Missoula to St. Louis in 1897

April 22, 2014

Sorensen-Iron RidersOn June 14, 1897, the bicycle corps of the Twenty-fifth Infantry, U.S.A., left Fort Missoula, Montana, headed for St. Louis, Missouri. They completed their journey, 1,900 miles in length, on July 24. On the 34 days they bicycled, they averaged 6.3 mph and 55.9 miles per day.

The contingent consisted of 20 enlisted men, all black soldiers who were often referred to as buffalo soldiers. Two white men were also members of the contingent: Lieutenant James Moss, who commanded the unit, and Assistant Surgeon J. M. Kennedy.

The cyclists were self-contained. Each man travelled with a knapsack, bedroll, and tent half strapped to his handlebars. Food supplies were carried in a narrow canvas luggage case suspended in the main triangle of the bike. Each man carried a rifle strapped to his back. The riders averaged 148.5 pounds per cyclist and the weight of the parked bicycles ranged from 67 to 86 pounds.

The purpose of the trip was to demonstrate the suitability of bicycles for military use. Lieutenant Moss and others who supported the trip were convinced that travel by bicycle was faster than walking and better than traveling as mounted cavalry.

This historic cycling enterprise is the featured article in Adventure Cyclist for May 2011, an issue that focuses attention upon “bicycling’s grand past,” to use a phrase in editor Michael Deme’s column. It was written by Dan D’Ambrosio and includes several photographs taken during the journey and a beautifully rendered map.

The first part of D’Ambrosio’s article describes a redoing of the historic ride in 1974 under the auspices of the African-American studies program at the University of Montana in Missoula. When this program was established in 1968 by Professor Ulysses Doss, it was one of only three in the nation. Among the riders on this renewal of the grand trip were students Marian Martin and Pferron Doss. D’Ambrosio recounts what these two student cyclists have done in later years.

He also tells of the strong interest of Mike Higgins, a middle-school teacher in Deaver, Wyoming, north of Cody. After spending five years researching the 1897 ride and route, Higgins decided to ride it himself. He made his first effort in 2009, a solo venture, but encountered snow and other trials of the road, including times when he was “practically hypothermic.” In Livingston, he abandoned the ride.

The next summer, with his 74-year-old mother driving his truck to provide support, he tried a second time, and was successful, completing the ride in 28 days. He was also able, with the truck, to take side trips in order to do further research on the ride.

In order to publish the materials he is discovering about this episode in cycling history, Higgins maintains a blog, www.bicyclecorps.blogspot.com. Although I have accessed the blog, I have not yet read the extensive body of material that he has gleaned from his studies.

My main source of information is a book by George Niels Sorensen entitled Iron Riders: Story of the 1890s Fort Missoula Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corps (Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2000). I bought my copy at the Buffalo Soldiers Museum on my recent trip through Fort Huachuca during PAC Tour’s Desert Camp 2014. D’Ambrosio also draws upon this book for the latter part of his article in Adventure Cyclist. Several aspects of the story are especially interesting to me.

First, the zeal with which Lieutenant Moss and a few others in the military approached this matter of using bicycles for military purposes. Along with this attitude was their determination to replicate military discipline even though soldiers were on bicycles trying to ride in primitive conditions.

Second, the imaginative way that they carried their gear. As one who has always valued traveling with minimal gear and equipment, I am very much impressed by the compactness of these bicycle travelers. Much of the credit goes to Lieutenant Moss who was meticulous in his planning and disciplined in his command of the unit.

He explained to a reporter how they carried the food. “The bacon was cut into small chunks and wrapped in cloth. The coffee, sugar, and flour was carried in rubber cloth bags, about 18 inches by 5 inches. All the rations, together with the knife, fork, spoon, and tin plate were carried in the frame cases. The tin cup was fastened either under the seat of the saddle, or on top the blanket roll.”

Third, the seriousness of the soldiers’ engagement in this arduous, dangerous, previously untried mode of travel.

Fourth, the durability of their bicycles despite the loads they carried, the primitive condition of the roads and trails on which they traveled, and the early stages of development of their elegant machines. I am astounded by the fact that that tires, as primitive as they were at that time, were as serviceable as they were.

