Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle

November 29, 2012

Soon after I began my avocation as aggressive cyclist—sometime in the late 1970s—I worked my way through the cycling section of the card catalog at the central library on St. Clair Street in downtown Indianapolis. That’s how I discovered Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle. Its author was an Irish woman named Dervla Murphy, and the book recounted a journey she had taken all alone in 1962.

She had received a bicycle and a world atlas as gifts when she was eleven years old, and soon thereafter decided to take this long journey. Calling herself a cunning child, she writes that she had refrained from revealing this decision to her parents and had waited until she was old enough to make her own decisions unimpeded.

On rereading her book these many years later, I see that she chose her destination because it was the furthest she could go without having to cross a major body of water. (The Soviet Union was ruled out because of the Cold War.) I have remembered that she had taken this journey soon after turning 21.

In my second reading, I was surprised to discover that she was 31 when she did the trip. She was only a year or so younger than I, and when she took this daring ride across Europe and Asia, I was already starting my career as professor in a theological seminary.

From my first reading, I have remembered that she crossed from Italy into Yugoslavia in the dead of winter, with severe cold and deep snow. Caught after dark, quite some distance from any village, she was rescued by a passing trucker. When his vehicle skidded off the road, leaving the driver too shaken up to go himself, Dervla trudged two miles through the snowy woods, hoping to find people in town who would come back to rescue the driver.

She carried a firebrand to light her way. When she felt a powerful blow against her shoulder, she realized that a small pack of wolves were stalking her. She fired her small pistol at them, and they disappeared into the darkness.

A little later in her trip, as she was nearing the Persian border, she was spending the night in a tiny box-like room in a place described as an “Otel.” During the night she woke up to find her bedclothes missing and “a scantily clad Kurd” hovering over her in the moonlight. She fired her pistol into the air and he disappeared. Other than a few mutterings in the adjoining rooms, nothing more happened and the noise seemed not to be taken as anything out of the ordinary.

Except for these episodes, most of this book has faded from memory. What has remained has been a general sense of wonder that anyone could make this journey alone, unsupported, and unabashed by the extreme contrast in cultures that Dervla encountered.

In later years, this bold Irish woman has continued solo cycling, along with other travels, sometimes with her daughter. Although she has continued to publish books describing her travels, I have read only one, a substantial volume which is part of a trilogy describing her travels along the entire length of East Africa.

A two-week trip that would allow me very little time for cycling of my own provided the occasion to reread Full Tilt, which deservedly continues in print (although I used a much-used copy from the Multnomah County Library in Portland).

Despite its sub-title that refers both to Ireland and India, this narrative says nothing about the first part of the journey as she traveled through Western Europe to the Yugoslav border where her riding through winter became so challenging. She brings her story to a close soon after crossing over into India, giving us virtually no information about that part of the journey.

The one map in the book is a simplified line drawing that shows only international borders, major roads on which she traveled, and the names of places that figure prominently in her narrative. If readers were to pay attention to the map before they get into the book itself, they would be prepared for the fact that its primary contents are Dervla’s travels through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir.

My second reading of Full Tilt has made me realize that the travelogue, which is the narrative line for the book and is interesting in its own right, is only one aspect of this book. It also deserves attention because of the character study it gives of this confident and thoughtful traveler. While Dervla is not as skillful as the great travel essayists such as Thoreau and Muir, there are moments when she shows similar qualities. I am especially interested in the great love she developed for Afghanistan and its people.

Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle. More than forty years after the trip, still worth reading!

Religion and politics according to Roger Williams: A Thanksgiving Meditation

November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving is unique in the American sequence of major holidays. It is rooted in one of the nation’s primary historical eras and expresses one of America’s foundational narratives. It combines religious, political, and cultural elements, but in a way that allows the holiday to be embraced not only by Christians but also by people of other religions or of no religion.

This holiday, perhaps more than any other, reveals the fact that the nation’s very existence is based upon the radical disregard for the people who already were here when Europeans arrived. Thus, no matter how joyfully we celebrate the day, it is right that Americans remember, with remorse, those whose way of life has been trampled upon in order to allow the rest of us enjoy the way of life experienced by the dominant members of the population.

