Sunday, November 27, 2005

A snowy trail ride by fixed gear

Sometimes, you just have to keep pedaling. Weather and a cold has kept me confined to utility riding lately. An icy fog set in the week of Thanksgiving, shutting down the airport and generally getting people down. One of the great things about not having a choice is that we wind up riding in odd conditions like these. And, you know, an icy fog is fun in an unusual sort of way. It certainly keeps traffic down, and any light at all is diffused and amplified to a brilliant degree.

Still, a cycler needs a change now and then, and I admit that I was ready for a change from trips to the store in the icy fog. Finally, the fog lifted, snow fell, and just as quickly I was on the fixed gear with food and clothes enough to ride out of the valley.

I pedal downtown to drop off some cider at Rachel's work. Then, I point north into the Rattlesnake for the first time on a fixed gear. The mountain scene ahead is irresistible--endless peaks capped by fresh snow.

The Rattlesnake has been my bike lab for several years now. This was the first place I rode a road bike on trails, and the first place I rode a singlespeed up and down hills--both habits that haven't left me. It's only fitting that I first ride a bicycle that doesn't shift or coast in snow and on trails. I had already decided that if the trails or snow were too sketchy, or if my cold bothered me, I'd just ride the road up to the top and head back. Not that I expected trouble. I'm mostly past worrying about whether things are doable on a bike. Now I mostly wonder how much fun it's going to be.

Those are the thoughts running through my head until they're displaced by the first looming hill ahead. Oddly enough, this is the hill that decided my one gear. I followed the advice of the ancients and figured out the highest gear that I could climb my toughest hill with. Well, and then I added a little because someone told me that I would be able to climb better with a fixed gear. I hadn't really given it another thought until now. Hmmm...

At the base of the hill is a turnoff that rolls through Greenough Park and winds up more gradually. I found myself steering for the turnoff. I caught myself in time and pointed back up the hill. It's always better to know, right? The first half went well enough, but then two-way traffic obliged me over to the shoulder. The gravel, slush, and broken pavement killed my spin and had me laboring up the last half. I made it, though, panting, but I know that confidence is more important than leg strength for most cyclers, and this hill would be easier next time.

First trial over, I was free to spin along and begin the gradual climb up toward the mountains. It's hard to believe I can tell the difference from 10 miles away, but the first snow of the year always lays prettiest on the mountains here. I'd vouch for it to anyone.

A piece further and I come to the community farm, my turn, and the day's second trial. A little further is a steep dirt hill that cuts over to the pedestrian bridge over Rattlesnake Creek. I usually walk this hill when things are frozen, but I feel very confident sensing traction on the fixed gear. I ease to the top and commit. Down I go, standing and controlling my speed by resisting the pedals. I doubt it looks like this to a passerby, but I feel in complete control, gliding down the hill with an uncanny feeling of connection with the bike. Less eloquently, it feels like I'm walking down the hill.

Either way, I arrive safely at the bottom, roll onto the bridge and prop an arm against the wooden railing to ponder the creek. It's still running clear and free. In another month, this will be an icy chute with the creek flowing silently beneath. I watch a chipmunk nervously making his rounds and probably imagining the same scene.

Crossing the bridge, I merge into sparse traffic heading up the main road. Still climbing steadily, I duck into a neighborhood where the spur trail, and my third trial, await. The snow here is getting steadier, and my rear tire tells me that there's a nice layer of ice underneath. Nervously, I round the corner and ease downhill toward the trailhead.

I've found that there are lot of things to think about before riding a fixed gear somewhere new but very few things to think about once I'm riding it there. I pedal and steer but mostly pedal. I imagined I'd be fretting about whether each rock was going to strike my pedal, about whether I'd make it up this steep hill or down that one. Nope, just pedal. Pretty soon, I found it was a lot like riding a singlespeed here the first time. And a lot like riding a road bike here the first time. The bike makes it kind of neat, but pretty soon I'm staring at the woods, the tracks in the snow, the creek, and I've mostly forgotten that I'm doing something new.

I will say I was pleasantly surprised by the traction I had slogging up hills and the braking control I had going down them. Mainly, the bike didn't make the ride any less fun, and probably even added a bit.

