Monday, May 31, 2010

off I go

This evening after the shop closed, Jon packed my bike for the trip, saving me a little time since he's probably packed thousands of other bikes before they've been jetted off on adventures with their owners. I've been making decisions: what to pack - what to not pack; which routes to take - knowing that at any moment on the trip I may want or need to detour. That's one of the fun parts: the unknown. It's also what makes me get a little nervous because I know I don't have the route figured out with certainty. Like anyone else does?

Traveling on my own, I won't have Jon to consult; to say: which route looks better? Or, what makes the most sense to you? Sometimes, I just want a little confirmation that I'm on course. Whether it's a trail marker telling me that I'm at the top of a pass or a street sign telling me I'm on the bike route, having a partner along can be reassuring. Of course, it both people are hungry and it's late in the day, a partner who is equally indecisive at an intersection can be frustrating. "Where do you think we should go?" "I don't know. Where do YOU think we should go?" *Sigh*

No matter how much you plan, there comes a moment where the planning stops and you just have to send yourself out into the big old world. I fly out early in the morning and arrive in Chicago in the late afternoon. I'll reassemble my bike, repack my gear and await the Wednesday sunrise. I hope for positive experiences with the people I meet. I hope for not-too-hot days. I hope for a gentle tail wind and clear paths. I hope I don't get waylaid by the thunderstorms that are forecast, but will pack my rain jacket just in case.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ninjas of the burnt forest

Summer, 2008 is remembered in Anchorage as a cool, wet summer. It was the summer of high gasoline prices (always good for the bike biz) and it was the summer of a small urban forest fire just off a local greenbelt trail. For people who pick spring mushrooms, namely, morels, an old burn is one of the places to search.

Last Thursday evening, after an early dinner, Jon and I pulled on our muck boots and our backpacks to see if we could find some of these culinary gems. We parked at a small trailhead at the end of a street and started walking down the paved path, peering into the trees as cyclists and runners passed by, enjoying the evening sunshine. A few well-worn paths disappeared into the trees. This is an area of homeless tent camps and who knows what kind of adolescent mischief. After only a few minutes in the living forest, we entered an area of burned trees and charcoal-colored ground. Remnants of tents, empty bottles and other miscellaneous trash was in the area.
the foraging grounds

We wound between the trees, then toward an open area in the sun. A wooden bridge was just ahead, part of a winter trail. Jon and I sat together on the bridge, our legs dangling toward the creek as we watched the water flow, fluttering the moss on a boulder just below us; we listened for birds overhead over the noise from traffic on some of the major streets of the city and children's voices in a park. If I lived near here as a kid, I told Jon, I'd be down at the creek every day. Growing up, my parents had 10 acres of land and my aunt & uncle owned adjoining land. Almost nothing felt off-limits. My two younger brothers, my two cousins and I spent many days at the creeks (which we pronounced crick) that bordered our property, sometimes damming them to make ponds in which to wade or float toys, sometimes digging clay from near a spring to make crude bowls. We spent our summers outdoors.

From the bridge, Jon and I contemplated whether we should keep hunting. Let's try the other side of the bridge, I suggested. We decided to check the area that was more in the shade, near the border of the burned and unburned areas. The ground crunched under our boots as ash puffed up from the burnt tussocks. False morels appeared. Then, Jon spotted a morel. It was very small; maybe the size of one of my thumb joints. Then I spotted one. We moved slowly, deliberately, through the burn. One moment we would see only the black ground, the next, the honeycombed pattern of the morel's cap would show itself. Sometimes, in a blink, it would disappear and we'd have to find it again.
early finds...

I spotted this monster!

The ninja-like qualities of the morels was described in a guidebook we have:
"I spotted my first morel in Alaska near the trunk of a cottonwood tree because the morel suddenly 'moved.' That is, my eye caught it before it could blend back into its surroundings.... I looked away and looked back. It was gone!" - from Alaska's Mushrooms, by Harriette Parker.

