Saturday, April 27, 2024

Notice to Readers...

Dear friends and fans of George around the world... We have terrible news. George was hit and killed by a truck while biking in South Carolina on Monday, April 22, 2024, 730:pm.

John Greenfield wrote a report of what we know at this time, combined with a memorial, linked with permission below.

Feel free to post comments. We will keep his blog online. We will miss George greatly. My condolences to us all... Jeff Potter

Here is a repost of the article:

As a longtime bicycle courier, and one of Chicago's most adventurous bike riders and writers, George Christensen did extensive cycling trips in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. These included biking the length of three continents and one subcontinent, India. Starting in 2001, he eloquently documented his travels on his well-read blog, George the Cyclist.

But tragically, on Monday evening Christensen's life was cut short at age 73, when a truck driver fatally struck him as he rode through the southeastern United States.

On Tuesday morning sources notified Streetsblog that Christensen was the bike rider that a semi operator struck and killed Monday night near Ridgeway, South Carolina, a small town about 25 miles north of Columbia, the state capital. According to a report in The State by Noah Feit, on Monday, April 22, around 7:30 p.m. Christensen was cycling west on Highway 34, about three miles southeast of Ridgeway, near Autumn Drive. The sun would set a little after 8 p.m. that night.

Aerial view of the approximate crash location, marked with a red pin. Image: Google Maps

South Carolina Highway Patrol Master Trooper Gary Miller told The State that the driver of a westbound 2022 Mack truck with a trailer hit the back of Christensen's bike, killing him. The trucker was uninjured, and no other injuries were reported.

Highway 34 and Autumn Drive, looking west in August 2023. Image: Google Maps

Miller told The State that information about what caused the crash was not available yet, but the highway patrol was still investigating the case. There was no word on whether the trucker was issued charges or citations. Streetsblog has contacted the highway patrol to request an update on the case if it becomes available.

Wednesday morning, Fairfield County Coroner Chris Hill released the name the bicyclist killed in Monday's crash. "George Christensen, age 73, of Countryside, Illinois, was traveling west on Highway 34 in Ridgeway, SC when he was struck by a truck [driver] also traveling west on Highway 34," the coroner stated. "Mr. Christensen succumbed to his injuries on the scene of the [crash]. This incident continues to be investigated by Fairfield County Coroner’s Office and South Carolina Highway Patrol."

Christensen: "News of my Carnegie Library quest precedes me to Merom, Indiana." Photo: Facebook

Christensen often wrote blog entries while pursuing one of his many passions, visiting historic Carnegie libraries across the United States. That was the case on this trip. Entries from earlier this month state that he recently rode Amtrak from Chicago to Washington D.C., took another train route to Orlando, Florida, then biked north near the Atlantic coast, stopping at libraries along the way. Here's a rough approximation of his route based on his April posts.

A rough approximation of the route Christensen described in his April 2024 blog posts. Image: Google Maps

In the final entry of his blog on Sunday, April 21, Christensen, a hardcore cinephile, wrote that he traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina to visit old friends who are fellow Telluride Film Festival fans. After camping at their house, "I headed west out of town over the Cape Fear River once again towards South Carolina for six Carnegies [libraries] inland from the coast," he wrote.

Christensen blogged that after a few hours of cycling in 80-degree weather that day he stopped to buy a cold drink at a gas station mini mart. As he was sitting out front cooling off, the clerk came outside and offered him three boxes of chicken wings. "I see you’re biking," she said. "Here’s some chicken wings for you."

Christensen pedaled on into ominous weather. "Ninety minutes before dark clouds moved in and shortly there was thunder and lightning in the distance," he wrote in the last paragraph. "I was hoping the storm might bypass me, but when a few scattered drops of rain began to fall, I started looking for an easy access into the forest. I came upon a slightly overgrown path that led to an abandoned farmhouse, the first I had camped beside in these travels, setting up my tent having to only absorb a few drops of rain before it came down in earnest. I still had some chicken wings to mix in with my ramen." Fittingly, the last words of his blog highlighted the goodwill he often encountered from people he met on the road.

Christensen's longtime partner Janina Ciezadlo graciously shared some thoughts with Streetsblog. "I trust people who know George, or are just learning about him, know that he was a legendary touring cyclist traveling everywhere from Oman to Madagascar to Iceland. He was an inspiring, encouraging ambassador of the bike. He wanted everyone to ride. Needless to say, he kept my bike in working order."

Christensen at the Tour de France. Photo: Facebook

"He lived simply and devoted himself to cycling," she added. "He visited the Tour De France for almost 20 summers and followed the course [on bicycle]. He was an expert on its history and culture; He died with a plane reservation for this year’s Tour. Much of his touring life was centered on visiting and documenting all the Carnegie libraries in the world. Photographs of these beautiful early 20th century buildings can be found on his blog. He loved libraries."

"George had an extraordinary range of interests," Ciezadlo concluded. "As a volunteer he gave of his time at Facets Multimedia here in Chicago and at the Telluride Film Festival; he had a tremendous amount of knowledge about film and film festivals. He was a reader. Among other books, he recently had read all of Balzac and Zola, and of course watched every classic film adaption of those novels. Lately he had been volunteering in restoration projects in the Cook County Forest Preserves. Some people will know that he was an incurable dumpster diver and distributed recovered food to others." 

Christensen: "Presenting Greg LeMond with a hallowed Tour de France course marker at the Telluride Film Festival accompanying the documentary 'The Last Rider' about the 1989 Tour de France." Photo: Facebook

Elizabeth Adamczyk, organizer of the annual Chicago Ride of Silence and a longtime friend of Christensen, said they met through her work at Northwestern University, where he was an alumnus. "We both had a love of learning and a love of bicycling, and we became fast friends. George was integral to me becoming a year-round cyclist. He was a voracious reader, very knowledgeable about Carnegie libraries, pro cycling, his next bike adventure, and anything else that he decided to learn about."

"In recent years he got to know my mother and, helped her out with random household tasks," she added. "He was always there to lend a hand, and he loved to help."

According to Adamczyk, 2023 was the first year Christensen was in Chicago for the Ride of Silence, which honors fallen cyclists. "He was thrilled to participate in person." She said he will be honored and memorialized at this year's event on Wednesday, May 15. The location and other details will be announced soon and publicized by Streetsblog.

Christensen visiting the gravesite of Black bike racing champion Marshall "Major" Taylor in the Chicago suburb of Glenwood. "He was excited to have the memorial site of such a bike legend in our backyard," said Elizabeth Adamczyk, who took the photo. 

Just two weeks ago, when I was traveling by car in a location where year-round high winds make bicycle touring seem like a thankless task, I thought of George Christensen, an old bike messenger colleague of mine. I told my companion that, impressively, Christensen had done the same route on two wheels more than 20 years ago.

Hopefully it will be some comfort to George's loved ones to know that his life ended while he was doing something he obviously loved.

Read The State's report here.

Check out George Christensen's blog George the Cyclist here.

Read a 2006 profile of Christensen in the Chicago Reader here.

