Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Car Talk and Gas Taxes

In this world of contradictions, I remain a Car Talk junky. I was surprised to hear the call for a graduated $3.00 gas tax coming from Car Talk's Ray Magliozzi. Today, I was pointed toward the mail received from listeners about the proposal. The responses are perhaps not surprising, but I find them engaging reading anyway.

A common response to an increased gas tax (or any increase in the price of driving) is that it is unfair to those who have to drive. "Have to drive" usually doesn't mean either "I use my vehicle for work" or "I am physically unable to get around any other way." It usually means the person commutes a long distance or lives in a rural area. "What am I supposed to do?" In a recent survey by a student of mine, a respondent noted that he had to commute 30 miles each way to his job. How is he supposed to use less fuel?

Don't I remember from middle school geography that the U.S. is really mobile? Well, what happened? Why is it that moving closer to jobs/schools/grocery stores is out of the question? Too expensive? Maybe in some cities, but expensive cities are usually the ones with decent mass transit. Not to mention, saving 60 commuting miles per day would give a family a couple hundred dollars more each month for mortgage or rent. Unfair? Smokers pay more taxes than the rest of us, but no one seems to ask "What are they supposed to do?"

Comments welcome.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Just a kid on a bike

I glance behind to see a tractor trailer pushing a wave of water along the swamped highway. One, two, three, I count traffic cones until I make my move between four and five to the outer edge of the shoulder.

Storms have been pushing through this skinny valley all day. I rode the twenty miles here to flyfish a local stream, and I'd been rewarded all day with beautiful skies as I hiked and fished. When I returned to my bike around 8:00, another band of clouds had moved overhead and promised to do more than pretty up the sky. A strong tailwind pushed me out ahead for a mile or two, and then a drenching rain caught me.

The shoulder on this highway is only about 3 feet wide, but that's usually adequate given the sparse traffic. Just to prove that bureaucracies have a sense of humor, though, MDOT had chosen today as a fine day to restripe the road. To cover their handiwork, the crews placed traffic cones at regular intervals to encourage drivers to keep off the paint. The wind and some accuracy issues left most of these cones well off the line and onto the shoulder, which meant I had to pick the inside or outside. When the road was clear behind, I stuck to the inside, avoiding the cones and the occasional crumbled shoulder edge. When traffic came behind, I would time a gap where most cones were out of the way and dodge to the shoulder. The simple maneuver was made less simple by the fact that any steering movement set off a mighty shimmy in my load. You see, using my tried and true put off testing things and then go ride forty miles, in a storm, on the highway, with traffic cones, technique had revealed a minor problem. In fact, overloaded Rubbermaid totes with gear lashed on top make tall road bikes handle funny. Who knew?

Something about flailing around on a bike where I shouldn't really be while sopping wet brought back the most vivid memory. I remembered a similar day growing up in East Tennessee. I had ridden my little red BMX bike a couple of miles from home with my mini garden tools to mine quartz in the woods. A storm hit and I got mud and clay soaked. I had to ride the bike home holding these muddy garden tools because I didn't want my backpack to get dirty, and it turned out BMX bikes don't handle so well with garden tools on the handlebars. I don't really rememeber the rest, but I must have made it home, and I seem to recall having some fun on the way.

So, remember the truck closing in behind me? Well, I made it safely onto the far edge of the shoulder well before it passed. A head-high wave of water completely drenched me and the bike and all my stuff. And, you know what? I sort of hoped another one would come and do it again. I was just a kid on a bike.

[First photo: looking downstream after a wave of clouds passes; Second photo: a Westslope Cutthroat trout from the stream; No photos of the road home because the little pencam refused to work after getting wet but is fine now]


Sunday, June 18, 2006


Rachel's blog is on hold while she travels the midwest with Missoula Children's Theater. It is a grand adventure for her, but the change of pace is shocking from bicycling everywhere to driving a little red truck 6,000 miles. She'll resume her blog in September, but not from Missoula...

We've learned we'll be moving to Portland, OR (of all places!) in late August for the next few years. We can't really imagine living in a place with such an established bicycle culture. I look forward to meeting you Portlanders or Stumptownians (or whatever you call yourselves) and to riding some new roads in your beautiful corner of the world. I've lived in a semi-arid valley for 8 years now, and I've been riding in Thunderstorms lately to try to recall my rain sense.

It will be odd to live in a place where just riding bikes isn't an identity in itself. Here, we are Joe and Rachel, that kooky couple that bikes everywhere. From what I've heard/read, we may not seem that kooky in Portland (well, at least not for cycling).

I apologize for the post drought here lately. Between sending Rachel off, teaching summer school, and soaking up as much of this corner of the world as I can before leaving, I've had some full days. I'll try to start making up for it.

Friday, June 02, 2006


I guess it's fitting that bicycle flats seem to come in "cycles." I'm in a definite upswing right now. Yesterday, I rode down the highway to a favorite trout stream for the afternoon. I was off the water at 8:30, bought some fuel (Choco Sticks and PBR crackers) at a gas station, and started the hour ride home in fading light. The ride was uneventful until I hit a traffic light on the outskirts of town, accelerated away on green, and was bouncing all over the shoulder. A rear flat.

I happened to be right near a Wal-Mart, which is about the second best spot to be with a flat (after home). Yes, Wal-Mart has everything a cycler needs for a pleasant flat fixin': clean grass to relax on, overhead lighting, and even a bathroom to wash up in if you forgot to replace the latex gloves you tore on the last flat. Shoot, they probably even have latex gloves!

As I took my time changing out the tube, Wal-Mart shoppers gave me their full attention. As I assured them I had what I needed, didn't need a ride, didn't need to use their cell phone, etc, I wondered why some of these same folks show so little concern for cyclers on the road. There's something about being face to face and remembering we're all just human, I think. Or, maybe I should ride with flat tires.

When the new tube was inflated, chain tensioned and the tools and old tube stashed, I sat in the grass another few minutes to watch the early summer light fade. Riding home, I decided that as long as there is no highway shoulder, rain, or complete darkness involved, fixing bike flats is actually pretty fun. May all your punctures be pleasant!