Category Archives: Blogging on the road

Two splendid adventures


Some readers of this blog may have noticed an absence of posts from Feb. 10 to March 17. The reason: I was editing a book.
The book isn’t by me or about bicycling. But it has a direct bearing on this blog. It chronicles an adventure that I wrote about in Jim’s Bike Blog several times because it overlapped to some extent with my bicycle ride across the United States in the autumn of 2009, and because it was undertaken by a friend.
The book, by Neal Moore and Cindy Lovell, is about Neal’s solo canoe trip down the Mississippi River, from the headwaters of the river at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to New Orleans.
In the spring of 2009, as I was preparing for my bike trip from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., my oldest son, Ben, who teaches English in Taiwan, told me of Neal, a fellow teacher who also was planning an extended journey through America.
Two splendid adventures, two unlikely dreams, I thought, coming to fruition at about the same time!
A line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden has stuck with me since high school: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Thoreau may have overstated the condition of his fellow New Englanders in his musings about a sojourn in a one-room cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts from 1845 to 1847.
But it is probably true that relatively few people get to live their dreams, especially if the dream is, in the view of some, a bit eccentric, bizarre or just plain crazy.

The infant Mississippi at the outset of Neal's journey. Photo by Neal Moore

For some, the chance may come late in life, as with my post-retirement bicycle ride across the United States. For others, it comes earlier, as was the case with Neal.
In a succession of emails, Neal told me of his plans to canoe the Mississippi – a journey that he estimated would take about 150 days, from early July to late November or early December of 2009.
I was born and grew up on the Mississippi River, in Alton, Ill., just upstream from St. Louis. My own childhood fantasies about making my way down the river by raft or towboat never materialized. And as I grew older, I came to understand how dangerous the river can be, especially for a traveler in a small craft.
Jonathan Raban, an Englishman who journeyed down the Mississippi in 1980, described some of the dangers in a wonderful book called Old Glory: An American Voyage. I suggested to Neal that he read that book before he set out, thinking — maybe hoping — that he might reconsider.
Even in an aluminum 16-foot motorized johnboat, Raban faced such dangers as severe turbulence caused by the collision of a downstream current with an upstream wind; partially submerged jetties called wing dams that jut out from the banks to guide water into the main channel; waterlogged tree trunks barely floating just below the surface; huge boils, or domes of water, that swell up from the depths of the river; vicious whirlpools that form in eddies at bends in the river; and, of course, the wakes of monster towboats pushing acres of barges loaded with such cargoes as grain, iron ore, coal or gravel.
By comparison, a bicycle ride across the United States seemed like a safe and simple undertaking.
As plans for our adventures progressed, we realized that our journeys would overlap for a time in the fall of 2009. What a bit of serendipity if we should meet!
We began to entertain the fanciful notion that, with the concurrence of the river and road gods, we might cross paths at St. Francisville in southeastern Louisiana.
St. Francisville, a jewel of a town in West Feliciana Parish, was the place where my fellow cyclists and I would cross the Mississippi River on our transcontinental journey along the southern tier of the United States. Neal, of course, would have to paddle past St. Francisville on his way to the Big Easy.
But our rendezvous on the river didn’t take place at the time and place we had hoped for.
When my bicycling companions and I reached the Mississippi on Nov. 4, 2009, Neal was still further up the river in Mississippi doing video stories as an iReporter for CNN and for his blog, Flash River Safari.
We took a ferry across the Mississippi, a major milestone in our cross-country trek. I thought of Neal that day as we waited on the western bank for the ferry to take us across to St. Francisville.
The Mississippi, probably a mile wide at that point, is in the final stages of its 2,300-mile odyssey across the midsection of the United States. It has gathered water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces from the Rockies to the Appalachians, all funneling into feeder rivers along the way – the Wisconsin, the Illinois, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Arkansas and myriad others – and is rushing full bore to the sea.
For good reason, the Mississippi is called the Father of Waters.
After heavy rains upstream, the Mississippi was running high and fast that day, and two men in a canoe were riding the swift current downriver. Their craft seemed so frail on that mighty, mercurial river. I marveled at their skill and courage and was struck anew by the audacity of Neal’s solo journey.

