Monthly Archives: August 2010

Cruisin’ the Katy

CLINTON, Mo. — The Katy Trail in Missouri, as I’ve written previously in this blog, is a splendid example of recycling.

A mural in Clinton

Farsighted officials in Missouri took something that was no longer needed, the right-of-way of a defunct railroad, and turned it into something extremely useful and pleasing: a cycling and jogging path traversing almost the whole width of the state.
The entire trail is a state park — 225 miles long and about 100 feet wide. It stretches from the western terminus at the farming town of Clinton, about 75 miles southeast of Kansas City, to St. Charles, a suburb of St. Louis.
More than half of the trail tracks the Missouri River, the route used by Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase for President Thomas Jefferson.
A bicycling friend, Dean Wisleder of Springfield, Ill., and I plan to set out on the trail Monday morning and arrive in St. Charles on Thursday. Dean rode the trail from the east during this past week, arrived in Clinton on Saturday, and will turn around and head back to St. Charles with me on Sunday. We plan to ride about 62 miles the first day, to Pilot Grove.

A restored building on Clinton's courthouse square

Katy Trail State Park is built on what was once the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (the MKT, or Katy). It’s the longest developed rail-to-trail project in the United States.
When the MKT Railroad ceased operating its line between Machens in St. Charles County and Sedalia in 1986, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources had the opportunity to acquire the right-of-way under the National Trails System Act, which provides that railroad corridors no longer needed for active rail service can be “banked” for future transportation needs and used on an interim basis as recreational trails.
In 1991, the Union Pacific Railroad donated to the state an additional 33 miles of rail corridor from Sedalia to just east of

A mural in Clinton

Clinton. Plans are in the works to extend the Katy Trail the remaining 75 miles to the northwest to Kansas City.
Every summer, the The Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Missouri State Parks Foundation organize a ride along the Katy. This year’s ride, the 10th annual, was called “Cruisin’ on the Katy” and was held June 21-25.
St. Charles, the endpoint of our ride, was an early stop on Lewis and Clark’s journey to the West.
The Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1803-1804 at Camp Dubois, on the Mississippi in Illinois across from the mouth of the Missouri. They set out on May 14, 1804, and on May 16 put in at St. Charles, then a town of about 450 inhabitants, to adjust the load in their keelboat and await the arrival of Lewis, who had been conducting last-minute business in St. Louis.

A mural in Clinton

Clark called the people of St. Charles “pore, polite & harmonious.” Lewis found them “miserably pour, illiterate and when at home excessively lazy.”
St. Charles is only about 30 miles miles from my hometown, Alton, Ill., on the Mississippi River just upstream from the confluence with the Missouri. After our arrival in St. Charles on Thursday — legs willing — I plan to ride farm roads through St. Charles County and cross the Mississippi to Alton for a 50th high school reunion over Labor Day weekend.



Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Travels

Bicycles as reporting tools

“[W]hen a storm threatens, everyone is a hurricane reporter.”
— James O’Byrne, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans

As we observe the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, two enterprising reporters of The Times-Picayune of New Orleans recounted how they used their bicycles to gather news of the devastation just hours after Katrina roared through the city.
James O’Byrne and Doug MacCash, like other Times-Picayune employees, came to the newspaper on Sunday night, Aug. 28, 2005, to ride out the storm and to be ready to begin reporting as soon as it was safe to venture outside.
“We had brought our bicycles with us, confident that we could reach places on Monday by bicycle that we couldn’t reach by car, because of downed trees and power lines, and of course, water,” O’Byrne wrote in a remembrance, “Bicycling into the heart of the flood,” posted on the Times-Picayune website,, on Thursday.
At the time, O’Byrne was the newspaper’s features editor and MacCash was its art critic. “But when a storm threatens, everyone is a hurricane reporter,” O’Byrne wrote.
“We were just two of dozens of Times-Picayune journalists who ventured out into the city as the winds died down on Monday, trying to understand and photograph the magnitude of the storm’s damage.”
As they rode through the devastated city, they came to the realization that flooding caused by a breach in the 17th Street Canal seawall had “swallowed up both of our Lakeview homes.”
Five years later, the two recreated their bike ride for a Times-Picayune video. It includes photographs of areas taken just after the storm, compared with how they look now, and interviews with some of the New Orleans residents the reporters encountered on their ride through the flood.
After 9 1/2 hours of reporting and taking photos with a small digital camera, “we returned to the newsroom through a pitch-black city, and joined our colleagues in reporting what we had seen.”

