Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Laos and Thailand

Soon, this space will rise from the dead. With trip reports.
I rode my bike around in Thailand and Laos, and lost half of the photos, including almost all the ones of Thailand and Vientiane. But I have the other half! It was a good trip. Stay tuned, this time I mean it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Light A Candle

At a routine health appointment last week, I had to fill out a very long questionnaire that, halfway through the second side, meandered onto the topic of stress. Right there it asked: has anyone you know died in the past year? with a follow up question: friend or family? I checked yes to the first question instinctively, then hesitated on the second. Two friends died in the past twelve months, both in brutally unfair ways. And both of my pets had died, both gently, both at home, both utterly heartbreaking. I checked friend, then wrote in a 4 before the word and an S after it.

So, yes, I took a little time away from all this. You know, all... THIS. I tried my best to disengage from both bike racing and the internet for a little while, because I needed to reclaim some space in my brain. I worked on my work. I ran. I rode my townie. I read books (paper books). I recalled what was important to me, and what was not. I got rid of pressure by denying its existence, and like Alice's pack of cards it disappeared in front of me.

One thing didn't change. Riding a good bike down sunny singletrack, fast, on a crisp autumn day, is one of the most joyful feelings on earth. For a while, maybe I didn't want to feel joyful, but now maybe I do again.

Back on dirt this weekend for the first time since July. Although I anticipated being in awful shape, in fact little was lost. Less smooth here, less fast there. Trail features have been elided by memory's fog. My mental map of the Bent Creek trails currently resembles the New York subway map: the intersections are clear but the routes are stylized, the distances indefinite. This weekend saw two trips to the trails to reconnect with the bliss, and one interval session to remind my heart how good it feels to pump that hard.

I light a candle for the losses of the past year, and try to use it to light the way forward. I don't know what to do with that pack of cards, though. I might leave it alone for a while. Anyway, I've never really been a true bike racer. Racers try to limit the variables and control everything, but I tend to get more engaged with the process the more unpredictable things get. I am an experiencer, a traveler, a storyteller. An adventurer. Maybe not a very good adventurer, but that's what I am.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Asheville Half Marathon "Race" Report

For some reason, last weekend I ran the Asheville Half Marathon. It was not my finest hour.

This was the longest distance I'd run since fall 2007, when I hurt my back badly enough to force me out of all physical activity for a few months. Before I hurt my back I had been living in California and running fairly regularly. I'd done half and full marathons, and although I was never exactly fast I enjoyed myself pretty well. After my back surgery I'd tried running again and it had hurt, so I'd pretty much given it up for a while.

I had been running some during the summer, and entered this race on a whim. I kind of half-assedly thought I would start training for it, but was pretty overtaken with depression after my dog died. Then I got sidetracked on work projects and stopped riding bikes much at all. My plans to run more didn't really come together in any meaningful way. As the race date got closer I was starting to think about skipping it. Two weeks before the race I ran about 9 miles, slowly, as a test to see what would happen. I did it, though I walked some, and so I determined that I could probably finish a half marathon, although it would definitely be much slower than I had back in the California days. If worse came to worst, I would just walk.

The morning of the race I felt okay so I decided I had no reason not to race. I made it down to the race start in downtown Asheville with plenty of time to spare. Runners seem more stressed out on start lines than mountain bikers. I think because there are so many things in a bike race that are completely out of our control, we have to adopt a somewhat detached view of racing, because we know a couple flats, or a bad turn, or a failed component could end our race. When you start a race knowing it might get fucked through no fault of your own, you get a little detached about it. But in running, everything is inside the racer, from the mental game to the conveyance, so runners get to keep this illusion of total control over the outcome. I think this is why triathletes are wound so tight: they are mostly converted runners, but haven't figured out yet that it is impossible to control everything on their bike. I suspect this is part of why some bike shop employees have something against triathletes. Well, that and that they expect bikes to just maintain themselves.

There are no photos for this race. However, I was wearing these yellow-and-blue cycling arm warmers that I got at Machinery Row Bicycles back in June. Meghan (who once expressed alarm over the fact that her former employer now sold such eyesores): I am here to tell you that over the course of the race about ten different people told me they liked my armwarmers, several asked me where I got them, and many more cast them sidelong glances. Glances of revulsion, maybe. But still. I think they are not too bad.

I also wore a Walz cap and Tifosis, because I think they are good. And yoga knickers. And Swiftwick knee socks. I refuse to buy anything specifically for running, except shoes. You don't need special things for it. Because it is RUNNING. That's the beauty of it, and why it is even able to compete with cycling. The only drawback of cycling, especially mountain biking, is the immense amount of extremely specific stuff you need in order to do it.

Anyway, the race started. I ran and ran. People remarked on the hills. I thought to myself, what did they expect from a race in the mountains? People said this was one of the hardest half marathons in the country. I was definitely finding it hard, but mostly because I had not trained at all. The fun part about any race is the other people, really. It is just great to be in a big group of people all going the same direction for fun.

My knee started hurting and I slowed down some. My digital watch broke a while ago, so I was just wearing a normal analog Timex, and had no real idea what my pace was or anything. The 2:30 pace group caught me from behind, and I decided to stay with them since they were pretty fun people. Unfortunately, they would walk the uphills and run the downhills. I enjoyed running the uphills while my knee pain meant running the downhills was a bad idea. I stuck with them for a while, then on one downhill I took a bad stride trying to keep up with them, felt the pain jolt up into my back, and decided I was going to really hurt myself if I didn't chill out.

