Monthly Archives: August 2009

The darkest place in America?


stargazing logo“We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884

We won’t be traveling by night, of course. But when our cross-country bicycle caravan passes though the vast empty country of West Texas on a 91-mile ride from Van Horn to Fort Davis on Oct. 13, we’ll be in a place with some of the darkest, clearest night skies in the continental United States.
The lack of human habitation and light and industrial pollution was a major factor in siting the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains northwest of Fort Davis, where we’re scheduled for a layover rest day on Oct. 14. The closest city of any size is El Paso, more than 200 miles to the northwest.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope

That makes for splendid stargazing, whether from the observatory facilities atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes, or just lying on our backs, like Huck and Jim on their raft, and looking upward into the night sky.
McDonald Observatory, a research unit of UT-Austin, is one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research, teaching and public education.
The primary instrument at the McDonald Observatory is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, dedicated in 1997. Atop Mount Fowlkes, it’s one of the world’s largest optical telescopes with a 433-inch mirror. The Harlan J. Smith Telescope has a 107-inch mirror, which was the third-largest in the world when it was built in 1966-1968. The Otto Struve Telescope, built from 1933 to 1939, was the first major telescope to be built at McDonald Observatory. Its 82-inch mirror was the second-largest in the world at the time.
A star party at McDonald Observatory

A star party at McDonald Observatory

As part of its public outreach, the observatory popularizes science with its “StarDate” segments on National Public Radio and online, conducts tours and holds “star parties” for visitors throughout the year on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
We should arrive at Fort Davis on a Tuesday, Oct. 13. But I believe I’ll skip the star party. I, for one, after 91 miles on a bike, will probably be more in the mood for some cold adult beverages than riding another 10 miles up a steep mountain road to the observatory.

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But can Lance do this?


Kunstrad2I wasn’t even aware of an organized competitive sport called “gymnastic cycling” until I came across a remarkable video of two of its foremost practitioners: German sisters Carla and Henriette Hochdorfer.
The sport, also called “artistic cycling,” or Kunstrad in German, seems to be very popular in Europe. In the video, the Hochdorfer sisters are competing in European Junior Championship of Hallenradsport, or indoor cycling, May 22-23 in Heerlen, the Netherlands.
The sisters won the championship in junior women’s pairs last year and again this year.

Kunstrad bike

Kunstrad bike

According to Wikipedia, “artistic cycling is a form of competitive indoor cycling in which athletes perform tricks (called exercises) for points on specialized, fixed-gear bikes in a format similar to ballet or gymnastics. The exercises are performed before judges in six-minute rounds by singles, pairs, four- or six-man teams.”
Now you know all that I know about “artistic cycling.”

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The itinerary is posted


A day-by-day itinerary of our cross-country bicycle trip has been posted on the Route page of this blog.
We will average about 57 miles per day during our journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. But we will have some short days — at least in terms of distance — and some long ones.

The road to Fort Davis

The road to Fort Davis

The shortest distance is 21 miles — on Sept. 24 from Palo Verde, Calif., to Blythe, Calif.
I’m not sure why that day is so short. Judging from Google Maps, the ride appears to be through a flat, irrigated valley just west of the Arizona border. Perhaps we’ll be husbanding our strength for the rides of the next four days through the northern Sonoran Desert to Phoenix.
The longest distance to be covered in a day will be 91 miles from Van Horn to Fort Davis in West Texas on Oct. 13.
The length of that day — which will include some climbing in the Davis Mountains on Texas 166 during the last segment of the ride — apparently is dictated by the lack of towns and services between Van Horn and Fort Davis.
Mercy me! That could be one tough day.

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The journey takes shape


map_southerntierI’ve long been familiar with the rough contours of our bicycle trip across the United States. I’ve read the description of the Southern Tier Route on the Web site of the Adventure Cycling Association, and I’ve examined the ACA’s online maps of segments of the route, which are posted on the Route page of this blog.
Based on the description and the maps, I’ve made rough guesses about where we might be at certain times, usually in answer to friends and family who say they’d like to meet us at some point along the route.
But now we have from our guide a detailed itinerary for the journey — roughly 3,160 miles from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., along the southern edge of the United States.

