Power in Creativity

I heard part of NPR’s Sunday morning show “On Being” while driving to OwWowCow Creamery in Ottsville, PA, for a ride with friends. Krista Tippett, the show’s host, was interviewing Vincent Harding, a civil rights leader and theologian. This episode had originally aired in 2011, and Mr. Harding had died in 2014. What impressed me about him, though, was his unwavering commitment to a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious society in the U.S. fifty and sixty years after the civil rights movement. In fact, he still believed in ‘the beloved community,’ an idea fostered during the 50s and 60s. He wrote a long essay titled ask ‘Is America possible?’ by which he seems to have meant, is a truly democratic America possible?

His attitude about this self-imposed question was surprisingly positive. His answer was “yes,” but he claimed that  we are still a developing nation when it comes to becoming a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. He believed we need to encourage democratic conversation, not just civil conversation, in order to hear each other’s best arguments so that we can learn how to create a more perfect union. We have work to do, work that he believed we are capable of. Lately, I wonder.

When I am riding, I feel more hopeful about the world than I do at some other times, partly because I am breathing and moving and that always makes me feel better, and partly because I often happen on surprising and/or beautiful corners of the world.

For instance, discovering Steve Tobin’s Steel Roots sculptures rising up from fields on both sides of California Rd in Quakertown was a joyful experience that made me laugh out loud. Shortly before coming upon the sculptures, we had passed several houses with “We support our police” political signs stuck in the grass at the edge of the road, and the area around the sculptures is drearily industrial…but suddenly what we were seeing was magical.

Mr. Harding talked about the “tremendous creativity” as well as the courage and compassion of MLK and others during the 60s. Certainly all of these elements are needed now…perhaps especially the creativity that might allow us to imagine our way around the obstacles that hamper the conversations we need to have as well as to help us be hopeful about our abilities, the possibilities, and the future.

My summer of daily rides, most right from home but a few not too far from home–and virtually none longer than 50 kilometers–has allowed me to explore roads not previously travelled in a way that has permitted the examination of thoughts and questions in what I hope will be productive ways. Seeing the creativity operating in Harding’s and Tobin’s thinking and actions is helpful. I’m hanging onto these discoveries.

 

 

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No Turning Back

A couple of weeks ago, I finished a ride in Kutztown in order to attend a Black Lives Matter rally. I am paranoid enough about COVID-19 to want to stay out of the middle of crowds, so I hung back at the edges and in the shade, where I could sit and listen to the speakers: some from town, and some from my university. Even at the edge of the crowd, I wore my mask and stayed away from people.

A few others were also hanging about at the fringes, but not because they were fearful of COVID-19. They wore no masks…so their amused/aggravated faces were clearly visible. Their expressions and body postures made it clear that they were not there to learn or to contribute, so their point was…to make it clear that they disagreed or thought we were silly or stupid or…? I’m not sure.

On my rides these days I see political signs declaring, “Trump 2020…No More B—S—,” “We Support Our Police,” “God and Country/Trump/Trump 2020,” and I worry and wonder. I worry about the fervency of the political divide accompanying the coming elections. I wonder at my realization that the words on signs sometimes feel like weapons.

As Pennsylvania has been able to relax some travel restrictions, I have had fun developing and riding new short routes in neighboring Lehigh, Bucks and Montgomery counties. It has been fun to make discoveries nearby even after living here for more than twenty years: the Lock Ridge Park and Furnace Museum in Alburtis, PA, the New Jersey lime kilns along the Delaware River, and many small streams and majestic groves of old trees on roads not traveled before. And not to forget OwWowCow Creamery on Durham Road in Ottsville, PA!

Of course the other discoveries I am making along these roads are political and personal. The Black Lives Matter Movement demands that I look at the world around me differently and asks that I look more critically at how and why I got to where I am. It also asks that I respond much less passively when I see injustice and, actually, that I do something to make this a more just and fair world.

