Friday, July 22, 2022
Friday, July 1, 2022
Thursday, May 26, 2022
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 worldcat.org, 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
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 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.
Sunday, May 22, 2022
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.
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.
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.
Friday, May 20, 2022
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.”
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.
Wednesday, May 18, 2022
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.
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.”
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.