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A pox on those who steal books

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. They are engines of change, windows on the world, lighthouses erected in the sea of time.”
Barbara W. Tuchman, American historian and author, 1912-1989

Have you ever been annoyed when a friend borrowed a book and didn’t return it?
That must have been
more than just an annoyance for medieval monks at a time when books were very rare objects, laboriously copied from earlier texts and lovingly preserved, as Barbara Tuchman said, as “humanity in print.”
Many of the tomes contained beautifully illuminated pages and maps of lands not yet fully explored, replete with sea monsters, fanciful creatures and, on at least one map, this legend for terra incognita: “Here be dragons.”
I came upon the arcane subject of medieval book curses and bibliomania, an obsessive–compulsive disorder involving the collecting or hoarding of books, while reading a gem of a book by Miles Harvey, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime.
The book — besides delving into the history of books and maps, the people who made them and the libraries that house them — tells the story of Gilbert Joseph Bland Jr., a nondescript Florida antiques dealer who purloined millions of dollars worth of antique maps from some of North America’s most prestigious libraries and institutions before he was caught in 1995 at the Peabody Library in Baltimore.
Harvey calls Bland “the Al Capone of cartography, the greatest American map thief in history.”
In his book, published in 2000, Harvey quotes this curse, purportedly from a Latin inscription at the library of the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona, Spain:
“For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink in Dissolution. Let Bookworms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.”
Pretty harsh stuff!

Miles Harvey

Sandra Anderson wrote on the history of book curses while working for a master’s degree in library and information studies at the University of Alberta. Her paper, “Bibliomania and the Medieval Book Curse,” was posted to the Internet in March 2003 as part of her master’s program — yet more proof that information on virtually any topic, no matter how obscure, can be found on the World Wide Web.
“The book curse followed an established basic structure of promising severe consequences, most often religious, to anyone who would take or alter a book,” Anderson wrote.
“In the older societies, the wrath of gods such as Thoth, Ashur, and Belit was promised but in medieval Europe, it was removal from the sight of God that drove the most fear into the hearts of bibliomaniacs…
“Book curses used threats of several different types of punishment to invoke fear among those who would take or damage a book: bodily injury, damnation, excommunication, or anathema. The bodily injuries included hanging, illness, and painful death and usually called for more than one physical torment to befall the thief.”
Anderson, like Harvey, quotes that imprecation from “the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona” as one of the more colorful of the book curses — and one which applies also to those who “borrow” books and don’t return them.
But, alas, that curse apparently is a hoax. I could find no evidence of the existence of the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona.
A bit of further research turned up the tale of Edmund Lester Pearson, a professional librarian for such institutions as the Library of Congress and the War Department, who from 1906 to 1920 wrote a weekly column, “The Librarian,” for the Boston Evening Transcript.
In a 1907 column, Pearson printed a paragraph supposedly from an old librarian’s almanac, wrote Wayne A. Wiegand in a 1979 book, The History of a Hoax: Edmund Lester Pearson, John Cotton Dana, and The Old Librarian’s Almanack.
Response from colleagues and friends, Wiegand wrote, led Pearson to expand the column to a 34-page pamphlet, which was published in 1909 as “The Old Librarian’s Almanack.” The title page the almanack described it as “a very rare pamphlet first published in New Haven Connecticut in 1773 and now reprinted for the first time.”
The pamphlet, Wiegand wrote, was reviewed seriously by The New York Sun, The Nation, The New York Times and several other publications before the hoax became generally known. In 1927 the magazine Public Libraries called the hoax “a good piece of foolery, bright, clever, with the verisimilitude of authenticity.”
“Even today,” says Wikipedia’s entry on Pearson, “a humorous faux-medieval curse against book stealers from the pamphlet continues to be portrayed as real.”
Whether the following oft-quoted curse is real or not, I don’t know. But I like it well enough to inscribe it onto the endpapers of some of my favorite books:
Steal not this book, my worthy friend
For fear the gallows will be your end;
Up the ladder, and down the rope,
There you’ll hang until you choke;
Then I’ll come along and say –
“Where’s that book you stole away?”


