Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kids Got Future

Last Monday, I spoke with students at Tanglewood Elementary School about the cross country journey. The teachers (my mother being one of them) and students had been tracking my progress with the use of a large map and push-pins on a hallway bulletin board. The 114-day trek happened to coincide with the fall session, so ending the year with a fun show-and-tell presentation to the second, third and fourth grade classes seemed to be a great idea, and an invitation impossible to decline. The kids were excited, and wanted to see me and the bike that had ridden adventures throughout the semester-long story.

After rolling the bike and bags of gadgets in for display, Mrs. Barkley helped out with the last few arrangements as the kids began to fill her library. It wasn't long before the floor was warmed with perfectly behaved fourth graders. With about an hour set aside for each grade, I talked to the students about how fortunate we are to have the freedoms and way of life that we have in America. How some of us grow up and decide to be soldiers that dedicate themselves to protecting and preserving these freedoms. And how important it is to help and support those soldiers that have made such a commitment to their country – duty as the price of citizenship. They listened quite intently.

I then introduced them to the bike and the gear – the means to achieve the dream. With tools and know-how in place, we went on our slide show journey, starting in Seattle and photo flashing our way across country through 13 states. The rest of the day flew by in similar fashion with good questions asked from each grade and plenty of enthusiasm along the way. The pictures of puppies, horses, dinosaur skulls and Texas longhorns seemed to be all-around favorites. I liked those things too when I was in their shoes.

There were a few drifting moments where I traveled back in time to my own days as a student in Tanglewood. And though more than twenty years separate this present from that past, many of those memories still resonate with amazing clarity. More than the cafeteria smells, or sounds that echo the same down those long, tiled hallway walls, I think it was having a few familiar faces there that gave the spark, and re-ignited new life to those childhood memories. Mrs. Stephens, my fourth grade teacher, was one of those faces, and a big reason why that school has been, and will always be a very special place in the hearts and minds of the students that sat in those classrooms. She, along with several other teachers have established a lasting tradition of educational excellence and instilled a quality not found in direct text. It is an influential quality of encouragement to go beyond the common, whether that be personal achievement or pursuing the greater good that guides our hopes and active aim towards the better future....And for that, I tip the proverbial thinking cap to my Tanglewood teachers and to all the others around the world that make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and ultimately, our global community.

After all, kids are the future. They are the ones that help to expand our selfish time horizons beyond questions of whether or not we'll have comfortable retirements. They will either flourish from our successes or struggle to deal with the results of our shortcomings. And despite the fact that you never know what will happen from one generation to the next, they deserve our best – not massive debt, endless conflict, nuclear threat or many of the other numerous problems that beset this nation. Our “best” has been too inconsistent for too long. We have got to act with more smarts, try harder, and learn to compromise instead of balk and despise. Otherwise, the prospects of better days will surely begin to fade.

Surrounded by questioning second graders, I wondered about that future. But when one little girl said that she now wanted to walk across the state of North Carolina for the hungry people, those negative uncertainties seemed to vanish under what I guess to be the lingering light of hope and how you just never know.

Friday, December 11, 2009

To find your quiet corner

Everyone needs time alone. Even if you are the type of person with the filters and focus to write dissertations amongst mosh pits, having at least a small portion of each day to your own thoughts, in some safe haven that's conducive for contemplating and occasional creation can (in my opinion) yield infinite potential benefit. Whether that benefit is simple mental health or devising the next best master plan, it usually takes the right time and place to break from "the noise" and / or life's lovely distractions.

The fractured modern conscious is old subject matter: stocks tick; iPods click; cars, planes and trains whiz all simultaneous with computers computating every inch under orbiting satellites - so what. The world spins, humans rarely flinch. And though we barely dot the geologic time line, we are phenomenal adaptors. Despite our expanding abilities to take on the exponentially increasing external flux, most real, adaptive progress comes from our ability to wade through the madness, and carve enough of an uninterrupted time interval to narrow-down the necessary productive focus. It takes a lot to engineer these new super-colliders or defeat the best chess computers - but we do.

Living on the road, I increased the length of those focused time intervals in the cool, comforting confines of America's public libraries. Seeking safety from the sun, wind, and ranging temperature, it quickly became part of the loose, but consistent routine throughout much of the journey. Especially in the smaller towns of rural regions not known for extravagant attractions, I would define a very good day as waking early, enjoying and mentally recording along a 5 or 6 hour ride, making it to the only town for miles around, securing food, shelter, and then silently settle in a peaceful quiet corner of the local public library. The absolute best example of this occurrence was my most desolate day from Delta to Milford, Utah. After a long, sun-scorched ride with nothing but distant mining pits in between, I found the quaint little Milford library to be a desert treasure.

In general, the library, much like a church, is a sanctuary of sorts - a designated place where simple house rules help define a certain setting. It is the library that provides a refuge within the dirty disturbing urban, and it is the special environment to enjoy the world of books, indulge the imagination and seek out self-educating enrichment. There's no better way to take a passing sample of town than this true community center, where under one roof, at any given time, you might have children learning to read, students collaborating over group projects, or a homeless man knee-deep in a book of philosophy. A town is not a town without one, since not everyone can afford their own bat cave.

After all, it is the concept of each individual finding his or her own bat cave - whether that's a quiet corner of the public library, or making that special place within your own private dwelling: a crafty wood shop, a cool music room, a tooled-up garage, a back-room study, or chef-ready kitchen - all places where you can churn butter on your own terms. If it turns out good, consider sharing your creation. Homemade butter is hard to beat.



Salt Lake City Public Library

4th Floor SLC Public Library


Eugene, Oregon Public Library - Guggenheim Design


Baker City, Oregon Public Library alongside The Powder River

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Good Family Finish

If you've been to Sunset Beach, NC, then you have driven across the old swing bridge that floats over the inter coastal waterway, connecting the mainland to the barrier island. It is the only one of it's kind in operation on the entire east coast. For those who know it, this bridge is a symbolic gateway to a calm, relaxed style of vacationing. Each side takes their turn crossing the single-lane wooden plank pontoon, and when the clock strikes the top of each hour, both sides wait while boats and the occasional barge pass through. No one resumes until the old man in the control house brings her back around. If you're headed to the beach, it's the point where you realize the rush is over; it's time to take a moment, put it in park, and maybe hop out of your jeep or SUV to greet a stranger and smell the salty summer air. A fish market and a deep-fried-Calabash-style restaurant to your left, a putt-putt course and liquor store on the right! As for the sun burnt souls leaving the island, it'll be their first, post-vacation chance to exercise patience before returning to our hurry-up-I-needed-that-last-week-working-world.


Happy Parents

(the evil, new replacement bridge in back)


So yesterday, waiting before that bridge were my parents, grandparents, Aunt Jonnie, and Uncle Darryl. Mom and her binoculars spotted me first - her unmistakable whistle piercing the swirling December sea breeze. All the soreness and pains immediately vanished with their healthy dose of hugs and laughter. Eager to finish, I saddled up for one more ride as they followed me across the bridge with that last mile, and to the exact spot where our family taps in tent stakes each and every year. For such a cool, gloomy December Tuesday, yet another warm memory was etched in our sands of time as I pedaled my poor man's chariot into the ocean spray and fizzle white foam that stays long after the last wave breaks. It would not have been the same without them.


Me and my Favorite Machine

And as I have mentioned before, it would not have been possible without the help of so many of all you good folks out there, from Seattle to Sunset, and the 5,283 miles in between. To you, my new extended family, I am forever indebted, and can only hope to one day, have the chance to fill your water bottle in your passing strive for adventure, discovery, excitement, and better life in this universe. Expect a note from me soon.


