one more Statue on the way in the river town of Muscatine.  This region has provided a big bounty of the statues.  Iowa has twenty-five, more than ten per cent of those scattered around the US.  Only Kansas with twenty-six has more.  Illinois by contrast has a mere three.  If I’d been on to them sooner, I’d have been to most of them by now.  

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Fayette, Iowa

A gentle breeze from the north gave me an assist for another hundred mile day.  But the northerly also brought with it colder temperatures, much colder than I realized, as shortly after I commenced riding the next morning I realized I needed to put on my tights.  I could manage the forty-nine start-of-the-day temps of the day before, but this day’s forty-one under cloudy skies was too much.  And I needed my gloves and wool cap as well.

At least it meant I could buy a half-gallon of milk, my preferred volume, if I could find a grocery store, which haven’t been so common in this sparsely settled corner of Iowa.  I went sixty miles before I came upon a Dollar Store and could get that hall-gallon of chocolate milk and take advantage of the day’s refrigeration, as it never warmed up much above fifty.

Though there was only one remaining Carnegie in the Northeast sector of Iowa that I had yet to get to and was indeed the only Carnegie in the state that had eluded me, I had another in Waverly I needed to stop by as I hadn’t realized I’d seen it two-and-a-half years ago. It had been entombed by a red brick facade on all sides and since I was there on a Sunday I couldn’t find anyone to verify it had been the Carnegie.  

The expansion that swallowed up the library took place in 1968, before the time of the few people I asked if they knew where the Carnegie had been. An older couple out walking their dog told me the library had been across from the supermarket, but the plain brick building certainly wasn’t a Carnegie.   Wikipedia ordinarily gives the address of the Carnegie, but not this one.  It didn’t report that it had been razed, so I figured it was wrong again.  It wasn’t until the next day when I called the Waverly library did I learn the dog-walkers were right and that the red brick building contained the Carnegie within it.  

So I was happy to return this year and look at the red brick building with a different perspective.  First I stopped at the new library.  A librarian told me that a cornerstone had been placed in the wall surrounding the old building acknowledging its past.  Indeed it was there with the dates 1867, 1905 and 1968—of the town’s first library, its Carnegie and then its expansion.  It continued as a library until 1998 when the new one was built and the old one passed into the private sector, now serving as an investment firm. 

A few blocks down the street in front of the courthouse was another of the Statues of Liberty provided by the Boy Scouts, part of a cluster of me-too-ism along with those in Manly and Mason City to the north, that I mentioned in my last post, and a fourth fourteen miles south in Cedar Falls. 

As I pedaled on the shoulder of a four-lane divided highway to Cedar Falls a police car came up from behind me and sounded its siren.  The officer told me it was too dangerous for me to be riding on this road, calling it an interstate.  It had the features of an interstate with on and off ramps and a grassy meridian separating the two-lanes of speeding traffic going in both directions, but it was designated as state road 218 and had no signs forbidding cyclists.  But there was no debating the issue with the officer.  He said he would follow along behind me for the mile to the next exit to make sure I got off the road.

It made for a long, circuitous route to the statue in Veterans Park on the south side of the sprawling city and forced me to ride through the busy downtown of the city.  I was careful to obey the traffic signals lest I encounter the officer again and give him the excuse to issue me a ticket.   I’m always a little nervous when I approach the park where a Statue is supposed to be, never fully trusting Wikipedia, so when I spot the Statue it is a glorious feeling.  

And even if I fully trusted Wikipedia it would still be a glorious feeling to lay eyes on this emblematic figure whose original in the harbor of Manhattan has welcomed millions.  I can well remember quite a few occasions spotting it from the water or land, and even walking up inside it.  My last encounter was with Janina returning to the US on the Queen Mary standing at the bow of the ship with a mob of passengers, mostly Brits, watching the distant iconic figure grow larger and larger.  It was an emotional experience for all. 

The surge of pleasure is not dissimilar to that of seeing a Carnegie, particularly when there is a lengthy period of expectation or if it completes the slate of another state, as was the case with the one on the campus of Upper Iowa University in the small town of Fayette, fifty-four miles northeast of Cedar Falls.  The enrollment of six hundred is half the size of the town.  

The university had already commenced summer vacation, so the library was closed.  The campus was deserted other than a couple of groups of prospective students being given a tour.  It was a personable, cosy campus, but utterly isolated, surrounded for miles by cornfields.  The Carnegie was its most noble building and had a large addition to its backside. The library was named for David B. Henderson, a ten-term Congressman and Speaker of the House from 1899-1903, the only Iowan to serve in that capacity.  He attended Upper Iowa University and was a personal friend of Carnegie.  A statue of him stands in front of its original entrance.  

