An easy-going way of bicycling in the city

September 23, 2016
North and Alabama Streets at Dusk

North and Alabama Streets at Dusk

From my fifth floor balcony and writing table, I watch a vibrant neighborhood in downtown Indianapolis: one block of North Street, from Alabama to New Jersey Streets, and two blocks of Alabama Street, from North, past Michigan Street, to the intersection with Massachusetts Avenue, a street that transverses a northeasterly diagonal through the old city.

The Indianapolis cultural trail runs along these streets. It is a broad, ornate sidewalk that winds for eight miles around and through neighborhoods close to downtown. All day long these streets are alive with human activity: walkers, joggers, runners, moms and dads pushing strollers, steady but not pushy car and truck traffic, and bicyclists.

Many of the evenings are especially active because of frequent shows at the New National Theatre, part of the Murat Shriners Temple across the ccorner. In contrast with Portland, Oregon, my home for many years, this part of Indianapolis abounds with paved parking lots: at the English Foundation Building directly across from my window, the Old National, another lot on the corner of North and New Jersey, and still another adjacent to a century-old church on the other side of New Jersey.

Early in the mornings these lots are empty but they fill up during the day, empty out around dinner time, and then fill up again most evenings.

I pay special attention to the cyclists. At the Starbucks two blocks away on Mass Ave, some people dressed in high style office attire arrive by bike, and others commute downtown in grubbies and change to business dress before coming in for coffee.

Portland commuters whom I have closely observed for more than a decade, mostly by riding along with them on the streets and across the bridges, and downtown, are usually dressed in casual, non-bike-specific attire. A single pannier fastened on a rear rack or a back pack carries fancier clothes to wear at work, and probably notebook and tablet computer.

The riders I see in my Mass Ave neighborhood appear to have cycled shorter distances, and they seem to prefer back packs. They use all kinds of bikes from old street bikes fixed up for city riding, to fancy comfort bikes that they ride without raising a sweat even on a humid Indianapolis day.

The most obvious difference is helmet culture. In Portland, most people on city streets wear them, whereas in this part of Indianapolis helmets seem optional. From 6:10 to 6:20 one evening, I watched twenty-five cyclists travel through my three-block field of vision: twelve with helmets, thirteen without. On my drives through the downtown and into adjacent neighborhoods I get the impression that this pattern is largely replicated elsewhere in the older neighborhoods of the city. It also appears that everywhere in Indianapolis, again in contrast with Portland, pedestrians are on their own, with little attention given them by motorists.

Whether they are wearing helmets or only a cap (often with an Indy Colts logo), Indianapolis cyclists feel free to travel wherever they like: on bike trails (with or against the flow), on sidewalks, on either side of streets (especially in the mornings before the motorists are out), on the sidewalk one minute and on the street the next. They dart quickly from one route to another, facing cars or going the same direction, with a studied indifference toward traffic signals.

During my earlier life in Indianapolis (which ended in 1995), I lived in a traditional neighborhood about six miles north of downtown, and there I encountered a different breed of cyclists. Many of them were members, as was I, of CIBA, the Central Indiana Bicycling Association. They wore helmets, dressed in bicycle-specific clothing, and for the most part rode the streets in a highly disciplined way.

Riding with them socialized me into a mature, adult way of cycling, and it’s the mode I continue to use even though it seems so old-school down here in the hip Mass Ave culture.

Despite my puzzlement over the cycling patterns I see in this vibrant downtown neighborhood, I am grateful that so many people in my readopted home have taken to two-wheel transportation.

It gives me a sense of comradeship even though there is little likelihood that I will get acquainted with them, unless it be when we fall into conversation at Starbucks. Although we use our bicycles in significantly different ways, together we add color and a humane dimension to a world that otherwise is filled with the noises and smells of the motorized world.

Bike lanes and roundabouts

September 15, 2016


For most of my forty years as cyclist, riding both in the city and on the open road, I have held mixed views concerning safety provisions that traffic engineers provide for cyclists. Initially, my views were largely negative because of my experience with bicycle lanes. This experience was confirmed in caustic writings by engineer and cyclist John Forester.

