Crossing the Promontory Mountains seemed especially excruciating this year. The first 200 miles of our ride around Great Salt Lake had gone by with relative ease. Sure, I had my share of equipment failures—a broken rack and a flat tire, both encore performances from the 2006 RAGSLOW, but up to that point I had felt good, had plenty of water and good company. Up to then the riding had been relatively easy, but the climb up the Promontory Mountains is when I was crying for my mama. There were at least five false summits along that hot dusty road, and each time I got to the top of one I was greeted with the view of another summit in the distance. Five times I was sure I was done climbing and five times I was wrong.
It wasn’t until I was finally descending for real that I realized what a metaphor for a ride like the RAGSLOW the Promontory Summit really was—no matter how many times I do that ride there is always a need to do a bit more. There is a section of ‘road’ on the northwest shore that is quite possibly the quintessence of cycling. Rough, rocky, hot, snake infested, lonesome—it is hardly fit for hiking and yet we descended it on our bicycles by our own volition after having ridden 120 miles on the worst roads over which one could plan a bicycle tour. And we all were grinning from ear to ear. In that instant I knew why I choose to ride a bicycle and why I choose to ride it places most people would never drive.
Unfortunately I left that experience out there. I cannot put down in words what I felt because I still do not understand it myself. That is why I am not finished with RAGSLOW. That is why I likely never will be. Not because the view from of the lake on the northwest shore rivals anything I have ever seen from the seat of a bicycle, which it does, but because I felt a sense of life there that I have not felt in any other place.
I have finally come to terms with the fact that RAGSLOW will never be a ‘destination’ ride like RAGBRAI or RAWROD, and I have realized that is a good thing. To let it follow the arc of those rides with their debauchery, excess and total absence of real danger would be a desecration. Instead we have decided to hold the RAGSLOW on a quadrennial cycle. That allows enough time for its mystery to build and the horsefly bites to fade.
So who’s in for 2014?
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Thursday, September 23, 2010
I’ve managed to convince a couple of suckers from the Northern Mojave to join me this fall on another bicycle tour around Great Salt Lake. Mark from O-Town and I did it in the spring of 2006 and became, I believe, the first people ever to circumnavigate GSL by bicycle. That tour inspired two other haphazard attempts at riding around the lake by Kirk and company (All bicycle tours are haphazard—this is a compliment). One of those tours passed through Wendover(!) and included a stretch of riding across the salt flats. The other expedition followed Mark's and my route, but in reverse. Mr. Kirk described how that expedition ended in an email to me :
A friend and I rode "your [the April 2006] route" this past spring. We did it counter clockwise though. It took us 3 days but we really didn't finish it. It got to be like 10pm at night and we were still by the Tooele exit. I couldn't take the bugs and Interstate anymore so I called my woman and had her pick us up. I still feel like a total failure for doing that. We were sooooo close to being done. We were at 126 miles for the day. We had gotten BAKED by the sun all day, took a dramatic wrong turn, eaten alive by bugs, ran out of water, on and on and on. I hate my cell phone. I never would have called if it wasn't for that damn thing.
This year we’re going to take a slightly modified route which should keep us closer to the lake for more of the route. We’re also taking a few precautionary measures to ensure we do not run out of water again but aside from that we’re prepared to shrivel, wither, evaporate and desiccate in the desert again.
Are you interested in joining us? Serious inquiries only, please. You’ll need to be prepared to ride nearly 300 miles in three days while carrying your own food, water and camping gear. Still interested? If my story of our first expedition, found here, doesn’t scare you off then email me and we’ll discuss the details.
You can also read Kirk’s story of his second expedition here. It begins on page 22 of the pdf.
Monday, September 20, 2010
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Last night I saw something I thought I would never see. I was just riding along, sipping an agua fresca—heaven on earth with a strawberry slice—from my new favorite taqueria when I saw a young woman on a bicycle carrying a cat container.
“Have you got a cat in there?” I asked as I came closer.
“Awesome. Can I take your picture?”
She told me her new kitten was a little under the weather, and that the veterinarian had prescribed some prescription strength food for him. However, if she left him alone at home with his special food her other cat would eat it all. The solution, of course, was to take kitty to work.
Makes perfect sense to me, but seriously, what kind of person carries a cat on a bike?
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Please indulge me while I toot my horn.
Ever since I moved to Salt Lake City five years ago I’ve had my mind set on a single goal. It is not a cycling goal, nor is it a career goal. It’s not something for which I would earn a prize, prestige, a medal or even a ribbon upon its accomplishment, but it is something I have worked toward every time the opportunity presented itself. I have failed so many times that I started to believe it was impossible, nevertheless it’s so compelling that Ryan and Paz are trying to do it too.
