Friday, September 30, 2005

Thee Elm City




New Haven, Connecticut is where I now find myself. When most people ask where I'm from, I usually say New Haven. I honestly have never lived within the city limits, but Ansonia (where I'm really from) is 10 miles northwest of the Elm City. Besides, how many people are going to know where Ansonia is? Hell, people who have lived within spitting distance of Ansonia still don't know where it is!

I have always liked New Haven, and though it might be cool to say the place sucks, I still like New Haven. For a city of only 125,000 it has culture, no doubt helped by its most prominent landmark Yale University (where I am now typing this--don't tell anyone!) The joke in these parts goes: New Haven would be just like Bridgeport if not for Yale. (Bridgeport, 20 miles west, is Connecticut's largest city (yet mostly unknown by those outside of the state) and a textbook case of post-Industrial burnout.)

New Haven was the place that my dad brought me to when we wanted to go to "a city". My dad (and his parents) grew up in the city, so it was natural to gravitate to here. My favorite place to go to was Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History, filled with displays of dinosaur skeletons. Come on, I was a kid! The now vacant Coliseum is where we went to see concerts (Motley Crue in '90, dude! Tommy Lee fell on his head!) and the Green always held a festival or something every weekend in the summer.

I've been immersing myself in All Things Elm City since I've been here. I've eaten quite a bit of pizza (a city specialty), hung out in the coffee shops (which are open later than in Portland), and rode my bike around this crazy town. It's always fun to visit and hang out with old friends, but I don't think I'll ever return to live here.

While New Haven has stuff going on, it always felt a bit stifling, the big fish in small pond syndrome. The music scene has never gotten much respect (though that may change since the Mates of State, yes the Mates of State are based here) We've either had the "almost made its" (Spring Heeled Jack, Miracle Legion) or the "do we really want to admit they're from heres?" (Carpenters, and ugh, Michael Bolton). Due to the city's crippling inferiority complex, many bands or artists that want to "make it" move to either Boston or New York. It doesn't help that Beantown and the Big Apple are 125 miles and 80 miles from here, respectively. And New Haven is an easy two hour train ride to Grand Central via Metro North. New Haven will always be in New York's shadow. The Elm City's pervasive cynicism and jadeness pushed me to the West Coast in order to spread my wings. And I've been thriving ever since.

But there's been signs of positive change over the 5 years that I've left the area. While some of my cherished landmarks of old are now a memory (Tune Inn, York Square Cinemas), there have been things happening that I would never have imagined back then. For one, the city has its own zine library (housed in the basement of the Free Library, no less!) A community-oriented all ages music space opened in Hamden, the town to the north. And, surprise of surprises, New Haven has a burgeoning bicycle community, with a rad bike shop, a killer listserve, and a jumping Critical Mass (which be tonight), that numbers over 100 in the summer months. 100 is great for a city this size!

*****
Since last night, I've been crashing at my old friend Jesse's pad in West Haven, a quick 20 minute bicycle ride to downtown New Haven. (West Haven is um, west of, er, New Haven). I've known him for 10 years, when he was in Sgt. Scagnetti, the infamous ska band that I eventually became "merch guy" for. Jesse has become a local celebrity since he is the producer and a featured personality on Connecticut's number-one morning drive time radio show. It's weird because both my parents listen to the show and always talk to me about him. ("I heard on the radio that Jesse just bought a condo.")

And yep, I'm chilling at that condo right now. We took a trip down old memory lane and talked about old times, the band, the ska scene of the mid to late 90's in CT, the friends and acquaintances. Recounting old stories reminds me of why I stuck around the place for so long. The scene was hoppin' between 1995 and 2000 and I was thick in it. I made some good friends and saw plenty of great shows. It was only when everything fell apart did I finally have the cojones to leave my native lands and try out a new life. I miss some of the things from "back in the day", but that's all in the past. Memory has the tendency to retain the good and drop the bad, and believe me, there was plenty of bad to fill in the gaps. Might as well press on...

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Family.

I just finished a four-day stint staying at my mom's place in Ansonia, CT. I will say that I love my mom, but I'm glad it's over. My mom still lives in the tiny apartment that I grew up in, and now it's cramped since my aunt and her boyfriend currently occupy the bedroom that was once mine. Guess where I had to sleep?

As the years go by, I realize how much I have grown apart from my family--both my mom's side and my dad's side. It doesn't help that I don't tell them everything that goes on in my life. That's mainly because I don't really know how to relate the life I live to them. Any time that I try to it's met with confusion and amazement. ("You rode your bike between Minneapolis and Milwaukee? Why?")

After all I live in Portland, the vegan-hippie mecca where everyone rides bikes and hates Wal-Mart. (Well, maybe not everyone, but at least amongst my people.) While I'm from blue-collar roots (and did work in a factory for awhile) I hang out with artsy types that went to places like Oberlin, Hampshire, or Evergreen State. And I sure could use some more money, but don't always worry about it.

The closest thing to a career that I've had is my art. The folks ask me each time I return "How is your art doing?" and I tell them "Fine." I know they want to hear that I'm making good money off of it, a living if you will. While I am getting more freelance illustration gigs these days (the secret: learn how to draw bicycles) I know they really want me to be drawing Garfield or something. Something that can be licensed and seen on Hallmark Cards. That's where the money is.

How can I relate to them that I don't want to draw Garfield? That commercialized comics done for the sole reason of making money nauseates me? But people relate to money more than they can to artistic vision, my parents are no different. And I know they mean no malice, they want me to do well, better than they had. They know that the life of a "bohemian" means lots of rice and beans and no health care (and dental care, you should take a look at my teeth. Actually, you really shouldn't.)

How can I express to them that I like the non-standard life that I lead? Yes, I could use some more dough, to pay off debts, get teeth fixed, put some money into the bank. (When I get back to PDX, you better believe I'm going to be working a lot!) But money doesn't provide me happiness. I'm happy volunteering at non-profit spaces, participating in community-based projects, drawing my li'l comix, riding my bike, and hanging out with freaks. I don't want to own a car or have a house in the suburbs. I don't want to watch TV every night.

The family is expanding and contracting at the same time. Both of my grandmothers have passed away over the last two years, leaving only Grandpa Granton (my other Grandpa died back in 1981, drinking himself to death to cope with working two full time jobs--two full time jobs--most of his life) as my sole grandparent. Yet my stepsisters keep on popping out the babies (up to four). I was surprise to learn that Darcy, my stepsister closest to me in age, just had a kid this year. (She also just got her masters, which is even more surprising to me than her motherhood!) And these are nieces and nephews that I'll never get to know, since my contact with my step-siblings is nonexistent.

I visited my dad on Wednesday night. He picked me up and drove me to his house in Watertown (about 20 miles north). It's a nice little cottage overlooking a lake, and it's the only house he's ever owned. After working his whole life and going in and out of debt, he finally got a house at 55. And getting closer and closer to retirement age, he worries about how he's going to pay off that mortgage.

As for my mom, I can say with certainty she will never own a house. First, she's not the type, and second, barring an inheritance or lottery jackpot, will never have the money. She'll be living where she is now until she's forced to move.

Probably the weirdest thing now when I go make my infrequent visits to Connecticut is seeing how my parents age. It's gotten quite noticeable. What can be said for two people approaching 60? I wonder how much I'll look like them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Of Fires and Floods: Ansonia CT 06401


I've traveled thousands of miles over the span of a month to reach "home", or to be more accurate, where I'm from. Ansonia, Connecticut 06401. A small decaying factory town located in the Lower Naugatuck Valley, in southwestern New Haven County, population 18,554. "The city, settled in 1840 and named in honor of the merchant and philanthropist, Anson Green Phelps (1781-1853), was originally a part of the township of Derby; it was chartered as a borough in 1864 and as a city in 1893, when the township of Ansonia, which had been incorporated in 1889, and the city were consolidated." (from Wikipedia) It's about 3,000 miles from what is currently my home, Portland, Oregon, and feels like a world apart.

I've been in town since Sunday, staying at mom's, and will be around through the weekend. It's been the longest stay that I've had in the state since 2000, and on one hand it feels good to be back in native territory, on the other hand, it's pretty strange. Even though I spent about 24 years of my life in the Nutmeg State, and almost 15 of it in Ansonia, the place feels alien. I ride my bike around town and I see things I've seen forever, and I have all the memories attached with those places ("This is where I went to school. This is the library that I spent so much time in. That's where the comic book store used to be"). But it all feels so dead.

