Monthly Archives: December 2009

Merry Christmas to all …


Despite the economic tumult, 2009 has been a pretty good year. It was the first full year of my retirement, which allowed me to fulfill a long-held dream: to ride my bicycle across the United States.
As followers of this blog know, the journey was accomplished this fall — Sept. 20 to Nov. 21, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla.
So to all the special people I rode with along the southern tier of the United States, to the many kind and helpful folks we met along the way, and to all the relatives, friends and other well-wishers who shared the adventure vicariously through this blog: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Now to decide on an adventure for 2010!

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At the risk of terminal boredom …


One of the most dreaded questions in the English language is: Would you like to see my vacation photos?
It ranks right up there with such questions from a wife as: Would you like to go with me to the fabric shop? Or: Why don’t we clean out the garage?
So at the risk of inflicting terminal boredom, I’m posting a yet another selection of photos from the transcontinental bicycle journey that I rode in this fall.
Nearly all of our original party of 15 carried cameras to chronicle the journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. I’ve already posted several selections of my photos. Other participants have now started posting their photos on a Web site that we can all look at.
Here are some photos by John Diller and Mike Ullner:

At camp in Palo Verde, Calif., on Sept. 23, our fourth night on the road. Photo by Mike Ullner

Kami, Jim and Reg outside Brawley, Calif. Photo by Mike Ullner

Jim and Nita at the Horspitality RV Resort at Wickenburg, Ariz. Photo by Mike Ullner

On the climb from Three Way, Ariz., toward New Mexico. From left Derrik, Kami, Gerben (Kevin), Reg, Cathy and Jim. Photo by John Diller

On the road in New Mexico. From left Jim, Gerben (Kevin) and Cathy. Photo by John Diller

At Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico. From left Gerben (Kevin), Mike, Jim, a volunteer guide, Reg, Dolores, Derrik and Kami. Photo by John Diller

At the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southern New Mexico. Photo by Mike Ullner

At Emory Pass in New Mexico. From left Reg, Cathy Jim, John (sitting), Gerben (Kevin) Derrik and Dave. Photo by John Diller

Breakfast at Buckhorn, N.M. Photo by John Diller

Ristras on sale in Hatch, N.M. From left Dolores, Derrik and Jim. Photo by John Diller

Riding the shoulder of Interstate 10 between Van Horn and Kent in West Texas. Photo by Mike Ullner

Leaving Austin after two rest days. From left Mary Ellen, Derrik, Jim, Cathy and Erik. Photo by John Diller

Dinner at Bastrop State Park in Texas. From Left Cathy, Jim, Gerben and Derrik. Photo by Mike Ullner

Group photo in Merryville, La. From left John D., Gerben (Kevin), Jenny, Felix, Cathy, Dave, Mike, Dolores, Derrik, Kami, Jim, Reg and John V.

At an RV park in East Palatka, Fla., our last night on the road. From left Dolores, Gerben (Kevin) and Jim. Photo by John Diller

Celebrating the end of the journey on Nov. 21 on the beach in St. Augustine, Fla. Photo by John Diller

On the beach at St. Augustine, Nov. 21, the last day of the journey. Photo by John Diller

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Learning from my sons


“Most people don’t take snapshots of the little things. The used Band-Aid, the guy at the gas station, the wasp on the Jell-O. But these are the things that make up the true picture of our lives. People don’t take pictures of these things.”
— Sy Parrish (Robin Williams), One Hour Photo, 2002

Two of our sons, gifted photographers, have an eye for shooting compelling pictures of the quirky and bizarre, and the commonplace objects of everyday life.

Soft drinks in a Taiwan street market. Photo by Ben Peipert

On many occasions, I’ve watched them closely examine an object that escaped my notice, snap a picture at an odd angle or in extreme close-up and turn it into an artful image.
I’m sometimes too burdened by the habits of conventional photography: Sticking mostly to landscapes and portraits, straightening the image in the viewfinder, trying to include everything that tells the story. But that sometimes makes for boring photos, the sort you see on postcards.