Still, the political slogans I’ve quoted above also concern me because inflammatory responses come readily to mind. Responses that are not inflammatory but also not conciliatory, that are clear and strong but also respectful…those are not so easy to imagine or enact.

But there can be no turning back even if the path forward is unknown. This is a quest that (at best) is in progress, and creativity, improvisation, and tenacity will help. Most randonneurs believe that the best rides require some of these skills, too, and moreover, are unpredictable, challenging, and call upon every skill we have–and some we didn’t know we had. So here we are.

 

 

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Home is where we should feel safe

Today, to ride more hills, I set out for Oley Valley, a bucolic and lovely area of farmland with stone farm houses dating back to the 1700’s. It’s beautiful, and a fairly quiet place to ride. Lots of back roads where I can get away from traffic.

At this time of the year, farmers are cutting grass for hay. The smell of freshly cut grass reminds me of “home,” which in some deeply visceral sense is the southwest of Western Australia, the corner of the world to which my family migrated in 1964.

In 1964, southwestern WA was almost as far away from the rest of the civilized world as Mars, so when the Watts Rebellion occurred a year later, I remember absorbing the idea that it was a good thing that we had moved. We were ‘safe’ from the fires, violence and social unrest. At the same time, the White Australia Policy was also still in effect so I saw Indigenous Australians only occasionally and no other people of color; I grew up around white farmers and white working and middle class people.

Along the back roads of Oley live farmers, Deka battery plant workers, and teachers, hospital workers, Amazon and other distribution plant workers, and so on. Virtually all white. No wonder my rides there sort of feel like home….. I do occasionally pass through pockets where the flags, the political signs, and sometimes the faces of people or the way some drivers gun their engines as they pass me make it clear that I should just keep moving. Berks County has a history of being home to white supremacy groups. And as harmless as I think I am in my 65-year-old, white, female self pedaling slowly along on a bicycle, somehow I feel that I’m perceived as foreign and perhaps a threat. These startling moments mostly pass quickly, but I am vigilant as I ride.

Of course it’s no coincidence that I rarely encounter Black cyclists in this area. I’ve been thinking about that absence and wondering where in Berks County a Black cyclist might feel safe to ride.

I’ve also been thinking about how it’s easier to find comfortable pathways through life: growing up in Bunbury, WA, and living now in Dryville, PA: it was relatively painless to settle here. It’s easy to keep repeating patterns of behavior, to keep doing the ‘safe’ things, the comfortable things, but in fact I left home to return to the U.S. because I felt constrained.

Now, the marches to eradicate racial injustices and particularly to call into question unfair and unequal treatment of people of color by police have me thinking back to 1965. I am thinking about feeling ‘safe’–who gets to feel safe and who doesn’t feel safe–and thinking about the long-term effects of not feeling safe. I want to be safe, sure, but I want everyone to be safe. Many many more people need to feel safe to pursue their personal, intellectual, and professional aspirations. Many more people should feel safe to live in Berks County, even to ride bicycles in Berks County if they want to.

Maybe something I’ve learned in the last 55 years is that if I isolate myself and do all I can to protect my own small corner of the world, it won’t necessarily have the results I may have hoped for. Working with others to make space, to open pathways, for more people to think and breathe and act freely….home for everyone.

 

 

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Spring (and Summer) of Recalibration

I started this blog as a place to post breezy, brief rando ride reports, but as with many good ideas, it became easy to forget to do it and let other things fill the time. After a considerable time, I return to this space, not because of new randonneuring achievements, but because the world, and especially the part of the world where I live, has suffered in the last few months…and the suffering continues.

I am still riding my bike, thankfully, but it’s especially hard to write cheery ride narratives when over 100,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 since the end of February, and when we yet again must squarely face our deeply racist history as it is experienced in health care, policing, the prison system, education, and more.

The image I cannot not see is the white hand nonchalantly hanging loose in the trouser pocket while the knee chokes the Black man lying on the ground. How is such a thing possible?

