The Coyote’s Bicycle

May 10, 2017

In 2008 serious flooding occurred in the Tijuana River Valley along the borderland between San Diego and Mexico. Journalist Kimball Taylor was assigned to investigate why “the winter flood brought several forty-foot Dumpsters’ worth of used tires with it.”

During Taylor’s investigation, a rancher on whose land many of these tires piled up mentioned another puzzle, the Mexicans on bicycles who “come banzai down the canyons. They drop their bikes on the trails. They run into the estuary. They run into Imperial Beach!” During the past six months, the rancher had collected a thousand of these abandoned bikes (pp. 23-25).

Fascinated by this report, Kimball set out upon a quest to learn all he could about these bikes, the people who used them, and how all of this fit into the larger story of a strange migratory pattern: the bicycles’ movement through the black market, Hollywood, the prison system, and the military-industrial complex” (from the Book Jacket). The result is a big book—406 pages, including notes.

Kimball had a network of friends and professional contacts and already was skilled in following leads, talking with people in bars and other unconventional locations, and converting hints into clearly established facts. He gradually uncovered the story in highly personal detail and in the book tells it in bits and pieces, much as he learned it in the first place.

He takes his readers to a small Oaxacan pueblo in southwestern Mexico, introducing Pablo, a twelve-year-old boy, and his best friend, Solo, who want to follow others of their families into el Norte. Pablo decides to make the trip, and Taylor unfolds the motivations and methods he uses to make his journey to Tijuana. There, Pablo took time to learn how to get across the border and to places in the United States where he could link up with his family.

He became acquainted with coyotes, the people who engineered the crossings and demanded payment for their services, and established a relationship with Roberto, a coyote whose story Taylor has already told his readers. Taylor summarizes the way that this business was organized. At the top of the pyramid was el coyote, and working under him were recruiters called polleros, chicken herders, whose recruits were referred to as pollos, chickens.

Roberto’s operation was unique in that he used bicycles as the means of getting pollos across the border and to safe places from which their travel to the north could continue. Each time Taylor learned something new about this system, further questions emerged. Where did el coyote get his bicycles? What happened to them after they were dumped in the United States? How did the bicyclists escape the notice of the Border Patrol? How could large numbers of pollos stay out of sight while waiting for their transportation further north?

Persistently, Taylor untangles these puzzles, and related story lines. The one that holds the book together and commands the readers’ attention revolves around Roberto, his sister Marta who became his highly skilled and increasingly essential partner in their business, and El Indio, a pollero whom Roberto reluctantly brought into the organization at Marta’s urging. This story gradually deepens into one of love, tenderness, tension, tragic illness, and death.

Taylor’s sub plots are interesting in their own right. One explains how many of the abandoned bikes were used on Hollywood sets that simulated Middle Eastern villages and were used to train U.S. military personnel. Another recounts the story of how bicycles are stolen, broken down, and sold, often with the collusion of law enforcement personnel.

Much of Taylor’s research was done while this business was still in operation. It lasted only a few years, and not until it had been discontinued did he feel free to tell the story to the wider world. In a note to readers, he states: “Names have been changed and identities have been obscured in order to protect migrants and the smugglers who cross them.”

For more than twenty years I have driven and bicycled through the desert Southwest, and during these travels have often passed through Border Patrol checkpoints. While driving, I have sometimes been asked a question or two, but often have been waved on. As a cyclist, I’ve never been stopped. I’m white, old, and mounted on an obviously fancy road bike: no reason to doubt my status.

What little I have known about the business of smuggling people into the country has been negative. The Coyote’s Bicycle, however, describes the deeper story of why people want to cross the border and how the process affects families on both sides of the border. It also shows how corruption affects the process and indicates that some of the smugglers are people of integrity. Taylor also adds to the mystique of bicycling and human life. This is a fine book that deserves a large readership!

The Coyote’s Bicycle is published by by Tin House Books, Portland, Oregon, 2016.

 


Urban spirituality on two wheels

April 29, 2017

Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels, by Laura Everett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017)

Laura Everett lives, works and bikes in Boston, but we met at the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis. The occasion was a retirement dinner for a church executive with whom each of us had worked in our own church-related jobs. Everett was seated at my left and my granddaughter, also a church executive and only a few years younger than Everett, was on my right.