Last night while driving home from a mountain bike race in Park City I finally did it. I coasted all the way down Parley’s Canyon.
To the uninitiated this seems easy or stupid or dangerous, but I say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. For those of you not from the Wasatch Front, Parley’s Canyon is just east of Salt Lake City, between Park City and SLC. Interstate 80 runs through it, so it’s a major thoroughfare with lots of traffic, big trucks and steep grades. It climbs 2,240 feet in the 10 miles between the canyon mouth and the 7,120 foot pass called Parley’s Summit.
There are a several challenges to coasting all the way down I-80 through Parley’s Canyon. To begin, the top is so steep that coasting down is asking for a speeding ticket. You could easily hit speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour by coasting through the entire upper section—and you’ll never be able to boast of your hypermiling abilities if you crash and die because you coasted around a curve at that speed. It’s also uncool to scare the bejeezus out of your fellow road users by blowing past them at such dangerous speeds. So the only option is to scrub off a bit of speed by using your brakes.
But don’t scrub too much. You will need that momentum to make it through the first flat-ish section near Mountain Dell. Here the canyon curves to the north for about a mile before curving south again and getting even less steep. This is a good time to start looking for semis to draft. There’s a nice steep pitch by Little Dell Reservoir, but you’ve got to play it just right because there’s a long flat section just beyond it. Keep an eye on your rear view mirror here because you want to see those semis before they squash you like a bug on their windshield.
There is one more chance to pick up some speed before the mouth of the canyon, and you’ve got to take full advantage of it if you’re going to make it all the way. With luck you can tuck in behind one of those semis that had to swerve around you and let him pull you all the way up the small rise at the mouth of the canyon. If you can do that then you’re home free. Coasting down to the valley floor is academic as long as nobody pulls the classic Utah no-look, no-signal merge on you.
My night of glory was the result of perfect storm of provident fortune and adroit skill. I was returning from a mountain bike race but I had put my bike inside my car instead of on the roof rack, ostensibly to improve my gas mileage but really because it eliminates the risk me of driving into the garage with it still up there when I get home. Normally the added drag of the bike on the roof slows me down in the lower, less-steep parts of the canyon. But I needed more help than that. At one point I actually pushed in the clutch and put my car in gear, until I noticed a slight tailwind that pushed me through the toughest section. I pulled it back out of gear and released the clutch pedal. Only then did I realize I was on the verge of something magical.
With white knuckles, I moved from semi to semi, trying to get maximum pull from every one, but they all slowly pulled away from me. I was starting the final climb before the mouth. A check of my rear view mirror for another semi to draft left me disappointed—nothing was coming. I’d never make it without another pull, would I? Then it hit me, I realized with no traffic behind me, it didn’t matter how slow I was going. All I had to do was ride it out. My speedometer dipped below 30 mph before I finally crested the hill and had a view of Salt Lake Valley. Oh what a glorious sight! The only thing between me and my dream now was the unlikely event of a traffic jam or the very likely event of a bad Utah-merge. But luck and the hypermiling gods were on my side that night. By now there were two pickup trucks pulling camper trailers waiting patiently behind me while I picked up speed and entered the valley. I actually made it back to freeway speed before my exit at 1300 East. There is a stoplight at the end of the off ramp that I coasted through just for good measure.
Success never felt so good.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
The final stop on our Trifecta Tour of the
was the Dome of the Rock, one of the three holiest sites in Islam. The rock in question is the rock that Abraham
laid Isaac upon as he prepared to sacrifice him, and it’s the same rock from
which the Prophet Muhammad stepped off of as he ascended into heaven. That’s a pretty righteous rock, maybe even a
little self-righteous. Apparently the
rock wanted so badly to follow the prophet into heaven that Muhammad had to
press it back with his foot, leaving a deep footprint in the stone. Muhammad got a pass into heaven and all it got was a gilded dome. Incidentally, the gold for the dome is rumored to have been provided by King Hussein of Jordan, who sold one of his New York City properties to pay for it.
I wanted so badly to see this alleged
footprint but unfortunately you’ve got to be a Muslim male to go inside. Instead, we wandered around the plaza outside, where little
kids played soccer, women strolled around in burkas, and one woman conned my
father-in-law into paying her for snapping a photo of him. I
was taken aback to see weeds growing on the grounds and even litter lying
around. The whole place had a somber, uneasy feel and I was
glad to leave.
