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Posts from the ‘family’ Category

moving forward

Everyone has been there at some point in life.  You’re dealt a bad hand – a very bad hand.  Maybe you lose everything you own in a natural disaster.  Maybe it’s a personal loss, a health crisis, a job loss or financial catastrophe.  A death.  Or some unfathomable combination of the above – but always something unexpected and completely un-welcomed.  We’ve pretty much all been there, and I think we can all relate to the sense of despair and even the darkness it brings.

I say this in the same breath in which I give thanks that my own life, at the moment anyway, is safe and secure and at peace.   Where all is well.   Where I am healthy, well-loved, and surrounded by those I love in the same circumstances – and completely conscious of how truly fortunate I am.

I made the decision to opt out of deploying with Red Cross for the disaster relief efforts in the wake of Sandy.  Personal schedule commitments made it impossible for me, but I have been glad to support several friends who are out there working hard to help.  I can’t do much, but sometimes a brief conversation by text or email provides a much-needed release from the stress in the field, and I am glad to listen and offer up some encouragement – maybe even a dumb joke.

Within days of my decision, I learned of a disaster that had struck a little closer to home – one that involves a beloved relative, aging and the cruel agonizing illness of a partner, and accompanied by its own form of hopelessness and breaking points reached.  I am not yet sure how, or if,  I will be able to help.  What I have to offer may not provide the relief that is ultimately needed.

Somehow, what always circles back into my mind as I think of all of my friends and family in circumstances where life feels impossible is this:  I want to take you for a ride on a bicycle.  It may be ridiculous I know.  But when dispair and frustration envelop you, when you become trapped in the tunnel-vision of despondency and desparation … I want to get you out of scenes of devastation and hospital rooms, away from beds and doctors and ruin, and I want to take you out in wide-open space with blue sky and clouds above.

I want you to feel the rest of the world and all of the beauty it still holds.  I want you to see that it is possible to move forward – even if it is only to the top of the hill – and to experience the effortless sensation of flying down the other side.  I want you to feel your breath and your heart still at work, and understand how miraculous it really is.  And even if it is only a brief intermission from the bad drama that will still be played out, maybe it will be just enough time to sort some things out, to unravel the tangle of knots that bind you – and to see that there is a way out of even the darkest tunnels.

For my friends, for my dearest M … I would take you for a ride if I possibly could.  Life is still beautiful.  Please believe.

not plain or black and white

We just returned from spending several days in Pennsylvania, visiting family.  I love riding there – quiet empty roads, rolling hills, Amish farms, horse-drawn buggies sharing the road, and cooler temperatures.  And at the end of the ride, a slice of my mother in-law’s wonderful pie – usually apple or “Shoo-Fly”.

While I promised certain persons I would not go on some blog-based rant, I can’t help but feeling concerned about the explosion of natural gas wells that are mushrooming up across the landscape – including one that  sits in a corner of my in-laws’ property, a beautiful 20-acre wooded and pastured piece of land in NW Pennsylvania where they have lived most of their lives in their circa 1800’s farmhouse.

It feels like a new century Great Gold Rush is taking place.  If you own any property, an enticing lease will come in the mail with the offer of thousands of dollars per acre to lease the land and then provide an additional flow of royalty checks for coming years.

In an area that has seen the loss of industry and jobs over the past several decades, where unemployment is high and new industry is scarce, where the tax base has eroded, where municipal services struggle and schools have been closed and consolidated – players in the gas and oil companies are positioned to move in and bring jobs and an alluring cash infusion to struggling townships and boroughs.

Lucrative gas leases are the talk of the town and everyone seems to want to jump on board and cash in.  Landowner groups have formed to negotiate for the best possible price.  Shell and Chevron, among others, are ready to invest billions in petrochemical facilities.  The local papers are full of stories of not only the Marcellus Shale, but the Utica Shale, the Medina Sands … we’re sitting on a gold mine!

If you’ve spent the last twenty years struggling to make ends meet on your old family homestead, finding a check for tens of thousands of dollars in your mailbox can certainly feel like you just won the lottery.

I understand the needs, the draw.  And I support the prospect of clean domestically-sourced energy – if we can come by it safely and sustainably.  But the issues, as always, are not so black and white.  I know that everything comes with a cost … And looking at the construction of the well on my in-law’s land, and wells on nearly every property along their road and beyond,  I ask myself:  at what cost, this?

