so much depends

There’s a type of photograph that I generally think of as ‘red wheelbarrow’ images. You know, after the poem by William Carlos Williams. I’m talking about photographs in which the emotional appeal relies heavily on a color/object element. I saw one of those photos last week–a green hat hanging on a doorknob. The moment I saw the photo, I thought “So much depends upon a green hat….”

Coincidentally, over the last week or so, like a lot of people, I’ve become weirdly besotted with a text-to-image program called DALL-E 2. I don’t understand the tech or the coding behind it, but essentially it’s an artificial intelligence system that creates images and art from a description written in natural language. You type in a description, the system interprets it and creates a series of images based on that description.

There’s a waiting list to use DALL-E 2, I suppose because it produces high quality images which undoubtedly requires some serious computing power. But for those of us who are waiting, there’s a mini DALL-E that produces lower quality images. They’re still weird and wonderful and often satisfying.

So what did I do? I typed in a brief description of WCW’s poem. A red wheelbarrow glazed with rain beside white chickens. And DALL-E mini gave me this:

Red wheelbarrow glazed with rain beside white chickens

It’s weird and a wee bit distressing, but I was immediately delighted. Enchanted, even. And eventually besotted (oh fuck, now I have to do a quick etymological dip: besotted comes from the Old English term ‘sott‘ which meant ‘a fool, a stupid person’ and by the late 16th century sott lost a letter and became sot, and was used almost exclusively to describe a person stupefied by strong drink) with the idea.

My point, if you can call it that, is that I became figuratively intoxicated by the notion of mixing red wheelbarrows with random thoughts, straining it through the DALL-E mini artificial intelligence system, and seeing what happened. Some of the descriptions were fairly simple.

Red wheelbarrow by the harbor

It quickly became clear that DALL-E had a rather fluid and elastic understanding of the wheelbarrow concept, but I was okay with that. In fact, that pleased me considerably. It made the result a lot less predictable. It added an element of surprise to text descriptions that were otherwise fairly mundane. Such as:

A red wheelbarrow in a mangrove swamp

After these simple experiments, I decided to try something that wasn’t so simple, something that might test the system. And I have to say, DALL-E mini surprised me. It came through with something wonderfully weird and lovely.

A detective in a dark alley with a red wheelbarrow

It was obvious to me at this point, that the red wheelbarrow concept had the potential to become a project. Since I’d lost interest in the most recent Knuckles Dobrovic project (Japanese are bure bokeh images of Ireland), this seems like a worthy replacement. I’ve no idea how long I’ll do this. Maybe a month, maybe longer, maybe I’ll become disappointed with DALL-E mini and wait to try the big hat version.

Anyway, there it is, Knuckles is back, working the red wheelbarrow corner of the intertubes.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Yeah, I forgot to include a link to the Knuckle Dobrovic Instagram account, so here it is.

saturday, noodling around

I don’t know what you did last weekend, but I drove 75 miles to the small former coal town of Humeston, Iowa. Why? Because there’s a tiny cafe. Almost every small town has some sort of tiny cafe or diner. But this one–the Grassroots Cafe–serves a grape salad that’s so good you want to lie on the floor and kick your feet in the air. And the bread pudding would make angels weep that it exists for mortals on the earthly plane.

The Grassroots Cafe

Humeston is a really small town. Population: 465 in 2020. It was the home of the Humeston and Shenandoah Railroad, which in 1881 ran 113 miles from Humeston to (guess where) Shenandoah, Iowa. In its glory days, the H&S RR ran 14 classic 4-4-0 steam locomotives, hauling mostly coal, grain, livestock and occasionally passengers to the slightly larger town of Shenandoah, where the railroad joined up with the Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska Railway system. (You may be wondering, “Greg, old sock, what is a 4-4-0 locomotive?” I wondered the same thing and I googled it. You can do the same thing. Don’t be lazy. And stop calling me ‘old sock’.)

This is Humeston.

By the late 1920s, the H&S RR was beginning to fade. The advent of the automobile (and, more importantly, the truck), combined with improved roads, the gradual decline of local coal, and the beginnings of the Great Depression, strangled the small railroad business. The railroad died slowly and in sections, but by the mid-1940s, during the Second World War, it was essentially gone. As the railroad died, so did the town’s population.

Humeston, near the cinder bike path.

Although the railroad is gone, the track left behind became Iowa’s first rails-to-trails bike path. Thirteen and a half miles, from Humeston to Chariton. Unfortunately, it’s also Iowa’s worst-maintained bike path. About half of it is gravel and cinder; the other half is…well, just grass. Sometimes overgrown grass. It’s doubly sad because it’s one of the few bike trails with covered bridges.

Humeston

On arrival in Humeston, I gave in to an impulse. Sometimes you just have to give in to your impulses. You know how it is. You’re on the road, you see a train, you pretty much have to say, “Train” out loud, even though anybody with you can see the damned train. Same with horses and cows (and, I don’t know, maybe sheep? Yeah, probably sheep). Even if you resist saying it aloud, there’s a part of you that’s thinking and wanting to say “Cow” when you see a cow. It just happens.