Filed under Americana, History, Literary musings

They must have prodigious bladders!

Mud woman in Madrid

It must be a miserable way to make a living, especially in the heat of a Spanish summer.
But every day, in Madrid and Barcelona and other Spanish tourist towns, dozens of street artists called estatuas humanas — human statues — dress up in outlandish garb and stand or sit motionless, waiting for curious passers-by to favor their performances with a coin or two.
During a sojourn in Spain last month, I had a chance to study this curious form of European street theater, which, according to Wikipedia, dates back hundreds of years.
“The tableau vivant, or group of living statues, was a regular feature of medieval and Renaissance festivities and pageantry, such as royal entries by rulers into cities,” Wikipedia says.

Toreador in Madrid

“Typically a group enacting a scene would be mounted on an elaborate stand decorated to look like a monument, placed on the route of the procession.”
A human statue or two might be seen wherever tourists gather in major cities around the world. But the art seems to flourish in Spain.
In Madrid, in the narrow lanes of the Old Town leading to Plaza Major, can be found a woman daubed from head to toe in mud, sitting motionless like a statue until someone drops a coin into her slotted pot. Then she begins to move in slow, robotic motions.

Gunslinger in Madrid

Standing on a box is a tall man decked out in black leather and denim like a Wild West gunslinger. With the drop of a coin, he reaches for his six-shooter in jerky motions and makes noises like an old clock about to strike the hour.
His nearby companion is a toreador who goes through the motions of fighting an invisible bull.
Along the Paseo del Prado is a white-clad waiter in an awkward pose as if he’s about to fall on his back with a tray of bottles.
The discipline and physical stamina required to hold that pose for any length of time are remarkable, and he and his fellow human statues must have prodigious bladders.

Falling waiter in Madrid

After studying the waiter for several minutes at different angles, I figured that his backside must be resting on a seat concealed in his trousers with a long steel support running the length of his right leg.

Rabbit in a commode

One of the more amusing of the street artists, in the square in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid, is a puppeteer concealed in a black box behind a commode. His puppet, a bluish-green rabbit, periodically pops out of the toilet and lets loose with a stream of high-pitched chatter at curious children.

Bicyclist of Barcelona

In Barcelona, dozens of human statues ply their trade along Las Ramblas, a tree-lined pedestrian mall that runs from Plaza Catalunya to the waterfront.
There is a Michael Jackson impersonator who will moonwalk at the drop of a coin, various comic book monsters, an angel, a guy who pops out of a coffin, mythical gods and goddesses, a cyclist with a skeleton as a riding companion and a World War I soldier covered with bronze paint to look like a war memorial.
There were so many on Las Ramblas that their novelty soon wore off. I put my camera away.

Street musicians in Barcelona

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An education on the road

“Experience, travel — these are as education in themselves.”
Euripides, Greek playwright, c. 480-406 B.C.