My training plan for June is to ride more hills. The deep breathing required helps me focus and leaves me feeling more clear-minded, and I want to try to focus on what matters and on what I can do to help. I will return to this blog for a while at least–I am not going to make promises I’m sure to break–to look for ways to contribute to conversations and actions that help us look at this history and its complicated effects. What else is possible?

I will keep riding and thinking…and writing.

 

 

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A Saving Rain

We had 70 miles of rolling terrain and a couple of smallish towns to ride through on the last day to get back to Hudson, NY.  Temperatures were in the upper 90s with humidity to match.  We agreed to start early, ride slowly, and stop at as many stores along the way as necessary to safely finish.

Still we worried about a stretch in the afternoon that Laurent was calling the “Sahara” because we wouldn’t see a store for 15 to 20 miles.  During the morning we navigated our way through the towns and then stopped for a leisurely lunch at a bar in a very small town just on the edge of the desert.  After eating, resting, and watching part of a US Women’s Soccer match, we set off.  The bar tender had been nice enough to give us two pitchers of ice to fill water bottles and ice socks, so we were fine for a while.

Persistent rollers in this section, however, had us stopping every few miles in shade to lower our body temps.  Time dragged on; the air was stifling.  At the top of yet another hill, we pulled off again in the shade.  At this point, we had only warm water and soggy useless ice socks.  And we thought we still had about six or seven miles long miles to the next store.  Dark clouds thickened overhead and thunder sounded in the distance.  Our moods were not improved by the thought of being caught out in a thunder storm.  We set off again.

Suddenly, a warm rain started and quickly became a downpour.  For just two minutes maybe.  We got thoroughly soaked and it felt wonderful.  Then the rain stopped and the sun came out.

A few minutes later, we reached the store at the other end of “the Sahara.”

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Lakes, Rivers, Heat and Humidity

Laurent and I completed our five-day road trip in waves of heat and humidity that forced us to ride slower and pay careful attention to how our bodies were reacting to the conditions.  Given the energy-sapping weather and the sporadic availability of the internet (neither the Alp Horn Motel nor the Sunshine Inn provided internet access), I didn’t write as many posts from the road as I had hoped.

Days one and two were warm enough, and we certainly felt the heat on day one with all of the climbing involved, but on Wednesday, the wind shifted so that it was blowing from the south just as our route turned south.  For part of Wednesday and all of Thursday and Friday, we rode into a hot and humid wind.  After Laurent had what luckily turned out to be a minor heat-related episode on Wednesday, we agreed to a modified version of our planned route for Thursday and Friday, avoiding some of the more remote back roads in favor of more “major” roads that provided frequent access to Stewarts’ stores and other gas station travel stops.  Frequent breaks in air conditioned spaces and many, many bags of ice stuffed into our ice socks and water bottles made Thursday and Friday do-able.

Laurent is known for his design of routes that use scenic back-country lanes, and his route for day two was a real pleasure to experience.  For more than thirty miles on the second morning, we rode along the banks of Lake Sacandaga, passing a few campgrounds and lots of fabulous houses with lake views.  During the afternoon, the route had us following streams at various points, and the only ridiculous climb came near the end of the day.  We had been enjoying a day that was light in climbing so the hill near the end  was a shock to the system.

We spent the second night at The Alp Horn Motel which does not have internet, but the proprietor does have a roadside craft beer stand (housed in a small trailer)  that he opens on weekends, and he was quite happy to sell us beers that we drank at one of his picnic tables in park-like surroundings.  His chickens seemed to think we might have treats for them but I wasn’t sharing my beer.  Nope, no way. And right next to the Alp Horn is O.P. Frederick’s Restaurant that serves quite a good dinner.

Wednesday morning we rode to Pottersville where we had breakfast at the Black Bear diner with the local early morning risers and then rode on to and through Schroon Lake.  Pretty town that showed promise as a good place to hang out.   Lots more lake views on this day, including the crossing of Lake Champlain into Vermont.

