I Left My Bike at the Cemetery!

My cats speedily (and blurrily) explore emergency B&N bags.

My cats speedily (and blurrily) explore emergency B&N bags.

I checked the forecast. It wasn’t supposed to rain till 3:45.

I am  cavalier about bicycling in the rain. If it rains, it rains. I have sheltered sopping wet under trees on country trails.

And so I biked to Barnes and Noble.  I had coupons.

I bought Nell Zink’s Mislaid, a National Book Award finalist, and Susanna Gregory’s new mystery, The Chelsea Strangler (a hefty $30.95 with two 30%-off coupons:  the price of books rises, while salaries in the U.S. are stagnant).  I lingered and browsed, but intended to leave long before the rain.

IMG_3605 Nancy Drew bag and This Side of ParadiseAnd it started raining early!  So I had coffee.  And then, since it kept raining,  I needed a plan, so I bought two $1.99 polyester shopping bags (one with a Nancy Drew design, the other with Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise), put everything in one bag, then turned it upside down inside the other, and put it in the pannier.

It rained harder.  I put up my hood, which doesn’t tie, but it wasn’t windy, so it more or less stayed on.

Everything was under control until I got to the graveyard.

It is not a mysterious graveyard.  But suddenly I had a flat tire.

Naturally you have a flat tire, if you’re on your bike in the rain in the graveyard.

My new books.

My new books, dry!

And the tire was so flat it wouldn’t roll.  PLONK PLONK PLONK.  The tire had somehow come partly off the wheel.  I couldn’t deal with THAT.

And so I locked it up to a sign saying “The cemeteries’ graves and markers must be maintained by friends and relatives.”

Then I walked home, got soaked, and thank God the books stayed dry.

And now I think I’ll curl up with a book, because I deserve it!

Bicycling on the Chichaqua Valley Trail

Chichaqua Valley Trail

Chichaqua Valley Trail

I bicycled 70 miles this week.

That’s nothing for some people.  Some people do that in a day.

But I am no longer a long-distance rider, as I was when, bored and anxious about turning 30, I pedaled with my athletic husband on long camping trips.  (It was so tiring I crashed in the tent at 6 p.m.)  I am slow, but I  have excellent endurance, and I still bicycle for transportation.

Today we rode 27 miles  on the Chichaqua Valley Trail, a 20-mile rail-t0-trail between Bondurant and Baxter, Iowa.  We started in Valeria (population:  57), a tiny settlement 13.5 miles from Baxter.

This used to be one of our favorite trails, so lovely and scenic, through woods, prairie, wetlands, and farmland, but in 2011 flooding destroyed some bridges and washed out 12 sections from the trail.

It has never been quite the same.

It cost nearly a million dollars to repair, and they had trouble getting the money from FEMA.  The bridges are rebuilt, and the trail is still a very nice ride, but the pavement could use some work.  The trail also needs some good PR.

Take the five-mile section between Mingo (population: 300) and Ira (population: 58):   it is now mainly gravel, with a few strips of rough pebbles molded into the tar (cheap asphalt?).  It is very difficult to ride on gravel.  Fortunately, the rest of the trail is asphalt.

Ira tries to be welcoming, though:    in a picnic shelter, there is a Free LIttle Library, a tiny freezer turned into a bookcase.   Open the door, and you find mysteries and science fiction.  I was so surprised!

The trail from Ira to Baxter (population:  1,096) was as beautiful as we remembered it:  a long, but not steep, hill, everything very green, corn and soybeans just beginning to grow, some scrubby trees, lots of cows.

Parts of the trail are very pretty.  If you start in Bondurant, you glide down a two- or three-mile hill in the woods.  Of course then you have to go back uphill.

We got soaked in the rain coming back from Baxter, but it wasn’t a long downpour, thank God.  Our clothes dried by the time we got back to Valeria.

We saw few bicyclists.  Perhaps they got out of the habit of riding the Chichaqua  during the 16 months it took to repair it after the flood.  Perhaps they’re on the High Trestle Trail, with the lit-up pedestrian bridge, not to mention the Flat Tyre Lounge and restaurants along the trail at Madrid.

The Chichaqua is definitely one of the nicest trails in Iowa, smooth asphalt except for the five miles of gravel.  (I hope they resurface that.)