What I loved about our little outing was that I found my "mushroom eyes" very quickly. After we spotted the first one, I knew where I would find more. My eyes were open to recognize the form and color (or lack of color) of the mushroom. I felt the reward each time I reached my knife to cut a morel from the ground. I think I've found my mushroom.
This battered moose was stalking me... maybe it wanted
to sign a photo release. Maybe they eat morels?

Next day, Jon sauteed a handful of the morels and put them in an omelette. Their subtle flavor was almost overwhelmed by the butter that filled the irregular pattern in the caps, but the texture of the fresh mushrooms and the knowledge that I'd helped find them were part of what I savored. I think we'll have to go on another little excursion soon...
many tiny morels and one monster...

Monday, May 24, 2010

a little bike tour

My Salsa Fargo, on the commute. Our lead shop tech has
already tagged it with
an "I'm a Fargonaut" label.

Our friend Pete is in the process of cycling from Anchorage to Portland for a summer job. What a way to travel! Whenever I hear people talking about their plans to go on a trip by bicycle, I get excited and a little envious. So when it was time to book the trip to visit my parents in central Wisconsin, I gave myself two weeks. I don't have time to bike all the way to Wisconsin, but I can bike from O'Hare airport in Chicago to their home in the small town of Elroy.

Over the course of the last week, I've done some research, even got information from someone with the City of Chicago about the facilities at the airport. (Thanks, Rich!) He's been very helpful, sending me links to different trail maps and even letting me know where I can drop off my bike box for recycling before I leave the airport. Rather than find a nearby shop that's open late or wait for a shop to open the morning after I arrive, I hope to reassemble the bike at the airport then hit the road. And trail.

The more I research, the more comfortable I am with my route choices. I've been checking out Google Map's beta version of biking directions online. It links quieter streets with streetside paths, wide-shouldered roads and recreational trails. I've been cross-referencing with street maps and with the trail maps I'm finding online.

Racks & panniers installed. (Rear rack is an Axiom Journey; front
is an Old Man Mountain Sherpa that Jon modified to attach to the
braze-on* instead of through the hub.) Waterproof bags (Typhoon &
Monsoon) are made by Axiom. I chose two different colors so it will
be easier to see which go on front & which goes on the back.

I know that once I get there I might have to change my route because of detours or if I don't like a road, but having an initial idea of the route and the distance gives me some peace of mind about the journey.

On Thursday, I was at the dentist getting my teeth cleaned and told Yvonne (my hygienist) about my plans. She was pretty excited about the idea since she knows I like to travel & especially like to ride my bike. When we told the dentist where I'd be this summer, his first question was "by yourself?" I appreciate his safety concerns, but suggesting that it's not a good idea for a woman to travel alone is just, maybe a little paternalistic. I mean, what if a woman were to ride her bicycle for 10 miles in the Chicago suburbs? How about 20? What distance becomes too far for a woman to travel solo? I did what I usually do when a guy suggests I won't be safe: I shrugged it off.

The year I moved to Alaska, I drove by myself from Milwaukee to Anchorage (okay, I caravaned from Haines to Anchorage with a couple guys I met on the ferry in Southeast). Before I left, some people expressed concerns for my safety. One friend gave me some mace. When I told people I was bringing my dog - a somewhat dopey Gordon setter - for some reason they felt better. I felt no safer, but maybe it made them feel better about watching me leave, to know that although they could not prevent me from going, nor protect me along the way, this dog would be there to accompany me...

Lots can go wrong on a cross-country trip. Things can also go wrong on a cross-town trip (I know a guy who was mugged & had his bike stolen from him on a trail right here in Anchorage last year). I'm not going to let the possibilities of what can go wrong stop me. Because lots can also go right on a cross-country trip. I can meet people (hopefully also on bicycles), see the countryside, stop in parks, see some wildlife and enjoy some beautiful early summer days.

Despite what it may seem from what I've just said, I'm not a big risk taker. Ask Jon. He'll confirm that in some ways I'm a big chicken. Which might be why I feel pretty confident. I trust my instincts; if something doesn't seem right, I'll follow that gut feeling and change my plans. I've backtracked on trails when I felt uncomfortable with signs of bears. But I also mountain bike alone quite a bit, so turning around every now and then doesn't feel like a big deal. I don't want fear of the negatives that could happen stop me from going on an adventure. Remember how long it took me to finally get into a small airplane?