Neal Moore at Tom Sawyer's fence in Hannibal

Although our rendezvous didn’t occur when and where Neal and I had hoped for, when it did happen it was in a town very fitting for two people who have a deep association with and affection for the Mississippi: Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain’s boyhood home.
The graduation of a family friend from the University of Missouri at Columbia in May 2010 prompted a trip to Missouri. After the graduation, I drove to Hannibal.
Neal had been working on this book in Oxford, Miss., but he had decamped to Hannibal to tap the expertise of Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. Cindy’s main role in the book project was to cull the works of Twain for passages relevant to Neal’s journey and to place them strategically throughout the narrative.
“Dr. Moore, I presume,” I said when I found Neal in the Java Jive coffee shop on Hannibal’s Main Street. He had been hunched over his laptop working on his book amid the couches and easy chairs at the back of the shop.
Through Neal’s good offices and Cindy’s hospitality, I lodged in the Becky Thatcher Room at Cindy’s rambling 1890s home filled with Twain memorabilia.
Cindy, a self-described “Twainiac” with encyclopedic knowledge of Twain and his times, has hung her favorite Twain quote above the door leading from the living room into the kitchen: “Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
During my brief visit to Hannibal, Neal and I walked along the waterfront as the rising Mississippi, swollen by seasonal flooding, crept up the brick-paved landing where steamboats once put in. We toured Twain’s boyhood home and the nearby home of Tom Blankenship, son of the town drunk and an outcast from polite society who was the model for Huckleberry Finn.
We signed the whitewashed fence immortalized in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and talked Twain with museum curator Henry Sweets.

Hannibal ambassador Alex Addison as Tom Sawyer. Photo by Neal Moore

We tramped through the cave where young Sam Clemens played and where Tom and Becky got lost.
That evening, we sat on Cindy’s front porch swapping mostly true tales about our respective adventures, drank some robust but flat stout that I had schlepped in a growler from a brew pub in Columbia and watched as a large, well-fed raccoon repeatedly raided the bowls of food that Cindy had set out for the neighborhood cats.
As the book project progressed, Neal and Cindy asked if I would write the introduction – part of which is recycled for this blog post – and then asked if I would edit the manuscript. I also got to help with the cover design and to edit Neal’s photos for the book.
The book is now in the final stages of publication. It will be the first book published by the Mark Twain Museum Press and is to be launched in Hannibal on July 28.
Neal will soon leave Taiwan for an extended visit to the United States before taking up residence in Cape Town, South Africa. On July 24, he plans to fly from Houston to Dallas, where I will pick up him at Dallas Love Field. After a night in Fort Worth, we plan to drive up to Hannibal for the launch event.
I was proud to be a part of the project and hope the book does well. As I followed Neal’s adventure from inception to completion, I never imagined that I’d have the opportunity to help shape it into a book. Thanks, Neal and Cindy. It’s been a pleasure.

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Filed under Americana, Blogging on the road, Cool stuff, Cycling across America, History, Journeys

‘The whole thing was surreal’


I’ve never been to New Zealand, but I’ve imagined it as an idyllic sort of place at the antipodes, full of snow-capped mountains, sheep stations and civilized folks. Judging from an incident involving a pair of touring cyclists whose travels I’ve been following on their website and Facebook, I guess, like anyplace in this world, New Zealand has its share of assholes.
Russ Roca and Laura Crawford, who have been touring New Zealand on British-made Brompton folding bikes, encountered one of that country’s ilk on Tuesday as they were riding single file just south of Wellington on the North Island.
A motorist passed them dangerously close, stopped his car up the road and came back to push Roca off his bike and punch him in the face, according to a report in The Dominion Post.
“The whole thing was surreal,” Roca was quoted as saying.

Russ Roca and Laura Crawford. Photo by Kent Blechlynden/Fairfax NZ

“Roca said they had been warned before they came to New Zealand of the country’s ‘crazy drivers,’” the report said.
“Last year German cyclist Mia Susanne Pusch, 19, blogged about the perils of cycling on New Zealand roads, describing Kiwi truck drivers as ‘beasts.’ She died after colliding with a truck and trailer near Bulls.”
Patrick Morgan, a spokesman for New Zealand’s Cycling Advocates Network, said the attack on Roca was embarrassing to New Zealand.
“This assault is unacceptable but unfortunately … not rare,” Morgan said.
In a report in The New Zealand Herald, Roca was quoted as saying:
“It seems like such an isolated experience — it is not going to put us off touring or riding the trails of New Zealand.
“I don’t want to diminish it, because it was absolutely awful, but it was a fluke thing — I don’t think anyone should take it as a reason not to cycle.”
I had a chance to meet Roca and Crawford on April 28, 2010, when they gave a presentation at a Fort Worth bike shop on their bicycle travels around the United States. (See April 27, 2010, blog post, “Nomads on two wheels.”)
Here’s hoping that their continued travels in New Zealand are asshole-free.

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I put away the champagne


Jim’s Bike Blog passed a milestone of sorts today — 100,000 hits since I launched this online journal on April 17, 2009, in advance of a trans-America bicycle ride in the fall of that year.
But the occasion passed without fanfare or celebration.
I’ve written previously that the hit count on a website is a phantom figure, that many of the hits are made by “netbots” that troll the Internet to do such things as track and analyze web traffic, that a compelling news story in print or online can attract more readers in a few hours than this blog will in a year, that a post on a celebritity blog about Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga might record 100,000 hits in a day, that regular readership on most blogs might boil down to a few friends and relatives, that millions of people who think they have something to say write blogs, and that blogging might afford satisfaction to the blogger but adds little to the world’s store of knowledge.

