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.

my share of lightheartedness

The year was 1896, and Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy experienced two life-changing events. One was tragic; one wasn’t. First, his son, Ivan Lvovich, died. Vanichka, as he was called, was only seven years old, and Tolstoy’s last child.

Second, two months later, Tolstoy learned to ride a bicycle. He was 67 years old.

Lighthearted Leo Tolstoy

Lighthearted Leo Tolstoy

Moskovskoye Obshchestvo Lyubiteley Velosipede (the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers — and no, I’m not making this up) gave Tolstoy a bicycle and offered him instruction on how to operate the machine. To everybody’s surprise, he quickly became a devoted cyclist, riding along his garden paths most mornings after writing. Tolstoy on a bike; in 1896 that was considered a major news story. Scientific American reported on it: Count Leo Tolstoy…now rides the wheel, much to the astonishment of the peasants on his estate.

One of Tolstoy’s friends was considerably less enthused. He wrote: “Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle. Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?” Tolstoy’s reply:

I feel that I am entitled to my share of lightheartedness and there is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s self simply, like a boy.

Dude was right. No doubt about it. We’re all entitled to a share of lightheartedness. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying oneself like a boy. I do it all the time. I did it last Friday, in fact. And though I forgot to take my camera, I did take my phone — which like all modern phones, takes photographs.

What was once a lumber yard

What was once a lumber yard

As a camera, the Nexus 4 is a great cell phone. It’s not bad as a camera, you understand. It’s just not…well, a camera. Still, it’s good enough that when I rode by this old lumber yard on the way out of town, I had to stop and shoot the photo. It’s not that old, the lumber yard. I mean, it’s not like Tolstoy-old. But it’s semi-beat up and sort of weathered, and it’s a pretty sort of almost-yellow, so worth a photo. If I’d had my actual camera with me, I’d have ridden around the place and given it more attention. Maybe.

Here’s the thing about being an informal member of the American Midwest Society of Velocipede-Lovers: you almost always have to deal with wind. And heat, in the summer. Wind and heat can play merry hell with bicycle-riding photographer’s attitude. And that day was both hot and windy. We’re talking steady 18 mph winds with gusts up to 27mph. Riding into the wind is great exercise.

I fucking hate exercise.

Some sort of storage shed, plus a tree

Some sort of storage shed, plus a tree

I stopped occasionally to drink some water. Some serious cyclists I know always refer to this as ‘hydration.’ They hydrate themselves. I’ve actually heard them say it, right out loud. “I gotta hydrate.” Then later they re-hydrate themselves. They engage in periodic hydration management. That’s some serious business, hydration. Nothing lighthearted about it. Which is why I just pause now and then and drink some water.

I should note that Tolstoy never, not once, in all the tens of thousands of pages he wrote, ever referred to hydration. It would have astonished the peasants on his estate.

Bike trail intersection

Bike trail intersection

One of the disconcerting things about riding a bicycle in the American Midwest is how abruptly town transitions into farmland. One moment you’re noodling your bike down house-lined streets, then you’re riding through old, out-dated semi-industrial areas, and suddenly without any real warning you discover you’re actually out in the country. You know…where they grow things. Like crops. Soybeans and corn and…and maybe that’s it. I don’t know. But there are massive fields full of green growing things.

And none of it blocks the wind.

There's a lot of not much out here

There’s a lot of not much out here

On the other hand, after you’ve spent forty-five minutes riding northwest into an 18mph headwind, you can turn your bike homeward and enjoy the rare pleasures of an 18mph tailwind. You hardly have to put foot to pedal. You sit upright and the wind will blow you most of the way home.

Riding with the wind is a lot more fun than riding into it — but the fact is, just getting on a bike is enough to make you lighthearted. Tolstoy learned that. At 67 years of age, he learned it. Even after the horrorshow of his youngest child’s death, Tolstoy learned that simply by putting his bony ass on a bicycle seat, he could become lighthearted. It doesn’t change anything, of course. Riding a bike won’t actually make anything better. But it will temporarily lighten the heart. And that’s good for you.

And hey, maybe you can astonish some peasants. It’s good for them.

in which i pass through farmland and become confused

Yesterday was probably the last day of ‘good’ weather I’ll see until Spring. I’m using the term ‘good’ deliberately and after some consideration, because in the Midwest near the end of October a day in the mid-70s is a treat — even if it’s windy and cloudy and looks like it might could decide to storm at any moment.

