Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A New York Times Writer Bikes Coast-To-Coast


More than a few of the cyclists who have ridden coast-to-coast across the United States have written a book about their trip. Not many though, have the writing credentials of Bruce Weber, a writer for the New York Times since 1986 who has had four above the fold front-page stories and also written two previous books.  His journalistic skills shine forth not only in his prose, but also in how thoroughly he covers his subject matter.  He also has the skill to pitch a story to an editor.  Twice he has succeeded in convincing an editor at The Times to let him ride his bicycle across the United States and write about it for the paper, in effect earning himself a paid vacation, if such an endeavor can be considered a "vacation."

The first trip was in 1993 when he was 39.  The second was in 2011 when he was 57.  He had recently published a book on baseball umpires, "As They See 'Em," and wanted to write another book, maybe regretting he hadn't written one on his first ride, since so many people do.  He had taken a two year leave from The Times to write the umpire book. He attended one of the two sanctioned umpire schools in Florida, did a little umpiring and then traveled the country following a few of the umpires he went to school with who had joined the ranks of the 220 umpires in the minor league system.  He gets to know, as well, quite a few of the 68 umpires working in the majors.  As with his bicycling book, "Life is a Wheel," he gifted himself the pleasure of writing a book about something he liked a lot and knew fairly well.

He is a more ardent baseball fan though, than bicyclist, calling himself a dilettante despite his previous ride and a few others, including the length of Vietnam with a group of sixty.  His baseball-consciousness is highly evident in his bicycle book, with repeated mentions of the game.  One is a reference to the movie "Moneyball."  The movie mentions, from "Planet of the. Apes" to "Psycho," might outnumber the baseball mentions.  He even comments after a hard climb in the heat that he'd like nothing more than to disappear into an air-conditioned movie theater.   

Despite a number of significant bicycle trips he laments he's not very good maintaining his bike.  He replaces his chain three times on his trip, paying a mechanic to do it each time.  He describes himself as being capable of sensing when something is wrong with his bicycle, but rarely capable of fixing it. His bike terminology isn't always that of someone fully versed in the lexicon.  He refers to the bags on his bike as saddlebags, rather than panniers.  He is traveling with two on the back and no "front wheel bags," not how any veteran cyclist would phrase it.  He refers to the bicycle touring website crazyguyonabike.com as crazyoldguyonabike.com.

When he lists the components on his new $8000 bike, he doesn't give the all-important number of teeth on his chain rings, just those on his cassette, an 11-28, which he redundantly refers to as a "rear cassette."  He only test rode his new bike 65 miles before he flew out to Oregon to begin his trip.  Early on he realizes his cassette isn't adequate for the climbs, some of which he has had to walk, and replaces it.  He also has to replace his saddle after 1,600 miles of discomfort.  

He makes it easy for casual and non-cyclists to relate to him, portraying himself as an every-man without overly glorifying his ride.   He only averages fifty miles a day and stays in a hotel every night and occasionally the home of a friend or a reader of his Times coverage.  One was an ardent cyclist who had celebrated his 50th birthday by riding fifty miles in all fifty states.

He brought along a tent and sleeping bag in case of emergency, but never needs them.  He doesn't say if he ever camped during his first trip, only that he averaged sixty miles a day.  He admits that he can feel age catching up to him.  He no longer desires to ride late into the day, one of my greatest pleasures, preferring to be done by mid-afternoon.

About a third of the way into the book he confesses that he was struggling much more than he let his newspaper readers know during his first two weeks.  He came close to quitting half a dozen times, feigning an injury and flying home.  Another confession is that he will turn his bike upside down and solicit a ride when conditions are beyond his tolerance.  He does turn down the offer of a ride from a police officer in Montana, though, when he calls ahead to check if the department can book a motel room for him in their town.  They succeed and then volunteer to come and pick him up.  It was one of many countless examples of the benevolence he encountered, something he wished there was more of in New York.  "In most of the country, the default temperament is decency," he summed up.