It doesn't help that Ansonia, and the other communities that make up the Lower Naugatuck Valley (Derby, Shelton, Seymour, Beacon Falls, and yes even Oxford) are pretty much dead. This is the part of Connecticut that doesn't fit the stereotypical idea that most outsiders have of "the richest state in the Union". It isn't like the Gold Coast, the tony coastal towns of Fairfield County, where executives commute to Manhattan in the morning and come back to their manicured homes at night. It isn't the more New England-y areas to the north and west, with tree covered hills and white churches in village centers. It's the Rustbelt, Northeast style.

I survey downtown from the top of Tremont Street and see the progression of the deconstruction of a once-vital city, previously filled with thousands of manufacturing jobs and the social and economic support structures that come with. The old American Brass mill at Bridge and West Main, which became Latex Foam products, burned to the ground in 2001. I wasn't around for that, but heard the stories: a several acre site burning up with latex, black acrid smoke to be seen for miles. South of Tremont is the current site of Big Y Supermarket surrounded by acres of parking. Before that was the failed Ansonia Mall, hangout of my early youth, a 70's attempt at attracting shopping back to downtown that never lived up to it's potential. You can't just throw a suburban style shopping plaza into the center of a town. Before all that was an actual neighborhood, streets layed out in a grid, filled up with small businesses and multi-family houses for the workers of the various factories. It all got cleared out in the name of urban renewal.

Destruction was a part of my growing up. I saw some "good" fires back in the 80's, whether it be a couple houses that lit up in the neighborhood (the substandard rowhouse on South Cliff Street was a particular doozy), or the old hardware store on Main that went up in '98, or Hull Dye on the Housatonic in Derby back around '82. The most vivid one was when River Restaurant exploded in Derby in December of 1985. I was only a couple blocks from it when it happened, and remember leaving my dad's house and looking down the street to see a big plume of smoke. When I got to the site, what was once a three-story brick building was just a pile of burning rubble. Only part of one wall was left standing. The cause: natural gas buildup due to shoddy line work by the utility company (who had been working along the street all week), ignited when the pizzeria ignited the ovens for the night. Total dead: 6.

The granddaddy disaster of the Valley was the Flood of 1955, a dramatic flash flood caused by rain from two hurricanes. It destroyed much of downtown Ansonia. While the Valley was already showing the signs of decline before the flood due to the rapid suburbanization of the nation, the flood exacerbated the situation, and Ansonia never recovered.

While in town, I've been doing some research on the Great Flood in the Local History Room. The librarians are a bit puzzled, since I'm not old enough to be around during the flood nor am I doing the work for school. (I think the librarians here are generally confused when people use the library for anything other than internet, reading the paper in the main room, or checking out best sellers). I've been copying photos from the flood, showing an Ansonia I'll never know.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A lack of planning means you have to think on your feet, or "Transfer at Bridgeport".

Early Sunday morning, September 25th. At 1:30am I depart SPX to catch the Metro Red Line to Union Station, where I catch the 3am departure to New York's Penn Station. Mull about the empty train station until boarding, then find a seat and try to get a little sleep.

6:30am and I awake pulling out of Newark. The sun was rising, coming up from behind the now visible Manhattan skyline. Within 15 minutes I'm in the bowels of Manhattan, train disgorging me into Pennsylvania Station. I'm tired and in no mood to deal with much of anything. On cue, New York acts the stereotypical asshole part, the one made famous in movies like the Out-Of-Towners. I'm confronted by a crazy guy with spit in the corners of his mouth who really wants to use the stall I'm going to use, and I end up somehow paying three dollars for coffee and a donut at Dunkin' Donuts (a good dollar over what it should be.) Thanks, Big Apple.

I was a bit grumpier than usual because I had to make a change of plans. Originally, the reason I was getting off in New York was because I was going to stay in New York for a few days. But all my options for crash spaces turned up negative. I knew that things were uncertain when I booked the tickets, but I figured I'd somehow wing it. Hey, I've been winging it for great portions of this trip, why stop? And I figured I would run into people at SPX who lived in NYC, whom I could crash with. Well, guess what? That didn't work out either. My friends weren't directly running back to the city, and fuck, I was expecting a lot for the last minute.

So at the 11th hour I regrouped and decided I would go straight to Connecticut and stay with my mom. I was planning on getting up there around Wednesday, now I would be there a few days earlier. I would come back down to New York next week.

I thought about getting my ticket adjusted so I would get off in New Haven instead, but there was a glitch: Because I knew I wouldn't be using my bicycle while I was in DC, I had it checked to New York from Champaign. So I had to get my bike, which I easily retrieved. But now how to get to Ansonia, Connecticut, where my mom lived?

The answer: Take Metro-North. Metro-North is the commuter rail service running north from the City into the Hudson Valley and into southwestern CT. It meant I had to ride over to Grand Central Terminal, a fifteen-minute bike ride north. New York's streets were eerily quiet, I guess the city does actually sleep at 7am on a Sunday. I was expecting "the big hassle" at Grand Central since I had a bike, but it was actually no problem. The conductor put me (and a couple other bicyclists) in the deserted bar car, and I tried to get a li'l shuteye on the way to the Valley.

When I opened my eyes, I realized I was back in my home state of Connecticut, as the corporate towers of Stamford whizzed by. Ah, Connecticut, the place I spent almost 25 years of my life, the place that made me who I am. I wasn't really feeling it, maybe because it was too early, maybe because of the month on the road.

At Bridgeport I got off the "New Haven Line" train and transferred to the "Waterbury Branch" which would bring me to Ansonia. The New Haven Line trains do the job, but they're a bit dingy, being maybe 25 years old and overworked on mainline service. And if the New Haven cars are dingy, the Waterbury cars are downright disgusting. But the Waterbury Branch is a lightly used line, lucky to still have service. I know the state has made threats of cutting funding, which would end the over 150 years of continuous passenger service on the old Naugatuck Railroad. Gotta be lucky with what we have, because we sure aren't Europe or Japan, where people wouldn't let shit like that happen.

The train ambled along the Housatonic River, and the landmarks we passed were all too familiar, burned in my head forever. We soon entered the comfortable confines of the Lower Naugatuck Valley, and within minutes I was dropped off with my bike in downtown Ansonia, the panorama one that I could probably draw from memory. It was 10am so I dialed mom and asked what was for breakfast, hoping for something good.

Too many damn comix.

Friday, September 23 and Saturday, September 24 were spent pretty much in the confines of the Holiday Inn Select of Bethesda, Maryland for SPX, short for Small Press Expo, one of the largest alternative comix events in the country. I first visited SPX in Sept 1997 with my friend Mike, and we drove down from New Haven with a bunch of our own comix (I had the first issue of TEN FOOT RULE, just two months old, plus TFR 1 1/2, the ultra-rare convention special--scour eBay for it!) and a fistful of money. That first event was inspiring, making me more excited about this stuff and causing me to "get serious about comics". SPX, along with the cross-country trip to visit APE (Alternative Press Expo) in San Jose, California in February of 1998, were the events that jump-started my life from the doldrums of the mid-90s. They've drove my life in the direction it's been headed over the last eight years. I doubt I would be where I'm at now, living on the West Coast, taking crazy road trips, being involved as I am in "alternative culture" (for want of a better term), without SPX.

Unfortunately SPX today doesn't do the same thing it did for my 22-year old self. Maybe it's my jadeness, or maybe it's rejection, or maybe it's my failure to make the great American comic book, I don't know. While there's plenty of cool and inspiring comix to be found, I end up getting more discouraged than encouraged. There is so much great stuff out there nowadays I can't keep up, even if I spent both days looking at every table. And looking at all this stuff feeds my inferiority complex. I think to myself, "There's no way I can compete. I can never reach that level of quality. My stuff sucks."

It was a funny space to be in. After the two week bike tour I was on a high, feeling fearless, like I could do anything. I survived a 300 plus trip through unknown territory on my own power, with no one else. At SPX, however, I was on a low. I feel like a do-nothing at SPX, a faker. The last comic I put out was almost a year and a half ago. One of my long-time supporters reviewed it and commented that "it didn't seem like I was trying as hard anymore". Ouch. At SPX I was surrounded by people who slept, breathed, and ate comix. People who would work 10 hours a day on their craft. I'm lucky if I do 10 hours of comix over three months these days. What happened to me? Is it that I'm so busy with all these other projects that comics take the backseat? Is it because I have more fun drawing illustrations these days than comix? Is it because I feel that the next thing I do has to be "important" and I've got stage fright? It's probably a combo of all three.