Ron Mueck sculpture exhibit at Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth. Photo by Thomas Peipert

America’s highways and byways are littered with the quirky and bizarre, such as a statue of a giant rooster welcoming tourists to Hatch, N.M., old boots used as fence post toppers in the Texas Hill Country, or the poignant photos of lost loved ones at a roadside shrine near Miami, Ariz.
I’ve been trying to learn from my sons how to spot such curiosities and make them into engaging photographs. Here’s a selection of odds-and-ends photos — images that caught my eye — during a transcontinental bicycle ride:

Street signs in Lakeside, Calif.

Roadside shrine near Miami, Ariz.

Welcome to Hatch, N.M.

Ornamental deer with ristras in Hatch, N.M.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico

A gift shop in Mesilla, N.M., that was once the courthouse where Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced to hang on April 13, 1881. He later escaped

Shop sign in Fort Davis, Texas

Boots on fence posts in the Texas Hill Country

Cheap lodging in Kerrville, Texas

Diamond C Ranch in East Texas

Garish mansion on Pensacola Bay

Bronze statue of Ray Charles in Greenville, Fla.

Mouth of a cannon at Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine

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Majestic landscapes of the Borderlands


“It opens the lands that have lured the people from the beginning of time.”
— From a 1923 travelogue on the Old Spanish Trail, called the “the highway of the Southern Borderlands”

Traveled by conquistadors and padres, traders and soldiers, and now by transcontinental cyclists and snowbirds in big, honkin’ motor homes, the Old Spanish Trail connects San Diego in California with St. Augustine in Florida along the southern edge of the United States.
In its progress of more than 3,000 miles through a region called the Borderlands, the highway affords some of the most spectacular and varied terrain in North America — searing deserts with wind-swept dunes in California, rugged mountains adorned with saguaro cacti or ponderosa pine, undulating grasslands, cyprus trees towering beside spring-fed rivers in the Texas Hill Country, white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and live oaks draped with Spanish moss amid the swamps and bayous of the Deep South.
Our cross-country bicycle caravan traveled a route that roughly tracked the Old Spanish Trail, from San Diego — through such cities and towns as Phoenix and Las Cruces, El Paso and Van Horn, Fort Stockton and Comfort, Ocean Springs and Mobile, Pensacola and DeFuniak Springs — to St. Augustine.
The progenitor of today’s Interstate 10, the Old Spanish Trail was the most southerly coast-to-coast route developed in the early days of the automobile. It roughly follows what later became U.S. 90 in the east and U.S. 80 in the west.
The Old Spanish Trail was launched in 1915 in Mobile, Ala., as a connector route between New Orleans and Florida and worked on in fits and starts — including an interruption by World War I — until its completion in 1929. With its midway point in San Antonio, Texas, the Old Spanish Trail crosses 67 counties and eight states along the Southern border of the United States.
“Along the Old Spanish Trail are the riches of history, legend, sentiment and natural beauty,” said a description from The Rand McNally Automobile Road Book of 1923. “And throughout the route there are members of the Old Spanish Trail Association who will find pleasure in making your acquaintance.”
They may not have been members of the Old Spanish Trail Association, but plenty of friendly people made our acquaintance as we traveled the Southern Tier route from Sept. 20 to Nov. 21, absorbing some of the history and wondering at the majestic terrain.
Here’s a selection of photographs of sights along the southern edge of America:

Welcome to Brawley, Calif.

The Imperial Dunes in Glamis, Calif.

Jim in the Imperial Dunes

In the Imperial Dunes in California

Irrigation canal in the Arizona desert

Wildflowers in the Arizona desert

Mountains in southern Arizona

The road to Superior, Ariz.