When Everett mentioned that she bicycle commuted to her job (executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches), I responded with casual interest, wondering how competent and committed she might be. My skepticism is understandable because I’m the kind of bicyclist whom Everett calls a Fred, retro-grouch, or retro-grump (pp. 105 ff.)

I’m an older male cyclist who has been on the road forever, with “an unfortunate tendency to mansplain to everyone, regardless of gender, exactly how a particular bike component works.” I’m glad that Everett holds old male cyclists like me in a favorable regard, but her characterization does come as a warning.

Most of what I know about Everett comes from Holy Spokes, which she published in April 2017, a year (almost to the day) after our dinner at the Columbia Club. I had known that it was coming but had little way of anticipating what kind of book it might  be. Although it stands on its own, this book resembles Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling by Bike Snob NYC. and parallels Robert Penn’s book It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels.

Holy Spokes is organized according to the parts of a bicycle, and each component is paired with an aspect of what Everett depicts as urban spirituality: Frame/Rule of Life, Wheels/Habit, Saddle/Endurance, Handlebars/Adaptation, and so on. Each chapter begins with a few lines from the seventeen-century spiritual writing, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.

After two or three paragraphs about that chapter’s bike part, Everett broadens the focus. She tells her own experience learning about that part of the bicycle and then describes how she has matured as a city dweller and young professional woman in a man’s world.

The chapter Fork/Rest is especially strong. Everett acknowledges that “forks aren’t the most interesting part of a bike, but they are critical. . .The fork isn’t productive in its own right, but it’s the connective tissue that allows the bike to roll and steer” (74).

She started paying attention to the fork about eight months into her life as a cyclist when she was hit by an automobile on her way to work. She soon discovered that the “bent fork was an early indicator of a much larger problem: my bike was actually both un-rideable and un-repairable. But my body took the more serious hit: after the crash, I ended up with a bulged disk in my spine and a fair amount of fear in my legs. It would take me a full two years to get back to where I had been on my bike” (p. 75).

She tried to resume cycling before her body and spirit were ready. Gradually she came to realize that she was trying to live too fast a life and that she needed to find a new mode of quietness. “Even though Boston is a smaller city, it moves quickly and constantly. But we humans aren’t designed for constant motion. Cultivating quiet and stillness might be the spiritual practice with the largest gap between city living and rural life” (p. 79).

Laura Everett

Everett tells the story of how she has become a vital cog in Boston’s biking community and in the process has learned to understand her city in a newer, deeper way. I’ve been mostly a solo cyclist and have rarely participated in cycling communities as Everett does. Now that I live downtown, surrounded by my city’s urban cyclists, it may be time for me to open a new chapter in my cycling way of life.

I became an urban bike commuter and aggressive open road cyclist about the time that Laura Everett was born. Even so, in Holy Spokes this strong, wise, young urban bicyclist is helping me rethink cycling and the process of living as much as any book I’ve read for a long, long time.   


Scared to death on the St. Johns Bridge

April 22, 2017

The St. Johns Bridge and I were born the same year–1931. I first saw it about twelve years later and have always held it in high respect as the blog I posted March 4, 2011, indicates. Today, Earth Day 2017, I read an article in the “Portland Oregonian” reporting that in the bridge’s 85-year history only one cyclist has been killed on the bridge: Mitchell Todd York, on October 29, 2016. Since I no longer live in the Portland area, my occasions to bike this bridge will not be often. My prayers are with all who ride this highway high in the sky, and especially with Mitch’s family.

Keith Watkins Historian

Once or twice a month, I bicycle across the St. John’s Bridge that spans the Willamette River on the north side of Portland, Oregon. Lots of company! Two lanes of fast traffic in each direction, more than 25,000 vehicles a day, many of them big and in a hurry because this beautiful bridge carries U. S. 30 across the river and connects two of the city’s industrial areas.

On each end of the bridge, which is almost half a mile long, a sign alerts motorists to the fact that bicycles share the roadway. This means that it’s legal for me to assert my rights to the road. And I do, but anxiously.

Pick-up trucks and eighteen-wheelers swing past me by sliding left toward the next lane of traffic. So far, no close calls, no squealing brakes, no loud horns, no harassing shouts.