I soon reached the short piece of somewhat more challenging trail. This took a little more concentration. About this time, an older couple came walking up the trail. I slowed and moved aside for them.

"Kind of slick for biking, isn't it?" The older man asked.

"A little slick, but mostly fun." I blurted out without thinking.

I heard the man tell his wife as I rode off, as if remembering his own youth, "It's the challenge of it, that's what keeps you going."

I would tuck this wisdom away to ponder later. Right now, there were some rocks to deal with. As my confidence grows, I pick up speed and start flying through the woods. Too soon, I pop out onto the road again and pause to eat and let my fingers warm up before the descent. I was pleased but not surprised that I could ride the trail on a fixed gear in the snow.

As I spun home down the long, 5 mile hill that leads to town, I pondered what the old man had said on the trail. What is it about humans that makes us love a challenge? So much of what we do for fun is for the challenge, and I don't think it's just a modern invention. Sports, hobbies, even travel. Who's ever heard of "Europe on $500 a day!"? I realized that part of the joy in cycling is the constant challenge. Sheldon Brown probably puts it best in talking about the unlikely idea of touring on a singlespeed:

"[S]inglespeed touring is not as goofy an idea as it might sound at first blush--if you're not in a hurry and value simplicity and reliability, a singlespeed is eminently tourable. Yes, you might have to get off and walk up a few hills, but that's hardly a tragedy, in fact sometimes it can be a nice change of pace! If you are in a hurry, why are you on a bicycle?" -Sheldon Brown

He's right, of course. There are easier ways to do almost anything we do on bicycles, including getting up to the top of the Rattlesnake on a snowy afternoon. But afterwards, sitting at the keyboard with a cup of hot cider, I sure wouldn't have much to write about.


Saturday, November 26, 2005

Bicycles on Ice

After "How do carry things?", I'd say "What do you do in the winter?" is the most common query about bikeliving in Montana. Well, last night, for instance...

Rachel and I had gone to a play on campus. We walked outside at 10:00 and were greeted with an incredible scene. The freezing rain that had just begun when we went inside had evidently continued, covering everything with a glossy layer of ice. Our bikes, locked up together on a rack that more resembled an ice sculpture, absolutely glimmered. I checked my front brake, which functioned, but the rim was frozen completely. No matter on the fixed gear as I could just brake the rear wheel with my legs. Rachel's rear brake was workable, and so we decided we could ride home safely.

As we pedaled onto the roadway, we were pleased to find that--being a bit warmer--the surface had frozen into a crunchy, icy crust instead of a smooth sheet of ice. There are excellent studded tires available for bicycles, but we've found them unnecessary in Missoula, which is relatively flat and not as snowy as most imagine. I could feel the occasional grab/slip/grab that gives a cycler continuous feedback about traction as we pedaled easily out to the main road.

In my experience, most car drivers seem to imagine bicycles in winter by thinking of their car with two wheels and no balance. In a modern car, the driver is so isolated from the road itself, that winter driving is really more a test of faith (in technology and/or a higher power) than of skill. A cycler has the distinct advantage of feeling the available traction and controlling power and braking to a remarkably fine degree. It's not something you have to "read up on." It just comes naturally the first time you ride a bicycle in snow and ice.

Cyclers have a more tangible advantage over cars as well. An average car weighs maybe 3000 pounds and rolls along on four 8 inch wide tires. An average road bike with rider weighs maybe 200 pounds and rolls along on two 1 inch and a quarter wide tires. I don't know how the physics works out in theory, but in practice, any bicycle has a huge traction advantage starting and stopping.

As we roll up to the intersection, the results are predictable. We stop easily. Although they have the right of way, we know that the cross traffic will probably stop for us. Car drivers in Missoula are absolutely paranoid when they see bicycles on slick roads at night, which is just fine by us most of the time. As expected, the car to the right stops short with the metallic sound of studs grabbing ice. The car to the left is not so well equipped and skids for a shockingly long distance, through the pedestrian crosswalk, and stops leaving just enough room for us to navigate the intersection. Behind, we can hear the spinning tires of the lefthand car as it attempts to get moving again.

