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.

clutter

An untidy accumulation of objects, or the confused overcrowded state caused by it. From an Old English variant of clotern, meaning ‘to form clots, to heap on,’ which was derived from clott, meaning ‘a round mass or lump’. You know…clutter.

Most folks don’t like clutter. It makes them uncomfortable, uneasy, anxious, unsettled. Clutter, we’re told, “creates indecision and distractions, consuming attention and making unfettered happiness a real chore.” We are told, “Order is Heaven’s first law.” The problem, of course, is we fear disorder. We fear chaos. So we attempt (and to some extent, succeed) to impose a sense of order on…well, everything.

I confess, I can find “unfettered happiness” in cluttered spaces. Other people’s cluttered spaces, I should say. Not my own. I like to visit clutter; I don’t necessarily want to live or work in it. And it’s not just cluttered spaces in general that I enjoy. I’ve no interest at all in well-organized clutter. A room encumbered with stacks of old newspapers and magazines, a cellar jammed with tins of food, an office filled with dusty ledgers and technical manuals–no thank you.

No, what I like–what I find stimulating, what brings me some perverse joy–is random clutter. Clutter that contains surprises, clutter that holds unexpected stuff, clutter that’s arbitrary and unpredictable, that’s what I’m after. It’s a fairly rare phenomenon. I’ve encountered it occasionally in old sheds or farmhouse mudrooms, a bit more often in old school hardware stores. I found it at West End Architectural Salvage and Coffee Shop before it became a sort of high-end esoteric antique store. I found it at Fairground Hardware before it closed.

Everywhere you turn you find yourself saying, “Wait…what? Why are there taxidermied Canada Geese next to the Allen wrenches, which are beside the cans of spray paint? Who puts PVC pipe and vintage Melmac dishes together, along with toy trains and light bulbs? Putty knives and puppets and metal screws? What? Halloween decorations? And…wait, canned goods?

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an antique store/junk yard/plant shop/maze that was a celebration of clutter. Poorly lighted narrow aisles of overfilled shelves with often random semi-related stuff accumulating on the floor, sometimes forcing you to walk sideways. I say ‘random semi-related stuff’ because there was a sort of micro-taxonomy occurring–small clusters of items that belonged in the same (or a similar) category, but scattered among wildly unrelated clusters. Stacks of wooden boxes beside a stockpile of china dishes; a pile of wicker baskets under a shelf of brass candlesticks, under a shelf of religious figurines; a collection of antique toy trains next to a group of chamber pots and jugs sitting on a cabinet containing china bells.

The place was…well, disordered, to be polite. Everywhere you looked you saw something that somehow both belonged right there and yet was completely out of place. It was like walking through some other person’s dream-state–or perhaps wandering through a stranger’s memories; you recognized almost everything you saw, but even though nothing was quite where you thought it ought to be, you sensed it was where it was supposed to be. Which, I realize, doesn’t make any sense.

The poet Czesław Miłosz wrote about the “mystery of things, little sensations of time…all infinity can be contained in this stone corner, between the fireplace and the oak chest.” That’s how I feel in these cluttered spaces…as if thousands of people have dropped moments out of their lives onto all these dusty shelves, and I get to wander through them, sampling them, touching them, knowing that they’re real…or were real at one time…and now would be entirely forgotten if not for the curious people who look at them, wonder about them, then move on.

Miłosz was talking about ‘mystery’ in the older sense of the term–not as a curiosity to be explored and understood, but as a phenomenon that transcends the rational world. These baskets and bowls, these canisters and candlesticks aren’t physically imbued with some mystical connection to their previous owners. These objects aren’t haunted. But they do spark the imagination. Each of these things has a story. They remind us that those previous owners existed, that they lived lives and those lives intersected with these things, and somehow these things eventually made their way here, to these dim and dusty shelves.

I admit, it would be oppressive to spend a great deal of time in such cluttered spaces. It’s too dark, it’s too dusty, it’s too gravid with memory. But for a measured chunk of time, noodling through these dim aisles can be just as entrancing as it would be to wander like Kai Lung “unchecked through a garden of bright images.”

pioneer cemeteries

A week ago I posted the following photograph of a dirt road leading back into field that held a pioneer cemetery. It sparked a number of folks to ask a perfectly reasonable question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer cemetery? I asked the same question the first time I came across a pioneer cemetery. I’m here to give y’all the answer.