Although we rightfully focus our attention upon the good things in life, as manifested in traditional Thanksgiving services and feasts, this holiday is also a time to revisit the central political themes that are enshrined in the historical tradition.

For me this year, this political aspect of remembrance focused upon Roger Williams who was one of the most astute architects of the American system of liberty and equality. During the days surrounding the holiday, I came across an extended review of John M. Barry’s new biography: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

“Anyone who reads this book,” reviewer John Fea writes, “will need to come to grips with the fact that it is Williams, not [John] Winthrop, who best represents the historical roots of the religious liberties that citizens of the United States enjoy today.” (This review, with the title “The original separationist,” appears in Christian Century, November 14, 2012, pp. 36-37.)

My second encounter with Williams over the Thanksgiving weekend was in a book entitled Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books, 2008).  Its author is Martha C. Nussbaum, a philosopher who “holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School at the University of Chicago, is co-chair of the university’s Human Rights Program, and…is the author of thirteen previous books” (from the book jacket).

Nussbaum is a vigorous defender of the central pillars of the American tradition, which she describes as freedom and equality. It is clear to her that this way of setting up national life is unique in the world and that it is “a tradition under threat.”

Early in the book, Nussbaum devotes an entire chapter (entitled “Living Together: The Roots of Respect”) to Roger Williams, a Puritan intellectual who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, but five years later fled because his opposition to the established order was likely to lead to his arrest.

He established a new community in Providence, Rhode Island, in which he used his distinctive principles to establish a colony noted for its receptive attitude toward people of widely varying ideas and practices. From this secure position, he maintained a vigorous literary debate with Boston leaders, especially John Cotton, pastor of the First Church Boston.

The mood and style of the debate is indicated in the titles of the treatises they produced during this controversy. Williams: The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) and The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652); Cotton:The Bloudy Tenent washed and made white in the bloud of the Lamb (1647).

Nussbaum begins this chapter with a quotation from The Bloudy Tenent:

“Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all Nations and Countries” (p. 34).

What stands out in her treatment of Williams, however, is not the colorful language, but instead the extent to which this lonely figure anticipated better known political philosophers and leaders in later generations. His writings during the 1640s “anticipate [John] Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration in every respect” (p. 41).

“It is not implausible,” she writes, “to compare his core ideas to those that will animate the philosophy of Immanuel Kant a century later” (p. 56). The “ideas of fairness and respect” as Williams presents them “continue to be central to the best work in recent political philosophy in the Western tradition,” and here Nussbaum cites John Rawls’s books A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism (p. 57).

When I read the Williams-Cotton Bloudy Tenent debate half a century ago, I was paying attention to other issues and overlooked the importance of Williams’s ideas about liberty and equality. While it is unlikely that I will reread these “logic-chopping” treatises, I do plan to continue reading Nussbaum’s book and then move to other expositions of Williams’s life and thought. My remembrance of Thanksgiving will carry me well into the new year!

Father-Son Reunion on the New Smyrna Metric Century

November 19, 2012


A short hard rain during the night turned my son’s condo into lakefront property, and more rain was in the forecast by noon. Just enough time, we decided, to try for a metric century bike ride. It would help us recall the rides we used to do together thirty-five years ago, and serve as a belated ride to celebrate my birthday a couple of weeks earlier.

Mike lives on the barrier island that is part of the old resort community of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, south of Daytona Beach and north of Cape Canaveral. The course we would be doing consists of two loops which can be done in various combinations depending in large part on the direction of the prevailing breeze. The week during my visit it has been a steady northerly draft at ten to fifteen miles per hour, enough to keep the palm trees swaying.

One loop goes south, along Atlantic Avenue—Florida A1A—into the Canaveral National Seashore. The first three and a half miles from his condo, there are high rise condos on either side, and then comes splendid quiet as the road threads its way between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Mosquito Lagoon on the other.

The National Park Service reports that the barrier island and its waters “offer sanctuary” to 1,045 plant species and 310 bird species. There was a time when the saltmarsh waters could produce a million mosquitoes per square yard. Part of this loop course includes a slight detour through a wooded area near historic Eldora State House. The one time he stopped to tour the house, Mike tells me, mosquitoes drove him away. Most of the loop through the seashore is a quiet lane between protective sand dunes covered with palmetto and sea oats.

