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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Riding with a roadrunner on the Santa Cruz River Trail

February 24, 2017


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.



Bicycling on Amelia Island: the Franklintown church and cemetery

February 10, 2017


Florida’s North Coast Highway A1A is one of the nation’s most scenic roads. As it runs through the southern half of Amelia Island, in the northeastern tip of the state, it has much to offer a contemplative cyclotourist. The two-lane highway has well-marked bike lanes, in addition to a bike trail for recreational cyclists. Up-scale residential communities and resorts flourish on both sides of the highway, but the roadway itself is tree-lined, protected from the wind, and restful.

This little stretch of coastal highway also provides the opportunity to delve into the continuing interaction of race, religion, and money in the development of American culture. Part of that story is kept alive by Franklintown United Methodist Church on Lewis Street just west of A1A and four miles north of the bridge over Nassau Sound.

The story begins in 1790 when the Robert Harrison family came to the southern tip of Amelia Island and in 1796 received a 600-acre land grant from the Spanish government. Two related families acquired neighboring grants. Each plantation owned slaves, as many as one hundred, to raise crops of rice, cattle, corn, and sea island cotton.

In his 1939 account of old families and plantations of Nassau County, recorded in the WPA Federal Writers’ Program, J. J. G. Cooper wrote that the Harrison plantation had a machine that separated the seed from cotton. His presumption, based on what people told him, was that the planters had learned about this machine from Eli Whitney who had travelled on nearby Cumberland Island in 1790 or 1792.

At the time of the Civil War, the Harrison plantation had grown to 1,000 acres. Union army soldiers swept through the region in 1862, freeing the slaves, but the Harrison family deeded small tracts on the southern edge of the plantation to slaves who remained loyal to the family. Others moved a little to the north and established the community of Franklintown.


In 1880 Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, an African American congregation in Fernandina Beach, the town on the northern part of Amelia Island, organized Franklintown Chapel. Eight years later, Gabriel Means, an ex-slave and Union army soldier, and his wife Edith Drummond Means donated land to the church. In 1892 a small frame building was constructed. In 1949, it was demolished because of highway A1A construction and a new frame church was built.

In 1935 a small group of black businessmen from Jacksonville established American Beach, a residential community with beach access. Their purpose was to provide a place on the ocean for African Americans who could not enjoy public beaches in the segregated south. It was just north of Franklintown and for the next thirty years these two communities lived side by side.

In 1972 a company based on Hilton Head Island bought much of Franklintown and took the initial steps to establish an elaborate ocean-fronting resort and luxury condominiums. The church had to move and was relocated on Lewis Street, near A1A in the northern portion of American Beach. A new brick chapel was constructed and the 1949 frame building was relocated to the new site and serves as the church’s fellowship hall. I am puzzled by the sign posted on this building that refers to the Franklintown Episcopal Methodist Church, which reverses the order of Methodist and Episcopal from the normal title used through history by Methodists in this country.

cem-2I have not yet learned the earlier location of this church, but I have found the original Franklintown cemetery, which is located in Plantation Point, a gated community just south of Lewis Street. On a cul-de-sac of $500,000 homes, there is one vacant lot that provides access to the cemetery. Most of the graves are unmarked, but the purpose of this tiny tract of land is made clear by those that are still identified. I was especially moved by the grave of Ola A. Williams, September 12, 1879 — August 15, 1991.

In her book The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Annette McCollough Myers describes challenges facing American Beach (and Franklintown) because of the influx of wealthy people, most of them white and from other parts of the nation. The people I see while cycling through Franklintown are just like me, white and alien to the territory. Realty reports online describe Franklintown as one of the wealthiest communities in the nation.

Perhaps because of the wealth, there also is despair. I talked briefly with one old African American man sitting in the shade near a convenience grocery on A1A, within sight of the church. He sat with his back to the road, staring at the ground, munching on chips from a ripped open bag. His speech was difficult to understand, but over and over again he repeated this simple refrain: “I want to go, but I don’t want to kill myself.”

Myers, Annette McCollough. The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Second Edition (Jacksonville, FL: High-Pitched Hum Publications, 2011). This book describes the history of American Beach from the 1980s through the early 2000s.

Is it ever too cold to ride?

January 7, 2017

snowEvery morning as the Mass Ave neighborhood in Indianapolis comes to life, bicycle riders are part of the mix. They join walkers and drivers on their way to 8:00 a.m. destinations. Even as winter’s darkness and falling temperatures settled into place, bikes, most of them with lights, kept appearing

On a Friday morning, I watched from my window with special interest: 7 degrees by the thermometer, minus 2 with the wind chill factored in; frozen slush on the Cultural Trail that cyclists prefer, and salt-treated but damp streets.