Point Loma Hostel

Point Loma Hostel

“Be aware that the schedule as shown is a good guideline, but we could be a day or two ahead or behind at any point in time due to weather, the group, or other factors,” our guide wrote in an e-mail. “The exception to the flexible schedule is that we won’t finish late!” That inflexible finish date is Nov. 21, the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
The 14 participants in our ride will gather for the first time on the evening of Sept. 18, a Friday, at the Point Loma Hostel in San Diego for an orientation session conducted by our guide. The next day, Saturday, we’ll do a fully loaded shakedown ride in the San Diego area to check the balance of our loads and determine whether we’ll really need on the ride everything that we brought to San Diego. Time to jettison that bulky inflatable mattress or the espresso machine.
The cross-country journey begins Sunday, Sept. 20, when we leave San Diego and climb 38 miles to Alpine, Calif., for our first overnight stay on the road. Eight riding days will bring us to Phoenix, our first layover/rest day, on Sept. 27.
austin-city-limitsThe other layovers are in Silver City, N.M., Oct. 4-5; El Paso, Oct. 9-10; Fort Davis in West Texas, Oct. 13-14; Austin, Oct. 23-24; Merryville, La., Oct. 30-31; Bogalusa, La./New Orleans, Nov. 6-7; and DeFuniak Springs, Fla., on Nov. 12-13. We reach St. Augustine, Fla., on the 65th day of the trip, Nov. 21.
I plan to post the full schedule, probably on the Route page, once I figure how best to format it.

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On the relativity of age


“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.”
Henry David Thoreau, American author and poet, 1817-1862

Early cyclistsDespite the occasional whine about getting old, my feelings about age can be summed up by a couple of cliches: It’s only a number, and you’re only as old as you feel.
At age 66, going into my second full year of retirement, I feel pretty good.
That apparently is a prevalent feeling among those of us who plan to embark Sept. 18 on a self-contained bicycle ride across the United States: 3,160 miles from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. We’ll be camping most of the way and carrying all our gear on our bikes.
I had worried about being the “old guy” in our group of 14 riders (including the guide/leader). But that obviously is a relative term. Among the 12 riders who have introduced themselves by e-mail, six of us are in our 60s and one is 70.
I would guess that they, like me, have been wanting to do a transcontinental ride for some time, but couldn’t do it until retirement because of the time required for such a trip.
Adventure Cycling Association imageOur journey, along the southern tier of the United States, will take 65 days. Adventure Cycling Association’s classic Trans-Am route — from Yorktown, Va., to Astoria, Ore. — requires 93 days.
A bit more information about our group: It will be comprised of five women and nine men. Six of the riders are from outside the United States: two from Germany, and one each from Australia, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. Of those who live in the United States, three are from California, two from Ohio and one each from New York, Texas (me) and New Hampshire (the guide/leader).
It’s also a highly educated group, including a Ph.D. in mathematics, an electrical engineer, a lawyer, a project management consultant in the biomedical device/pharmaceutical industry, a retired chemical engineer, a retired biologist/pharmacologist and a retired town planner.
I’m glad that I no longer have to worry about being the only “old” guy. Now the challenge is not to be a dim bulb amid such brilliant company.

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Friday night worship under the lights


Friday night fever“Sectional football games have the glory and the despair of war, and when a Texas team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners.”
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America, 1962

Texas has three days of worship during the week — at least from August to December.
Football stadiumOn Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, the faithful gather in churches from Abilene to Zephyr to worship the Lord. But on Friday nights, under stadium lights illuminating wind-blown turf or manicured Bermuda grass, many of the same faithful gather to worship the helmeted, shoulder-padded gods of high school football.
Our transcontinental bicycle journey will take us across Texas this fall during the height of the Friday night frenzy. Beginning around the last Friday in August through the playoffs in December, stadium lights will be lit in towns all along our route, from Alpine in West Texas to Navasota in the east.
Some of those towns in remote West Texas, like Sanderson and Marathon, have high schools too small to field 11-man teams, so they play a six-man version of the game. But the faithful are every bit as avid as at the larger schools.
“Football is Texas’s unofficial religion, and our faith in this team or that transcends the superficiality of reason, logic, experience, or last year’s season record,” Bobby Hawthorne wrote in a 2007 book Longhorn Football: An Illustrated History.
friday-night-lights_l“We are awed by the pageantry, rituals, sacred colors, hymns, and holy mysteries of the sport. Our trust in it never wavers, never wanes. Despite the absence of tangible evidence — a recent playoff berth, for example — we know who and what we are. The Mighty this. The Fighting that. The chosen few. Now, you tell me that ain’t religion.”
Many of those callow gridiron gods harbor dreams of one day playing — in a high school playoff game or as a college or pro player — in the state’s new football basilica: the $1.2 billion Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
Cowboys StadiumThe stadium hosted its inaugural football game Friday night, an exhibition contest between the Cowboys and the Tennessee Titans.
Across the nation, “more than a million American boys suit up and take the field every year, playing on more than 14,000 teams,” National Public Radio reported Aug. 20 in introducing a series of reports on high school football that will continue throughout the 2009 season.
“Some have world-class workout facilities and top-notch coaches. Others compete with six on a side and an English teacher drawing up plays. … In some communities, the coaches earn well over $100,000 a year — often more than the principal, and way more than the other teachers.”
As Hawthorne noted in Longhorn Football: “Folks who wouldn’t attend a school board meeting if every kid in the county flunked the TAKS exam will line up for hours to weigh in on the merits of hiring or firing the linebacker coach.”
Permian Panthers signH.G. Bissinger wrote of this autumnal fanaticism in a compelling 1990 book: Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, which chronicled the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, a gritty oil patch town in West Texas. The book was made into a 2004 movie and a television series of the same name.
“In the absence of a shimmering skyline, the Odessas of the country had all found something similar in which to place their faith,” Bissinger wrote.
TX HS Football attitude“In Indiana, it was the plink-plink-plink of a ball on a parquet floor. In Minnesota, it was the swoosh of skates on the ice. In Ohio and Pennsylvania and Alabama and Georgia and Texas and dozens of other states, it was the weekly event simply known as Friday Night.
“From the twenties through the eighties, whatever else there hadn’t been in Odessa, there had always been high school football.”
Check out the video of the Grandview Zebras as they made a run last season for the state championship in Division 2A. They eventually lost out to the Muleshoe Mules.