The photographic equivalent of saying “train” or “cow” is shooting your reflection in a window.

First photo in Humeston

Obviously, I gave in to that impulse. My first thought was that Humeston should be photographed in black-and-white (why yes, I DO have an app I use just for b&w photography–doesn’t everybody?). But the day became so sunny and bright (though still brutally cold) that I quickly abandoned that idea and shifted to my standard photo app.

Selfie with Humeston bench.

And my first photo was, yes, a reflection selfie. There’s no point to it; you just have to do it sometimes. Usually, you do it once and that’s enough; you won’t have to do it again for weeks or months. The impulse has been fulfilled and you can get on with your life. But there are occasions when the itch just doesn’t feel properly scratched until you’ve done it a few times.

Yes, three (3!) reflection selfies in Humeston.

So I wandered around on the streets of Humeston briefly (briefly because 1) it was savagely cold and 2) there isn’t enough of Humeston to wander around at length). It feels like a small town, to be sure, but it doesn’t feel like a small town in decline. Sure, some of the shops are empty, and some are a wee bit worse for wear, but everybody I met was cheerful and there was a sort of bright enthusiasm to the limited commerce. The aisles of the general store (yes, there’s a general store) were so exuberant that they were almost hallucinatory.

Tripping in Humeston.

As much as I love to visit small towns, I always find myself wondering what it would be like to grow up in one–and deciding it would be awful on so many levels that you’d need an abacus to count them. I have absolutely nothing to base that on, and the people I know who grew up in small towns generally have nice things to say about the experience. But damn.

On the way home from Humeston, we passed through the town of Lucas, Iowa, where we saw this charming little brick building. Of course, we decided to stop and look.

Lucas is so small it makes Humeston feel like a metropolis. Before it was a town, it was just a station on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad line. The station was established in 1866. A decade later, the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company sank a mine near the station. There was a rich deposit of coal, and by 1880, they’d opened a second coal mine and created a company town. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a company town, it’s basically a town in which practically everything–all the stores, the housing, the local services–are owned by a single company that’s also the sole (or at least the primary) employer. If you wanted to buy a shirt or a loaf of bread, if you wanted to have a boil lanced or a tooth extracted, you paid the money you earned from the company back to the company, before returning to the house you’ve rented from the company.

Lucas selfie with optional shop cats.

By 1890, there were 1300 people living and working for the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company in Lucas. But here’s the thing about coal. Once you dig it up, it’s gone. A coal mine without coal is just a big fucking hole in the ground. The last productive coal mine in the Lucas area closed in 1923. By 1930, the population had dropped to about 500. In the 2020 census, the population was only 172.

Dr. Bell’s office.

There were three antique/craft stores in Lucas. None of them were open during our brief stop, nor was the John L. Lewis Mining Labor Museum (union organizer John Lewis apparently got his first job as a coal miner in Lucas). I doubt that Doc Bell is still in business, but his office is still standing. If you look, you can recognize the bones of the old company town that existed here a century ago.

That was my Saturday. A day spent not doing much of anything–just noodling around in small towns, thinking about stuff, shooting shop-window selfies. In other words, a day well spent.

let the journey unfold

I recently learned that Iohan Gueorguiev is dead. He died months ago–August of 2021. I had no idea.

You know how it is. There are things you wish you’d done. There are things you wish you could do. But there are also things you wish you’d wanted to do, even though you know you wouldn’t actually do them even if you had the opportunity.

I wish I would have wanted to do what Iohan did. I know, if given the chance to do what he did, I’d have turned it down. What he did was just too hard. I mean, it was absolutely wonderful and amazing and quixotic. I admire him for what he did and how he did it. But even though I’d have enjoyed doing some small parts of what Iohan did, I don’t have it in me to really want to do it.

What did Iohan Gueorguiev do?

He rode a bicycle. He rode it a lot. He rode it very far. Incredibly far, in fact. Insanely far.

Iohan was born in Bulgaria in 1988. When he was 15 years old, his parents sent him to live with an uncle in Mississauga, Ontario. At some point he bought a bicycle–a touring bike–and went for a ride. To Vancouver. About 2700 miles.

That started his weird fascination and love for long-distance bike-camping. In 2014, he decided to ride his bike from the Arctic Sea in Alaska to the town of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost town in Argentina, generally called the ‘end of the world’. He thought it might take him a year. He was wrong. Wildly wrong.

It was, to be frank, an absurd and ridiculous idea. The distance from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia is about 9500 miles as the crow flies. On a bicycle, it’s…well, who knows how far it would be? Farther than any rational person would consider riding.

Iohan’s touring bike–with its narrow road tires–was entirely inadequate for the project. Eventually he was able to acquire a fat tire bike that was significantly more suited for the trip, and over time he obtained a better camera (and a GoPro and some sort of drone), but his gear was always a secondary–or tertiary–consideration. The adventure was what mattered–the things he saw, the people he met. He maintained a blog describing the trek (which is how I learned about him) and he produced a number of YouTube videos.