Having studied the data concerning bike-motor vehicle accidents, Forester contended that they were age-related in where they took place and why they occurred. The statistics showed that intersections were the places where danger was the greatest. He urged traffic engineers and rule writers to develop roadways and rules that would reduce danger everywhere and especially at these danger points.

Forester also believed that cyclists were safest and drivers best able to share the road with them when people on bikes followed the same rules of the road that drivers obeyed. When making a left turn, for example, cyclists should not try to do it from a bike lane on the right edge of the road but should do what cars do, which is to get into the left lane and turn from the same position that drivers used.

Since 1999, most of my city cycling has been done in and around Portland, Oregon. Early in that period, I came to a largely positive view of the bike lanes and other provisions that traffic engineers in that city had established for cyclists. They helped me negotiate difficult intersections, and also helped drivers figure out where they should be as they were maneuvering their way in these same places.

Recently, however, my confidence in what the engineers are doing has been wavering. Their fixation upon creating separations between cyclists and motorists, as I have experienced them in several parts of Portland and in downtown Seattle, provide the veneer of safety while increasing the likelihood of bicycle-motor vehicle interaction. As much as possible—in order to protect myself from increased danger—I avoid these newly devised bicycle-specific streets and intersections.

My antipathies toward bike lanes comes to mind when both as motorist and cyclist I have to contend with roundabouts, which are being touted as the preferred form of intersections in many urban and open country areas. I know how to navigate in a world of four-way intersections controlled by stop signs or traffic lights. I can keep track of the direction I am going, and there is time, as I wait for the lights to change, to be sure of what I should do. I can usually find my way even in places that are unfamiliar to me.

Having returned to Indianapolis after living in the West for twenty years, I find that my former certainties no longer are certain. Recently driving in the city of Carmel on the north side of Indianapolis, I found myself in a surreal world that requires a total reorientation of my motorist’s mind. Carmel’s public officials and citizens are so excited by roundabouts that approximately one hundred of them are filling up the maps in this spread out community.

Before the roundabout era, I could find my way in Carmel and vicinity because it was still a four-square world. At most intersections I could turn left or right, or go straight ahead, and usually end up where I wanted to be even if I didn’t know the names of all of the streets.

No more. Admittedly, I have reached an age when it takes longer to figure out signage than used to be the case. The roundabouts I encountered on my recent travels in Carmel compounded the problem. Every roundabout seemed different and the challenges of figuring out where I should be driving and which spoke on the wheel was the one I should use to exit were greater than I could grasp in the moments that were available as I rotated around the circle.

Maybe the sweet voice on Google Maps would have told me when to veer off the circle—that is if I had her turned on and had learned to trust her instructions.

I’m reading about Carmel’s history with roundabouts and am learning how much they appear to reduce accidents and delays. My commitment to a fact-based approach to these matters should persuade me to embrace roundabouts.

To do so, however, requires that I (and everyone else) study the facts and learn new rules of the road just as Carmel’s official documents say we should. And I need to get a paper map and study the realignment of this part of Indianapolis and then spend time in Carmel going round and round until I I know what I’m doing. Until then, I’m going to do must of my driving and cycling in Indy’s four-square world south of 86th Street.


The Columbia River: learning to live with what can be saved

September 12, 2016

whiteThe Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, by Richard White (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995)

After living on the edge of the Columbia River for thirteen years, crossing it time and time again, cycling on roads and trails skirting its shore, and living the good life because of the low-cost electricity that it generates, I’m reestablishing my life in a far, distant part of the country. Part of my grief work is rereading Richard White’s elegant monograph about the great river of the West.

The publisher who commissioned this book stipulated that it have no footnotes in order to appeal to general readers. White, who then taught at the University of Washington in Seattle, succeeded in writing a lucid, interesting, non-technical little book, but the ten-page bibliographical essay at the end of the book indicates the depth of his research.

While The Organic Machine is organized chronologically, tracing the way that the peoples who have lived in its watershed have successively worked with the river to accomplish their life needs, its narrative drive is philosophical, examining “the river as an organic machine, as an energy system which, although modified by human interventions, maintains its ‘unmade’ qualities. . .My argument in this book is that we cannot understand human history without natural history and we cannot understand natural history without human history” (p. ix).