He only rarely refers to his first trip.  Rather than repeating the route to relive it or to comment on how places might have changed, he takes a more northerly route so he can pass through North Dakota, the only state he'd never been to.  It is a great moment for him when he crosses into the state.  He debates what adjective he should use to describe the accomplishment.  He settles on "creditable," explaining, "It isn't quite remarkable, and its not special enough to be singular; amazing is way overstating it.  Estimable isn't bad, but creditable is better, more modest, a deserved but unostentatious pat on my back, self-satisfied without being smug."  

A few pages earlier he tells how he spent two days wrapped in thought over a colorful phrase on a historical marker he came upon. It described gunslingers as "tolerably lurid."  He knows how hard it would be for him to get that by an editor and tries to imagine how whoever wrote it convinced their editor not to modify it.   He can tend toward the florid himself, referring to a vast field of sunflowers as a "gigantic silk scarf." One can appreciate his literary craftsmanship, trying to find a fresh and precise word.  He describes winds as "well-behaved," "genial," "stubborn," "accommodating," "a malign cohort," "nudging me," "contrary," "heartening."  He describes some cattle as being "handsome."

Some of the best writing in his book comes from one of his emailers responding to his stories in The Times, someone by the name of "Scorpion."  He chastises Weber, calling his endeavor a waste of time and effort.  When he becomes too harsh and personal, Weber no longer allows him to post.

The book is as much a memoir of his life as it is the story of his bike ride, as implied by the book's subtitle--"Love, death, etc., and a bike ride across America."  He had recently fallen in love with a fellow Times reporter, who was based in Paris.  They had been friends for years, but became a couple on a group bike ride in Provence.  Weber had never been married, though he had had a series of girl friends, many of whom he mentions.  His new girl friend was in the process of divorce and had two grown daughters, one of whom didn't wholly approve of Weber and told her mother, "don't come crying to me if it doesn't work out."

He takes several breaks from his ride, one to fly to a friend's funeral, where he unexpectedly meets an ex, and another to fly to a wedding of a friend of his new girl friend.  She also rides along with him for a couple of days on a fold-up bike.  He devotes two chapters of the book to his ride in Vietnam, including a sidetrip where he was detained.  He calls the experience of his arrest, "Far and away the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me."

It was his first time in Vietnam, unlike some members in his group that had served in the war.  When he was in junior high school he was so beset by fears of being drafted and sent to Vietnam some time in the future, he suffered his first symptoms of depression.  His parents sent him to a psychiatrist, who he saw for a couple of years, although they mostly just played chess.  That didn't turn him off to shrinks though.  Over the years he spent "endless hours blathering with a shrink," largely about the many women who passed through his life as if it were a revolving door.

His time on the bike serves as an antidote to what he terms "life's irreconcilable vexatiousness."  It assuages his "despair over the fate of mankind."  Its not always easy on the bike, he acknowledges, and when it isn't there is always the chance that it can get worse, but he tries to be an optimist, knowing that most often it will get better.  He fully approves of Samuel Beckett's assessment, "The bicycle is a great good, but it can turn nasty if ill-employed."

I had been eager to read this well-reviewed new contribution to the ever-increasing canon of significant bicycle literature since it was published just before I headed to Europe in April.  It was a book I didn't want to end, except that I have a backlog of recently published bicycling books to catch up on--memoirs from the racers George Hincapie and Phil Gaimon, the latest book by Richard Moore on great stages of The Tour de France and another book on the lanterne rouge of The Tour, and a few others.

Weber's book also stirred my urges to be back on the road living the touring life rather than reading about it.  My friend Tim, who has joined Janina and I on our two rides to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, planted the idea of joining him for the 25th anniversary of the protest of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia next month.  It would be an 800 mile ride there and then 800 back.  How can I resist?




Friday, October 3, 2014

Millington, Illinois




A mural and statues and plaques in Ottawa's central park fully bring to life the first of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates held on that very spot in 1858 to an audience of over 10,000, just slightly less than the present population of Ottawa.  Slavery was the central issue.  Lincoln may have been the better orator, but he lost the senatorial election he was contesting with Douglas, who retained his seat. Two years later though, Lincoln prevailed, becoming the sixteenth president.