Hatch-chan the blogging house cat

“Most people have no idea that hits are meaningless,” says a website called mediacollege.com. “A ‘million hits’ does not mean that a million people visited a website. It doesn’t actually tell you anything at all about the volume of traffic — the real number of visitors could be close to a million or it could be less than a thousand. There’s just no way of knowing.”
But 100,000 hits must count for something. Right? A party? At least an occasion for some private revelry?
Then I read about a celebrity house cat in Osaka, Japan, named Hatch-chan, whose blog — in Japanese — is said to have a following of some 50,000 readers per day.
Of course, the cat, a former stray, gets out and about, meeting fans, making appearances at department stores and recording TV shows.
He’s also been the star of a movie, the subject of a calendar and the name behind a line of merchandise from stuffed toys to refrigerator magnets.
Cat blogs apparently are all the rage in Japan, and Hatch-chan’s photographer owner, Natsumi Fujiwara, documents his every move for each day’s blog post. His black-and-white mug is plastered all over the blog, engaging in such feline pursuits as peeking out of a cardboard house, chasing a ball of yarn, napping on a computer printer and licking his right forepaw.
But 50,000 hits a day for a blog by a cat?!?!
Maybe I should ask my dog to write a blog.
I put away the champagne.

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Like peeing in the ocean


I didn’t make the list — again. Maybe next year?
The list I refer to
is the world’s “Top 50 Bike Blogs” for 2011, compiled since 2009 by one of the blogs on bicycling that I look at fairly often, London Cyclist. Some of the blogs on the top-50 list are on my “blogroll,” or list of favorite blogs, in the right-hand column of this page.
London Cyclist defines a bike blog this way: “The site has to be primarily focused around the blog and can’t be part of a much wider organization.” This would exclude, London Cyclist said, such excellent blogs as the one maintained by the British newspaper The Guardian. The blog also must be recently active and have cycling as its main topic.
Actually, reading this list and the criteria for getting onto it is somewhat discouraging for anyone with the fanciful notion that writing a blog might contribute to the world’s body of knowledge. One factor in determining a blog’s worthiness for the list is an online tool called the “Alexa Traffic Rank,” which measures the traffic going to a website.
I went to Alexa.com and typed “jimsbikeblog.wordpress.com” into the search box. This blog, alas, came up with a ranking of 6,811,544. In other words, more than 6.8 million websites around the world have more viewers than Jim’s Bike Blog. It’s no big surprise that Google.com, with the highest combination of visitors and pageviews, was ranked No. 1 as of March 18.
London Cyclist said that “the three bike blogs with the most traffic” are Bike Rumor, with an Alexa Traffic Rank of 70,227; Prolly is not Probably, ranked 96,969; and Bike Portland, at 136,349.
The number of Twitter followers and the number of readers who comment on a blog are also among the criteria for making the London Cyclist list. “Bike Snob NYC has the most Twitter followers: 16,134,” London Cyclist said. The three blogs with the most active commenters are Bike Snob NYC, Fat Cyclist and London Cyclist.
Having a Twitter account is apparently a major factor in driving traffic to blogs.
London Cyclist reported that when its list was first compiled in 2009, just 24 percent of the bike blogs included had a Twitter account. In 2010, that grew to 62 percent. “And now in 2011 you are really the odd one out if you don’t have a Twitter account.” Seventy-three percent of the blogs listed this year have Twitter accounts.
I do have a Twitter account, but I’ve not yet posted a tweet and its only followers are two of my sons.
Judging from these stats, it seems that writing a blog — on bicycling or any other passion, from Longaberger baskets to that peculiarly British pastime of trainspotting — is a little like peeing in the ocean. It might provide satisfaction to the person doing the peeing, but it doesn’t add much to the world’s supply of water.

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My first models are cows


It’s been a long time since herds of longhorn cattle passed through Fort Worth, headed up the Chisholm Trail to railheads in Kansas. But a few of that hardy breed still hang around in these parts, I guess to remind us of how Fort Worth got its nickname: Cowtown.
I came across a few contented longhorns during my Sunday bike ride along the Trinity Trails, dozing in the afternoon sunshine in a field on the southwestern edge of the city. I had taken along a new camera — a Canon PowerShot G12 — and the somnolent bovines got to be my first live subjects.
The Canon G12 is meant to replace/complement a Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS, a very compact point-and-shoot that I took on a trans-America bicycle ride in the autumn of 2009. That camera, about the size of a deck of cards, served very well during a self-contained trip on which every piece of gear had to be as small and light as possible.
Canon PowerShot G12The Canon G12, like its predecessors in the G series, is a bit larger than a shirt-pocket-size point-and-shoot. At nearly a pound, it has a nice heft and a rugged build. But it’s still much more compact than a standard DSLR and its interchangeable lenses. And it fits comfortably into a jacket pocket.
The G12, with a built-in lens equivalent in range from 28mm to 140mm, is widely described as a camera that a professional would travel with if he or she didn’t want to carry the bulky pro rig. An amateur can leave the settings on “auto” and let the camera do the work. But the G12 has the manual controls desired by a more advanced shooter.
The longhorns in the photos below were about 60 yards away on the other side of a fence. But the G12’s zoom lens made them appear just a few feet away.
I consider myself more amateur than advanced, and I have much to learn about the G12’s manual controls. But my first models didn’t seem to notice my inexperience.