Virtual Ride # 1: One of my daydreams is to ride this route myself. Realism leads me to doubt that the occasion will arise, which means that I’m registering the Buffalo Soldiers Route in my book of Virtual Rides—bike rides I can do in my imagination even if I never get them done in real time. Read the rest of this entry »

What Jesus did in Jerusalem and why it matters now

April 14, 2014

A Compelling Story for Life in the World Today

During the week from Palm Sunday to Easter, Christians remember the tragic conclusion of Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and transformation of economic and political systems. Part of the process of remembering is interpreting the meaning of those events. Why did they happen the way they did? How was God involved? What do they mean for us today?

In the technical language of the church, two doctrines are intertwined: incarnation, which is the effort to describe how Jesus of Nazareth and the One Eternal God are related; and atonement, which explains how the death of Jesus leads to a new mode of reconciliation between God and all humanity, including all of us who are asking the questions.

My struggle with these issues was partially resolved early in my ministry when I first read God Was in Christ, a book by Scottish theologian D. M. Baillie. In 2010, I reread this book and wrote a review essay, which can be accessed on this blog in the department entitled “Writings on Religion.” The conclusion to the paper is printed below.

“The intertwining doctrines of incarnation and atonement are the plot for a coherent story of reality, a story that has for two thousand years nurtured the life of Christians. The questions that many Christians are asking today, especially in traditionally liberal churches, is whether this story still makes sense and, if it does, how should it enter into the worship, ministry, and mission of their churches. My answers are based on five observations about the experience of people today.

“First, we often fail to live up to our own standards for the good life. While these failures are our own fault, we recognize that the causes also extend beyond ourselves. A network of destructive influences and powers exists in the world over which we have no control and which often incorporates us in actions that we seem unable to resist. Furthermore, our own actions become part of that network and even without our knowing it they may contribute to the downfall of others.

“Second, no matter hard we try, we can never do a complete makeover of our own lives. Even if we could fix our own misdoing, we cannot undo the negative effects our actions have upon others.

“Third, our sense of well being depends upon the deeply engrained conviction that at its core the world—and our life within it—is fundamentally good, that the evil surrounding us finally is the lesser of the powers and will disappear in the face of the fundamental goodness of reality.

“Fourth, this conviction defies the empirical evidence given by history and science. It can only be described in the aesthetic language of story, a story like the one that Christians tell about the God who comes to us in the humble Nazarene, the archetypal human being who willingly went to his death because he was the friend of people like ourselves, and who by the power that comes from above overcomes all the power of evil, especially death.

“Fifth, in order to live a good life—a life marked by a proper sense of our own moral weakness and the confidence that despite this weakness we are part of that which is fundamentally good—we need to live in community with others who share this dual sense of life and who keep this story alive.

“These five observations lead (as readers might expect) to the conclusion that the central Christian story continues to provide a compelling narrative for life in traditionally liberal churches. It is a story to be proclaimed from pulpits, sung when people of faith come together, portrayed in the rituals that comprise their life together and inspire them to live in a similar way in the world.

“The conclusion that this central narrative makes sense for people today does not mean that all aspects of the surrounding structure of story, song, morality, and doctrine deserve that same respect. Theological discernment and aesthetic sensitivity need to be exercised in order to separate extraneous detail and contradictory elements. When we understand that this story transcends historical patterns of speech, we may well conclude that even some of the peripheral elements can stay in place.

“While the Christian story that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self is not the only compelling master narrative that people of our time can affirm, it properly continues to claim the allegiance of thoughtful, conscientious people of the modern world.” Read the entire essay. . . Rereading Baillie


Biking the Columbia River Levee, Hurricane Katrina, and the Vanport Flood

April 9, 2014

Keith Watkins:

In February 2013, I posted a blog about the precarious condition of the levee along the south bank of the Columbia River, using a photo I had taken on one of my bike rides along the bike trail. With my permission, a Portland newsweekly, Willamette Week, has used that photo with an online article about the difficulties that are likely to be encountered in finding funds to repair the levee. I am reposting my blog from last year.

Originally posted on Keith Watkins Historian:

Columbia River Levee

My Monday bike ride includes ten miles along the Columbia River Levee. For part of the distance the wide, paved bike trail runs between the levee and the riprap-protected riverbank. Other sections of the trail take cyclists, runners, walkers, and skaters on top of the dike. At other places, the trail is on the town side, with cyclists using the shoulder of Marine Drive, a heavily traveled industrial arterial.

The river is broad; Mt Hood dominates the eastern horizon, and much of the trail is a tranquil route where cyclists can ride as fast or as leisurely as they desire.