“I want to see the world. Follow a map to its edges and keep going. Forgo the plans. Trust my instincts. Let curiosity be my guide. I want to change hemispheres. Sleep with unfamiliar stars. And let the journey unfold before me.”

That’s mostly what he did–let the journey unfold. Iohan rarely took the easy route. He rode anywhere he could, anywhere he wanted: ice highways, lumber roads, hiking paths, wilderness trails. Hell, sometimes he didn’t take a route at all–he just set off in the general direction. On at least one occasion he broke down his bike to cross a lake using a collapsible kayak. He refused to let common sense dictate the trip.

He encountered every obstacle you could predict: bad weather, wildlife, gear failures, terrible terrain, mechanical issues. And yet he always seemed to find something positive about his situation. Cycling in a blizzard? He didn’t have to worry about his food supply spoiling. Traveling up a hazardous mountain trail so steep he has to carry his bike and all his supplies? The air is cool, he says, and fresh and invigorating.

“Ruta de Los Seis Miles is a 1,310km, month-long, high altitude desert traverse across the Central Andean Dry Puna in Chile and Argentina. This route promises the most physically and mentally demanding high altitude touring in the Andes. Thankfully, it’s balanced with dream-like mountain scenery with salt fields, lava flows, flamingo-filled lakes, and some of the highest volcanos in the world, far away from the civilization.”

Everywhere he went, Iohan met good people. They’d offer him a safe place to sleep, a warm meal, maybe a bit of money, stories. He seemed to take as much joy from the people he met as he did from the sights he saw. He was certainly comfortable being alone–and there were times on the trip when he was terribly alone–but he clearly delighted in meeting new people in unusual circumstances.

“My motivation: the kindness of strangers and the beauty of the wild.”

Without a private fortune (which Iohan didn’t have) or some sort of corporate sponsorship (which he occasionally received), he was forced to interrupt his journey periodically and return to Canada and earn enough money to continue. Then he’d resume the adventure where he’d left off.

The trip he originally thought might take a year stretched out to more than six. Then Covid arrived; the pandemic disrupted everything. Iohan returned to Canada. He still took what he’d describe as ‘short trips’ in Canada. But the trips weren’t very rewarding; the pandemic made it impossible for him to meet new people. Depression set in; he developed insomnia, made worse by sleep apnea.

Last August, Iohan killed himself.

He still had about 1500 miles to go to reach Ushuaia.

Earlier I said I wish I would have wanted to do what Iohan did. I try to do what he did on a much much much more modest scale. I ride my bike. I talk to strangers. But if it’s too cold or too hot or too windy or too wet, I stay home. Still, there’s a part of me that wishes I had the sort of irrational will that could inspire me to actually undertake an adventure like his.

Iohan Gueorguiev went as far as he could. So much farther than common sense would carry you. He experienced so much more than the rest of us. It would be wrong to think he fell 1500 miles short of his destination. The distance Iohan Gueorguiev traveled can’t be measure in miles. He kept going until he couldn’t. Then he stopped.

EDITORIAL NOTE: You can still access Iohan Gueorguiev’s blog and his videos at BikeWanderer. It’s nice to watch the videos and think maybe he’s still on his way.

that’s right, it’s a movie review

I sporadically read movie and/or television reviews. I don’t necessarily trust entertainment reviewers, but I tend to assume they get it approximately right. Maybe they don’t point to true north, but they wave in a general northish direction. The reviews of Don’t Look Up were harsh; I saw it described as glib, as disastrous, as unamusing, as obvious and without subtlety, as over-the-top, as trivializing an actual social problem, as cynical and mocking. Reviewers said Don’t Look Up failed both as satire and as comedy.

But sometimes all I want is mindless, distracting entertainment–something glib and trivial and obvious. Besides, there were a lot of really fine actors in it, so how bad could it be?

I won’t say Don’t Look Up is a great movie; it’s not. But it’s not at all what the reviewers claimed it was. It’s not mindless entertainment; it’s not glib or trivializing or without subtlety. It’s a damned fine movie. It IS over-the-top, but considering the last few years, it’s only over the top by inches.

With only the tiniest possible SPOILER, I’m going to tell you what the movie is about. I’m not going to relate the entire plot; I’m only going to reveal one plot element (which you probably already know). But I’m going to describe what I think is the pivotal scene. It takes place fairly early in the film, and it establishes the theme on which the movie depends.

Three people–a grad student who discovers a comet heading directly toward earth, the professor who oversees her research, and a government official who heads some obscure agency devoted to protecting Earth from comets and/or other space stuff–are at the White House with a high-ranking military escort. They’re there to warn the president of the impending extinction level event. POTUS is busy doing political bullshit, so they’re left idling in a hallway. The escort leaves briefly and returns with bottled water and some snacks. He complains about how expensive the snacks were. The others reimburse him–US$20. He keeps the change. Later, the grad student (played by Jennifer Lawrence with unfortunate hair) discovers the snacks and water were free. Periodically through the rest of the film, she talks about how astonished she was that this guy screwed them for a few bucks when they were at the White House trying to warn humanity that all life on the planet is likely going to be extinguished. She just can’t understand people who act that way.

