Bicycle Rider in a Yellow Ocher World

September 6, 2016


Palouse Hills After Harvest

Palouse Hills After Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Tetons

The Grand Tetons

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

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

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

 The Yellow Ocher World

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

Grasping the Scale of the Bicyclist’s World

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

Requiem for Western Woodlands

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

Big Hole National Battlefield

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

America’s Ice-Age Rivers

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

The Ghostly Cyclist

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



Open Road Cyclist in the Heart of the City

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

Indianapolis Bike Map

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

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

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

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

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

Keith at Riley Tower 2

Ride’s End

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

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

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

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

Learning to live in Indy

August 22, 2016
Downtown Indianapolis from Riley Tower

Downtown Indianapolis from Riley Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 11, 2016
Wright's Hardware in Downtown Cathlamet

Wright’s Hardware in Downtown Cathlamet

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

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

A Farm in the Rain Shadow of the Olympics

A Farm in the Rain Shadow of the Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle from the Ferry

Seattle from the Ferry




St Paul in the Park Blocks

August 7, 2016

The churchFCC Steps’s first historian was named Luke and he contributed two books to the Christian writings published in the Bible. The first book tells the story of Jesus, his birth, ministry, crucifixion, and continuing life in Christian experience. The second, often referred to as the Acts of the Apostles, reports on the first generation of Christian history. The dominant figure in this second book is St. Paul the Apostle.

One of Luke’s techniques for telling his story is to set the stage in dramatic detail and then give us a brief rendition of a speech or sermon by a central character like Stephen the first Christian martyr or Paul who became the church’s most prominent missionary theologian. Paul travelled to cities of the Roman world and often talked with and preached to people in these places.

During the summer I have been guest preacher twice at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Portland, Oregon. In these sermons I have imagined what Paul might say if he were to come to my city and preach to Portland’s diverse population on the front steps of this church in the center of this city’s cultural and religious life.

The first of these sermons, preached on July 3, 2016, was based on Romans 13:1-7 in which Paul gives his counsel to people living in the center of political and economic power in the Roman world. The second was preached on August 7, and it draws upon Paul’s sermon to people in Athens, the cultural and religious center of the ancient world. The manuscript for this sermon begins with the following paragraphs. As preached, however, the sermon included additional ideas, comments, and citations that do not appear in this manuscript. Ordinarily the podcast of sermons as preached is posted at during the following week.

St Paul in the Park Blocks (Part II): Say a Good Word For Jesus

One of the most dramatic episodes in Luke’s history of the church’s early life is the day when Paul, the church’s first theologian, gave an open-air sermon in one of the most prominent places in Athens. This city had long been the center of culture and religion in the ancient world. Although political and economic power had gravitated to Rome, Athens was still the place where philosophers, religious leaders, and ordinary people gathered to compare the stories, rituals, and ideas that helped them cope with the mysteries and challenges of life.

There’s no place quite like the Areopagus in Portland, but our South Park Blocks make a reasonable counterpart. Portland State University provides the philosophers, and classic churches represent various religious explanations of life. The art museum, including the one-time Masonic Temple, reminds us of the diversity of religious and cultural interpretations of life.

New gatherings of people from other world religions, including Islam and Buddhism, are here. Many people in our neighborhood, Portland’s cultural center, resist religious affiliation. Increasingly, our part of town displays the contrast between homeless poverty and high-rise towers that are the temples of economic power and personal wealth.

So what would Paul say if he were on our front steps preaching to a crowd crowding around the Park Avenue-Columbia Street intersection? No one knows, but we can imagine possibilities by studying the sermon that Luke provides in today’s reading from Acts.

Read more. . . .St Paul-Part II

My classic bike comes home again

July 19, 2016
Mercian Bike in North Portland

Mercian Bike in North Portland

On July 8, I posted a blog announcing my decision to sell the classic Mercian bicycle that has been one of my loves for 43 years. The blog went online at 6:00 am just before I left for my 7:00 o’clock Friday breakfast with the Friendly Old Fellows from my church.

At 8:15, as I was leaving the restaurant, my Indianapolis son was on the phone. He had just read the blog and hoped that there still was time to get the bike back. “Dad, I can fix a place for it in my garage. Even if you don’t ride it any more, it needs to stay in the family.” Later in the day, one of his Indianapolis sisters echoed his sentiment. “If I had room at my place, I would have made the same offer.”

Their entreaties were enough to persuade me. Even a casual reading of last week’s blog shows that my heart was not in the decision to put the bike on consignment. I called the bike shop and reported my change of mind. They’ll do the repairs that it needs and I’ll pick it up in a few days.

One more factor enters into this discussion. As my family and many of my friends know, I plan to reestablish my home in Indianapolis. With the Mercian at my son’s home, I will be able to join him more easily in rides around his part of the northeastern fringe of Indianapolis. His principal bike is the Orange Co-Motion bike I used for a decade after putting the Mercian into semi-retirement. We’ll make a fine pair as we cruise around a nice part of the world on these fine bikes.


Choosing tires at the point where performance, price, and reliability intersect

Fixing a Flat Under the Light Rail Tracks

Fixing a Flat Under the Light Rail Tracks

For several years I have subscribed to Seattle based Bicycle Quarterly and have benefitted greatly from much of the work that writers in this journal discuss. I consistently ride on wider tires at lower pressure than I used for most of my cycling history.