Road to Sams pioneer cemetery

Let me amend that. I’m here to give a couple of answers. I mean the obvious answer is simple: a pioneer cemetery is a plot of ground where pioneers are buried. But that leads inevitably to the question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer?

Let’s start there. The term ‘pioneer’ comes from the French pionnier, which originally referred to a type of specialized foot soldier — troops who were furnished with digging and cutting equipment and sent into new territories to prepare the way for an army. The root term is much older, medieval Latin, pedonem, which meant ‘foot soldier’. That’s also the root for the term ‘pawn’. In chess, pawns always move first; they’re essential, but disposable. The same applies to pioneers; they go first, they’re essential, but disposable.

Sams pioneer cemetery is located on the rise by the trees.

In the US, the term ‘pioneer’ has a vaguely heroic connotation. I suppose that’s warranted because it takes a sort of courage — or maybe desperation — to take your family into unknown territory. And that’s what the early US pioneers were. They weren’t soldiers; they were mostly families of immigrants and first generation Americans. At the time, they were called settlers, or homesteaders, or sodbusters. They were families who loaded up wagons with their few possessions and pushed into largely unmapped territories, fording rivers and streams, in the hope they could find land they could farm. When they came to land they felt was promising, they stopped. They chopped down trees and built cabins out of the logs. They cleared trees and stones from the land by hand or with the help of livestock and created fields for crops. They planted and harvested, and they died and were buried.

Sams pioneer cemetery.

Pioneer cemeteries are plots of land, often on family property, that these small, loosely formed farming communities agreed was sufficient to bury their dead. They’re the graves of the thousands of unremembered, ordinary people who turned wilderness into settlements.

We have to acknowledge the pluckiness of these pioneers, but we also need to be aware there was a very deep ugliness in what they were doing. In the US, pioneers were the leading edge of the concept of Manifest Destiny. The idea was promoted initially by John O’Sullivan, the son of an Irish immigrant. He wrote it was the new nation’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” In essence, manifest destiny was a nice way of saying the expansion of white Europeans and their culture across the continent, displacing or killing the native tribes who’d actually lived there for centuries, was not only inevitable, it was also justified by god.

Raridon pioneer cemetery in the middle of a field.

There you have it. The pioneers were intrepid settlers struggling to create a life for themselves. And they were also sanctimonious invaders who were comfortable with the idea of pushing the indigenous people off their land, stealing it for themselves, and killing those natives who resisted.

That’s who the pioneers were — settlers who were almost as expendable as the natives they dislodged and supplanted. But not everybody buried in a pioneer cemetery was an actual pioneer. The pioneers created the conditions for permanent settlements; permanent settlements inevitably bring disputes; disputes require some forum for resolution. That means a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies demand definitions.

The Enterprise pioneer cemetery has only a single marked grave, a simple cross by a tree.

Which brings us back to the original question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer cemetery? The bureaucratic answer depends on where you live; different states have different legal definitions of ‘pioneer cemetery’. In Iowa, where I live, the law defines it as a cemetery in which there have been no more than twelve burials in the preceding half century. In neighboring Nebraska, a pioneer cemetery is defined as an abandoned or neglected cemetery that was founded or situated on land “given, granted, donated, sold, or deeded to the founders of the cemetery prior to January 1, 1900.”

There is, I think, something weirdly admirable about a bureaucracy making a deliberate decision to recognize and honor the ordinary people who lived and died in small farming communities dating from the late 1700s. The bureaucracies may not care about the individual pioneer cemeteries, but they care about the notion that there are people buried and memorialized in remote, semi-forgotten patches of land.

This pioneer cemetery could only be reached by steep path through overgrown brush under a canopy of old trees. Yet it was beautifully cared for by a local Boy Scout troop.

Most of the pioneer cemeteries I’ve visited are lonely places on patches of farmland or meadowland. They’re generally located on a low hill, most often with a small grove of trees. Some are only accessible by overgrown paths, or by vehicles with high ground clearance. A few pioneer cemeteries are well-tended; most aren’t. Many are overgrown with grass and weeds. Most have gravestones that are damaged, weathered, unreadable.

But all of them are full of stories. There are graves of soldiers — Civil War veterans, veterans of the world wars. You can tell by the dates which ones died in uniform. There are graves of wives who outlived their husbands, graves of mothers who died in childbirth, graves of the children they bore. There are lots of graves of infants, often with the number of months or weeks they lived.