White addresses modern environmentalists who “stress the eye over the hand, the contemplative over the active, the supposedly undisturbed over the connected. They call for human connections with nature while disparaging all those who claim to have known and appreciated nature through work and labor” (p. x).

He suggests that readers “might want to spend more time thinking about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lewis Mumford and less about Henry David Thoreau and John Muir” (p. xi), which reminds me of an idea presented by Steven Solomon in Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. Discussing the hydrological society of ancient China, Solomon discerns contrasting approaches to engineering solutions to water-related issues.

“Taoist engineers designed waterworks to allow water to flow away as easily as possible, exploiting the dynamics of the natural ecosystem, just as they urged Chinese leaders to gradually win support for their goals through persuasive dialogue. . . Confucians, on the other hand, advocated a more forceful manipulation of both nature and human society to achieve the public good.” The underlying principles “framed a fundamental engineering debate which has reemerged on the global level today as the world seeks environmentally sustained solutions to the water scarcity crisis” (101).

Read more . . .organic-machine

Bicycle Rider in a Yellow Ocher World

September 6, 2016


Palouse Hills After Harvest

Palouse Hills After Harvest

During the last days of August in 2016, I traveled from Portland, Oregon, a city where my heart sings, to Indianapolis, the city in which much of my family and professional life developed and where I became an aggressive cyclist. With my twenty-nine-year-old grandson, Erik Ulberg, doing most of the driving, we made the 2,640-mile trip in six days.

Forty years ago this summer, during America’s bicentennial year, I made much the same journey by bicycle with my twenty-two-year-old daughter, Sharon Watkins, and a family friend as companions. Self-supporting and camping much of the way, we travelled 2,630 miles in thirty-six days.

Although they were intertwined in my heart and mind, these two journeys were significantly different: early summer/late summer, slow/fast, exposed to the elements/traveling in air-conditioned comfort, in frequent contact with people/largely isolated from people along the way, celebrating the nation’s heritage/anxious about the future of our nation and the world.

In 1976, we were part of a venture that encouraged more than 4,000 people to bicycle across the country, whereas in 2016 cyclo-touring had become routine in American life. My first trip was fired with the eagerness of new experience; this second journey was tempered by the melancholy of my advancing years.

In broad outline, both trips followed the same route: through the Columbia River Gorge and rolling hills of the Palouse Country in southeastern Washington; across the Snake River at Clarkson and along the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers to Lolo Pass and Missoula; south to Chief Joseph Pass, the Big Hole National Battlefield, Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks, through Wyoming and across southern Nebraska to the Mississippi crossing at Nebraska City; Mound City, Missouri, and eastward on U.S. 36 or closely parallel low-speed roads to Indianapolis.

The Grand Tetons

The Grand Tetons

At two places only did the drivers in 2016 deliberately deviate from the cyclists’ route forty years ago. At Wisdom, Montana, the cyclo-tourists took the northern route to Dillon and the auto-tourists took the shorter, southern route. On the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming the cyclists stayed on U.S. 26, traveling to Riverton, where we used a motel for the first time on the trip, and then made a 100-mile mad dash to Casper where we stayed for the first time at a church. We continued to Scottsbluff and Lake McConauchy in Nebraska.

The motorists turned south of U.S. 287, driving to Rawlins, Wyoming, where we began our sprint to the east on I-80. Most of this later portion of that day’s drive took us through country I had never seen before, and it included some of the most interesting terrain of the entire journey.

A full account of the 2016 journey can be constructed around a series of themes; among them are the following.

 The Yellow Ocher World

Because the auto-tourists were traveling in late summer when much of the west is rain deprived, colors from the ocher palette dominated the countryside. In the eastern Columbia River Gorge, vegetation had a dull, brownish hue. In the Palouse Country, wheat stubble clothed rolling hills in bright yellow tones. At higher elevations some of the trees glistened with golden and reddish colors. In corn belt states, fields of ripening grain displayed their readiness for harvest by their varied shades of yellowish brown. Erik, who is seriously interested in the interface of art and technology, suggested that the ocher color chart, ranging from dull yellow to rusty red, contains many of the end of summer colors we were seeing.