Bicycling Chronicle with Coffee, # 1: Indianola, Iowa


Salem Court, Indianola

The 11-mile Summerset trail from Carlisle to Indianola in Iowa is perhaps the easiest trail we ride.

This converted rail trail is smooth and mostly flat, and it is pretty in a demure Iowa way.  You ride on the prairie past a marsh (frogs croaking), Summerset Park (a small park which has a lake where people fish), and a private menagerie (llama, goats, and ponies),  and then uphill perhaps three miles.  The good thing?  On the way back it’s downhill.

I was so happy to be out in the sunshine, though it was very windy, and it was horribly dusty every time a car passed.  Still, it’s green and the trees are budding, and it should be greener soon, since rain is expected all next week.  The rainy days have made me think of Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, “All Summer  in a Day,” about rain on Venus and a rare day of sunshine.   I love light, and once, when I was in the hospital, I threatened to yank out the IV if they didn’t allow me to go outside. So there I was in my hospital gown with a coat thrown over it, and the damned IV on a pole.

Uncommon Grounds IndianolaBack to the trail…At the top of the hill you’re in Indianola, a small, pretty town with a lot of green space.   Our favorite hangout is Uncommon Grounds, a coffeehouse and restaurant downtown on the square.  We got there ten minutes before closing, and  were in time to grab scrumptious muffins (one double chocolate and one blueberry ) and coffee.

We devoured our muffins at Salem Court, an alley which has been converted into a lovely, bright space where you can have lunch or just hang out, furnished with very comfortable iron tables, chairs, and benches, and its walls decorated with charming murals that represent the town’s history.

What else is there to do in Indianola?

It’s mostly a place to enjoy the quiet, but you can also

1.  Eat at the Crouse Cafe, which has delicious homestyle specials:  I have loved the rigatoni covered thickly with cheese (yum!) and my husband recommends the chicken and noodles.

2.  Visit Lake Ahquabi State Park, a gorgeous 770-acre state spark with very tough, hilly hiking trails and many picnic sites.  You can take your camping equipment on your bike–it’s been done!–and enjoy the beauty.

3.  Strongly recommended by others (I have not yet been there) is Summerset Winery, which is a few miles off the trail approximately halfway between Carlisle and Indianola.  In Iowa, there are bars on the trails, but the winery adds an elegant note, and has concerts every Sunday afternoon.

In reality all we do is ride our bikes and have coffee, but the aforementioned are for variety.

On Bicycling for Transportation & The Tragic Death of a Bicyclist

David Byrne on bike

David Byrne

I saw David Byrne on a bicycle the other day.

Actually I saw a white-haired man with a slightly bird-shaped haircut.

“He looked like David Byrne.”

“It probably was him,” my husband said.

After he performed here in concert last summer, he blogged about riding his bicycle on the trails.

Those of you who know how strongly I feel about bicycling–it is not only fun, it is a life-style–will understand why I like David Byrne.  I loved Byrne in the Talking Heads, and he is even better as a solo artist, but it is Byrne, author of The Bicycling Diaries, who has won my musical loyalty.

In an op/ed piece for The New York Times, “This Is How We Ride” (May 26, 2012), he wrote:

I’ve used a bike to get around New York for decades. There’s an exhilaration you get from self-propelled transportation — skateboarding, in-line skating and walking as well as biking; New York has good public transportation, but you just don’t get the kind of rush I’m talking about on a bus or subway train. I got hooked on biking because it’s a pleasure, not because biking lowers my carbon footprint, improves my health or brings me into contact with different parts of the city and new adventures. But it does all these things, too — and sometimes makes us a little self-satisfied for it; still, the reward is emotional gratification, which trumps reason, as it often does.

On my first bicycle, age four.  Watch out for Super-Environmentalist!

On my bicycle at age four. Watch out for Super-Environmentalist!

It is spring and we’re biking again.  I love the breeze in my hair, seeing the trees and gardens close-up, hearing the birds, and feeling part of the scene.  I like the  effect on my blood pressure (very, very low, to my doctor’s astonishment) and general health.  (Even if you’re overweight, bicycling, an easy sport, will improve your health.)   Three seasons of the year, I bicycle for transportation.  If there’s not snow, I ride in winter.