The immediate and contentious issue  is “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing – the process of drilling and injecting massive quantities of water combined with a toxic chemical “cocktail” (a proprietary recipe) deep into the ground to fracture the substrate along in order to release the trapped gas.  I won’t bother to  go into detail here, as the controversial issues – especially in regards to the eastern Marcellus Shale fracking – are all over the news and internet.  NPR recently did an excellent multi-part series about the issues at hand, called The Fracking Boom: Missing Anwers.  And of course there is the incredible award-winning documentary by Josh Fox called Gasland.

While I didn’t experiment and see if my inlaws’ water could be ignited and burst into flame coming out of their tap, I do know that their experience has not been without issues.  Recently, for instance, while they were out of town for several days, it was discovered that one of the pipes or fittings at the well had corroded to the point of failure, and that gas (and methane and probably heavy metals and proprietary chemicals) had been spewing into the air for an unknown amount of time.  My father-inlaw complained that “they must have used some really cheap pipe”.  I was thinking: you have no idea how corrosive the stuff coming out of that pipe really is –  (and you are probably breathing it, and possibly drinking it).

It bothers me – the possible (probable?) risks, borne from contaminated water and or air.  Multiply this by thousands – tens of thousands –  of virtually unmonitored well sites across huge swaths of land and cracked open beneath public water sources for millions, the unknown cumulative effect of widespread fracturing of the grounds below…  what will the cost be to public health and to the environment?

Extensive research on the effects has yet to be completed, the fracking cocktail recipes remain undisclosed to the public, and the big oil and gas players are moving as fast as they can with fists full of cash before time runs out and they face more stringent regulation.  Play now, pay later.  Only you know who will ultimately have to pay…

On the farms belonging to the Plain People, the Amish, I didn’t see a single gas well.  I saw their vegetable gardens, their windmills, their cabinet-making workshops.  We rode our bikes, they passed by us in their buggies.  I contemplate our progress.  And I don’t drink the water from my in-laws’ faucet.

return to routine

Summer is sweet.

With their summer research projects wrapping up, the boys briefly returned home for a couple of weeks before heading back to university life.  It’s been pleasant days of biking and playing around – morning runs for coffee, paddling on the river, family bike rides, catching up with old friends, dinnertime humor around the table.  Summer is sweet.

But eventually, as the sunsets come a little earlier each evening, it begins to feel like time to return to familiar routines.  Back to school, back to friends and regular schedules … all as it should be.  And as much as I love them and will miss them as they leave, I think we are all ready to turn the next page, to return to the story.

I have enjoyed the break of being away from things – putting down the camera more often, leaving the computer to sleep, and spending more time in one-to-one conversation rather than cyberspeak.  I’ve loved the warm, lazy days with my family … and yet as the weather begins to cool, and the books and bags are packed for the semester ahead, I happily anticipate rides yet to come, and the return to routine.

Meanwhile … scenes from summer days.

summer rhythm & mental clarity

My summer days tend to follow a different rhythm.  Morning swims.  Evening rides.  Abbreviated daytime trips to avoid the air that feels like being stuck in a convection oven, or avoiding the heat-induced thunderstorms.

Daytime hours have been filled with books, reading, and the other (often ignored) exercises in creativity.  While I miss long daytime rides, the wandering and exploring, I feel good about the time I’ve spent on these other things, the expanded productivity … all while waiting for cooler, dryer weather to return, and resuming my more rambling ways.

And – as evidenced by my lack of posts lately – I have enjoyed taking some time to unplug and disconnect.  I’ve been reading a fascinating book, Fast Media, Media Fast,  by Dr. Thomas Cooper, professor of visual and media arts at Emerson College in Boston.  It’s about making a conscious choice to disengage – to fast – from the barrage of always-on mass-media, the distractions of the e-world, and the devices that we are increasingly becoming dependent and even addicted to.