Call It Good

The ride may be over, but the journey continues (as will this blog). After passing enough mileposts along our highways, collected thoughts connect to form related motivations - again, wanting to start where it all began, and that's at the local, hometown level: mapping safe bike routes in and around town, improving signage, markings, and laying a few basic blueprints to incorporate more bike-friendly provisions into the city's long-term development plans; talking with kids and encouraging them to break away from television and grasp a new, real world of possibilities propelled by the power of self, realizing the simple, but transformative capabilities of a healthier, better-connected community; and sooner than later, finish filtering and distilling the most relevant thoughts, observations, and ideas about our country into a constructive letter to our dear President. Just the visible part of the iceberg for now, at least until my road weariness wears off, this will serve as a decent set of starting points.


Hot Chocolate with Pop

Last but not least, I want to thank all of the thousands of drivers that didn't maul or kill me over these last 114 days. We had a few close calls here and there, but it seems we both got to where we needed to. Please continue to drive safe, maintain awareness, and share the road. Bicycles belong.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

One more day

Only 70 miles away now. In my tent, 5am, I'm pitched snug tight against a fire station side wall, a small alley patch of grass between this station and the church next door here on Main St, Johnsonville, SC. After talking with the police chief and the pastor, this seemed the best spot for me, as there's no suitable park or campground nearby, the only motel 7 miles in the opposite direction. A tall box wood hedge and illuminated plastic nativity disguise the better part of my encampment, which, would have otherwise been completely exposed to the small town passing traffic. The three wise men have been my glowing friends throughout the night, as I can't see baby Jesus or Mother Mary from this angle. The police department is directly across the street, a Mexican restaurant next door, nice sidewalk lights, and a fairly soft and quiet scene in all - small town America. I thank the pastor and chief for letting me bed down for the night, but everything around me now screams the need to finish this: a beat up water bottle, the journal's last pages, the tires on my bike, the cold air that turns my knees into rusty hinges...

Closer and closer now.... a dog's ability to find his way home doesn't amaze me anymore. There are familiar sights, sounds, and smells to be found: the food, the forests, the coastal flats, and people's accents. About 17 more miles up ahead, there is a bridge that spans the Little Pee Dee, which is fed by none other than the black waters of the good ol' Lumber River. More so than the mighty Columbia, the carving Colorado, or big Mississippi, I look forward to crossing that bridge, seeing those waters and knowing the source and path it has traveled from my homeland.

I'm ready to see my family. They'll be waiting at the old floating bridge that leads across to Sunset Beach, where 25 years ago, we began an annual summer vacation tradition. So many fond memories: my Uncle Gary lunging to save the little blow-up boat that held me, my brother, and my cousins Lee Ann from a monster rogue wave that would have wiped us out, and easily washed us away; my Uncle Darryl, his great big fireworks, and the fat cop that stopped us; fierce volleyball matches; big family meals; time under the tent, relaxing, just watching the waves crash and return....Just 70 miles separates me from those same sands, as it was there, that this idea came to be - there, where I want to complete the journey.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

And the War Continues....

30,000 more.... I hope all breathing, conscious viewers of Obama's speech the other night made the connection that some of those cadets in the audience may possibly lose their life or become severely wounded in the escalating war over Afghanistan. And not just our fellow Americans, but more of our allies and many more innocents in this effort to exterminate the extremists. We all wish that the current circumstances over there were different. We'd pull our soldiers out of there tomorrow, and immediately stop the killing. In that utopian world, humans would learn to value life, value each other, our similarities, and differences - putting an end to our civilization's history of hate, humiliation, cruelty, violence, and horror. For all our "progress", how far have we actually risen above our beastly ancestry?

What's the best scenario? We snuff them out, eliminate their leadership, permanently debilitate their infrastructure and networks, the Afghan government stabilizes and develops the capacity to handle their own domestic problem people, we (US & allies) team with them to establish a tradition of growing grassroots ambassadors that incubate institutions of education, health, and economic opportunity equally across gender, religion, race, ethnicity.... And then, once we have accomplished all those costly improbabilities, will we find ourselves repeating the seemingly endless battle in Yemen, Somalia, Iran, or the numerous other countries where their cousins live?

Hypothetically thinking, what if the tables were turned, and we were the ones that had foreign armies waging war on our soil, destroying our towns, fields, some of our women and children in the process of rooting out our radicals.....Would we not fight back? Would we ever stop fighting?

For every philosophy of non-violence, there is a philosophy of war.

After all the reading and thinking and talking to dozens of veterans, soldiers currently serving, lawyers, professors, doctors, farmers, mothers, fathers, and all sorts of strange or common Americans across this country; I've tried to make sense of this war; to draw an informed, better understanding; maybe a few loose conclusions to improve personal actions.....

At least pertaining to our President's speech the other night, and the difficult decision to send (and shift) thousands more, I support him. I think that Obama is the type of person, and more importantly, the type of leader, that tried to find every possible way to save lives by getting out, but the facts of this disaster didn't add up to doing such.

As for Dick Cheney..... His comments prior to the speech do nothing but further solidify his reputation as a primary detriment and source of destructive hypocrisy to our country. You can't call yourself a true Republican after shooting your friend in the face. Just another accident to add to all the other mistakes. He ought to be fitted with more than a muzzle. I reserve further comments.

No Rain

A common question I've gotten from people along the way is, "What do you do when it rains?" It's hard to believe, but I didn't have an answer until Jackson, Mississippi, where it finally rained during my ride (still managed to get in 55 miles before the first drop that day). Until then, my reply was that I had rain gear, but haven't had to use it yet. "You mean that you've made it all the way here from Seattle without getting rained on?" Then, looking for some wood to knock, I would affirm the question.


The Long Drought Route

Divine providence, a new meteorological phenomena, one huge slap-happy stroke of luck - I'm not sure, probably a little bit of each from those three. I can't speak for God, or any kind of cosmic luck karma, but the summers of the northwest and fall for most other areas across the country are typically more dry than the other seasons. Also, getting full value from our vast and varied American deserts helps support a partial explanation. From the time I crested the Cascades in central Oregon until leaving the west Texas scrub and sage, that's roughly 3,000 miles through arid American land, where the people, and especially farmers know a thing or two about water management. Still, overall, a great roll of the dice.


Sunny Skies Across the Continental Divide
Sailing into Silver City

Rain, in moderation, is a refreshing rejuvenating treasure. Sometimes there's nothing better than a good shower to clean and clear the air, washing away that dust funk or clogging, polluted residue that seems to accumulate and stagnate the porous breathe of both plant and animal skin. The southeast is usually blessed with this moderate mean, but others are less fortunate. Most of the soaking qualities are obvious, but it's that slight change in the actual air that is there to test and taste with a curious sniff...

...The dryness of the desert over time gradually delivers a dull death. In Seattle, the dark, damp, vitamin D deluting drizzle proved too long and drawn out for me and my genes (personal weakness). A quick flee to Puerto Rico was pineapple sweet, but the lack of temperature-changing seasons and powerful tropical storms presented a uniquely different extreme. A few fearful moments for Katrina and I, sweltering within a shaky, plywood, Caribbean jungle shack that sat atop our small island's ridge line - swallowed by several successive September tempests.....days where the tropical air was truly tropical. This is the same air that brings inches upon inches of heavy, sporadic, ground-pounding rains. The low cumulus clouds blanket beyond all horizons and the winds swirl inside this covering so that no consistency can be found in vegetation sway. This combined flux of phenomena possesses a wild energy above and beyond the sum of each element's basic kinetic strength - it's a crazed atmospheric excitation that distinguishes this tropical character among all others...