Trester pioneer cemetery

All cemeteries and graveyards tend to be quiet. Pioneer cemeteries are more than quiet. They’re silent. And yet they’re full of stories. Untold stories. Forgotten stories. The first person buried in what would eventually become the Slaughter pioneer cemetery was eight-year-old Hester Slaughter, who died of ‘the fever’ in the summer of 1846. She was buried in a corner of the family farm. There was no lumber mill in the region, so there was no sawn lumber to make a casket. Instead, the family split the trunk of a tree that had been chopped down to clear the land; they hollowed it out, placed poor Hester inside, closed it back up, and buried her. A total of 69 people would be buried in that small plot of land, including three Civil War veterans and a veteran of the War of 1812.

Among them is Bluford Sumpter, who served in the 39th Iowa Regiment in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War. We don’t know the details of his story, but we know the 39th was active from November 24, 1862, to August 2, 1865. We know they were involved in a great number of battles and skirmishes. We know the 39th helped chase Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (who would survive the war and help found the Ku Klux Klan) into Tennessee and suffered many casualties. We know they eventually deployed with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in his brutal and savage march across the South that essentially ended the war. We assume Bluford Sumpter survived the war (since it was uncommon then to ship bodies home for burial), but there are no dates on his tombstone, so we don’t know when he died. We only know he was eventually buried in the Slaughter cemetery in Jasper County, Iowa.

Slaughter pioneer cemetery in the grove of trees in the middle of a field.

Also buried nearby is William Wimpigler, who has his own story. Wimpigler served in the Iowa 48th Battalion during the Civil War, He was one of the Hundred Days Men — a troop of volunteers raised in Midwest during the final days of the war; they agreed to serve one hundred days in order to free experienced troops for combat service. The 48th spent its hundred days at the Rock Island Barracks in Illinois, coincidentally guarding Confederate prisoners taken during Sherman’s campaign.

Both of those Civil War veterans are buried near eight-year-old Hester Slaughter in her hollowed out log coffin on what was once an unused parcel of her family’s farm. Every grave has a story. But we only know about those stories exist because the graves exist, and we only know those graves exist because some unnamed person in a bureaucracy decided it was worthwhile to officially recognize and record the existence of pioneer cemeteries.

That unknown bureaucrat has a story too. We all do. Few of them get told, but all of them are worth telling.

best purchase ever

Imagine a collection of ancient pottery shards and some twisted lumps of barbed wire jammed inside a bit of stiff, old fire hose. That’s my knees, after years of injury and abuse. They creak, they pop, they snap, they grind, they rasp. They hurt. At some point I’ll have to return them to the shelf and get some new ones.

But mostly, I’m used to them. I know how to deal with them. I can get them to do most of what I want to do. There’s only one aspect of my life that’s been buggered up by my wonky knees. Cycling. Riding a bike. I used to ride a lot; it was my favorite mode of transportation. I used my bike for fun and to run errands. But it hurt my knees. Seriously hurt them. So a couple of years ago, I put the bike away for the winter; hung it from some hooks in the garage ceiling. Never took it down.

Over the river

This summer I bought an electric bike, thinking I might be able to ride it with minimal knee pain. When I say I bought an ebike, I don’t mean I went to my local bike shop, examined a wide selection of bikes, and made an intelligent, informed purchase. I mean I bought a bike online. Which even now strikes me as a phenomenally loopy thing to do. Who buys a bike they’ve never actually seen except in a photograph? Who buys a bike you can’t test-ride, a bike that costs US$1500 (more than any two bikes I’d ever bought), a bike that has to be shipped from Seattle and would require some assembly on arrival? Who does that?

Me and, it turns out, lots of other folks. And I got to say, it’s the best purchase I ever made.

Through the woods

I bought a Rad Rover Step-thru. It’s an improbable bike. Massive. The damned thing weighs about 70 pounds. More than twice what my trusty old Trek mountain bike weighs. It’s a fat tire bike, and when they say ‘fat tire’ they’re serious. Four inches wide. It’s got disc brakes. It’s got a goddamn brake light in back. What sort of bike has a brake light? When I finished putting it together (with the overly enthusiastic help of my brother), I have to admit being a tad intimidated by the scale of the beast. It’s big.

