Monthly Archives: May 2009

A short-lived Republic of West Florida

welcome to st. francisvilleSt. Francisville, La., a picturesque town perched on a bluff on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, enjoyed a moment of glory in 1810 as the capital of a country: the Republic of West Florida.
This little known episode in American history captured my attention as I was researching the route of my planned bicycle journey through the southern tier of the United States — California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
We cross the Mississippi River at St. Francisville, in West Feliciana Parish in the southeastern portion of Louisiana that juts out to the east, sometimes called the instep of the Louisiana boot.
Like Austin, which from 1839 to 1845 was the capital of the Republic of Texas, St. Francisville served as the capital of a republic — but for less than three months.
The Republic of West Florida included land that is part of the present states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was one of those parcels of territory that changed hands frequently among the European powers in their scramble for a foothold in the New World.

British West Florida in 1767

British West Florida in 1767

The French, British and Spanish all laid claim at one time or another to the land along the northeastern rim of the Gulf of Mexico, generally known as West Florida. By 1810, when Spain governed the territory, American settlers had made inroads in West Florida and didn’t take kindly to Spanish rule.
On Sept. 23, 1810, rebels under the command of Col. Philemon Bonnie Blue flagThomas captured the Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge and raised a blue flag with a single five-pointed star, called the Bonnie Blue flag. They declared independence for the Republic of West Florida and established the capital at St. Francisville. The flag had been made only a few days before by Melissa Johnson, wife of Maj. Isaac Johnson, commander of the West Florida Dragoons.
But the Republic of West Florida soon passed into history. The government of the relatively new United States of America asserted a claim to West Florida, and on Oct. 27, 1810, President James Madison issued a proclamation declaring West Florida under the jurisdiction of the governor of the recently acquired Louisiana Territory. On Dec. 10, 1810, the flag of the United States replaced the Bonnie Blue flag.
Fulwar SkipwithThe republic’s first and only governor was Fulwar Skipwith, a former American diplomat who helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.
The Republic of West Florida, according to Wikipedia, “included Baldwin and Mobile counties in what is now Alabama; the MississippiWest Florida Map today counties of Hancock, Pearl River, Harrison, Stone, Jackson, and George, as well as the southernmost portions of Lamar, Forrest, Perry, and Wayne counties; and the Louisiana parishes of East Baton Rouge, East and West Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena, Tangipahoa, St. Tammany and Washington. Despite its name, none of present-day Florida lay within its borders.”


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Bicycling through history

A bust of John Rankin at his grave. The Presbyterian minister is said to have sheltered about 2,000 runaway slaves who sought refuge at his home in Ripley, Ohio.

A bust of John Rankin at his grave. The Presbyterian minister is said to have sheltered about 2,000 runaway slaves who sought refuge at his home in Ripley, Ohio.

Friday’s New York Times carried an interesting story on a way to combine bicycling with the study of history — two of my passions.
The story, “A Bike Trail That Traces the Way to Freedom,” was about a 2,000-mile bicycle route along one of the most-used paths of the Underground Railroad, which runaway slaves from the pre-Civil War South traveled northward to Canada, ferried from safe house to safe house by kindly strangers.
The route, from Mobile, Ala., to Owen Sound, Ontario, was mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula, Mont., which is the organizer of my planned bicycle journey along the southern tier of the United States from San Diego, Calif., to St. Augustine, Fla.
John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

An article in the current issue of Adventure Cycling Association’s magazine, Adventure Cyclist, describes another bicycle ride along a historic trail — the escape route of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln, from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, through Maryland to the Garrett Farm in Virginia, where Booth was killed by Union soldiers on April 26, 1865.