This trip confirmed for me that I like riding in New York and Vermont.  The north east is so green in the summer, something that I still don’t take for granted after living on the west coast for so many years.  I also realized how much I like open spaces so the time spent riding along lake shores was a real joy–large open expanses of water, picturesque cozy beaches, sometimes with small boats snuggled up near the shore, and the smell of slightly warm pine sap.

We had to modify our plans for the last two days to safely finish the ride, and paying attention to being safe consumed a lot of our attention for the end of the ride.  For the first three days, however, we mostly had the luxury of riding as if into and through a great movie in the making.  The scenery opened up in front of us and we simply had to keep pedaling to enjoy it.

 

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Notes From Away

We rode a hilly eighty miles on scenic back roads between Hudson, NY, and Amsterdam, NY.  The route avoided big towns and, as it turned out, many stores and restaurants in the villages we passed through were closed because it was Monday. So we stopped at a car repair garage to ask for water. We asked a store manager if we could use the restroom despite the big sign on the front door saying they did not have public restrooms. Putting ourselves on the road with just our bikes and whatever we can carry forces us to interact with and ask for help from strangers, something I would not normally do.  It’s a valuable experience…to see how generous and kind people can be. It’s so easy to be cynical. My skepticism and easy suspicion were replaced with deep gratitude for the small kindnesses offered. I hope some of this positive energy will remain when we return to real life.

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I Crossed the Rip Van Winkle Bridge Today

Jazz coming through the window of my room at the St. Charles Hotel in Hudson, NY.  Tomorrow Laurent and I begin our five-day tour. I’m looking at the pannier I borrowed from Chris. It’s sitting on the desk looking not so big, but I know I’m going to feel its heft tomorrow once I attach it to the bike.

For today though, it’s time to relax, and maybe a little like Rip Van Winkle, dream about the fun we’re going to have.  If we’re lucky, when we return to Hudson in five days, we will feel like we’ve been away a long time, on an adventure somewhere far and away.  We will cross the bridge again on the way home and return to regular life with new memories, lighter panniers, and perhaps just the tiniest itch to discover the next adventure.

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Humility and Grace

Humility

Laurent has always complimented me on my  time management skills, never more in evidence than last Saturday on the NJ 300K pre-ride.

My friend Chris Newman, to create a bit of a challenge for herself for the day, rode her fixed-gear bike on this route with 11,000 feet of climbing.  It helped a little, but to provide an example of how much stronger she is: she stopped half way up Jenny Jump to take photos, walked two very steep sections, stopped at the port-a-potty, and still beat me to the top.  A humbling experience.

I’ve never been fast, but I’ve begun to worry about my ability to get around courses in time with two bad knees.  I get uncomfortable out there, but it’s still true that time spent on the bike is better than, well….many things.

Jon Levitt, Chris and I gathered outside the Westin and started at 4am.  We rode quietly through the pre-dawn hours, arriving at the bagel shop in Whitehouse just after light.  Coffee and food was definitely required, and it was early so we were quickly served.  After having a brief meltdown about my aching knees (with only 30 miles done…and hardly any of the climbing), I got back on my bike and headed it in the right direction.  A short time later, Jon pushed ahead, leaving Chris and me to our slow but steady pace up hills and down hills, along streams, past farms, through tiny towns, with splashes of color everywhere since trees, bushes, and flowers are now in full bloom.  The picturesque scene was completed by regular sightings of chickens, goats, cows and horses.  This route is incredibly scenic.

We never left a control with more than 10, 15 or 20 minutes in hand, but we managed to keep ourselves well-fed and hydrated all day.  It’s important on this route…all of the climbing requires  extra energy.  I paid careful attention to how my body was performing and ate as soon as I found myself feeling like I wasn’t going to make it up the next hill.  In the past few years, I’ve done a much better job of knowing when I need to eat to keep my pace up to what is normal for me.  Fortunately for us, Jayne had sent me off with a bag of oatmeal, cranberry, chocolate chip cookies, and they were perfect at two or three points during the day.