Those seven debate sites must have top billing among those on the trail of all the "Looking for Lincoln" plaques scattered around the state. They are more common than Carnegie Libraries, of which Illinois had 106, exceeded only by Indiana and  California.  I'll soon have visited all of those remaining in Illinois and then can turn my attention to Lincoln as a means of gaining a further intimacy with Illinois on my bike.  Each plaque Is a story unto itself, urging me to research it and join the tribe of Lincolnphiles, not that I need another obsession, having yet to exhaust my fascination with The Tour de France.  Even as I've been biking along I've been listening to a Les Woodland audiobook on The Tour and also reading a Kindle book about a group of English cyclists who followed the 2012 Tour.  

Woodland has written over twenty books on cycling, most devoted to The Tour.  He is another of a vast fraternity who have been totally absorbed by the rich and colorful history of The Tour and its wide array of characters that goes well beyond those who have ridden it.  France is full of guys who have collected huge amounts of Tour memorabilia and have opened museums or make their collections available in public places when The Tour passes near them.  There are quite a few French writers, like Woodland, who have devoted their careers to The Tour.  The most prolific is Jean-Paul Ollivier, who his written fifty some books on cycling.   Woodland quotes him on occasion along with many other writers.  

Woodland is a voracious searcher and will devour anything he can get his hands on relating to cycling.  Though he is English, he now lives in France, no doubt to make his research all the easier.  He even now identifies himself as being French.  His latest book on The Tour, "The Inside Story: Tour de France, Making the World's Greatest Bicycle Race," is full of stray anecdotes that other Tour histories don't include.  The book is almost a stream-of-consciousness commentary on The Race, somewhat chronological, though it jumps all over the place and doesn't mention every edition as the standard histories of The Race do.  

He inserts interesting and telling nuggets that he's picked up from reading biographies of many of the sport's principals.  He mentions that the autobiography of Jacques Goddet, the second director of The Tour after Henri Desgrange, does not explain how he allowed the Nazis to use his velodrome as the roundup point for over 10,000 Jews in Paris during WWII. He makes a case that he had to have been a collaborator, though he refused to stage The Race during the war despite the urgings of the German occupiers.  

He ventures off into stories on the wife of Desgrange and an American from LaSalle, Illinois who preceded Boyer and Mount and LeMond to the European peloton.   He calls it a myth that Rene Vietto worked as a bellhop at a luxury Cannes hotel.  The book abounds with odd little footnotes that he has stumbled upon that he just has to share.  And I am delighted with each.

But as much of an authority as he is on The Tour, he quite frequently bungles the facts.  This, as with many of his books, is in desperate need of a cycling-savvy editor.  He comments that it took the Americans more than sixty years to make their mark on The Tour.  Eighty years would be a more accurate figure.  He states that Poulidor was a better time trialist than Anquetil, when that was Anquetil's strength.  He says Armstrong had a positive drug finding in his first Tour in 1999.  Its true he tested positive for cortisone in that Tour, but it was not his first Tour, just the first that he won.

He states there were twice as many fans as usual along the road in Monaco when Lance came out of retirement and made his return to the sport after a three year absence.  I was there and that's not true at all.  Not all that many fans, especially the caravaners, showed up, knowing how expensive and compact Monaco was.  He also gets the location of one of the most storied events in Tour history wrong.  He wrote that Bahamontes stopped at the summit of the Galibier for an ice cream cone in 1954, when it was on the Col de la Romeyere.  And he gets the year wrong on the year the British team ANC competed in The Tour.  It was 1987, not 1989.

There were much fewer errors in the Kindle book, "One Day Ahead: A Tour de France Misadventure" by Richard Grady, mostly because the book didn't comment much on The Tour.  Grady is also English.  He is one of five members of a support crew, including a masseuse, driving two camper vans for four English riders who are attempting to ride The Tour route "one day ahead" of the peloton.  The book hardly mentions the riders.  It largely concentrates on the the support crew and how difficult their job is, much more difficult, he claims, than actually riding the route. 

It is mostly comic, but he does have genuine grievances with others on the crew who want to do some riding and not do their share of the work.  They have to find water and places to dump their sewage and buy food and find places to set up their encampment every night.  It wasn't glamorous in the least.  The author is continually complaining.  The wife of one of the riders, who shares his sentiments, tells him that when he sits down to write his book, if he can't remember what happened any particular day, all he need write is, "It was shit," which he agrees with.  The actual Race only gets a couple paragraph mention at the end of each chapter, told stage by stage, even though it was the first time The Tour was won by an English rider.