Needless to say, I haven't missed the rain during this journey, but as the current storm has me restrained for a few extra days here in Atlanta, I'm reminded how there are times, where nature or life may seem to restrict, but in turn, often offers hidden gifts. A cliche of some sorts, one that most of us have heard or experienced before. I can say that it has been one of the most important things I've learned out here. Being exposed to the whims of the road has revealed countless incidents of how the transformation of energy and effort is unpredictable, and may not immediately bear the fruit your desires anticipate, but will almost always manifest itself in the form of delightful surprises that beat even the best Christmas presents.


Splashing Around the Southeast

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Is that news on the tube?

I've taken a few cheap shots at the media in past posts because the media is crucially important in that they are the primary conveyers of information and ideas that greatly shape public opinion, popular beliefs, and perspectives of how we see the world and our engagement with it all. And as active citizens, it's up to us to hold their feet to the fire, or at least maintaining awareness of what forces are at work in their content creation and delivery - in particular, the forces of television's major news networks - television, because of its wide appeal, ease of accessibility, and its simulataneous demand of both visual and auditory senses of the audience. That combo of external stimulus can be a persuasively powerful duo, filling your eyes, ears, and current conciousness with a Halloween bucket load bombardment of crack candy that's enough to chew challenge the cognition of our new generation's best multi-taskers. Try momentarily muting the talking heads or walking away from the loud screen LCD to go and sip a cool glass of filtered water.

Among other things, capitalism makes for good tasting candy - and who doesn't like a good piece of candy: lights, music, wise cracks, funny jokes, a good fight, roused emotions, political soap drama..... But in terms of a square media meal, the problem begins when they start mixing that candy with the meat and potatoes. When it comes to a serious steak, lay off the corn syrup! It gets to the point where it's easy to mistake the factual flavors of a 'tater debate because some ideological, profiteering taste-bending intender snuck jolly ranchers in my grandma's turkey. Stop feeding families a fake fear feast of how Uncle Sam's new plan is going to pull Pa's plug!

I'm talking about profit-driven entertainment disguised by a heavy dressing of supposedly legitimate news. This doesn't mean that PBS (public) is what you should always watch for a better objective news - I'm simply stating that the main motive for FOX, CNN, and other news corporations is to maximize profit - afterall, that is the goal of a corporation. Any actions on behalf of management inconsistent with that goal should, in theory, lead to the shareholders voting to replace them. Therefore, delivering socially constructive news will usually take a back seat if it and profit are ever in conflict. So goes the tenuous relationship between efforts towards honest news and the corporate media that operates under free market principles.

Rupert Murdoch is a smart man that knows how to make money - however he can. If you don't care about investing ethics, then purchasing partial ownership of his News Corp is probably a safe money maker. But you should know that this guy cares about America only in the sense that we continue to be reliable consumers of his products - other than that, he doesn't give a damn about us. Ask any of his fellow Australian's what they think about their buddy Rupert.

Non-Sequitur Comic - October 13, 2009

Friday, November 27, 2009

Saving a Puppy

It's not always easy to pedal past some of the starved, pathetic looking dogs that wander along the back alley side streets or rural county highways. Even the most mangy mongrel can give you a glance that begs for a second chance. But it's something completely different when you discover a newly abandoned puppy that makes it impossible not to stop and save such an innocent infant from starvation.

Last week, my good friend Robbie joined me for the 200-mile stretch between Birmingham and Atlanta, and it wasn't long after we had crossed the Georgia line when we came upon one such puppy. The little guy immediately started a desperate scramble for us as we passed by an empty parking lot alongside the Silver Comet bike path (the longest paved recreational trail in the US). Crossing out onto the highway with us, it became obvious that he had no home and was scared. He curled at my ankles, begging to be rescued. Without hesitation, Robbie and I began looking around to the sparsely scattered homes of that rural countryside, hoping to find a resident that could help. Meanwhile, the pup quivered in terror at the roar of the fast-passing traffic. "It's all right buddy, I've felt that way before too."

There was no decision to be made, no judgement call - only the moral obligation to do the right thing...whether it's a puppy or a baby, it deserves at least one shot at life, at least one chance to be good, and maybe great, or even bad, and to learn from the mistake, but at the bare minimum, to live life as another unique being of the universe, wondering why, chasing a dream, and maybe achieving some sense of peace or meaningful inkling of authenticty.....God bless the good souls that adopt, foster, or support the disadvantaged children of the world...

Back to the street, it wasn't long before we went knocking on a stranger's door, which turned out to be an older couple that had moved there in 1942. Since then, they had raised their family there on the farm, and most of their sons and daughters' families had all returned and populated the other few houses we saw. It was Mr. & Mrs. Duke of Polk County, Georgia that opened their hearts and extended their arms for the little abandoned puppy on that damp, cool, cloudy afternoon.

Amazing the basic instincts of nature; how an animal, so young and inexperienced, so completely vulnerable knew to seek safety in the hands of two giant creatures riding strange spinning contraptions, all totally different than the likes of himself....but then again, dogs love bikes.

Mr & Mrs Duke, Robbie, & the Puppy

Thursday, November 26, 2009

We have a lot to be thankful for

If you are reading this, then you are alive (or at least functioning), which also means you're not dead. Never a bad idea to start from there, just in case... In addition, you, as do I, have access to a computer and freedom to a world of information - all of us most likely typing from somewhere in this country we consider a great nation. And it is in this country that we can all be thankful for our freedoms: to choose, to travel, to snooze, or volunteer for battle - or not.

Over this Thanksgiving Holiday, save a place in your prayers for the soldiers and their families - especially those who will not be together either now, or ever again. It is rightfully said that, "the greatest casualty is being forgotten". Try not to forget the costs of freedom.

I'd like to take this moment to again thank all those that have donated to this cross country awareness ride for the Wounded Warrior Project thus far, and to the hundreds of new friends, strangers, and (of course) family that have lent their support along the way to help make this possible. Whether it was water, food, shelter, advice, or a smile - I sincerely appreciate your kindness.

Amen. And cheers to the holiday with the best premise - one that has long extended beyond the Pilgrim's song.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

From Perfect Parkways to Dangerous Dieways...

The Natchez Trace Parkway makes for a super superb bike ride, as its silky smooth asphalt and low, slower traffic wind through colorful forests, over countless creeks and streams, an undisturbed, intimate Mississippi, and with picnic historical pull-offs every few miles, a cyclist cannot be too careful or else the trace teases and turns trance. Thankfully, Mark was my riding partner that forced a friendly wake-up pace, which, for me, was just a futile waste to try and keep close with his fancy carbon. You always remember how nice it is to have a fellow cyclist along for the ride, especially a local that's been digging in and has long known his turf. Talk of gators, unknown physiological limitations, truck buzzing, pipeline pathways, and marathon race days got us quickly down the road and eating fresh fried catfish (Catfish King) in Carthage before it even seemed like it all started. You know good times when 45 miles just disappear.

Introduced to me by his life-long buddy Keith - true trail angel, lawyer, entrepreneur, scratch golfer, and certainly the best man to know in Ridgeland, Keith and his father caught me waterproofing my shoes under the front porch shelter of the The Trace Grill (good grub) and immediately struck up conversation. Instead of pedaling through the puddles and rain to a grocery store and then another twenty down the Trace to a sloppy, wet camp, they suggested the option to stay dry as they would drive me down to the fresh market. It wasn't long before he took charge at check-out and then suggested I stay in town for the evening until the storm passed. We then eased over to a nearby hotel, where he again took control at the front desk. No need for a jealous audience, so I'll just say that I had a nice roof overhead and leave it at that. With a few afternoon hours remaining, we went back to his office, got a few swings in at Chateau Whistler and St. Andrews and introduced me to another good friend in Clint of Raise the Bar Fitness. An upbeat, awesome character, and long-time supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project, Clint quickly helped spread the word about my ride on his blog. He's your man in Mississippi if you need a personal trainer or professional advice with nutrition.