We're on deserted neighborhood streets now, and the icy night has frozen every sound. Every light source is amplified, and headlights are unnecessary as we glide through the glow. Tires crackle as they break through the icy crust on the road. We talk about the light and sound, about the play, and about how nice it is to be cyclers tonight. Too soon, we're carefully rounding the corner of our block and roll up to the front porch.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Failed Carfree Attempt

For those of you interested in such things, there's an article by a writer who attempted to do without his car, somewhat enjoyed it, but eventually gave up. It's fairly entertaining and hits on some key points of the learning process. I'll address a few points here.

After two weeks of riding my bicycle everywhere, I'd gotten used to people treating me as if I were somehow not right in the head. Store clerks ignored me, old men gave me the hard stare, soccer moms avoided eye contact. After all, almost nobody in America rides a bike if they can afford a car.

This has not been our experience at all. Most people are exceedingly friendly and certainly don't ignore us because of our bike helmets. Granted, we wear normal clothes and live in a better than average bicycle town. At any rate, we get far more waves and hellos and less rudeness from others on bike than we did in our car.

I think the author's view typifies the "car replacement" mentality I've discussed before. The straw that breaks this cycler's back is a sudden urge for canned soup at night when he comes down with a cold. One small change we've made is switching from canned to powdered broth. It seems silly, but small things like this add up, and they only come with practice. Certainly, it's no sillier than driving a 3500 pound car 6 miles for a couple of cans of soup.

The best point the author raises is that forcing a bicycle to replace a car instantly is challenging. The author had made a lot of decisions already that worked against his venture's success. He lived in a rural suburb, six miles from groceries. He had little experience riding for transportation. He had a fleet of bikes optimized for racing and recreation.

Given the long odds, I think he did pretty well. I'll leave you with this quote, which I think will lead the author back to bikes for transportation someday:

Still, by the end of that first shakedown week, I was growing to enjoy my bike-bound, self-propelled life [. . .] By necessity, I chose less-traveled roads, which led me to some interesting local discoveries, like a natural-foods market run by the Amish that stocked wild salmon and bison steaks. In fact, I looked forward to longer trips, like a 10-mile jaunt to a local college library. The fresh air and exercise kept me alert during the afternoons, and after humping an Oven Stuffer Roaster up a 2-mile grade, there was certainly no need to go to the gym.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Why won't we spend money on bicycles?

If I learned one thing in my year at Freecycles, the local community shop, it was that people are extremely reluctant to spend anything on their bicycle. There is a common (mis)perception that most transportation bicycle riders are extremely poor. In fact, it's a common misperception of Rachel and I since selling the car. It is--at best--a half truth. Bicycles are the mode of transport for the very poor in town, but I'd guess they make up less than half of the year round transport cyclers in town. Some of the folks that would come to the shop arrived in their car, but then had to be arm- twisted into a $1 cable. Many rode without locks and lights because of the expense.

This week, Missoula has been socked in a fog that just won't burn off. This has made it even more apparent how few riders have adequate lighting, which could be had for $20. Fortunately, they're no danger to me as I can hear the creaky chains and squawking hubs blocks away. As transportation costs go, bicycles are unmatched. Why, then, are people reluctant to pay the equivalent of 1 oil change for a set of lights? At the extreme, why would people be completely unwilling to pay the price of a beater car for a nice, new bicycle? No wonder bike shops struggle and stock so little practical gear. There's no market!

The "bikes are toys" argument works to explain why people don't view bicycles as legitimate transportation, but it doesn't work here. Most Americans happily spend whopping sums for "toys," including, ironically, bikes suited only for road racing and extreme downhill bicycle slaloming. While at the local bike shop, I've seen customers balk at $6 to change a flat, including a new tube! Solving this puzzle is a key, I think, to more effective promotion of practical bicycling.

I wonder how we would react to German-style requirements for, for instance, decent bicycle lighting systems on every bike. Would many just stop riding, or would they continue to pay just what they were required to?

What determines your bicycle budget? Ours is $100/month, for maintenance on 4 bikes and "essential" upgrades, including lighting. Adding in new bike purchases and related "nonessentials" probably doubles that.

Comments welcome.

Friday, November 18, 2005

You've got to admit...

it's getting better! Cycler-friend Kent P. has accepted a post as Commuting Program Director for the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. Check it out at his blog.

