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

Bicycle rider in Morro Bay

March 15, 2014


Morro Rock at the Embarkadero

Morro Rock at the Embarkadero

For several weeks I had projected a 300-mile bike tour along California’s Central Coast, from Morro Bay south to San Clemente. The opportunity had arisen because we were hoping to connect family visits in Morro Bay and San Clemente.

Because of scheduling problems, the San Clemente part of the trip and the bike ride were scrubbed, and it’s a good thing! I would have been riding down the coast during several days of heavy rains that interrupted the worst drought that California has endured since the early 1860s. Since I didn’t didn’t bring my bike to Morro Bay, I used some of my time reading and thinking about climate on California’s Central Coast.

Cyclonic wind shear: A column in The San Luis Obispo Tribune explains the meteorological event that would have caused me such distress if I had been cycling the previous week: the intense rainstorm that had hit the region on February 28 and March 1. John Lindsey reported in his  column Weather Watch that it was “one of the most powerful Pacific storms that I’ve seen off the San Luis Obispo County coastline in my meteorological career.” The southern branch of the polar jet stream brought upper-level winds of 150 knots from the western Pacific. At the same time, “relatively warm air at the Earth’s surface from the south moved north, producing a cyclonic wind shear.”

These intersecting air masses “liberated great amounts of latent heat as water vapor condensed into clouds and precipitation.” It also caused rapid and sharp drop in air pressure and “near hurricane force winds.” The ocean’s surface was dramatically affected: 40-foot seas, longer-period swells, and damaging westerly swells that hit piers ordinarily protected from El Niño-driven storms (“Big waves not swell for piers,” The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, March 2, 2014).

The West Without Water

The West Without Water

Drought-flood-fire: During my time in Morro Bay, Cal Poly historian Dan Krieger described one of the region’s historic and devastating droughts in his column in the San Luis Obispo Tribune (which he has written since 1984). He helps me understand the distinctive import of the climatological history of the Southwest that is described in more technical language in a book I reviewed a short time ago:  The West Without Water. Its authors describe a meteorological pattern in which long periods of dry weather and drought are followed by episodes of wetter climate, often with such heavy precipitation that wide-spread flooding occurs. Hardly does the water subside, however, when everything dries out and intense wild fires break out. (See my review.)

During two rainless years, beginning in 1862, Krieger writes, “virtually all of the herds of mission-bred cattle and sheep were destroyed”—as many as 300,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep died. “The late afternoon sun created an almost blinding effect, as its light was reflected from the chalk-white carcasses in El Potero de San Luis Obispo, the old mission pasture, now the Cal Poly campus just north of town.” The drought marked the “real end of rancho days along the Central Coast.”

As soon as the drought was over (around 1865), new investors began buying vast tracts of land. Edgar Willis Steele and his brothers, for example, bought 45,000 acres for $1.10 an acre. The rains had returned and the tall, green grass justified their descriptive title for their purchase: “cow heaven.” (The Tribune, March 9, 2014). Although some of the people who made these massive purchases fell onto hard times, California has enjoyed a relatively moist climatic period since that time.

Since then, there have been more dry periods, but less severe than the one in 1862, followed by short periods of heavy rain and frequent wild fires. Because this sequence is thought to be the normal rhythm of life in this part of the world, Californians continue their regular activities confident that the reservoirs and irrigation systems will get them through droughts so that they can maintain normal life despite the alternation of wet and dry periods.

I wa unnerved, however,  by the report on a local news channel during our short time in Morro Bay that wild fires are likely to break out within the next couple of weeks despite nearly five inches of rain since early February.

Krieger starts his column with a reference to The Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, published in 1903. Fortunately, this series of essays about Death Valley has been reissued in later editions and three used copies are available at Powells.

Morro Bay Power Plant

Morro Bay Power Plant

Wave energy power supply: Since the 1950s, one of Morro Bay’s landmarks has been the natural gas-fired electrical generating plant located on the shoreline facing the community’s most important identifying mark, the Morro Rock. A short time ago, this power plant was closed.

One reason was that new state and federal regulations would require upgrading so that the plant would use less sea water in its processes; the owners considered that the costs would be too high. A second reason may be that the size of this plant is so small that it no longer is a necessary part of the power grid for California. A third reason is that the plant’s current owners are increasingly interested in renewable energy, and this plant’s location opens the possibility of engaging in the new wave energy process for generating electricity.

News reports that I read while visiting the Central Coast towns indicate that environmentalists are happy that the plant has closed. Although the city of Morro Bay had been receiving $750,000 a year in fees and taxes, these funds were no longer being used for the city’s operational budget but instead were being deposited in a reserve fund. Some people in the community see the plant’s closing as one more example of the pressure by environmentalists to force economically unfeasible changes upon businesses that are OK the way they are.