I appreciate that he does not take an “anti-” or negative approach; he does not want eliminate media any more than someone fasting from food wants to eliminate food.  Rather,  he wants to use the break – the diet or full-blown fast – to re-evaluate and examine how we approach and use media.  The goal behind the experience is to examine our thinking and opinion-forming process without the influence of 24-7 breaking news and 1,000 channels of cable television;  to take stock of our lives outside of e-mail, text messaging, twitter, facebook, instagram, youtube and blogging – and to physically experiencing the world directly rather than thru secondhand sources and without an electronic screen in front of us.   Which for me, would eliminate the use of  not only my television, radio, and iDevices but also my camera.  My bike stays.

While I have not yet started a full-blown fast, I have gone on some degree of a media diet, and plan to attempt a full, fasting, disconnection – if only for a week or two – within the next month.   I just want the experience, even briefly or temporarily.

I want to hear myself think again.  I want to re-evaluate the “ratio, quality, enjoyment and originality of what I ingest (as a consumer) versus what I express (as a creator)”.  I want to lose some “unneccessary mental weight”.  And I guess I want the challenge of finding “a Walden in my own mind.”  I want my daily off-bike routine to have more moments like those I experience while on my bike –  the direct experience, the mental clarity, the sensory balance, the perspective.

Wish me luck…

a katy trail adventure … part 2

The second part of our Katy Trail cycling trip; a look at lodging and camping, food/water, sights and side trips and a few of my personal thoughts.  (Like I said – I need a good editor … forgive me).

LODGING & CAMPING

 While I enjoy camping on our bike adventures, I personally felt that the camping options along the Katy Trail were somewhat limited.  We decided to stay in small local inns and B&B’s over the course of our trip. I remember passing only two campgrounds along the way, both in the same general area and both very open with not much shade.  Some of the website listings for camping along the trail include places like a local fairgrounds, a city park, and possibly a trailside hostel.  The only hostel we saw was a bit sketchy-looking, appeared to be closed, and I had read some very mixed reviews about the place.  None of these options sounded particularly appealing to us.

the grey building (far left) is the Turner Katy Trail Shelter in Tebbets

Moreover, upon stopping in one or two of the town parks – which may or may not have allowed camping (?) – we discovered there was no available water, and the restrooms were locked.

While park regulations stipulate that camping is not allowed on trail/state park property, we did see at least one couple “stealth” camping off to the side of a trailhead parking lot.  Personally, if I were to attempt stealth camping, I would plant myself on the edge of a corn or wheat field … but, whatever.

There are a wide range of accommodations convenient to the trail (i.e., within 1-5 miles, easily accessible).  You can stay in anything from an B&B on the historic register, to a renovated train caboose, to a variety of other options in various price ranges.  You can plan everything on your own, or you can make arrangements through a tour planner, like the Independent Tourist.

We spent our first night at the Hotel Bothwell, a fascinating and historic hotel in Sedalia (I think its founder, Mr. Sweet, had a thing for coffee).  The next three nights we spent at small B&B’s in trailside towns:  Yates House B&B in Rocheport, Cliff Manor B&B in Jefferson City, and Captain Wohlt Inn B&B in Hermann.  All three provided beautiful and restful rooms, wonderful breakfasts, and they really catered to us as cyclists – providing appreciated extras like offering to wash a load of laundry, rinsing trail dust off of our bikes, to filling and freezing our water bottles for the following day.  All three also offered to pack sack lunches for us for the next day’s ride.

FOOD & WATER

Most days we stopped for lunch in towns along the trail.  The places we found were small and friendly diner-types or bar-and-grills – good enough for a sandwich, maybe fruit or salad, or just a pizza or burger-and-fries kind of thing.  Even though we had a list of possible eateries in various towns, trailside businesses can struggle and change quickly; places were sometimes closed (especially on Mondays and Tuesdays), or we discovered they had gone out of business since our list had been compiled.

We also had lunch on the trail one day, as our hosts at Yates House provided us with a sack lunch.  While it saved some time, I think we both preferred taking time to explore places in the trailside towns, riding on some pavement, and taking a break from heat and dust.

Dinner in the evening provided more options, and some very nice ones.  Our favorite evening meal was at Les Bourgeois Vinyard’s Blufftop Bistro in Rocheport.  We walked part of the Katy Trail from the B&B to a footpath that led up the bluff to the restaurant.  The views over the river at dusk from the airy timber-frame and glass restaurant were lovely, and the food – mostly local and organic – was even better.  We shared a bottle of their wine, took in the sunset over the river, and thoroughly enjoyed our evening.