Nevertheless, there's always a bright side to these things. I get to hang out with people I don't see otherwise. I sell a couple more comix and pick up a few more good ones. I get drunk with all the other alcoholic cartoonists (does it make me an alcoholic to admit drinking during the day at SPX helps make the day go smoother?) and the escapades might get mentioned in the Comics Journal, or at least in the Ignatz Awards ceremony (thanks, Keith!)

Saturday night found me in the hotel room party with too many people, too much beer (kept cold in the bathtub with ice), and a too loud stereo. At 1am the party gets shut down by hotel security. No sweat for me, I have to catch a train.

A trainful of progressives means the Gardenburgers will run out first.

So, here I am, back "home" in New Haven, Connecticut, typing this from the bowels of Yale University. It's Tuesday, but in typical "gotta catch up" fashion, we'll go all the way back to last Thursday, September 22:

I got up too-fucking-early in Champaign, Illinois in order to get to the train station, pack up my bike, and board the City of New Orleans Amtrak service to Chicago. Despite being not-really-awake, I packed up the bike without trouble, boarded said train a little after 6am, and got into the Windy City around 9am.

Not much to write about the eight hours to kill in Chi-town. I drank some coffee, went to the library, made some copies, wrote some postcards, and got some supplies for the day long train trip into Washington, D.C.

Waiting for the 5:35pm (CDT) Capitol Limited to depart from Union Station, I noticed that some of the folks waiting in line had homemade signs. Inspecting them, I remembered the flyers I saw around town: a big anti-Bush/anti-war rally and march was going to be held in DC on Saturday. And this would be the appropriate train at the appropriate time for all those enviro-conscious progressives from Chicagoland to catch the event.

And boy, the train was crowded! While I doubt that everyone on board was going to the march, there was definitely a good contingency. I spotted folks with guitar cases heading to the lounge car, to participate in, as one passenger referred to, "a hootenany".

Maybe the forces of Bush were conspiring against us, or maybe it's just CSX (the freight railroad who owns the tracks) in their incompetence, but by Friday morning we were 4 hours late. Supposedly the t-storms around Toledo delayed the train there for hours, the power being out on the signals and switches. On the plus side, this meant I was going to see much of the Appalachian Mountain crossing during daylight. On the negative side, I wouldn't be pulling into DC at noon, but sometime after four.

Since I was planning on eating lunch in DC, I didn't bring enough food for one on the train, so I had to hoof it to the lounge car for their selection of overpriced and unappetizing comestibles. Being vegetarian, the choices are limited, but I can at least count on that ol' standby the Gardenburger to be their. Unfortunately, they had already ran out, leaving me with a bagel with creme cheese in consolation. Dang progressives and their non meat-eating ways!

While I was in the lounge, I had a convo with a girl going to the protests. She was under 20 and showed signs of immaturity, but we tried to talk about common interests for a bit until she got bored with me. Oh well.

It was after 4 and we were clearly in metro DC. My big plan for the day was to go to the Smithsonian, but clearly it was being thwarted by the late train. Dang. Every time I go to DC, I plan on going to at least the Air and Space Museum or something, but it never ever works out. Someday...I ran into Bill, owner of Copacetic Comics, a really cool store in Pittsburgh, on the train, and he was getting off the train at Rockville, the station before downtown DC. From there he would take the Metro (subway) Red Line to Bethesda. This would bring him directly to SPX, the comix-con while avoiding downtown and crowded subway trains at rush hour. Good idea, I thought, so I hopped off the train with him.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A non stressed two days in Illinois

Right now it's Thursday morn, and I'm hunkered down at the ridiculously large Chicago Public Library typing this. The last couple days I spent in Champaign-Urbana, a small metro area two hours south of the Windy City that is home to the University of Illinois. You may wonder why I chose to go there. There's a few reasons. First, my friends Ellen and Paul live there, so I wanted to hang with them for a bit. Second, I showed "From Portland With Bike Love" (directed by Steev and Phil) at an artsy cinema while I was in town, which went over quite well. And thirdly, after two weeks of biking and a whirlwind four days in Chicago, I knew I needed some down time before I hit the east coast. Champaign is a perfect place to do that. It's fairly small (the combined population of it and Urbana is a little over 100,000), but because it has a large school it's got some things to do. Basically I spent Tuesday and Wednesday hanging out with Ellen and Paul, adding entries to this blog using their borrowed laptop (if you're wondering why this flurry of activity has occurred on the blog, that's why), and drawing a cover for Paul's MediaGeek zine that you can see here. In fact, check out the page a little more, it has all the stuff I've worked on since I've been away from town.

Now I have several hours to kill before my train leaves at 5:30pm tonight (Central Time) and brings me to Washington, DC at noon tomorrow. And then it's the comix geek out fest known as SPX, my sixth time attending since 1997.

The last 80 miles to Madison

Friday, September 9th, Day Six of the Bike Tour:
I wanted to get up as early ,as possible to see how far I could get in a day, but sometimes it's hard to get moving. It takes a while to boil water to make coffee and oatmeal, a little more of a while to eat it, and it still can take almost a half hour to take down the tent and pack everything back up. Sometime after 8, I got a visitor, the same dude who talked with me the previous night. He told me the best route to take from Reedsburg (the end of the "400" trail) would be due south until I hit the Military Ridge Trail and then use it to get to Madison. That route would be pretty flat; if I headed east from Reedsburg I would have to deal with the Baraboo Hills. I thanked him for the info and took off.

The final 20 miles along the "400" were uneventful, but they went a lot easier than the previous day's arduous travel. The scenery wasn't particularly exciting, but it wasn't bad either. A few hours later the trail abruptly ended by some industrial crap and without fanfare I was in Reedsburg. Now I had to figure out how to get to Madison.

I headed to the library to do some research. I mapped out the route Wonewoc Dude suggested via Google Maps, and compared it with the more direct route I was considering. His route was at least 15 miles longer than the other one. At this point in the trip, I wanted to get to Madison as fast as possible using the most direct route. But did I want to face the dreaded "Baraboo Hills"?

I went back out into the heat of the day and checked out Reedsburg. While most of the other towns on the route had some charm to them, Reedsburg was lacking. It had brick buildings and all that, but it just seemed so impersonal, like the people didn't care. I went to the grocery store to get lunch, and damn if I didn't have the hardest time finding something to eat. Everything in the deli counter had meat in it, even if it shouldn't. After being in the store for a half hour, I forced myself to get something because I didn't want to spend all day in this damned town. And that lunch was the least satisfying one I had on my whole trip. It made me wish that I just went to Subway instead. And that's a pretty desperate situation if I have to say that to myself.

Getting frustrated and realizing it was nearing 2pm, I decided to say the hell with adding 15 miles to my trip, I'd take the direct route, Baraboo Hills be damned. I had to traverse some icky suburban stripmall crap on the way out but once that had passed it was clear sailing on a nice road with a big shoulder.

Nothing exciting happened in the 15 miles between Reedsburg to Baraboo, other than stopping at a log cabin museum and getting a tour of one of them by the caretaker. He was 81 and mentioned how he was the youngest of the people involved. Wow!

Baraboo was nice, yet another town that I wished I could spend more time in. And I could feel that I was getting closer to Madison as signs of "Blue State City Living" were evident, a natural foods store, record store, and a few coffee shops. There was even an honest-to-goodness progressive type festival occurring in town the next day! Titled "Fighting Bob Day" after Robert LaFollette, Wisconsin's fabled progressive governor (and presidential candidate) from the first half of the 20th century), it was going to be a day of lefty type speakers to rile up the masses, featuring Amy Goodman and Jim Hightower! Alas, I wasn't in the mood for a festival and just wanted to get my ass to Madison. Besides, the weather for Saturday was going to be in the 90s.

For the night, I headed a couple miles south of town, up a big hill, to camp at Devil's Lake State Park.

Read this post to see how I finally made it into Madison.

Small towns, other bicyclists, and foraging for sustenance.

One positive thing I realized after a few days of pedalling through the countryside is that I was visiting small towns that I would never pass through otherwise. Most of the route that I was traveling was away from the Interstates, and the only sizeable city between Minneapolis and Madison was La Crosse, WI. Every 5 to 10 miles I would pass through a small town, and pretty much every one of them looked like they were frozen in time. It was nice to see that the mythical "small town America" still did exist, even though it wasn't exactly thriving. Here was the ideal that so many Americans supposedly strive for, the places usually shown in television spots anytime a presidential election comes up.