And that’s the movie. Good, decent people trying to do what’s right, trying to do what’s best for everybody, trying to deal with a system designed for–and occupied by–people primarily concerned with themselves and their own gain, people who are willing to lie, mislead, and manipulate others to achieve their short term goals. It’s not just that they have incompatible value systems; it’s that they don’t even share the same definition of values.

It’s a comedy. Sort of. It’s satire. Sort of. Actually, I’m damned if I know what genre it falls into. It’s a critique of the politico-corporate culture we live in, where maximizing profits and shareholder value have priority over human concerns. It’s a critique of the social media driven culture in which celebrity is valued over knowledge and manipulated opinion trumps science. All of that sounds very dull, doesn’t it; but this is not a dull movie.

In the end, I found Don’t Look Up to be weirdly hopeful. It suggests that trying to do good, trying to do the right thing, is in itself a worthy goal, even if you don’t believe you can succeed. It suggests a person’s sincere attempt to do what’s right confers a sort of grace on the person. I like to think that’s true.

Don’t Look Up is worth watching.

EDITORIAL NOTE: By the way, this is one of the few films in which scientists are depicted as normal people who are simply devoted to science. Nerdy, perhaps, but ordinary.

Melanie Lynskey

Also? The cast includes Melanie Lynskey, who has a brilliantly quiet career playing strong, soft-spoken women; she deserves a lot more attention than she gets. It’s a small role, but she’s perfect in it. She knows how to throw a pill bottle and make it sting.

sunday — this beautiful world

Sunday morning, early October, chilly but sunny, not a cloud in the sky, very little wind. Who wouldn’t want to go for a bike ride? Now, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “Greg, old sock, you always want to go for a bike ride.” First, stop calling me ‘old sock’. Second, well, yeah.

My brother-in-law, who’ll I’ll call “Jeff” (on account of that’s his name) and I started our ride in a little Iowa town called Mingo. I am NOT making that up. It’s an old coal-mining town, named after the Mingo tribe of the Iroquois nation. The Mingos, by the way, didn’t call themselves Mingos; that’s what the neighboring Algonquin tribes called them. It’s a corruption of the Algonquin term mingwe, which apparently means ‘sneaky’. But they weren’t sneaky enough to escape the notice of ‘progress’. As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, any remaining Mingos in Iowa were required to shift themselves to Kansas. Why? As President Andrew Jackson said at the time,

“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?”

Andrew Jackson was more fucking savage than the Mingos, and a LOT of us would prefer a country covered with forests. Anyway, Mingo now is a sneaky little town of about 300 white people and a small biker tavern (as opposed to a cyclist pub). We did NOT have a beer at the Greencastle Tavern because 10:30 in the morning is too early to drink. And besides, the tavern wasn’t open yet.

Just outside of Mingo.

This bike trail is called the Chichaqua Valley Trail. You might assume that’s because it runs through the Chichaqua Valley. Silly rabbit. There is no Chichaqua Valley. There is, however, a 25-mile-long series of oxbows and bottomlands called the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. The oxbows are the isolated remains of the South Skunk River, which coal companies ‘straightened’ in order to facilitate barges transporting coal from mining towns like Mingo. More ‘progress’.

That straight line is the current channel of the South Skunk River

The Skunk River got its name a couple hundred years before the Mingo arrived in this part of the country. The French voyageurs, exploring and trapping beaver, asked the local Meskwaki tribe what the river was called. They were told the river was Chichaqua. The natives were referring the smell of the wild onions and cabbage that grew along the riverbanks. They’d also used that term to describe skunks. So we can thank the confused French for the Skunk River.

Like so many Iowa bicycle trails, the Chichaqua Trail follows an old railroad line. This was the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad, originally built in 1885 to haul coal and livestock throughout the Midwest. You can actually gauge your progress along the trail by watching for old railroad mile markers that show the distance to Kansas City. Unlike most rails-to-trails bike paths, which tend to be incredibly straight and incredibly dull, this trail is full of curves and turns. One bicycle trail guide describes it as ‘serpentine,’ which may be a tad too elegant, but isn’t entirely wrong.

One of the many bridges.

It runs mostly through farmland and woods. It’s a quiet trail. Even on a perfect autumn Sunday afternoon, we saw very few other cyclists. For the most part, all you hear is the wind and the sound of your tires on pavement or rattling over the many wooden bridges. There are a LOT of bridges–some small, some extensive. The trail crosses over creeks, drainage ditches, oxbows, and the South Skunk River. I don’t know how many bridges there are; I forgot to keep count after the first nine.

Another bridge.

We tend to think of bike trails on old railroad lines as being flat–and they generally are. When there are hills, early railroad builders tended to rely on long slow inclines. Really long inclines. There’s a section of the trail that winds uphill for just about four miles. And I mean it winds. You can only see a few hundred feet in front of you, so you have no grasp of just how close–or how far away–you are from the top. It’s not steep, but it’s fucking endless. You start to believe…to hope…that you’ll be able to see the top around the next bend in the trail, And each bend in the trail crushes that hope. You won’t see any photos of that hill, because there was no way I was going to stop.