Walkers were out, some with dogs on their morning constitutional and others with business-like bags slung over their shoulder. And cyclists? From 7:15 to 7: 35, I saw two, a smaller number than on summer mornings, but there they were. The bikes had straight bars and lights, and the cyclists were bundled up and wearing back packs.

The surprise was that they were riding on the slushy and slick Cultural Trail rather than on the street where traction was probably better. This makes me think they were commuters rather than messengers, because those who ride their bikes to make their living usually pick the streets where they can ride hard and fast.

Twenty-five years ago, when I lived in a traditional Indianapolis neighborhood, I biked three miles each way to my teaching job regardless of temperature. On the coldest morning I remember, the temperature was officially reported to be minus 20, but the roads were dry and I waited until it was light enough to see. “It’s my benign eccentricity to ride regardless of weather,” I told students.

“15 above was my limit,” a book group acquaintance told me, “when I was commuting 10 miles each way to my job in Chicago. No matter how you dress, you have to breathe that super cold air, and I worried what it would do to my lungs.”

My rule for training rides back then was 25 and sunny, and decent roads. Under those conditions, I could manage a fast hour’s ride. During my recent years in the Pacific Northwest, I upped the limits to 35 and sunny, but I also factored in the east wind that on bright winter days could whistle down the Columbia River Gorge, over snow fields, and then chill out all but the most resolute cyclists

As a short distance commuter in Indianapolis, I wore my regular suit and tie, with trench coat, ear muffs, and heavy gloves when the weather turned cold. Training rides called for warm leggings over my cycling shorts, shoe coverings, and alternating layers of short- and long-sleeved shirts and jersey above the waist. A wool scarf and a wind breaker provided added warmth and could easily be removed to avoid over-heating.

A more challenging task for a cold weather cyclist is attitude adjustment. How can you keep going out day after day when temperatures fall?

For a commuter, the secret is to make the daily trip by bike a matter of basic routine, something you do every day as a matter of course. Once I decided that I would travel to campus by bike or by foot, it was easy. The daily question was not if I would head out on my bike (or when the roads were slick, on foot). Instead, the question was how to dress to meet the current conditions.

For training rides, the attitudinal factor was somewhat different. When I didn’t have to keep riding, it was easy not to go out when weather was unfavorable. What pushed me to keep going was a basic desire to stay in shape. I wanted to be in good enough condition that I could do 100 miles any day of the year. This meant that even during the winter I had to do rides that lasted from one to three hours so that during our annual short visit with our Florida son and his family, I could do much longer rides.

Now that I am an octogenarian open road cyclist, I am experiencing a weakening resolve. Short trips to the grocery store, bank, and library and occasional fifteen-mile round trips to the Irvington and Butler-Tarkington neighborhoods are as far as I’m likely to go,  unless the temperature gets into the 40s. That’s enough to keep be in good enough condition for my annual Florida and Arizona winter break when there will be many days with many more miles.

In March, when I get back home, spring will be coming back to Indiana. Hurray!

Ghost Bike on the Moon Trail

December 27, 2016

ghost-bikeThe day after Christmas in Indianapolis: 64 degrees, lowering clouds, promise of rain and falling temp, an almost perfect morning for a fast ride to wake up a sleepy set of muscles.

It was a good day to stay on familiar routes where it would be easy to turn around and sprint for home if a thunder storm brought in the rain: north on Illinois Street past the Wild Things public art, Riverview Drive to Broad Ripple Village, and north on a fine stretch of the Monon Trail. Pushed along by the wind, I rode easily and quickly. Not many cyclists were out, but walkers and runners had seized the moment, and I felt a vibrancy of happy people enjoying a surprisingly happy day.

On previous rides along the Monon, I had seen the Ghost Bike at the 75th Street crossing, but had never stopped. Today was different. Maybe the bold, white paint on a glowering day caught my attention. Many Ghost Bikes are recreational frames with straight handle bars, but this one has aggressive lines and serious drop bars. A plastic encased story hangs from the top tube. The first paragraph outlines the plot.

“I was hit at this intersection while riding my bike by a car that ran a red light on June 14, 2012. I’m alive today because I was wearing a helmet. There is another Ghost Bike at the south end of the Monon of a friend who wasn’t wearing a helmet and died when he hit a tree.”

The surviving cyclist collided with the windshield of the car and is confident that he would have died had he not been wearing his helmet. He found himself on the pavement with one leg “split open from knee to ankle.” Other people on the trail came to his rescue, applied a tourniquet, and phoned 911. He was hospitalized fourteen days and has had numerous operations and skin grafts.