He does insert some Tour history and insights in what its like to be in France during  The Tour.  He knows cemeteries are a source for water and greatly appreciates the course markers, though only once does he mention the decorations along the route without being as enthusiastic about them as he should be.  One thing I learned that I have been oblivious to is that there are road signs for campers to dump their sewage, not that it is something I need to know. I'm not sure if II would have enjoyed this book as much as I did if I weren't reading it in small doses during my breaks and in my tent at night or if I were reading it as a real book, and not just on my iPad.  Still it was nice to marginally relive a Tour I had ridden starting in Liege with Andrew from Sydney.

Having Tour books to read and listen to as I've ridden along has made me less in a hurry to return home.  I've wanted to prolong my series of days on the bike and nights in the tent.  I have made this a longer ride than it needed to be, extending it by nearly five hundred miles to 2,000 miles with detours to Carnegies and friends.  The last Carnegie on my route came in Streator, fifteen miles south of Ottawa.  It was a larger town of over 10,000 people and had an exemplary Carnegie, making it a fine one to end with.


A representative of Streator paid a personal visit to Carnegie and was able to convince him to give more than three times his usual $10,000 grant.  It enabled the town to erect a two-story building with a rotunda that had murals on three of its sides, the fourth open to the grand, oaken staircase that led up to it.  The murals each feature a literary figure--Homer, Longfellow and Shakespeare.  The one with Longfellow paid homage to his writing on native  Americans.


The Carnegie in Wyoming, fifty miles to the west of Streator, was a classic single-room library with its original wooden tables and circulation desk and a long-time librarian who cherished every aspect of her historic building.




She was saddened that the Carnegie in Toulon, less than ten miles away, had recently been replaced, even though the town, with a population of not much more than a thousand, didn't really need a new library.  It was presently empty, with windows boarded up, awaiting the local Genealogical society as its new tenant.



The Carnegie in Farmington was two days from closing, also replaced by something bland and new, even though it retained its full stature and dignity on the main highway leading through the small farm community.



As I began my home stretch from Streator, rain threatened for the first time in days.   I was racing to reach a state park along the Fox River thirty miles upriver from where it joins the Illinois at Ottawa.  A drizzle started less than an hour before dark, five miles short of my target, when I came upon a large wooded cemetery that I couldn't resist.  I went off to a far corner and set up under a tree in the light rain.  I could ask for nothing better.  It made for a final wonderful night of camping where no one had likely camped before, just like every other campsite of my past month.  












Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lewistown, Illinois

There were small motels on either side of the narrow bridge over the Mississippi between Louisiana, Missouri, an historic and still charismatic town, and the nondescript dot of Pike on the Illinois side.  Louisiana was one of the rare towns I've come upon in these travels that had enough of an allure to make me want to linger and explore, and not only because it is one of three cites, along with St. Louis and Cape Giradeau, on the Mississippi in Missouri that can boast a Carnegie.  It had a prominent location on a hill just two streets over from the River.


But night was imminent and I needed to push on.  If I weren't a camper, I could have had my pick of rooms at either motel, but I gave neither a thought, other than it seemed a near miracle that both were still in business and not boarded up, as had so often been the case in Kansas.  It was a relief to see that small towns in Missouri weren't on the downward spiral to becoming ghost towns.  Rural America wasn't as grim and destitute as Kansas presented.

And as I penetrated into Illinois for the final three hundred miles of my ride back to Chicago, I was given further reason for hope.  Its small towns had plenty of life and often some character.  They gave a hint of small-town idyll, some even offering an enticement that they might not be such a bad place to live. They weren't necessarily thriving, but they weren't dominated by closed down businesses and abandoned homes.  Yards and property were maintained and there was a sense of civic pride.  I had a sense of pride myself in my home state.  Those towns with an extra shine had welcoming signs on their outskirts announcing themselves as an "Illinois Main Street Community," not unlike the French designations of a Most Beautiful Town or a Town of Flowers.  It does set a nice standard for a town to achieve.