I'm watching the weather reports (90 degrees yesterday!?) and making some lists to prepare for my trip. I'm looking forward to pedaling through southern Wisconsin. If I happen to steer a little off-course to visit a cheese shop, that's just another part of the adventure!

*This post has been edited to correct the spelling of braze-on (I must have been hungry when I posted, because I spelled it "braise.") Here's a link to the definition. Thanks to Jon for pointing this out without outing me...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

pictures along my commute

I haven't had any photos for you lately, so here are a few things I saw on my commute yesterday:

A sign of spring on the Campbell Tract...
Generated by this other sign of spring... also on the Campbell Tract:
(by the way, that's bear scat)

This guy was pacing his driveway, a vocal & flamboyant sentry remains on duty while the hens run away:

Shortly after I arrived at work, Jon suggested I take a look in the parking lot. "Do I need my camera?" "Oh, yeah!"

The owner told me he bought the motor home at a junkyard in the Lower-48. It had suffered a fire, so he rebuilt it from the blue lower section up. Notice the fish on the front and the peaked roof!

Well, that's it for this post. Next: I'll tell you my plans for a short bike tour!

field trip

Want to see some bikes that need lots of work? Volunteer to help out on an elementary school field trip! I got a call at the shop early last week from a school that was doing a bike ride on Friday. Last year, I recruited someone else to do the presentation before the ride. This year I was available and decided I could take an hour or so out of my day to talk to the kids.

We talked helmet fit, tire pressure, trail etiquette and safety. They told their stories: when they'd seen moose on the trail; dogs that chased; people who rode on the wrong side of the trail, especially going around corners or through tunnels. I gave my advice; quizzed them on using hand signals (they sure have short attention spans!), then it was time to look at helmets and go outdoors to see the bikes.

I had my floor pump (as did two of the teachers) and a bottle of chain lube. I found tires with a recommended inflation range of 40 - 65 that had only about 20 psi in them. Brakes levers that nearly touched the hand grips before they worked, if they worked. Chains that were rusty or dusty. One bike had a v-brake that needed to be fixed with a pliers. I did what I could on a few bikes while other adults were also checking out bikes, airing tires and adjusting helmets. We could have used an entire shop of mechanics to get these kids safely onto the trail, but we didn't have that.

I've mentioned to teachers before (as I did that day) that having bikes checked over at a shop a week in advance would be very helpful to save time and frustration on the day of the ride. But I also know that requiring a bike check doesn't mean each bike will get one. Some parents who ride bicycles haven't a clue how to maintain a bike at the most basic level, yet will look over the child's bike and declare it safe. Others might not have the funds to pay for the repairs a bike needs to make it safe. Still others just don't think about it. Which is a shame for the child who might get injured or grow to hate cycling because they are miserable every minute they're on the bike.

The idea that parents would sign a permission slip and send their precious child to school on a bike that isn't safe confounds me. I mean, if the brakes in your car didn't work, you'd take it to a shop, right? Hmm, maybe not.

It was kind of sad what poor shape some of the bikes were in. I'm sure none of the teachers wanted to tell a student that he or she couldn't do the field trip because a bike wasn't safe, but I kind of wonder about the bikes I didn't get a chance to look at. I don't expect a school teacher to be an expert on inspecting a bicycle for safety just as they don't expect me to be aware of the many teaching methods they use to keep fourth graders engaged.

I remember my middle-school days. Our family didn't have the money for us to have bikes, so when it was time for the field trip on the rail trail, I borrowed my aunt's root-beer colored three-speed ladies bike to do what may have been my only ride of the year. I don't know what kind of shape the bike was in, but by the end of the day I remember having a sore butt and a sunburn. Ah, those were the days!...