I suspect they were glad to have me leave too, not just the
temple mount where the Dome of the Rock is, but I think they’d like me and my
kind to leave the entire country. Or at least just leave them alone. The stark contrast in atmosphere between the Jewish
celebrations going on at the Western Wall at the base of the temple mount and
the stultifying atmosphere and oppressive heat at the top by the Dome of the
Rock are a microcosm of the status of the whole country—separate and
The Arab neighborhoods we
walked through to get to the
any photograph from the third world I’d ever seen. The photo above was taken just outside Nazareth, one of the more developed and prosperous Arab cities. Apparently there are laws that prevent even
Arabs with the means from developing the land they own. Meanwhile the Jewish neighborhoods were plush,
suburban and decidedly western. Perhaps
that difference explains the barbed wire and shards of glass lining this fence in the
As anyone who grew up in the South in the ’50s and 60’s could
tell you, there’s nothing like a double standard to create a little
won’t pretend to have all the answers, but it seems to me if you want peace in
the Middle East you might start with creating some peace in the middle of
for signs like this:
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The next stop on my Jerusalem Trifecta tour was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the sight most Christians believe is where Jesus was crucified. This site is the culmination of most Christian pilgrimages, but what struck me most about the place was the crowds. The church was packed, and I couldn’t find anyplace to sit and contemplate the significance of the place. So instead I got in the line to see the fancy stone box where Jesus’ remains are said to lie—something I didn’t quite understand since I was taught that Jesus ascended into heaven after his resurrection, so there shouldn’t be any remains to put in a box.
Nevertheless, I got in line to see this box, and was immediately inundated with Russians who started cutting in front of me in line. A couple of them got in front of me then they kept trying to bring the rest of their companions up to join them, reaching back, motioning to them, whispering things that sounded like missile codes, etc. I had to hip check one old woman who tried to sneak by me.
As we got close to the stone box, the Russians started singing, and there was one priest immediately behind me that was very loud and very afflicted with halitosis, so I was relieved to finally get inside to see the stone box. Unfortunately, I had to share my time there with three other Russians, who proceeded to scatter icons and trinkets across the top, kneel down and start praying. I was boxed out, and before I got a chance to inspect the box I was called out by the usher.
I felt boxed out about a lot of the other biblical sights we visited in Israel too. All the significant sites seem to have a church built on them. For example, the well in Nazareth where Mary was told she would bear the Son of God was housed in two churches, one built on top of another. The well itself was nothing more than a pipe with some water gushing out. The engineer in me estimated it was flowing at about one cfs, or cubic feet per second, and the MBA in me estimated there was about $34 in US and other currencies at the bottom of the well. Meanwhile the Christian in me had a difficult time envisioning the what had occurred there because I’m certain the Angel didn’t speak to Mary in the basement of a dingy old church. I would have rather seen an actual well, in the open air, with the city surrounding it.
I think that explains why so many Christians like visiting the Garden Tomb, another site where Jesus may have been crucified and laid to rest. They haven’t built a church on it (but there is one nearby) so you can walk the grounds and see for yourself where Joseph of Arimathaea might have walked to get the body and take it to the tomb. I didn’t even mind looking over the bus station between the edge of the garden and the hill that might be Golgotha. It even kinda sorta resembles a skull, aside from the TV antenna at the top.
Finally, I snapped this photo outside the church built on the Garden of Gethsemane. While it’s likely they put the sign up to preserve the peace and quiet inside the church, I think a lot of Christians feel this is official church policy when it comes to some of life’s more difficult questions. Maybe the sign is meant to keep skeptics, cynics and intellectuals boxed out.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
I’ve been home from my pilgrimage long enough to distill my
impressions of what I saw in Israel, to race my mountain bike a couple of
times, and to get over the bug I brought home in my small intestine. To be very frank, I didn’t have a solid stool
for over a week, even though I drank nothing but bottled water (and minty
lemonade). I blame it on the poor hygiene
standards of the street food vendors who sell the best made-to-order falafel in
Spending a week in Israel after a week in Spain is like
washing down your milk with a shot of hot sauce—I did it backwards. We went from the slow, humane pace of bicycle
touring to the furious and frenetic pace of traffic in Tel Aviv. But with a little luck and perhaps a bit of
Providence these pilgrims made it to the Old City of Jerusalem.
I wasted no time in setting out for the Trifecta of holy
sites of the Abrahamic religions. First
up was the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, in spite of the fact that
the wall is nothing more than a retaining wall, which is emblematic of my
impression of the Jews there—very practical and very casual. They had yarmulkes available for Gentiles and
forgetful Jews to cover their heads with in order that the fear of heaven might
be upon me as I approached the wall.