I let them go, and ran by myself. It drizzled. A couple fairly old white-haired people passed me, and I was extremely impressed by their solid pace. I felt like asking them how they kept their knees from hurting. The route went through some neighborhoods I'd never been to before, then I realized we were in Woodfin as we turned onto one of my regular cycling routes. Eventually we were running on Riverside, and I felt a pang of jealousy as someone cycled past in the opposite direction, heading out for that fun, mellow river ride. Damn! Riding bikes is so much easier! You get to coast on the downhills!

I ran the entire way up Lookout Drive near the UNCA campus, past quite a few people who were walking it. But as much as the downhill hurt, running the uphills were still fine no matter how steep. As the race route headed through campus I chatted for a while with a couple guys from Birmingham, one of whom was wearing Vibram Five Fingers shoes and the other of whom was remarking on how ridiculous it was to run a half marathon in Vibram Five Fingers shoes.

On the last stretch, heading up Broadway back to downtown, it just got really boring. I walked for a little while and felt sorry for myself. As I passed Moog Music I decided to just run the rest of the way even if it hurt. A couple blocks from the finish the route headed up the ass-kicker of a hill on West Walnut between Lexington and Haywood. My run became a stagger but at the top of that climb I picked it up again for the last few blocks to the finish.

They gave me a medal for a very lousy performance of 2 hours and like 45 minutes or so. Yeah. Everyone's a winner at a running race. I felt pretty bad physically and just wanted to lie down. Just after I finished, though, I got to see a significantly overweight lady using a cane walk across the finish line from the 5k, which had started just after the half marathon. She looked a bit embarrassed by the cheers of the onlookers, but it was a pretty great accomplishment. Running races get part of their vibe from the fact that they are so much more inclusive than bike races. Running doesn't have those hurdles of equipment costs and highly refined technical skills, so there is a bigger range of people at them.

I have always sucked at running but it is a good change of pace after a couple years of fairly dedicated cycling. I am blessed to have never been on a high school team of any sort, and hence to have never had instilled in me any pressure to win or compete. No one ever forced me to run sprints on a track, no one ever threw balls at me and expected me to catch them, no one ever yelled at me while I did drills, or made me feel bad for having a bad day. Because of this, I am able to enjoy the experience of athletic accomplishment as a nerd and a wimp, which is to say I go as fast as I feel like going, but feel no necessity to go any faster than that.

Sometimes it's good to do something you know you will not excel at. It's great to not have the expectations and the pressure of people thinking I can do well. It's refreshing not to have to worry about all the equipment, too, to just slap shoes on my feet and show up. And when it started raining, it didn't result in mud spatter in my eyes or a mucked up derailleur. I much prefer riding bikes, but there is something pretty cool about running too.

I know this blog is about riding bikes (it's right there in the title) but this will not be the last running report I write, if for no other reason than the fact that I am signed up for Ironman Wisconsin next summer. Yes I did. Here you go, the reason you read to the end of the race report: interesting buried info. My goal for Ironman Wisconsin is threefold: first goal is (as always) to finish. Second goal is to have fun all day. Third goal is to spend absolutely no extra money at all on this race beyond the race entry fee. That last one might be tough, but I think I can do it. I want to do this race because it takes place in my hometown and because I am convinced it could be a fun time. Hopefully I am right in suspecting that doing an ironman does not mean you have to become humorless and highstrung, or buy a lot of silly extra "aero" gear, or get completely fixated on training numbers. Fourth goal I just thought of now, but am actually really gonna commit to: drink a PBR at some point during the marathon portion. I will just put it in my special Ironman drop bag. :)

Oh, and it gets way more interesting: the other thing that's coming up is that I am going to do some solo singlespeed bikepacking in Laos in December. What's the good of having S&S couplers on your bike if you never take it anywhere fun? More about that later. Complex planning, to say the least. What a weird world it is, using histories of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to plan my vacation.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Outer Banks three day ride: Day 3, Completing the Circle

Day one post is here.
Day two post is here.

Day three: I woke up in Swanquarter and rode over to the ferry dock on the edge of town. The first ferry left when the sun was still just rising, but it was already pretty hot. This ferry carried the cars of some people who were on their way to work in the tourist economy of Ocracoke, and not many others.

 Sunrise, leaving Swanquarter

In the passenger lounge, a fellow struck up a conversation with me by asking me about my bike. He was a cyclist and told me his story of going through a serious cardiopulmonary illness and slow recovery, thinking always about getting back on his bike. He even had a tattoo of the bike on his arm, an incredibly detailed portrait of a very particular bike, which would have been the state of the art in mountain bike technology in 1994. He finally was healthy enough to exercise again, and was happy just to get to ride his bike. The tattoo was a real testament to bike love, and I wish I'd asked him for a photo of it. It was a cool story to hear, because it really exemplified what I think riding bikes should be about. Not about always owning the newest greatest, or impressing strangers, or buying constant upgrades, but about having a bike that works for you and that becomes a part of your life.

I learned a fair bit about the local vacation-home construction industry from this guy, along with some sort-of-dubious, if entertaining, tales about the area. This guy was on the ferry because he drove trucks for a contractor, and was driving a dump truck full of fill dirt out to Ocracoke for a house foundation. Out on the barrier islands there was only sand, so builders on the islands trucked fill dirt out from the mainland to ensure lasting structures. The fill dirt he had in his truck had actually originated in the mine I had ridden by the day before. The mainland and the island were materially connected, then, because the actual substance of the mainland was physically being transported out and incorporated into the island. The island relied on the mainland in ways I'd never thought of before. I'd seen the airbase target practice at Cherry Point from the Cedar Island ferry, then ridden to Cherry Point, and seen the mining at Aurora, and was now looking at a pile of Aurora mine waste being hauled back to Ocracoke. Somehow this seemed fitting in the symmetry of the trip as a whole, and my experiences on each of the ferry rides touching the mainland seemed connected.