An article by Steve Law in this week’s Portland Tribune has reminded me of the fragility of things that seem to be built for the ages. One of the vivid memories of my adolescent years was a Friday afternoon in mid May 1948. I was running the mile on…

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Arid Lands and the Desert Southwest

April 7, 2014

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell (Part Two of a Review Essay)

The book we know by the title Arid Lands was initially offered as an extended report to the United States Congress by a Washington scientist-bureaucrat, to use the term suggested by John Vernon in his foreword to the 2004 edition published by the University of Nebraska Press. In addition to the historical and descriptive chapters that Powell wrote, the report included chapters written by Willis Drummond Jr., C. E. Dutton, A. H. Thompson, and G. K. Gilbert, and the drafts of two bills proposed to Congress.

Powell, however, was both the major contributor and the guiding spirit for the entire document. The Arid Lands report is a comprehensive document that is 195 pages long in the current edition. Six features indicate the character of the book.

First, Arid Lands is grounded in experiential understanding of the vast region that it describes. Powell had been there for extended periods of time and in ways that forced him to reckon with the grandeur and challenge of the desert Southwest.

Bicyclists, of course, experience the sun, heat, and dryness in various seasons of the year and have some sense of the constancy of risk when dealing with the desert in a relatively unprotected way. Powell’s experience, however, was prior to the development of the systems of civilization that have been developed during the past century and a half. His boat trips through the Grand Canyon and along other desert rivers exposed him to peril far beyond any that cyclists today are likely to encounter. The book conveys this sense of realism.

Second, this experiential understanding is explained and interpreted by means of a large body of technical data about temperatures, rainfall, water levels in rivers and lakes, and other aspects of the geographical and climatological facts of the land. Although the body of information was not yet complete, which was one of the reasons Powell was asking for Congress’ continuing support, the data already collected were comprehensive and well organized so that reliable conclusions could be drawn about the entire sub-humid and arid region of the United States.

Third, Powell was willing to consider varied theories under discussion and to evaluate them on the basis of the data in hand and by careful evaluation of strengths and weaknesses. One example is the extended discussion of the rising level of the Great Salt Lake in one of the chapters by G. K. Gilbert. Before reaching his own conclusion, Powell had considered two other explanations, the volcanic theory and the climatic theory. Powell’s conclusion was that “the phenomena are to be ascribed to the modification of the surface of the earth by the agency of man” (84).

Fourth, Powell was committed to central principles of the American democratic system, but he was ready to redesign the economic and organizational systems so that people could live in freedom and with a way of life that was suitable to where they lived and the limits placed by climate and other natural factors.

Many of the systems that encouraged Jefferson’s yeoman farmers were designed to meet the reality of life in temperate, wet climates. They could not be transferred straight across to hot, dry climates. This Powell understood. He proposed his own ideas about social organization and tried to bring about legislation that would have established new and workable systems for the kind of world he was describing.

Fifth, some of Powell’s ideas are questionable. His attitudes toward Native Americans are demeaning and fail to acknowledge their rightful claims to the land. Although he recognized the importance of fire in regard to the patterns of grass and forests, his understanding of this aspect of the drought-flood-fire trilogy was deficient. Powell believed that cooperative efforts were necessary in order to develop the irrigation systems that the arid lands would require, but he mistakenly thought that they could be developed by local forces, such as under the Mormons in Utah. He failed to understand how important federal agencies would be.

Sixth, Powell can properly called a conservationist. He was an exemplar of one type: the person who is committed to the realistic and sustainable utilization of the geographical and climatic resources of a region. Here he stands as an interesting contrast with a second type of conservationist, with his contemporary John Muir as exemplar.

Muir’s interest was the preservation of natural lands in their existing condition, which is one of the reasons that the nation’s system of national parks can be understood as a testimony to his conservationist ideas.

The similarities and contrasts of these towering figures of the nineteenth century have been succinctly stated by Donald Worster in a lecture published in 2003 (“Encountering Mormon Country: John Wesley Powell, John Muir, and the Nature of Utah”; more on this essay another time). For now, it is enough to recommend Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell. The book deserves continued reading and discussion.

John Wesley Powell’s “Arid Lands”

April 4, 2014

 Note to my readers: My blogs about cycling often include posts related to water-related issues in places where I ride and theological-ethical issues related to water use around the world. More and more I am anxious because of the challenges all citizens of the world face with respect to water.