Now and then I see other cyclists, most…

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Especially the alto section: an Easter meditation

April 18, 2017

Choir II by Mark Tobey

My Easter reflections this year have been shaped, in part, by Landesman’s Journal: Meditations of a Forest Philosopher, a small book I bought in Patagonia, Arizona, on a bicycle tour in February of this year. The author, Leon Landesman, chose to live the later years of his life in a small cabin located in a forested region close to the Arizona-Mexico border, with only his dog and an occasional passer-by for companionship.

Earlier in his life, Landesman had received a graduate degree in philosophy, and steady reading in a wide range of philosophically oriented books continued to be central to his life. Although antagonistic toward religious belief and practice, Landesman was intellectually invested in matters related to the soul as a metaphysical reality.

In this regard, he writes, “one can only resort to the time-honored reliance on intuition—the intuition that there is a meaning to the creation and development of one’s metaphysical soul and that it does not share the fate of the body. . .But the intuition within me tells me that my soul will return to the ultimate metaphysical source from which it came and enrich its nature” (p. 24).

I use more theological ideas to describe my stance toward reality, including death and that which comes thereafter. Landesman and I, however, have much in common in our reflections upon that which we cannot now know with certainty.

These reflections are too cerebral on Easter day when in churches everywhere the songs and ceremonies are so vibrant, so filled with new life. Christian affirmations that Jesus breaks the power of death and transforms death into a new kind of life renew our joy in living despite the inevitability of dying.

On the morning my wife of 62 years died, near three years ago, I posted a notice on our condominium door: “now singing alto in the choir of angels.” This picture language more accurately embodies the tone of my intuition about death continuing into life than do Landesman’s metaphysical words.

Early this Easter day, I remembered a print that Billie and I bought fifty years ago. Only today have I realized that it portrays that very choir in which she now sings the music of the spheres. Our family was living that year in Seattle. During the spring both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. One day we were visiting the Seattle Art Museum and found ourselves drawn to Mark Tobey’s painting, Choir II: gouache on board, 16.5 by 10.5 inches, in deep shades of maroon and gray blending into black. Long, vertical slivers of white outline an abstract design, with suggestions of Asian calligraphy.

When you look closely, the design comes into focus. Seven ranks of choristers stand almost as though each rank is superimposed upon the one beneath it. Scattered through this choir are a few members holding horns—trumpets, I suppose—but to my ear they sound like renaissance recorders made of fine wood. During the last thirty years of her life, Billie expressed the music of her soul by playing these instruments with small groups of friends, first in Indianapolis, then Phoenix, and for the final thirteen years in Vancouver, Washington.

On Easter afternoon I gathered for a festive meal with members of my family in Indianapolis. For our devotions before the feast, I revealed to them the mystery of this print that has been displayed in our family home as far back as any of them can remember. I was the one with tears and a voice breaking so that I could not speak, my grief still very strong, but everyone in the room heard the choir sing, especially the alto section.


Climate: unimportant until it matters

March 13, 2017

A review of Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges. Edited by Sharon B. Medal, Robert G. Varady, and Susanna Eden (CRC Press/Balkema, 2013).

The Colorado River system in the American Southwest and the Jordan River system in the Middle East are much alike. They flow through arid, hot regions with populations that are greater than these rivers can support. Serious efforts are being made in both regions to increase the use of these climatically limited river systems by reclaiming water for repeated use and by desalinization, but with limited success.

Because these river systems are located in regions where highly charged political systems exist side by side, continuing negotiation is needed to resolve conflicts. Challenges now faced by the Middle East and the American Southwest are case studies of what happens when people run out of water. They point to structural, political, and economic changes that should be considered even in regions that now have enough fresh water to meet needs.

Shared Borders, Shared Waters is based on the Arizona, Israeli, and Palestinian Water Management and Policy Workshop that took place at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 2009. Sponsors included UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme and three centers at the University: the Water Resources Research Center, the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Financial support came from several sources.

The book contains seventeen chapters arranged into five sections: (1) Water development: Infrastructure and institutions; (2) Political and economic perspectives on water; (3) Learning from comparison; (4) Challenges, new and old; Climate change and wastewater; (5) Expanding water supplies: Promising strategies and technologies.

Thirty contributors from around the world are listed as authors (eight chapters with single writers and nine with two or more). Nine contributors were located at the University of Arizona, Fourteen were based at other universities in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere. Contributors came from all of the territories discussed in the book and represented several scientific disciplines, political jurisdictions, and management responsibilities.