The iconic climb at Jenny Jump is followed soon enough by the 6-mile gradual climb on Penwell which gets you to the Schooley Mountain General Store (not a control but a great place to stop).  There we bought sandwiches, eating half and saving half for Hacklebarney since we were riding unsupported.  I hear there is going to be quite the reception for riders this coming Saturday so no need to carry sandwiches from Schooley Mountain.

I always feel a little relief when I get to Hacklebarney because I know a big downhill and a pretty good flat section follows that control.  A bonus was riding Black River Rd in light…something I’ve never done before.  Not only were we better able to see the potholes in the rough sections, we also got to see the river all along the way.  I guess this event is scheduled later than usual and daylight savings is earlier…so even slow riders get to do most of this ride in light.  Soon enough you’re back in Whitehouse with only 30 miles to go.

Grace

We opted not to stop in Whitehouse but kept going to the Wawa which is about 10 miles further along (only 20 miles from the finish).  A quick hot coffee and one more snack and we were fueled for the last miles.  We were still running at the edge of the time limit but steady pedaling got the job done.  Gently rolling hills for a while, and then it’s almost flat for the last 10 or 15 miles.  No heroic efforts required, just a steady pace and  the patience to keep going.

I often enjoy the last part of a ride that ends at night.  Everything is quiet again, and you can only see in front of you and maybe the silhouette(s) of the friend(s) you’re riding with.  In NJ, the orange glow from nearby cities usually lights up the horizon, and the red tail lights of planes track across the dark sky.  Sometimes we talk quietly to make the miles pass by faster, but sometimes we just ride.

 

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Crumbs of Intelligence…Until the Stories Are Told

The challenges of a night start on top of a lack of sleep and jet lag can take their toll….

Nigel G. wrote that he had to take several short naps to keep going the first night.  That didn’t seem like an auspicious beginning but I know Nigel was determined to give this ride everything, and he did, finishing in under 89 hours.

Katie R. and Jon L. had a good first night but then a rough morning.  Still, they reached Carhaix ahead of their planned arrival.  A photo of them on the iconic bridge outside Brest posted to FB proved that they had made it half way…still smiling.  Wednesday night I received texts from Katie saying she didn’t know when they were going to finish, saying they were going to DNF in Dreux, saying that they had simply been too slow, and that she was having her first cafe while Jon took a short nap.  Then, a few hours later, Rich R. responded to my text about their ETA at the finish sent the previous day; he said they planned to finish just before noon.  Huh?  Apparently they just made it at the Dreux control, and they then managed an official finish with about 20 minutes to spare.  That happens on PBP…things seem to be going well, or badly, and then they change.  I’m so proud of them for keeping going especially when the final result was uncertain.

I followed Lois S. who seemed to be able to move steadily along, not real fast but steadily, steadily.  She finished officially as well, but not without a story to tell.  According to a FB post, she fell in the rain about 35 miles from the finish.  She either sprained or broke something in a wrist that was already wonky.  However, her 7th PBP is in the books.  What determination. Amazing.

I saw Joe K., Chris N. and Paul S. start at 5:30 on Monday morning and then watched them make good progress along the course, steadily closing the gap between themselves and the people who started the night before.  At Carhaix on the return they took a good sleep stop, their first I think.  Then I received a text from Chris’s wife Eileen that she was riding alone.  Huh?  Apparently Joe was having issues, trying to complete the ride on a fixie, and Chris was riding her own pace so that she would be able to sleep again.  Then near the end, it appears that Paul caught up with Chris and that they finished together in just over 80 hours.  They’ve become such strong riders in the last couple of years.  Joe’s willingness to make the ride a real challenge may not have given him the result he wanted, but what spirit and courage to challenge himself in this manner.

I didn’t hear much about Dawn E.’s journey as it unfolded, but a great photo of her at the end is posted in FB, so congrats to her as well.  I know she trained hard, focusing particularly on hill climbing in the last weeks before PBP to be strong enough for the bumps between Paris and Brest.

I can’t wait to hear the full story from each of these and other friends and acquaintances.

Congratulations to all new and repeat ancien(ne)s.

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