And it was still untouched. These were villages off the beaten path. None of them had a Starbucks, very few had a McDonalds. The most evidence you would see from Corporate America (besides the beer advertisements at the pubs) would be the ubiquitous convenience store, and if the town was large enough, a Subway. It was refreshing to be away from those things for awhile without having to go into the total wilderness.

But there was a twinge of sadness to these places. I knew that Corporate America didn't touch these areas because there would be no economic advantage for them to do so. The towns weren't going to grow, most of them held on because there was nothing else around to compete with. And now the railroad didn't go there. I would see the historical photos circa 1890, when several trains passed through a day and there was the hum of activity as farm products were loaded onto the trains, while consumer goods and the mail were unloaded. Each place was important in its own way. Now there wasn't much to grab on to. The best business to open up in town was a bar, because everyone needed to drink. Hell, let's open four.

Maybe that's why the towns along the trail were so keen on the trail's existence. At least there would be some tourist dollars trickling in. At each town along the way there was a sign explicitly listing every business to be found there. Small billboards beckoned bicyclists to rest a minute at their tavern, where they can get food and beer, plus park their bike in their complimentary parking area. At least this tourist industry wasn't gross in the Florida/Vegas type of way. There were no meticulously recreated downtowns, just real places that showed the wear of time.

Of course I was a little apprehensive at first, a big city boy deep in "Red State America". I was worried about the stereotypical things one thinks about with the area: dumb rednecks driving big trucks who would either try to run me off the road or throw beer bottles at me while calling me "faggot". But none of that happened. Oh sure, there were plenty of big trucks on the route, plus ATVs parked in front of every other house. But I had no incidents with drivers while riding in the farmland. And everyone I met was nice.

It made me think about the supposed polarization of the US, Red State vs. Blue, Bush vs Kerry, progressive vs conservative, etc. Back in Portland and in other hippie-lefty strongholds we've become quite disdainful of the unwashed masses out there, the ones that support our commander-in-chief and the wars started by him. These folks are the "other". How many people have vowed not to visit "the Red States" after the last election debacle? But dude, they're just people. We need to find ways to bond with them before this who nation spins out of control. And divisiveness ain't going to be the trick.

And everywhere I went I stood out like a sore thumb, an outsider bicycle touring with a bike helplessly overloaded with supplies. Most of the conversations I got in were the basic sort of thing in this type of situation: "Where did you start? Where are you going? How long has it taken/will it take you?" They would also comment on how they probably wouldn't or couldn't do a trip like I was doing, and then wrapped it up with a "Good luck" or "Be safe."

The talk rarely diverged from that. It would have been interesting to run into some other bicycle tourists and exchange stories. But besides the Japanese dude outside Wabasha, the only other person who fit into that category was a guy on a recumbent I met outside of La Crosse. He had done a double-century, 210 miles in one day (!!) between La Crosse and Green Bay for his 50th birthday and was now returning. He had his wife drive his stuff for him, lightening up his bike, but dude! Can you do 210 miles in one day? In one day? When I met him he was without the wife's help, which meant carrying everything on the bike and doing three 70 mile days.

I did see other bicyclists, but they were either recreational riders on the trails, or speeding spandex-clad road racer types who don't have time for conversation. What was I to expect? I was touring on a route that wasn't a common touring route, during a time that is considered off-season. If I was doing the Portland-to-San Francisco via the Pacific Coast route I would have surely ran into other tour riders on a daily basis. I just had to suck it up and deal with the loneliness.

And the lack of food options. Most of the places I went to I was lucky to find a true supermarket. Forget about "food co-ops" and other types of groceries we denizens of hip cities get too comfortable with, there wasn't going to be any bulk bins out there! I found myself shopping for food at convenience stores more often than I would ever care to. Food shopping became less about what was most appealing but more about what was least unappealing. Thankfully most convenience stores nowadays have a rudimentary "fruit" selection, at least I could get an orange each day to keep my vitamin C up. The basic staple of the trip became the cheap microwaveable bean-and-cheese burrito, the likes made by Tina's that normally sell for about 50 cents. Using a trick learned from Traveling Dan, ex-roomie and pro at these types of excursions, I would buy a couple in the morning and by the time afternoon hit they would be thawed. I still got sick of them. It was a struggle to find veggie options, I can imagine the difficulty vegans would have.

But bicycling makes you hungry and you gots to eat. That metabolism was hard to turn off, though. Days after stopping the trip I was still eating food at the rate I would if I was bicycling for 60 miles, my hunger never satisfied. At least when I got to places like Madison I could actually eat well for a change.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

101 miles, part 2


Thursday, September 8. Day 5 of the Bike Tour:
I awoke damn early (6am) to take down camp before a park ranger or any other figure of authority who might bust me for not paying for a campsite would show up. Rather than hit the road right then and there, I opted to detour back into Sparta (about 2 miles back) to go to the same coffee shop and have breakfast. The morn was pretty cool (50s!) and a bit foggy, which I figured would make things easier. I finally got on the Elroy-Sparta trail at about 8:30 am.

The Elroy-Sparta is the "Granddaddy of the Nation's Bike Trails"
being the first rails-to-trails project in the nation. The line was originally owned by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway but that railroad abandoned it in 1964. In a rare bout of forethought (unlike most governments) the state purchased the line and converted it for recreational use. What we have now is a 32 mile crushed limestone paved trail that passes through several small towns, rolling farmlands, and the most unique feature, three tunnels!

It was good going at the start. The world was still asleep and the fog added an ethereal element to the countryside. After awhile though, I started to notice how slow it was going and began to get frustrated. I compulsively checked my rear tire, but there was no noticeable loss of pressure. I was puzzled: I'm on a bike path, things should be going easier, right? Well no, and it was due to three elements:
1) even though the trail is generally level, there is still the gradual inclines the path must make. I was actually going uphill (yet very slowly) to get to the first tunnel. After awhile I was feeling it
2) my bike being just too heavy and
3) due to the rain the night before, the trail was wet, slowing down my wheels.

The consolation I could offer myself was at least the scenery was beautiful, the weather not bad, and I didn't have to figure out where I was going. After about 8 miles on the trail, I reached the first tunnel. This tunnel is 3/4 of a mile long, and not at all lighted. Signs at the portal warned, "WALK YOUR BIKE". Aah, screw it, I said. I attached my lantern to my handlebars and started to pedal. Not even 50 feet later the natural light stopped and all I had was a pinprick of light and the other end. The lantern wasn't doing much, and I became uncoordinated, weaving left to right instead of making a straight line. So much for that. Defeated, I got off and started walking. My eyes adjusted somewhat, meaning I could faintly make out the walls of the tube. My ears were entertained with the steady cacophony of dripping water in the tunnel. It must have taken a good 10 minutes to walk that tunnel!

After getting out, it was a nice downhill grade into the first town on the path, Norwalk. I took five minutes to explore the town (that's all you need). Most of the small towns along the trails you could find: a post office, library, "town hall", and possibly a remedial grocery store or convenience store. Bonus points if it had a hair salon. And no town was complete without a bar. Some of them even had four bars, the only real business in town! Norwalk also offered free camping in the town park along the trail, something I wish I did rather than the Sparta site. Most of the towns on the trail specifically cater to the trail users, that being the only real source of tourist dollars. This made things a lot easier for me, because at least I knew I would be able to find something every five miles or so if I needed to.

Off on the trail again. It was a little while until I reached the second tunnel, this one only about 1000 feet long. Still dark as fuck, though. As I exited the other side, I heard the sound of falling water. Unfortunately, it wasn't from seepage in the tunnel. It was rain. Urgh. Well, it seemed fairly light, and I'm from Portland, so I pressed on sans rain gear.

In a couple miles, right around the town of Wilton, the rain picked up. I waited under a tree for a bit to see if it would dissipate. No such luck. On with the rain jacket, and back into the rain.

The rain didn't die down until I reached the end of the trail at Elroy. And I was quite frustrated. It was almost 2:30pm, and I had been riding since 8:30, minus a couple stops. In that time I had only traveled 35 miles, something I had hoped would only take 3 1/2 hours. I had originally intended to complete not only this trail but the next one (the "400") this day, and then travel beyond Reedsburg to camp. But now that was impossible. And reaching Madison (a full 60 miles beyond Reedsbug) by Friday night seemed like a pipe dream. So I opted to take an extensive break in the town of Elroy.

Elroy was smaller than Sparta, though it did have a library, in which I hung out for a couple hours in, checking emails and writing blogs. And there was actually a movie theater in town, of all things! They were playing "The Wedding Crashers" at 9pm. While I had heard so-so things about the movie, it did have Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson. And at this point into the tour, seeing a movie was definitely something appealing. It wouldn't satisfy the same need as having a real conversation with another human being, but it would at least engage my mind for 90 minutes on something outside riding the bike. Alas, it would mean having to kill several hours in town and camping at the site up a big hill, and I really wanted to get some more biking done while there was still a chance.

