Category Archives: Cycling across America

Up the Great River Road


One of my favorite bicycle rides, and arguably one of the most scenic in America, begins at my hometown, Alton, Ill., and stretches up the Mississippi River about 13 miles to Grafton, where the Illinois River meets the Mississippi for their conjoined journey to the sea.

My bicycle at Grafton, Ill., Oct. 28, 2013

My bicycle at Grafton, Ill., Oct. 28, 2013

I was born and grew up in Alton, just upriver from St. Louis, Mo., and even closer to the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers.
I have traveled along that stretch of road between Alton and Grafton countless times, in all weather – in dense fog, in driving rain, in snow, in frigid winter when the river is sometimes clogged with car-sized chunks of ice, and in the splendor of a crisp, clear autumn day when the trees that cling to the limestone bluffs are clad in dying leaves of russet, gold and bright crimson.
Last Monday was such a day.
I was on a visit to my hometown and I had brought along my bike. I logged 42.09 miles on my bike that day, including that magnificent stretch of the Big River.
That same day, a website called All Around Alton filmed a video of that length of the highway. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find myself in the video.

During my ride, along a nice bike path parallel to the road, I stopped several times to take photos, including a stop at a little park at Clifton Terrace, near where my aunt and uncle used to have a bluffside house that afforded a grand view of the river.
At a little pavilion in the park, I found on a sign these words by John Madson, an Iowa naturalist and author of a 1986 book called Up On The River: An Upper Mississippi Chronicle:

Pumpkins at a yogurt shop in Grafton, where I stopped for a sandwich

Pumpkins at a yogurt shop in Grafton, where I stopped for a sandwich

“I am certain of one thing: My work has taken me from one end of the Mississippi River to the other – from the crest of the watershed above the Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the mouth of Southwest Pass a hundred miles down from New Orleans. And in all those 2,500 miles of river, there is nothing else like the 13 miles between Alton and Grafton. Nothing! … Nowhere are there such palisades as ours, and nowhere is a lovelier stretch of the Mississippi so accessible and beloved by so many people. It belongs to the nation and is in our trust. We must not betray that trust.”

The scenic river, Mississippi above Alton, Ill., Oct. 28, 2013

The scenic river, Mississippi above Alton, Ill., Oct. 28, 2013

Steel sculptures of Canadian geese, Grafton, Ill., Oct. 28, 2013

Steel sculptures of Canadian geese, Grafton, Ill., Oct. 28, 2013

The Mississippi River between Alton and Grafton, Ill., Oct. 28, 2013

The Mississippi River between Alton and Grafton, Ill., Oct. 28, 2013

The working river, the Mississippi above Alton, Ill., Oct, 28, 2013

The working river, the Mississippi above Alton, Ill., Oct, 28, 2013

Lighthouse at Grafton, Ill., at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, Oct. 28, 2013

Lighthouse at Grafton, Ill., at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, Oct. 28, 2013

My bike at Grafton, Ill., the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, Oct. 28, 2013

My bike at Grafton, Ill., the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, Oct. 28, 2013

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The eyes of Texas are upon you


Mamas, tell your babies don’t mess with Texas.
Don’t let ’em throw cans from them old pickup trucks.
Don’t let ‘em throw bottles and papers and such.
Mamas, tell all your babies don’t mess with Texas.
Keep your trash off the roads; she’s a fine yellow rose.
Treat Texas like someone you love.

— Willie Nelson, “Don’t Mess With Texas”

I sometimes wondered as I rode across Texas in the autumn of 2009 on a cross-country bicycle trip what the non-Americans in our party might think of the ubiquitous anti-litter signs “Don’t Mess With Texas.”
Would that stark commandment instill fear in the hearts of the gentler souls among us – my riding companions from the Netherlands and England?
Don't mess with TexasHow exactly, they might have thought, does one mess with Texas? What’s the penalty for messing with Texas? This state, after all, leads the nation in executions. What degree of messing with Texas would earn a one-way trip to the death chamber at Huntsville?
And does the slogan have a broader meaning, aimed at Washington bureaucrats or anybody else who might suggest that all is not sunflowers and bluebonnets in Gov. Rick Perry’s Lone Star State.
We did our best not to mess with Texas during our 1,000-mile slog across the state from El Paso to Austin to the Sabine River.
The bloke from Britain, once it was explained that the “Don’t Mess With Texas” signs were part of an anti-litter campaign that began nearly three decades ago, found the slogan jolly amusing.
Somewhere along the way, he acquired a “Don’t Mess With Texas” sticker, which he affixed to his bike frame for the rest of the ride to the Atlantic Coast.