Bridge over the South Skunk River

After about 15 miles, we reached the town of Bondurant, named for the first white person who settled there (Alexander C. Bondurant–I don’t know if he did anything worthy or important other than being white and deciding he’d gone far enough west and decided to just stop traveling). Eventually the Chicago Great Western Railway Company built a depot there–which has been reproduced as a rest area for cyclists. It’s very nice. Bathrooms, picnic tables, repair station, drinking water. All very pleasant, but Jeff and I made straight for Reclaimed Rails–a bike brew pub just off the trail.

One of the best things about cycling in Iowa is the advent of the bike brew pub. Beer and bikes are a natural pairing. The sugars and salts in beer help you absorb fluids more efficiently than water alone; you’d have to drink a lot more water to get the same hydration effects of beer. No, I’m serious. THIS IS SCIENCE, people. Beer also has almost as many antioxidants as red wine, and that helps your leg muscles recover. And hey, it’s cold and it tastes good.

Along the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, a man fishing.

After hydrating and dosing ourselves with antioxidants (mine was a nice malty Märzen), we set off again. After a few miles, we turned off onto the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, named for the advocate who came up with the idea of a series of bike paths and trails through central Iowa. Unlike the rails-to-trails bike paths, which were based on direct routes for transporting goods, the Gay Lea Wilson trail weaves in and out of semi-rural areas and suburbs. It’s designed to transport people, making it easy for folks (and families) to access the trail and travel by bike to places they want to visit. Places like libraries and parks and picnic areas and playgrounds and…well, brew pubs.

Another 15 miles or so took us to our final stop: Brightside Aleworks, a fairly new craft brew pub that has a relaxed vibe closer to a coffee shop than a beer joint. We’d ridden about 33 miles altogether. Aside from the brutal four mile uphill stretch, it was a nice way to spend a day. It was fun. And the beer was cold and welcome (I had a biscuity, slightly sweet Irish red).

That’s the thing about cycling. It’s fun. Sure, it’s good for you. Fresh air, healthy exercise, all that. But mostly it’s fun. That’s why I ride. Bugger exercise; I ride because it makes me happy. Because it’s one of the best ways to see the world you live in. You get to meander along at whatever pace you want (well, fucking hills excepted) and be a part of the landscape, rather than just passing through it in a car.

Dr. K.K. Doty (who doesn’t seem to exist on the internet other than as the author of this quote) wrote: Cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to. Most ills. Not all ills. But most. It’s a bicycle, not a miracle machine.

Well, maybe a miracle machine. Small miracles in a big world. It’s enough.

a slightly faster way of walking

I swear, every couple of weeks I come across another article about electric bikes and ‘cheating’. This one was on the Electrek website. Are electric bikes cheating? If you google ‘ebike cheating‘ you’ll get a cascade of results, and every single one debunks the idea that riding an ebike is cheating.

I’ve never quite understood the question. How can riding a bike–any sort of bike–be considered cheating? Cheating at what? Cheating against whom? That question led me to understand my personal approach to cycling is something of an aberration. The fact that the question persists–the fact that the question even exists and that it gets asked so often–is, in my opinion, evidence of a deep problem in the cycling culture of the United States.

I believe the problem evolved from the way cycling has been marketed. In the US, it’s almost always promoted as a ‘fun’ form of exercise. Exercise is basically a form of self-competition. Exercise isn’t supposed to be easy. Push yourself, work hard, work a little harder, sweat a bit more, feel the burn, ignore the pain, keep going, do better than you did the last time, meet or exceed your personal best. Exercise is a constant measuring of yourself now against yourself before. Are you getting better? Are you maintaining? Or are you fading?

Row upon row of road bikes.

There’s nothing wrong with exercise, of course. It IS actually good for you. But there’s a lot more to cycling than a good workout, and that’s generally ignored when cycling is being marketed or advertised. In the US cycling is rarely presented as an alternate form of transportation–as a way to commute to work or a way to run short errands. It’s never marketed as a source of joy or delight or pleasure.

I’ve been cycling most of my life–never for physical fitness, sometimes as a mode of transportation, but always because it makes me happy, because it brings me joy and delight. I didn’t realize that approach to cycling was an aberration until recently. Part of that realization came about because of the ebike-cheating question. But it was driven home this year after joining a few organized bike rides.

Rows of road bikes outside a pub.

I’m basically a solitary cyclist. The idea of riding in a large group of people never appealed to me. I like to ride at my own pace, take my own path, stop when I want, go faster or slower as my mood takes me. You lose that independence in a group. But this year my charming sister (and her equally charming husband) have invited me along on a few organized bike rides–and because she’s my sister and because she’s charming, I’ve gone along.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the rides, in part because they always start at some bike pub and end at some bike pub, often with a couple of stops at bike pubs along the way. Bikes and beer have a long, happy history together. But because almost all of my professional training has taught me to pay attention to social behavior, I noticed this very obvious fact: aside from me on my ebike, almost everybody rode a road bike. There’d be an occasional mountain bike, a couple of fat tire bikes, maybe a recumbent bike, and one or two other ebikes–but the the vast majority of cyclists were on road bikes.