Kent replied to one of our first queries about living carfree. His life and writings have been an inspiration ever since. Tonight, I ride happy!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Carrying things (part 1, baskets)

American bicycle riders are stuck in a rut when it comes to carrying things. When folks learn we do everything by bike, a common first response is "But how do you carry things?" Our response is "We're glad you asked!"

Carrying things ranks right up there with going places for a cycler. One of the most satisfying feelings is figuring out how to carry something on a bike. With a car trunk or hatch or pickup bed, challenges are rare. But, on a bike, one gets to solve puzzles daily.

For some reason, mountain bikes made popular the "Blackburn-style" rear rack. If you've ridden, you've seen them. Black aluminum with two support arms and a skinny platform on top. A bungee or two is standard in these parts. A bare rack like this is for emergency use only, in my opinion. Any load much over 6 inches wide or 5 pounds or squirmy or round will have you screaming for your car trunk in short order. Unless you're the kind that laughs a lot and takes life easy, and then it may be kind of fun. But, you'll leave a thing or two on the roadside as you laugh your way along, bub.

For "serious" cyclists, the American-style touring scene brings us high tech bag systems called panniers. Think horse saddlebags designed by modern mountaineers. These high tech gems require stout racks and an ability to throw money at things with deadly accuracy. A good rack and pannier setup is a wonder of technology and priced like most wonders.

So, what's a load toting cycler to do? This series will talk about some other ways to move things around on your bike. First up is the lowly wire basket. A fellow who admired our baskets said he wanted to put one on his wife's bike, but "They're just so colloquial." One definition of colloquial is "informal, conversational style" ( That is a first rate description of baskets. A basket is humble, easy, workaday, free of pretension, and extra useful as long as you aren't trying to impress the coat 'n tails crowd, and why would you be?

Rachel and I use our baskets every day, at least twice I'd say. We love our baskets because they're so flexible, in the load carrying sense. We can put bags right in them, even if they don't quite fit. When we get where we're going, we can take said bags right back out again, leaving only an empty basket for thieves to see. And, we have our stuff with us. Rachel carries a waterproof shoulderbag in hers everyday with her purse, food, water, extra clothes, things like that. We also grocery shop with them, and I use mine on long rides to quickly stash and retrieve clothes as the weather changes (I always keep some on, don't worry).

A couple of posts down, I described a fun shopping trip in the snow. On that trip, I had a 3/4 full grocery bag in my rear basket and could have done more, easy. In heavy rain, I would have used a garbage bag to keep things sogfree, but light snow is nothing to a paper sack. What can you fit in a 3/4 full grocery bag? I'm glad you asked!

(*note: we aren't vegetarian, we're opportunistic)
1 lb Tofu
2 lb Broccoli
1 lb cornstarch
3 lb rice
3 lb granola
ginger root
1/2 lb broth powder
big mushroom
green pepper
tortilla chips
1 lb stuff to spread on toast
1 lb greens
(wine went in bottle cage, but I didn't sip as a rode)

It took about 10 seconds to put the grocery bag in the basket and 5.3 seconds to take it out at home. If you find a pannier that will beat that, then it's the kind that your ginger root can bounce out of!

Here's the comparison chart. It would be fit for Bicycling magazine 'cept I don't think they do baskets. But we do!

Wald rear basket + net + cheap rack
Cost: $18 + $8 for the net (+$15 for the rack, if you don't have it already)
Size: 15" x 10" x 5" at the top, tapering a little to the bottom
Weight: Not enough to notice
What'll it carry: Anything up to three times it's size, and more if you're clever. As long as you can get one corner of the thing into the basket, it'll go! This basket is "in its element" with a full paper grocery sack, a bundle of heavy clothes, fishing waders and boots, a large shoulderbag or medium backpack, or a large pot of food for a potluck. If you're clever, you can carry up to a full sized guitar (this requires extra straps).
Compared to just-a-rack: Things stay in it. You'll love it!
Compared to panniers: more aerodynamic, almost impossible to hit your heel on while pedaling, tougher, no need for expensive rack, quicker to load/unload, more room for creativity, UV light OK, will not absorb water, things dry in it; requires a garbage sack for waterproofness, really small things need their own bag (marbles), hard lonely things will rattle, one basket doesn't have the capacity of two big panniers, and people with panniers may think you're a hobo, or worse, colloquial!
Max per bike: 2, one rear, one front
Where to get it: Rivendell Bicycle Works or maybe your local shop
Attachment: 4-6 big zipties or something cleverer, but it's hard to outclever a ziptie, even if they are plastic
Made in China?: Nope, Kentucky, way different! (The net is not made in Kentucky)