Grasping the Scale of the Bicyclist’s World

Because bicyclists necessarily focus attention on the road just ahead, they rarely can view the grand scope of the larger landscape. Because they are free to look all around, auto-tourists can see the roads winding far ahead, disappearing over the hills and reappearing on the other side. They can see smoke rising in the far distance, blotting out the sun, and the imposing magnitude of mountains on ahead. Driving this route gave me a new sense of the courage required of cyclo-tourists.

Requiem for Western Woodlands

The conifer forests throughout the high country, which I remember as healthy and whole forty years ago, are now distressed. We drove through long stretches of highway with blackened, denuded trees collapsing against one another, with occasional signs of new underbrush beginning the slow work of reestablishing the forest. Similar stretches of lodge pole pine were dying from beetle infestation, the result of climate warming and diminished precipitation.

Big Hole National Battlefield

On both trips, the emotional high for me was the Big Hole National Battlefield, which solemnizes the memory of an attack by U.S. Army forces on a band of Nez Perce Indians as they slept in their camp early on the morning of August 9, 1877. This event dramatizes the long history of broken treaties, deprivation of rights, and ethnic cleansing that America’s dominant white society has and continues to perpetrate on our nation’s first peoples.

America’s Ice-Age Rivers

As we drove along the eastern bank of America’s greatest river, I became aware of the similarity between the Columbia and the upper reaches of the Mississippi. Both were formed by melting of ice packs during the closing of the ice age and the impact still shows in the geology and geography through which we travelled.

The Ghostly Cyclist

In 1899, a young American, W. E. Garrison, spent three summers cycling through Europe. One of the photos he took of himself was double exposed so that his portrait standing by his wheel is superimposed on a shadowy image of himself in much the same pose. During this drive through America’s western lands, I often sensed that I as the younger cyclist of forty years ago was also in the car, hovering over the shoulder of the old man I am becoming. It was, and is, a strange but confirming experience.



Open Road Cyclist in the Heart of the City

August 26, 2016
Indpls Bike Downloads:39C8951E-9C53-4338-8D24-9A34ECD339A1:FullSizeRender.jpgMap

Indianapolis Bike Map

When I, an open road cyclist, decided to live in downtown Indianapolis instead of in a tree-filled neighborhood suburb, I knew that adjustments would be necessary. Instead of long, unbroken boulevards and lightly traveled country roads, I would have to deal with frequent intersections, impatient drivers, and pedestrians. Remembering the central part of this city as it was twenty years ago, I knew that adjustments in my cycling patterns will be necessary.

From my fifth floor apartments windows, however, I am developing a positive feeling about the new Indianapolis. I can see two blocks of the eight-mile long cultural trail, designed for walkers and cyclists, that takes them along an interesting route in the central part of town. Throughout the day people are using the trail, which is a sidewalk about twelve feet wide and paved with alternating strips of light and dark reddish-colored bricks.

Some of the people on the trail are taking in the sights of the city, but most of the users during the work week are commuting or traveling with serious business in mind. The density of use is less than on the Hawthorne and Broadway bridges in Portland, Oregon, where I have been cycling for thirteen years, but it is has all come to pass since I moved away from Indianapolis twenty-one years ago.

From my study window, I can see a station with spaces for eleven yellow bikes in the Indiana Paces Bike Rental system. At 4:30 on Friday afternoon, five of the spaces are empty. At this very minute, a group of fifteen cyclists, casually dressed and traveling about seven or eight miles an hour, have passed my window.

Sometime this fall, I will probably ride the entire cultural trail, at a moderate speed, with stops to view interesting sights. My greater interest, however, is to find routes that start at my front door and allow me to ride at a fast rate of speed along interesting streets and parkways. This is the kind of cycling that I enjoy, and I need to keep doing it in order to maintain as much cycling prowess as an octogenarian can reasonably expect to do.

Keith at Riley Tower 2

Ride’s End

The urgency of settling into my apartment has kept me off of my bike most of the week. This morning, when the temperature was still comfortable, a severe rain squall blew into town and kept me inside. After an early lunch, I ventured forth, heading east on New York Street. The first time I saw this street was the last Sunday of August in 1953. Billie and I had come to Indianapolis so that I could enroll in seminary, and on that Sunday we drove to Downey Avenue Christian Church, in the Irvington section of the city.