Read a guest post he contributed in 2012 to the pre-Streetsblog Chicago transportation news website Grid Chicago here.

Update 4/24/24, 11:45 AM: Bike and pedestrian injury attorney Michael Keating (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) provided this statement. "[Keating Law Offices has] been retained to represent the Estate of George Christensen for this tragic event and senseless loss of life. Like many Chicago cyclists, I remember George well and this is a very sad time. I have been in contact with the investigating trooper in South Carolina and George's family regarding what happened. We have already begun an investigation and are in the process of gathering more information."

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Fair Bluff, North Carolina

A cool breeze off the ocean had created a fog that was so thick the ferry I had hoped to take across the Cape Fear River to Wilmington was curtailed when I arrived a few minutes before the 9:15 a.m. departure.  I waited two hours for it to lift, but the breeze persisted and showed no signs of abating, so I was forced to bike the long way of forty-five miles rather than twenty-five to reach Wilmington and my much-anticipated reunion with Rhonda and John, stalwarts of the Telluride Film Festival.  

John and I go back nearly three decades.  He is one of the many diehard cinephiles who return to the festival from all over the country year after year to lend their services.  His assignment has been welcoming attendees and answering questions at the Hospitality Desk in the Brigadoon.  We have shared lodging a few of those years and have shared many a movie and meal, making us virtual brothers.  And Rhonda after thirteen years also in Hospitality has become a sister of a sort, but more of a Jewish mother. I have been wanting to visit them for years, and was thrilled to be on the verge of it.

As eager as I was to see them, sitting and waiting for the fog to go away was no hardship.  It was early morning and this was going to be a semi-rest day for me.  It was a disappointment though to miss out on the ferry, as it cut into my time with my great friends and prevented me from biking past Wilmington’s signature beaches Kure, Wilmington and Carolina twenty miles south of the city.  The route I was forced to take north from the ferry in Southport took me through a thick forest for twenty miles that wasn’t bad cycling at all.

John lauded it as one of the better cycling routes in the area.  Helped by my example, John has become a committed cyclist and even more so of late, as he has had to curtail his chief passion of surfing due to rotator cup surgery on both of his shoulders, making it difficult to paddle through the waves.  He had been such a committed man of the waves that he went off on a six-month surfing safari through Latin America to El Salvador in the ‘70s before he went to medical school.  He maintains the surfer’s perpetual tan and smile and gentle demeanor and an Endless Summer poster in his garage that he passes several times a day.  He had to have had the ultimate bedside manner as a physician.  He is Mr. Affable, the only person in his cul-de-sac of thirteen homes that gets along with all the neighbors. All else have a grievance or feud going with a neighbor or two. He hosts all their gatherings and tries to be a peace maker.

When I arrived at their home, Rhonda greeted me with her usual exuberance and wanted to start feeding me immediately.  I had ridden hard for three hours from the ferry, so was glad to get some more food into me than what I had been nibbling.  I had stopped at a Dollar Store a few miles from their home eight miles from the heart of Wilmington hoping to pick up a half gallon of chocolate milk for some instant calories and to have some on standby for the next day, but all the milk had been sold.  Rhonda greatly commiserated with me for being denied the ferry, then chocolate milk.

Rhonda said I was lucky not to have arrived that morning, as she had been in great agony after cutting back on her pain medicine for a rotator cup surgery of her own.  By slightly increasing her dosage she was now fine.  Her recovery has been slow, so she doesn’t anticipate making it to Telluride this year, making my visit all the more meaningful.

After a piece of chicken and some fruit salad John and I went off for a ninety-minute ride around his affluent neighborhood of tightly-clustered, well-manicured homes with small, well-shaded lawns and not much grass.  We cut between homes here and there on tiny paths that John had only discovered after he started biking.  We rode on a boardwalk through a swamp that took us to the inlet that was scattered with harbors packed with boats.  Amidst the homes in an undeveloped patch of trees was a tiny slave cemetery overgrown with weeds.  John also led us past an arboretum.  There was no fog, but there was still a chilly breeze blowing in from the ocean.  The meandering ride was a good wind-down for the legs and a full immersion into North Carolina flora and above all a testament to the joy of friendship.

Dinner was hamburgers grilled on the outside barbecue and corn on the cob that Rhonda had picked up at the Lidl, a German chain and rival of Aldi that sponsors a Tour de France team and had recently come to Wilmington as it strives to gain a foothold in the US.  It had become her favorite place to shop cutting her food budget by thirty per cent. I set up my tent on the lone patch of grass in back beside a hammock.  It was the first time I hadn’t had to contend with mosquitoes, though John said they’d been a nuisance the day before forcing him to use repellent.

We took a walk after dinner to the inlet and sat under a gazebo and gave Janina a call.  We all  have had many a marathon conversation at Telluride over meals or stuffing goodie bags, and we all had another as dusk settled in as if we were all sitting around a picnic table in the film festival  Club Lot in no hurry to be elsewhere.  We could all glory in our gratitude to Telluride for bringing us together.  

I missed saying goodbye to Rhonda in the morning as she was off early on her weekly round of garage sales intent on being the first in line at the first estate sale of the day.  She had a list of several to get to.  She specializes in knives that she sells on eBay and finds other items of interest to sell as well.  One of her best was a Vitton key chain that she sold for over one hundred dollars.  She’s sold over 3,500 items and doesn’t have a single negative review.

North Carolina had been the beneficiary of sixteen Carnegies, but Wilmington was not one of the recipients.  Wilmington though had the only Statue of Liberty in the state donated by the Boy Scouts in 1950 in commemoration of its fortieth anniversary.  It resides downtown by Thalian Hall, a theater built in 1855 that John said was similar to the Opera House in Telluride. The statue is set back from the corner of two main streets in the center of the city and so shielded by trees that it had never caught the attention of John.  She made a fine farewell as I headed west out of town over the Cape Fear River once again towards South Carolina for six Carnegies inland from the coast with rain in the forecast for the first time since Day One of these travels.  

The sky was clear and the sun back to being intense.  After a couple of hours of the eighty degree heat I stopped for a cold drink at a service station mini-mart.  As I sat out front sipping and finishing off the yogurt and granola Rhonda sent me off with, the woman I had given a bunch of scuffed up coins I had scavenged along the road to pay for my drink came out with three boxes each with six chicken wings and said, “I see you’re biking.  Here’s some chicken wings for you.”  I’m not sure if it was the bike or those battered coins that spurred her generosity.

Ninety minutes before dark clouds moved in and shortly there was thunder and lightning in the distance.  I was hoping the storm might bypass me, but when a few scattered drops of rain began to fall, I started looking for an easy access into the forest.  I came upon a slightly overgrown path that led to an abandoned farmhouse, the first I had camped beside in these travels, setting up my tent having to only absorb a few drops of rain before it came down in earnest.  I still had some chicken wings to mix in with my ramen.


Thursday, April 18, 2024

Conway, South Carolina


I didn’t have to go searching for a bike shop in Charleston as there was one on the road I was following into the city.  It came two miles before the bridge over the Ashley River to the tongue of land that is central Charleston between two rivers emptying into the Atlantic. Cooper is the other river on the east side of the city.