Happy basketeering, cyclers! Let me know how it works out for you.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Update: Every two hours

The local paper finally picked up Bill's story. The driver was intoxicated, and his youth and apparent sadness make the story all the more tragic. Bill was a unique and wonderful person, and I hope you all will take a minute to read about his life. [Update: the article has disappeared from the paper's archives]

Car-less and Carefree

I've mentioned here before that Rachel and I are currently without a car. When other people learn this, the typical reaction is one of sympathy, which is exactly what we feel for those who are stuck with their car(s). Let it be known that we do not despise, look down upon, or otherwise hate car drivers. In other words, we aren't the carfree types that make for exciting blogs! We realize that we are fortunate to have an opportunity to make a decision about owning a car. We have no kids, are in good health, live in a walkable/bikeable community, and have commutes to work of 2 miles or less. Still, I'm convinced that many others in similar circumstances don't even realize "no car" is an option, and a huge number would enjoy using cars a little less. So, an important observation for the interested...

Now three months into our second go-round living carfree, we've learned to approach things a little differently. The first time around we followed the obvious route of trying to replace the car with bikes. Over time, we learned that, while a fun exercise, we benefit more from replacing car culture with bike culture. To anyone who is interested or curious about using a car less, this subtle distinction is worth considering.

Two years ago, we were in full car replacement mode. We had had it with cars and were out to prove we could do everything by bike. We stacked the odds against ourselves by starting this rebellion in the middle of winter. I remember my first act of rebellion. Hands freezing, I heaved the bike and BOB-trailer out of the snow drift and rode headlong into blowing snow. It was about 20 degrees out, and the bike lane was covered with a layer of crusty snow, sand, and ice. I bought 70 pounds of groceries (the trailer's stated limit) and loaded them into the enormous drybag on the trailer. By the time I loaded, my hands were numb. I soon found the trailer didn't handle very well at capacity, and I had to stop a time or too when the wobbling turned my frame into a rolling tuning fork. I got home exhausted, cold and still had the onerous task of unloading 2 weeks worth of groceries.

I thought about that ride as I rode to the store yesterday in the first snow of the year. I pedaled a bike with a small basket on the back. The snow felt wonderful as it brushed my face and coated my wool mittens. On back streets and untracked snow I rode two miles to the co-op. A few intersections broke me out of my trance, but only momentarily. I could be wrong, but it sure looked like those faces behind scraped glass weren't having much fun. On the back streets, I waved to two other cyclers either commuting or out shopping. One had to interrupt catching snowflakes on her tongue to say "hello."

Arriving at the store, I parked under a covered awning by the entrance and looked over my list. From experience, I knew it would more or less just fill a single grocery bag. Either Rachel or I make these trips 2-3 times per week, unless we find excuses for more (ice-cream, brownie mix, etc). We supplement these with walks to the bakery for bread once a week, where we can sit and eat free slices and talk.

That sounds like a lot of trips to the store, but each one is extremely pleasant. Bi-weekly trips in the car were decidedly unpleasant for us. Cars and the infrastructure for them just aren't well suited to frequent short trips. And, a "one-bag" trip to the store is wholly unlike a four bag trip. I am not a shopper, but I really enjoy these trips. I had a pleasant ride home on a bike that just felt like a bike and even looped around to see the northern mountains with fresh snow.

The less we try to replace the car and instead replace the culture that goes along with it, the more we find we are gaining instead of fighting not to give up. There's nothing wrong with pushing the limits of the bicycle, but it isn't necessary to decreasing car use. Much like wearing bike specific clothing isn't wrong, but neither is it necessary to ride a bike. I worry that the "feats of strength" and rebel image of many utility cyclists put off newcomers in the same way that lycra does.