An all-star cast and great group of men I happened to encounter during my time in Jackson. As if I wasn't already riding high enough on the crest of the glorious Trace wave parkway, their generosity inflated the cloud and propelled me further along to the town of Louisville where I met more friendly folk and good country cooking at Lake Taik-O-Khata. After an anonymous man bought my dinner that night and then as a guest of the Rotary Club, was fed lunch the following day, the successive events were nearly surreal.

I immediately snapped out of that three-day dream once I hit the highway towards Macon, Mississippi. A dream induced by that Natchez Trace Parkway, a dream abruptly broken SR-14. Cloudy cold day on that rolling, rumble-strip two-lane logger truck speedway, and as they say, your head better be in the game, otherwise, you'll wind up as just another blood-stained statistic - possibly joining the other hundred thousand roadside cross memorials. Defensive riding at its best: head on a swivel, holding a laser line at times, always scanning advance for more trash, clobs of grass or busted glass while auto-dodging that which is already upon you, keeping consistent cadence to sustain the 1-2 smooth pedal power in rhythm, and maintaining your cool and fluidly loose but always ready to switch and put on a hell-grip when crossing over the rumble strip or sometimes dumping to the off-road quick. The rumble strip can shake your brain bad enough that you just pull over, stop, curse, wait for all visible vehicles to clear, and then grudgingly proceed.

There is always hope that road conditions will improve once you cross a county or state line, but they just got worse in Alabama. For all the goatheads of eastern Oregon and Idaho, for all the whacked-out-test-piece shoulder edge agitations of Arizona, and all the hundreds of miles of terrible Texas chip seal, man, if the roads of 'Bama ain't the most dangerous. There are no shoulders on two-lane highways, nearly as minimal on some major pavement - your forced to ride in the road. And in case you didn't know, Alabama is highly productive in timber, mining, and any other possible industry that requires huge trucks. You live or die according to match-traffic timing. Semi's, dump trucks, and loggers are so big with so much inertia and populate the roads with such high frequency that your only choice is to completely pull off into the grass/gravel/trash/glass, lean far away with head down, keeping your mouth closed unless you want a trail mix supplement.

So far, Alabama drivers have done well given the circumstances - no seriously close calls yet. In Tuscaloosa, I picked up a bulletin published by the state bicycle coalition which highlighted a recent national study that ranked states "bike friendliness". Not surprisingly, Alabama was dead last at 50. Well, there's room for improvement, and I wish this state and its cyclists the best in their efforts towards those improvements - there's so much beautiful and challenging countryside that it won't take much. If it was possible to re-allocate one half of one percent of the support and backing that goes into football, the state could instantly move into the top ten....

In a way, I'm glad I am here to experience the worst, although three more days of this may change that opinion. After starting in the state of Washington, which was ranked number one on that list, it's a good thing that I had almost a whole country of ride experience before pedaling into this pressure cooker. Knowing how I first felt on a loaded bike in addition to a lack of experience with variable highway traffic conditions would have been a recipe for disaster here.

Flag of Heroes - Servicemen Lost in 9/11 Attacks

Keith and Clint's Office

Monday, November 16, 2009

There's Good People Out There

With less than a thousand miles till these tires touch Atlantic waters, the realization of a closing chapter creeps with greater frequency. There was a moment, way back in west Texas, one of those moments we like to call clarity, where the reoccurring reminder of how this journey is, in its absolute essence, all about people - We the People. The dramatic scenery had faded well before crossing Roy Bean's Pecos, but it was in his desolate, lonesome rolling desert stretch where wild nature offered the necessary void to be filled with that profound, lasting reflective impression.

Where or what would we be without those extremes? And not just extreme places, but radical people, far-flung ideas, ludicrous lifestyles, and strange creations. People that make the debate, people that push it too far forth, and those that tug back against senseless attack. We are the world's melting pot of people and recalling the calm, steady words of Austin's Joe Jistel, "It takes all types".

How fortunate I have been to have met so many good people over these past 94 days. Colorful details of their random acts of kindness, sincere generosity, and wholesome hospitality would fill a library's chambers with an endless adventure series. From complete stranger to stranger, situations arise that drive an excitement, an invigorating enthusiasm for life, a jingling of the keys to why we humans thrive.

With so much published negativity circulating the airwaves and paper treys, it may not seem the case. I believe that many of us are able to make the distinction between entertainment and objective attempt, but it doesn't discount the fact that so much fear, hate, and opposition are purposely perpetuated throughout popular media, showboat political arenas, rash advertising, and sadly, some of our religious institutions. This doesn't always match up to the realities that I see on our streets, let alone the attitudes and personalities I meet. Don't get me wrong, we've got major problems in this world being caused by problem people, but it doesn't warrant much of the anxiety or distrust that feeds the false expectations some of us have for some of our fellow citizens - world citizens included.

Without picking another stick to batter this beaten horse diatribe, I'll end by saying that it's rare to taste the surprising bitter bite of a bad apple - let alone one that's rotten to the core. For every Wall Street greed crazed criminal, there's 100,000 honest money pushers. And with relative similar ratio, the same could probably be said of the crooked con-artist to autonomous artisan; out-right thief to life-long philanthropist; Mississippi racist to refined southern gentleman.

To say a few words for the latter half of that last example, I have been blind-sided by the royal treatment received here in the big river state. The compliment carries the same weight in my sentiments towards the people of Louisiana. Both similar scenarios as I described with bad rap El Paso - people of places and places made by people that, to me, have defied expectations and many skewed common assumptions. There's an open, honest assuredness in their character, a steadiness, a patience, genuine concern and interest in the exchange, and often a subtle ease to their kindness that let's me know that I'm in the presence of good, down home folk that I could mistake for my own.

So from here, and as this journey's end draws near, I'll be introducing you to the good people I've met along the way. From the McGrath's back in Seattle to the anonymous man who I think was the one that bought me dinner (and dessert) last night. They are good people that have supported my journey to make it across country and effort to help our wounded soldiers. They weren't afraid to talk, to ask questions, to take time out of their day...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Bike Tale from the Old Wild West...

In the small, Mingus Mountain mining town of Jerome, Arizona, I met a man by the name of John Dempsey - an old, but stone bold character. With piercing eyes and an index finger that felt like the dull, dead lead weight of a thud-blunt rail spike, he pointed into my chest, demanded complete attention, and with a low rumble drum baritone, began a Wild West bike tale from many years ago....

"This [pointing to my bike] will be the most important machine for the rest of your life. Never stop riding. It will keep your mind clear and sane; your senses sharp; your spirit strong and in touch with the world. [Looking out and down to the valley] You climbed up from Cottonwood?"

"Yes sir. Began the day in Cornville."

"Cornville?"

"Yep, Cornville."

"How was traffic?"

"Hectic, but they gave me space."

"Good. It's never been a great place for bikes. Now let me tell you what happened down there in 1954. Back then, I used to live near Cornville, but would ride my bike to work up here to the mines and back home. One afternoon when I was headed down, a man in a truck ran me off the road. If I hadn't seen him at the last second and bailed, he may have killed me. You figure he would have stopped to see if I was all right, but instead, he burnt a tire and rode away. The SOB didn't give a s***."

"Were you hurt?"

"No, I didn't break anything....was lucky. The bike was bent up pretty bad though. Once I drug it out of the draw, I walked it through town, passing the local watering hole where I saw his truck. There's the second mistake he made. It was at that point that I decided that I was going to teach this guy a lesson. I went straight home, got my 45, went back to the saloon where I found him. He musta been a barrel deep cause it wasn't much to sneak up behind him, grab his collar, and put my gun up against his throat. I told the bast*** that if he ever ran another bicyclist off the road again, I'd find him and kill him."