I was working at the shop this past weekend and got a chance to hear some feedback. First, a young boy looked at me and asked if I had been at the school the day before. I told him it was indeed me. I asked if he'd learned anything new and he replied that he was surprised that he did pick up a few things. Ah, to reach one kid! I get it! How rewarding! The next day, a teacher was in and we were chatting about a new picture book about cycling.

I asked where she worked and she told me she worked at the same school. I was there on Friday, I told her. Oh, she said. Oh, that ride was a disaster. The teachers were pretty frustrated with the parents for sending kids to school with dangerous equipment; for not telling teachers their child was just learning to ride; for sending kids to school on bikes that didn't fit them; for trying to insist that their child didn't need a helmet. She said that she stopped doing biking field trips for these reasons. What a shame. But completely understandable.

I know parents are busy and budgets are tight. But don't send your kid to school on a bike that isn't safe. Take it to a shop. An estimate is free. Find out if it can be fixed for an amount that's in your budget. If it can't, the child may actually be better off without a bicycle until you can save for one that is safe. I make this statement with the clear memory of not having my own bicycle until I was in high school when I worked to save enough money for a 10-speed I bought at the PX on the army base where my dad worked. I was a late bloomer when it came to bikes, but I have recovered from the embarrassment of feeling like the only kid without a bike. I guess I'm making up for it now.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

sweeping away our worries

This week is the official Bike to Work Week and Friday is the Muni-sponsored, official Bike to Work Day. And already it's looking better than last year for one reason. Street Sweeping.

Last year's annual clearing of gravel, dirt and debris from our streets, especially those maintained by the state, was lacking. Terrible. Inches of gravel and dirt covered bike lanes, street-side paths and gutters. People crashed. Their wheels washed out as the gravel acted like ball-bearings under their tires. Bones got broke. The contractor was so far behind what any cyclist would consider a reasonable schedule that they were still clearing gravel from the winter in July!

So this year there was talk and speculation: how long will it take to have the streets swept? Last week, I decided to call the DOT's Anchorage office to get an idea of the timeline. I spoke with Ed on Monday: We start at Dowling and work our way south doing the east-west streets, he told me. Huffman will be done by early June. June? I asked. That's earlier than last year. I know, but lots of people use that road and there are two bike shops in the area. We have loads of bike traffic. It would be great if you could work it up on the schedule...

It was a pleasant conversation. He's doing his job within the constraints of contracts, weather and budgets. I want to commute on cleaner streets because just the day before I'd punctured a tire on the way into work, probably on glass in the gravel (luckily it didn't go flat until after I'd arrived at work). I have friends who've had bad crashes in the layers of road debris that build up over the course of a winter. I didn't want to see that again this year - or be part of the carnage that caused people to lose an entire season of cycling.

For my Tuesday commute, all was the same: lots of gravel. Then, Wednesday evening, Jon told me that Huffman had been swept! In May! This past Saturday morning on my way to work, I biked down Huffman hill toward the Seward Highway overpass, where the gravel had been. The pavement had been swept clear. Curb to curb. Even the half-lane where I like to wait for the green light was swept.

It's a small part of my commute but also the most tense part as I jockey for a position while car drivers are doing the same as they enter and exit the highway. It was just a little bit easier to not have to navigate around the gravel.

I want to think that my conversation with Ed made a difference. Or maybe the sweeping was coming along so quickly that they finished all those routes in record time. Either way, I just want to say thanks to Ed and the crews who are out there this year. I know they get complaints all the time. This weekend, I'm sure lots of people were happy to have a clean street and path. Can repainting the lines be far behind?

ps., even though almost everyone rides in to work every day this time of year, we finally signed on as an official team for Bike to Work Day. Paramount Pedalers will be out in force.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

about dave

People ride bikes for all sorts of reasons: for their health; to save money on gas; they can't afford a car; they just prefer biking to driving a car; they don't want to support oil and gas development. Another reason is that they aren't allowed to drive, namely, due to a conviction for driving under the influence.