What struck me most about stepping up to that wall was not the little
notes to God stuck in the cracks between every block, nor was it the intensity
with which the Orthodox men prayed, and swayed at the wall—which reminded me of
the Spinners, or members of the Church of Unlimited Devotion, who used to spin
and sway at Grateful Dead concerts.
What struck me most was the casual attitude with which these
people behaved in a place they consider so holy. I saw men snapping photos of toddlers
fumbling against the wall, other men took video of some of the swaying orthodox,
another young orthodox man was asked by a secular man to take his photo at the
wall. Then there were the bar mitzvahs,
about five of which were going on the day I was there. There was singing, dancing, praying going on
everywhere, and women, who have their own separate section at the Wall, threw
candy over the fence at all the children on the men’s side. Meanwhile, there were young Israeli defense forces toting machine guns everywhere, reminding everybody how tenuous the Jewish presence in Jerusalem is. There was no judgment of who was holier than
whom, everybody was accepted, and everybody seemed comfortable in their own
skin. They didn't care that a Gentile like me was standing next to them listening and taking photographs. I couldn’t imagine some of the
holy places back home ever having such a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere.
I liked the Western Wall so much we visited
Thursday, May 27, 2010
We made it to Santiago de Compostela a couple of days ago. Honestly, arriving at the cathedral holding the remains of St. James was a little underwhelming. Maybe it's because I'm a bad Catholic, (due in part to the fact that I'm not Catholic), or maybe it was because the final 10 kilometers were through the industrial part of town and then through a congested city. Those certainly contributed, but I think the real reason I was nonplussed was that all of the pleasure of the pilgrimage was in the journey, not in arriving at the destination. I'm already scheming of a return trip to do more of el Camino.
We arrived the cathedral just in time for the lighting of the botafumera during the Pilgrims' Mass. The botafumera is a giant (5 ft tall) incense burner that they swing back and forth across the cathedral at the end of the Mass. If the rope it hangs from were to break it would certainly kill a few people. While it has it's spiritual meanings, it's size is attributed to it's effectiveness at masking the odor of all of those stinky pilgrims gathered in the pews. It worked quite well at that, but only for a little while.
Our final stop out of town was at the Pilgrims' office where we could get our final Credencials to prove we'd made it all the way. They were very serious about the affair, closely inspecting each stamp in our passports and asking us where we started, how much of it was done by bicycle, where we stayed, etc. I sweat more during the interview than during the ride.
Our pilgrim days aren't over yet. Next we're off to where it all began for more two-weeled pilgriming. Since we were going to Jerusalem I asked the priest at the cathedral in Santiago if he wanted me to take James' remains back to where they came from. I don't think he understood me because he got really mad and told me to get out of there. Must have been a language barrier.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Many have said a modest person is one who could carry all their important possessions in a backpack, or in my case, a set of panniers. The last few days have convinced me it was a pilgrim who said that first. I also carry a set of panniers on my pilgrimage of life. Sometimes I add things or carry them just becasue. It could be what other people think of me, for others, it could be a consuming lifestyle that´s out of control. Like all heavy loads, there comes a time when so much weight keeps me from moving forward. That´s why I sometimes like to stop and ask myself if I´m carrying around burdens that I don´t need. What do I have in my panniers that I don´t need.
There are of course burdens I can load into my panniers that don´t weigh me down. In fact, they can even make my load seem lighter. I´m speaking of memories, and today I thought I share a few of mine from the past couple of days on el Camino.
First is the four American girls sitting next to me here in this internet cafe. They´re printing off fake IDs so they can go out clubbing. I wish I had my camera with me, I´d send a photo to their daddys.
Next is the priest we met along the way who stamped our credencials. He called us ¨eagles soaring to Santiago. and told us if we asked Santiago when we get to the cathedrial we could get any blessing we desired. Then there was German pilgrim who helped Mags lift her bike three times over a rock wall because the trail between the walls was too muddy.
There are all the pilgrims I see each night walking so gingerly because of sore legs, blistered feet and aching backs. The albergues where we stay the night all smell like Ben Gay and stinky Europeans. Incidently, I should say that most of my experience with Europeans has been in hostels, so you´ll forgive me for thinking they all stink all the time.
At one albergue the hostess asked if we were married before she would let us have a private room. She was a sweetheart. Another host at our first albergue gave us his dinner because we arrived too late to buy something from the cafe in town. He saw that we were going to bed hungry and brought out his own dinner for us. Muchas gracias Igor.