Why?

Dozens of road bikes.

A road bike is built to be ridden almost exclusively on hard surfaces. They’re designed to be fast. Essentially, they’re designed for racing, even if racing isn’t the cyclist’s intent. Because of that, road bikes are the least versatile type of bike, the most finicky, the least forgiving, the most expensive, the least comfortable. But they’re fast. They have thin, high pressure tires to minimize surface friction on the road, and that makes them faster. They lack any sort of suspension because the flex of suspension reduces the efficiency of the pedaling, and that makes them faster. The riding position is aerodynamic (which makes them faster), but it’s also unnatural and puts a lot of stress on joints and nerves.

Because road bikes are fast, and because their design makes them more vulnerable to road conditions, and because of the unnatural riding position, cyclists on road bikes need to focus their attention on the road in front of them. A lapse in attention can result in a crash. The result is folks on road bikes aren’t devoting much attention to the general environment they’re riding through.

Road bikes outside a former train depot.

At the halfway point of a recent organized ride, while having a beer, I discovered that my sister and her husband simply didn’t see most of the cool stuff we rode by. A group of turkeys along the bike path, the dappled horses watching us ride by, a ring-necked pheasant that flew across the bike path about ten feet high directly in front of them, the turtle on a log in a pond, the fat groundhog. They didn’t see any of that, and it made me sort of sad.

Why, I asked myself, were all these people riding road bikes? Because in the US, a road bike is the mark of a ‘serious’ cyclist. Because if you want a good workout–if you’re primary goal for cycling is exercise–you want a machine designed for competition, even if you’re only competing with yourself.

An electric bike can make cycling easier. This is where the ‘cheating’ notion comes in. Electric bikes can be fast–but with less physical effort. They can be fast with seatpost and tire suspension, which makes them more comfortable to ride. They can be fast with the rider in a more natural and comfortable riding position, with less neck and joint strain. They can be fast while allowing the rider to look around and enjoy the scenery.

Road bikes.

And that’s ‘cheating’. Cyclists on electric bikes are cheating because they can go fast without having to suffer as much as regular bike riders. They’re cheating because they haven’t ‘earned’ the speed. They’re cheating ONLY IF you accept the notion that the primary purpose of a bike is sport or exercise or physical fitness. They’re cheating ONLY IF you buy into the way cycling is marketed.

Earlier I mentioned googling ‘ebike cheating’ and getting a flood of articles debunking the notion of cheating. Each of those articles base their ‘not cheating’ conclusion on the fact that ebike riders are still getting a good workout. They’ll tell you how ebikes still require physical effort–though the rider has more control over how much effort is expended. They’ll tell you ebike riders tend to ride more often than riders on regular bikes, and they tend to ride further–all of which increases the ebike rider’s fitness.

Road bikes on the Moonlight Classic.

Do you see the problem there? All of those articles accept the marketing premise–that the primary reason for cycling is fitness and exercise–as a given. None of them consider that there are other reasons for cycling. None of them consider that riding an ebike makes cycling more pleasurable, more joyous.

The problem is NOT road bikes. Road bikes are incredibly efficient machines. I’ve owned road bikes (though mine were all geared for touring rather than racing) and I’ve ridden them hundreds of miles. The problem (and I admit, this may only be a problem from my personal perspective) is that the marketing emphasis on physical fitness in cycling has turned it into a narrow form of self-competition that detaches riders from a richer experience. There’s nothing wrong with riding for exercise, but neither is there anything wrong with riding because it’s just fucking fun. I have never had as much simple joy and delight in riding a bike as I have this past year. Never.

For a lot of the riders in these organized cycling events, a beer at the end (or the halfway point) is seen as a reward–a sort of liquid recompense for the labor of cycling. I’m of the opinion that a beer is–or should be–just another pleasant facet of an already pleasant experience. It’s as integral to the experience as seeing a turtle on a log. You don’t have to have a beer or see a turtle on a log to enjoy a bike ride, but both enhance the ride in the same way.

I once read an article about the Dutch approach to cycling. It described cycling as a slightly faster way of walking. That fits perfectly with the way I ride. It’s just a pleasant way of getting around, quickly and easily, arriving at your destination (if you have one) without too much fuss, without being weary or sweaty (unless you want to be), and allowing you to enjoy and appreciate the world around you as you go.

beer & bikes, bikes & beer

A couple of days ago I posted the following photograph on social media. The photo was taken at the halfway point of my bike ride. In the description I casually mentioned there was a bicycle brew pub just out of the frame.

Bondurant, IA — cyclist stop.

That comment sparked a question:

“A bicycle brew pub? Do tell. Is this a punctuation thing? Or are there really bicycle brew pubs? ‘Cause I’d be down with that!”

I was sort of surprised by the question, because of course bicycle brew pubs exist. I mean, bikes exist, and pubs exist, and a number of those pubs exist along bicycle trails, and many of those pubs either brew their own beers or at least serve locally brewed beers. Bicycle brew pubs are a natural pairing. I guess I assumed there are bicycle brew pubs scattered along bike trails all over the US. I assumed–and still assume–they’re scattered along bike paths all across the entire globe.