Round trip from the condo to the end of the Seashore is twenty miles, with the possibility of an extra loop or two around the Eldora House to add a few miles.

The second loop travels north from the condo, along Saxon Drive, to the Harris M. Saxon Causeway Bridge that crosses the Intracoastal Waterway to the mainland, then south on River Road to the town center of the residential city of Edgewater, west on Park Avenue, and a jog onto Mission Road and west again on Taylor Road, north on Glencoe Road and northwesterly on Pioneer Trail to Turnbull Road, which takes a wide swing back towards the east and south to the New Smyrna Beach town center on Canal Street near the causeway.

The round trip for this loop is thirty-two miles, with several possibilities for expanding the distance by taking short detours. Except for the short distance through the New Smyrna Beach town center, this loop is essentially residential or rural.

Much of this loop displays Florida’s natural vegetation, which can change dramatically because of changes in elevation of only a few feet: pine forests, hardwood hammocks, and marshes.

The night’s rain prior to the day of our ride settled the atmosphere and quieted the wind, which meant that we started the ride by doing the Seashore loop. By repeating the southern part of the route, we added ten miles to this part of the trip so that by the time we took a break in New Smyrna on the mainland, we had done half of the metric century.

The northerly breeze was picking up, but the mainland loop travels all four directions and much of it is protected from the wind. They sky remained a brilliant blue, with a few billowy clouds in the distance. The temperature moved from the 68 degrees when we started to 72 degrees when we completed our metric century, with a time of 3:52:43 on the bikes, for a distance of 63 miles, at an average of 16.27 mph.

We spent an additional hour with photo breaks, a stop at the brand new visitors’ center at the National Seashore (paid for with funds from the National Recovery Act), and a stop for blue berry muffins and energy drink at Jason’s Corner in New Smyrna.

This was the first time that Mike and I had taken a long ride together since 1979 when we did our last Hilly Hundred in Bloomington, Indiana, where Mike had just earned his degree at Indiana University’s School of Music. Old habits, however, formed long ago during some 6,000 miles of distance cycling that we did together, have stayed with us.

Neither of us is in as good a shape for cycling as we were thirty years ago, and on the day after, I was more fatigued than I like to admit.

Even so, on this year’s New Smyrna Metric Century we conquered the miles as though life’s ride could go on forever.

Bicycle rider on Amtrak trains

November 15, 2012

With my Davidson bike in the baggage car, Dervla Murphy’s classic bicycle book Full Tilt on my lap, and my wife by my side I’ve been riding Amtrak: The Cardinal from Indianapolis to Charlottesville, the Piedmont from Charlotte to Cary (both in North Carolina), and the Silver Star from Cary to Deland, Florida.

One of Amtrak’s positive features is its approach to traveling with bicycles. With pedals removed and handlebars turned, bikes can travel in cardboard boxes purchased from Amtrak for $15, or they can be transported in other bike cases of the passenger’s choice. In either case, the transportation charge per ticket is only $5.00. Since my bike is equipped with S & S couplers, it packs in a soft case that travels as checked baggage at no charge. On some trains, bikes can be ridden to the baggage car where they travel hanging from a hook on the wall.

Most of my train travel, which started 75 years ago, has been on western trains, such as the Empire Builder, the Coast Starlight, the Cascades (the local Amtrak subsidized by Oregon and Washington), and the San Joaquin (subsidized by California). The trip this year has reinforced my determination that henceforth overnights on Amtrak will be on cars with sleeping compartments!

Train personnel are polite and pleasant. Most seem interested in helping passengers travel comfortably. Station crews differ from one place to another. Some are civil but impatient, with little apparent interest in helping travelers. Others really want to help. The outstanding examples on this trip were personnel at the Cary station.

Equipment varies widely. In contrast with our favorite air carrier where standardization rules, Amtrak accepts diversity. Cars come from different manufacturers, with differing design characteristics, and they stay in service for a long time. Some are double deckers, which I enjoy, and others are low riders, which are adequate for short hauls. Club cars and diners differ in their services and style. Western trains have observation lounges, but this amenity was missing on the trains we used on this trip.