A shrimp boat dwarfed by the vastness of the Pamlico. I was rapt, the sunglow and clouds and sense of vastness was like something from the paintings by J. M. W. Turner. I was sure I could not capture the incredible, hazy brightness of the light with my little camera. As the ferry moved forward and the shrimp boat became caught in the pearlescent glare, I took this photo. It might be up there with my favorite photos I've ever taken. Just like I had on the Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferry, I was struck with the thought that in past centuries many more people would have regular experiences of this sort of sublime view than do today.

Yes, there was a bike lane on Ocracoke, but sometimes the sand dunes drifted over it. Do they have a sand snowplow that shoves the sand back onto the dunes? 
Once back on Ocracoke I hightailed it back to the other end of the island to catch the last ferry of my trip. It was mid morning on a summer Friday, and there was a lot of traffic going the opposite direction. When I got to the ferry landing to catch the ride back to Hatteras, I was surprised at how much more tourist action there was here than before. There were even some TSA agents who were inspecting people's cars, including holding mirrors under the car's undercarriage, before letting them on the ferry. Perhaps emboldened by the fact that I was not in a car, I actually asked them why they were there. They termed Ocracoke a "soft border entry" or something, meaning that people wanting illegal access to the US for smuggling or terrorism could land on the beaches and make their way into the mainland of the US. I was about to launch into some questions along the lines of, "why not check the ferries at the other end of the island that have dumptrucks full of mine talings on them, instead of the ferries full of harmless beach tourists?" or perhaps "why wouldn't these evildoers just land on a less populated part of the shoreline?" but I was headed off on this line of questioning when they started asking me questions about my bike. It was probably for the best as I am pretty sure I would not have been able to resist asking even more annoying follow-up questions about the importance of public relations versus efficiency in the execution of the TSA's mission.

Anyway, thankfully they steered me away from my brattier impulses. One of them was a smart triathlete type, and was interested in my reasons for choosing titanium over carbon because he thought carbon was the way to go. I enumerated some of my reasons for preferring metal bikes to plastic bikes, and we ended up getting into a pretty good discussion of bike building out there waiting for the ferry. They were extremely impressed to find out that my bike was made in the USA. I let them in on some of the various options in the world of small, independent American bike companies. I really believe that many more people would choose local and domestic framebuilders if they had access and information about that possibility. There are tons of people for whom "Made in the USA" is an important consideration, and many just do not get the info from their local bike shops that such choices still exist in the bike world.

A number of cars, potentially containing evildoers of various stripes, were waved onto the ferry without inspection while we had this conversation.

Tourists in minivans, all driving around to the same locations and having the same vacations.

On this last Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, I got my first real dose of super intense beach vacation tourism, with swarms of people all over the place. It was funny how different the mainland ferry rides were from the bored and anonymous feel of the tourist ferry. While the working world of the mainland locals was full of texture and individuality, all the beach vacationers seemed the same, somehow. 

Not to get too judgmental about other people's tastes, but... oh to hell with it, I'm going to be judgmental. This was fucking revolting. These people drive all over the beach of our National Seashore in these absurd jacked-up pickup trucks, and can barely stagger away from their vehicles far enough to lay down in the sand like beached whales and guzzle Bud Light all day as they roast in the sun and yell at each other over the blare of the radio. Where's a rogue wave when you need one?
Back on Hatteras, there was an incredible traffic jam of people trying to get on ferries to Ocracoke. A lot of people looked like they were on the verge of fistfights. I was nearly run off the road when a giant black truck suddenly swerved to leapfrog the lines of ferrybound cars to speed illegally down the opposing lane, which was occupied only by little old me. Scary. I can never figure out why people on vacation act so angry.

I did get off my bike for one stop on the way back, for a delicious sandwich in a little cafe hidden behind one of the 500 kiteboard-rental shops on the outer banks. 

After I got past the idling hordes, things calmed down significantly traffic-wise. I started thinking again about how my car was probably impounded, which made me want to get back well before the close of the business day. If I had to go to a tow lot to get my car back, I would want plenty of time. I had a good tailwind, and decided to just hammer it out back to Nags Head.
Layers of history on Hatteras Island: markers for 1920s Army Air Service field and for the 1860s wreck of the Monitor. I saw markers for events all the way from the 1500s to the 1950s at various places along the route.

People fishing in the shallows at the jetty of the Pea Island Bridge.

Incredibly, when I got back there, my car was right where I'd left it! It was a very welcome surprise.

State bike route sign. This was a nice trip.

This was a really nice little trip. I would recommend it highly, although there is probably no way to avoid having to wait for ferries. They run frequently, but not so frequently that you won't end up cooling your heels once or twice. My only route alteration would be from Minnesott to Aurora: to take 55-304-33, which is a signed state bike routes, instead of 306, which is what I took. That route would take longer, but 306 was so damn boring that I could not recommend it. I would definitely recommend both the Driftwood Motel in Cedar Island, and the not-yet-opened bed and breakfast in Swan Quarter (I bet it would not be hard to find out the contact info for the B&B) as welcoming overnight stops for a bike tour. This route is 100% flat as a pancake, so be sure to wear good bike shorts and bring chamois cream as you will not get any time at all to relieve your position by climbing or descending out of the saddle. I think this tour would be better in the cooler months for sure, especially if you are not comfortable with riding in hot weather. Apparently the winds are less intense in the cooler months too, but the ferries might run less frequently as well. There were a nearly infinite number of food options on the islands, and there were also enough grocery stores and convenience stores on the mainland to make access to food and water no problem. Not counting my small food costs (I ate mostly from gas stations), I spent about $135 total for the three days, on ferry tolls ($3 times six ferries), one night in the motel, and one night in the not-yet-opened B&B. Camping is a possibility, too, so the cost of this trip could easily get lower.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Outer Banks three day ride: Day 2, the Inner Shores.