Therefore, I am adding a new page to keithwatkinshistorian. Although my primary interests for the blog will continue to be American Religion and Open Road Bicycling, I plan to post more frequent essays related to Water. This new category is being inaugurated by a review essay prompted by  John Wesley Powell’s historic book Arid Lands, first published in 1878.

Arid Lands, by John Wesley Powell, edited by Wallace Stegner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell

This book was first published in 1878 under the title Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. Powell was 44 years of age, a veteran of the Civil War, and already known as an explorer of the arid regions that the report described.

His celebrated trip through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River had taken place nine years earlier (1869), and since 1870 he had been in charge of the newly established Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region.

Powell’s decision to release the report when he did was influenced by the political situation at the time. Government officials and members of Congress were rushing toward significant settlements across the West despite the warnings by Powell and others. Funding for the agencies and studies in which Powell was engaged was under threat, and he was convinced that he had to act quickly in order to protect these funds and keep the research going forward. He believed that the already existing body of information supported the cautious approach to settlement that he was advocating.

He decided that it was possible to draw conclusions about possibilities and limits on the basis of what already was known, although further investigation would strengthen the factual basis for policies that he hoped would be put into place. In his introduction to the 2004 edition of Powell’s classic book, Wallace Stegner describes Powell’s endeavor in striking language.

“He risked his own future and the future of his bureau because in the sub-humid and arid lands he saw every successive land law, despite pious platitudes about the independent pioneer farmer, being turned to the advantage of monopolistic and often fraudulent practices, or encouraging a kind of agriculture that would not survive the first period of drought” (xvi).

Read more. . . .John Wesley Powell’s Arid Lands

From Holy Week to Spring Break

April 1, 2014

The Changing Character of American Public Life

During my childhood and early adult years, two religious observances were widely held in communities all across America. Easter vacation was a four-day event, beginning with Good Friday and concluding on the following Monday. Schools were closed on those two days, and business and many retail establishments were closed on that Friday afternoon.

This meant that families could count on a four-day holiday. Since going to their own church on Easter Sunday was still a major practice, most families ended up staying close to home despite the relaxation of their school and business schedules.

Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and concluding with Easter, was also widely recognized. Many churches used these days as times of special religious activities, which frequently included services of worship at noon or evening that were widely attended by people despite the fact that they were at work on those days.

During the years of my active adulthood, however, these religiously defined rituals of public life have been replaced. Holy Week and the Easter Vacation have morphed into Spring Break. Holy Week-Easter vacation and spring break-spring fling have two things in common: In our part of the world, they happen during the riotous rebirth of the natural world; and they provide a strongly anticipated break from the pattern of ordinary life.

One reason for the change in these springtime vacations, is technical. Schools need consistency in scheduling and they try to plan breaks to come at times in the year that are beneficial to the patterns of academic activity. Because the dating of Easter is based on the lunar calendar and the vernal equinox, it fluctuates from year to year, falling anytime from March 22 to April 25. With that kind of variation, it is difficult to plan academic calendars. This was true even in the Christian seminary where I taught for much of my career, and we were sympathetic to the religious events that these holy days commemorated.

A second reason for the fading away of the religious aspects of the springtime festival is that American public life is changing significantly. The de facto Protestant Christian underpinnings of how Americans ordered time are increasingly out of synchronization with how the people of our nation understand themselves. The proportion of church-going people to the population as a whole is diminishing.

Furthermore, other religious traditions, including Judaism and Asian religions, are now well represented in our communities. These groupings of people also have their religious festivals and believe that their ritual life should be honored as much as those of the Protestant old timers. One way to respond to this demand is to reduce the recognition of Protestant holy days and seasons, which is what has happened with respect to Easter Vacation and Holy Week.

The result is Spring Break, an event that is devoid of deeper meaning, whether it be religious or related to historical remembrance of events and meanings in America’s political and cultural traditions.

Since my experience is essentially pre-spring break, I can only comment on what I hear in the public discussion about the current festival. The oft-used alternative title, spring fling, conveys a sense of the exuberant behavior, with many constraints set aside for a few days, that typifies this festival of springtime. Spring break provides the occasion for people to move away from normal patterns of activity and from many of the social norms that keep ordinary life flowing smoothly.

For many people, the festival comes at a time when they need a few days away from convention in order to led the buds of life that have been dormant through the winter burst into bloom again. I too enjoy time away, especially if it is a warm place where I can spend a lot of time on my bicycle.