Les Bourgeios Bistro: delicious local organic salad with locally-made feta cheese

the sun sets over the Missouri River

end-of-the-day beer at Paddy’s in Jefferson City

Water.  You need it, and you need plenty of it in the heat on a dusty trail.  Unfortunately, I think it’s somewhat limited availability along the trail is one of the biggest complaints among riders.   A number of trailhead stations did not have water (this is marked pretty accurately in the map and signage), and it may be hit-or-miss finding an easy place to buy a bottle of water in a few of the smallest towns.  We stopped at one local park, thinking we could fill our bottles from a faucet in a restroom – only to find the doors were locked.  So be prepared to carry plenty and top off your bottles at every opportunity.

SIGHTS & SIDE TRIPS

The places, stations and towns along the Katy Trail have a rich and diverse history.  Nearly every railway station along the route has nicely detailed signage, offering a brief history of the area and outlining points of interest ahead – in both directions of travel.

Wildlife is also abundant along the trail, and we saw a wide variety – deer, many types of birds (including wild turkeys, cliff-dwelling swallows, waterfowl, and indigo buntings), turtles, lizards, snakes, and a healthy number of acrobatic bats in the evening.

cliff-side nests

For railroad buffs, there is much to see – railway stations, an “I-lost-count” number of bridges, an amazing old rock tunnel, and several old cabooses and railway cars.  Several of the stations have their own museums; the one in Sedalia is even home to a small bike shop.

cut-stone tunnel near Rocheport; 243 feet long, built in 1892-93

There are also a few trailside oddities, like “BoatHenge” near Easley.

While I enjoyed the railway-related history, I was most interested in the Lewis & Clark points of interest along with the old agricultural landmarks.  All of the Lewis & Clark campsites – from their first weeks along the Missouri River – have markers and usually detailed signs, many containing excerpts and drawings from the mens’ journals and descriptions of their experiences.  For me, it is just fascinating stuff.  Especially to pull my bike over and imagine what it must have been like for them along the river.

The Katy Land Trust has partnered with the Missouri State Parks; their mission is to “increase awareness of the benefits of preserving agricultural resources and forests along the Katy Trail.”  I was drawn to many of the old grain elevators that still sit along the trail – wonderful iconic symbols of the local agricultural heritage.

old clay tile grain elevator

In Treloar, reproductions of paintings by artist Bryan Haynes are displayed on one of the old grain elevators; a beautiful way to promote the Land Trust and to celebrate the Katy Trail agricultural corridor.

We also enjoyed our side excursions to nearby towns, and wish we could have extended our trip to spend more time in some of them.  Most are easy to reach by bicycle, the large bridges had pedestrian/bicycle lanes.  We particularly enjoyed Sedalia, Jefferson City, and the old German Society town of Hermann – which is the center of Missouri’s wine region.

bicycle/pedestrian bridge into Jefferson City, the state capitol

PERSONAL THOUGHTS

There are so many wonderful things about cycling the Katy Trail, and I feel I have barely scratched the surface.  I still believe there is no better way to experience a place – every aspect of it – than by bicycle.

As I looked through my photos and read my notes, I realized how drawn I am to wide open spaces of plain, prairie and farmland – and to the endless span of blue skies and wisps of clouds overhead.  I think it may be reflected in some of my photos, but I just don’t have a wide enough lens to adequately capture the feeling.  I hope you will go and see it for yourself.

Our Katy trip was filled with wonderful cycling, friendly people, and provided a rich history lesson.  It is a great place to ride for any cyclist, young or old, fast or slow.  You can enjoy it for a day or longer,  and it’s an excellent place for anyone who might want to make a first attempt at a multi-day bicycle adventure.  Everyone should make their own journey, in their own way … I hope you enjoyed some of the pieces of ours.

the end of our journey

a katy trail adventure … part 1

My husband and I just spent 5 days traversing the the state of Missouri on our Xtracycles, from west to east on the Katy Trail – the country’s longest Rails-to-Trails project and the longest (and skinniest) state park in the country.  The Katy is also part of Adventure Cycling’s Lewis & Clark route within MO, part of the trans-national American Discovery Trail, and is one of the first trails to be listed in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame.  Its honors are well-deserved; it is a remarkable trail.