Down the former railroad track…

In fact, back in 2013 I wrote about the creation of the shandy–a mixture of beer and lemon-flavored soda tossed together in 1922 by a desperate former railway worker who ran a bicycle pub/inn in Deisenhofen, Germany. In some places, this style of beer is called a Kugler after Franz Xaver Kugler, the innkeeper who ran short of beer and decided to stretch his inventory by adding lemonade to it. Another name for this type of beer concoction is Radler, the German term for ‘cyclist’. Beer and bikes go together like spaghetti and meatballs, like Scooby Doo and Shaggy, like Netflix and chill. Sort of.

…past the marsh…

Herr Kugler may have had a railroad career before serving beer to bicyclists, but he had nothing (to my knowledge) to do with the Rails to Trails movement in the US. Still, I think the logic of converting unused railroad lines into cycling trails is undeniable. Railroad lines tend to be fairly straight and largely flat, which makes for easy cycling and easy conversion. Yes, they’re also prone to long gradual inclines that aren’t particularly noticeable to the eye, but make their presence known to a cyclist’s knees and thighs, but that seems a small sacrifice to make. If there’s a problem with rails to trails bike paths, it’s that they often put railroad lines on raised banks to protect them from flooding. That means IF you happen to have a mishap and go off the trail, you may find yourself (and your bike) tumbling down a steep 15-30 feet incline.

…along groundhog central…

One of the great things about former railroad lines is that they pass through the countryside and through less developed areas–areas where train noise wouldn’t disrupt the lives (and traffic) of city/townsfolk. That means you get to ride through farmland and semi-industrial areas, and that means you get to see a lot of animals. Not just livestock like cattle and sheep, but wildlife that’s adapted their habitats to modern human life. I’ve seen everything from foxes to turkeys to snakes on my rides. One of my favorite parts of the path I took a couple of days ago is a stretch of about a mile that’s heavily populated with groundhogs. Big, fat, lazy bastards who are accustomed to bicycles and in no particular hurry to get out of your way–unless you stop to take a photo. Then the shifty buggers retreat.

…through the Valley of Warehouses…

Groundhog Central is in the middle of what I call the Valley of Warehouses–an area between the satellite community where I live and Des Moines. There are dozens of massive brutalist structures that act as distribution centers for the mass transit of goods. The newest of these mega-warehouses are being built in what used to be farmland. I think the structure in the photo above is a new distribution center being built for Amazon, the devil-king of interstate commerce. The best thing about these facilities–possibly the only good thing–is that bike paths are incorporated into their infrastructure design.

…over the bridge…

Another advantage of rails-to-trails paths is that railroads built LOTS of small–and sometimes not-so-small–bridges over the multitude of rivers, creeks, and brooks that would otherwise make cycling through the Midwest awkward. They needed these bridges in out of the way areas because many small railroad lines were created to carry coal from coal mines to the cities and towns. Coal was so often discovered in generally inconvenient locations–troublesome for railroads and coal producers, but in the end it’s worked out well for bicyclists.

…and eventually into a small town with a bicycle brew pub.

That brings me back to bicycle brew pubs. We have a lot of them. Hell, we have three in my small community. The Iowa Beer organization released a map in 2019 showing the location of 85 bike trail beer pubs. It’s a tad out of date, of course. Although the pandemic was hard on most taverns and restaurants, it had the effect of making bicycles increasingly popular. If you have a bicycle, you often want to ride to a destination; small town bicycle brew pubs seem to have weathered the pandemic fairly well. I suspect there may be a few more bike brew pubs now than before the pandemic.

Iowa Beer Trail breweries in 2019

The path I took yesterday follows most of the route for the upcoming Beer 30 ride–a 30-mile round-trip cycling event that starts at the Uptown Garage Brewing Company then follows the trail to the small town of Bondurant, Iowa and the Reclaimed Rails Brewing Company, which is located just out of the frame of the photograph at the top of this post. The Beer 30 ride then returns to the Uptown Garage. Dozens of organized beer trail events like this take place in Iowa. Some are annual events, some are weekly.

I’ve no idea how many riders will be attending the Beer 30. At least a hundred. Maybe two or three times that number. I’ll be one of them.

3 things that make me love the world

I’m not one of those “Let’s focus on happy news and forget how completely fucking awful the world is” guys. I lack the Pollyanna gene. When the world is completely fucking awful, I want to know about it. I want to understand it. Don’t try to distract me with bluebirds or other happy horseshit. Because despite how completely fucking awful the world is, I still manage to remain pretty chipper and stupidly happy. I still love this world.

I’m telling you that because the news this morning is jammed with the mass murder that took place in Georgia yesterday. Eight dead–six Asian women, two non-Asian men. Apparently murdered by some inadequate white incel asshole who, according to law enforcement officials, “had a really bad day…and this is what he did.” On any other morning, I’d be writing about both this hate crime against women (and the reality is that the most common hate crimes–and the least acknowledged hate crimes–are committed against women) and the casual way white law enforcement agents treat white mass murderers who commit hate crimes.