He now has a “drop foot” and will always walk with a brace. He kept on cycling and reports that he has done two Hilly Hundreds. As all of us who have ridden the Hilly know, the hundred-mile, figure-eight weekend ride through the southern Indiana hills, calls for experienced riders in good shape.

“I still get nervous,” he writes, “when I approach this intersection and stop, push the button on the crosswalk and wait for the WALK sign even when there aren’t cars around.”

It’s an intersection that invites trouble. At this point, Westfield Boulevard, once a country road taking people out of town and long since a residential arterial, is close to the railroad right of way that became the Monon Trail. Because northbound Westfield angles toward the east just beyond this crossing, sight lines are obscured. The intersection is controlled with traffic lights, but even so drivers push. I know because when my children were growing up, we would take 75th to Westfield on our way to the swimming pool at the Jordon YMCA.

While I was reading the story, a married couple in their 50s, who were walking on the trail, stopped to talk. “The cyclist always loses,” he remarked, and I agreed that this is usually the case.

“We ride bikes a lot,” she continued, “but only while taking our spinning classes in a training center. “

“I’m so apprehensive,” he added, “that I always wear a helmet even on exercise bikes.”

I could have countered that most people continue to drive their automobiles despite the daily recitation on TV news of motor vehicle smash-ups, life-threatening injuries, and deaths. It wouldn’t make any difference to this couple. They are too scared to ride outside.

The irony of this story is that at this intersection cyclists are probably safer on Westfield Boulevard than on the bike trail. At the real intersection, drivers are at risk of colliding with other motor vehicles and they are less likely to let their attention wander or take a quick glance and run the light (whether yellow or red).

This part of the Monon is especially nice and I, along with other cyclists, will continue to use it, but the Ghost Bike at 75th will help me pay close attention to what I’m doing.

I continued my ride to 96th Street and then turned back into the wind toward home. With the change of direction, my energies quickly dwindled. When starting, I had felt strong enough to try for my end-of-the-year 50-mile ride. But as it turned out, 24.75 miles were as many as I wanted to do on this quiet day after Christmas.



Bicycling into winter

December 3, 2016


After living in mild climates for twenty-one years, I moved back to Indianapolis where real winter comes every year. In my former life as a Hoosier, I was able to make the seasonal shift, cycling to my teaching job all year ‘round, even on days when the morning temperatures were ten below zero. The guideline for recreational rides was twenty-five and sunny.

One dark morning this week, with a temperature in the twenties, however,  was unnerving. I have clothes that can keep me warm and OK routes on which to ride. What’s missing is the habit, the firmly implanted custom of not asking if it’s too cold to ride and, instead, checking the temperature only to decide how much to bundle up before heading out.

These days in Indianapolis, commuting is well under way an hour before glimmers of daylight brighten the dark sky. From my writing desk, I see them on the street five stories below my window: strong beams of light, some steady, some blinking, as people bicycle to work some place downtown. Not as many as on a summer day, but enough to prove that some riders keep going even as a warm fall morphs into a cold winter.

During the day as I wander around town—sometimes on foot and sometimes by bike—I see other cyclists who are riding, seemingly oblivious to forty degrees and twenty-mph northwest gusts. One day last week, when there were glints of sunshine in the sky, I was doing an errand on my bike. At a traffic signal, a man twenty-five years my junior was on his much-used bike next to me. ”It’s the only way to get around town!” he declared through the scarf that covered his face. And I agreed.

On another day, when my errands were easier on foot than on my bike, I realized that many of the cyclists I saw right then looked like bike messengers. Mostly young men, dressed in black, tight jeans or shorts, on simplified bikes with single gears and some with no brakes, they rode hard and fast; mostly on the street, but sometimes on sidewalks, darting through parking lots, little daunted by red lights or the niceties of urban traffic.

One of them showed up to make a delivery at my apartment tower just as I came home. “How many of you guys are there?” I asked, to which he responded: “Fifteen of us work for Jimmy John’s Sandwiches, and I have no idea how many more there are.”

A quick check on the internet suggests that the number is large, and it certainly must be the case that they’ll be out all winter, doing twenty to sixty miles a day, delivering goods and communications as fast as they can go. Blizzards in the air and thick ice on the streets, I suppose, will keep them in, but then the whole city will likely shut down for a few hours or days.

Since I’m a retired, self-directed writer, there’s no place where I have to go. My church, grocery store, and coffee shop are close enough to walk, and family members can come to dear old dad’s rescue when winter gets him down. But it irks me to let a mere contingency like winter keep me off my bike.