I got out of town at 5pm and biked 10 miles on the "400" trail to the village of Wonewoc. At least by now it was dry and somewhat sunny, and I got to town at a little after 6. Wonewoc, with a population of 800, didn't offer much, but it did have two campsites. I scouted out the first one, which was supposed to offer showers, but the park was pretty sketch and the showers were closed for the season. So the other site in the town park right beside the trail was where I would sleep for the evening.

At the park was a somewhat older dude who was just hanging out with his bike. When he saw me he pointed out where the camping area was (is it that obvious looking that I'm bike touring? I guess it is.) And followed me over. When I started to set up the tent, he just hung out there. Oh great, I thought, some creepy guy that I'm going to have to deal with. After a bit, I realized that he was more lonely than creepy and wanted someone to talk to. Not surprising in small towns like this, and in the state that I was I didn't mind making small talk for a while. Turns out the guy was sort of the unofficial caretaker of the trail in town, and locked and unlocked the bathrooms each day ("I get paid $350 from the town for the season.") And he had actually done some bike touring himself around Wisconsin, so he had some good practical advice to share.

Night descended, and I retired to the tent. A little over 40 miles was traveled that day, not as far as I wanted to go. It was still about 80 miles to Madison, which isn't impossible to do in a day, but not at the rate I'm going.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

101 miles of continuous bike trails


Day Four of the bike tour (Wednesday September 7) found me waking up at Perrot State Park outside of Trempleau, Wisconsin, in the Mississippi River Valley. I was psyched to get the day started, since for the next 100 miles I was going to be not on the highway but on a bike path. Wisconsin is the national leader in converting abandoned rail lines into multi-use paths. While part of me wishes the tracks still existed (because I'm a train buff and we need more trains, not less), I'm glad they found a use for them other than selling them off for subdivisions. And rail-trails are generally nice to bike on, since the grade is pretty level. Pretty much every railroad in the US built their railroad to a 3% grade standard--meaning that the track never rose or dropped more than 3 feet in elevation for every 100 linear feet traveled. Anything steeper than that would have been very hard on long, heavy train consists. Biking on level grade means not having the constant ups-and-downs in a rolling terrain. While you don't have the fun of coasting down a big hill, at least you don't have to worry about going up hills!

The trail segment here in southwesten Wisconsin is known as the "Bike 4 Trails"--four interconnected trails (Great River, La Crosse River, Elroy-Sparta, "400") that total 101 miles!
While it all sounds wine and roses, there were two issues: first, the trails are not paved with asphalt, but crushed limestone. Essentially they're dirt paths, meaning not a good fast ride. The second issue was that all Wisconsin State Trails require a user fee (if you ride a bike): $4 per day, $15 per season. The payment was done on the honor system, and signs warned of repercussions if you were caught without a pass (a $5 surcharge, though one said I could even be arrested. Arrested? For not paying four bucks for riding a bike path?) After pissing out $60 in two days with my bike and the previous night's camping, I said fuck it and pushed on without paying. Hopefully there wouldn't be any Trail Nazis to stop me.

The first segment was the Great River, paralleling the mighty Mississippi south for 20 miles to La Crosse. This route went through all the backwater sloughs and marshes, making for a pleasant and quiet ride. Quiet, except for all the birds, which there was an abundance of. I had to stop several times to observe nature in all its splendor.

The weather seemed to be cooperating so far, a cloudy and cool morn. A couple miles north of Onalaska, I rode for a bit with another gent, and we talked about the weather. He mentioned that there was a chance of thunderstorms for the day. I thanked him for the info, and no sooner did he turn off the path did I turn around and the sky turned the darkest shade of blue. Oh shit. On cue, the wind picked up something fierce. I kicked into overdrive, hoping to get to shelter in Onalaska before the sky opened up. As Onalaska approached, something funny happened. Actually, it was that nothing happened. The sky was lightening up and the impending deluge from the skies didn't seem so impending anymore. I still pushed on, until I reached the junction of the Great River and La Crosse River Trails. There was a spur trail into La Crosse from there, and I opted to take a detour into town.

After what seemed like a lifetime of suburban styled industrial parks I made it to La Crosse. It was the first substantial city since Minneapolis (and would be the largest between there and Madison), with a population of 50,000 and a branch of the University of Wisconsin. As with school towns, I saw a good number of college kids riding bikes. I headed to the brick building downtown and found food, namely a pizza joint that had a "2 slices plus soda for $4" special that I couldn't resist. I should have resisted. Not that the pizza was bad, it was just a bit much for my system, and I felt the lead weight of the pizza in my gut for much of the day.

Inside the pizzeria I heard a radio report calling a "Severe Thunderstorm Warning" for counties east of La Crosse. Apparently the storms skirted north of here, thankfully. I looked for a library to get a quick email check, and then headed the four miles back out of town to get onto the La Crosse River Trail.

This trail was very significant for me. For its 25 miles it parallels the ex-Milwaukee Road, now-Canadian Pacific mainline that Amtrak's Empire Builder travels--the transcontinental line connecting Portland and Seattle with Chicago. A line that I have traveled many times in the past 5 years. It was looking out the window from the Builder on my first transcontinental train trip in June of 2000 that I saw the La Crosse River Trail, and started thinking about doing a bike tour of the upper Midwest. Upon further research I found out that Wisconsin was littered with rail-trails, making me more interested. Year after year passed, and I would pass this trail on the train, vowing each time that next year I would surely ride it. Finally that itch needed to be scratched, and here I am finally doing it. If you wanted the reason why the fuck I'm riding a bike through Wisconsin, in an area not traditionally considered for bike touring, this is it.

And as everything in life that is loaded with such great expectations, the trail was a bit underwhelming. It wasn't a bad trail, it's just that the scenery was always a bit off to the distance, not near the trail itself as it had been with Great River or would be with Elroy-Sparta. It was just flat and straight, passing through farm fields and an occasional small town. Very Midwestern.

I reached the end of the trail at about 6pm. I could have pressed on a bit further in the remaining daylight, but I was beat and didn't know where the next spot to camp was (while there was a campground nearby.) So I called it a day in the town of Sparta, self proclaimed "Bicycling Capital of America". To express that point, they have the "worlds largest bicycle" on display in the city park. Too bad it's fiberglass.

Oh, Sparta wasn't bad. I actually liked it. It's a small city of 8,000, and still had a fairly intact and compact downtown, augmented with a nice courthouse, post office, and Carnegie Library (yet the city hall was a modern looking piece of shit.) I chilled for a bit at a coffee shop (a sight I didn't see much on the road), writing postcards, and hit up the library (conveniently open til 9pm) to check email.

Unfortunately this meant I was going to ride to the campground in the dark on the trail, quite spooky. The campground was a "primitive" type (pit toilet and the likes) provided by the state Department of Natural Resources for the riders. I arrived to an empty park which I was expected to "self-register" and pay $10. Once again I decided not to, and got to work setting up camp in the dark, with only my Coleman lantern to guide me. It was pretty spooky doing that, but I did, and then went to bed. No crickets tonight, but the all-too-close drone of I-90 will have to fill in for them.

Character Building, Part 3

So, I'm all fancy-like, typing this on a laptop in a wi-fi cafe in downtown Champaign, Illinois. But don't worry, the laptop is borrowed. And why does it matter when I'm one block away from the honorary REO Speedwagon Way? (They're from here, y'know.)

Now I shall begin the arduous task of "catching up" and transport my head back two weeks ago. Two weeks ago was Tuesday, September 6th, and I was leaving Frontenac State Park, 12 miles south of Red Wing on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River. It was 9:30am, Day Three of the bike tour, and despite the sucky previous two days I was in good spirits. I was cruising at a decent clip south on US 61, passing through Lake City (Birthplace of Water Skiing) and going up and down the li'l hills on the riverside. About 5 miles outside of Wabasha I stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the Rive and Lake Pepin (the only truly natural lake on the Miss, caused by the Chippewa River Delta slowing the water flow) and I ran into the dude who I also saw bike camping in the morn, but who blew out early before I had a chance to talk to him. (He must have had the same idea of leaving camp before the ranger showed up that I did.) And in typical Grantonesque fashion, I have forgotten what his name was, but I can safely tell you he was from Japan. He was in the midst of a full cross-country trip, Seattle to New York, one month down. We tried to exchange traveler small talk ("Where are you going today? How long do you think it will take? What route are you taking out of Chicago?") but it was difficult, he had a tenuous grasp on English and I have no handle on Japanese. After a few minutes, we parted ways. And that's when I noticed that the rear tire was getting soft. Again.