If it seems like "making do" with less car, the problem may just be one of approach. Instead of trying to beat the car, play a different game now and then.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Every Two Hours

Imagine that there were a group of people in the US that killed a pedestrian every 2 hours. Surely the nation would be up in arms, demanding swift punishment and fundamental changes to make sure such a group would never form again. The statistics are real (according to the NHTSA), and the killers are drivers. Every 2 hours, on average, a pedestrian is hit and killed by a car. Killed by a car, not just injured, killed. It is unclear whether cyclers (or "pedalcyclists," as the NHTSA terms us) are at more or less risk.

I generally keep this blog upbeat and leave the ranting to those better at it. Sometimes, though, the world stirs even quiet souls to action.

Yesterday evening, I met Rachel and the rest of the cast of the local production of "Paint Your Wagon" for the cast party downtown. The casts in these community theater productions quickly become family, and we had a wonderful time celebrating the show's success after 7 weeks of work. At about midnight, the party was interrupted by lights and sirens outside on Broadway. The street was blocked off, and no one could get any information about what had happened. We rode home sobered and somewhat worried. Missoula is not a large enough town that we've become immune to tragedy.

This morning, Rachel rode in for the show's final day. She called me shortly after. A cast member had been hit crossing Broadway last night, and he died this morning at the hospital. I am overcome by the sadness of such a tragic loss, and I can only imagine what the cast must be feeling as they don costumes and try to entertain two more crowds, somehow.

Most of us realize the benefits of automobiles every day, but the costs usually ring up silently. I refuse to forget Bill, and I am dedicating the future of this blog to all of those--like him--who bear the costs of an auto culture that takes away too much life and too much of life. In other words, I dedicate Cycler's Life to all of us. We can do better. Bikes can help.

I'll continue to work to my strength, which is highlighting the positives of cycling. There will still be ride reports, but I also plan to post something at least every other day. Some tiny encouragement for all of us to enjoy life with a little less car and a little more bike. If you don't like the idea, then just read the ride reports, but do give it some thought. Think about what's not included in the price of a gallon of gas.

Over and out.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Circling Missoula

If Missoula had been built about 15,000 years earlier, it would have been under a lake about half the size of Lake Michigan. Pretty lousy spot for a city, all in all. Glacial Lake Missoula left its legacy in a smooth valley floor, weird old rocks, and high water marks on the rounded old mountains east of town. Except for the water, it turns out that a glacial lake bed is a lovely place for a town.

Missoula lies mainly in the smooth, flat lake bed--an important reason we have such a thriving bike culture at our latitude. The city is bounded on all sides by impressive mountain ranges of various ages. Kindly, aging grandparents of mountains, the Sapphires, rise in the south and east. The Sapphires almost meet the bitterroot Range and its solid, craggy front that rises to 10,000 ft peaks behind in the west. To the north, the nearly impenetrable Mission complex protects a thousand hidden lakes and a vast wilderness.

There are only four narrow escapes from the valley, one in each direction. For most of my rides, I have to pick an exit, making loops nearly impossible. Today, though, I was riding my newly built fixed gear bicycle. Essentially, it's a bicycle that doesn't shift or coast. Since I hadn't tested the bike much yet, I was hesitant to take it out of the valley. I instead took the opportunity to do something I'd always wanted to do but never got around to--circle the valley.

I left in the afternoon after packing a small bag with early winter necessities: heavy mittens, an extra wool shirt, extra lights, a wool cap, camera, lock, and the all important PBHR. The PBHR is a family secret energy food that has yet to be seriously rivaled by "energy bars" in any category except squish resistance. When the temperature drops to freezing, there is no bar that can top a Peanut Butter Honey and Raisin Sandwich.

The weather was promising, if by promising one means portending wind, cold, snow, and great skies. Our little apartment happens to be a couple of blocks from the Sapphires that rise east of town. I ride those blocks and begin following the contour of the mountain's foot. I have to pause and track down a rattle, which turns out to be loose bottle cage bolts. Working on bikes--and especially building them--tends to make one hyperaware of anything out of place. Bolts tightened, I pedal north.

It doesn't take long to run out of roads in this direction. I turn west on an old, mostly forgotten road between I-90 and the railroad tracks. A brisk wind is now in my face and soon begins sending tiny ice pellets bouncing off my helmet. I turn the gear over slowly and begin looking at the valley ahead.