"Jeeezus!"

"Yeah, the barkeep told the sheriff, who then told the judge, but he knew I was from good people, and he let it go after a short talk. Just told me to go easy...that I shouldn't be threatening nobody like that."

"So maybe I should thank you for laying the law long ago in that town I just rode through...guess you instilled one heck of an ethic?"

"Well, you can't just let hateful idiots run reckless. There's consequences. I got my point across."

"I'd say so."

"Anyway, you're losing daylight. If you're trying to make the pass and get across Lonesome Valley, you better get going. Otherwise you'll have to dump off the side of the road up in the forest, which ain't bad, but you won't freeze as easily down near Prescott."

"Thank you Mr. Dempsey."

"Get on now."

Monday, November 9, 2009

This Veteran's Day

We live in a great country. A country whose greatness rests largely upon each citizen's upholding belief in ideals above and beyond their individual selves. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the primary ideals that represent the collective conceptual core of how we begin to define our America and ourselves as Americans. Few, if any other citizen exemplifies a full commitment to these ultimate ideals more so than our veterans.

Seven states and four thousand miles gone by, I've met dozens – each with stories or insights into a life of service for our country. From brief sidewalk conversations to gory details over dinners, there always seemed to be some reflective questioning and yet humble dignity etched within each discussion. Has there ever been a struggle in which all was left on the battlefield? The answer is quickly revealed within a vet's choice vocabulary, or sincere tear, but made quite obvious with sharp angle, no non-sense logic that cuts directly into the proverbial heart topic. Once we reach such tragic depths of the actual morbidness that can be found in a single moment's mortality (e.g. whether or not to try and save your brother soldier by dragging his half-alive-half-body out of crossfire) I have no frame of reference - no way of attempting to imagine that emotion or life-long impact.

Our veteran's are living history. There are many ways to honor their service and sacrifice, but what many seem to appreciate the most, is having someone that will take the time to sit down and simply listen. In west Texas, I met an incredible man and Vietnam veteran by the name of Rex who said, “...that I don’t think any of us (Veterans) are complaining, we all want to forget the dirty business of War....God bless you and take care of the flag, my old WWII buddy told me yesterday that most of the time, “it” (The UNITED STATES FLAG) was the only friend he had.” Find the time to seek out and talk to our nation's veterans.

Downtown Seattle - Day One of My Journey

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Sunrise, Another Tragedy, Another Chance to Question

Early this morning, from an upstairs bunkhouse in rural east Texas, the sun rose like it usually does. And for most of us, whether we traveled to work or pedaled along a highway, we went about another Thursday. A hundred miles to the northwest of the pasture shown here, the soldiers at Fort Hood did the same. But as you may have heard by now, a tragedy occurred. Condolences and prayers we extend to the family members, friends, and loved ones of those killed or wounded. At this point, there's nothing further to say.

Two days ago, I was intercepted by Eric Foltz - veteran and fellow cross country bike riding fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project. It's been great to have an experienced cyclist along the route to exchange stories, hear of different places, perspectives, and experiences, but it's been a privilege to have a guy that's spent time with the military, in Iraq among countless other places around the world (including Vieques, Puerto Rico). Together we caught the news this evening of what had transpired only miles away, our heads shaking in disbelief.

It's unfortunate that it often takes a tragedy for people to wake up again and begin asking serious questions: What is going on and why? What should be done? What could be done? What could I do? Well, as it should be in a free country, it's up to you. If you need an idea, come join us for a ride.

Rural Ranch Roads of Eastern Texas

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Space

With feet on the ground, looking around, and then a head tilt high towards endless sky, wild west Texas re-shapes spatial concepts. Where am I? What is all this? And what the hell is that out there? The Out There, and the thoughts and feelings that reciprocate between the unknowing mind and that of Mother Milky Way's.... On the edge of nothing except a suspended child-like wonder bliss veiled beneath an earth arch halo of galaxy particle mist stretching across infinite horizons that remind us how we're all caught in between, somehow loosely glued to this globe - gravity still a mystery. But we exist. And we earthlings have done much to explore those questions of what lies beyond - in part, as a way of explaining how we happen to reside on this planet we call home.

On far away hilltops within the Davis Mountains, the McDonald Observatory sits quietly, watching the night skies, tracking wobbly white dwarfs, mapping the expanding universe and probing for more clues to feed the data-intense research that helps fortify theories intended to unlock some of those mysteries. Observatories, like quiet sanctuaries, are special, and in their own way, personally sacred. A most remote location away from light pollution and home to critically crystal clear climate are the rare requisites. The domed structures themselves, admired for how they stand patient, with inquisitive poise, in somber silence, but perched perfectly content on peak pinnacles. A humble protrusion that houses incredible telescopic equipment and other tools of the trade, all acutely maintained by technicians so that the student-scientist-astronomer can continue their precision-based investigations. With the stars above, it seems to stand as a temple of science, a symbolic encapsulation of nature, mankind, and the pursuit to understand our universe and existence within it.

So yes indeed, Texas is big: big land, big sky, big space. There is little doubt that these environmental elements have greatly influenced such a proud but courteous culture that knows a thing or two about space, especially the kind of space we're most familiar with. I can say that the best drivers thus far have been right here in Texas, big trucks and all. I define "best" from the perspective of a guy riding a bike, which most often means the way we share space. I doubt that most of these motorists are familiar with the aerodynamics and turbulence that is felt on a bike from close, fast passing vehicles, but I believe that it is somehow related to the Texan recognition of space and their healthy respect of it in proper proportions.


Sharing the Road

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

America's Got Guns

The second amendment has never been of interest to me. Maybe because I've spent my time and money on different things, but throughout the west, from Montesano down to El Paso, people are talking guns. Conversations are typically one-sided, with me doing the listening, mainly because I'm not the most educated person when it comes down to the details of firearm classifications, permit regulations, inter-state laws, and even the nuts, bolts, and bullets of it all. At best, I recall shooting a couple dozen rounds with my cousin's 45 long ago, but that's about it.

Some people obviously have a major stake in this "debate", I seem to recall a talk with a specialty gun and ammo shop owner while in Delta, Utah. A mild-mannered, but slightly perturbed fellow that grew up in New York state for most of his life, but became disgruntled with the exceedingly restrictive gun laws that had been passed and therefore, relocated to Utah. In his words, "You can't even own a pellet gun in NY. I had to leave and find a free'er state. It's more free out here than back east." At his store, he carries a variety of firearms, including AK-47s, M-16s, and other serious weapons whose names and numbers I don't remember. Besides the small amount he earns mining for gold and silver along the Nevada border, his store is the primary source of income, so I can see how this man was emotionally moved about the issue. When asked why he just didn't sell regular guns, he said that "there's a market out there for his prodect and he's always been interested in 'specialty' firearms."

Of slightly different opinion was a historian I met in Salt Lake. He said that if you look back to the early documents, congressional letters, and notes during the time of the constitution's writing, the authors had intended for each community to have its firearms centrally stockpiled in one or several different places around the municipality with trusted keepers that were always ready to open and distribute in the event of an invasion. I didn't press the question of whether or not this included all guns, but thought about this setup similarity to the Pearl Harbor arrangement mistakes. Clearly some drawbacks with this strategy it seemed.

After all the talk and considerations, it seems a basic shared fact that no one, no matter what type of gun, wants them in the hands of people that shouldn't have them. How this is determined (beyond criminal record checks, handling and safety classes, etc) is of course an issue itself. But it seems logical that an individual must prove him or herself responsible - just like driving an automobile (which is something else that we kill each other with far too frequently). Simply being born in America is, in itself, an insufficient qualification. Just as there are people on the road that shouldn't be driving, there are people that have guns that shouldn't (although some firearm related crime statistics show improvement with respect to this). As always, it's impossible to overstate the role and influence of responsible parents in the home - where it all starts.