For reports on the closing of the plant, see articles published on November 8, 2013, and February 5, 2014.

Green again in California

March 10, 2014
California After Rain

California After Rain

 California’s worst drought in a century has eased a little with two rainstorms as February has morphed into March. A trip through the state on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is giving me the chance to see how the “green and golden” state is looking now that a little water has come down.

After watching the sun rise during the station stop in Sacramento, I stared with unbelieving eyes as the train continued through Davis, the Delta, along the Straits into the East Bay Area, and from San Jose to our destination in San Luis Obispo. Much of what I saw was green.

Well-tended lawns and golf courses, of course. Even during a drought, some patches of green receive the moisture they need. What surprised me were the scruffy patches of grass along the tracks and in untended vacant lots. Green! Puddles and ponds all around. Farmland was intensely green, and marshy land was well supplied with wild water foul. Just like Oregon’s Willamette Valley that we had seen the previous afternoon.

Cattle on a California Hillside

Cattle on a California Hillside

The California hill country, which ordinarily is green from mid winter until May when it turns “golden,” was green. When the tracks ran close to the slopes, I could see that the stands of grass were sparse, but the color was true. In a few more days, I concluded, it will get longer and thicker.

What surprised me most, however, was the truck farming land around Salinas. Even though I had read that Central Valley farmers were probably not going to get irrigation water from the reservoirs, signs of active irrigation were evident in Steinbeck country. For the moment, at least, life in California continues as though it will continue the same as always.

Sprinklers at Work

My recent readings on the long-term climatic patterns in the southwest, however, have made it clear that this is not likely to be the case. In fact, the combination of drought-floods-fire that California has endured in recent months replicates a pattern that has been in place for eons in America’s desert southwest.

Most indications are that we are moving into one of the long, dry periods. Although dams and irrigation systems have protected us from the extremes for a century, it is increasingly unlikely that these engineering measures will be sufficient for the period that seems to be coming.

Shared BordersThe book that I brought to read on the train—Shared Borders, Shared Waters—is a collection of essays by scholars and water scientists from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Mexico, and the United States. They were prepared for a conference in 2009 at the University of Arizona in which the participants focused attention upon policies and practices concerning the use of water resources in two of the most arid populated places on earth. My interest in the book was initiated when one of the editors asked permission to use one of my photos as part of the cover art.

The essays discuss the way that two arid regions—the Jordan River Valley and the Colorado River Basin—are shaped by the scarcity of water. The authors discuss the history and water policy and practice in the several nations the coexist in the two regions that the book considers.

I am especially interested in the deeper political and ethical issues that arise water as supplies diminish and the engineering responses become ever more complex. These aspects of the mounting crisis are frequently discussed through many of the essays in this rather technical book.

In a few days, as I do this year’s week of PAC Tour’s Winter Training Camp for serious cyclists, I will again be surrounded by the reality of an expanding population in a land of little water. As time and energy permit, I will continue reading the essays in Shared Borders, Shared Waters. In this way, mind and body will be mutually engaged in experiencing what may be the most serious issue facing the human community in our time.

Because my interest in the issues related to water continues to grow, I may open a new “page” in my blog. Currently there are three: American Religion, Cycling, and Opinion. The fourth would be entitled “Water” or something like that. As the photo of the Columbia River Gorge on my masthead indicates, water has been in the blog’s background all of the time. It will likely become a more prominent feature as we move into spring when well-watered land produces the food on which we all depend.

Salinas Valley

Salinas Valley

A lover’s quarrel with his church

March 8, 2014

A Lover’s Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, by Joe R. Jones. Foreword by Stanley Hauerwas (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).

JonesThe lover in the book title is Joe R. Jones, retired theologian, professor, and academic administrator. The beloved church is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in which Jones was reared, educated, ordained, and employed through much of his career. The quarrel is the author’s contention that his church needs theological renewal at its deepest level in order to continue as a faithful and effective witness of the Christian gospel in the world today.

A Lover’s Quarrel follows two other books that Jones has published since his retirement in 2000. A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine (published in 2002) is a two-volume exposition of Christian theology based on many years of graduate level teaching in three seminaries. Jones frequently references this book in his later publications.

On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times (published in 2005) contains lectures, papers, sermons, prayers, and other documents (some previously published) that represent the wider range of Jones’ theological and cultural work. As the title indicates, Jones understands himself to be a theologian in the church and for the church rather than a scholar who understands theology primarily as an academic discipline.