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A unicycle, a quint and a Shweeb


Rajan

Rajan

Pedal power can be used to propel some curious conveyances, as evidenced by three stories culled from the Internet:
Sid Rajan, an Indian biomedical engineer, is riding a unicycle 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) from Perth to Sydney along the southern coast of Australia in an adventure dubbed: “3 Oceans. 1 Continent. 1 Big Wheel. 1 Crazy Dude.”
Rajan completed the first half of the adventure — 3,700 kilometers (2,299 miles) from Perth to Adelaide — in June and July. He is spending off-time in Adelaide writing his master’s thesis and raising funds for the ride before setting off on the second half of the journey — 2,049 kilometers (1,273 miles) from Adelaide to Sydney — in November and December.
He’s doing the ride in part for himself and to raise money for non-governmental organizations that support children in need of healthcare and education. If he finishes, Rajan would be the first person ever to ride a unicycle from the west coast to the east coast of Australia.

The Harrisons on the road

The Harrisons on the road

The Harrison family — Bill and Amarins and daughters Cheyenne, 7, Jasmine, 4, and Robin, 2 — set out Aug. 1 to ride 7,000 miles from Mount Vernon, Ky., to Fairbanks, Alaska, on a “quint” stretch tandem, with five seats, seven cranks and a trailer at the rear. The bike was specially manufactured in Oregon.
The Harrisons call themselves the “pedouins,” which I assume is a contraction of “pedaling bedouins.” You can track their journey on their Web site: http://www.pedouins.org/.
Bill Harrison talked at length about the trip with WBIR/Channel 10 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Check out the video.)
The family is headed south to Florida before traveling west to San Diego, and then up the West Coast to Alaska. They hope to arrive in Fairbanks next summer.
When asked by a local newspaper, the Mount Vernon Signal, about the motivation for the trip, Bill Harrison replied: “It’s the spirit of freedom. We’re going to take a chance and just live our dream. It’s not going to be easy, but the American spirit goes against the odds.”
ShweebUnicycles and tandem bikes are fairly common, but I had never seen a pedal-powered monorail.
Agroventures adventure park in Rotorua, New Zealand, on the North Island about 145 miles southeast of Auckland, features the Shweeb, billed as “the world’s first human-powered monorail.” It consists of two 200-meter-long looped tracks with pedal-powered pods in which riders can reach speeds of nearly 45 miles per hour.
The Shweeb’s promoters say the word is German for “to float,” but I can find no such word in any German dictionary. Shweeb is probably a made-up word from Schwebebahn, which means “suspension railway.”
The idea of the Shweeb was conceived by Geoffrey Barnett while in Tokyo. He envisioned an inexpensive, pollution-free form of urban transport.
“Here’s how it works,” Barnett told the technology Web site gizmag.com. “You get up in the morning, descend to the second level of your apartment building where there’s a Shweeb port and empty Shweebs waiting for you. You cruise over the top of the traffic jams. You don’t pay parking. You’ve produced no pollution. You arrive at work fit, healthy and ready to go.
“You don’t own the Shweeb,” he said. “You use it like a shopping cart. Empty vehicles are restocked to wherever they are needed.”
Check out the video of the Shweeb in action.