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Some goals are noble, some less so

jimmy buffett“Our children may save us if they are taught to care properly for the planet; but if not, it may be back to the Ice Age or the caves from where we first emerged. Then we’ll have to view the universe above from a cold, dark place. No more jet skis, nuclear weapons, plastic crap, broken pay phones, drugs, cars, waffle irons, or television. Come to think of it, that might not be a bad idea.”
— Jimmy Buffet, Mother Earth News, March-April 1990

My friend Zack, an earnest environmentalist and sometime cyclist, tipped me off to a young man who’s riding a bicycle across the United States to promote environmental causes.
follow nathan-1Nathan Winters set out on May 10 from Belfast, Maine, and plans to spend the next three to six months cycling to Seattle, stopping along the way to write blog posts and shoot still photos and video of the people he meets — all with an environmental theme.
Nathan’s journal, called ReCycling With Nathan, is hosted by the environmental Web site, Greenopolis. “He’ll be spotlighting recycling, reuse, conservation and all the ways everyday folks across North America are transforming waste to resources in their own unique ways,” Greenopolis says.
In a little more than two weeks on the road, Nathan has posted video interviews with coffee roasters who use biodegradable cups made from sugar products to reduce litter on the highways, growers of organic vegetables and producers of organic milk and a young guy who founded an organization that has planted a garden on the grounds of the Vermont state capitol in Montpelier to raise vegetables to donate to a local food bank.
Nathan 2All noble stuff. And that got me to thinking about the purpose of my own trip. I feel somewhat inadequate, considering the lofty goals of a younger generation of cross-country cyclists.
So what’s the purpose of my trip? I’m not riding to help cure breast cancer or multiple sclerosis (although I’ve participated in events of that sort), or to save the environment one gasless mile at a time.
I guess the aims of my trip are simpler and perhaps somewhat selfish: To survive, to get through each day without grinching about the weather or terrain, to meet a bunch of interesting people, to have some fun along the way, and to prove that, in retirement, a person is not necessarily on a slick-as-snot slide to infirmity, death and oblivion, but — as David Lamb wrote in his book Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle — “still capable of extraordinary deeds … like riding your bicycle across America.”

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Dudeland in the Sonoran Desert

Ivan Doig“Wickenburg is an intersection for everything — the Phoenix highway, the California highway, the highway that we migrated down from Montana, that other earth.”
Ivan Doig, Heart Earth, 1993

Shortly after noting that a town called Wickenburg is on the Arizona segment of my planned cross-country bicycle trip, I happened to be reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Ivan Doig, and discovered that he spent a piece of his childhood in Wickenburg.
Heart EarthDoig writes mostly about his native Montana and the Pacific Northwest, where he now lives. So it was a surprise to find him writing about the Sonoran Desert around Wickenburg in a 1993 memoir called Heart Earth.
Our two-wheeled procession will be coming into Wickenburg from the west on Doig’s “California highway,” U.S. 60, which then bends to the southeast for 60 miles to the desert metropolis of Phoenix.

Wickenburg panorama

Wickenburg panorama

During World War II, Doig’s colorblind, undraftable father, Charlie Doig, loaded up his 1940 sky blue Ford coup and took his family — 5-year-old Ivan and asthmatic wife, Berneta — from Montana to boomtime Phoenix to work in an Alcoa plant that turned bauxite into aluminum to make bomber skins. Charlie also figured that Berneta’s asthma would be less problematic in the Arizona desert than the mountains of northern Montana.
They lived near the Alcoa plant in Alzona Park, a public housing project built by the federal government to house defense workers. After Charlie Doig underwent surgery for an about-to-burst appendix, the family spent time in Wickenburg during his recovery.
Rain over Wickenburg