The bike shop had a special entry for repairs, so when I pushed my bike in the two guys behind the counter knew I came in for a repair and not necessarily to buy something.  They instantly asked what they could do for me.  When I told them I had broken off a bolt attaching my rear rack to the frame, they unhesitatingly said, “Take off your panniers and let’s look at it.”  It was quite a contrast to the reaction I had received at the bike shop in Savannah, and was typical of bike shops in general.  They were as eager as could be to be of help.  

One of the guys got down on his knees and grabbed the slight nub of the bolt with a thin pliers that had a good grip and lots of leverage, but he was no more successful than I had been in getting it to budge with a vice grips.  So he got his drill and commenced drilling.  It took a few minutes so I had a chance to roam the shop.  It was ringed with vintage bikes and jerseys hung just below the ceiling.  The owner of the shop had been the team doctor for US Olympic bicycling teams going back to the ‘90s and was an avid collector of old bikes and memorabilia.  He had bought into this long-time shop founded in 1972 just ten years ago, partially as a place to display his many bikes.  The thirty or forty on display were just a sampling of his  collection.  He had so many, including bikes of Armstrong and Cavendish, that he bought a house across the street from where he lived as another place to exhibit them.  

The guy not tending to my bike asked about my trip and then if I used Warmshowers.  He said his mother was a host and would welcome me if I wanted a shower. It’s not the first time I’ve been invited to come have a shower in the middle of the day.  It is always tempting, but I didn’t really have the time to spare to get to Charleston’s Carnegie and explore the city a bit and then get far enough out of the sprawl of the city to camp.  I knew it wouldn’t be a quick in-and-out, but I’d have a prolonged conversation with my host.  He said hardly a week goes by that his mother doesn’t have a guest.  She had been infected by southern hospitality, as she had moved to Charleston from Rhode Island a few years ago before the pandemic.  At the time her son was a bike messenger in New York, a job he’d held for seven years.  And like every former messenger I meet, he loved it.

After the mechanic finished drilling through the bolt he needed another tool to remove the remnants,  preserving the threads.   He hadn’t used the tool for awhile, and asked who was the last to use it, as whoever it was hadn’t cleaned it.  The rest of the operation didn’t take long, so I was soon back on the road.  My fifteen minutes in the shop were a pleasant interlude, as a visit to a bike shop usually is.

The traffic over the bridge and into the city was more than I would have preferred, but after I crossed the bridge I could venture off on narrow side streets past old wooden homes crowded together, just about all with porches and trees providing shade. And like Savannah there were horse drawn carriages packed with tourists listening to tour guides.

The Carnegie Library was on narrow one-way King Street, a popular route for tourists lined with old historic buildings and shops.  It continued to land’s end and a view of the ocean five blocks past the library.  The classic building was clearly a Carnegie, but there was no acknowledgment of his gift inside or out, which he may have been glad of, as it wasn't a public library but rather a Library Society for members only, contrary to his beliefs of making libraries available to all, so much so that many of his libraries have “Free to All” or “Open to All” prominently chiseled on their facades.

The young woman tending the desk at the entrance knew nothing of Carnegie nor that he had provided the funds for the building.  She was proud to say this Society was one of just sixteen members-only libraries in the US and when it was founded in 1748 it was the second such library in the US.   She said one’s membership included lectures and programs and other amenities.  There were various levels of membership, the cheapest $150 a year.  The free, much larger public library a few blocks away on Calhoun Street, didn’t have the grandeur of the Carnegie, but more than adequately served the purpose of a library and had a great many more using it than I had seen in the “Carnegie.”

Charleston seemed to be a very monetary-oriented city.  The bean-and-cheese burritos that had been a dollar at every Taco Bell up the coast were a $1.49 at the Taco Bell I stopped at leaving Charleston.   And the mechanic at the bike shop charged me as if Medicare was covering the price of his operation, giving me a bill slightly less than what I’d recently been given back home for a new bottom bracket that required several days of labor to remove the firmly stuck old one.

Once I escaped the sprawl of Charleston after a couple of hours of riding and returned to forested terrain, I  began seeing dead armadillos for the first time of these travels.  Road kill had been minimal, a possum or two, a few stray snakes of assorted sizes and a deer being feasted upon by a couple dozen vultures.  When I passed the vultures they didn’t stir so I stopped for a photo.  They gave me a glance, but didn’t stop feeding until I dug out my iPad and pointed it in their direction.  They scattered way before I could get off a shot.

I continued cycling until just before dark finding a quiet secluded spot for the night down a dirt road into the forest. Like most of my camping there was standing water here and there and mosquitoes, but not so bad that I had to be frantic about getting into my tent.  I had closed to within thirty-five miles of the next Carnegie in Kingstree, a town big enough for several franchise fast-food outlets.  The MacDonalds was a rare one without self-serve soft drinks and ice, so I opted for the Burger King, which offered that luxury which I have become all too accustomed to.

The Carnegie was just a couple of blocks away around the corner.  It was now the local history museum packed with artifacts including a dugout canoe and a display honoring Julius Rosenwald, a large-scale philanthropist on the order of Carnegie whose wealth came from running Chicago-based Sears and Roebuck early after its inception.  Besides establishing Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry he donated millions of dollars beginning in 1912 at the urging of Booker T. Washington to construct over five thousand schools in small rural communities in fifteen states to serve the African-American community. There were 481 in South Carolina and ten in the local county.  

The retiree tending to the museum, who repeatedly called me sir, said the museum had been attempting for years to have plaques placed at the site of these former small schools, but the state had been resisting their efforts.  He had moved to Kingstree in 1980 and made use of the Carnegie until it was replaced in 2000.  It hadn’t had an addition and wasn’t large enough to house all the museum’s holdings, the rest of which were in a building across the way.  No portrait of Carnegie though, nor could he remember seeing one in the library, which he couldn’t have missed if there had been one in the tiny one-room building.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Ravanel, South Carolina


A gentle tail wind from the south put me in position to make it to Savannah and it’s two Carnegies Sunday evening rather than the next morning as I had planned.   I could arrive an hour before dark, hopefully with enough time to search out its two Carnegies then cross over into South Carolina and find a place to camp.  It would be cutting it close, but it would be nice to get in and out of this large city on a Sunday when the traffic was minimal rather than entering with Monday’s rush hour traffic.  

I checked my GPS  to see if there might be some sanctioned camping within the city proper or nearby as a last resort if I were desperate for a place to pitch my tent.  It revealed a campground and RV park fifteen miles out of town at the end of the bay on the ocean that was opposite the direction I’d be heading.  The GPS also showed a rather dubious “homeless camp” by an interstate cloverleaf a couple miles from the city center that I didn’t much trust.

The four-lane highway I was on leading into the city had a bike lane, so biking in during the rush hour wouldn’t be as intimidating as it could be. I was still undecided whether to push on or camp on the outskirts of Savannah when I came upon a small forest ten miles before the city was too inviting to pass up sparing me of the tension of all the uncertainties  of trying to find a place to camp as night closed in when I could still be within the urban sprawl   It was the first time in these travels I set up my tent  with the sun above the horizon.