Lately, a new sign has been popping up along the state’s highways: “The eyes of Texas are upon you.”
It features a menacing-looking man in a cowboy hat, looking like a stylized Texas Ranger wearing either a black mask or reflective aviator shades, depending on the viewer’s perception of the image.
It urges cellphone users to “please call 911 to report criminal activities or emergencies.”
The eyes of Texas are upon youI like the word please on the sign.
And the state is getting out the word that anybody who messes with the “Don’t Mess With Texas” slogan — i.e., infringing on the federally registered trademark on the phrase, owned by the Texas Department of Transportation since 1985 – will face legal action.
“Since 2000,” said a Sept. 14 story in The New York Times, “Texas transportation officials have contacted more than 100 companies, organizations and individuals about the unauthorized use of the phrase, often in the form of strongly worded cease-and-desist letters that tell violators to stop using the slogan or obtain licensing for it for a fee.”
So the next time a swaggering drunk makes a threatening move and growls “Don’t mess with Texas,” step back slowly and say in a calm, measured voice: “Cease and desist, please. The eyes of Texas are upon you.”

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Riding the Great River Road


“[T]he great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-long tide along, shining in the sun …”
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883, Chapter 4

ALTON, Ill. — The Great River Road, to my mind, is one of the nation’s most majestic long-haul thoroughfares.
It’s not an interstate
like, say, I-55, which bisects the nation from Chicago to New Orleans with a single numerical designation. It’s a collection of state, county and local roads that track the serpentine course of the Mississippi River as it flows from the heart of a continent to the sea.
The Great River Road runs about 2,340 miles from the source of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, La., about 76 miles southeast of New Orleans.
It passes through 10 states that border the great river: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. From Hastings, Minn., south to Gretna, La., the Great River Road runs along both banks of the Mississippi River.
The road is designated by a green-and-white sign showing a steamboat inside a river pilot’s wheel, usually with the name of the state.
I was born and grew up in Alton, Ill., smack dab in the middle of an area where three mighty rivers converge. Alton, a small town with a rich history, is on the Mississippi just upstream from the confluence of the Missouri River and just downriver from the confluence with the Illinois.
The Great River Road passes right through my hometown, and the section running upriver from Alton to Grafton, along Illinois 100, is one of the road’s most magnificent.
Limestone bluffs tower above the road on the Illinois side. Across the river, on the Missouri side, is a vast flood plain that was ground zero during the great flood of 1993, when water from nearly half of the nation, carried by the Missouri and the Illinois and their tributaries, converged near the small farming town of West Alton, Mo., and inundated some of the most fertile farm land in America.
I had a chance in 1996 to ride my bike along a big chunk of the Great River Road, about 740 miles from Minneapolis to St. Louis. But my favorite part — and I’m probably partial because it’s my home turf — is the one between Alton and Grafton.
During a visit to Alton last week, I got in a 40.41-mile bike ride from my sister’s house in Alton to Grafton and back. It was cold and windy, but the sun shone brightly and it was an altogether glorious day to be on a bike.
Here are a few photos shot along the river:

The Mississippi River above Alton, Ill.

The Great River Road along the Mississippi River above Alton, Ill.

At the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers at Grafton, Ill.

Suspension cables, Clark Bridge over the Mississippi River at Alton, Ill.

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The crazies out there


Here’s an example of what some bicyclists have to contend with when they ride on rural roads.
Check out this YouTube video of two cyclists riding on a quiet Sunday morning near Longmont, Colo.

The cyclists were pedaling on the right-hand side of the right lane when an SUV driven by an elderly male came up behind them and repeatedly honked at them for more that two minutes, even though there was little traffic on the road and the driver had plenty of room to pass.
“At least we kept our cool,” one of the cyclists, Dirk Friel, told the Boulder Daily Camera.
Both cyclists were experienced road riders. But Friel pointed out that the constant honking, which seemed to amount to nothing more than harassment, could have distracted less experienced cyclists and even caused a crash.
He said that when the SUV finally did pass, it sped by so close to his companion that he pushed off the vehicle.
Fortunately, the cyclists got a video of the incident with a smart phone and the driver’s license plate number. The Colorado State Patrol said it is investigating the incident for possible “enforcement action.”
So be careful out there. There are a lot of crazies on the road.

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The sad end of ‘Ollie’s Wild Ride’


I never met Ollie Scheideman. But I admire his spirit and his tenacity. And I’m sorry that he’s no longer with us.
In 2009, the retired dentist from Chico, in northern California, was several weeks into an 82-day cross-country bicycle ride when he crashed on a downhill descent near Rosedale, Va., according to a June 16, 2009, article in the Appeal-Democrat, a newspaper near Scheideman’s hometown.
He spent 12 days in a trauma center for 10 broken ribs, a concussion and a separated right shoulder.