The path of Hurricane Irene has just passed directly over the area I traveled on day two of this trip, which has inspired me to come back and pick up the narrative. My thoughts are with the people of the area who, as you will read below, were really responsible for making my time there memorable and fun.

I woke up at the Driftwood Motel in Cedar Island, and ate breakfast in the dining room of the motel. The split-level dining area had been fairly elaborately decorated in a nautical theme many years before, and not touched since. It was pretty great, like being in a time capsule. The booths even had port-hole shaped windows!  It was really something else. For a connoisseur of kitsch such as myself, it was worth lingering a bit over a second cup of coffee.

Driftwood Motel, Cedar Island.

By the time I said goodbye to the Driftwood the sun was pretty high in the sky, around 8am. I rode past a couple houses, but Cedar Island is mostly a federal wildlife preserve, made up of a little forest and a lot of salt marsh. Although it was kind of hot, the traffic was low and the wind was not bad. At one point three muddy little otters jumped out of the water beside the road and scuttled across the road in front of my wheel. Pretty cool.

There are straight-line canals dredged throughout the salt marshes, some navigable and some just for drainage, and I don't know enough about salt marshes to know how much that has changed their ecology. I imagine the road would not last long without the drainage ditches protecting it.

Coast guard center on the Thorofare Bay inland waterway at Cedar Island.

The view of Thorofare Bay and the Core Sound beyond was great from the bridge over the waterway. Cape Lookout National Seashore is on the Core Banks islands on the other side of that sound.

 At the next bay, Nelson Bay, there was another nice bridge over another inlet. Windswept pines dot the edge of the marsh.

 Roadside in the old town of Williston, with spanish moss in the trees and a mosquito/miniature-crab/stormwater ditch. 

After a while riding along this nice coastal road, I crossed out of the wildlife preserve and turned inland. The area around North River seemed very poor but people were really house-proud. There was a lot of small-ish homes on large lots with elaborate wooden fencing surrounding them. It was a friendly area, with a few different people waving to me from their porch as I rode by. Also, although I saw plenty of surfer-types on bikes out along the Outer Banks, this was the only place on the mainland I encountered a cyclist, a fellow on his way home from the grocery store.

My road bike, dwarfed by Blackbeard. A childhood of family road trips instilled in me a deep love of the large roadside fiberglas figures of the American vernacular landscape. This was decorating the lawn of either a boat-repair place or a lumberyard, it was hard to tell which.

Riding over the Intracoastal Waterway. And yes, in case you were wondering, I stopped and took a photo on top of every bridge I rode over.

The road I was on was part of a designated state bike route, but there was no shoulder on the road as it went through the Croatan National Forest. The riding was made even less tranquil by the fact that there was active logging taking place in the area, bringing a lot of oversized trucks onto the road. I checked my maps and found a way to skip ten miles of that road for an alternate that was just a little longer.

"Della's Place," falling apart on the side of the road. Interesting to try to imagine when it had been active, and what sort of place it had been. I tried to think about it as a 1970s roadhouse bar where people gathered after work on Friday. Sad to think of the person who had run the bar, then being forced to abandon it in failure. There were fewer of this sort of decrepit ruin than you might expect, actually, and most were quite picturesque. I wish I'd gotten a photo of the series of five old trailer-homes in a row, each painted a different crayola color, the first one inhabited (with its resident in a lawn chair out front with a beer in hand) and each of the next four in the line uninhabited and progressively more decayed and covered in kudzu. The last in the line was nearly invisible under the foliage. It looked like the guy would just live in a trailer til it got really unkempt, then instead of cleaning and repairing it, just get a new one delivered, paint it some insane color, and move in. Slowly, ten feet at a time, he was moving west. I would have stopped for a photo but he looked a little hostile and definitely nuts.

After about seven miles of meandering through a couple villages, some farmland and some weirdly oversized exurban mansions, it reentered the forest-- unfortunately at that point the road was closed!

Oh NO, road closed! Getting back on track took an extra hour of riding, under the full sun from noon til one. I was not super happy about it, and was nearly out of water.

Eventually I made it to my destination, the Cherry Point- Minnesott ferry, right next to the Cherry Point air force base, the location of the nighttime target practice I'd seen from the Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferry the night before. I'd just missed a ferry so waited for about an hour at the picnic tables under some sad little no-shade trees.

These guys had just emptied the crab traps they work on this side of the bay, and were taking the fresh, live crabs across the river to a seafood distributor on the other side. They were pretty worried that the extreme heat and sun would get to the crabs, since they don't get paid for the ones that have died. They had a bunch of wet burlap over them but kept shifting them in the boxes so the same crabs weren't always on the top feeling the hot sun. Chatting with these guys I learned a fair bit about the crab industry in these inlets, which has been on the rise lately. I was surprised how hard it is to keep crabs alive during the transport. Shellfish is a really interesting industry. In a world where most of our food comes through factory production, the shellfish industry is based on these wild animals with really strange behaviors, is extremely localized in production yet also remarkably global in distribution, and is so dependent on the ecological health of the waters. Plus, it is delicious.