I've sold bikes to people who've had DUI convictions. They typically don't want to bike. They don't act or dress like cyclists - I think they view biking as something for kids. They step outside for a smoke while trying to decide on a bike. They're always with a friend. They're the guys you see biking while wearing Carhartts and work boots, no helmet and sometimes, smoking while they ride. As soon as they get their license back, the biking stops for many of them. A bike is a means for independent transportation just until they can drive again. Which brings us to Dave.

Dave started working at the shop late this past winter. He came recommended by a guy we've known for years and is an experienced bike mechanic. When I first met him, we chatted only briefly. Then I started back at the shop & I got to know him a tiny bit more, as all the other people who work there have. Dave is in the process of a life change. In his mid-30s, he's had a few run-ins with the authorities and was getting ready to serve a DUI sentence from last fall. But he was allowed to serve it while not behind bars.

Instead of the greybar hotel, Dave rented a tiny efficiency in Midtown and commuted by bike to the shop, in South Anchorage. He wasn't allowed to drive. Instead he rode his snow bike. As the days got nicer and his route cleared, he pulled out his old-school road bike and the spring-weight cycling tights. In April, he got an ankle monitor that tracked his whereabouts and could detect alcohol. People looked at him kind of funny when they saw it on his ankle as he biked across town to the shop. I suggested he get something of equal weight to put on the other ankle so one leg wouldn't get stronger than the other. He was self conscious about it, but it was a small price to pay to be allowed to go to work each day, help support his young son and keep working on turning his life around. Everyone. Everyone at the shop likes Dave.

I told Jon that Dave was a perfect fit for the shop. Sense of humor; knowledgeable, yet willing to learn new things; always helpful; kind to everyone. It's tough finding skilled mechanics each year, let alone one who is a good fit for our quirky shop, so everyone was really happy to have him. Then a week and a half ago, Dave was taken into custody. The people who monitor the monitor thought he'd had a drink, though he didn't test positive. His apartment had been searched; our shop had a surprise visit. He could make one phone call so he called to say he wouldn't be in and that something had gone wrong with his monitor. And, though I haven't known him long, I believe him. Because I believe people who want to change will change and he was so happy to be free even with the restrictions he had to his freedom.

Last Monday, Pete (another shop guy) and I made a visit to the Anchorage jail. There are two buildings. My friend Adam, an attorney, told me Dave was in the better of the two facilities. We had to check in an hour before our visit - so, to see him at 1pm, we had to check in at noon, after which, we could run errands or just wait. It was a nice day and we did have a couple of errands. When we returned, we waited more, then after being allowed upstairs realized that they hadn't told us which visiting room we'd be in, so we ran back down the stairs to find out and returned. We entered a room, turned left and there he was, sitting, waiting. What a surprise! They don't tell prisoners who the visitors are and we were only his 2nd & 3rd visitors since he'd gone in on Friday.

We talked about what happened. He told us some stories (Dave is always good for a few stories). We found out what we could get for him. We told him his job will be waiting for him. He commented to me "you've never been in a jail before, have you?" and laughed when I shrugged and said I've never had a reason to. Sometimes it surprises me how quickly someone begins to feel like a part of the family. Maybe it's because he doesn't know that many people in Anchorage. Or because work was the only place he was allowed to go while wearing the monitor (except on his designated errand day). But it's like the shop was just waiting for him to arrive.

Last Tuesday, I put a couple books in the mail for him. (Did you know you can't just take things to prisoners in the Anchorage jail? They have to be mailed.) I wondered if he would be transferred to a half-way house before the books arrived. A week went by and I decided to stop by again this Monday. He'd been transferred to Palmer. Visitors would have to jump through a few hoops and drive about an hour to visit.

At the shop, one of the mechanics pulled together a bundle of bike magazines to mail out. We compiled a visitor list to mail Dave so the prison can do background checks on us before we visit. He has just over two weeks to go. I can't even imagine what that feels like...

I just finished reading the book, Switch: How to change things when change is hard. It reminds me that if we are motivated, set concrete goals and have the right kind of support, change is possible. I'm hopeful that through working at the shop with a group of people who support his goals that Dave will make the changes he wants to make in his life. It's kind of our job as his friends & coworkers to help him out. I mean, doesn't making a big change also take a village?