Illinois is most certainly The Land of Lincoln.  Many of the towns had plaques commemorating a visit of Lincoln.  The regal Carnegie in Pittsfield had a photo of him taken when he passed through the town in 1858.


Outside the Carnegie in Beardsville, now the town City Hall, were a pair of laminated plaques detailing a court case Lincoln had won there.



Griggsville had no need to attach itself to the Lincoln trail as it had enough of an attraction in being the Purple Martin Capital of the Nation.  



More than five hundred bird houses are scattered about the town of 1,300, including a seventy-foot tall highrise of 562 aviary apartments in the town center.



But for me the town's main attraction was its unaltered shoe box of a Carnegie, complete with his portrait behind the check out desk and a copy of the book on the Carnegies of Illinois on an easel. The town also attracts visitors with its annual fall Apple Fest, the password for the library's WIFI.  



The somewhat tattered Carnegie in Rushville had only recently been replaced by a new library and awaited a new tenant.



The Carnegie in Havana, on the corner of Plum and Adams, appeared as sturdy and vibrant as the day it was built.  It was the proud domain of a very friendly white-haired librarian who could well be the most-liked person in this town on the wide Illinois River.   Its town plaque beside a spiffy park on the river detailed a trail along the river for over one hundred miles from Ottawa.



The neighborly librarian in Lewistown, modeling her favorite "ssssh-happens" t-shirt, was also a strong advertisement for small-town America.



Her library had had no expansion since it was built in 1906, though the addition of a side entrance and a shed prevented it from being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.



Lincoln visited Lewiston with regularity as he had good friends there.  The house of his friends that he stayed at still stands.  He also gave a noteworthy speech there in 1858 on the Declaration of Independence known as "The Return to the Fountain Speech," though no copy remains, just the newspaper reports.  












Monday, September 29, 2014

Hannibal, Missouri

White picket fences abound in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain's boyhood home, paying homage to the celebrated incident in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" when Tom convinces his pals to do his painting job.  There is even a bucket with a couple of paint brushes beside one of the fences.  The bi-monthly publication of the Mark Twain Association is called "The Fence Painter."  The annual National Tom Sawyer Days, that has been going on for fifty-eight years, includes a fence painting contest.


Huck Finn's house and Mark Twain's boyhood home and his father's law office were all painted a picket fence white.



Hannibal calls itself "America's Hometown."  Norman Rockwell might agree, as fifteen of his paintings on his display in Twain's home pay homage to Twain's heroes.  So too might the religious, as Hannibal is home to fifty-three churches, including one a block from its old non-Carnegie library that holds its services in a former movie theater.  The town recognizes its heritage.  Many homes have signs out front announcing they are being restored to their original state dating to their construction in the 1800s.

There are tributes to Twain all over this river-side town--streets and businesses named for him, including a taxi service. Twain's family moved to Hannibal in 1839 when he was four.  Twain began his newspaper career when he was thirteen, dropping out of school after his father's death to help support the family.  He remained in Hannibal until he was eighteen. 

A ceremonial lighthouse was erected in his honor on a bluff overlooking the town and a bridge over the Mississippi, also named in his honor.  It is a 244-step climb up to the lighthouse from a statue of Tom and Huck.  The lighthouse was unveiled in 1935 on the centennial of Twain's birth.  It was turned on by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he pressed a gold key that had been hooked up by telegraph wires.  The Tom/Huck statue preceded the lighthouse by nine years and is said to be the first American sculpture to depict fictional characters.



Many businesses take their name from one or another.  The town's information phone number is 1-TomandHuck.  Becky Thatcher is also prominent about town.  The path up to the light house passes Becky's Butterfly Garden.  Not far from a house named for her is a Becky's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and also Becky Thatcher's Third Street Diner.

The town was rather quiet on this late September Sunday despite the balmy eighty degree temperatures. There were only a handful of others wandering the few blocks of the historic district a couple blocks from the Mississippi, hidden by a high dike.  Many of the visitors had arrived on motorcycles, traveling the scenic Great River Road  that I would follow for thirty-two miles south to Louisiana and its Carnegie and bicycle-friendly bridge, despite warnings that it was very hilly. The lone bridge in Hannibal was the start of Interstate 72. It had replaced the original bridge by the lighthouse in 2000. I may have been able to ride it, though the woman at the tourist office couldn't say for sure.  She'd never had a bicyclist ask.  But the Carnegie in Louisiana beckoned.  It'd be my eleventh in Missouri on this trip, one-third of those in the state.  