Rain over Wickenburg

Doig recalls on his Web site “our nights in a cabin in the desert outside Wickenburg, Arizona, near a German prisoner-of-war camp, the combination of isolated landscape and the spooky nearness of those prisoners, the heart-racing amplitude of the nightsounds of the desert.”
The author, who revisited Wickenburg in 1991, noted in Heart Earth: “You didn’t need to be the reincarnation of Marco Polo to recognize that the accommodations along the main street, Wickenburg Way, were there to sieve tourists through, while around the corner along Tegner Street ordinary town life was carried on. Guest ranches were a sideline Wickenburg quickly tumbled to; in a historical blink, Indian territory had given way to Dudeland.”
His parents, Doig wrote, “must have only ever semi-believed that there existed a class of people willing to pay to mimic, for a few tenderbottom hours at a time, the horseback mode” that had governed their lives on the hardscrabble Montana ranches where they grew up.
Dancing at the Rascal FairI first became acquainted with Doig’s work in 1994 during a bicycle trip from Missoula, Mont., to Jackson Hole, Wyo. During a rest day in Dillon, Mont., a college town, I visited a bookstore and asked the proprietress if she could recommend a good regional writer. Her eyes lit up as she said, almost with the fervor of a missionary: “You’ve got to read Ivan Doig!” I bought Dancing at the Rascal Fair, the first in a trilogy recounting the first 100 years of Montana statehood — from 1889 to 1989 — through the lives of the fictional McCaskill and Barclay families, based on Doig’s Scotch forebearers. The other two novels in the trilogy are English Creek and Ride With Me, Mariah Montana.
I finished Dancing at the Rascal Fair during the rest of that bike trip and have since read nearly everything by Doig. Check out his stuff. You won’t be disappointed.


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‘That which doesn’t kill you …’

150px-Salazar_Eugene_08“An athlete who tells you the training is always easy and always fun simply hasn’t been there. Goals can be elusive which makes the difficult journey all the more rewarding.”
Alberto Salazar, marathon runner

I’m certainly no world-class athlete, but I have an inkling of what Alberto Salazar meant when he suggested that preparing for a “difficult journey” can sometimes be a pain in the ass. Getting in the training miles, day after day, can be a chore and a bore — especially in the blast-furnace heat of a Texas summer.
With that whine out of the way (and today’s ride was pleasant and cool), I can report that I’ve passed the halfway point — 1,500 miles since Jan. 1 — on the way toward a goal of 3,000 training miles before the start of a transcontinental bicycle ride on Sept. 18 in San Diego.
I tell my wife: “It’s no big deal. People do it all the time.” But I guess I have to admit that riding a bicycle 3,160 miles across the United States from California to Florida, hauling on the bike all the requisite gear, is no small undertaking, especially for an old guy like me. I no longer have the young legs, like my friend and neighbor Zack, whose youth and innate fitness allow him to jump onto a track bike, with only one gear, and ride a respectable distance and climb hills with no trouble and no training.
btclogoBut we older gents have to train, even if it hurts sometimes. Lodged in my brain is a vivid memory from a ride in Colorado. Scrawled in chalk on the pavement near the top of a particularly tough mountain pass — and attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, or perhaps a gulag survivor — was this exhortative saying: “That which doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger!”

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Journeys worth writing about

annie londonderry“Away on the road where the dusty clouds whirl
Away with a spirit ecstatic
Goes the cool-as-an-icicle bicycle girl
Bestriding the latest pneumatic;
She heeds not the scoffers who scorn,
Though knickers her kickers adorn,
The cool-as-an-icicle, bicycle, tricycle maiden by no means forlorn.”

— London Judy, Buffalo Illustrated Express, July 29, 1894

The image and poem above are from a delightful 2007 book by Peter Zheutlin, Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride.