I also got to chat with a lady whose husband runs certification classes for various sorts of marine licenses. Jobs dependent on the sea; people who just love being out on the water. I hope all these people are doing okay after Hurricane Irene.

The ferry leaves the shoreline of Croatan National Forest behind and heads out across the Neuse River. There are two pelicans sitting on the end of the pier!

On the ferry, I sat inside the passenger lounge to try to get out of the heat for a little while. I was joined there for most of the trip by one of the guys who ran the ferry, so got to talk to another person whose livelihood is based on the water. He told me what it was like being in the merchant marine and working on a NCDOT ferry, which actually sounded like it was pretty boring, but not all that bad. Surprisingly this guy turned out to really like hiking, even in the heat, which was cool since almost everyone else had been sure to tell me I was crazy for exercising in such weather. We talked a fair bit about exercising and staying hydrated in the summer heat, complete with the standard camelback-vs.-bottles discussion. At the other end of the ferry ride, he let me into the ferry operators' building to fill my bottles with cold water, which was very nice of him.

It was exactly like this for two entire hours. Not the high point of the trip.

The next part of the ride was incredibly boring. Just hot and boring. The road was dead flat, and completely straight, and hemmed in on both sides by thick forest, and the sun beat down on me and the humidity was stifling. Sometimes a ride like this is just about patience, that most basic element of endurance. Over the next couple hours only one thing happened. A giant piece of farm machinery was on the road behind me, which overhung the center line as well as overhanging about three feet over the side of the grassy ditch. Since it was only going about 25 miles an hour, it took a really long time to catch up to me. I occupied myself with wondering what would happen when it got closer. Eventually it was right up behind me and slowed down to my speed. A car or two was behind it, waiting til they could pass it, which was trying to pass me. It was no fun.  The roadside ditch looked pretty treacherous with rocks and broken glass, and I didn't want to flat by pulling into it. I was scared to stop on the road, too. I screwed up my nerve and managed a cyclocross dismount, followed by a leap across the ditch with the loaded bike in hand.

It passed, and after it was gone the roadway that had once seemed sort of annoyingly boring now seemed relaxingly peaceful.

Eventually the road had a bend or two in it, thrillingly, and then I passed the outskirts of the small town of Aurora on the way to the next ferry. I did not at all expect to find that in the few miles between Aurora and the ferry was a gigantic mine. There were open pit mining operations on both sides of the road, stretching as far as the horizon. The still air hung with a slight gray haze and the scent of sulfur. After the green monotony of the forest, the mine was strangely shocking to the eye.

A long train can be seen along the other side of the mine's holding pond, waiting to be filled up from the mine and transported around the country.

It probably took a half hour to ride through this mine. At the other side was the ferry dock, where I had about 25 minutes to wait for the ferry. As I sat at a picnic table to wait, one guy got out of his car and came over to find out what the heck I was up to, riding a bike on this ferry. Every car waiting for the ferry was a mine worker getting off work, so I really stood out. He told me all about the mine operation, and how many workers lived in the towns on the other side of the river (I can understand why those towns would be nicer-- they didn't have a potash mine next door!). All along the part of my trip when I was on the mainland, everyone seemed really happy that I was visiting their area. This guy was quite the booster for Hyde County and its many charms. All the mass tourism is on the barrier islands, where the sand beaches are, and these folks are left out of that industry. Frankly, this guy was right: Hyde County was absolutely charming, even more so because there were not t-shirt shops and kitesurfing concessions all over the place.

On the Bayview-Aurora Ferry. The refining facility for the mine is on the horizon.

Once on board the ferry, I got to talk to a couple of the other mine workers too, who seemed happy to have someone to talk to other than the standard crew they worked with every day. This is what I learned during that half-hour ferry ride about phosphate mining for PotashCorp: a) the mined ore isn't harmful, but the chemicals that they use in the refining process are pretty hazardous, b) mining is a union thing, and c) if you can stand to work there long enough you get a pretty good retirement package. And, d) the phosphate they are mining is fossilized plant life, come from the bottom of a prehistoric seafloor from when these lands were under water. As they mine, they find incredible numbers of small fossil fragments-- shells, bones, teeth-- a useless rubble that they dispose of by selling it as fill dirt. Roads, driveways, and house foundations in this area rest on the crushed remains of this prehistoric seafloor.

I rolled off the ferry into Bayview around five. I was not entirely certain where I was going to end up for the night. There was more National Forest ahead of me where I could camp, as well as a pay campground and a couple bed-and-breakfasts. There are no motels, no grocery stores, not even any fast food joints, none of the corporate infrastructure of modern America that we like to think is so pervasive. There I was, in Real America. The chatty fellow before the ferry had told me he thought one of the B-and-Bs might be closed, but he wasn't sure. I decided to just play it by ear but assume I was going to stay at the campground.

Lovely old historic church building sitting in a farm field. It had no path up to the door, so I guess it is not used for worship, but seemed to be in pretty good repair and sporting a new roof.

A couple miles out of Bayview, at a place called Sidney Corners, there was a bridge under repair. A detour was marked, which was sort of demoralizing. I stopped at the Sidney Corners gas station cafe and bought the last burger left over from their lunch service. As I sat outside eating, a family who were getting gas struck up a conversation with the strange solo bike rider wolfing down cheetos and Coke at the lunch table. They explained the detour to me, which was at least five extra miles, and also told me that there was definitely a B-and-B in Belhaven just after the end of the detour but that they had no idea what existed after that.