After a long delay, I finally decided to try a set of Compass tires that the people in Seattle have developed and sell. My hesitation was based on my uneasiness about the reliability of these high-performance, light weight tires. I mounted a pair in January in time to ride them for a month with many miles on Amelia Island, Florida, a week of PAC Tour’s Desert Training Camp in southern Arizona, and another week of occasional riding around Tucson.

The tires mounted easily, felt good on my rides, and showed no wear during these winter rides. After I returned home, however, my experience changed. Repeated flats have let me down. They have occurred on regular training routes near my home, on a pleasure excursion in the Coast Range outside of Seaside, Oregon, at the 65-mile mark on the annual Ride Around Clark County, 20 miles from nowhere on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens on the annual Tour de Blast, and finally at an awkward place three miles from home on my regular commuting route from downtown Portland.

Half way through this series of flats, my confidence began to waver, but the tires do give a good ride. They show few blemishes from road debris that might lead to flats. The last let-down, however, persuaded me that despite the confidence in these tires exuded by the Bicycle Quarterly folks they don’t work for me.

I’m at Seaside again for a few days. The first thing I did upon arrival was replace these tires with a set of tried-and-true Continentals. I may even dare the ride up into the high country again while I’m here. As it has been throughout the years, I choose my tires at the point where performance, price, and reliability intersect. For now, I’m making the choice based on reliability. Next year, maybe, I’ll try again for performance (but probably not with Compass).

Rinker Buck’s Rapturous Journey on the Oregon Trail

July 14, 2016

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015)


The Oregon Trail

During the summer of 2011 Rinker Buck, his brother Nick, and Nick’s dog Olive Oyl drove a mule-drawn covered wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon. It was the first covered wagon crossing of this historic route since Ezra Meeker’s journey in 1909.

In his book Buck gives readers an adventure story filled with close calls, unexpected encounters with places and people, equipment failures, and tension between the brothers. Less determined and resourceful travelers would certainly have been deterred from completing the journey.

The book is also a fact-filled history of what is probably the greatest land based migration in human history, when 400,000 people made this pilgrimage across what was called the great American desert. Before, during, and after his crossing, Buck immersed himself in literature about the Oregon Trail: journals of the pioneers, modern histories, and descriptions of the trail itself and sites along the way.

Despite their upbringing in suburban New Jersey, the Buck brothers had significant experiences in early life with horses and mules and with their family had made a covered wagon trip into Pennsylvania. Buck’s research, also reported in his book, included literature on the breeding, care, and driving techniques related to mules.

The book describes candidly the complex relations of the two brothers who from childhood through middle age had developed in markedly different ways. Throughout their adult years, they had lived apart, and their relationship was fraught with tension. Although they found ways of living and working together throughout their trip across the plains and mountains of the West—and could never had made the trip without each other—they parted at journey’s end still facing life in different ways but with a new sense of acceptance.

Rink dedicates the book to “Nicholas McMahon Buck, who got us there with rare gumption and skill.”

With these complex and intersecting narratives, The Oregon Trail is a long book. Its narrative drive is fired by the dream that came to Rinker Buck at the restored Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express Station maintained by the Kansas Historical Society. Describing that occasion, he writes about the “preposterous scheme” that he concocted.

“But you can’t save an addictive dreamer from himself, and that jackass happens to be me. Already, powerful forces were drawing me west. I felt an irresistible urge to forsake my life back east for a rapturous journey across the plains” (p. 8).

Usually when I read a book, I take notes along the way, partly to help remember ideas and insights, partly to use in my ongoing work as religious historian and contemplative cyclist. The Buck brothers’ “new American journey” was too interesting an adventure story for me to break the momentum with note-taking. A second reading will allow me pay more attention to Rink Buck as historian and interpreter of the American journey.

Although Buck is aggressively hostile toward religion and religious practice, his interpretations of the Whitman Mission and Mormon activities in the West are useful additions to the literature about their respective roles in shaping western culture. One of the pages I flagged uses colloquial language to describe the human condition that usually is obscured by traditional religious terminology.

The two brothers are talking about earlier times in their family’s life when things had not gone well, and Rinker reports that “over the next few days, I was occasionally moody” because of this remembered history. Trying to be helpful, Nick declares—in his own crude way—that Rink is fucked up, but not any more than the next guy, and that “nobody ever really recovers from anything.” Then comes a remarkable description of what theologians entitle original sin.

“’You’re probably right,’ I said, to which Nick responded: “There’s no fuckin cure for any of us, Rinker. Get into it dickhead. I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up, okay? Fucked up is normal.” Rinker then adds his reflective response. “Nick was right, I decided. Fucked up is the universal condition of man” (p. 196).

For me, the most surprising aspect of this book is that one person stands out as exemplar of all who made this epic journey across the west: Narcissa Whitman, who lived America’s “national irony to the fullest.” He describes her as the “proud, self-important evangelist from the Finger Lakes, incapable of getting along with the Cayuse,” and as “the brave, adventurous woman galloping sidesaddle up South Pass.” We don’t have to choose between these two identities because “Narcissa Whitman was both” (p. 414).

At the end of the summer, Rinker Buck not only had had a great journey and understood America more clearly, but he was at peace with his past.