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Singin’ the blues in Navasota


Ma Rainey“White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there.”
Ma Rainey, called the “mother of the blues,” 1886-1939

Several Texas towns could make a credible claim for recognition as the state’s “blues capital.”
Perhaps Wortham, in Freestone County, near where Blind Lemon Jefferson was born around 1893. Or maybe Centerville, in Leon County, the birthplace of Samuel “Lightnin’” Hopkins in 1912. Or Linden, in Cass County, where Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker came into the world in 1910.

Lipscomb

Lipscomb

But the Texas Legislature in 2005 declared Navasota, in Grimes County, “The Blues Capital of Texas,” in honor of the late Beau De Glen “Mance” Lipscomb. Lipscomb was born on a tenant farm near Navasota in 1895 and died in the town in 1976.
We’ll be passing through Navasota, in southeast Texas, nearly 1,900 miles into our bicycle journey from California to Florida.
Lightnin Hopkins posterSome of us may be singing the blues by the time we get to Navasota. But high-end touring bikes probably don’t qualify as conveyances for people allowed to sing the blues, according to a clever, anonymous spoof on the blues that has been rattling around on the Internet in various permutations for several years.
More suitable means of transport for blues singers are southbound trains, Greyhound buses, Chevys and broken-down trucks. You don’t see many blues singers riding Trek Madones or driving BMWs or Suburbans.
It’s OK to have the blues in places like Navasota, New Orleans or LA, says the spoof. But locales like Palm Beach, Disney World or Vermont don’t qualify.
“Walkin’ (but not bike riding) plays a major part in the blues lifestyle,” says one version, “A Primer for Beginners” on how to sing the blues. “So does ‘fixin’ to die’ and ‘findin’ a good woman.’”
Blind Lemon JeffersonSome good blues names for men are Joe, Willie and Hank, and for women: Sadie, Bessie or Baby. Mance Lipscomb’s nickname comes from “Emancipation,” indicating the hard times his forebears had under slavery.
Hardship and toil are prerequisites to singing the blues, as suggested by Ma Rainey’s quote cited above. People who pick cotton on a tenant farm, survive on the mean streets of Chicago or do jail time for shooting a man in Memphis would qualify. But “persons with names like Sierra or Sequoia,” said the primer, “will not be permitted to sing the blues, no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis.”

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Plucked from the ether


George Nellis

George Nellis

A few items culled from the electronic media and e-mail:
– A book recommended by a retired school librarian who will participate in our cross-country trip starting Sept. 18 in San Diego. The book is An American Cycling Odyssey by Kevin J. Hayes. It tells the story of George Nellis, who rode from Herkimer, in upstate New York, to San Francisco in 72 days in 1887.
Cycling odysseyHe averaged 50 miles per day pedaling a 52-inch, high-wheeled Columbia Expert “ordinary” bicycle with a tubular steel frame and hard rubber tires.
– A story in Sunday’s Star-Telegram about handy travel gadgets that also would be useful to a cross-country cyclist. For posting to this blog during our transcontinental journey, I plan to carry a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook.
Team RadioShack 1– A Monday story from the Fort Worth Business Press about new opportunities for sponsorship of North Texas bicycling teams in the wake of the partnership between Lance Armstrong and Fort Worth-based RadioShack. “We’re willing advertisers for folks,” said Ed Stephan, president of the Moritz Chevrolet cycling team, which will become the ThinkCash cycling team as of Oct. 1. “We tell people, ‘Look, we’re basically rolling your name all through town.’”
– A video of Lance Armstrong winning the 2009 Leadville 100 mountain bike race on Aug. 9 and paring more than 15 minutes off the record set by Dave Wiens in 2008.

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Age is only a number


Tom Cline

Tom Cline

As an aging cyclist, I’m fond of the saying: “You don’t stop riding because you get old; you get old because you stop riding.”
I keep that in mind as I go into the second full year of retirement and count down the days until the start of a bicycle ride across the United States: Sept. 18-Nov. 21, San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., 3,160 miles.
On Monday, I came across a weekend story in the Marion Star, in Marion, Ohio, about another aging cyclist who obviously adheres to that motto: Tom Cline, age 85.
Cline, the story said, took up cycling at age 74 and in the past 11 years has completed at least 17 week-long bicycle trips. He rides about 4,000 miles a year and has done several 100-mile century rides.
The story quoted another aging cyclist, Robert “Corky” Cusick, who will be 79 in September. Cusick started riding seriously when he retired at 62, and bicycled across the United States at age 65.
Cusick had a message for couch potatoes — old and young: “You’re never too old to start something. Your body needs to be active. You’ve got to keep it going.”
Amen!

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