I was the lone cyclist the next morning taking advantage of the bike lane.  No one seemed to take exception to my presence.  I arrived at the first of the two Carnegies as the sun was beginning to peek over the stately two-story neo-Classic building.   A handful of homeless with carts and bags were awaiting its opening.  A late-arrival asked, “Does anyone have a bag of chips or a sandwich?” No one responded.

“I’ve got some rice cakes,” I offered.  I had a few leftover from an unopened bag of them  I’d found along the highway the day before.  He gladly accepted them.  I didn’t think to ask any of them about the homeless camp, but I later biked by it and discovered it was a swamp not even fit for alligators.  All wouldn’t have been lost if I had hoped to rely on it the night before, as there was a nearby forest I could have slipped into.

Just half a mile from the grand library was the other Carnegie, the “Colored Branch.”  It was less opulent, but equally dignified and substantial, built in red brick in the Prairie Style with “Carnegie” on its facade in contrast to the other Carnegie which identified itself as “Savanah Public Library.”  A plaque to its side said it was one of two “Colored” libraries donated by Carnegie in Georgia and that it had been the library Clarence Thomas frequented growing up.

I shared the roads of downtown historic Savannah with horse-drawn carriages and trolleys filled with tourists on guided tours.  I was in need of a bike shop, as one of the bolts securing my rear rack to the frame had snapped.  I hoped to find a mechanic who could drill out the broken portion of the bolt stuck in the eyelet of the frame.  There were two bike shops in the town center.  One was on the main street next to a movie theater that was playing “Wildcat,” which I had seen at Telluride in September.  The marquee said Ethan Hawke, who directed it, would be in attendance. I thought maybe that connection was a sign of good luck for me, but the shop didn’t do repairs.  

The second shop a few blocks away had a mechanic, but he said he was loaded with repairs and wouldn’t be able to tend to my bike until the next day. It was the first time in all my travels of showing up at a shop with my loaded bike, clearly someone traveling, that the shop didn’t gladly come to my rescue and have me back on the road. So much for southern hospitality.  

I asked if I might borrow a vice grips to grab the nub of the bolt protruding from the eyelet and twist it out.  The guy gave an immediate programmed response of “We don’t lend out tools,” but then realized he could make an exception in this case before I could offer him a substantial down payment.  He just said I’d have to work on my bike on the sidewalk in front of the shop and not to block the door.   All was for naught as the vice grips broke off the smidgeon of the bolt.  I’d just have to wait until the next bike shop in Charleston, over a hundred miles away, and hope the wires I had wrapped around the arm of the rack securing it to the frame would hold.

My route out of Savannah took me over the Savannah and Little Back Rivers into South Carolina.  The Savannah River was the larger of the two and could accommodate freighters.  The roadway was packed with trucks transporting truck-sized containers from and to the freighters.  It was a bustling port with containers stacked high.  My introduction to South Carolina was wetlands that in a generation or two will be fully submerged as the glaciers continue to melt at an alarming rate.  I’d barely been above sea level in all my miles from Orlando and hadn’t a hill to climb other than the inclines over rivers and interstates and railroads.  It’s all land that is going to need significant dikes in the years to come.

The first of nine Carnegies on my agenda in South Carolina came in Beaufort, fifty miles after Savannah.  I’d only gotten to five of the fourteen remaining Carnegies in the statr on previous visits.  There had been eighteen, but four are no more.  Four of the nine awaiting me are still libraries, but not Beaufort’s.  It now provides office space for the Visitor Center next door in the old arsenal.  It was just a couple of blocks from the Beaufort River meandering a few miles through marshy terrain to the Atlantic, preventing Beaufort, like Savannah and Jacksonville, from extending to the ocean.  A plaque beside the library credited a women’s organization for soliciting the funds from Carnegie.  They’d formed a library association in 1802.  Their collection of books was confiscated by Union soldiers in 1862 and hadn’t been replaced until 1918 with the opening of this building.

I was back into forested terrain as I headed to Charleston, one hundred miles away.  I could bike right up to dark with camping awaiting me whenever I pleased, allowing me my first ninety mile day of the trip.  The two thermal bottles I had filled with ice and water at a Taco Bell in Beaufort four hours earlier and had cached in a pannier still rattled with ice when I unearthed them in my tent.  A fine end to Another Great Day on the Bike.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Sterling, Georgia


My spring tours have always been much more northerly than this one with conditions often more wintry than spring-like even bringing snow, such as last year in Kansas.  I have no worries if snow this year, at least for awhile as I head north to Philadelphia.  The eighty temperatures of Florida and now Georgia are giving me an early taste of summer.  The low eighties haven’t been ovenish at all, thanks to nighttime temperatures in the fifties, not allowing the heat to build up.  The sun has yet to become beating-down hot.  The midday direct sun isn’t too hot for young and old to be fishing from bridges along the road. 

It’s not so hot that I have to fear running low on water in my tent at night even if my four bottles aren’t full.  Nor is it so hot that I’ve had to soak my shirt or douse my head with water or even work up much of a sweat, especially with the flat terrain.  As pleasant as it is, I’m still happy to be heading north to cooler, less-sapping temperatures.

The 250 miles I’ve gained on the north have yet to give me a glimpse of the ocean.  That won’t happen until Savannah in another seventy miles where two Carnegies await me, the only two on my Georgia agenda.  I’ve gotten to the other twenty-one on several previous rides about the state—twice when biking down from Chicago for the School of the Americas protest at Fort Benning, once with Don Jaime when we met up in Atlanta and biked to his mother’s grave in Alabama,  four years ago on my ride from Miami to New Orleans and in June of 2021 when I biked from Memphis across Mississippi and Alabama and on to New York stopping in Atlanta once again to visit the president of my high school class who had biked to Mexico after graduating from Harvard.  I never got over to the eastern side of the state on any of those forays as all but two of the state’s Carnegies were to the west.

I considered a coastal route from Orlando to Jacksonville, but it was more direct and less settled to go inland.  Jacksonville resides on the Saint John’s River which empties into the Atlantic thirty away.  Beyond Jacksonville there was no coastal route to Savanah, so I headed due north on Main Street, just a block from its Carnegie Library on Adams Street in the former heart of the city.  There was a nearby mini-skyscraper, but the majority of them were a couple miles away to the northwest.  

I had camped twelve miles south of the city just off a six-lane divided highway in a small grove of bamboo.  The road had a shoulder that was sometimes designated as a bike lane.  When I got within two miles of the skyscrapers a police officer awaited me at an exit ramp and said, “This road isn’t for you.”  It was a Saturday morning so the traffic wasn’t too treacherous, but I was glad to be done with it.  With a population of just under a million, Jacksonville is the largest city in Florida, more than twice as large as Miami.  Tampa is third and Orlando fourth.  The three biggest all have an NFL team.  Orlando has to be content with an NBA team.