Because I want to avoid a long rambling gun manifesto, I'll finish this post with a list of half-random, but still relative opinions or points I have formed of guns over the journey, but will first say that I believe if you prove yourself responsible, then you can rightfully own a gun - hunting rifles seem to make the most sense....the type of gun.....so many 'ifs' with this topic...
  • Automatic weapons are designed for killing humans, not food. I see no point in my fellow neighbor owning one (or several) of these. Although, if Al Queda, local crazies, or someone else invades my neighborhood, then my neighbor is probably more equipped to fight back. If Al Queda has penetrated my neighborhood, then I would assume this country is in far deeper trouble, but the fact still holds that your neighbor can fire more bullets faster. The military seems the best option for people with these desires.
  • Hand guns are somewhat ambiguous, though concealed handguns, or any concealed firearm sketches me out because you don't know who's packing. And because you don't know, you are not able to decide for yourself the safety of a situation. I've got buddies that I trust to shoot an apple off my shoulder, but would pass on going to parties or other gatherings where people are packing pistols. Again, this goes back to the fact that some people simply should not have a gun - especially in a crowd or around other humans. Ask any police officer how intensive, repetitious, and meticulous their training is for the proper handling of situations requiring the use of firearms in a crowd.
  • People with guns are better prepared if the economy tanks, the world turns upside down, chaos reigns, or catastrophic disease, plague, and famine wipes away half of us and our cows. Protection and protein.
  • Marksmanship is an admirable skill. Some styles of hunting a respectable sport - archery topping that list with little contention.
  • Profit margins increase for gun and ammo manufacturers during panic purchasing sprees. It's difficult to discern the degree to which they actively encourage such consumer irrationality.
  • "Obama's gonna take your guns away." Children watch better cartoons.
  • The time I spent the night in a small church in rural Oregon, the town mayor was teaching a youth group (children between nine and twelve years old) gun safety, laws of firearms, basic outdoor survival, what to do in an emergency, etc. With real guns and ammo on the table, the kids (and I) listened and learned. No fluff - all real and seriously respected, the way it supposed to be.
  • My last night in Utah, I caught the local news, and the sad story of a mother in a nearby town that had accidentally dropped her hand gun, it fired, and killed her.
  • I need to learn to hunt.


Baker City Boys Got You Spotted

In my approach to the city of El Paso, not one positive word was spoken to me about the place as it was likened to a "dirty snake pit" and "roaches crawling over each other". People thinking I was crazy for not having a gun. Once I get to El Paso, I actually discover a clean downtown with friendly people and a statement from the FBI about how El Paso is the third safest city in the US. Too bad this town has a bad rap.

As for La Cuidad de Juarez on the other side, that's a different story, but I haven't been there to attest.....which is not to say you have to go to speak on it, but I'll reserve any bold opinions knowing what little I do.

I do know that it feels good to be in Texas.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Up in the Pines...thinking about Carolina...

The southwest is blessed with dramatic landscapes that can often change drastically with elevation. Despite the beauty of deep, colorful canyons, red wall mesas, or the bulging barrel cactus whose silhouette stands still and silent across the flat desert sunset, one of my favorite features is how forests of ponderosa pines thrive up in the Arizona and New Mexico mountains once you climb above 7000-ft. It's simply amazing how quickly the transition from the openness of low-lying desert sand and shrub grows into hundreds of high pines with their protective canopy and glistening gold needle beds below.

For a North Carolina boy, you're home again. Somehow, someway, 8000-ft up and 3000 miles away, home....or at least, thinking of home. Never mind the near freezing morning temperatures, or solitude I had in that closed-for-winter county park outside Flagstaff - I had friends again. Now I didn't go so far as to hug the sappy suckers, but I did lie down with their comforting presence, look up, close eyes and smell the wonderful pine, all reminding me of a past, a past that I share with many of you, and hopefully, a not too distant future, one where we will see each other again soon: maybe lounging down by our lazy Lumber River, or walking and talking smack along the wood-lined railroad tracks, or even driving the Roads of Freedom far beyond Forest Acres...

Here I sit in Silver City, a place maybe halfway through this journey. Still so much to look forward to, although there are times where I must exercise the virtue of patience. I will most likely miss sharing the Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family, but should surely be back when we all reconvene for Christmas. Just a passing moment in time up in these pines, thinking about back home in Carolina.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dogs

Been dog-tired, but you can always talk about dogs because they're everywhere: drive-by barking from windows, through fences, or from tree chains; they scurry free scratching shop floors and coffee cafes, they're rummaging trash cans and prancing at the ends of decorative leashes, lounging on furniture (including beds), and they're chasing some cars, and definitely cyclists. I like some big dogs, far fewer little ones. No matter how big or small, the right pouch of my handle bar bag has been a dedicated pepper spray and knife holster for any bold enough to bite on the run. Fortunately, I've yet to meet a dog that brave, or stupid. But I've met many a road running canine of varying size, with varying speed, in various numbers that I have either out-pedaled or barked away myself. And like most things in life, when you bark, you have to mean it. Usually, all it takes is one good growl. But anything short of pure primal, and the dog will sense your weakness as quickly and instinctively as a woman knows when a man is unsure.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

National Park Roundup

The southwest is blessed with numerous national parks, monuments, preserves, and other geologic anomalies that could keep the scientists and curious outdoorsmen occupied for several lifetimes. I had the privilege to see and experience three of the best. I'll keep this brief, as most travel logs are boring. Good photos and a few words of highlight are the only two ingredients you need to stir interest. All that's left to do is go there yourself because few pictures, and even fewer words, if any, do them (or you) justice. Click images for more.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon was the first of the big three, and I had the good fortune of staying with a wonderful family in Cedar City, Utah that was up for using me as the perfect excuse for a road trip. If it wasn't for them, I would have missed this amazing place since it was well off my route. Just a quick note, after riding a bike for a couple of thousand miles, then hopping in a car is a fantastically new experience - you get to relax, as the world moves fast. Sip a drink, gobble some candy, crank some music, or even pop in a movie! Plenty of fun over the 90 minutes that seemed like ten. By the way, if you ever get tired of hearing little Bart in the back asking "are we there yet", try sticking him on a bike for a few weeks....., it's worked for my misplaced impatience. Anyway, when you walk up to Sunset Point and look down into Bryce Canyon for the first time, you're on a different planet. As if the car ride wasn't an instant enough transport; the pinks, oranges, reds, and peachy whites that color the craziest formations of hoodoos, spires, bridges, and walls all just blow you away. You look down into the endless labyrinth and ponder a playwright's playful pen, his favorite cast of characters laughingly lost until tides turn lunatic after months meandering amongst this maddening maze. I know some people that I'd copter-drop and spin blind-folded down there...

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon....one seriously massive hole in the ground. Not as bitingly striking or freakish as Bryce Canyon, but its swallowing colossal enormity is unparalleled. For me, the most moving aspect of the canyon is its unpredictable first-site sneakiness: for forty-four miles you're rolling along mild, gold grass covered limestone bed meadows, sneak-about forest terrain, and happy aspen groves without the slightest hint of what lies ahead. Then, in an instant, it begins strobing behind narrowing rows of tree trunks, and then the curtain lifts quick to reveal what still seems myth. You can keep staring, but, it's not quite possible to see it for what it really is. In a way, you have to open up to feel it, so to closer approach partial knowing. You sit in simple observation, breathing fresh west canyon air, realizing how it releases, then simultaneously creates a time-over-vast-space continuum like no visual other. And with this display of time, unsealed becomes our day-to-day conscience that normally bottles our sense of humanly finitude within a micro-blip existence against this most magnificent God carving; wind and water his paintbrush; erosion his slow stroke of genius. From divine touch, a palette of earth colors opens the casket for ages once lost, and enshrines gravity - an ultimate invisible force, and source of cause for it all.