FUCK.

Now my worries were confirmed: the problem with the rear wheel wasn't going away and I was going to be stuck with continual flat tires, on a wheel with an impossible to remove and reapply tire. I had maybe gone 30 miles from Red Wing at this point, and the fear of having to change a flat every 30 miles gripped me. This was no way to begin a bike tour.

Luckily I did some Google-based research on bike shops along my planned route, and knew there was one in Wabasha. I pumped the tube, and it seemed to hold air, so I sped towards town, having to stop once to reinflate.

I got to the bike shop around 11:30am. It was a small affair owned by an affable gent. He found the leak but couldn't find what caused it (yet again) and replaced the tube. He also replaced my broken spoke and retensioned the other spokes. As for the chronic flats, he suggested stopping at the shop in Fountain City, WI, 25 miles south, and getting some "Slime" (a spray that's supposed to make the tire puncture resistant) put in the tube.

It took a li'l while to get things done, so we chatted for a bit. In between chiding me for doing a bike tour on the type of bike I had (which would be repeated at the next bike shop), he told me how the bike scene in Wabasha was expanding. There's group rides for every ability level now and some more organized tours that happen in the area. (The one that particularly interested me was a three-speed tour that made a 70 mile loop around the valley. They even made a full-color zine with information on the stops to go along with it!) Sure, it's not anything like the Portland scene, or Minneapolis, but Wabasha is a city of 2,500, and fuck, they're trying.

Wabasha became the first stop on this tour that I wish I could have spent more time in. The people were nice, and the downtown picture-postcard quaint. But I needed to get a move on, and it was already after 1pm. So I crossed the bridge over the Mississippi and entered Wisconsin.

Rather than ride 61 south to Winona on the MN side of the river, I had been advised by folks to use the WI side instead because WI Route 35 was quieter than 4-lane 61. In retrospect, I wished I had stayed with 61. 35 was indeed quieter, but had a pretty minimal shoulder most of the 40 miles I traveled on it (when there was a shoulder, it was littered with debris.) And the scenery on 35 was a tad boring, unlike the stuff I've seen taking the train on the other side of the river. To add more injury, parts of 35 were either in pretty bad shape, or otherwise freshly paved with blacktop. While that generally is a good thing, on an afternoon pushing 90 with abundant sunshine, it was the last thing I wanted. I sweated and struggled the ride south to Fountain City.

Right outside of Fountain City I ran into the roughest road yet. They were stripping the road for repaving, so it was a nightmarish couple miles of grooved pavement and shit on the roads. And then after that I got yet another flat, this time a fast one.

DOUBLE FUCK.

Luckily, I was practically in front of the aforementioned bike shop when it happened (with a half-hour until they closed, whew!) so I hobbled in. This shop was definitely of the "high-end road bike" variety, so you can imagine how they tut-tutted the shape of my bike. Yes, I should have a better bike for a long trip, I know. But fuck, why can't I do it on a measley late-90's Giant Rincon mountain bike? Other people have done bike tours on not-that-great to even shitty bikes, why couldn't I? Sure, I'd like a nice road bike with "top o' the line" components, versus the cheapest they come that usually goes on mine, but when the hell would I have the money for something like that, living as hand to mouth as I do? If I kept on waiting until things were "pefect", I might not do a bicycle tour at all.

Despite their attitude, they did a good job of fixing the wheel. They lined the rim with cloth tape, then a layer of rubber, then put in a thorn-resistant tube to make the wheel, as they termed it, "virtually indestructible". And it hasn't had a flat since.

Now the problem was where to camp for the night. It was 6pm already, with about another 2 hours of light at best. There was a campsite north of town which would have been closest, but it would have meant going back over that rough road again. My other option was Perrot State Park outside of Trempeleau, 20 miles south. But I was beat after riding 45 miles in hot weather. But push on I did, forcing my body to just deal with it. I made it into the campgrounds as the last light of day faded.

And gosh, it was dark at that campground. I rode around trying to find something resembling a "main entrance" (I came into the park via the backdoor trail from the bike path) to register for a site. When I found it, I saw there was no one there. Sweet, I thought, another night of free camping! I found an empty campsite (not hard to do two days after Labor Day) and set up camp. Unfortunately, the free didn't last long. While hanging out in the tent, I saw a truck pass the site, then stop and back up. Not good. I saw a flashlight and heard "Park Ranger", so the jig was up. She didn't really mind much ("Yeah, it is pretty confusing to find anything here when it's dark out!") but I was out of $10, my first paid campground. Hopefully I wouldn't have to shell out the dough every night.

All in all, during this day I managed to ride 65 miles, my longest day, through some punishingly hot weather, bad roads, two flat tires, and come out $50 poorer ($40 from the bike shops). I was also really lonely again. But I did it. And things got better from there...

Champagne for Champaign

Aargh! It's been too long since I've updated this thing! I was in Chicago for 4 days, and was only at a computer once. Guess that says something about the Windy City. Now I'm in Champaign, Illinois, where I'll be for a couple days. Then a train eastward to Washington DC for Friday, where I'll spend time at SPX, the East Coast's premeir alt-comix event. Next to New York on Sunday, then back home to New Haven for a bit. I promise to write something substantial soon...

Monday, September 12, 2005

lazy days, using universities to your benefit, and more bad news from Portland.

It was yet another warm day here in Madison. It got up to near 90 degrees again, but there was a breeze that helped things. Right now at 10pm Central Time it's 80 outside. No dramatic overnight cooling like I've gotten used to back west. The weather stays the same tomorrow, but Wednesday it drops to the low 70s, which is when I'll get back on the bike and head towards Milwaukee. So today was another lazy day in town, which is really welcome after being on a bike for a week.

One great thing about being in an area with a college or university is the free perks. When I lived in New Haven I used the Yale library's computer for my internet. Same went for Tucson and the University of Arizona. Right now I'm typing this at the University of Wisconsin's Student Union. I just saw a free movie put on by a social justice student group. It was "Bread and Roses" starring Adrien Brody, documenting unionizing efforts amongst Latino cleaners (Janitors for Justice) in Los Angeles during the end of the nineties. And no one suspected I wasn't a student. Even though I'm now 30, I still have that "eternal student" look, messenger bag always on. Remember that kids, it gets you places.

Kiran left to return to Portland today. Before he headed to the airport, he informed me of more tragedy from back home: Gareth Parker, avid bicyclist and a member of Portland's biking community, was struck and killed by a motorist last week outside of Oregon City. I didn't know Gareth well, but we hung out a few times, and he always seemed like a good guy. I'm getting sick of this shit. Yet another bicyclist down. This summer is deadly. Gareth, we'll miss you.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Relaxin' in Madison

I made it to Madison! Seven days of biking from Minneapolis and I'm here. I still have to figure out distances (since I didn't have a cyclometer) but it looks like it was near 300 miles culmulative.

I hit the city limits of Madison at about 3:30pm yesterday, not long after my library stop. It was nice to be in a urban area again. I casually rolled my way to downtown. State Street was hoppin', since school was back in session and there was a game eariler in the day. It was a shock to be around so many people, and so many kinds of people again. I met Kiran, a friend from PDX who is from here, at a coffeeshop. He brought me to his folk's house and we ate dinner. I was too beat by that time for much else, so I went over to his aunt Mary Lou's place to clean up and crash for the night. And crash I did! I think I slept from 9 until 9. The trip wears you down. And makes you hungry as well. My metabolism is still going, which means I am constantly hungry.

Today has been a lazy day so far. Haven't seen Madison except for the initial bit, so I'll be doing some exploring later on and in the next couple days. The weather today and tomorrow is still going to be in the 90's, so I'll wait until it breaks before I go. Plus, it's really nice not to have to go anywhere right now. I have a couple things I need to get done soon, so Madison will be the town to get them done in. Right now it looks like I'll leave either Tues or Wed, do the two day route to Milwaukee, and then take the train to Chicago. I was intending to stay in Milwaukee for a couple days, but nothing is panning out there so I'll probably just skip it for now.

If I get a chance I will update this with the remainder of the bike trip and my stay in Vancouver.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

1:30pm CDT and almost to Madison!