View of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico

Gila National Forest in New Mexico

On the climb to Emory Pass in New Mexico

On the downside of Emory Pass in New Mexico

Cattle ranch in southern New Mexico

Pumpkin harvest in the Mesilla Valley near Hatch, N.M.

Ristras in Hatch, N.M.

Part of the Davis Mountain range in West Texas

In the Texas Hill Country

Detail of a mural in Ingram, in the Texas Hill Country

Detail of a mural in Ingram, in the Texas Hill Country

On the Chipola River near Marianna, Fla.

Morning view of Chipola River near Marianna, Fla.

On a lake at DeFuniak Springs in the Florida Panhandle

Crest at old Spanish Fort in St. Augustine

Cannon at old Spanish Fort in St. Augustine

Soldier re-enactors at old Spanish fort in St. Augustine

Statue of a Spanish Conquistador at the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine

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Random snappies from the road


“Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze.”
Alfred Stieglitz, American photographer, 1864-1946

I frequently try to add a touch of erudition to these sometimes prosaic jottings about bicycling, journeys, writing and other trivia by affixing a germane quote at the top of a blog post.

Alfred Stieglitz

The latest search, as I was rummaging through photos shot during a recently completed transcontinental bicycle journey, turned up the above quote by photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
That prompted an hour or two of research to try to figure out what Stieglitz meant. It was a wet, raw, dreary morning in Fort Worth — too nasty for any outdoor activity except the obligatory dog walk. So the research was a rainy-day pleasure.
The findings: In the 1880s, innovations in plate technology led to development of hand-held cameras, which made photography available to nearly everyone. Like bicycling, the snapping of candid photographs — unposed and unretouched — became the latest fad.

1888 Kodak

In 1888, George Eastman marketed his Kodak camera with the slogan: “You press the button,and we do the rest.”
Stieglitz apparently had trouble reconciling himself to these rapid changes in his chosen craft. Here’s the full quote, from an 1897 essay “The Hand Camera — Its Present Importance,” in The American Annual of Photography:
“Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze. Those seriously interested in its advancement do not look upon this state of affairs as a misfortune, but as a disguised blessing, inasmuch as photography had been classed as a sport by nearly all of those who deserted its ranks and fled to the present idol, the bicycle.
“The only persons who seem to look upon this turn of affairs as entirely unwelcome are those engaged in manufacturing and selling photographic goods.
“It was, undoubtedly, due to the hand camera that photography became so generally popular a few years ago. Every Tom, Dick and Harry could, without trouble, learn how to get something or other on a sensitive plate, and this is what the public wanted — no work and lots of fun. Thanks to the efforts of these persons hand camera and bad work became synonymous.

George Eastman with his Kodak

“The climax was reached when an enterprising firm flooded the market with a very ingenious hand camera and the announcement, ‘You press the button, and we do the rest.’
This was the beginning of the ‘photographing-by-the-yard’ era, and the ranks of enthusiastic Button Pressers were enlarged to enormous dimensions. The hand camera ruled supreme.
“Originally known under the odious name of ‘Detective,’ necessarily insinuating the owner to be somewhat of a sneak, the hand camera was in very bad repute with all the champions of the tripod. They looked upon the small instrument, innocent enough in itself, but terrible in the hands of the unknowing, as a mere toy, good for the purposes of the globe-trotter, who wished to jot down photographic notes as he passed along his journey, but in no way adapted to the wants of him whose aim it is to do serious work.
“But in the past year or two all this has been changed. There are many who claim that for just the most serious work the hand camera is not only excellently adapted, but that without it the pictorial photographer is sadly handicapped.”
Stieglitz came to embrace the portability of the hand camera and used it in the 1890s to shoot some of his best known photographs.
I wonder what he would have made of the digital images produced by today’s point-and-shoot cameras and their proliferation on such networking sites as Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere.
I’ve found that retirement affords one the time to engage in these pursuits of arcane knowledge.
In any case, here’s a selection of images made by today’s equivalent of the 1888 Kodachrome — a Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS — of fellow participants in the cross-country bicycle trip, which began in San Diego on Sept. 20 and ended in St. Augustine, Fla., on Nov. 21, the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Derrik Maude of Britain, Cathy Blondeau of Canada and Gerben (Kevin) Terpstra of the Netherlands on the ferry to Coronado Island in San Diego