I got my first bicycle at the age of four and have cycled ever since.

Bicycling is more energy-efficient (really, you can’t get more energy-efficient) than driving and it is cheap.  I paid $500 for a bicycle in 2003.  I have had to replace the seat and pedals, but otherwise it’s still going strong.

I ride about 1,500 miles a year. Our city has bike lanes, bike trails, and a bike-share program (a rental bike program by which you can ride very cheaply from station to station downtown).

Many cars, alas, do not like to share the road with bicyclists.  One year a mad driver, possibly drunk, stopped his car downtown and yelled at my husband and me to get off the road:  it was Sunday and we three were the only people on a four-lane street.  Once I was pelted with a Coke can and another time with apples by passengers in a car.  I could have written down the car license, but let’s just say I preferred to live.

Horrifyingly, in accidents where a driver kills a bicyclist, the sympathy is often with the driver.

cyclist memorial rememberNot always, though.  Last year, when a 58-year-old bicyclist, Gerald Williams, was killed in a tragic hit-and-run accident in Lenox, Iowa, people were outraged when the killer, 33-year-old Jessica May Brown, was not charged with manslaughter.  She claimed later, after she was caught, that she thought she’d hit a deer.

Williams’ wife, who was out of town, had reported him missing when she couldn’t contact him. Twenty-four hours later, searchers found Williams dead in a ditch.

Brown had to pay a $500 fine for failure to stop at an assured clear distance, with a statutory surcharge of $175 and court costs of $60.

It sounds like manslaughter to us.

So ride (right) on, bicyclists!  But watch out for cars.  Some drivers hate bicyclists, runners, and pedestrians.

And here are the Red Hot Chili Peppers singing “The Bicycle Song.”  As they say, “How could I forget to mention the bicycle is a good invention?”

City Cookies & Slowing Down

Victorian The Ferrett women bicycling

Comic Victorian illustration.

Do you ever ask yourself, Why don’t I say No?

I am very proud of my friend Janet, who finally said no to the Tartarean six-day cross-state bicycle ride she had absent-mindedly agreed to go on with her boyfriend.   She got rained and hailed on first, and it might have been better to say no before the ride, but she isn’t a masochist.

There are elements of Janet in me.  Most of my life I have gone on long bike rides because that’s what my husband does.

I love to ride my bicycle.  I don’t necessarily love to ride it 40 miles.

Yesterday was tough.  A 40-mile bike ride.  I had no idea I was going 40 miles.  That was his idea.  If I’d known I was riding 40 miles, I would have stopped at 30.

First, it was cold.

Have you ever had to dash into a store and buy jeans because you were wearing bicycling shorts and it is still freezing at midday?  Do you find anything in your size?   Do you end up with a choice between jeans that fit too snugly and jeans that are a little big in the waist but otherwise fit well?  So I went with the bigger jeans. (Little did I know.)

Bundled up in jeans and a sweatshirt, I was still shivering.

The first twenty miles were easy.  Downhill.  Woods, bluffs, corn fields, and farms.

I  enjoyed the scenery, but would have enjoyed it more at a slower pace. There are two kinds of bicyclists:  serious and casual.  The serious bicyclists are intent on mileage and hardly turn their heads to admire the scenery.  The casual bicyclists ride more slowly and stop to look at, or even photograph, the green spaces, and listen to the hot-weather bugs and birds.   I tried to keep my husband in sight, but I lost him after a while.  Where was he?  Where was the town?  Had I made a wrong turn?

Then something happened with the jeans.  They seemed to be falling down, down…  I am a big woman, but the jeans were growing, and it wasn’t because I was shrinking.  I hitched them up and yanked my sweatshirt down.  Because I was sitting on a bike, I could kind of keep them up.

Finally I found the town, but I wasn’t absolutely sure where my husband was.  I took a couple of turns around downtown, hitching up my jeans frequently, and  found him sitting on a rock in front of the Visitors Center.

Then we had to find a snack.

After 90 minutes of moderate riding, you need glucose to refuel your muscles.  In small towns, it’s hard to find the right food.  We are not morning people, and the cafes close early.  There are usually convenience stores:  Kum and Go, Git ‘n’ Go, and Casey’s.