Davy Vogel climbing Atigun Pass in Alaska's Brooks Range

I like to think that my own three sons had some unforgettable experiences as children. All were born overseas, grew up in London, Johannesburg and Nairobi, and traveled with their parents to such places as Egypt and India.
But their childhood adventures pale in comparison to those of Daryl and Davy Vogel of Boise, Idaho. For the past 26 months, the 11-year-old twins have been traveling with their schoolteacher parents on an 18,000-mile bicycle ride the length of the Pan-American Highway from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southern tip of South America.
The family set out from Alaska on June 8, 2008, and hopes to reach the southern terminus of the Pan-American Highway next March.
“The Vogels have endured sub-zero temperatures on the Bolivian altiplano, blinding Peruvian desert sandblasts, an excruciatingly steep 15,856-foot climb in the Andes, and on one occasion, a frightening predator,” said an account of their journey in Sunday’s Parade magazine.
“Two years ago, after a long day on the road in British Columbia, John and Daryl went off to scout campsites while Nancy and Davy stopped to take a breather. Suddenly a 400-pound bear lumbered dangerously close to where mother and son straddled their bikes.”
They escaped by riding away very slowly at first, and then, “as the bear chased after them, they amped up their gears and, legs and adrenaline pumping furiously, blasted to safety,” the Parade story said.
Check out a more complete account of their trip so far: “Road Scholars: Would you take an 18,000-mile bike ride with your kids?”
As a cyclist myself, I was particularly interested in the note at the bottom about what kind of bikes the Vogels are riding and what sort of gear they’re using. I was pleased to note that the “family’s preferred brand” of tires is Schwalbe Marathon Plus.
I used that same brand of German-made touring tires on a ride across the United States last fall and didn’t have a flat. I’ve just bought online a new set for use when my current Schwalbes wear out — whenever that might be.

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A year on the road

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”
Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961

Laura and Russ

Laura Crawford and Russ Roca, who are on an extended ramble across America, passed through Fort Worth in April on their journey from the West Coast to the East Coast.
More than 100 local cyclists turned up at Trinity Bicycles at 207 S. Main St. on April 28 to hear them talk about their adventures on the road.
Russ, a photographer, and Laura, a writer and jewelry maker, began the trip last July in Portland, Ore., cycled down the West Coast and currently are in North Carolina.
As they’ve traveled across the United States, they’ve been stopping in various cities to give presentations about their journey and how others can become bicycle nomads.
They’ve been chronicling their journey on the website The Path Less Pedaled and a Facebook page of the same name. Now they’ve made a video slide show about their first year on the road.
Check it out. A couple shots of their visit to Trinity Bicycles are at 3:50 and 3:54 in the slide show.


Filed under Americana, Blogging on the road, Cycling across America, Journeys, Travels

It’s not just panda food

“This is a sustainable material for sustainable transport.”
— Marty Odlin, a founder of the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Some might think of bamboo as panda food, stuff to make chopsticks out of or an invasive barrier plant that grows like Topsy and requires napalm to eradicate.
But bamboo, promoted as a greener alternative to a variety of building materials, is used for flooring, venetian blinds, furniture, roofing, musical instruments and, yes, bicycles.
On Thursday, The New York Times carried in its Fashion & Style section a story about the use of bamboo in building bikes — ranging from high-dollar racing machines to low-tech, inexpensive cargo carriers for use in developing countries.
The Times story said “bamboo is being heralded by bikers, environmentalists and social entrepreneurs as a material with no carbon footprint and the potential to provide cheap wheels in poor countries. Serious spandex-clad cyclists like bamboo bicycles, as do tattooed bike messengers and thrifty Ghanaian shopkeepers.”

Pandurban commuter bike made from laminated bamboo by Renovo in Portland, Ore.

The website recently touted the benefits of bamboo bikes. Its tensile strength is comparable to steel or aluminum, and it’s lighter. It’s a renewable resource that grows faster than weeds. And it’s biodegradable. The website also posted a gallery of photos of bamboo bicycles, including one made in 1896 that is on display in the Technical Museum in Prague.
Calfee Design of La Selva Beach, Calif., has been a pioneer in designing and building bamboo bikes. According to the company’s website, its first bamboo bike was built in 1995 as a publicity stunt by Craig Calfee. After building a dozen bamboo bikes for employees, relatives and friends and getting good feedback on the quality of the ride, the company began producing them in 2005.

Poster for a Denver event promoting bamboo bikes

And that led the next year to an outreach to Africa.
“Back in 1984, when Craig was wandering around Africa,” the website says, “he noticed three things: 1. There was a lot of bamboo, 2. People used bikes and didn’t have enough of them, and 3. they needed jobs. Perhaps people could build their own bamboo cargo bikes.
“So he put a small notice on the website to see if there was any interest in the idea. Various organizations and individuals encouraged and funded Craig to go try it out. Now there are bamboo bikes being made in Ghana with more places on the way.”

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