Cars are well-equipped with electrical outlets, and electronic devices are easy to use. Mobile phone service is available, depending on the terrain, and Wi-Fi is advertised as available, although I made no use of it.

Stations differ widely from one city to another. Faded glory survives in some stations from the classic era, with Portland and Seattle as good examples. Our local station in Vancouver, Washington, is another station from an earlier era, and it has recently been renovated so that it is functional, clean, and pleasant.

The grubbiest we have seen on this trip is in Indianapolis where the station is a bare-bones space, salvaged under an elevated track, with gray I-beams, dirty floors, dim lights, and station personnel whose manners seem just right for such a disheartening space.

In contrast, newer, smaller stations, in places like Charlottesville and Charlotte (and Martinez, California), are bright and clean, and they communicate a sense of wellbeing. On this trip, the station in Cary, North Carolina, was best of all. Its construction included funds from the National Recovery Act.

Although North Carolina’s presidential vote was for Romney, Wake Country (where Cary is located) was Obama territory and he won with 35,000 more votes than he received in 2008. Brochures in the station make it clear that the city of Cary is interested in passengers and wants them to notice their community.

The state subsidized Piedmont (Charlotte-Greensboro-Cary-Raleigh) is a model of good public transportation. The cars are beautifully restored and modernized coaches from an earlier era. A volunteer host, with blue blazer and red tie, greeted passengers, offered assistance, and tidied up the seats when passengers detrained. The train stopped frequently as it made its way across the state. Although many of the riders traveled relatively short distances, most seats were occupied most of the time.

There were no food services on the train, but the club car provided complementary coffee, tea, and bottled water. Vending machines offered a wide variety of beverages and snack foods at ordinary prices. The rest rooms were modern and clean, and they worked. Our three-hour ride was thoroughly enjoyable.

Some of our travel on this extended tour has been by air and on highways in rental cars. The ugliest part of the trip was on the interstates and expressways of Greensboro and Charlotte. The finest parts were on Amtrak, which on the right trains is the next best thing to a bicycle ride.

Our Amtrak journey through the New River Gorge in West Virginia was the travel highlight of this trip. More about that another time.


From Kennedy v. Nixon to Obama v. Romney

November 8, 2012

On the day after President Obama was reelected president of the United States, I woke up in Indianapolis where we are spending a few days visiting family members. Hardly had I stumbled out of bed, when my mind flashed back to November 9, 1960, the morning after the presidential election in which John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon by a nation-wide margin of only 100,000 votes.

Kennedy was the first Catholic to serve in that office, the first president born in the twentieth century, and the youngest person to be elected to the high office. The vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket was Lyndon B. Johnson, long-time leader of the Senate.

Richard Nixon had served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, and his running mate was a senior Republican figure, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Together, they represented traditional Republican patterns of thought and political action, while the Kennedy-Johnson ticket represented the probability of significant changes in the direction that the United States would be traveling.

In 1960, I was halfway through my doctoral studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. On election day, the campus was alive with eager anticipation that Kennedy would win, and the day after was rife with palpable joy all over the Bay Area.

I spent the day flying to Indianapolis where I was to be interviewed for a position on the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary. On the morning of the interview, the air was clear, the leaves beautifully colored, and puddles along Sunset Road were covered with crustings of thin ice.

In sharp contrast to the beauty outside, however, the seminary campus was marked by apocalyptic gloom. Students, staff, and faculty seemed united in their despondency because of the Kennedy-Johnson victory despite the fact that Johnson had grown up in a Texas congregation of the same Christian Church movement with which the seminary was and is affiliated.

I am not well versed in the literature that discusses the tendency of Protestant church leaders of that era to favor the values espoused by the Republican Party of their time. I had picked it up as part of my preparations to be a minister in my church, which is probably the reason why I had cast my first vote after turning twenty-one for Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Although it took me a decade or more to change my registration, I found myself voting increasingly for Democratic candidates across the full electoral range. On that post-election day 52 years ago, I felt right at home in Berkeley’s ecstasy and was bemused by the despairing mood in Indianapolis.

