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.

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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

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Made it!
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