This is another unexpected quickie update from the public library in Waunakee, WI (none other in the world!) Unexpected because I wanted to push on today without stopping until I got to Madison. But the 95 degree heat (that's 35 in Celsius for our English-system impared) and hazy sunshine is getting to me. So it's breaktime. And what better way to cool down than be in an air-conditioned library?

Last night I made it to Devil's Lake State Park, about 40 miles northwest of Madison and 3 miles south of Baraboo, the largest town I had seen since La Crosse on Wednesday. I arrived in Baraboo around 5pm, and debated whether or not I should push on further (since I had some "oomph") or play it safe and camp in Devil's Lake. I knew that I wouldn't be able to clandestinely camp there (like I had done on several spots), but what the hey. When I got to Devil's Lake it made me wish that I had got there earlier to enjoy the park. The lake is situated between two high bluffs in the Baraboo Hills, and offered a bunch of hiking trails. The most I could do was take a quick dip in the very-shallow swimming section. The campgrounds lacked character, basically big fields to accomodate 100+ campsites. And they were hoppin' with families tonight. So much for solitude. As night fell, I was totally drained and decided to just lay in the sleeping bag. Those discmans come in useful for tuning out everything else.

I didn't get as early of a start as I should have this morning. As I was taking down the tent around 8:30am, I felt the sun beating down on me, never a good sign for that early in the day. I took one last cruise by the lake and left the park. And that first hill out the park was a killer! It was so steep and neverending I had to stop twice on the way up. It got me scared that the rest of the way would be like that, as I was warned about "the Baraboo Hills". Thankfully, that's been the biggest hill I've faced so far on this leg.

The next fifteen miles were'nt too bad. Rolling landscape through nice scenery, some ups and downs, but nothing too bad. I took the ferry across the Wisconsin River at Merrimac, and on the other side the sign said "Madison 30". No sweat. More nice country for six miles to Lodi (pop 2500) where I got some supplies at the Piggly Wiggly.

Out of Lodi is where things got tough. The landscape switched to cornfarms, offering little cover. And the ups and downs got more up and more down. Now the sun was really starting to beat down. I rolled into the village of Dane, 5 miles south, and had to get some Gatorade before I went on. And it was more of the same to here. Bank thermometers reading 96? Dang. This weather hasn't been good for a bike trip. Either too hot, or rainy. No in-between.

Dane seemed like a nothing-town, but there was a couple subdivisions, indicating I must be getting close to some city. Waunakee looks like the first official suburb of Madison, as the subdivisions and stripmalls started as soon as I entered the city limits. But there's a library...

It looks like maybe a dozen miles to Madison. Hopefully I'll arrive not dead there in a few hours.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Current Status Update.

Brought to you from the public library in Reedsburg, WI...

Since I'm at Day Six of the biketour and I'm still writing about stuff that happened three days ago, I should give a quick update on how things are right now...

The last couple of days of biking have been decent, through some nice countryside, but it's been going slower than I hoped due to three factors 1)weather-somewhat rainy 2)condition of bike path-dirt and 3)weight of bike. I was hoping to be rolling into Madison tonight, but it's noon and still 60 miles to town, so it looks like tomorrow will be the day. I guess that's how things roll on biketours. I'm a bit worn out and lonely and am excited to be hitting up a city (yes, a city) after almost a week of nothing but small towns. I still liked the small towns, I just want to be able to pause and relax for two or three days. And to complicate matters further, I just got some not-so-good news from Portland, the type that I'm going to need to address soon. That's dampening my mood a bit, and I'll have to put it out of my head for a couple days until I get off the road. Believe me, when you're bike touring, all you want to, or can be preoccupied with, is the basics: how far to ride, where/what to eat, when to rest, where to camp, how far to go today, what's the route, etc. Everything else is superfluous.

So far the weather's co-operating. It's about 80 out, sunny, but there's a chance of t-storms. Ugh. Tomorrow is supposed to be in the 90's, so I'm going to try to get on the road as early as possible to avoid the heat. And I also want to be in the hippie-lefty haven of Madison on the 11th. God knows what I'll see out in the country.

Look for updates of "Character Building" soon..

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Character Building, Part 2

From the public library in Elroy, Wisconsin...

As I left off, I was facing the quandary of whether to keep going or stop in Frontenac. One thing that made the decision easier for me was when I remembered that the next campsite down 61 (20 miles south in Wabasha) was also about 5 miles inland. As I reached the gate for Frontenac State Park, I saw...the office was closed! Hurrah! Yeah, I should have "self checked in", but after the days I was having and the money I was losing, saving $11 for camping was a relief. As long as I vamoosed by 9am (when they reopened) I would be fine.

Of course I had to get to the sites first. And that's when I was confronted with the longest, steepest hill I think they have in this area. Too beat to bike, I walked my loaded bike uphill. It seemed like forever. At least when I got to the top I was greeted with a great view of the Mississippi Valley. And with the sun starting to set, I got intensely lonely and sad.

I'm a weird mix of loner-introvert and social-extrovert. I generally like to be around other people, have friends, hang out. My life's been like that for the last 10 years. But there's the loner part of me, honed from my childhood when I was the fat, nerdy kid lacking in friends. In high school I didn't have a clique to fit in (not even punk rock!) so as a consequence I had no friends. Though I didn't like it, I got used to being by myself. So that makes it easier for me to do things like solo trips. But at times like this, after the stress of the last two days, I wish I had someone to talk to. And I was realizing I wouldn't have that at least for another week until I got to Madison. It's times like this where I feel like I'm the only person on earth.

But there were still people around. I chose to use the regular campsites rather than the out-back ones tucked into the woods for that reason. I might not talk to the people ensconed in their RVs watching DVDs, but at least there was people around. (Besides, the out-back sites didn't have a view!) Plus, it was close to the showers and I definitely needed one. I set up camp, showered, ate, and went to sleep, hoping for a better day.

Day 3 (Tues 9/6) started out wet. At 2am I was awoken to rain. Light rain, I thought. Hopefully it doesn't get worse. And of course it did. Soon it was a downpour and I was hoping that my tent, a $20 chain-department-store special, would withstand the weather. And thankfully it did, mostly. Some water got through the zipper at the front, and there was some drip from the top (water must have gotten under the rainflap).

I awoke around 7, showered, and took down my soggy tent. (Ick.) Today I decided to play it smart and actually put on sunblock. Like a dunce, I hadn't the last two days, which surely helped my heat and sun exhaustion. As I was leaving at a li'l after 9 I ran into the ranger. Ack! Fortunately all he asked me was where I was going.

I felt fresh and invigorated for day three, hoping my bike troubles were behind me as I sailed south on US 61 toward Wabasha, MN. Little did I know I was in for my hardest day yet...

Part 3 coming soon!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

File under "Character Building"

From the free library in Sparta, Wisconsin...

They always say the first couple of days of a bike tour are the hardest. I hope that it's true, because the first three days of this excursion have been fairly miserable. Oh yeah, there has been some good in there and some spectacular scenery, but overall the first three days were not fun.

Day One (Sun 9/4) was the departure day from Minneapolis. As with everything on this trip, it got off to a late start. I didn't get packed and out of John's house until almost 11:30am. I met John and his daughter Isabelle at the Seward, a veggie-hippie type o' food joint (think Paradox) at noon-ish for brunch. Figured I should get a good meal to start off things. Then we went over to the Freewheel, a bike shop, for last minute supplies and info.

The problem I was having was figuring how to get out of Mpls. Getting around in the city, no problem. Biking in the countryside, no problem. How to traverse that fatty belt around the city commonly known as "The Suburbs", problem. The biggest problem was the direction I was choosing, southeastward to get me to Cannon Falls (which I hoped to reach by nightfall). At the shop, everyone was reccomending going due east then south to the Mississippi through Wisconsin. But that wouldn't get me to Cannon Falls. And I was stubborn, I wanted to do that route so I could use the Cannon Valley Bike Path to get to Red Wing. Looking at a metro bike map (I didn't want to spend the $10 for that, yikes!) I wrote down a rudimentary route of county roads and other names that had little meaning, and we took off.

John and Isabelle on their tandem (yay!) were gracious enough to escort me out of the city, southeastward via Minehaha Ave, past Minehah Falls, and through a secret bike path alongst the Miss that went by Fort Snelling. Then cross the high bridge to Mendota Heights, and the two bid adeiu, and I was on my own.

The first few miles were no prob. Suburban roads leading past nothingness and industrial complexes, empty of traffic due to Labor Day Weekend. I passed by a lemonade stand run by kids giving out the beverage free to cyclists, how can I resist? Too bad they live in a cul-de-sac development off this bland road. As I went on, I was passed by scads of spandex-clad road cyclists, meaning that this was a bike route of sorts.