It was also great talking with this guy that believed the earth was due to flip the year 2012 and that shape-shifting aliens were living among us, but these aliens are choosing to remain unintrusive out of their fear for our great cognitive power potential. More on that later....or maybe not.

Zion National Park

Zion, my favorite of the three. It's name hints mystery and yet evokes a humbling greatness. The early Mormon explorers expressed how there existed no humanly constructed temple that could match this sanctuary and its magically embedded essence that primes a man's propensity to move deeper within these narrowing walls, and intimately closer with his Creator. This is beyond poor comparisons such as the red rock Yosemite equivalent - this canyon swallows your soul whole. In the above photograph, a summit approach view from Angel's Landing, looking out to the mouth purging sacred earth mecca. Plenty mecca muck from canyon sludge mudd and dust from a day that blazed a range of heights seen above to The Narrows inner belly below. Such a fantastic filth it was. And then, in Zion's Virgin River, I bathed it all away.

I also got a hitch through the Zion Tunnel, since cyclists are not allowed to make it on their own power. Hanging with the ranger it wasn't long before I saw Paul pull up in a small white pickup loaded with firewood and his own bike. No other possible way to ride but pile it on, and pile it on we did. Literally laid my bike and bags on top of his wood and bike, and then plopped myself atop it all. Not the safest ride, but that's why you've got hands.

A quick thanks to Paul. Once through the tunnel, we hung out and talked for half an hour about scampering up these slopes, climbing local crags, bikes, life, music, etc. This guy was ripped strong and looked twenty years younger than his true mid-fifties age. He gifted four apples and a cold beer on the spot before moving on. Paul was awesome. Tunnel exit video below.

video

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Learning When to Say When with the Wind

When you awake to your tent shaking and quaking, well, depending on which direction you're riding, that's usually the first clue that it might be a tough day with the wind. And seldom does it seem that you're riding in the right direction, as even on the lucky days that the tailwind might boost from the back, rarely do you or the wind dance directionally step for step for the whole day's distance. Whether it's the curvy scenic byway or shifty whip twisting canyon eddies - you'll have to feel and deal at some point or another. In most parts of the world, the morning hours are typically more calm, so it's often safe to assume that conditions will worsen unless it's a quick passing front that clean-sweeps through to restore the peace.

Then there's the weather man that issues the high wind advisory warnings, and the locals that might listen to him and add their angle. Such a good thing to talk about the weather, because it often leads to unexpected, but useful rambles of topographical variation, vegetation changes, and injections of personal opinion from their long-lived historical homeland experience. Usually the locals are the only ones that can tell you about that 9-mile stretch ahead where the scrub brush thins and the dusty desert dunes creep closely nigh the highway side. Take that as another caution for your upcoming ride unless you enjoy the exfoliating facial sting from searing cross-winds that send sand blasts to your inner ear cavity. Hopefully you've recently washed the snot out of the old blue bandanna that flaps strapped to the back rack.

There were some difficult stretches getting out of southern Idaho, and Utah overall was calm or bearable. But ever since crossing into Arizona, it has been an outright battle. The headwinds and some 50mph gusts were so strong getting into the Grand Canyon's north rim, that I would have taken an alternate route if it hadn't been for the fact that it was THE Grand Canyon that sat patient in wait. [See videos below] The strain stopped me 15 miles short and delayed my arrival by half a day, but after yesterday's windstorm, I look back and consider that pain as a piece of cake....Fore it was yesterday, that it finally happened... after 2,200 miles of mostly agreeable weather, Mother Nature decided to show me a cyclist's limitations. With 53 miles and 3,000 vertical feet remaining up to Flagstaff, the winds came roaring from the south across the Navajo Reservation - grinding me down to a shift click away from the granny gear on nearly no grade. Fortunately, I was able to make it ten miles up to Grays Mountain and out of the sandstorm behind me. The hill top cross roads offered a single gas station and restaurant that served tasty fry bread Navajo tacos - all that's needed to seek refuge, assess the situation, and submit to the unrelenting wind power. Submit, as in having to find a willing soul to give a stranded biker a hitch into Flagstaff.

After nearly three hours of watching cars go whizzing by in the opposite direction through the distant sandstorm, I finally met a man named Elijah who was riding solo on an afternoon day trip to the Grand Canyon and then back to handle business in Phoenix. Born in southern Missouri, Elijah stood tall and strong, seemingly unmoved, unflinched against the dusty gale's intermittent force. As we loaded the car, he took notice of my sticker tattered panniers and mentioned how he had just returned from an 11-month deployment in Iraq. During what was probably the most relieving 40-mile car ride of my life, Elijah spoke candidly of his experiences in Iraq, of his team's efforts to improve relations and security with the Iraqi people, as well as the attitudes and perspectives that we have of the war back here in America. His word and message were clear, concise, at times eloquent, and he wasted little in getting to the crux of the subject.

I liked this man. He emphasized the ultimate goal of working to teach and enable the Iraqi forces and people so that they could be free and independent, having the stability and chance to live a life of opportunity without fear.... The conversation touched on several other topics before reaching downtown and the public library where he dropped me off. We shook hands, exchanged final words, and then he drove away. So reassuring to personally meet and talk with men of clear vision, strong character, and know that we have great leaders out there. Thanks again Elijah.

Two videos of my windy approach to the Grand Canyon's north rim. Ah the wind...

Tough Going

video
Made it!
video

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ex-POWs, Couch Pillows & Twinkies

Most Americans are soft - including me. I should drop right now and do a hundred on the dirt, but I'll finish writing first. Too much skin lotion, political correctness, warm water, protectionism, plastic playgrounds, and electron dependencies. We weren't always like this, it's been a gradual softening throughout history, but now just at an accelerated rate it seems over the past half century.

During my visit to the VA hospital in Boise, ID, they informed me that the National Convention of Ex-POWs was being held three miles uptown and that a presentation was scheduled that afternoon. The speaker was a long-time doctor of the local VA medical center that specialized in post-traumatic stress and he's been working with patients since World War II. I was half the age of the next youngest person in the room, which was a former Vietnam veteran. The doctor gave an excellent presentation that touched on various aspects of the topic, "Forces of Resiliency and Surviving" - basically research and studies in the qualities and characteristics of former POWs that possessed (or didn't) the resiliency of not only surviving torture and harsh imprisonment, but also the ability to overcome the lingering symptoms of PTS.

The characteristics found most common in resilient soldiers were: optimism, developed cognitive flexibility, having a moral compass, or what some might call, "shatter-proof" beliefs, altruism, being adept at facing fears, active coping skills, maintaining social relationships, keeping fit, and most had found a mentor, hero, or role model in life. Similar results were found in other studies done with disadvantaged children.

The personal stories told during the Q&A that followed were gut-wrenching at times: endless marches between German war camps, sickness, starvation, and one story of a man captured in the Korean War who spent eleven months in solitary confinement. Stories of dire conditions told by real men that had directly endured such experiences was profoundly humbling. Those former POWs ended the session with words of advice for our injured soldiers returning from war as well as their families and fellow citizens supporting their return: listen to your family, don't drink and drug, and therapy works.

So en light of this, it's hard not to wince when the experts via the media or the president compare the current economic recession to that of the Great Depression and so many other stories of middle-class crunch, cut backs, financial adjustments, or "lifestyle changes". Pity us! Recessions are a part of living - we create them, then we figure our way out of them until enough time passes, that we forget and make a new one with its own unique, knuckle ball elements. Hopefully they won't include the long food lines, unemployment, or stiff conditions that existed nearly 80 years ago.