And what’s a guy to do on the last day of ‘good’ weather? Get on the bike, of course, and take off — preferably someplace new. Which is exactly what I did. I rode north on a bike trail out of Ankeny, Iowa into farmland. Open fields, corn, soybeans, barns, cows, and a whole lot of wind.

Long before this was a bike trail, it was part of the the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad line. Before that, the tracks belonged to the Des Moines & Minneapolis Railroad Company. And before that I believe dinosaurs roamed the earth. Now it’s part of the 20,000 miles of rail-to-trail conversions in the United States.

One reason these converted rail lines are popular with cyclists is because they tend to be relatively flat, smoothly paved, with gradual shifts in elevation. That makes for easy riding, of course. And this trail was no exception. Riding north was an absolute breeze. Literally. There was a 17 mph wind at our backs. Riding south was a lesson in wind resistance. Iowa has a lot of wind.

It also has a lot of sky, and fields that used to hold crops, and farm structures, and black dirt, and giant Tootsie Rolls made entirely of hay. I assume that’s hay. Or straw. Do people grow straw? What the hell IS straw? I’ve always assumed that whatever it is the farmers roll up into those massive pellets was something to feed cows. Or horses, maybe. Or, I don’t know, goats. Farm animals. Livestock. Although now I think of it, in the movies barns are always full of hay. Or straw. And some kid is constantly using a pitchfork to move it around from one part of the barn to another, though it’s never quite clear why. Maybe hay it’s like cat litter for horses. I don’t know.

Whatever those massive pellet rolls are for, I rather doubt they’re scattered around the fields for aesthetic purposes. But it would be very cool if they were.

Equally intriguing (to me, at any rate) is the old farm equipment that gets shunted into small paddocks or stashed away behind sheds and barns. I find myself wondering if the farmers think this equipment might somehow come in handy in the future. As spare parts, maybe, or material that can be scavenged and cobbled together with other odd bits of this and that to create…well, something like that blue pick-up bed/trailer-looking unit that’s been attached to what appears to be the framework for some sort of enhanced interrogation device. Clearly that thing, whatever it is, was constructed with a purpose. Unless the wind just picked it up and deposited there, like Auntie Em’s house.

Maybe this is the farmer’s equivalent of the urban dweller’s problem: what to do with that twenty-two pound, twelve-year-old computer monitor that nobody wants, and has been taking up space in the storage room since two computers ago?

It’s the same with old farm vehicles. What do you do with an old 1955 Ford pick-up? You park it out back near the even older 1950 International Harvester pick-up. I was really drawn to that old Ford. It must have been at least partially restored at some point in the last couple of decades, then put back out to pasture. It’s actually a very cool looking machine, and whoever chose that color to restore the truck had some taste.

Back when those two trucks were new, the D&M Railroad was already a hundred years old. A hundred and fifty years ago incredibly powerful locomotives pulled boxcars loaded with coal and grain across those same fields I was bicycling through. I find that oddly comforting. I like to think that in another hundred and fifty years that same band of now-public land will still be used by ordinary folks in some way.

Unless Mitt Romney gets elected. Then we’re just fucked. Go vote.

buying cheerios gets complicated

I put the camera away just before the police arrived.

I was just riding my bike to the market to buy some Cheerios, after all. My route took me by the former mobile home court. It’s ‘former’ because two years ago, this entire area was under two-to-three feet of water. The nearby creek had flooded for the second time in a couple years (each flood was consider a ‘once in a century’ event). I’ve written about the creek and the flood before. The people who lived in the mobile home court were evacuated, and eventually the entire area was condemned. The city bought the property, relocated the residents, set up some barricades and for a year and a half the mobile homes were inhabited primarily by sparrows. feral cats, and spiders.

After a year or so, the city sent in demolition crews and the mobile homes were reduced to trailer-sized piles of scrap metal and junk. The remains of the homes was hauled away, then other crews arrived and tided up the smaller scraps of metal and broken glass and scatterings of plastic.

And then…nothing. The weeds grew, the barricades were knocked over, there were fewer feral cats, but more deer and the occasional fox.

Yesterday, as I rode to the market, I noticed that the old barricades were gone and a fence with gates had been installed. There was a sign on the gate, and I assumed it was a No Trespassing sign. It was just a warning that dumping was illegal. The gate was cracked open. Just wide enough for a curious person on a bike to ride through.

I’m a curious person. I rode through.

It’s quiet; very little road noise after you’re in a hundred yards or so. It would be incorrect to suggest the area is beginning to look park-like. It looks more like a neglected yard behind a barn — only with a road running through it. It’s not particularly photogenic. But I’m playing with a new camera, so I shot a few frames. Then put the camera away and headed back for the gate.