Friday, May 20, 2022

Mason City, Iowa

I was stacking a load of change I had gathered along the road into two piles of one dollar each to pay for a couple of one-dollar burritos at Taco Bell, when a young man behind me reached around and handed the cashier a five dollar bill and said, “I’ve got it.”  He had earbuds and a distant look, so I couldn’t engage him in conversation other than a “Thanks a lot.”  

And then another “Thank you” when he gestured to the cashier to give me the change when she started to hand it to him.  My mission of lightening the load of coins in my pocket thumping against my thigh had been thwarted, and had, in fact, been exacerbated by another eighty-eight cents worth of coins.  It was the first such monetary offering of these travels, coming on Day Twenty-Nine, much later than usual.

It was my second stroke of good fortune for the day.  I had gotten on the road by seven to beat the rush-hour traffic on a five-mile stretch of four-lane divided highway.  I was forced onto the highway the evening before when the county road paralleling it turned to dirt.  With the threat of rain I wanted no part of that road and subjected myself to the steady roar of traffic whizzing by at over sixty miles per hour.

I camped just before the road narrowed for road construction.  I knew there was a threat of the shoulder disappearing.  When I returned to the road the next morning it was already backed up with traffic that had come to a halt.  A police car with siren blaring followed by an ambulance came up from behind me and had to go on to the grass to get around all the backed-up vehicles.  I was able to slowly bike past the line of traffic.  

Half a mile ahead a car that had crashed into a barrier was the cause for the blockade.   I got around it and had the single lane without a shoulder all to myself for the five miles to the intersection where I could leave the highway and get on a paved county road.  If not for that blockade I would have had a harrowing five miles.  I was most certainly thanking the cycling gods for providing me free passage on that perilous stretch.

If this set of good fortune had come in threes I might have topped it off with the acquisition of a Carnegie portrait, which would have been an unimaginable stroke of good fortune.  The official portrait in the Spring Valley Carnegie, now a town hall, was sitting in a corner with a pile of rubble, looking as if it were destined for the scrap heap.  I tried not to sound too eager when I commented to the town clerk, “If you’re discarding the portrait, I’d be happy to take it off your hands.”  I’d already told her I was visiting Carnegie Libraries, so would be a worthy recipient.  

Unfortunately, it wasn’t for the taking, as she said it had been taken down from the wall in front of us, as the wall had suffered water damage and was being repaired.  It was good to know it at least had a place of honor as the first thing people saw when they entered the noble building.  She said it wasn’t at the new library as they said they didn’t have a place for it.  It was more that they did not have an appreciation for it, as there was loads of empty wall space.  

It wasn’t the first time I’d made a stab at acquiring the portrait.  When I don’t see it hanging in a library I ask if it is hanging somewhere.  Usually the librarian will gladly point out where it is.  Sometimes the librarian will confess the library doesn’t have a portrait and was unaware of it.  In the small town of Boswell, Indiana the librarian said it was sitting in a closet, as they hadn’t decided where to hang it.  When I happened to visit the library again two years later and the portrait was still sitting in the closet, I asked if I could acquire it for a donation to the library.  The librarian said she’d have to check with her board of directors.  A couple weeks later she emailed and said they wanted to keep it. The next time Janina and I drive to Bloomington, we’ll stop at Boswell again to see if the portrait has been freed of its confinement.  If not, I’ll pull out five twenties and see if that will win his freedom.

I wouldn’t call it good fortune, but I at least had a quiet twenty-miles well off-the- beaten track when I was forced onto an unpaved road paralleling Interstate 90.  The road alternated between hard-packed dirt with just a few stray bits of gravel, that was almost like riding on pavement, to light gravel, that slowed me to eight miles per hour, to thick freshly laid gravel that reduced me to five or six miles per hour, and sometimes four, as a slogged through it.  It was most tiresome and required my full attention.  It came at the end of the day reducing my hopes for a ninety-mile day to just seventy.  At least I had a premium campsite in a small wilderness area with signs posted permitting hunting, though not this time of the year.

My last Carnegie in Minnesota came in Albert Lea, named for an early surveyor in this region in the 1830s.  As with the first in Luverne nine days ago it was diamond-shaped with a corner entrance, the third in Minnesota and fifth in all, the two others just over the border in South Dakota.  Those with a fascination for such architecture could pay them all a visit in a day if they don’t mind traveling by automobile  The former library was now the law offices of SMRLS—Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.  It was the eleventh Carnegie I had visited in Minnesota during these travels.  With fifteen on previous trips, I have gotten to twenty-six of the forty-eight remaining Carnegies in the state.  Getting to the rest could be my fall project. 