Annie Londonderry

Annie Londonderry

The real name of this pioneer female cyclist was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a Latvian-born Jew and the working mother of three who sought to escape her humdrum life in the tenements of Boston’s West End.
During the heyday of bicycling in the mid-1890s, before the invasion of the automobile, a cycling trip around the world was Annie’s chosen route to fame, and perhaps fortune. She adopted “Annie Londonderry” as her nom de plume for the spellbinding tales of adventures in exotic locales — some of dubious credibility — that she dispatched to The New York World.
The author of Annie’s remarkable story is one of her descendants; she was the sister of Zheutlin’s great-grandfather.
In Monday’s blog post, “That first crank of the pedals,” I wrote that I’m fascinated by stories about journeys. Some of the best ones that I’ve read over the years provide inspiration and fodder for this blog.
wal in woods 1One of the most humorous accounts of a journey — except perhaps Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It — is by Bill Bryson, about a trek along the Appalachian Trail with Stephen Katz, an old buddy from Iowa. One passage from the book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, has stuck with me and perhaps explains America’s problems with obesity and diabetes:
“Now here’s a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. For 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. On average the total walking of an American these days — that’s walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls — adds up to 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day. That’s ridiculous.”
Some other favorite books about journeys:
Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi, by Jonathan Raban
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen E. Ambrose
Gypsy Moth Circles the World, by Francis Chichester
CrowhurstThe Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall
Into the Wild, by John Krakauer
Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle, by David Lamb
At One With the Sea: Alone Around the World, by Naomi James
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck
Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, by William Least-Heat Moon
Hokkaido Highway Blues, by Will Ferguson
Joshua Slocum and the sloop Spray

Joshua Slocum and the sloop Spray

Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum

I’d welcome from readers of this blog any other recommendations of books about journeys.


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That first crank of the pedals

lao-tzu 3“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher (604 B.C.-531 B.C.)

To paraphrase Lao-tzu, a bicycle journey of 3,160 miles begins with the first crank of the pedals on a Pacific Ocean beach near Point Loma in San Diego. It will end 65 days later — Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise — when the bicycle’s front wheel is lapped by a wave from the Atlantic Ocean in St. Augustine, Fla.
I’m fascinated by stories about journeys, whether by bike or boat, foot or car. But I’m equally fascinated by the preparations for journeys. And that’s why, during the past couple months, I’ve been preoccupied with the planning for a transcontinental bicycle trip beginning Sept. 18 in San Diego.
I’ve been assembling and sorting gear, making sure that every item is light enough and small enough to carry on a bicycle and will serve a needed, or dual, purpose; buying online a few must-have items, such as a Kevlar cord to serve as a spoke in an emergency; poring over books and maps, harvesting factoids on the places we’ll pass through; figuring out how best to keep an online journal as our small caravan progresses across the country; and riding 20-30 miles — sometimes longer — nearly every day to hit a target of 3,000 training miles before the start of the trip.
Preparation for this cross-country trip actually began last summer, in advance of a September bicycle trip through southern Illinois. That trip, the Illinois Great Rivers Ride, was organized by the state to promote tourism and was regally catered, including, of course, the provision of trucks to carry all our gear.
I knew that I would be undertaking a cross-country journey soon after my retirement. I just didn’t know yet when it would be or what route it would follow. So I forswore the use of the trucks, carried all of my gear, and used that ride in southern Illinois, with its formidable hills, as a shakedown cruise for the transcontinental journey. The bike, rider and gear performed, I believe, better than expected.
Good planning and preparation, I’ve learned over the years as a foreign correspondent and bicycle tourist, ensure the success of a reporting trip or bike journey. Some people — and I hope I’m not one of them — seem to derive more pleasure from preparing for a trip than actually doing it.
A former journalist colleague and bike rider, for example, was a master of trip planning.
He plotted the itinerary, set the distances for each day and made all of the reservations for lodging for a 1994 bicycle trip from Missoula, Mont., to Jackson Hole, Wyo.
He knew, for example, that the proprietors of a motel in Ennis, Mont., were Texas transplants and would afford a warm welcome to a group of bike riders from their home state. They did. My friend also knew, that to be assured of a luncheon reservation at Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park in July, we’d have to book it in February.
southern tier routeAs the poet Robbie Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” So I’m sure there will be glitches in my preparations and I’ll probably forget something really important. But I aim to be as ready as humanly possible for that first crank of the pedals in San Diego.


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