They reached differing conclusions about the issues discussed. Most of the chapters contain charts, graphs, and photos, many in color. All were written in serious, academic prose, and several chapters challenge readers who are unfamiliar with the technical language that their authors use. Other authors wrote in styles that are more easily understood by general readers.

The book contains 276 pages of exposition, with notes and bibliographical information at the end of each chapter. In the final two pages, the editors offer five insights or “take-away messages.” First, “It is essential to find solutions that meet the needs of neighboring societies.” Second, scientific research and analysis “contribute to a better understanding of the implications of alternative approaches to problem-solving.” They provide the basis for dialogue that can lead to solutions.

Third, the scarcity of water resources is necessarily leading to innovation and “the adoption of emerging technologies.” Fourth, “factors such as geographical setting and scale, climatic conditions, history, social and cultural values, demography, political systems, economic incentives, institutional capacity, legal structure, and civil society” determine “whether a particular technology can succeed” and therefore have to be taken into consideration. Fifth, a multi-disciplinary approach must be taken if we are to resolve the challenges facing us.

The editors chose to offer blandly stated, methodological conclusions, but the book, despite its abstract and technical language, is much more interesting and challenging than these conclusions indicate. My alternative list offers five insights that focus primarily on issues discussed in these chapters and their implications for people everywhere. Read more: Shared Borders-Review


Riding with a roadrunner on the Santa Cruz River Trail

February 24, 2017

 park-sign

Even when it has water running, the Santa Cruz River is a modest stream twisting its northerly route through Tucson. Most of the year it is a dry wash, dirty brown in color, with scrubby desert trees breaking the monotony. Although the city presses hard on both sides, the riverbed and adjacent shorelines—as much as half a mile in width—resist encroachments other than street-level bridges every mile or two. It has long been a city park, with multi-use trails, on both sides much of the distance, running approximately twenty miles from near the Tucson airport south of town to the edge of Marana on the northern edge of the city.

On previous winter visits to Tucson, I have biked the Julian Wash Greenway which branches off from the Santa Cruz River Trail and runs in a southeasterly direction through the city’s southern section. Hoping that the Santa Cruz Trail would be equally satisfying for a vigorous training ride, I spent an afternoon riding in the park.

shrineAccording to the map I picked up at the Ajo Bike Shop, the trail begins at Valencia Road about three miles west of the airport motel where I’m staying. Not trusting the map, however, I rode north a mile to Drexel Road and then west to the park. To my consternation, Drexel doesn’t cross the river and I found myself on an old trail, with stenciled notes reporting “trail closed.” I continued north on the old trail another mile to Irvington Street and a bridge that took me across the river to the new, well paved trail on the west side of the river. Before pushing toward the north, I stopped to pay my respects at a memorial shrine shaded by a desert tree.

Much of the trail looks to be ten to twelve feet wide, except when it narrows for traveling under bridges. It winds its way around trees and other desert growth, sometimes close to the edge and sometimes a little distance from the drop-off to the river itself. The twisting adds to the interest of the ride and I found that I could ride as hard as I wanted. In contrast to my experience on many multi-use trails, other users were almost exclusively cyclists. I met a few walkers and one little dog trotting along, dragging its short leash, with no sign of owner anywhere around.

I saw lots of small rodents scurrying along the trail’s edge but no flying birds. The most impressive wild creature was a roadrunner, rushing across the trail a few yards in front of me, carrying something in its beak.

Near the city center, the park has been upgraded. Nicely designed information boards have been installed and wild desert growth has been replaced with carefully groomed desert trees. Nicely designed, discreet information boards list donors who have provided funding for developing this part of the park

river-bankNear Grant Street further north, near a spot identified as Julian Park, I had to turn around even though the trail runs another ten miles or so. It was late afternoon and winter days are short. Signs gave me the confidence that the map is correct when it indicates that the trail on the western bank continues all the way to Valencia Road.

At the 5:00 p.m. rush hour peak, I reached the end of the trail and was dumped onto Valencia, one of Tucson’s busiest arterial streets: three lanes of packed, rapid traffic in each direction, very rough and jolting bike lanes, and a complicated interchange with Interstate Highway 19 going to Nogales. Despite this harrowing conclusion, my ride with a roadrunner along the Santa Cruz River Trail was a fine way to enjoy the afternoon.