Bicyclists remain a rarity. There wasn't a bicycle to be seen in the town.  No surprise.  I am a virtual species unto my own.  Not only have I not encountered a single touring cyclist since I left Telluride three weeks ago, I've hardly noticed anyone on a bicycle anywhere I've been in the 1,500 miles I've covered.  I've long ago given up being concerned about such matters.  I am simply happy that my allegiance to the bicycle has not waned nor been diverted all these years.  Though there is a glimmer of bicycle-enlightenment in some urban areas, it is still on a very small scale.  It is not something I expect to see in my lifetime.

None of the three Carnegies on my Saturday route were open when I visited them. I was too early for the Carnegie in Moberly.



The cosy Carnegie in the small town of Shelbina only had nine to noon hours on Saturday.  I was three hours late. At least it had a drinking fountain out front, but it was out of order.  A young woman in the park in front of it saw me try it.  She told me the library was unlocked and I could go in and use its drinking fountain.  She came to lead me in, but was surprised to discover that the door was locked.



It was no surprise that the library in Monroe City was closed when I arrived after six.  The former Carnegie was now the town's City Hall with the new library adjoining it.  I was at least able to use its WIFI, unlike the day's other two Carnegies.  I downloaded a couple more episodes of Democracy Now and a couple of ESPN shows for my listening the next day if I couldn't find an NFL station.



I had half an hour of light before I had to end my cycling day.  I exited the four-lane wide highway 36 fifteen miles short of Hannibal and camped alongside a corn field on a side road to Mark Twain Lake.  








Saturday, September 27, 2014

Huntsville, Missouri

Even before I reached Springfield and its several Bible colleges, I knew I was in the Bible Belt.  Churches old and new, many with catchy sermon titles and other promotions vying for attention, dotted the road.  One had a large "Skeptics Wanted" banner out front. Another, calling itself the Church of Living Water, advertised "relationships, not tradition."

Besides their entertainment value, the churches also provide a last resort as a place to camp.  They are  often off on their own and have no one around, a perfect place to pitch a tent, as I did on the outskirts of Sedalia.  The town was a little bigger than I thought.  I didn't have enough light to get beyond its outskirts after arriving just in time to photograph its stunning White House of a Carnegie in the waning light.


It was easily the most spectacular building in another town in serious decline, the all too common plight of small town America. A sign along the highway skirting the town pointed towards its "historic downtown."  All too often the word "historic" used in this context means "forsaken" or "derelict."  I didn't notice a Walmart here to blame for all the closed down businesses and dilapidated buildings.  Amazon and the Internet share the lion's share here.  The highways are full of a continual stream of UPS and Fedex trucks making deliveries.

About the only businesses that remain are barber shops and beauty salons and Dollar stores and a bank and tattoo parlors and liquor stores and resale stores and maybe a pawn shop and an occasional oddity, such as the tanning salon in Warsaw, Missouri aptly called The Fakery.  

My route north from Springfield took me over the Missouri River and its neighboring Lewis and Clark Trail.  On the way I passed through Bolivar.  Its Carnegie now housed the Polk County Genealogical Society. It faced the town's central plaza.


The Carnegie in Fayette still served as the town library.



A sign in front proclaimed the good fortune of Fayette being just one of thirty-three towns in Missouri to have a Carnegie.  It was a thousand short though on the number of libraries Carnegie funded around the world.



As with Fayette and Sedalia, I had to detour from the highway to go to Huntsville and its Carnegie, another dandy that still functioned as it was intended.



I pitied the towns I passed through that hadn't taken advantage of the Carnegie offer.  They too could have had a distinguished library rather than the plain and dumpy buildings that presently serve the purpose.  It wasn't as if Carnegie exhausted his funds.  He wanted to give away his entire fortune for the construction of libraries, but didn't even exhaust half of it.






Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Springfield, Missouri

I angled south across Kansas, taking a less than direct route back to Chicago, not so much for a corridor of Carnegies, as I could have headed straight across the state and connected with just as many, but to put me in line with Springfield, Missouri, where my long-time bicycling and travel buddy  Dwight had just moved in June from Bloomington, Indiana to resume his teaching career at Missouri State University's business school after a several year hiatus.

I had no qualms about adding more than a hundred miles to my ride, even with many of them into a strong southerly wind, as Dwight is easily one of the more extraordinary people on the planet--an idealist whose Vietnam war protests earned him a several hundred page FBI file and a man wanted in half a dozen countries for his various escapades, some on behalf of the Sea Shepherd Society sinking a whaling ship and a drift netter, and also for escaping from Mexico City's maximum security prison, one of only two people to manage the feat along with Pancho Villa.  

Dwight has also made his mark in academia, winning countless awards for his exuberant teaching style.  He had retired from teaching several years ago to devote more time to his writing and traveling and farm.   It was a difficult decision to leave his farm and take a break from the writing (two exhilarating autobiographical books in the past two years) and his vast network of friends dating back to his student years in the '60s, but he couldn't resist the call of the classroom.

It wasn't a typical career move for a financially-set 67-year old, but there is nothing typical about Dwight. He is an authority on computer security and loves imparting his knowledge.  It was no surprise to see that he is thriving back on campus, not only teaching but in getting around on his bicycle in this flat, sprawling metropolis.  With a population of 160,000 it is the largest of the thirty-some Springfields scattered around the US.  An added attraction for me was that it also has a Carnegie Library, a grand edifice with a large, matching addition to its backside. 


It was my third Carnegie in my first seventy-five miles of Missouri.  They each elicited a spontaneous "Wow" when I spotted them in the distance, each strikingly majestic and an upgrade on the predominantly brick, though still distinguished, Carnegies of Kansas.  The first was in Webb City, a suburb of Joplin, which has its own Carnegie.  Janina and I had been through Joplin in January on our way back from Texas, and had swung by its Carnegie, but didn't take the time to zip up to Webb City, as we were somewhat pressed for time.  The Joplin Carnegie was of the large urban class, though closed down and surrounded by a fence. It was magnificent enough to visit again, but I resisted, saving myself a few miles.



The Webb City Carnegie though was very much alive and had a timeless brick style unto its own in a quiet residential neighborhood.



Its beauty added to my exhilaration of being in Missouri, closing in on Dwight.  Missouri had a vitality that was lacking in Kansas. Crossing into the state was akin to crossing from a downtrodden country into one of more affluence, such as from Cambodia to Thailand or into Colombia from Ecuador.  I hadn't realized how burdened and dispirited were so many of the Kansans until Missouri and the people were so upbeat and outgoing.  The Kansans were nice enough and hardly hostile or outwardly sullen, but they certainly weren't as imbued with the positive energy of those in Missouri.  I hadn't sensed that two years ago when I stuck to the central part of the state before crossing into Missouri, but it was most pronounced this year even though the farmers had been drought-ridden two years ago and should have been deeply depressed.  It was almost as if they were putting on a brave front back then and were expressing a solidarity against their woes.

The Carnegie in Oswego, Kansas was representative of the Kansas I experienced this year, somewhat rundown and short on funds, not even open on Mondays.  A cardboard sign out front advertised cans of soda for fifty cents to raise money for the library.



My final Carnegie in Kansas was fifteen miles down the road in Columbus, shortly before the border.  It had Monday hours and was as regal as any. 



Just inside the door was the standard portrait of Carnegie along with a plaque acknowledging his gift.



Missouri further perked by spirits as I joined up with historic Route 66 in Webb City.  The forested terrain was also a welcome change from the predominant Plains of Kansas.  Signs at the entry to towns gave their population rather than their elevation or year of founding.



Along with the official road signs promoting 66 were countless businesses named for the route--diners, cafes, laundromats, sports bars and even a movie theater in Webb City that was still offering "The Rocky Horror  Picture Show."



I followed Route 66 to Carthage and its magnificent domed Carnegie gleaming in the setting sun.