The available food at convenience stores–cookies, ice cream sandwiches, and candy –does not renew my energy very well.   When I was younger, anything was fine.   I probably need healthy snacks now.

There are city cookies and small town cookies.

In the city you can get a big, delicious oatmeal cookie that is almost healthy.  It is made of flour, oatmeal, butter, sugar, and eggs.  It will taste good, and you’ll feel energetic afterwards.  Sort of.

The small-town cookies at the convenience store are made of flour, corn syrup, and chemicals.  You don’t want to eat those.  They will make you sick.

So there you are.  Sitting on the cement with your cookie, potato chips, or Slurpee from the convenience store.

Here is my resolve:  to bring my own good food on the next bike ride.  Dried fruit, bagels, and possibly sandwiches, if I can find a little cooler or something that fits in my pannier.

I also intend to ride more slowly and listen to the birds.

I also intend to wear jeans that fit me next time.

This excerpt from a poem by Linda Gregg says what I want to say.

I will never give up long.
I will let my hair stay long.
The rain proclaims these trees,
the trees tell of the sun.
Let birds, let birds.
Let leaf be passion.
Let jaw, let teeth, let tongue be
between us.  Let joy.
–From  “Let Bird” by Linda Gregg

Bicycling and Mollie Katzen’s Green Beans and Tofu with Crunchy Thai Peanut Sauce

painting of woman bicycling in Paris, Sharon Rusch Shaver

“Woman Bicycling in Paris,” painting, by Sharon Rusch Shaver

My friend Janet lasted two days on the cross-state bike ride.

After her tent was flattened by rain and hail Monday night, she did what anyone would have done:  she called her mother.

Her querulous little old mother called me.

“Could you pick up Janet?”

Janet’s mother is the kind of person who asks you to come over and pluck the whiskers out of her chin.  Once she asked me to pick up Chinese food for her, which exploded in my bicycle pannier.

“Sorry, I don’t drive.”

I really don’t.  I ride a bicycle.

Janet dropped over yesterday after her mother drove her back from the campground at “about  ten miles an hour.” She cares, but not that much, about leaving her boyfriend to bicycle with her not-very-trustworthy fitness freak sister, who, when last seen, according to Janet, was “making cow eyes at him and looking like a cow, too.”

“Janet, have you actually ever seen a cow?”

mollie-katzens-vegetable-heaven-over-9492l1As she points out, she has plenty of other men, since her boyfriend lives in Milwaukee and only sees her twice a month anyway.  Other men take her to concerts, take yoga with her, and even attend her poetry readings.

“Any other man would have dropped out of the ride and taken me to Canada or somewhere after that dreadful experience.”

I agree!

And so I did the nicest thing I’ve ever done for her:  I cooked her the best vegetarian meal we have ever had, Green Beans and Tofu with Cruncy Thai Peanut Sauce (from Mollie Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven).

We have green beans in our garden.  Absolutely delicious!  Here is the recipe, and below it are my improvisations, which makes it slightly easier.

1 1/2 cups peanuts (unsalted or lightly salted)
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 pound firm tofu, cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Red pepper flakes to taste

Place the peanuts in a blender, and grind briefly until they form a coarse meal. Set aside.

Heat a medium-sized heavy skillet. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, and the ginger and garlic. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the crushed peanuts and the lemon zest. Cook over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often, until the peanuts are lightly toasted. Remove from heat and set aside.

As the peanut mixture is cooking, heat a large, nonstick wok or deep skillet. Drizzle in a little oil. When it is very hot, add the tofu and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook over high heat for 10 to 15 minutes to let the water evaporate, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with lemon juice, reduce the heat, and cook for a few minutes longer. Transfer the tofu to the pan containing the peanut mixture, and set aside.

Scrape out the wok or skillet if necessary, and return to the heat. Let it get very hot, then add the remaining scant tablespoon of oil. When the oil is hot, add the green beans. (The pan should sizzle when they hit.)

Stir-fry over high heat for about 5 minutes, then sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and a small amount of red pepper flakes.

Stir-fry just a few minutes longer, or until the beans are divinely tender-crisp (mostly crisp, but just tender enough). Add the peanut-tofu mixture and toss everything together. Serve right away, over rice.