I know the southern half of the perimeter well, but I rarely ride the northern side. I don't know exactly how I'll get to the western edge. Being unusually bad with maps, I've more or less abandoned them for riding. I have a good sense of direction, and when that fails me, I follow the Dirk Gently model of navigation--just follow something else. Today, I decide to aim for the plume of smoke above the Pulp Mill. Dirk commented that he didn't always get to where he was going, but he always wound up where he needed to be. I agree.

Riding the northern edge of the valley brings to mind a theme that seems to tie a lot of blogs together these days--the potentially abrupt end of cheap oil. The edges of cities are a good place to see those things that every town needs, and no town wants to actually see much of. I pass a bottling plant, the landfill, and then begin rolling past a strip that is almost entirely devoted to transporting goods. Huge, identical warehouses with a staggering number of loading docks. Even on a Saturday, trucks are loading up to take our goods elsewhere or else unloading elsewhere's goods here. Diesel truck sales, repair, a UPS depot, and behind them all the Montana Rail Link yard. On a daily basis, most of us see maybe 1 percent of the work that goes into just shuttling stuff around. Not owning a car, Rachel and I seem less exposed to rising fuel costs than the faces on the news, but the truth is a bit less reassuring.

Fortunately, at 26 I still have a lot of kid in me, and I don't dwell on serious matters for too long. I'm riding a bike after all! Pretty soon, I'm mesmerized by the big trucks and railcars shuffling around to get their loads. The scale is almost hypnotic. I'm snapped out of my trance by North Reserve Street. This road was a small, mostly desolate two-lane affair when I moved here 7 years ago. Now, it's a hundred feet wide with glittering signs and flashing neon in either direction. It feeds a thousand or more new houses up Grant Creek, at least a 10 mile drive from downtown Missoula. One has to wonder if we know what we're doing. Are we just building stone monuments to the gods?

I have to ride over to the sidewalk and hit the pedestrian crossing button to change the signal. Once across, I'm on a pleasant road cutting through an industrial wasteland ("Demolitions, please check in at main office, thank you," a sign reads). Now farms begin to intersperse with industry--not exactly pastoral, but if they ever need anything blown up around the farm...

Finally, I hit a "Road Closed" sign. No matter. This happens even more often when I use a map, and, besides, these signs are rarely terminal for a cycler. I ride cautiously around the sign and stop at a three foot drop-off down to the railroad tracks. The road picks up like nothing happened on the far side, so I shoulder the bike, ease down onto the tracks and cross three tracks to the far side.

It seems my luck has run out for the moment, and I concede the fight, riding the broken shoulder of Highway 10 out toward my guiding star--the distant rising puff of acrid smoke. Eventually, I reach the crossroads with the northern route out of town. A local bike club used to put on a huge supported tour that went up that way but had to change the route as the road became more dangerous. The smoke leads me west, and I follow.

I start to get the feeling that I'm where I need to be today--on a quiet country road that belies the fact a huge mill lies at its end. I've been thinking a lot about the contradictions inherent in our modern lifestyle, and this road and that mill and the mountains rising behind them all state it more concisely than I ever could. Several large trucks pass with loads of fragrant logs heading for the mill. They're unusually friendly, giving me the whole lane as they pass. I wave, breathe deep and continue. I've always been a sucker for the smell of freshly cut wood. It brings back fond memories of chopping firewood with my dad when I was little.

I pass the Missoula Trap and Skeet Club, a strange compound that looks like a movie set; boy, I have been missing a lot in this part of town. I cross a creek or irrigation ditch; I can't tell which, and I stop and snap a picture of the mill backed by picturesque mountains.

Pulp Mill

Despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing else around, the pulp mill straddles the road, and employees are walking from one side to the other in large numbers. I ride through slowly, underneath huge pipes and conveyors. To the right is an unfathomably large pile of wood pulp. On the left is a huge vat collecting drops of black sludge. The air is acrid and smells vaguely like a huge room full of cardboard boxes. Were Dickens riding with me, he would doubtless stop now and start scribbling earnestly in a little notebook. The mill makes the cardboard containers that ensure I have a steady supply of raisins and peanuts for my sandwiches. Moving stiff around constitutes 10 percent of US GDP and 1 in every 7 jobs (according to the BTS). How many jobs like these are indirectly part of the industry? Not much need for boxing something up if it isn't going anywhere.