The next day I continued on 66 for sixty miles to Springfield.  It was fully rural with no towns big enough for a grocery store.  I had to settle for a couple of service stations for water and food.  I passed two groups of motorcyclists in tight formation heading west, one of twenty and the other of eight, who no doubt were on a dream trip following the route from Chicago to California.  I peered closely to see if I could detect their nationality, knowing it is a popular undertaking for Europeans, but no telling details or features betrayed where they might be from.  It was exciting though to know that whoever they were, they were most certainly all thrilled to be experiencing this legendary road, just as I was.

But I would leave it in Springfield, heading north for a series of Carnegies, rather than continuing along a route I had already ridden to St. Louis despite the allure of a handful of friends there that I'm always happy to visit.








Monday, September 22, 2014

Cherryvale, Kansas


I haven't had any armadillos come nosing around my tent, but I have been dodging their road-side carcasses for the last couple hundred miles along the southern border of Kansas.  They outnumber dead skunks and raccoons and snakes by at least ten to one.  Rarely do I go more than a mile without seeing one. They are either very dumb or are in great abundance, though I have yet to see a living version.  Its only in the last decade that they have invaded the state, moving northward from their native Texas and Oklahoma with the warming climate.


Even well into September the temperature has been creeping in to the nineties, sapping my energy and welcoming the armadillos.  Hundred degree temperatures in the summer months are so common that along with the influx of armadillos, there has been an influx of ice-dispensing outlets.



The heat may be a contributing factor as well to the declining population of human critters in rural Kansas.  I have camped behind abandoned farmsteads the past few nights.  Abandoned homes and businesses are a common small town site.  Cedar Vale, just south of Highway 166, looked like a frontier town that had suffered an epidemic or nuclear fall-out with all the wooden homes and businesses that hadn't had a coat of paint in years and the many homes that were boarded up or had all their windows knocked out with front doors swung open and rubble piled amongst the surrounding overgrown weeds.  

It was sad and unsettling biking past all this disarray down a narrow residential street to the town park to fill my water bottles and give myself a wash. It was as if a band of outlaws had taken over the town and driven all the good folk out.  Whoever remained hid in their homes.  The town didn't look as if it had ever thrived, but it brought to mind the once prominent river town of Cairo, Illinois at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, that Janina and I passed through last January.  It was in a similar state of decline, more dead than alive, half or more of its residences vacated.  All those who remained in either town could offer a heart-rending commentary on what life had been before and what kept them there.

The Carnegies in the region too are in disrepair.  The Carnegie in Arkansas City had been replaced and was closed down, waiting for its next reincarnation.  It was as magnificent as any building in the town and had a prominent, central location, but clearly needed some tending to.



The same could be said of the Carnegie in Coffeyville.  It was presently a photography studio, but was falling apart, one side of the front steps in collapse and maintenance needed all round to restore it to its full former glory.



The Carnegie in Winfield had also defected to the business sector, but its two tenants, a dance studio and a dentist, seemed committed to maintaining their building's majesty.



Less than twenty miles north of Coffeyville, the Carnegies in Independence and Cherryvale, just eleven miles apart, still served as libraries.  The larger town of Independence had built a huge addition to their Carnegie, a whole new building alongside it.  The majestic original entrance, up the steps through a pair of pillars, was no longer in use.



The Carnegie in the much smaller Cherryvale was much as it was when it was built, other than its designation as a storm shelter with a special entrance to its lower level in the back.  It had also had an old mail box placed at its entrance for book returns and new wiring added to its lone light post out front, the Carnegie symbol of enlightenment.  It was a quaint library in a quaint town with cherries stenciled on sidewalks throughout the town.



I'm less than sixty miles from Missouri, with just two more Kansas Carnegies on my route.

My Sunday riding was enhanced by listening to the broadcast of the Dallas/St. Louis NFL game. The Topeka radio station station was part of the Cowboy network.  It took a while to become accustomed to the broadcasters continually referring to their team as "The Boys."  They had plenty to be excited about with "The Boys" overcoming a 21-point deficit to win the game, the largest margin they'd come back from in team history.  The Monday night game is the Bears and the Jets.  I've already been able to pick up the Bears station WBBM once the sun has gone down and the radio waves carry for hundreds of miles.