As I started to ride, I realized that the weather had finally started to cool down and my speed was picking up. I was loath to stop riding when it was actually pleasant, so I passed right through Belhaven without even checking the bed and breakfast. I had enough food and water for overnight even if I stayed out. My stomach dropped a bit as I rode out of town, wondering what I was getting myself into. But I guess it's all about the adventure, and I figured the worst that could happen was that I have a crappy night's sleep.

This was the junk show out back. Flip-flops, cable lock, red flashy, small auxiliary bag of Swedish Fish, and sleeping pad, all strung through the strap of my trusty seat bag. I was continually maxed out on space, but glad I didn't have a backpack weighing down my shoulders and preventing ventilation in the mid-90s, full humidity weather.

Striking old farmhouse and outbuildings, beside fields and under a canopy of trees.

I can't even really describe how beautiful the hour around sunset was. This richly storied agricultural land was silent and seemed completely unpopulated. The fields were completely flat, perfectly rectangular, and ringed with dense, dark forest made even more impenetrable by a thick understory.  Riding each road that traversed one of these fields felt like riding across the bottom of a giant empty swimming pool. I think of agriculture in the midwestern style of small sloping fields tucked into narrow valleys, or wide open fields with sparse windbreaks. In contrast, these fields were surreally bounded, almost claustrophobic, like rooms without ceilings.

As dusk settled in I found myself riding down an impossibly straight road, under an allée of venerable old oaks hung with spanish moss, flanked with farm fields. Everything around me dated back to the early twentieth century or earlier: it felt timeless because it was timeless. If this road had been in France, in Italy, people might write guidebook entries about it.

 Passing back over the Intracoastal Waterway again. This was a really lovely sunset over the lush pine forest, unfortunately my little camera was unable to capture very well.

It got dark. There were no cars on the road. There were no houses, no lights anywhere. I was all alone.

The mosquitoes came out. I didn't even notice them until I stopped to check a turn, only to find myself immediately devoured by them. Holy crap, I didn't have any bug spray with me. They must grow extra strong and big in the warm waters of the drainage canals of the area, because I swear I'd never been attacked so badly in my life. I jumped back on my bike in the dark, jury-rigging my headlight to my handlebar because I didn't want to stand still for the minute or two needed to strap it to my helmet.

I suddenly didn't want to camp out that night, since with the bugs that bad I wondered if I'd sleep at all. I passed the campground and headed towards the town of Swanquarter, hoping they'd have a bed and breakfast, a motel, anything. It was pitch dark as I rode into town through some shoreline forest. A deer was on the road, and actually froze in the beam of my headlamp. Without knowing it, I was shining the deer. I was confused, kept riding toward it expecting it to move, and finally yelled at it until it finally moved out of my way. Then I startled a heron out of its sleeping place in an oak bough right over the roadway, and that crazy hoarse heron call freaked me out as it flapped away about ten feet above ground level. By the time I got into town I was good and rattled.

I rode into the little downtown of Swanquarter and saw all the lights on at the volunteer fire department. I leaned my bike on the railing and walked inside. I explained my situation and asked them if there was any place to stay in the town? They were pretty great people, really nice and helpful. It turned out some folks were nearly complete renovating an old Main Street house to turn it into a bed and breakfast, and it was only a half block from where we were. One of them called these folks on their cellphone to see if they would be able to put me up for the night, since they seemed to already be renting rooms on a somewhat unofficial basis.

I chatted with these guys about what the Swanquarter Volunteer Fire Department spent their time on. They told me about some of the issues they faced in their jurisdiction, and the sorts of calls that took up most of their time. I am sure right now those same guys have their hands full with hurricane damage. I can't thank them enough for being so friendly to me, some weird space-cadet cyclist showing up on their doorstep after dark, covered in road grime, scratching mosquito bites, and looking for a place to stay.

They got the okay from the folks with the B-and-B and explained to me where to go. It really was just around the corner, in a beautiful old Main Street home with fantastic architecture. The couple who owned it were lifetime residents of the town who were just about done with restoring and remodeling of the house. They had been working all day on the kitchen remodel, but lived elsewhere in town, and since it wasn't all the way done they only charged me $50. As they left me there alone they told me I could pick any one of the three bedrooms to sleep in and that I could eat anything in the fridge. Yes, just like Goldilocks. It was great.

So the second night of the trip I got to sleep in a beautiful antique bed in an empty mansion.

Day three still to come. I promise it won't take as long to get around to as day two did!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Outer Banks three day ride: Day 1, Expedition Meander

A three day road loop on the NC coast. Six ferry rides!

This trip was really interesting and a lot of fun, and very different from the landscapes I usually ride in. Following a brief beach visit last month, I had gotten inspired to take my road bike down to the Outer Banks and ride around to get my fill of its picturesque beachy and marshy lands. As there are a number of ferries operating in the area, I could cook up a bike ride with plenty of time spent out on the water. Much needed mental refreshment after a couple hard weeks, and welcome change in scenery.

The whole route at a glance. I mapped it out here, if you want to inspect it in detail, including two detours I made for bridges out. In the follow-up post about this ride, I should write out the entire route road-by-road (with suggestions and tips) for anyone who might think about planning their own ride to this area. I used the DeLorme NC State Atlas to figure out my route and brought the relevant pages of that atlas along with me on the ride. Incidentally, Google Maps would have been completely useless for this ride, since among other issues it refuses to admit the existence of one of the ferries.
SSW winds prevail on the Outer Banks, and I spent a little time puzzling over sailing websites' wind forecasts trying to figure out which days would be easiest in which directions. Conflicting data from different sources made me suspect that perhaps wind forecasting was an imperfect science. Finally I decided to just leave on the day I wanted to and ride in the direction I wanted to, and deal with whatever wind I got. I drove most of the way down from Asheville on Sunday evening, and finished up the drive Monday morning. I parked in Nags Head and packed my bike. It was about one pm by the time I got going, which was kind of ridiculously late.