IMPROVISATIONS:  My tofu always falls apart in the wok, so I skipped that step, and added it to the peanut mixture without stir-frying first.  Then after the green beans had been stir-fried for four or five minutes, I scooped the tofu with a slotted spoon out of the peanuts and added it to the wok.  I stir-fried a few minutes longer till the beans were done.  The tofu didn’t fall apart!

It all turned out wonderfully.  Every bite was eaten.  I can’t recommend this dish too highly.

You should probably try Mollie Katzen’s recipe first, but my improv worked for me!

Bicycling in the Country, Hogs, & the Gatorade-&-Pretzels Tip

Willow Pond

Willow Pond

Willow Pond is not Walden Pond.  It is pretty, but small and buggy, so we didn’t linger.

It is good occasionally to follow the signs that lead you off-trail to such local features.  These offshoots are the blue highways of the outdoors.

I am a slow bicyclist.  Heard of the slow living movement?  Well, I’m in the slow bicycling movement.  I ride for transportation, exercise, and fun.  There are so many trails in the Midwest that it is possible to take long, slow, safe bike rides without going on the roads.  And I am so accustomed to trails that I was apprehensive yesterday to find myself wobbling on the gravel shoulder of the road while a truck shot by as we rode into a small town looking for a place to get a cold drink.

We rode 28 miles yesterday.  While my friend Janet prepares to ride a six-day 468-mile cross-state bicycle ride, I take 20-30-mile rides. Longest ride ever:  11 days, no idea how many miles, but more than 600 miles.  Longest ride this summer:  40 miles.

I do not like organized group bike rides, so I have been sympathetic and amused by Janet’s plight:  she signed up for the ride last spring, but didn’t buy a bike till this weekend, let alone train.  But she’ll be all right on the ride.   Apparently there is a lot of partying:  some riders drink beer and eat pie along the way.

Until yesterday I was convinced I could easily ride one day of the big organized bike ride.  (You can buy a day pass.)

But yesterday it was so hot that I had to take a long break lying down on top of a picnic table.  No, I will not ride even one day of the long ride.

We decided this was the town.

We decided this was the town.

Country trails can be tough.  This trail starts in a small town we couldn’t actually find.  Where was the town?  We saw a grain elevator and a rough limestone trail overgrown with grass.

A rough beginning.

A rough beginning.

We got out of the car.   My husband called encouraging things while I simply stared and thought how  unbeautiful it was.

So we got on our bikes and rode.  Corn fields, soybean fields, prairie grass.   Very, very green.  The sun looked white.  It was that kind of hot day.

It is very, very quiet in the country.  No traffic.

We rode past animal confinement facilities and I felt stricken.  Twenty million hogs living indoors in metal buildings on concrete slats over a pit of their own manure.   The smell clung to our clothes and hair.  I hate the smell, but felt worse about the animals.  At the State Fair we have seen the intelligence in hogs’ eyes (“Human eyes,” we muttered).  After our trip to the State Fair, we stopped eating pork.

Perhaps real farms will come back someday: some corporations are saying no to the animal confinement facilities.  For instance,  Marriott International plans to stop purchasing  pork raised in animal confinement facilities by 2018, and to stop buying eggs from  animal confinement suppliers by 2015.

But then we stopped thinking about animals and just rode.

We approached the Crooked Creek Bridge.


Then we crossed the bridge.

Crooked Creek Bridge

Crooked Creek Bridge

We stopped in a small town, where everything was closed except McDonald’s and Subway, and got a cold drink at a McDonald’s, but it wasn’t what we needed..

Without Gatorade to replace electrolytes, I cannot do these rides.  On the way back, I crashed on a picnic table in a shelter in the middle of nowhere.  I got up and finished the ride, but I had a headache from the sun.  Back in civilization, we bought a massive bottle of Gatorade and pretzels at a convenience store back, and I recovered.   Salt and electrolytes!  You need them.

Did I do any reading on this trip?  Very little.  My book?  Cathleen Schine’s Fin and Lady.  I bought an uncorrected proof for 25 cents, but McDonald’s and lying down on a picnic table are unconducive to reading.