The problems started after I made a wrong turn and ended up going a couple miles in the wrong direction. I spent a good hour straightening out where I went wrong, and a little bit after that is where I finally left suburb-land for farmland. It was pretty in the way endless fields of corn can be pretty, but it also meant that I was going to be not near any easy way out, whether it be a bus ride back to town or a store to buy supplies.

And the heat of the day and the weight of my bike was getting to me. I was getting more tired than I thought I would from such an early point. As six o'clock approached, it became clear that I would have to figure out a spot to camp. Cannon Falls was still a while away, and there wasn't any campsites of note. And while I was indeed in a "rural area", it's a developed rural, meaning not any woods to pitch a tent in. I made a vain attempt to look for a site near the Mississippi, taking a couple-mile detour down a dirt road through the woods to get to the bottom. When I got there, I found "no camping" signs and then a few dudes in big trucks blasting their stereos. Not good. I wasn't going to camp in teenagers' drinking spot. But that meant a long climb back up the hill, which wore me down even more. And by the time I got to the top it was painfully clear that there was little daylight left.

Nothing to do but press onward and hopefully I'll find the church or farmhouse that I hear so many other bike tourers talk fondly about. By the time I hit the town of Vermillion the sun was down and light was fading fast. I hoped that I might try to camp on the church grounds. Vermillion had a quickie-mart/gas station that was closed, one bar that was open, and one church (a fairly large Catholic one, surprisingly enough). There was no one around and it didn't look like a good place to camp. Desparation was definitely setting in. I was suffering from heat exahustion of some sort, I felt tired, nauseus, and had a headache. So with no other option I went to the edge of town, found a closed Union Hall and set up camp behind it. That night was not fun. Not only did I feel like shit, I was paranoid that someone would find me, either the cops, pissed off union members, drunk kids, etc. I was freaked out by any sound outside. But no one came and I finally fell asleep. All in all I might have done 30 miles the first day.

Labor Day Monday morn (9/5) had me up at the crack of dawn to take down camp before anyone saw me. I packed up and as I was getting ready to ride I saw my rear tire had a flat. Shit. I had the tools to change it, but the problem with the tire was it was very, very, very hard to get on and off the last time and I didn't want to start working on the wheel and not be able to get the tire back on, stuck miles from anything. I put some air into it and it was holding. A slow leak. It's good in situations like this, but bad because what's causing it? I rode back into postage-stamp sized Vermillion to go to the gas station. Not only was it not open, but it didn't have air either. And I needed to refill my almost-gone water. I had to by some Dasani (ugh) from the vending machine to partially fill a water bottle and off I went.

The 10 miles to Cannon Falls was tough. I had to pump the tire every once in a while, and it was slow going over the rolling terrain with a bike in my condition. I had hoped that New Trier, the town on the way would have a gas station, but it was even smaller than Vermillion. Cannon Falls had no bike shop, but it did have a grocery store. I stocked up my supplies, went to the bathroom to fill up my waterbottles, and nicked a tp roll from the bathroom (sorry, moralists.) Pumped more air into the tires, and hit the Cannon Valley Trail to Red Wing, where a trail toll-taker told me it would cost $3 to ride the bike path. Paying money? For a bike path? I had little choice but hand over the cash. At least the 20 miles of bike path were beautiful, and I was greeted by friendly people along the way. Having a bicycle encumbered with stuff is definitely a conversation piece. I arrived in Red Wing (after several pumps into the tube) around 1pm.

I searched the town for a bike shop, but the only one to be found was Lefty and Flints Fly-By-Night Bike Rentals and Somewhat Repair (not its name, I don't think they had one) right at the path's entrance. I explained to Flint (not real name) my sitch, and he tried to get my tire off, but couldn't do it no matter what. He had to call Lefty in for help. Lefty arrived in his beat-up Jimmy, spat out something, and got the tire off. Nothing could be found that was making the leak. Not good. Lefty put a new tube in (in between spitting on the ground) and managed to force the tire back on using his encasted right hand, a monkey wrench, and a tire lever. I was out of $10, but had a rideable bike again.

Red Wing was a nice town, but I didn't have any time to do anything but a cursory ride through downtown. And it was mostly closed. File under: Places on this trip that I wished I could spend more time in. From there it was a 10 mile ride down Highway 61 (yes, the road revisited by Dylan) to Frontenac State Park. Along the way I heard a loud clank in my rear. Didn't look like anything hit it...shit. Probably a spoke breaking. Sure enough, the wheel now had a slight but noticeable wobble. Yet something else to worry about.

I could have pressed on to Wabasha, 20 miles south, and camped there, but it was already 6, I was tired and exausted again, feeling the effects of the heat. So Frontenac it was.

more to come...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Getting ready to hit the road.

Ugh. Still no time to post what has happened in Vancouver, the trip to Minneapolis, or my stay so far in Minneapolis. Too little time. I'm using the last 20mins the Mpls Public Library is open to post this and to do trip research. Right now I'll just say that things have been going "awesome".

Today's a somewhat rainy day in Minneapolis. It started with a thundershower, but rather than be the typical "over and done" late summer midwestern type of thing, it's decided to linger. The streets are deserted, partially due to it being Labor Day Weekend and partially due to weather. But I'm a Portlandite, I'm used to rain, so it isn't stopping me!

The rain means it's a good time to type this type of stuff. I've been searching the internet for bike shops along my route so that I can avoid as many surprises as possible. The shops are still going to be miles apart, but at least I'll know where to go when a problem arises.

Tomorrow I leave for the bike trip. I was debating whether I should spend another day here, but a few things are pushing me to go. First, I'm getting itchy and want to get on the road. Second, Minneapolis has been cool, but it hasn't been cool in the sense that I want to be here forever (and I'm a bit weary of "cool districts" in cities, so I'm not searching them out) and I want to be out in the country instead. And most importantly, John, who I am staying with, is having his young daughter come visit tomorrow night. While I could spend another day on his couch, I'd rather give him the space to spend time with his daughter. He's been gracious enough to let me crash here for three days (and I'm a total stranger!) so I'll vamoose.

The rest of today I'll probably go run errands and pick up supplies for the impending bike trip. I'll probably have to go to a couple of "evil" stores in the process, but oh well. And I'll also try to do some last minute checking out the city types of things. I wish it wasn't raining so I could go cruise the lakes, but I'll do it next time. I like Minneapolis, it's a nice city. Just wish it wasn't so frigid here in the winter.

Hopefully the roads out of town won't be too bad. I'm betting leaving on a Sunday of a holiday weekend will mean traffic will be light. Once I get beyond the suburban zone it should be some nice riding. The thing I'll worry about is when I have to camp. Since I'll be doing the biker/hiker campsite, I shouldn't have a problem getting a spot.

I'll try to post while I'm on the road but won't guarantee it.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Itineraries-Leg 2-the Upper Midwest

I apologize for not updating this as much as I want or should, but that's what happens when you're on the road. You're internet time is scattered and limited, and the public library (where I'm at) only allows one hour. And besides, I'm busy out there doing stuff, I don't want to sit at a computer all day, right? Believe me, it's nice to have a break from the computer-box.

I haven't posted in almost a week, and have many tales to tell about my Vancouver stay and my travel to the midwest. But I will get to that soon. It's sort of weird to be posting about all the fun I have, sitting from a computer in Minneapolis, while 1000 miles downstream on the Mississippi we are witnessing the worst natural disaster in America since the San Francisco earthquake. It makes you think how temporary our great cities are...

To tide y'all over until I post about the past week's adventures, I'll fill you in on the details for the first half of September (it's September already?)
Right now (Thurs Sept 1st), I'm in Minneapolis. I'll be here till either Sunday or Monday, then I head southeastward on my bike to Cannon Falls, Minn. From there east on a bike path to Red Wing, Minn. and the Mississippi River. Stay overnight, ride along the Miss (Highway 61, even!) to Winona, Minn. and then cross the River Of Death to Wisconsin. From there I'll utilize over 100 miles of interconnected bike paths to get me east to near the Wisconsin Dells. From there, southeastward to Madison, which will be around Sept 10th. I'll stay there for a couple more days, and then east along the Glacial Drumlin trail to Milwaukee. I'll hopefully stay there for a couple days as well, then either bike or train south to Chicago, spend some time there, and then train south to Champaign, Ill. to hang out with friends. It's to the East Coast after that.

I'm still looking for a place to crash in Milwaukee, any help there would be great.