Back then I thought that this street was as decrepit an urban neighborhood as I had ever seen. In sixty-three years, it hasn’t changed much. From a cyclist’s point of view, one improvement has been made, however. Bicycle lanes have been established on this street, which is one way going east, and on its west-bound partner, Michigan Street.

At about the four-mile mark, New York Street angles toward the northeast following Pleasant Run, a gentle stream with trees and other forest growth providing protection from the sun and delight to the eyes. Turning north on Arlington Street, and west on 16th Street, I came back to a parkway following along the course of another small urban stream.

And then back to my apartment: Twelve miles at an average speed of 13.3 miles per hour. Not much, but after ten days of relatively little riding it felt good. Soon, however, my open road instincts will kick in and I’ll search out longer and more interesting rides.

Learning to live in Indy

August 22, 2016
Downtown Indianapolis from Riley Tower

Downtown Indianapolis from Riley Tower

After living for thirteen years at Heritage Place Condominiums in Vancouver, Washington, just across the I-5 bridge from Portland, I am moving to Riley Towers in downtown Indianapolis. This morning I realized that there are two ways of understanding this move: (1) Moving back to Indianapolis, where Billie and I lived for thirty-three years; or (2) Moving forward to Indy, a city that is vastly different from any place I’ve previously lived.

Last night, my first night at Riley Towers in downtown Indianapolis, the character of this part of town was evident. Across Alabama Avenue from the Tower’s front door, a line two blocks long was waiting to get into the Old National Centre, a performing arts venue in the venerable Murat Temple. The featured artist was Lil Uzi Vert, and the people in line and swarming all over the neighborhood were teens, twenties, and a little older.

I walked down to Mass Ave, to Sub Zero Ice Cream and Yogurt, only to encounter another line of forty or fifty Millennials waiting for their scoops. Rather than waiting my turn, I settled for a cookie from the nearby Subway Sandwich shop.

Since my furniture had not yet arrived, I spent the rest of the evening in the library and community room at Riley Towers, with tables where people can work, six computers, and a top of the line HP printer. Two graduate students at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, studying at the Law School, were hard at work on the next day’s assignment.

I spent the night in a guest suite, but at sunrise went up to my apartment. Windows across one wall face east, and the strong red glow of sunrise was harbinger of a wonderful late summer day and the promise of an exciting new chapter for my life.

At the Mass Ave Starbucks, where I went for morning coffee and breakfast, there was a steady stream of people in a wide range of casual and business attire on their way to work. Even the two downtown tower branches of my bank have lobby hours beginning at 7:30 am. It will take me a little time to get up to speed in this vibrant new Indy where I will be living for a while.

Until now, I’ve thought of this transition as moving back to Indianapolis primarily for the purpose of getting set for the transition into old age. My family is concentrated here and I am already familiar with the layout of the city. Colleagues and friends from Billie’s and my former life are still here, although they and I have changed during the twenty-one years that I’ve been away.

Some of these people from our earlier life in Indianapolis now live at Robin Run Village, a retirement community out on the edge of town that Billie helped to establish many years ago. It’s a place I have thought about making my home. A community of people would surround me every day. I wouldn’t have to do my own cooking. There are things to do right on the campus. And the people are my age. Since Billie’s death two years ago, these amenities seem increasing attractive. In a year or two, I will probably move back to the old Indianapolis I used to know.

For now, however, I’m moving forward to the new Indy that surrounds me in the vibrant neighborhood where I’ve pitched my tent. I may even try to find out who Lil Uzi Vert is and why he/she/it is so interesting to young adults.

By bike or by car: which is the better way?

August 11, 2016
Wright's Hardware in Downtown Cathlamet

Wright’s Hardware in Downtown Cathlamet

The move to Indianapolis started on August 8 with a 350-mile drive to my sister’s home near Sequim, close to the Dungeness River and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Starting from southeast Portland near Reed College, where I had been hosted by friends, I drove through the city to the St. Johns Bridge, built in 1931 (the year I was born), and continued west on U.S. 30 to the Longview Bridge and crossed the Columbia River.