The sign at the border between the town of Nags Head and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

I didn't have any real idea of how long the ride was going to take, so had no specific time or distance goals to meet. Between the headwinds, tailwinds, detours, waits for ferries, and the ferries themselves, "three-ish days or so" was about as precise as I wanted to be. Which was fine with me. I wanted this to be just an adventure on a bike, with none of the restrictions or concerns of racing and training. I hadn't even brought a bike computer to tell me how much behind schedule I was. I had cooked up a kind of satisfyingly contrary trip: a bike tour where you had to keep waiting for boats. The element of chance was a part of the fun for me.

There was definitely a headwind, and it was definitely hot, about 90, but it was pretty nice anyway. The views were great and it was really fun to be out on a poorly-conceived, casual, solo multi-day ride with so many crazy elements to it. The longest ride I'd done since Kanza was a four hour road ride the previous Saturday, so I wasn't exactly in great shape and was a little bit wondering how much I would be suffering later on. I knew subconsciously that if everything really, really sucked, I could bail out and just do a two day out-and-back to Ocracoke and call it good, but truthfully, there was pretty much no chance I was going to take that option.

 Riding a long bridge over islets and marshes in the Pamlico Sound. Heading towards Pea Island, part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore

About twenty miles in, it suddenly dawned on me that I had parked in a place where the car was going to get towed before my return. It had somehow seemed okay when I was getting ready, but the more I thought about it the more I realized the car would be impounded. Damn. When I got back in a couple days I'd have to go figure out where the impound lot was instead of just hopping in the car and heading home. I thought about this for the next ten miles or so. Since there was nothing I could do about it I knew I should just stop thinking about it until I got back. On the other hand, with this much time to myself I was bound to start worrying about something, so I might as well focus on something that wasn't really all that consequential in the big scheme of things.

I've found not too many people can be as casual as I am about travel. Worldwide, I've proved pretty adept at just showing up places and going with the flow. I am not too wound up about making or keeping exact plans and tend to leave the decisions until I get the lay of the land. It generally works out to my favor and over the years has led to some pretty exciting and unexpected travel experiences for me. When I started this ride, I didn't have a ferry schedule so did not know how often they ran the ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island, which is still part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. More to the point, I didn't know how the ferries ran from the town at the other end of Ocracoke Island back over to the mainland. What would be the point of getting some time fixed in my head, then getting a flat tire on the way and beating myself up for missing the boat?

There are two ferry routes, which run from Ocracoke to the mainland landings of Cedar Island and Swan Quarter. I wasn't sure how late the latest ferry ran, and although I planned on taking one ferry over and the other ferry back, I didn't know if I'd have to base the direction of my trip on which ferry I could catch. So either I would be spending the night on Cedar Island, in Swan Quarter, or in Ocracoke. I had enough gear with me to camp if needed, but also knew that I could rely on the tourist infrastructure of the region to provide. Luckily I did not have any riding partner along who would be worrying about where we would sleep.

For a while, despite my vow not to focus on speed or distance, I tried to determine my speed using the mile markers and my watch. After successive miles in constant conditions clocked at five, three, six, four, and five minutes, I had to conclude that the variance of my sample was not the consequence of my riding style but of the Cape Hatteras roadbuilders placing the mile markers more or less at whim. Anyway, based solely on feel, I was probably at about 12 mph into the wind.

Eventually I made it to the town of Hatteras at about 5:30 pm or so and headed for the ferry dock. The next ferry was at 6 so I spent some time eating ice cream and cooling off from the 60 miles in the heat. The guys at the ferry gave me a full schedule which showed that there was one last ferry leaving Ocracoke for Cedar Island at 8:30. They said I wouldn't catch it, explaining we'd arrive at 6:30 and it was twelve miles to the other ferry dock. Even with the wind, I was probably riding 12 miles an hour, so I wasn't that worried as long as I didn't have a mechanical. They were clearly not cyclists, and kept insisting I'd miss the ferry, and I kept explaining the math of 12 mi X 12 mph = 1 hour, which had no effect on them. It was actually kind of funny. Even so, a night on Ocracoke would have been pretty pleasant too, so I wasn't that worried.

The Ocracoke ferry was not very full, and held about half tourists and half locals on their way home from work. The trip is a short one, along the border between Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic.

The ferry's route parallels the sandy ends of Hatteras Island, then skirts some sand bars and crosses the marked channel for boats heading out from the Sound to the ocean. I was surprised by how shallow and narrow the break between the islands was. It looked like one could swim the distance between Hatteras and Ocracoke pretty easily, with some rest stops on the sands that poked up above the water along the way. I am sure there are some pretty serious currents along there-- they don't call it the Graveyard of the Atlantic for nothing-- but still, it looked like a pretty nice swim.

On Ocracoke island, the riding was pretty similar to what it had been on Hatteras. A little windier maybe, like 15-20 mph headwind, and the surroundings a little more wild, and way fewer cars. 

 There it is! The Atlantic Ocean!

 Sometimes there were some pretty cool sand dunes between the ocean and the road.

Pretending to be all worried about making the ferry. Argh, I need to rush rush rush. Grimace grimace. Redline! Hammer! Wattage! Argh! Note that I am on a pretty nice bike path here, which runs for a couple miles between the National Park Service campground and the town itself.