Now the mill is behind me, and I've turned south to follow a new perimeter. Right now, the Clark Fork River is in my way, but I'll cross it in about 7 miles and start following the Blue Mountain complex. I haven't mentioned the bike much yet (It's a 1978 Trek; for those interested, some pictures are here). In fact, that's precisely how I would sum up riding a fixed gear--pleasantly invisible. On a geared bike, you have three main options just riding along: pedal, coast, shift. A singlespeed, which I've ridden a lot of lately, knocks that down to two: pedal, coast. A fixed gear makes the last choice for you and leaves you with: pedal. I always thought it would take a steely concentration to keep myself from accidentally coasting, but it really isn't that way after about 5 miles. You sort of steer the bike, drink, eat, and let your legs do what they have to down there. In fact, the riding itself requires so little thought, that a fixed gear is my new favorite "thinking bike." Although, if you've made it this far, you've probably already figured that out, gentle reader.

I roll through the river bottom as the sun sets, and a damp coldness creeps over the fields toward me. I mentally put off adding a layer. Soon, I'll be on familiar roads and climbing the biggest of the day's hills. The hills will warm me up. Sure enough, I approach a familiar road from an unfamiliar direction, turn west, and cross the Clark Fork River. I pass a large yellow real estate sign in a field proclaiming "Busy Intersection! Heavy Traffic!" Well, not yet, but I guess there are always dreamers among us. I hang a left and begin skirting Blue Mountain. Soon, the river crowds the road and forces it to climb upslope. I stand on tired legs and pound out the rhythm of the climb--OK, so it's not a rhythm so much as a wobbly spasm, more like modern music. At any rate, I pause at the top under pretense of snapping a photo of the dying light over the valley. I enter the woods, and the light is gone. When I re-emerge, the moon is out and easily overpowers my cold headlight. I switch it off to save the dying batteries for traffic later.

In the moonlight, I spy two young whitetail bucks who have the nervous look of hunting season in their movements. They recognize my bike as non-threatening, though, and resume their uncomfortable feeding. The moon reflects off the river and makes ghosts out of the slender birches. I notice an odd shape off the side of the road ahead and slow down. It's a highway patrolman, watching for speeders, I guess, and not negligent cyclers riding by moonlight. He lets me pass, or doesn't see me! I crest the hill beyond him, and the valley opens up in a glittering vista below. I lean the bike against the deep ditch, climb a little hill, and sit to enjoy the last of my PBHR and the view.

A few minutes later, a large truck barrels up the road. From behind, I hear the screech of tires and sirens. Whoops. The truck is pulled over 20 yards up the road from my bike. I decide now might be a good time to make haste, as much as I'm capable. I remount, switch on lights and quietly roll by the unfolding scene, bound for home. I skirt the south hills until they turn north and follow the base back home. It has been said, "You have to know where you are to know where you're going." It's true and not true, like most things. That said, I'm enjoying learning more about where I am. You can enjoy life where you are and where you're going, especially on a bicycle. Now, go out and circle your town, and write me about it. There are things to be learned on the margins.

A few more photos are here.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Fig Bars and Weather Fronts

I got out of an afternoon meeting early and was riding around waiting for inspiration to strike and coax me out of the valley. Thus began a completely unplanned and unforgettable ride up Deer Creek. Following is excerpted from an email I sent to a cycler friend:
Two furious weather fronts were battling it out from east and west, locking horns in
Hellgate Canyon near
town. I was riding around town and had an extra wool sweater
and a couple of
fig bars with me. I decided to roll right into the canyon, pushing into
oddest swirling winds.

There's a neat little dirt road that leads north out of the canyon and up a
couple thousand feet along Deer Creek. After a mile or two climbing, the wind
calmed suddenly, and completely. Then a wave of warm, amber light slipped down
the ridge. It was like someone slipping a yellow filter over a flood light. I
stopped to watch what would happen. Directly above, there was a narrow slit of
the bluest sky opening up. To each side of the opening, the clouds were
peeling back, bending away from each other like two waves that had just crashed

I could only guess that the two fronts had sized each other up and decided
neither had the advantage. The yellow light lasted the rest of the way up the
mountain as the two fronts receded. More and more, I enjoy just pointing my
bike somewhere and seeing what the world has to show me.