And that’s when the police arrived. A squad car parked just outside the gates. I figured I was about to get a lecture about trespassing, but when the bald, bullet-headed officer stepped out of the squad car the first thing he said was “What’s up?” I told him I saw the gate was open and since there wasn’t any No Trespassing sign, I rode in and took a few photographs. He asked to see them. I asked why he wanted to see them. He gave me the standard ‘if you haven’t done anything wrong’ speech. I told him there was a principle involved.

I’ve been around the block a few times. One thing I’ve learned is that unnecessarily antagonizing a police officer is a mug’s game. I was willing to get into a pissing contest if it was necessary, but I’d rather avoid a situation where it becomes necessary. So I offered the officer a deal. “If you acknowledge you have no legal right to see the photos, and that I have no legal obligation to show them to you, then I’ll show them to you.” He seemed to find that amusing, but he agreed. He actually said it out loud; “I have no legal right to see your pictures and you have no legal duty to show them to me.” So I showed them to him. There were only seven of them.

After he’d looked at the photos, I asked if I could photograph him. He said “I can’t stop you, but I’d rather you didn’t.” So I didn’t. He got back in his car and drove off.

I got back on my bike and continued to the market. Bought some albacore tuna, a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, a couple of apples, and a pint of Red Velvet Cake ice cream.

memory, imagination, and a pretty little creek

See those trees? Not just the ones along the bike path–the ones in the distance. They’re new. Relatively new. New since 1877, anyway.

In 1877 this whole area was flat. Really flat. Nothing but field–field and a small creek called Little Four Mile Creek. It may only be a small tributary of the larger Four Mile Creek–which, by the way, is significantly longer than four miles–but the Little Four Mile is big enough to seriously fuck up a train. Which is exactly what happened to a small Chicago & Rock Island express train at around 2:30 in the morning of the 28th day of August, 1877.

It was raining that morning. Had been for a while. Raining hard and at two-thirty in the morning it had to be so very dark. I can sort of picture it in my mind–the train running along at speed, the metronomic clatter of the engine, nothing for the engineer to see, hurtling through that dark laminar landscape. He couldn’t possibly have seen that the heavy rain had flooded the tiny creek and undermined a culvert, collapsing the small bridge.

The engine was pulling a baggage car, three coaches, a Barnum & Bailey advertising car (along with a 13-man paste brigade–the people who spread out through the town pasting up posters advertising the coming of the circus), and at the very end–a sleeper car.

Everything but the sleeper went into the flooded creek.

Eighteen bodies were recovered that day. Two more were recovered later, having been carried downstream in the flood. Most of the passengers, fortunately, were in the sleeper car, which remained almost magically on the tracks. In a way, this disaster very likely prevented an even larger disaster. The next bridge–a little over a mile away, crossing the larger Four Mile Creek–had also washed out.

They built a temporary bridge the following day and the day after that the trains were back on schedule. A few days after that, they built a new permanent bridge over a reinforced culvert. The trains still run along those tracks, they still cross that bridge. The photograph above (shot from the bicycle bridge over the creek where the train wreck occurred) shows the ‘new’ bridge, though you can’t really see the creek below.

The next photograph, also taken from the bike bridge, shows the creek in the direction in which the bodies were carried away. It’s a pretty little creek, isn’t it. Frogs, minnows, lots of red-winged blackbirds. All very quiet, aside from the birds, all very still.

There’s a small plaque beside the bike path, and a bench where you can sit and rest and listen to the birds. You could probably scramble down to the creek itself and walk in it, if you didn’t mind first passing through a gauntlet of thorny bushes and stinging nettles. If you were diligent and determined, you could probably still find bits of wreckage.

I stayed there for maybe fifteen minutes, resting, drinking water, listening to the water in the creek, and to the squirrels bickering with the blackbirds, thinking about the twenty people who died that night 135 years ago, not more than fifteen yards from where I sat. I tried to imagine the last thing the engineer saw, the last thing he might have been thinking, barreling through the rain in the black Iowa night.

This is what writers do–construct a narrative out of the merest wisps of fact. In truth, the engineer almost certainly couldn’t see much of anything at all, and he likely wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. One moment he was just keeping the throttle company–all by himself in a rainy, horizonless darkness–and the next moment he was dead.

I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits. I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. But I believe in the power of memory and imagination. And there’s something wonderful in the fact that after one hundred and thirty-five years, that engineer and his nineteen dead passengers and crew continue to exist in memory and imagination.