The Katy is not only a wonderful cycling trail, but also a fascinating historical journey that traces a fair portion of the first weeks of Lewis & Clark’s voyage up the Missouri River, as well as chronicling the history of the railroad towns that once flourished along the MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) Railroad, often called the KT, or Katy. The trail also serves as a beautiful witness to the state’s agricultural heritage.

I initially wanted to condense things into a single post – which proved a little difficult (I need an editor).  For anyone who might be interested in visiting the Katy, and who may be looking for another view of cycling the trail, I decided to offer up a little more and split our account into two posts and a photo gallery.  In this post, I will include an overview, and a description of the physical trail.  In the second post I will touch on things like lodging/camping along the trail, food and water, sights and side trips, and my own impressions of our bike adventure.  The gallery will contain a few of my favorite photos.

Clinton, MO – home to the western end of the Katy Trail, and our starting point

OVERVIEW

We basically rode end-to-end, starting in the small town of Clinton on the west end of the state (SE of Kansas City) to St. Charles (a susburb of St. Louis) in the east.  We did not ride the recently added 12-mile eastern extension to Machens out of St. Charles, as our last day was long and we did not have enough time.  We left our car in St. Charles, and took a roughly four-hour shuttle ride to Clinton on the afternoon before we began cycling.

Over five days, we rode a total distance of 261 miles (420 km); 225 miles (362 km) was on the trail itself; the remainder was riding in and out of small (and large) towns along the way.

As you know by now, I am not a stats-keeper when it comes to cycling.  I don’t keep a trip computer on my bike, but my husband did have one on his bike – and thanks to him I can share at least a few of the numbers that some people may be interested in (and which are the sum of both on- and off-trail riding):

  • Day 1:  Clinton to Sedalia – 42 miles
  • Day 2: Sedalia to Rocheport – 55 miles
  • Day 3: Rocheport to Jefferson City – 41 miles
  • Day 4: Jefferson City to Hermann – 54 miles
  • Day 5: Hermann to St. Charles – 69 miles

history lessons along the way

As for speed while on the bikes, we were fairly slow (as usual), stopping often for scenery, conversation with other cyclists, photos, and history lessons.  Cycling on even the best crushed gravel trail is slower going than rolling on pavement.  While riding we ranged between 8 and 11 mph with our bikes loaded pretty generously (I think roughly 25-30 lbs each).  We carried clothing (street and cycling) and personal items, rain gear, tool kit, bug spray and sunscreen, a small first aid kit, camera gear, snacks, water – and a couple of “luxury” items that included books, my journaling stuff, an ENO hammock and two small backpacking seats.

We opted to “inn hop” rather than camp, staying at small inns and B&B’s in towns along the trail – which we enjoyed immensely.  More on lodging and camping along the trail in more detail in the next post.

THE TRAIL

One of the best things about the Katy Trail is it’s friendliness to all levels of cyclists.  Due to (or despite?) the flat terrain, you can make your ride as easy or as challenging as you’d like it to be.  You can break things up into portions, ride the entire trail from end to end, or out and back – in as few or as many days as you want to spend, adjusting your daily mileage and speed to your desire and ability.

Small children can enjoy the ride as much as the most hard-core distance and speed-seekers.  We met a young couple riding end-to-end with their 2-year old daughter in a bike seat, taking 9 days to cover the distance, allowing plent of break and playtime along the way.  We also met two guys from nearby NC who were taking four days to ride a little less than end-to-end, but including a spur trail trip up to Columbia.  We met a pair of cross-country cyclists traveling from Maine to California for a cause (FoodCycleUS), and they were using the Katy to connect with the next leg of their 4500-mile journey.  Near bigger towns, we saw both fast and slower-moving fitness riders on a variety of bikes out for a few hours of workout time.

two friendly guys we met from nearby NC; our paths crossed several times

younger couple cycling from Maine to California for a cause: FoodCycle US (foodcycleus.com)

couple from Kansas City, out riding for the day

The terrain is basically flat to very gently rolling, with the western end of the trail having the widest range of elevation change – which isn’t much.  Cycling west to east as we did, I believe there is roughly 19 miles (?) of very gradual uphill; easy cycling, but you will eventually realize you were, in fact, pedaling uphill.

Also on the west end between Sedalia and Pilot Grove, there are some very gentle “rollers” – if you can even call them that (?).  I would describe them as gentle and extended undulations; still easy cycling, but you will be pedaling all the way – both uphill and down.