Jones’ latest book continues the pattern of the previous volume in that it is a collection of documents of varied character, all but two of them written since 2005. These recent documents, he writes, “are consistent with the overall perspective conveyed in the Grammar volumes” although they “were occasioned by time-specific personal and public events, politics, and church life” (viii).

Jones divides the book into four parts that indicate the range of his interests: (1) Ecumenical Theologizing with Ecclesial Friends; (2) On Being Mugged by Politics but Lifted by Gospel Hope; (3) Fragments from Times Past and Emerging Hopes; (4) Sermons Ventured on Behalf of the Witness of the Beloved Church. The chapters vary in length from two-page blogs to substantive papers, notably: “Salvation: Mapping the Salvific Themes of Christian Faith,” and “Yoder and Stone-Campbellites: Sorting the Grammar of Radical Orthodoxy and Radical Discipleship.” Read more. . . A Lover’s Quarrel

Cycling in my niche of the world

March 5, 2014
Multnomah Village Looking East

Multnomah Village Looking East

A few paragraphs by David James Duncan explain why I enjoy bicycling in the southwestern section of Portland, Oregon, the area anchored by a place called Multnomah Village.

In an essay entitled “The Non Sense of Place,” Duncan tells his readers that after living the first four decades of his life in Oregon, witnessing “the ruin of so many beloved native places,” he tried in 1993 to “move from the Oregon of the nineties back to the Oregon of the sixties—by moving from Multnomah County, Oregon, to Missoula County, Montana.”

DuncanHe acknowledges, however, that he will never know his niche in Montana as fully as his children may come to know it, because “as a child you eat, drink, and breathe a place in so deeply it becomes part of you for life. This is precisely what excludes me: as a child I ate, drank, breathed, and became part of someplace else” (50).

My earliest years were spent in the Palouse country of southeastern Washington, but when I was in the second grade we moved into the rainy, rural world west of the Cascades. After two false starts, we landed in a transitional zone on the other side of the west hills from downtown Portland.

I was just getting started in the fifth grade.

Alpenrose Dairy pastured cows, raised hay, milked and bottled across the road, and other small farms around us also produced milk that they sold to Alpenrose or to its competitors, Silverhill and Fulton Park Dairies.

While we lived in the country, the city was close by, and Multnomah, established as a station stop for the defunct Oregon Electric Railroad, was its outpost. Part of the Portland system, Multnomah Grade School was dramatically different from the one-room school I had attended down in the Willamette Valley. From there, I went to Lincoln High which provided a liberal arts education far superior to the one I later received in college.

Because our family didn’t own an automobile, we walked places: a mile up Vermont Street to catch the city bus to downtown Portland, a mile and a half to Multnomah to buy groceries and drug store items, attend church, and patronize a branch of the city’s library system. By the time we were eleven or twelve, my brother and I had bikes—my freedom machine is the way my brother describes his—and the larger world was ours.

I moved away from that world when I was eighteen—to college in Eugene, Oregon, seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, five years in northern California, and thirty-three years back in Indianapolis.

“True home places,” Duncan writes, “are like true loves. I imagine a lucky individual could experience thee or four such places. But the usual karmic dose, per lifetime, seems to be one, maybe two.”

In the two generations of time since I moved away, the urban outpost I knew has gentrified a little, hence the adding of “Village” to its name. The feed and grain store became a lawn and garden tractor store and now is the Starbucks where my brothers and I meet for coffee once in a while.  Multnomah School across Capitol Highway is now a community center. The old storefronts have been updated with new businesses.  The library’s gone, but Annie Bloom’s Books is a splendid replacement.

Multnomah SignOn Friday morning (February 28), after breakfast on S E Broadway with the old guys from my church, I renewed my heart while adding some hard conditioning miles on my Waterford winter bike. Across the Willamette on the Broadway Bridge, a stop at Powell’s Books, and then I headed south: the gentle hills of Terwilliger Boulevard, up Slaven Road and Capitol Highway through Hillsdale to the Cider Mill, and then west on Vermont Street.

A long coast past some farmland turned into a park brought me within a city block of the spot where my childhood home once stood, and then I continued on to Oleson Road. In Garden Home, I spotted the old school turned community center where my mother taught third grade for a generation, and then worked hard cycling up the grades on Garden Home Road until I reached the viaduct that goes into the old main street of Multnomah.

My lunch was a bowl of turkey chili at Grand Central Bakery. Although this little place on Multnomah Boulevard (which once was the Electric Railroad right of way) is part of the village’s more recent life, it suits me exactly.

As I write this, I realize that I feel much the same about the Illinois Street Emporium, a short walk from my long-time home in Indianapolis. Maybe I do have two “karmic doses.” But for now, my bicycle takes me over my “niche” in the world, and my heart sings.