The stately Carnegie was once the city’s Main Library, but had now fallen into the commercial realm.  “Open to All” was chiseled over the entry, but not this day with the door locked.

I continued north reaching Georgia thirty-one miles later after crossing St. Mary’s River.  There were fishermen on a dock below the bridge.  The two-lane wide road continued through a thick forest.  I had yet to see an orange tree as most of the orchards are on the other side of the state along a ridge that goes on for over one hundred miles.  These forests were being logged.  I heard no chain saws but saw an occasional loaded truck on the road and off.

Florida was well off the path of the eclipse but a church message board urged, “Instead of looking at the sun, look at the son.”  Jeff B., reader of this blog and contributor to The Reader, let me know he had written an article for the Evanston Roundtable about driving down to a rural cemetery outside of Indianapolis with his family and friends to witness the event.  He pointed out it was appropriate for the eclipse to occur on a Monday, as the day was named for the moon.  He wondered if it is more than mere coincidence that the moon is 400 times closer to the earth than the sun and 400 times smaller making it the perfect size to block out the sun.  His article raises many points I hadn’t read elsewhere and is well worth reading.

I was accorded the first act of generosity of these travels at the first service station/mini-mart I stopped in for water after crossing into Georgia.  As I sat eating a peanut butter butter sandwich in front of the shop the older woman who had been behind the counter came out with a small box and asked if I’d like a slice of pizza.  She didn’t need to ask twice.  The day before a woman may have wanted go slip me a bill when she asked if I was riding for a cause.  “Just to promote the bicycle,” wasn’t enough for her to want to make a monetary contribution.  

Ralph Nader would be happy to hear that generosity in rural America is alive and well, as his podcast from April 6 I had been listening to was with Chris Anderson, the author of the book “Infectious Generosity,” though it mostly referred to large-scale donors funding huge projects to combat hunger and disease and climate change and such. As Nader often does when it comes to billionaires being tight-fisted with their fortunes, he invoked Carnegie and all the libraries he funded.   He’d like present-day billionaires to fund arboretums and civic centers and playing fields and solar.  He complained that he been trying to get through to Mackenzie Scott, as she’s given away fifteen billion dollars of her divorce settlement with Jeff Bezos, to get her to fund such projects, but she won’t respond to him even though they are both Princeton graduates.

Like Trump he can be hyperbolic in his rants, and he was in this case too, saying Carnegie had funded five thousand libraries all over the world, when the number is actually 2,509.  

Friday, April 12, 2024

Palatka, Florida


A thick overcast greeted me when I arrived at the Amtrak station in Orlando after thirty-six hours of train travel, first to Washington, D.C., then down the coast to Florida. Even though the clouds threatened rain, I was glad to see them, as they’d spare my pale skin from an immediate blast of sun and would also make the eighty degree temperature seem less hot than it was. The forecast called for a possibility of rain during a two-hour mid-afternoon window, which would be manageable.

Rain in Florida was no surprise.  I had just read in “Oranges,” an early John McPhee book from 1967, that Florida was one of the two or three rainiest states.  I was fortunate to have read it before my departure, as I’d had it on reserve from the Chicago Public Library for over a month, it finally coming in a couple days before I was to leave.  I had been able to track down his other twenty-nine books from various local libraries in the previous two months of my project to see how often the bicycle turned up in his writing—in twenty-two of his books, but not with as much commentary as I’d hoped. 

I thought I might have to wait until Florida for “Oranges” and spend an afternoon at the Jacksonville library, 150 miles north of Orlando, to complete my binge of McPhee. That wouldn’t have been all that bad, as the Jacksonville library was a Carnegie.  It would be the third of this trip, completing the state for me, as I’d gotten to the other six still standing Carnegies on the west side of the state in February of 2020 on a ride from Miami to New Orleans after two months in South America pre-pandemic.  Florida had had fourteen Carnegies, but five have gone the way of the wrecking ball. 

My departure from the Orlando station was almost delayed by a near disaster when my bike was overlooked in the baggage car by the guy emptying it.  I was greatly relieved to see my duffle come off, as I feared it might not have made the transfer in DC.  As I awaited my bike I was talking with a fellow cyclist, who was also awaiting his bike.  We were distracted when the friend he was going to ride with down to the Keys showed up, launching us into further conversation. After several minutes we realized our bikes had yet to be unloaded so called over to the baggage handler, who was distributing bags on the platform, and asked if someone was going to get our bikes.  He hurried over to grab them before the train pulled out.  That was a close one, and wouldn’t have been the first time Amtrak bungled my bike, once neglecting to put it on my train to Grand Junction from Chicago and another time removing it in Champagne, mistaking the CHI tag for CHA.

I had considered flying to Orlando, as the airfare was comparable to the train fare, but I preferred the ease and pleasure of the train, and not having to box up my bike. I was rewarded with a most interesting seatmate on my first leg to DC, a young man who had come from Philadelphia for the eclipse.  He worked for Amtrak as an architect of its stations, so could travel for free.  He would have been in a sleeper if they hadn’t been full.  He’d spent the previous two nights in a tent in southern Indiana.  

When he said he had driven down to Indiana from Chicago with a couple friends for the eclipse, I  thought I might have an example of “it’s a small world.”  I asked him if he’d watched the eclipse on Dwight’s farm, who’d had a gathering of several hundred outside of Bloomington, as I’d considered, but no, he was in a state park that wasn’t even full and knew nothing of Dwight.  If he had, it wouldn’t have been the first time I had a seatmate who knew friends of mine, as I once sat with a young woman who’d attended Principia High School and swam in the pool of my good friends the Towle’s across the street from the school. And she also knew friends in Humboldt County, where she was returning to.  That we shared that set of disparate friends was absolutely boggling.

I was rewarded with a second most interesting companion on the second leg of this trip to Orlando, the fellow touring cyclist.  Though we weren’t assigned seats together, we had good conversations in the station before departure and then aboard the train.  Peter was retired and had taken to biking at the urging of his son when his knees could no longer endure the running he had subjected them to.  He’d had several trips and was loving it enough to be planning a coast-to-coast ride.  He had come down from Boston for a ride with his friend who lived in Florida. He’d lived in Sweden for a while and Hong Kong too.  He and his son had undertaken a two-week kayak trip through the fiords of Norway.  His son was presently completing a PhD in degrowth at a university in Vienna.  It’s one of just two schools that offer such a degree, the other in Barcelona.  He’s already been involved in degrowth projects in the EU for NGOs.

I slept well the first night on the train being able to put my sleeping bag on the floor behind seats at the end of the car I was assigned to.  That wasn’t possible the second night.  I was kept awake by a couple of loud-talking Bubbas, who had a long litany of complaints.  One hated his job in construction and was hoping to become a tattoo artist, but first he had to learn to draw.  The other was on the verge of renting a storage locker and making it his home, as he knows a lot of people who do. They were perplexed that one parks in driveways and drives on parkways.   They both went on and on about Dollar Stores ringing up prices higher than the shelf price.  They were also incensed about paying for an eight-ounce steak in a restaurant that is cooked down to four-ounces.  It’s thievery everywhere.