Last is a memory of regret. In some ways I feel like we´re going too fast on this pilgrimage. The way all of our physical needs are met by the albergues and the pilgrim restaurants, it allows us to meditate and think of the meaning of our pilgrimage. But we´ll be finished soon, and I sometimes think I´ve loaded too much unecessary stuff into my panniers to unload it all before we arrive in Santiago de Compestela.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
ASTORGA, SPAIN. According to Christian history, James (Santiago in
Spanish) the apostle, traveled to Galacia, in what is now northwestern
Spain after Jesus´ death to preach Christ´s message. Greeted with
little success, James returned to Jerusalem where he was summarily beheaded.
Legend has it that his remains were returned to Galacia for their final
Fast forward about eight centuries to a Christian hermit wandering
around Galacia, doing whatever it is that hermits do. He witnesses a
compostela or field of stars (a meteor shower perhaps?) and takes
refuge in a cave where he discovers some headless human remains. He
then chats with the local Catholic Bishop who confirms that those
remains are indeed the remians of the Apostle James. That is how the
pilgirmage to the field of stars of Saint James, or Santiago de
During the middle ages millions and millions of Christians made
pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. It was the third most
important pilgrimage in Christendom, behind Jerusalem, which was often
too dangerous, and Rome, which I imagine was a little too close to the
beehive for most worker bees to want to visit. Prudent
would-be-pilgrims woud save those two destinations for when they had
some serious sins to walk off, but for lesser indescretions Santiago de
Compestela was pilgrimage enough.
Popularity of the pilgrimage diminished in the 17th and 18th
centuries, but not before the Way of St. James, or Camino de Santiago
was permanently (and literally) etched into the terrain of northern
Spain, and not before the benevelence of Santiago was etched into the
psyches of all Spainiards. He is said to have appeared numerous times
at the height of battle to turn the tide in the favor of the Christians
in their reconquest of Spain from the Moors. That is why James is
sometimes called Santiago de Matamoros (James the Moor Slayer) and why
Santiago is the patron saint of all of Spain.
In the past couple of decades the popularity of pilgrimages to
Santiago de Compestela has soared again. Perhaps due to a
general disatisfaction with the secularism that has spread across europe
for the past few decades, or perhaps because Europeans needed a grand
adventure like that was closer to home. I suspect it is both.
Mags and I started our pilgrimage on el Camino in Astorga, about 250
km from Santiago de Compestela. Tornado warnings in Dallas led to a
cancelled flight out of Salt Lake and ultimately to our arriving in
Astorga 24 hours later than we´d planned. They also Caused us 15 hour
layover in Newark, NJ (One hour is all anyone really needs to fully
experience Newark) for which getting bumped to first class for our
flight across the Atlantic was little consolation.
I´ll have more to say about this tomorrow, but for now I´ll repeat
what I´ve said in the past, that there is no better way to see a new
place than by bicycle, and that long distance touring is the highest and
best use of a bicycle. The people along el Camino are very friendly
toward peregrinos (pilgrims), probably because in some towns el Camino is
all they have going for it, economically speaking. It´s a strngth in
numbers thing, because this pilgirm isn´t blowing a lot of euros on this
trip. Last night we stayed at an albeurgue, a hostel for pilgrims, for
only 9 euros. That´s not 9 euros each, but 9 euros for both of us.
And dinner tonight was, from the ¨special pricing for pilgrims¨ menu, less than 20 euros for both of us, and most importantly, the portions
were more than enough for a pilgrim sized appetite.
More manana. Buen Camino!
Sunday, May 16, 2010
God, You called your servant Abraham from Ur in Chaldea, watching
over him in all his wanderings, and guided the Hebrew people as they crossed
the desert. Guard these your children
who, for the lover of your Name, make a pilgrimage to Compostela. Be their companion on the way, their guide at
the crossroads, their strength in weariness, their defense in dangers, their
shelter on the path, their shade in the heat, their light in the darkness,
their comfort in discouragement, and the firmness of their intentions; that
through your guidance, they may arrive safely at the end of their journey and,
enriched with grace and virtue, may return to their homes filled with salutary
and lasting joy.
-Codex Calixtinus- 12th Century
Friday, May 14, 2010
I don't normally get excited about a new bike, probably because I tend to break my mountain bike frame every year, but this new bike has me absolutely giddy.
Why? Because it can do this:
So I can do this:
Check back soon for posts from along The Way.