But once I got on it and started riding, that massive beast of a bike became weirdly tame. It rides easily. It’s not what you’d call ‘nimble’ compared to my mountain bike. Because of its size, the turning radius is slightly larger than I’m used to. But it’s rock solid and steady. And surprisingly fun to ride.

They put chairs along the bike paths here.

Best of all? No knee pain. I’d been hoping for minimal knee pain–an amount of knee pain I could tolerate. The notion of pain-free cycling hadn’t even occurred to me. But I’ve had the bike for about three months and I’ve put just over 500 miles on it–and dude, no knee pain at all. That’s because of the pedal assist function. Everything I’d read about ebikes (before committing to the insane act of buying one) talked about this weird techno-magical whatsit called pedal assist. I never quite understood it what it was or how it worked; they just said it made pedaling easier. Pedal assist was the reason I gambled on the bike.

It works. It really does make pedaling easier. Or it can if you want it to. It turns out pedal assist is exactly what it says it is. It provides a measured boost to the energy with which you pedal, which makes pedaling more efficient and effective. You can ride this bike without any pedal assist, but it wouldn’t be easy; we’re talking about a 70+ pound bike with four inch tires, so you’d have to be desperate or masochistic to do so. At PAS 1 — the lowest level of pedal assist — it makes riding a 70 pound bike feel pretty much like riding a normal bike (except even then it’s easier on the knees). I spend most of my riding time in PAS 1 or 2. I’ve used PAS 3 for a few steep or long hills; I’ve had no reason to use PAS level 5 yet.

Shortly before the first tornado siren.

I did use PAS 4 once, but it was an emergency. I’d stopped to visit with a county worker who was doing some obscure chore in what will eventually be a new suburban neighborhood. As we were chatting, the tornado siren went off. He checked his phone and told me it looked like it wasn’t a drill. I’m fairly casual about bad weather, and since I was only 3-4 miles from home and didn’t see any of the usual signs of a tornado, I wasn’t too concerned. I headed homeward, but I didn’t rush. Until a second tornado siren went off. Two tornado sirens is serious. So I began to hurry a bit. The sky got really dark. A third tornado siren sounded. I’d never heard a third siren before. I put the bike in PAS 4 and was easily doing over 20mph through neighborhoods.

I made it home about three minutes before the storm hit. It wasn’t a tornado. It was a derecho — a fast-moving straight-line storm with hurricane-force winds. And I made it home without knee pain. Totally winded, but no knee pain. I’m a big fan of pedal assist.

In the river valley.

Something I hadn’t expected: the bike gets attention. People are curious about it. At stop lights, people will roll down their car windows and ask me questions. People on sidewalks and bike paths often shout out questions as I’m riding by them. Sometimes I’ll stop and chat with them. “How does it work? How fast will it go? Does it have a throttle? Can you ride it without pedaling? What’s the battery range? Can you get a good workout with an ebike? Isn’t it cheating if the bike does all the work?”

Here are the answers. I’ve had it up to about 25 mph on flat ground; it can go faster, but I’ve never had the need to do it. Yes, it has a throttle, which is handy at stop lights and stop signs; even with pedal assist, it can be a struggle to get a 70 pound bike in motion from a dead stop. The throttle makes it easy to get started, and that’s all I’ve ever used it for. But yes, you can ride it without pedaling, using just the throttle like a moped. The advertised battery range is 25-45 miles, but I’ve ridden 53 miles through hilly terrain on a single charge and the battery wasn’t quite dead. And finally, you sure as hell can get a good workout on an ebike. The pedal assist allows you to make riding as easy or as strenuous as you want. By the way, if you bike for exercise, folks tend to ride farther and longer on an ebike, which increases the amount of exercise you get.

Me, I don’t ride for exercise. I ride for the joy in it.

Out in the country.

The ‘cheating’ question always throws me. I’m not even sure what it means. How can you cheat at recreational cycling? It’s not like you’re competing with anybody. Using electric pedal assist isn’t really any different than using 21 mechanical gears to make pedaling easier. If riding an ebike is cheating, then so is riding a bike with multiple gears. You’re still using the energy of your body to propel the machine.

That said, I do feel a wee bit awkward about overtaking a cyclist in spandex riding up a hill on a 20 pound road bike. Awkward, but not guilty.