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Filed under Americana, Blogging on the road, Cycling across America, Texana, Urban cycling

Some yearend accounting


“A blog is merely a tool that lets you do anything from change the world to share your shopping list.”
— Unknown

The start of a new year is traditonally a time of reflection and regrets, reckoning and resolutions — an accounting of the old year with hopes of a better outcome in the new.
It seems that the platform that I use to write this blog, WordPress.com, also is into yearend accounting. On Jan. 2, I received a message from Team WordPress with a report on how Jim’s Bike Blog fared during 2010 in comparison with the other 282,974 blogs — as of this writing — hosted by WordPress.com.
“We think you did great!” was the good news, accompanied by an image of a “Blog-Health-o-Meter” with the needle tilted far over to the right in a green pie segment marked “Wow.”
“About 3 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year,” said the WordPress report card. “This blog was viewed about 58,000 times in 2010. If it were the Taj Mahal, it would take about 7 days for that many people to see it.”
In 2010, the report went on, I wrote 97 new posts, increasing the total in the archive to 280 posts, and uploaded 491 images, occupying a total of 123 megabytes of cyberspace. It said my busiest day of the year was Sept. 6 when Jim’s Bike Blog had 377 views.
The most viewed post that day was “What a difference a day makes,” written in Globe, Ariz., on Sept. 30, 2009, during a transcontinental bicycle ride.
I have no idea what caused that spike in viewership. I also have no idea what to make of the report card from Team WordPress.
I expressed similar sentiments about blog stats on May 8, when hits to Jim’s Bike Blog reached a total of 50,000 since I installed a hit counter shortly after beginning these sporadic ramblings in April 2009 to chronicle my cross-country bicycle journey.
I headlined that post “A milestone of questionable worth” because
50,000 hits seems like a drop in the ocean when one considers that some celebrity blogs can record millions of hits in a day with a hot item on some pop flash like Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.
“And consider this,” I observed then. “When I was a working journalist, a single compelling dispatch that I wrote from Moscow, say, as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press, or an Op-Ed piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, would command a potential audience of far more than 50,000.”
So despite the “wow” report from Team WordPress and the fact that this blog has now surpassed 85,000 hits, I’ll stick with my conclusion of May 8: Blogging is essentially a narcissistic enterprise by those who imagine they have something to say, aimed at a very small niche audience.
Nevertheless, as I wrote earlier, I plan to keep scribbling this blog about bikes and books, travels and trivia because it’s fun to do. It also allows me to continue writing after more than four decades in journalism, learning something new nearly every day, and it keeps me from indulging in other, more dangerous, vices.

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Change is good


“If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.”
— Unknown author

Regular visitors to the blog might have noticed some subtle — and not so subtle — differences over the past few days.
Other than the maxim that change is good, the tweaking on the blog was prompted by the fact that wordpress.com, the platform that I’ve been using since I started Jim’s Bike Blog in April 2009, arbitrarily retired the “theme” that I had been using and replaced it with another.
I had been using a “theme” called “Pressrow,” which I selected because it was clean and simple. The theme that replaced it, called “Pilcrow,” has almost exactly the same look at “Pressrow,” but it has more options to alter its appearance.
For example, Pilcrow offers an option to provide a background, which can be changed by season or on the whim of the blogger. For the holiday season, I’ll probably use a background of snowflakes on a green field. It will appear on the borders along either side of the blog content, where a light wood texture is now shown.
Also, Pilcrow allows the user to change the color of the pages on which the blog posts appear. Pressrow offered only black type on a white page. Pilcrow offers four options. For the time being, at least, I’ve chosen white type on a chocolate brown background. I’d prefer a background of a lighter brown, or a sand color, but no option is available for that color.
Pressrow offered only one page layout for the blog’s contents. Pilcrow offers six. Again, for the time being, I’ve chosen to stick with the original layout — blog posts on the left and sidebar material on the right. But I may do some experimenting.
All in all, I’m pleased with the Pilcrow theme and its options for change. As someone once observed: “If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.”
Any feedback would be welcome.

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