Ollie Scheideman

But for Scheideman, a bicycle ride across the United States would be the fulfillment of a long-held dream. So he was giving it another try this year. He was riding with an Adventure Cycling Association group, which left Williamsburg, Va., on May 21 bound for Florence, Ore.
On June 4, the group was traveling along Kentucky 3445 near Gray Hawk, in Jackson County. Scheideman “sped ahead of the others and crested a hill … when he likely suffered a heart attack that caused him to fall and damage two vertebrae at the base of the neck,” the Chico Enterprise-Record reported.
Scheideman was taken to St. Joseph Hospital in London, Ky., and then flown to the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center in Lexington, where he remained unconscious for three days until he died on June 7 of complications from spinal fractures, said Miles White, chief deputy coroner of Fayette County.
Scheideman, 71, had been a dentist in Yuba City, Calif., for four decades before retiring around 2007.
He had been chronicling his latest effort to bicycle across the United States in a blog called “Ollie’s Wild Ride.” His last post, on June 2, was about a 51-mile ride through a coal-mining area of eastern Kentucky.
The motto on his blog profile is: “Eat, live, love, ride, and give back.” Perhaps another motto, on a “Welcome to Kentucky” sign in a photo from Scheideman’s blog, best sums up his attitude toward life: “Unbridled spirit.”

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A tale of two cities … and mayors


First impressions can be deceiving.
Two cities: Toronto and Fort Worth.
Two mayors: Rob Ford and Betsy Price.
Toronto, Canada’s largest city, prides itself on being the country’s cultural, entertainment and financial capital. It has the third-largest mass-transit system in North America – after New York and Mexico City. Its population of about 2.6 million is more ethnically diverse than Miami, Los Angeles or New York City, says Wikipedia, citing figures from Statistics Canada.
— Fort Worth, my hometown, boasts that it’s the place “where the West begins” and cherishes its western heritage. “Cowboys and culture” is an unofficial motto. With a population of nearly 758,000, it’s the western anchor of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, an urban area of about 6.5 million. Fort Worth is at the heart of a county – Tarrant — that prides itself on being one of the most Republican in the country. Freeways abound. The car – or, should I say, the pickup — is king. And mass transit is considered by some to be downright socialist.

Rob Ford

So which city – Toronto or Fort Worth — has a mayor who embraces bicycle lanes and the bike as an alternative means of transportation? If you guessed Toronto, you’d be wrong.
In fact, the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, is vehemently hostile to bicyclists and has begun removing bike lanes on the grounds that they take up space better used by cars.
Ford was elected mayor on Oct. 25, 2010, by a margin of 47 percent to 35 percent after pledging to end what he calls “the war on the car.”
“It’s no secret,” Ford said as a Toronto city councilman in 2010. “Cyclists are a pain in the ass to motorists.”
“I can’t support bike lanes,” Ford continued. “How many people are riding outside today? We don’t live in Florida. We don’t have 12 months of the year to ride on a bike.
“And what I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks. Sooner or later you’re going to get bitten. And every year we have dozens of people that get hit by cars or trucks. Well, no wonder, roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks, not for people on bikes. My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

In the late 1990s, Bicycling magazine named Toronto the best city in North America for cycling. A study in 1999 by the Canadian firm Decima Research showed that 48 percent of Toronto’s residents were cyclists and that 60 percent of households owned bicycles.
Despite bicyclists’ protests against Ford, the mayor seems intent on turning back the clock in Toronto. It’s an example of how a mayor can change the character of a city.

Betsy Price

Now, let’s take a look at a city about 1,200 miles to the southwest of Toronto: Fort Worth, under Mayor Betsy Price.
Since her election as mayor on June 18, 2011, Price has used the bicycle as a tool of her office. An avid cyclist for about 25 years, Price has been organizing weekly bicycle rides throughout the city, which she calls “rolling town halls.”
“We started out about four weeks ago with 25 people and last week we had 74 people,” Price, 62, said in a report this morning by the local CBS affiliate, KTVT/Channel 11. “And if you’re brave enough to wear spandex in public, people will come talk to you and tell you all kinds of things.”
“It’s really interesting what people will tell you on a bike,” Price says in a video about her rolling town halls on the city’s website. “Because they get warmed up and they get loose and you feel friendly and accessible. That’s what we want. This is all about being real open and free with the citizens and letting them know we are here, and listening to their issues.”

The city has a comprehensive bicycle transportation plan, Bike! Fort Worth – put in place under Price’s predecessor, Mike Moncrief — and aims to make Fort Worth a bicycle-friendly community in the eyes of the League of American bicyclists by 2015.
Under Price, the city has been busy expanding and improving its fine network of bike trails, mostly along the West and Clear forks of the Trinity River, and has been striping bike lanes on major thoroughfares downtown and those leading into the city center. Price has even directed the installation of showers in City Hall for municipal employees who bike to work.

Mayor Betsy Price on the Trinity Trails

“Texans love their pickups and trucks,” Price said in the CBS report. “But they’re getting better and better about watching out for cyclists. … It’s a very bike-friendly town.”
But it turns out that other U.S. mayors are also getting out and about on bikes and promoting bicycle lanes in their cities.
Bob Davis, editor of the The Anniston Star in Anniston, Ala., and a friend and former colleague on the editorial board at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote a piece for his paper on Monday called “Politics on two wheels.”
Bob, himself a dedicated cyclist, wrote of Betsy Price and the mayors of Ogden, Utah, and Huntsville, Ala., and their efforts to promote cycling.
What a difference a mayor can make in the character of a city!

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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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