I thought I was going to begin these travels with one of those replica Statue of Liberties that the Boy Scouts scattered around the US.  Wikipedia listed one at the intersection of Orange and Magnolia a mile north of the Amtrak Station right on my way.  The location was a small park with a lake, but there was no statue to be found.  I asked half a dozen people, including a security guard and a homeless guy pushing a cart and an officer issuing parking tickets, and none knew of it.

But I only had six miles to my first Carnegie on the campus of Rollins College in Winter Park with an enrollment of 3,000 students.  The Carnegie was now home to the proud English Department.  A desk had small business cards with “What are you going to do with an English Major?  Teach?” on one side and a long explanation on the other side: “My English major is all about the long game.  While some may mock our initial low salaries, it’s a fact that English majors out-earn pre-professional students in mid-career.  CEO’s love what I’m learning in my courses: communication, leadership and thinking on my feet.  Plus, the average American changes careers over five times throughout their lives.  My English major will keep doors open for me.  We score higher in graduate exams, tell better stories and understand how to pitch a project.  What will I do with my English major?  Anything I want.”

Not far down the road from the Carnegie the clouds burst a heavy downpour.  I was able to wait it out under the awning of one of the many surgery centers, cosmetic and otherwise, that seemed to be the predominant business in the area, more than even injury lawyers. It was just a fifteen minute break.  The next Carnegie was forty miles north in DeLand at Stetson University, Florida’s oldest private college established in 1883.  It was a most charming campus on the fringe of this city of 37,351.  

Palms trees were in abundance with a cluster in front of the columned library, now Sampson Hall and home to the Arts and Language departments.  “Education Is Power” in block letters stretched over the entrance.  Over the second floor the building was ringed on all four sides by authors and other distinguished figures including Lee and Lincoln next to each other on the backside of the building along with Napoleon and Tolstoi. Chaucer, Shakespeare Browning, Tennyson, Longfellow and Lanier had the honor of the front.  Washington, Jefferson and Marshall were on the west facing side and Homer, Virgil and Dante on the east facing wall.

 Beyond DeLand I finally escaped the sprawl of all the communities extending from Orlando and had a pleasant corridor of forest for twenty-five miles until dark and an idyllic campsite in a thick pine forest, finding along the way the first license plate of the trip already.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

John McPhee and the Bicycle (and the mustache)

 John McPhee, the 93-year old prolific “New Yorker” writer with thirty books to his credit, mentions in one of his later books, “The Patch” from 2018, that the bicycle provided him with his chief means of exercise, and that he biked in excess of two thousand miles a year.  I had read a bit of McPhee over the years, but didn’t recollect the bicycle slipping into any of what I had read.  Since he generally personalizes his lengthy, wide-ranging pieces on individualists of the highest order, I assumed he must have alluded to the bicycle here and there.  Thus I set out on a quest to read all of his books in search of further reference to the bicycle with hopes of discovering a discourse or two fully endorsing it as a means of conveyance that all should embrace.

I began with his first book published in 1965, “A Sense of Where You Are,”  on the Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley, before he became a Rhodes Scholar and went on to the NBA and the US Senate.  McPhee grew up in Princeton and attended the university and made it his home for the majority of his life.  There is a Princeton connection to many of his articles and books.  He was thirty-four when he wrote the profile for the “New Yorker” that became the book.  He was just getting established at the magazine after several years at “Time,” where his work included cover stories on Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Jackie Gleason, Barbara Streisand, and Joan Baez, while all the time vying for a position as staff writer at the “New Yorker,” something he aspired to since he was a teen.

Basketball was a natural subject for McPhee, as he’d been the captain of his high school team and a devoted athlete.  He spent so much time playing sports growing up that he wondered how he ever got his school work done.  It was in his blood, as his father was the physician for Princeton’s athletic teams and served in a similar capacity for the US Olympic team.  His first story as a free-lancer for the “New Yorker” was about playing basketball after he graduated from Princeton for the University of Cambridge team against Her Majesty’s Royal Fusiliers.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of Bradley utilizing a bicycle nor of McPhee meeting up with Bradley via a bicycle.   Nor does the bicycle make an appearance in his second book, “The Headmaster,” about the long-time headmaster of Deerfield Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts that McPhee attended for a year after graduating from Princeton High School at the urging of his mother to gain an extra year of maturity before going on to Princeton.  If McPhee were the bicycle advocate I hoped he might be, he would surely have inserted the bicycle into this portrayal of life on the campus endorsing its utility and exalting in the freedom the bicycle allowed him in his dashes around campus.  

It’s not until his last three books, that are reflections of a man in his eighties on his long writing career, does he reminisce about riding his bike as a youth to piano lessons and to his job in the biology department and elsewhere.  He doesn't seem to have embraced the bike enough to ride upwards of 2,000 miles a year until he is well into his 60s.  At the age of 68 he had a bad accident, tearing a rotator cuff that required months of rehab. In his  later years he rode around the environs of Princeton with a variety of companions, the lacrosse coach, the basketball coach, a Washington Post writer and others.  Golf wasn’t his sport, but passing the many golf courses in the area, he’d stop to pick up stray balls, once chased by a greenskeeper who objected to his scavenging, dashing off on his bicycle “at a speed I probably could not duplicate.”

His thoroughly researched articles are noted for their attention to detail, some relevant and some not so much so, such as mentioning that as he walked around the Metropolitan Museum of Art with its director Thomas Hoving, he glanced out a window facing Central Park and noticed two bicyclists riding side by side. At last, in this his fifth book, “A Roomful of Hovings,” the first of seven that were collections of his articles from the “New Yorker” rather than just the reprint of a single long article, he choose to sprinkle in some bicycling even though it was not integral to the story.  The bicycle appears in the profile of Hoving, as Hoving was an ardent cyclist as a youth, working in a bike shop and being the ringleader of a bunch of teen cyclists who zipped around the town he grew up in.  McPhee reports that Hoving’s house frequently had a cluster of bikes out front of pals who’d come by.  When Hoving was the Parks Commissioner of New York, he advocated closing Central Park to motor vehicles on Sunday in favor of cyclists and proposed a bicycle and walking trail on the old Croton right-of-way in the Bronx.

The second piece in this collection is a several day canoe trip with Euell Gibbons, foraging for all their meals.  Gibbons had achieved fame with his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.”  McPhee politely observed that his interest in wild food, “suggests, but does not actually approach, madness.”  Canoeing ranks right up there with basketball among McPhee’s passions, so he ardently persuaded Gibbons to go on a canoe trip with him despite his preference for simply foraging in his environs. In “Silk Parachute,” another collection of his articles,  McPhee confessed, “To this day I do not feel complete or safe unless I am surrounded by the protective shape of a canoe,” words I wish he could have applied to the bicycle.  

Several of his books include time spent paddling in Alaska and the northeast.  Allusions to it can pop up any time.  In his best-selling “Coming Into the Country,” his book on Alaska that garnered him more attention than any of his books, he makes the stark admission that he’d rather peel potatoes than go hiking, avoiding walking whenever possible, and that he has always had a predilection for canoeing.  In “Draft No.4” he wrote, “I grew up in canoes on northern lakes and forest rivers.”  It was by far his favorite activity at summer camp.   