Dolores McKeough of New York and Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa of Germany in San Diego

Reg Prentice in San Diego

The first crank of the pedals at Point Loma Hostel in San Diego

Jim at Ocean Beach in San Diego

Cathy Blondeau on the descent into the Imperial Valley in California

Reg Prentice of Los Angeles and Kami Kitchen of Indianapolis in the Imperial Valley

Kami Kitchen and John Vandevelde at Three Way, Ariz.

Jim at the summit of Emory Pass, the literal high point of the journey, in New Mexico

John Diller of Australia in Austin

Dolores McKeough in Austin

Gerben (Kevin) in Louisiana

John Vandevelde of La Canada, Calif., in Merryville, La.

Jenny Prasiswa, Felix Greiner, Kami Kitchen, Reg Prentice and Gerben (Kevin) Terpstra

Self-portrait of Jim

Kami Kitchen, Reg Prentice and ride leader Dave Cox

Jim at the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine

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A tribute to a tire


“[T]he best touring tire in the world.”
— Round-the-world cyclist Scott Stoll

I’ve been asked several times since completing a transcontinental bicycle trip: How many tires did you go through?
Tires, after all, are perhaps the most vulnerable part of a bicycle — especially a touring cycle loaded down with about 55 pounds of gear. The tires are in constant contact with the road and all its hazards: shards of glass, nails, sharp bits of metal and those West Texas beasties called goatheads: rock-hard, little burrs sloughed off by a ground-hugging plant with small leaves and yellow flowers called Tribulus terrestris.
But in answer to the question: I finished the journey of more than 3,100 miles from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., with the same set of tires: German-made Schwalbe Marathon Plus touring tires. And if not for a freak mishap involving my rear rack, I would have finished the trip without a flat.
Some riders in our caravan of 15 — pared to 12 by the end — had so many flats that they lost count. One rider had four flats in a single day.
A good example of flat-prone tires was our Oct. 9 ride out of Las Cruces, N.M. A local cyclist had suggested we use a bike trail along the Rio Grande to avoid heavy rush-hour traffic on U.S. 70.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the trail was infested with goatheads.
Six of us rode the trail. At the end, our tires were festooned with the burrs, which caused a total of seven flat tires. One rider, using a small-wheeled Bike Friday and pulling a two-wheeled trailer, had three flats. Another had two. And two others had one each.

Fixing flats at Las Cruces, N.M.

I was lucky. I plucked about a half-dozen goatheads from my tires, but they apparently didn’t penetrate to the tubes. The Marathon Plus tires have a protective cushion that’s supposed to thwart even a thumbtack. I also used Specialized Airlock self-sealing tubes with a slimy substance inside. Even if a goathead did penetrate the tube, the slime is supposed to seal the puncture.
The tires again proved their worth near Van Horn in West Texas on Oct. 11. About three miles out of Van Horn, our intended destination, I heard something banging on my bike frame with each rotation of the rear wheel. I thought I had broken a spoke, in which case I would have been in deep doo-doo because I’ve never replaced a spoke and didn’t have the tools to do it even if I knew how.

Goatheads on a bike tire

But the noise turned out to be a nail of about 2 1/2 inches that had penetrated my rear tire at an angle. I thought the tire would immediately go flat once I worked out the nail. But, wonder of wonders, when I extracted the nail the tire remained hard and fully inflated. The nail apparently penetrated only the protective rubber cushion on the Marathon Plus tire and didn’t reach the tube.
If it had, I’m not sure that my self-sealing tubes would have prevented a flat. So I credit the tire.
A Sept. 15 post on the blog GearJunkie told the story of Scott Stoll, who has bicycled around the world and is now circumnavigating North America. The blog post discussed the gear that Stoll is using and quoted him as saying that the Schwalbe Marathon Plus, which has a 5mm-thick layer of rubber for puncture protection, is “the best touring tire in the world.”
I’d second that.