It was just ten miles south to Iowa from Albert Lea where a bounty of eight Statues of Liberty will be on my route to the Carnegie in Fayette and then on to Rock Island.  The first of the Statues came in the small town of Manly in a tiny park.  It was the first I’ve come upon adorned with a globe.  It wasn’t in the best of shape and didn’t have the plaque crediting the Boy Scouts for providing it. 

The Statue in the much larger Mason City ten miles south came with the plaque and was well-tended standing in the corner of a large Central Park.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Zumbrota, Minnesota

With the wind slackening to single digits for the first time in days I regained the pleasure of leisurely pedaling along gazing around at the scenery, happy to have forests to regard wherever my eyes may glance.  Those early pioneers who pushed past this forested terrain into the wide open barren plains had to have a high tolerance for isolation and emptiness or desperation to get away from it all.

The traffic has increased considerably, so much so I was happy to have a bike path to ride on for nearly twenty miles to Faribault between the Carnegies in Janesville and Northfield.  I didn’t even know there was one around until a motorist shouted at me “Get on the bike path!”  I didn’t spot it until a few miles further when it came within sight of the road.  I had its smooth pavement all to myself.  I’ve hardly seen a cyclist in my month of travels in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota.  Not even the spiraling price of gas can get people out of their cars and onto the bike.

There wasn’t even a cyclist to be seen, and only a few stray bikes locked up, in a couple of towns with colleges and a Carnegie I just passed through.  Both towns, however, were enlightened enough to have held off Walmart despite populations of twelve and twenty thousand.  The smaller of the two, Saint Peter, home to the small college of Gustavus Adolphus, had enough of an upscale population that its Carnegie has been taken over by a spa/salon offering massages and facials and waxing and all manner of hair styling.  

It was the fourth of these travels with a corner entrance, all within range of one another, as if inspired by the urge to “have one like that,”  as they are otherwise a rarity.  They all vary, with none matching the stunner in Milbank, South Dakota, so they don’t seem to be designed by the same architect. 

Northfield was a genuine college town with two colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf, and a combined enrollment of five thousand students, a quarter of the town’s population.  Both have rigid entrance requirements and boast being among the universities with the highest percentages of students who go on to earn PhDs.  Both colleges were established soon after Northfield was settled in 1856, Carleton following ten years later and St. Olaf eight years after Carleton by rival religious groups, Carleton by Yankee Congregationalists and St. Olaf by Norwegian Lutherans.  Its Carnegie came in 1910 and continues as a library though greatly expanded.  A large sign out front proclaims it an “Historic Carnegie Building.”

Besides its two respected colleges and Carnegie, Northfield is also known for having thwarted a bank robbery by Jesse James and his gang in 1876.  Movies have been made about it, and the town has an annual re-enactment that is part of one of the largest festivals in the state, The Defeat of Jesse James Days, the week after Labor Day.  It attracts thousands and includes a parade and rodeo and lots of music.  The bank they attempted to rob lives on as a museum.

Zumbrota, thirty-five miles south, lays claim to having the last covered bridge in Minnesota.  As one enters the town, signs point the way. It is across from the new library that replaced its Carnegie, which is now an art gallery.  The yellow brick of the stately Carnegie leant it a bit more luster than the standard red brick of Northfield.  An “07” like a crown graced the top of the building, which a bird was perched on.

A series of plaques gave the history of the one hundred and twenty foot long  covered bridge. It was constructed in 1869 over the Zumbro River on the stage coach route between St. Paul and Dubuque.  It was retired in 1932 and moved to the fairgrounds where it hosted various exhibits.  A Covered Bridge Society was formed in 1964 to preserve it and had it moved in 1970 a mile to near its present site where it was finally moved to in 1997 less than a thousand feet from its original location.  

The Carnegie in the quiet town of Janesville continues to serve as a library without having been expanded.  The town has considered increasing its size, but not at the cost.  Its budget is so meager a sign on the lone rest room warns one use it at their own risk as it is cleaned only every two weeks.  

Back in forested terrain there is no challenge finding a place to camp.  I could quickly slip into the trees last night the moment the forecast light rain commenced.  With no sky to the horizon as in Nebraska and South Dakota I didn’t have the pleasure of watching it move in.   I could only wait for the cloudy sky to start leaking.

I’m now into the home stretch with only two more libraries in Minnesota close to the Iowa border on my agenda and then two in Iowa.  There is also a cluster of Statue of Liberties in the northeast corner of Iowa to supplement the Carnegies.  Then I’ll get to camp with Janina along the Mississippi who will drive over with her bike.