Relatively speaking, yes, the bad stats are up, we are having to make changes, take new perspectives, and "toughen up" 2009-style, but take a second to look around and you'll see cars buzzing and grocery stores abundant (more on grocery stores later). Take a second to think, or try and think of another's circumstance, whether he or she is a soldier returned from war or someone you see that's honestly struggling to get by. Help them with their bootstraps while tightening your own.

Maybe technology brings teleportation and a few other toys that read your mind to increase your efficiency or ease your burdens, but really, it's hard to imagine a life of greater convenience than we already have.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Early Reflections on the Great Northwest

The Great American Northwest! It doesn't take long to exhaust one's personal arsenal of adjectives when describing this land, the people and such incredible diversity of climate, geology, or culture. With the exception of warm ocean water, the region is blessed with an intense richness beyond the far fathoms of a wild dreamer's imagination. For the first white Americans, the northwest certainly began as a dream. In blazing the early paths into an untamed, rugged, and truly wild west, those early settlers left a richness that colors our history and will forever define the core legacy of America's pioneering spirit.

Long before the 19th century began, the Shoshone warriors were some of the first tribes believed to have inhabited the land. Among all the Native American tribes, the Shoshone were considered to be some of the toughest and most skilled - possessing advanced tactics whether it was in battle or trade strategies. Many of the region's historians note that the northwest territory would have been much more difficult to settle if the tribes hadn't fought amongst themselves as much as they did.

Eventually, there came the mountain men, pioneers, and trappers in trade of beaver pelts and other hides. Gold was soon discovered in many of those same streams and gulches - igniting a national excitement whereby the mid-1800s, Americans began feverishly pushing west to the land of Oregon, a land of absolute freedom and free to claim, a land of milk and honey, a land of manifest destiny.... Despite one in ten dying along the way, the idea bubbled beyond biblical proportions, far flung fantasies, and exaggerated claims that electrified the atmosphere and buzzed across newly strung telegraph lines. "...there was a species of madness among us...", described a frontiersman at the height of the frenzy.

Well, so goes my super-condensed history of the early settlement era in the northwest... It's difficult to resist after a visit to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside of Baker City and the countless other museums, cultural centers, historical landmarks, and most importantly, the story-telling old-timers (pardon the pun) that have intrigued my interests along the way.... but really, history is impossible to ignore when attempting to connect the dots of our days, because drawing lines that start with an awareness of our past, ultimately allows us to shed a bit of ignorance and realistically face the future better informed. I'll try to come back later and wrap this point.

Fast forward to today and there's a lot to be said about "the northwest life". I could numb fingers on keyboards all day, but as most residents would tell you, it's one of those things you just have to experience in order to fully grasp. Not withstanding, I'll proceed with two years of mid-twenties fast-paced living and a bike tour under my belt as sufficient credentials to convey (or at least intend to convey) a valid impression.

If you want ocean, marsh, swamp, pond, lakes, rivers, rapids, streams, creeks, cascading waterfalls, scree, talus, snow, ice, glacier, active volcanic peaks, lava rock, scrub, sand, canyon lands, then you can find them all moving west to east between the perpetually misty mank cloud coastal harbors and sunny dry desert star dust.

If you enjoy Kenyan cuisine or Japanese sushi, Korean BBQ or hearty stews, incredibly fresh caught seafood or the world's finest brews, then you will find an unmatched global platter of culinary creation at its absolute best. Whether you're a green bean vegan or bloody rare carnivore, you can not only exist, but thrive off of the healthiest locally grown cornucopia that undoubtedly includes organically grown fresh produce, but arguably the most supreme grade A+ beef to roam the land. It would be difficult to match the happiness and health of the Oregonian cow. The food alone is reason enough to live here.

If you prefer to associate with the farmer Joe's or coffee shop Shmoe's, then you can find them and all their third cousins and cool kid friends in between e.g. abolitionists, separatists, hard-core libertarians, neo-cons, old-fashioned traditional trustworthy conservatives, salt of the earth farmers with more intimacy and soil soul than Loa Tzu, true cowboys, true big man ranchers, small farm self-sustainers, hill billies, hermits, rednecks, renegade rednecks, silver spoon jacked-up truck daddy boy rednecks, simple people, good simple people, good honest people, good honest hardworking people, striving renaissance men, yogis, weekend warriors, sci-fi computer game techno geeks, cool geeks, reclusive geeks, super moms, super 80-hr family negligent life dedicated worker dad, slackers, system-drag-down slackers, active-aware suburbanites, common suburbanites, oblivious suburbanites, aware-but-don't care suburbanites, hypocrites, NIMBY-liberals, weirdo, wacko, emo, goth, snob, radicals, free radicals, deconstructionists, tree huggers, other separatists and other abolitionists (that claim difference but really the same as those first mentioned, just a change of clothing and music preferences), etc, etc, etc. If we could only remember that we are all God's children.....

If you want adventure, recreation, sporting, or pursuit of the extreme -once again, it's here. But sparing another agonizing non-comprehensive list, it is quite possible to immediately detect the presence of a northwest outdoorsman by the content of conversation with respect to his or her exploits with nature. Specifically, it becomes most apparent with a sometimes extensive knowledge of snow and avalanche conditions, or maybe the preceding mountain cloud formation weather warnings to incoming warm and cold fronts, or you know for sure, and it is most blatantly displayed in a detailed description to some special ski expedition of dropping from helicopter into wild back country slopes to cut fresh new lines atop untouched hoarfrost that has the unforgettable euphoric feel and sound of a continuous champagne glass shattering with each clean turn taken en route to a warm lodge and rosy cheeks of the apris ski.

It seems to be an amalgamation of various elements herein that constitute one of several possible, but all distinctive modes of northwest living. It's a way of life, a way of spirit that infects and is then perpetuated by its inhabitants. Although I have neglected to mention much about the arts, the presence of that northwest soul is pervasive in much of the region's music, craft, and canvass. It doesn't have its own genre and it's not quite a style, but you feel it, and know it's there. It could be a mid-90s Modest Mouse sound of slight spooky strange sadness that sings from your speakers while simultaneously sending imagery of a winter's drive beside icey cascade skylines that echo frozen during the frigid dark dampness of January...or a smirky Seattle sarcasm that happily radiates with the bi-polar painful hide-n-seek sun dance of June just to name a few.....it's hard to overstate the affect that northwest nature and climate has in carving the culture. Summers are often breif, but they perform the most dramatic tranformative magic when illuminating the land and enlivening the (west of the Cascade) people from a nine-month shroud of clouds. The option to flee east of the range for the vinyards, orchards, and dry desert sun relief is always an option that many take advantage of. But such unforgiving juxtaposition and sharp contrast creates surprising results - bringing out the best and worst in people...whether reflected in the bliss had upon the alpenglow summits or steel cold ice axe attitude of the tired and hungry bivouaced mountaineer. Or revealed through closed closet creations of all the diligent mad scientists and starving artists that somehow harvest that gloomy cloud power to focus and forge their genius and authenticity.

That "spirit", a pioneering spirit evolved, seems to have begun with those early settlers, and has since seeped permanently into the rock, infiltrated the water, and permeated the air that blows between mountain passes, across prairies or urban avenues. Maybe since there is no more territory or "physical" west existing to explore, that the new frontiers are of imagination, mind-body, body-mind and the never ending pursuit to push boundaries further into those realms be it artistic, technological, personal fitness, or the ultimate game to juggle them all....a game so many here are determined to win.

Just some early thoughts to let loose before pedaling further away....