But not this morning. I’m NOT trying to distract you from the truly awful shit that’s taking place. But three things happened this morning that made me ridiculously happy. And I’m not going to let this Georgia asshole detract from that. Fuck him in the neck. These are three things that make me love this awful world.

First thing. The Pritzker Prize. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s the most prestigious award in architecture. It’s usually awarded to some arrogant asshole ‘starchitect’ who designs massive, expensive, flamboyant buildings. Not this year. This year it’s gone to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, a pair of architects who have largely focused on transforming low-income housing complexes. Instead of tearing down old structures and building new ones, these two have found ways to transform old housing projects into attractive living environments. A lot of poor people may hate where they live, but aren’t confident they’ll be better off if they moved.

Turning grim public housing into bright living spaces.

A few years ago, Lacaton and Vassal were asked to work on “a particularly large and hideous” public housing project in Bordeaux. The people who lived in the projects didn’t want to leave; they just wanted more space and more light. Lacaton and Vassal gave them what they wanted. The basically encased the building in glass, turning what had been exterior apartment walls into sliding glass doors leading to an enclosed terrace. It cost less money, it required less disruption for the tenants, and it turned grim, drab apartments into bright sunny spaces. The Pritzker jury wrote:

Through their belief that architecture is more than just buildings, through the issues they address and the proposals they realize, through forging a responsible and sometimes solitary path illustrating that the best architecture can be humble and is always thoughtful, respectful, and responsible, they have shown that architecture can have a great impact on our communities and contribute to the awareness that we are not alone.

I like living in a world where French architects are honored for their work in support of poor folks living in public housing.

Second thing: I’ve written about the game Geoguessr before–both as a game and as source material for an appropriation art project. For a variety of reasons, I don’t play the game as often as I used to. But now and then, I’ll get the urge and I’ll immerse myself in virtually exploring a novel part of the world. Last night I played and found myself lost in the Polish countryside, where I saw an interesting bit of graffiti art.

I don’t speak Polish. But I help run a Facebook group called Geoguessr Oddities, with a global membership some of whom were likely to know Polish. So I posted the screengrab. And a short time later I learned Mysza Patrzy jak Jedzisz translates to “The Mouse watches you drive.” It wasn’t very helpful in finding out where I was in Poland, but the translation cracked me up, and the interaction itself made me happy. Then this morning another member of the group informed me that franekmysza is a Polish graffiti artist with an Instagram account. He’s painted that mouse all over Poland.

I like living in a world in which I can be introduced to a Polish graffiti artist by playing a game designed by a Swedish IT consultant to get you lost in new parts of the world.

Third thing. There was an article in the Washington Post about a kid, Darius Brown, who learned to sew bow ties for rescue animal–and I swear, this made me tear up and I came THIS close to crying like a little girl. Darius (and, again, he has an Instagram account you may want to follow) was taught to sew bow ties by his sister when he was eight years old. He got started in the rescue animal bow tie gig two years later, in 2017, when a couple dozen dogs left homeless in Florida and Puerto Rico by Hurricane Irma were transferred to a shelter in New York City. He thought the animals might get adopted quicker if they were wearing bow ties.

Let me just say that again. A ten-year-old kid in New Jersey sewed 25 bow ties for rescue dogs from Florida and Puerto Rico because he wanted them to get adopted. How perfectly wonderful is that? And hey, it worked.

Of course it worked. Look at that good boy wearing one of his bow ties in a Savannah shelter. Are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to adopt this tripod pooch? According to WaPo, Darius has now “donated more than 600 bow ties for dogs and cats in shelters.” He’s only 14-years-old. He says, “A well-dressed dog…that will make people smile.” And yeah, it does.

I suppose I should mention that Darius has both a speech disorder and a fine motor skills disorder–but since those things don’t define him, they’re less important than what he does. And what he does is make the lives of shelter animals better, which makes shelters better, which makes the lives of the people who adopt the shelter animals better, which makes the entire world a little bit better.

I like living in a world with Darius Brown in it.

Yes, the world is completely fucking awful. But it’s also completely fucking wonderful. We shouldn’t let the former diminish the latter. There are architects who transform awful buildings into livable spaces. There are graffiti artists painting snarky mice all over Poland. And there’s a kid in New Jersey putting bow ties on shelter animals. How can you not be in love with this world?

EDITORIAL NOTE: Another thing that makes me happy. A couple of folks have kindly and gently taken me to task for writing ‘crying like a little girl‘. It makes me happy because 1) it’s nice that folks call me when it looks like I’m being a dick, and 2) because originally I actually included a long, parenthetical tangent about that phrase, doing a riff sort of like Dickens in A Christman Carol when he natters on about the phrase ‘dead as a doornail’. But I write these posts in a rush, and I edit very little…so I deleted the tangent in the hope that people would interpret crying like a little girl to mean grown men and little girls cry in the same way and sometimes for the same reasons.

I’ve decided NOT to correct it. It’s better to let other folks learn from my misjudgments.