During the next few years, as the CTS faculty was remade with new hires of young professors, the political mood on campus changed, and the seminary’s personnel became increasingly identified with liberal politics despite the fact that Indianapolis and much of the Mid-West continued to favor classic Republicanism.

Long since retired, I have returned to the Portland-Vancouver locale of my early years, to a section of the country that consistently favors progressive values and policies, a region that this week helped boost Obama into his second term.

We arrived for our Indianapolis visit shortly after midnight on election day. Later in the day, after a few hours of sleep, I spent several hours on the campus of my beloved seminary (now relocated and housed in a building of our time). Although my purpose was to do research on a writing project, I found that political talk was in the air.

Someone reported that the seminary’s new president and his wife had done door-to-door calling for Obama. And friends on faculty and staff, with whom I had served prior to my retirement in 1995, were anxiously awaiting results, cautiously hopeful that Obama would triumph across the nation even though it was a foregone conclusion that Romney would easily win Indiana’s vote.

In these post-election days, I have been thinking about this change of political alignment, wondering why it has come about. One answer is that the seminary’s primary constituency, the ecumenical Protestant churches, continue to represent the push for new patterns in American life.

Our churches have challenged the old orthodoxies that supported discrimination and unjust treatment based on gender, race, and class. While we have advocated a new kind of America, a wide range of newly potent versions of evangelical Protestantism have continued to support the old ways, and until lately they have constituted the majority of the nation.

This election, however, has decisively demonstrated that the old domination by white people, and especially by white males, has ended. A new America is emerging.

I am grateful that during this half-century of cultural change I and my seminary have and continue to be part of the progressive branch of the Protestant tradition. Long may this new tradition live!

Remembering people who have kept the faith

November 1, 2012

November 1, “All Saints Day,” is a time when churches around the world remember and honor people who have completed their life and “now dwell in the house of the Lord,” to use the phrasing from Psalm 23. On this day, it is only natural that we remember people who have been especially close to us and who completed their earthly pilgrimage during the previous twelve months.

From ancient times until our own era, however, All Saints Day has also provided an opportunity to celebrate the faith, piety, and significant works of notable people from every time and place. By keeping their examples alive, we are encouraged to live our own lives with courage, patience, and imagination.

One of the oldest public prayers in Christian worship does this very thing. It recites the names and suggests the good works of representatives from across the age, men and women who have lived exemplary lives in the face of all kinds of challenges. When combined with the hymn “For all the saints,” and proclaimed by a choir weaving its way through the congregation, this prayer form is one of the church’s most majestic and moving acts of praise.

One of the good things about this All Saints Litany, is that the list of names and the character of their mighty deeds can be revised in order to keep pace with developments in the saga of the faith. On the devotional site maintained by Mission St. Clare, I recently came across a distinctive version of the litany that is chanted annually at the Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, D.C.

In a note accompanying the litany, the St. Clare editor says that It “was composed around 1979, largely by William MacKaye, former religion editor of the Washington Post, though some of the images were taken from A Liberation Prayer Book of the Free Church in Berkeley, California, and has been adapted here and there in the subsequent years.”

I have downloaded this version and adapted the format for personal use. An excerpt is below. The links in this blog and the pdf version of the litany were inserted by the St. Clare editor. To view the entire litany, click A Litany of All the Saints:

Stephen the deacon, the first martyr, stoned in Jerusalem:

Stand Here Beside Us!

Justin, Ignatius, and Polycarp, who refused the incense to Caesar:

Stand Here Beside Us!

Perpetua and Felicity, torn by beasts in the arena at Carthage:

Stand Here Beside Us!

Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, burned in Oxford:

Stand Here Beside Us!

Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, put to death at Auschwitz:

Stand Here Beside Us!

James Reeb, Jonathan Daniels, Michael Schwerner,
Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, shot in the South:

Stand Here Beside Us!

Martin Luther King, shot in Memphis:

Stand Here Beside Us!

Janani Luwum, shot in Kampala:

Stand Here Beside Us!

Oscar Romero, shot in San Salvador:

Stand Here Beside Us!

Martyrs of Rome, of Lyons, of Japan, of Eastern Equatorial
Africa, of Uganda, of Melanesia,
martyrs of everywhere:

Stand Here Beside Us!