While your legs may not feel overly challenged along the way, you will be pedaling continually and will know you have ridden some miles at the end of the day.  After fifty miles or so you may feel more discomfort in other body parts – from seat to hands to the annoying spot from the nosepiece of your sunglasses.  It’s the strange result of long periods in a static position and cadence, where you tend to feel little things.

There is really no “coasting” on the trail; even along the most hard-packed portions, the surface still provides enough rolling resistance to slow any coasting momentum to a standstill within several yards.  Your best chance to actually climb a hill or coast will he heading into an off-trail town on pavement.

While long stretches of the trail can be well-protected from both sun and wind by nice tree cover on both sides, there are lovely portions of wide-open spaces that wind through wheat, corn and soybean fields.  In these places, the wind can either be in your favor or against you – adding a little variety to your ride.

The trail and it’s surface are incredibly well-maintained – by far the best conditions we’ve experienced (comparing to VA’s Creeper Trail and New River Trail).  The MO State Parks people do an exceptional job maintaining the trail and trailheads.  The surface is hard-packed crushed limestone, and was remarkably rut-, divot- and pot-hole free, as well as debris-free (no downed tree limbs, etc.).

You will, however, have to contend with significant amounts of fine, powdery white dust.  Even with fenders it ends up covering and sifting into everything.  It was in our water bottles, in our hair, coating our shins, and seeping into bag openings – and, of course, coating our bikes.  It took my Pelican dry box to protect my camera gear from rain; it ended up being more useful in protecting against dust.

We experienced only one stretch of soft trail conditions near the high point outside of Windsor.  Basically it was fine and loose, much like riding through patches of sand, sucking the momentum out from beneath your wheels.  Fortunately it was limited to only a mile or two.

One of the most surprising things to us was how few people we encountered most days.  On the first day, we rode 20 miles before seeing another person.  There was so little trail traffic that we were able to ride abreast most of the time.  We knew that autumn is peak time on the trail, but we still expected to see more traffic.

Tomorrow, I will try and post second and last part of our Katy Trail experience … until then, happy pedaling!

quantum cycling … and the butterfly effect

It begins with a butterfly on a thistle plant along the side of the road as I ride by.  I think about a book I am reading and discussion of Edward Lorenz’ Butterfly Effect, as in chaos theory … and things like quantum mechanics and other principles of physics that I will confess I have a miserably inadequate understanding of – quite unlike my son, the soon-to-be-physicist.

We’ve had a brief window of opportunity to do some riding together before he leaves again to continue his summer research in Nashville.  I love having the chance to ride along and talk.  On quiet roads, we are relatively free from distractions and interruptions (except, of course, when I make him stop so I can take pictures).  The conversation unwinds like the curve of the road, rolls along, changes direction, circles back.  Sometimes serious, sometimes not.  Laughter almost always manages accompany us.

Recently I asked him to help me better understand the different branches/disciplines of physics – kind of a “Physics for Dummies” type of explanation.  While I have a very rough understanding of the research he is doing and where his interests lie for grad school – theoretical/computational high energy particle physics  –  I will confess that I am mostly clueless about the different fields of study within the physics world.

And, of course, he absolutely knows this – as he rolls his eyes, sighs, and tries once again to explain it to me.  I listen as he patiently tries to describe and define – and eventually I get lost.  Again.  So in the simplest of terms (yeah, even a cavewoman like me can understand – kind of… maybe?) this is roughly how he described a few concepts to me (and I hope I am recalling this correctly?) :

Classical/Newtonian Mechanics:  big slow things

Relativistic Mechanics:    big fast things

Quantum Mechanics:   small slow things

Field Theory:   small fast things

String Theory/M-Theory: un-testable things

Do I have any better understanding of any of this?  Probably not.  If nothing else,  I may have at least figured out that I am probably not a Quantum Cyclist (small and slow), but more of a Classical/Newtonian Cyclist (big and slow).   I hear you laughing, Mason…

I will keep reading, I will continue trying to learn more and understand.  In the meantime, I will just take a photo of the butterfly, and let my son figure out the rest.

Random scenes from recent rides – big, small, fast, and slow… all the usual suspects. Happy Memorial Day.