On a cold New Year’s Day in 2011, with temperature in the thirties and a cold east wind blowing down the Columbia River Gorge, I chickened out by driving ten miles to my Friday morning breakfast with the Friendly Old Fellows from my church and coffee with the New York Times at Peets Coffee and Tea. Usually I cycled down but on this morning it seemed too cold.

There at her usual table at Peets was one of the regulars, knitting while she sipped her tea. In a little while, she told me, she would suit up and join friends for a fifty-mile ride including hard climbing in Portland’s west hills.

Shamed and inspired by her example, I changed into cycling clothes as soon as I got home and out I went. Although the route I chose was only forty-seven miles long, that was close enough. The new year started with my sense of self restored.  Later that day I posted a blog entitled “Character vs. the East Wind.”

Today, however, I won’t be heading out into the coldest day of the year so far. I’ll take a nap, write this blog, and wait for the winter storm that’s coming our way. There’ll be plenty of time next week, after the first snow fall of the season, to work on character.

North Illinois Street, Indy: Cycling with the Wild Things

October 29, 2016


For close to forty years, my weekly routine has included vigorous bike rides three or four days a week, totaling seventy-five to 100 miles. Usually, there has been one ride of forty or more miles and the rest of the mileage in quick dashes of fifteen to twenty-five miles at a time.

One of the settling-in tasks for my first two months now that I have moved back to Indianapolis, living right downtown, is to find routes that meet certain criteria: paved roads, preferably with smooth surfaces; bike lanes or shoulders or sharrows (shared lane markers) to accommodate cyclists; relatively easy-going automobile traffic; long stretches with no stop signs or signals; and pleasant scenery.

Since early September when I moved into my apartment, I’ve logged 525 bicycle miles.  Two rides were about 65 miles each, and the others have been in fifteen to twenty-five mile segments along eight or nine different routes, most of which are discouraging. Streets are narrow and broken up. Traffic is heavy, pushy, and unfriendly toward cyclists. Several of these routes travel through neighborhoods equally broken up, with derelict houses, boarded up store fronts, and empty church buildings.

People often ask if I use the downtown cultural trail or the Monon Trail that starts on 10th Street a few blocks from my apartment and continues through the northern sections of Indianapolis to the town of Westfield nineteen miles distant. I have to answer “No” because the frequent cross streets require greater diligence and consistently slower speeds than I ordinarily use. The northern half of the Monon is more suitable, but even there, mixed usage—parents with strollers, children on bikes weaving back and forth, clusters of easy-going walkers, and skaters—make fast cycling difficult.

On a late October day, with bright sun, temperature about 62, and rich autumn colors on the trees, I did a ride that will become one of my regulars. North on Alabama Street (where I live) and then over a few blocks to North Illinois Street, which is the north-bound street paired with south-bound North Capitol Avenue (where our family lived for thirty-three years). Both streets are designated bicycle routes, with marked lanes or sharrows.

Then across the Central Canal to Riverview Drive and its wide arc that follows one of White River’s bends heading toward Broad Ripple Village. I turned south on Central Avenue, working my way back to Capitol Avenue and then south toward home.

Most of the way, this route meets the criteria listed above. The northern half (on the top side of 38th Street), travels through leafy suburban neighborhoods where the currents of life seem just like they were in the 1960s when we first moved to this part of Indianapolis. Although Indianapolis may never again seem as much like home as the Pacific Northwest, this ride takes me through a part of the city that does awaken strong, happy memories.

An added bonus is some public art, the wild things that I mention in the title to this report. On the street level of this route there’s nothing much bigger than chipmunks and squirrels running around on their own four legs.


One building on Illinois Street just north of 33rd, however, has been adorned with giant beasts in deep, surreal colors. Some are sea creatures and others roam on land. In broad daylight, of course, they bring smiles to my face and an easy-going feeling to my inner self.

This city has its troubles, its horrors by night and by day. But there also is love, joy, lightheartedness, and a playful spirit, and that’s what I see in these garish creatures.

I saw evidence of this brighter side of city life later in the afternoon. As I rode back home on Capitol, I noticed several new houses, with essentially the same design, and all painted gray. Two men at a front-yard sale just down the street, and almost straight across from the wild things on Illinois, explained. “They’re Habitat Houses, and they’re nice. Before they were built, those lots were just plain dumps and now they have good homes.”

On this Halloween weekend, many people will go to haunted houses and horror movies to get their kicks. As for me, I’ll ride up North Illinois Street and back down on Capitol. Wild things and happy homes! These are the things I want to see.