I made it to the town of Ocracoke in less than an hour, which left me with plenty of time to cruise around waiting for the ferry. It is a pretty little place, with a peaceful sort of sailing-hippie vibe and plenty of good food.

Monument to the HMT Bedfordshire, a British trawler which came to the United States as part of the Allied effort during World War II. Patrolling the waters off the Outer Banks for German Naval activity, it was torpedoed by a U-Boat and all crewmen aboard were lost. Only four bodies were recovered, two of them never identified. All four were laid to rest on Ocracoke, in a tiny, out-of-the-way plot that is the smallest Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravesite worldwide.

The bike in Ocracoke. Yeah, this is kind of an unusual touring setup, with some packs intended for use on a mountain bike pressed into service on a racing-geometry road bike. I suppose panniers and a frame with "touring geometry" (whatever that means) would have been more in order. Who cares, this is my only road bike, it worked fine and I had room for everything I needed. I should do a quick run-down of what I brought in the next post I write about this trip.

 Salt marsh and jetties, and a truly beautiful kevlar-sailed, double-masted sailboat sailing its way back into the harbor. I would see this boat in Ocracoke again on the third day of my ride, so I suspect it is chartered daily.

 The ferry loaded as the sun set. There were not many cars loaded on, a couple contractors' trucks and a minivan of tourists speaking french. This ride would be longer, over two hours across Pamlico Sound to the mainland. After watching the sunset, I intended to pass the time writing in the well-lit passenger lounge. Only to find that somehow I had brought my notebook but forgotten to bring a pen. Oh well, the passenger lounge was sort of excessively bright and air-conditioned anyway. I decided to just stay and hang out on the deck instead. I was on the trip to enjoy the outdoors, so I should soak in the experience. The deck was deserted and windy, but the evening was warm and humid enough to be comfortable with only my wind jacket.

 Sunset, leaving Ocracoke

As the sunset faded and the ship pulled away from all land, the stars came out beautifully bright. It might have been the best show of stars I have ever seen on the East Coast, so clear that I could see the reddish tinge to Mars. Here and there on the edge of the water there were the steady lights of other boats, some in the sound and some out on the open ocean. Looking out towards the ocean, a strange orange haze materialized, then grew to a sliver of light. A fat waning gibbous moon was rising over the ocean. I don't think I have ever seen anything like it. Watching it rise silent and unobstructed on the perfectly flat horizon was like watching a geometrical proof take place before my eyes. Its deep orange color and wide shape evoked the images of the first split-seconds of the Trinity Test, but far away and unheralded.

I watched intently as the earth turned on its axis. Eventually the moon hung fully suspended above the horizon, reflected pink by the waters. I felt privileged to witness such a beautiful occurrence in such a peaceful setting. It occurred to me that in centuries past, many many people would have regularly experienced such a moonrise. Many people depended on boats for transportation, and the rhythm, speed, and atmosphere of water travel was something mostly gone from our lives today. The bigness of the sky, the sound of the water, the wheel of the stars, it was beautiful to be out in that environment.

I moved over to the other side of the bow, looking across Pamlico Sound. Navigation buoys shined here and there, but even in the light of day, the mainland would have been too far away to see. What looked like a spray of shooting stars appeared briefly near the horizon line. Meteors! I thought. A minute later the exact same spray of shooting stars again. And at regular intervals, several more times. Not meteors at all, I realized-- someone was practicing over at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point. I watched for a while more, but the tracers stopped soon enough. The next day, I would ride my bike right by the edges of that base.

It was about 11pm as the few sparse lights of Cedar Island came into view. In one place on my maps there was a motel indicated at the Cedar Island ferry landing, but in another place Cedar Island was listed as having no services. I wasn't sure what I would be doing after the ferry landing. Although Croatan National Forest is just a mile from the dock, I wasn't sure about camping options, and didn't really feel like riding at night. I figured if worse came to worse I could probably just lay out my sleeping bag on the steps of the ferry building for the night. Luckily, when I rolled off the ferry the promised motel was right there. The motel's night clerk was sitting outside at the front door, waiting to see if anyone from the ferry would want a place to sleep for the night.

I rolled my bike into a decent little motel room at the Driftwood Motel, where the air conditioning was already cranked up high. It was great to know I would be getting a good night's sleep as the next day would be pretty long.

Day two and day three of this ride will be another post! Coming soon!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tiko Brock, 2000-2011.

"Oddjob, A Bull Terrier"
by Derek Walcott, 1976

You prepare for one sorrow,
but another comes.
It is not like the weather,
you cannot brace yourself,
the unreadiness is all.
Your companion, the woman,
the friend next to you,
the child at your side,
and the dog.
We tremble for them,
we look seaward and muse
it will rain.
We shall get ready for rain;
you do not connect
the sunlight altering
the darkening oleanders
in the sea-garden,
the gold going out of the palms.
You do not connect this,
the fleck of the drizzle
on your flesh,
with the dog's whimper,
the thunder doesn't frighten,
the readiness is all;
what follows at your feet
is trying to tell you
the silence is all:
it is deeper than the readiness,
it is sea-deep,

The silence
is stronger than thunder,
we are stricken dumb and deep
as the animals who never utter love
as we do, except
it becomes unutterable
and must be said,
in a whimper,
in tears,
in the drizzle that comes to our eyes
not uttering the loved thing's name,
the silence of the dead,
the silence of the deepest buried love is
the one silence,
and whether we bear it for beast,
for child, for woman, or friend,
it is the one love, it is the same,
and it is blest
deepest by loss
it is blest, it is blest.