Should we worry about the fact that the older religious festivals honored self-giving love, the readiness to endure hardship for the sake of other people, and the strengthening of the institutions that bind us together while spring break celebrates the setting aside of these very qualities?

I think that the answer is yes. Hedonistic self-indulgence that spurns long-standing community values may be OK in tiny amounts on infrequent occasions, but the harder values of mutuality and service that the older ceremonies commemorated and transmitted are crucial to the well being of our nation.

Of one thing we can be sure: the spring fling aspect of spring break will stay with us. The task before us is to find a way to recover the solidarity of life together that in earlier generations was remembered and renewed during Holy Week and Easter Vacation.

Solo transcontinental bicycle tour

March 25, 2014

East from Arizona

East from Arizona

Fifteen years ago, on March 17, 1999, I began a solo transcontinental bicycle ride. Since I stayed in motels at night, I could travel light, following the strictures of John Forester who was determined to persuade Americans to use classic British modes of bicycle touring. I carried most of my gear in a large saddlebag that Forester and his wife manufactured and sold with the label Custom Cycle Fitments. Although that bag wore out under constant use, I bought another one that still satisfies my travel requirements.

On April 6, I reached San Antonio, Texas, where I took a two-week recess to participate in a series of theological conferences. During the dry lands part of the trip, I bicycled 18 days, took two rest days, and covered 1,496 miles. Daily mileage ranged from 49 to 121, with an average of 83 miles per day on the days I biked.

The highest points were the continental divide near Silver City, NM, and Locke Mountain in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, TX.  Locke Mountain is the site of the McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas from which brief programs about the heavens were broadcast on public radio.  Both of these high points are about 6,200 feet above sea level.

Following the recess, I continued the transcontinental ride through the wetlands of East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. I finished this second phase of the journey in early May. In fifteen days of cycling, I traveled 1,312 miles, with daily mileage from 55 to 108, and an average of 87 miles per day on the days I rode.

I was 67 years old when I made this solo journey, and it marked an important transition in how I understood myself as a cyclist.

I had been cycling aggressively for twenty-five years and had ridden three long journeys ranging in length from 1,000 to 2,400 miles. On these trips I had traveled with one or two other persons. I had also taken solo journeys, with the longest being an 800-mile trip from Richmond, Virginia, to my home in Indianapolis.

This trip fifteen years ago, however, would be all the way across the country, from San Diego to St. Augustine. Most of the country was unknown to me, but I was confident that my many years of experience, my knowledge of how to keep a bicycle in working order, and my professional identity as clergyman and academician would enable me to make the trip safety and make connections when needed.

Here are some of the things that I learned on this trip.

  1. My long-practiced habits as a cyclist continued to be a suitable basis for this kind of trip. I could ride long miles, day after day, despite the fact that as a 67-year-old I was moving into the later stages of my life.
  2. Solo travel for long distances provides freedom to travel at my own rate, do what I wanted to do, and change my plans as the trip developed. Although I have since then taken long trips with a touring company, solo travel continues to be my favorite mode of doing long bicycle journeys.
  3. Although my wife had consented to my plans, some of our children doubted that this kind of trip was appropriate for someone my age. Their comments reminded me of the way my siblings and I became increasingly anxious about our mother’s solo travels on Greyhound Buses as she moved into her seventies.
  4. Episodes along the way made me realize that one aspect of my senior status was that I had less margin of error than when I was younger. If I were to misjudge how long it would take me to reach my destination for the night, I could not be confident that I had sufficient reserves of energy and strength to get to where I needed to be.
  5. Although I hoped to continue doing solo trips, it was time to explore traveling with bicycle touring companies. By traveling with others, I could probably keep going despite age-related limitations.

To commemorate the anniversary of this trip, I have revised the travel essay that describes the western portion of my solo southern tour.

With new gears lower than I had ever used, my classic Mercian bicycle was boxed for the flight to San Diego where, I soon would embark upon my solo cross-country trip to St. Augustine. My wife had consented to my plans, but apparently I had not explained them to our children until now—March 14, 1999—three days before the trip would begin.

Neither of our sons felt any need to respond to my email outlining the details, but our daughters phoned, two with panic in their voices. “Dad, you can’t bicycle across the whole country all by yourself. You’re 67 years old!” The third sister responded: “He’s done this all his life. Why worry now?” With my assurance that I would be carrying good maps, intended to stay in motels, and would phone home every night, their anxiety seemed to subside. Read more. . .Dry Lands on the Southern Tour


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