Every so often I’ll go on a ride that takes me by a two-story fitness center. The parking lot, even during this pandemic, is usually full of cars. I know that some of the people who drove those cars to the fitness center are inside on stationary bikes, pedaling in a frenzy. They’re undoubtedly getting a more efficient workout than I am. They’re using their time a lot more effectively than I am. But I suspect I’m happier in the saddle than they are, and having more fun.

In the fog.

I’ve nothing against exercise, but I ride just for the pleasure in it. With this bike, I get to go places. I get to see stuff and talk to strangers. I get to turn down streets and pathways with no real sense of where they’ll take me; sometimes I get to be lost and have the tiny adventure of finding my way back. I get to be harassed by Canada geese and chased by storms.

I did a 30 mile ride a couple of days ago, the last half of it into a stiff 18-23 mph headwind. When I got home, my legs were wobbly from exhaustion. But my knees? My knees were laughing their ass off. I love this bike.

knuckles dobrovic is slightly dislocated

The whole Knuckles Dobrovic thing began in 2013 when I reluctantly and grudgingly realized there was some artistic value to Instagram. I created the Knuckles alias as a way of investigating Instagram without having my name associated with it. I thought it made sense back then, but sounds really silly now. So I started putting a thing on a glass-topped table on the deck and photographing it. It became a project. Things on a Table. I did that for about a year.

Eventually I started an Instagram account using my real name, but I’d grown absurdly attached to the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I decided I’d keep that account and us it strictly for photo projects. Because I tend to over-analyze things, I came up with some basic parameters for all future Knuckles projects: 1) it’s got to be simple (which means I won’t have to do a lot of planning or a lot of post-processing), 2) it’s got to be organic to my life (which means it’s something I can photograph during the course of an ordinary day — whatever that is), 3) it’s got to have at least one intellectual component (which is more accurately described as a pretentious bullshit element), and finally, 4) it’s got to be able to keep my interest over time.

After ‘Things on a Table’ I turned to Double Exposures of My Feet on the Earth and then to the Hundred Appropriated Google Street View gig. When that was finished, I felt no hurry to find another project. Some idea would eventually roll up in a ball and get my attention. That’s how these things work, mostly.

Yeah, no, not this.

Then, of course, Covid-19 showed up and parked its fat ass in the center of our society. At some point I decided the next Knuckles gig should reflect the strange new Covid reality. I tried a 16:9 moody landscape concept. Broad landscapes as a way of dealing with an increasingly closed in life. But no. Besides, it felt too similar to the Google gig. I also tried reworking a lot of old unseen street portraits in a high contrast are-bure-bokeh-ish style. The idea was to remember life without masks, but do it with a harsh, garish, blurry aesthetic that was sort of alienating. But, again, no. I really like that style, but no. Not now. Maybe someday I’ll come back to that.

Yeah, no, not this either.

But I kept noodling around semi-randomly. Taking new photos and playing with them, looking at old photos (which is something I almost never do) and smooshing them around a bit. Then one restless night I took an old photo of some lawn chairs in a suburban yard, diddled with the color a wee bit, digitally sliced it in thirds, then re-arranged the pieces.

Okay, this might work.

I liked it. It was a mundane, familiar scene but it felt a wee bit out-of-sync. It felt somewhat disjointed and almost (but not quite) unbalanced. Which is sort of how the world seems right now. So I tried with another photo. A bar that wouldn’t be seeing any customers this year.

Yeah, okay, this is starting to work.

The bar was still exactly as it was before the pandemic, but now it was just a tad off-color and slightly dislocated. Which seemed like an obvious title for the gig. It seemed like the approach would be elastic enough to use for almost any sort of photographic style. Landscapes, interior shots, still lifes, street photos.

Okay, that’s it. It’s a project.

It wasn’t until I took a rather busy photo of last year’s Planned Parenthood book sale, chopped it up, and re-organized it that I became confident the gig would probably work. I’ll almost certainly continue to use some old photos in the gig, but I expect I’ll be shooting a lot of new stuff with half an eye on the Slightly Dislocated idea (but only half an eye; I don’t want to be searching for material). I expect I’ll be stopping my bike sporadically to shoot something like this:

Slightly Dislocated — goal

This project may, of course, turn out to be awful. It may become predictable or repetitive, it could turn out to be dull–for the viewer or for me. Hell, as unlikely as it seems, the pandemic might come to a quick end (yeah, that’s not going to happen) and the entire concept of Slightly Dislocated may become out of date. I’ve no idea how long I’ll keep this up, but for now I’m having fun with it.