His twelfth book, “The Survival of the Bark Canoe,”  is largely about a canoe trip with a young man who fashions canoes from the bark of birch trees as Native Americans once did. McPhee complained about paddling into headwinds.  If he’d been a cyclist of any sort at the time, he would have launched into a tirade about headwinds being the bane of all cyclists.  The world of cycling is at a loss for McPhee not embracing cycling until later in life, for if it had been an early passion, he doubtlessly would have found a way to make a book of it, as he did with basketball and canoeing and tennis.  Bicycle aficionados just have to be satisfied with the little snippets he offers.

One might think the self-sufficient, minimalist Gibbons would have an intimate relationship with the bike, but there is not even a hint of it.  Since McPhee fully immerses himself into the lives of his subjects, spending days and days with them, one can be sure the bicycle was not part of Gibbon’s simple and basic life.   McPhee’s profiles invariably elevate his subjects to characters to admire if not envy. He’s not blind to a flaw or two, but gives them no emphasis, just dropping in an element that slightly undermines one’s stature, such as Gibbons lighting a cigarette after a meal.  Of David Brower, ardent environmentalist and long-time head of the Sierra Club, who is the lead character in “Encounters with the Archdruid,” McPhee wrote, “He was feisty, heaven knew.  And arrogant possibly. And relentless, certainly.  And above all, effective.” 

He had a golden opportunity to feature the bicycle in his seventeenth book, “La Place de la Concorde Suisse,” about the Swiss Army, which all Swiss citizens serve in on a continual basis, full-time, then part-time.  It is said, “Switzerland does not have an army.  Switzerland is an army.”  There are three battalions of cyclists, but he gave them no mind, preferring to attach himself to other regiments when they reported for a few weeks of training.  If he were the bicyclist I hoped he might be, he would have made a cycling battalion the focus of this book.  There are a couple of mentions of stray, civilian cyclists passing by as in “A Roomful of Hovings,” but far from the focus they could have been. 

He could have also made a strong argument for the value of the bicycle in “The Crofter and the Laird,” a book about the tiny Scottish island of Colonsay (sixteen square miles with a population of around one hundred)  where his forebears lived, and he described as “less like a small town than like a large lifeboat.”  He spent several months there with his wife and four young daughters getting to know the place.  The automobile was not introduced to the island until 1947, but he says nothing of the bicycle, other than of a salesman on a bicycle loaded with goods who pays periodic visits to the island.  McPhee ought to have had a bike for his forays all over the island getting to know all its inhabitants.

Similar to the books on Hoving and Switzerland, the bicycle momentarily pops up in “Assembling California,” the fourth in his set of books on geology along with “Basin and Range,” “In Suspect Terrain,” and  “Rising from the Plains” that were combined into the 696-page book, “The Annals of the Former World,” that earned him the Pulitzer Prize and is his lone book with an index. When he is at the summit of Donner Pass in California, a cyclist standing on the pedals is climbing towards it, “scarcely puffing.” He goes over, sits down and begins his descent, all that McPhee has to say of him.  Likewise he grants a single sentence to the multitude of cyclists in the college town of Davis, saying there may be more than in Shanghai.  In the several pages he devotes to the devastating 1989 earthquake that occurred during Game Three of the World Series being played in San Francisco, he mentions cyclists falling to the street and another feeling the ground move under his feet and a bike mechanic who called the earthquake “my best near-death experience.”  

All these mere mentions without any elaboration, any of which could have launched him into a lengthy digression, as he is prone to do, made it clear that McPhee hadn't yet  been converted to full-fledged cyclist even in his early sixties.  His bicycle didn’t become an intimate companion until later, when he could no longer exert himself at sports that involved running.  William Howarth in his introduction to the first of the two “John McPhee Readers” reveals that McPhee was given to “hard physical exercise,” but didn’t include cycling among those activities, just tennis, squash and basketball.  The pair of “Readers” are wholly comprised of excerpts from his previous books, and don’t count as being among his thirty books, as can also be said of “Annals of the Former World,” (though it has an extra forty-page chapter on the geology of Nebraska), and several other books that combine material from previous books—books on tennis and Alaska and islands and geology for fanatics who want an extra McPhee or two on their bookshelf. A lengthy piece in “Table of Contents” on doctors in family practice was also later published as a stand alone book “Heirs of General Practice.”  These extra books bring his total to forty-one.

Though all my reading wasn’t rewarded with any bicycle manifestos to hang on my wall, there wasn’t a book I wasn’t happy to have read.  They were all enlightening and inspiring and entertaining.  One truly gets to know his countless subjects—geologists, a long-haul trucker, a Wimbledon groundskeeper, an expert in Russian art, a nuclear physicist, a host of Alaskans, a crew on a freighter, a bush pilot with the same name as him, a developer, a master chef and on and on. One has the impression that McPhee formed a strong friendship with each of the many people he hung out with for prolonged periods of time before writing about them.  He doesn’t merely interview them, he has conversations with them that go on for days.  It is McPhee’s good fortune to have spent so much time with the many fascinating figures he finds.  And it is his charm to elevate just about anyone he writes about into someone the reader would want to embrace.  He had me imagining how he could elevate friends of mine I very much andmire into figures of even greater esteem if given the McPhee treatment.

His meticulous prose, which he reads sentence by sentence to his wife before turning it over to an editor, is spiced with a good deal of humor.  There isn’t a book without a laugh line or two, whether it’s inserting the bumper sticker on a pickup truck that cuts him off (Don’t like my driving—dial 1-800-Eat-Shit) or a sign in the office of a plutonium storage facility in New York that reads “Cows may come and cows may go, but the bull in this place goes on forever,” or observing that striped lines on the road in Nevada simulating cattle guards indicate that cattle must have IQs in the single digits, “slightly lower than the national average.”  

His humor also extends into highly exaggerated metaphors.  The notoriously attentive “New Yorker” fact-checkers let stand his assertion that enough driftwood collects on the shores of Colonsay to build a roof over Scotland.  One genuine slip was letting McPhee label two different roadcuts, geologist’s best friends, as being the largest on interstate 80 between New York and California.  He credits a 250-foot roadcut in Pennsylvania when traveling with a geologist in the book “In Suspect Terrain” for being the largest.  It was so impressive that the geologist Anita Harris gushed “Holy Toledo.  Look at that son-of-a-bitch.”  In “Assembling California” he comes upon a roadcut of 306-feet and calls it the largest on Interstate 80 without acknowledging he’d gotten it wrong in his previous book.