One other note. Later in the evening, one of my Indianapolis daughters reported that it had been warmer that afternoon in Indianapolis that it was in Tucson. Maybe I should have stayed home for the weather, but I would have missed riding with the roadrunner.

riders

 


Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley: African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Owner

February 20, 2017

By Daniel L. Schafer (University Press of Florida, 2003)

schafer-annaI’ve lived all my life in western and northern sections of the United States where cultural practices of white people like me have restricted people of color. Although I have been aware of discrimination because of race, it has been difficult for me to understand the harsher patterns that existed in southern states—slavery for more than a century and legal segregation for another hundred years.

A winter sojourn on Amelia Island, which is one of several barrier islands between Florida’s northeastern coast and the Atlantic Ocean, is providing the opportunity and incentive to explore several aspects of the history of slavery that is so much a part of the American story.

In 1808 the United States prohibited the importing of slaves, but in East Florida which remained under Spanish sovereignty until 1821, slaves could still be imported and sold. Because of its deep-water port, Fernandina on Amelia Island became the primary location where ships continued to bring slaves who would be smuggled into Georgia and other states where slavery was still the law of the land.

During the years when Spanish law prevailed in East Florida, two types of slavery existed in close proximity and there was an intense struggle over which would prevail. Although the Spanish three-caste system (enslaved black, free black, and white) lost to the Southern States two-caste system (enslaved black and white), the history of this struggle needs to be kept alive.

Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley was a central figure in this period of American history. She was born in Senegal in 1793 into a family of the ruling class and captured and enslaved by a rival African ethnic group in 1806. She was one of a shipload of slaves bought by an American slaver and transported to Havanna. Thirteen years of age, she was purchased by Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., who was himself active in the transatlantic slave trade and a major plantation owner in Florida.

During the next five years, she gave birth to three children whom Kingsley fathered. He claimed them as his family and in 1811 granted Anna and her children their freedom. For the next thirty-seven years, Kingsley referred to her as his wife and “lived openly with her and their mixed-race children” (Schafer, p. 25). During much of this time, Kingsley also cohabited with other enslaved teenaged women, openly acknowledged their children as his own, and granted them freedom, too.

Kingsley appointed Anna as overseer of Laurel Hill, his large plantation on Fort George Island about thirty miles south of Fernandina and she directed operations during his frequent and long absences. She organized slave quarters and managed affairs in ways that were similar to those she had experienced among her own people in Senegal.

slave-quarters

After Spain ceded East Florida to the United States, the freedom and security of Kingsley’s African and mixed-race family were severely threatened. American law did not recognize their free status or their rights to inherit and own property. They constantly faced the threat of being sold again into slavery.

In order to secure their safety, Kingsley bought large holdings in the Republic of Haiti, then a free black country, and in 1836 moved his large and complex family moved to this safe location. In 1843, Kingsley died in New York at the age of seventy-eight. Anna was fifty. Three years later, she decided to return to Florida where her husband had retained large holdings.

As struggles over slavery, states rights, and southern sovereignty continued, her life became more difficult. Until her death in 1870, she was surrounded by her large, mixed race family and lived as a free woman. The war had wiped out her holdings and she “resided with one of her daughters, bereft of resources save a loving family” (Schafer, p. 111). She is buried in an unmarked grave in Clifton Cemetery in the Jacksonville suburb Arlington.

One of Anna’s great grand-daughters married A. L. Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and of American Beach on Amelia Island, a community where African Americans in the segregated South would have access to the beach.

The history of this era is complex, and an impressive body of scholarly literature is emerging to help us understand it. I am grateful for the slender biography of Anna Kingsley that historian Daniel L. Schafer has written. In easily understood language he describes the slavery patterns already existing in Africa, outlines the transatlantic slave trade, explains the economic and political conflicts in the United States that led to the Civil War, and pieces together the life story of Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley.

His narrative is only 131 pages long, followed by another twenty pages of notes, bibliography, and index.  Schafer’s exhaustive, scholarly research is clear, but because his focus is the life story of a remarkable woman, the book is alive and deeply moving. In 2013 he published a much longer, more technical biography, Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. and the Atlantic Slave Trade (University Press of Florida, 2013).