Scott Stoll on the road

“The Marathon Plus tires, which cost $55 a piece,” the blog said, “are cited by the company as impenetrable even by shards of glass and thumbtacks. Stoll went 15,000 miles on one set.”
Several members of our group tried to find Specialized Airlock tubes at bike shops along our route. One rider, who had several flats, called his bike shop in Los Angeles and had a set of Marathon Plus tires sent to Del Rio, Texas, one of our overnight stops.
The one time that I had to change a tire was during the last week of the ride on Nov. 16 in the Florida Panhandle. After nearly two months on the road and more than 2,800 miles of riding since leaving San Diego on Sept. 20, I was the only one in our company who had not had a flat.
But my flat-free record was broken not by a failing of my tires, but by loose screws on my rear rack. All of the screws that secured the rear rack to my bicycle frame had worked loose because of the jolts and jostles of a transcontinental bicycle journey.
As I was riding along a quiet country road just west of Woodville, Fla., I came to a screeching halt.

Southern Tier route

The rear rack had separated from the brackets that secure it to the frame just behind the seat post. The rack rotated backward on the bottom bolts at the rear axle and dropped the rear panniers to the pavement. They dragged behind the bike like an anchor.
A loose bracket that had held the rack in place behind the seat post dropped down and stabbed the rear tire as it rotated forward. Like a knife, it penetrated the cushion that protects against run-of-the-mill punctures: nails, thorns, wire-like pieces of steel from truck tires.
I had to dismount the panniers, resecure the rack and replace one of the flimsier bolts with a good stout one. The tire had a small stab wound, and the tube had a slash too large to repair. But I was carrying three spare tubes.
So I was delayed only about 45 minutes and rode flat-free the rest of the week to St. Augustine, our final destination, which we reached Nov. 21.
On any future tours, I’ll plan to use Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires.

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Another journey ends


“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”
Christopher Reeve, American actor, 1952-2004

Neal and his canoe

I’ve written several times in this blog about the journey of Neal Moore, a friend of my son Ben, who was canoeing the length of the Mississippi River as I was riding my bicycle from California to Florida.
Neal set out from Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota, on July 10 and arrived on Tuesday evening in New Orleans — a journey of four months and 22 days.
From Neal’s Dec. 1 post: “Fought severe weather today to guide the Andrea safely into New Orleans. Wind and waves and rain and a plethora of barges and tankers as well as borderline hypothermia couldn’t keep me from this fine town. About to join up with friends here locally — gonna be great. My sincere thanks to everyone — could not have made it without your encouragement and support. More to follow …”

Fellow rider John Vandevelde talks to a curious ferry passenger as we cross the Mississippi. That's my bike in the foreground

Neal and I had been communicating via blog and e-mail before and during our respective journeys. We had toyed with the unlikely notion that we might meet in St. Francisville, in southeastern Louisiana, where our bicycle caravan crossed the Mississippi River on Nov. 4 on our transcontinental journey. (See Nov. 4 post, “The ‘ strong brown god.'”) But Neal, a citizen journalist for CNN, was still upriver in Mississippi doing video stories for CNN and his blog, Flash River Safari.
I thought of Neal that day as I and fellow rider John Vandevelde waited at the ferry landing to cross the river to St. Francisville. The Mississippi, probably a mile wide at that point, was running high and fast, and two men in a canoe were riding the swift current downriver. Their craft seemed so frail on that mighty, mercurial river.
So hats off to Neal for completing an epic journey! Few people get to live their dreams.
Here’s Neal’s latest video post, some random video footage shot on his way down the Mississippi.

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