Then came the interesting part of the journey: west on WA 4, “the Ocean Beach Highway,” through Cathlamet, Skamocaway, and Naselle, and then north (and later east) on U.S. 101, through the Hoh Rain Forest and Forks to my destination.

A Farm in the Rain Shadow of the Olympics

A Farm in the Rain Shadow of the Olympics

Although hurried, this trip was pleasant: peaceful terrain, farms with wide stretches of green meadows, and forests in various stages including clear cut hillsides and replanted areas, with some of the trees now large and tall. I drove on winding but well paved highways, with light to moderate traffic, and passed through little towns. The sun often broke through thin clouds and skiffs of rain hit the windshield now and then.

More important than the delights of the road, however, were the memories of my only other journey over this route, by bicycle fifteen years ago. That time I started in Vancouver, Washington, detoured along Willapa Bay to Westport, and continued from Sequim across Puget Sound to Seattle: 430 miles in seven days on the road. The title of my twenty-page description of the bicycle version, Cycling through Heaven 2015 suggests the tone of the earlier journey.

In Longview on the first trip I bought a book by a local author who described the crisis people were experiencing as federal policies about logging were changing. In Cathlamet I discovered two books about the region and talked with the author, a woman who served as rector of the local Episcopal Church and also was part of a long-time salmon fishing family.

I fell into conversation with other local people who represented various aspects of life through this remote and fragile part of the United States. By the time I reached Seattle, I had learned much that was entirely new to me.

This connectedness with people and the countryside is a characteristic of a bicycle journey properly taken. You feel the contours of the land and the immediacy of the weather on your skin. There is time to stop for conversation and to poke your way into odd places. Local newspapers come to your attention and you discover books in libraries and museums that you would never encounter on your own.

Even a leisurely automobile journey, in contrast, carries you along at a rapid rate, with many of the sights merely blurs intuited in peripheral vision. There are fewer opportunities to talk with people and even these conversations tend not to have the candor that often comes out when a bicyclist, rather than a motorist, is the outsider. A bicyclist  can stop almost any place for a minute or two, but the same person in a car feels the need to push along in order to get the day’s mileage in.

Driving this route on my second trip, I experienced the roads in a way that didn’t register when I traveled them by bicycle. Both sections, along the Columbia and up the peninsula, are narrower than I remember, often with precious little shoulder. I have remembered only easy riding, with a little climbing here and there, and there’s no sense of harassment in my travel account of the 2001 bicycle journey.

The one moment when the two trips came together was lunchtime in South Bend, Washington. On my first time through this little place where the harvesting and shipping of oysters is a dominant activity, I ate an oyster sandwich at the Boondocks restaurant. It was delicious, but later in the afternoon I realized that there was too little nourishment to keep me going the rest of the day. One of my friends recently remarked as I told the story. “Or course, you’d get hungry! Didn’t you realize that oysters are mainly water?”

Determined to eat another oyster sandwich on my trip by car, I parked by an antique store to get directions from two codgers sitting out in front. “Boondocks has gone out of business,” one of the men reported, “and the Oyster Shack is closed on Mondays. The best place today is Chester’s across the street.”

I could see the sign, “Chester’s Oyster Bar and Lounge.” Crossing the street, I saw “No Minors” posted on the door and could see that the bar serving liquor was the more prominent part of the establishment. The gruff woman behind the bar pointed me to tables in the back. I ordered an oyster burger, with thick slices of onion. Its flavor seemed as good as the one I remembered from long ago, and I went back to the car, my hunger satisfied and my spirit renewed.

My brother-in-law set me up with his Ritchey traveling bike and on both full days of my visit we cycled through the countryside around Sequim. I began to feel alive again. Then came the final drive across the Hood Canal bridge to the Bainbridge Ferry and my daughter’s home on Beacon Hill. Tomorrow my bike goes into a shop to replace the rear brake that was stolen a few days ago and I’ll be ready to keep on traveling.

Which was the better ride? I’ll let you decide.

Seattle from the Ferry

Seattle from the Ferry