He used hyperbole to emphasize the vastness of Alaska, surmising that if anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be a place to hide it.  Discussing the vast coal reserves of the US, he pointed out there is also enough peat in the US to heat Ireland for a thousand years. When in the Cascades he wrote that enough snow and rain fell there to irrigate Libya.  He also strove for a chuckle when he observed that an initiative in Switzerland to abolish its army was as likely to pass as an initiative to abolish chocolate.  His word play also aims to amuse, as when he wrote a family of musicians driving out to California doremifasoled up a mountain.  He invoked Hiawatha when writing of his favorite canoe, saying it was so perfect he wouldn’t dare altering it in any way, “even with the permission of Hiawatha.”  Lazarus turns up in “The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed,” the tale of an ill-fated attempt to design a dirigible for transporting whole trucks and huge quantities of goods.  When the SEC withdrew permission for it to sell shares in the enterprise McPhee wrote “Lazarus at his worst had a stronger pulse.”

His precise and astute descriptions of his subjects often includes a comment on their weight avoiding the obvious fat or skinny. He described the Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes as a big man with a tenured waistline who even as a student was not hurting for weight. He commented of John Sutter, a key figure of the California gold rush, that he  had a broad-brimmed hat and an even broader belly.  President Theodore Roosevelt makes an appearance in “Rising from the Plains” at a time when “his paunch was under control.”  Of truckers he wrote, “the bellies they carry are in the conversation with hot-air balloons.”  A chef and his wife have “eaten a little too well, but neither is falling down fat.”  He made the observation that a security guard with a large belly “appeared to be the sort of man who could run a hundred yards in four minutes.”  But being fat isn’t all bad.  He thought extra weight made someone seem trustworthy. 

He finds others too thin, describing one as “somewhat below the threshold of slender.”   Another is “slim to the point of being weightless.”  And another is “slender to the point of endangerment.”  He calls one of the crew members on the freighter he spent several weeks on “weightless.”  And that food was wasted on him.  He spent enough time with the tennis player Clark Graebner to observe that his wife, a former top tennis player herself, was “constantly starving herself.”  And Graebner’s mother wasn’t much better, as she was a “dieter of fearful discipline.”

He comments on people’s smiles as well.  He wrote of someone who had a ready smile, that it wasn’t quite ready at the moment he was writing of.  Someone else without a smile was a young representative of PETA, who had a “firmly downturned mouth that may never have smiled.”  He was pleased though with the person who had a “constant knowledgeable smile.”  In “Oranges” he called the smile of the head of Minute Maid “benign,” suggesting that “when he was a small boy he dreamed of having all the Coca-cola he could drink and that the dream came true.”

His writing is particularly enlivened by his descriptions of mustaches, putting as much effort in describing them as other authors do of sunrises and sunsets.   He refers to himself as the “New Yorker’s” nonfiction mustache specialist and goes to considerable effort to put an original label on a mustache whether with a seldom used adjective such as “tetragrammatonic,” “trapezoidal,” “equanimous,” or some metaphor, such as “an airfoil that would impress the Wright Brothers.”  He explained, “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”  Elsewhere he observed, “Writers come in two principle categories, those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure,” without saying which he is.

He puts less effort in describing beards, though they turn up almost as often as mustaches.  He mentions his own from time-to-time, though we never see it, as none of his books bear a photo of him, though he can be seen on the cover of a biography written about him in 1997 after he’d published twenty-three books.  It was part of the Twayne’s United State Authors series.  His reticence to offer a photo of himself does not preclude him from revealing many strands of his personality.  He considers himself a “registered curmudgeon” with an unwavering anxiety that disaster lurks everywhere, so much so that he calls himself “an advanced, thousand-deaths coward with oak-leaf clusters.”  Elsewhere, he elaborated, “I have a lifelong tendency to panic.  Almost anything will panic me—health, money, working with words.”  

Preoccupations whirling in his head preclude him from getting much more than five hours of sleep except when he is camping and can sleep for up to nine hours.  He did overcome a fear of flying when a train he was traveling on to Seattle was snowed in crossing Minnesota and lost the power to generate heat.  He sprinkles in here and there various personal traits—he’s left-handed, has never been able to float, is short, doesn’t wear a watch, doesn’t text-message, has a car that has “a tendency to ignore stop signs,” always has a bandanna in his pocket.  When he used the bandanna to wipe some coal dust from his face, he asked the geologist he was accompanying if he’d gotten it all.  She replied, “Good enough for government work.”  He also much prefers freshly squeezed orange juice to concentrate and had a most difficult time finding his preference during his time in Florida researching “Oranges.” 

His fascination with mustaches is well known enough that if one googles “John McPhee and the mustache” one is taken to the First Things website that lists twenty-one of his descriptions.  It is far from complete, so I offer here a comprehensive list in chronological order of the books they appeared in (twenty-one of his thirty books, one less than books with a bicycle mention), a few of which are unaccompanied by an adjective: 

The Headmaster: walrus

Oranges: modest

A Roomful of Hovings: sincere and reassuring, being just halfway between a handlebar and a pencilline 

Levels of the Game:  small

The Crofter and the Land: had a mustache 
                                              mustache that suggests a wealth of experience 

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed: wicked

The Survival of the Bark Canoe: trapper’s 

Coming into the Country: mustache akimbo
                                             wings of the mustache 
                                             billowing glory of a mustache 
                                             shadows come into his mustache, which turns into an iron brush
                                            19th century drooping gold mustache 
                                             thin, Byzantine 
                                             a smile flapping the wings of his mustache 

Giving Good Weight: a beard that comes and goes.  When it is gone, as now, he retains not only a mustache but also a pair of front burns: a couple of pelts that descend from either end of the mustache and pass quite close to his mouth on their way to his chin
                                    an aggressive mustache concentrated like a grenade

La Place de la Concorde: mustache with short handlebars
                                            large, black 
                                            gray handlebar

Table of Contents: blond 
                                 seems medical in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative 
                                woodman’s ample 
                                timber’s cruiser’s guiless 

Rising from the Plains: “A mustache grew over his mouth, like willows bending over a brook”. (quoted from a woman homesteader’s journal)
                                        His mustache was an airfoil with a fineness ratio that must have impressed the Wright Brothers (President Theodore Roosevelt)

The Control of Nature: his low-sill mustache looked French
                                        with a mustache

Looking for a Ship: sportive

Assembling California: tetragrammatonic 

The Ransom of Russian Art: grand obodene 
                                                 Guinness Book mustache like a barrel on his lip
                                                  thick eyebrows merging with his mustache 
                                                  great billow of lip hair
                                                  voice filtering through the mustache
                                                  adding blue or magenta mustaches (to Soviet officials on black-and-white posters)

Irons in the Fire: trim, trapezoidal
                            dark and radial 

The Founding Fish: drooping diehedral
                                  sandy, medical in nature
                                  had a mustache and dark thinning hair
                                  thin alchemical

Uncommon Carriers: dark and gyroscopic
                                     precise, navigational
                                     mustaches large enough to resemble the lower halves of crossing signs
                                    bilateral semaphore

Draft No. 4: sincere
                    “New Yorker’s” nonfiction mustache specialist 
                     no-nonsense, gyroscopic, timber-cruiser’s guiless, soothing, medical
                     Guinness Book, like a barrel on his lip
                      fluorescent, distinguished

The Patch: ample sort of mustache that all creation, even a bird, would trust
                    on and off he had a mustache