Thursday, October 4, 2012

How Dogs Have Changed My Cycling Plans

Before embarking on my southbound journey along the Adventure Cycling Association's mapped Underground Railroad Route I had noted that previous cyclists had offered warnings about loose dogs in some of the more rural areas, particularly once one ventured into Kentucky and then into Tennessee. In preparation, I purchased what I considered to be the requisite can of HALT pepper spray at a bicycle shop just south of Newport, Kentucky. I'm ready, I thought to myself. I can't let a few dogs get in the way of my long dreamed of cycling adventure.

That was a little over three weeks ago. Yesterday I entered Mississippi and a lot has happened in the interim. Essentially, the dogs have won. I am absolutely fed up with being chased, hounded and otherwise constantly threatened by animals that have the potential to cause my death under what could prove to be horrific circumstances. I am very fortunate to have never lost control of my loaded touring bicycle as I rapidly respond to one or two or on at least one occasion more than half dozen loose dogs bearing down on me. I have growled and barked at them until I have gone hoarse. I have used pepper spray and have blasted my air horn at them. At one point I needed to suddenly swerve to avoid one dog only to find myself dangerously close to traffic passing me on these insidiously narrow roads lined with rumble strips.

If anyone were to ask my advice about cycling along the route I just traversed I would simply say “Don't bother.” I accept that there are inherent dangers when one chooses to tour by bicycle. It requires you to stay alert and be prepared to deal with traffic, unknown roads, and much else. But to add to that the experience of constantly being harassed by animals that could cause you significant harm turns what should be an enjoyable experience into something at times verging on a nightmare.

I have spent the past few hours reading over numerous articles on CGOAB regarding this issue. There are lots of suggestions about how to deal with dogs, and page after page of discussion on the forums about “who is to blame.” Maybe it is the cyclist's fault for being on the road suggests one person. No, it is the irresponsible dog owner who doesn't maintain control of his or her animal, says another. I am firmly of the belief that dogs aren't irresponsible, it is the caretakers of those animals who are. However, such a relatively straightforward perspective flies in the face of an entrenched culture in this part of the world that seems grounded in the belief that dogs are meant to be free and unencumbered.

I have cycled thousands of miles around England, and across much of southern Ontario and upstate New York over the past ten years. In all that time and over all that distance, I could count my experiences with troublesome dogs on one hand. Such encounters have clearly been the exception. In rural America they seem to be the rule.

Loose dogs have spooked me off continuing to pursue cycling in this part of the country. Rural America can continue to enjoy its dog centered culture. I just don't want to have anything to do with it. It is too dangerous.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Conversation at Duke's Diner

Heavy rain is forecast so I decide to spend an extra day in this small town in rural Tennessee. The motel is clean and there are three different restaurants available within easy walking distance. Dinner last night was at Monroe's. I'm starting to get used to catfish. It often seems to be a headliner in this part of the country.

Breakfast this morning was at Duke's Diner. Almost a caricature, it is like walking into a movie set. People are friendly and with the chatter going on there is no doubt that I am venturing further into the southern U.S. The drawl is unmistakable. I'm just waiting for Jed Clampett to walk in.

It doesn't take long before I am engaged in conversation. At first I think he is the proprietor, but he quickly corrects that misconception. “Just here to he'p ma wife. It's ma day off.” he tells me as he slowly moves about clearing the odd table while flashing me an easy relaxed grin.

When I let it be known that I am cyclist passing through staying an extra day at the motel up the road the chatting starts in earnest. Others from adjacent tables are drawn in. “What have you seen so far?” I am asked. When I mention a couple of the civil war battle sites, the stories begin to flow. Everyone has something to say about their connection to the history of the area.

“My five times great grand-dad was murdered after the civil war. The soldiers was leavin' but they killed him on his farm.” I am told. “One of his sons had his new saddle stolen by them retreating Union soldiers.” he continues. “It was a terrible, terrible time. It wasn't all about slavery. It was about taxes on cotton. The slaves you know, around here, they lived in their own houses, and were free to go about as they pleased. Some of the things that happened after the war were just terrible. My grandma told me some of the stories.”

A fellow at an adjacent table nodded in agreement. “Everybody was wrong.” I am told. “But them Union soldiers shouldn'ta done what they did. They was stealin' just to make money, not because they needed what they took.” As the talk continues I hear The Band singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in the back of my mind.

I don't detect anger as I am told these stories. I do pick up on the sadness however. My new friend makes it clear that this is an oral history, that has been passed down to him through generations. He tells me quietly, at times with a smile, but often slowly shaking his head, as if he is reliving the tale told to him by his grandmother. His ancestors experienced the horror of that war, and the story continues to be told, and re-told.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Multi-Faceted America

As a Canadian, I can easily fall into the trap of pigeon-holing my American neighbours into distinct camps. Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, Bible thumper or secularist, gun lover or gun hater.  Of course, America is much more complicated than that.

In the past couple of weeks I have overheard many conversations, and had the privilege to engage in many more. My expectation was that as I moved further south into America's heartland the more conservative would be the opinions of those I met.  I also assumed that the more liberal thinker would be easier to find in the urban areas and in college towns.  To some extent this seems to be true, but one must always remember what the word assume spells: (It makes an ass out of u & me;)

Kent, Ohio had the distinct feel of a progressive college town. A vibrant art scene, funky downtown with lots of independent business and a variety of ethnic foods.  Chatting with folks at the local farmer's market I found there was lots of interest in organic farming.

Within a couple of days, however, I met a couple in Mansfield, Ohio who clearly defined themselves as "conservative Republicans". They were quite curious to have read on my previous blog posting my observation regarding the "divisiveness" of this election. In their opinion, it was the Democrats who were doing the dividing.  They agreed with my interpretation of those posters that Barrack Obama is "anti-American." "He wants to fundamentally change our country into something our founding fathers did not intend."  Apparently they had been convinced on this matter by a movie they had recently seen. When asked about their support for Mitt Romney, I was told "He's not my first choice, but I like his support of family. He's a family oriented man. I like that he does not support abortion." I chose not to ask about the issue of gay marriage.

Next stop was the college town of Delaware, Ohio, home to Wesleyan Ohio University. My experience there couldn't have been more radically different from economically depressed Mansfield, less than fifty miles north. As another college town, it also had a vibrant, funky downtown which supports a twice weekly farmer's market. There was an openness to the town that was in the air. Smiles and conversations were easy to come by.  My hosts in Delaware were clearly progressive liberal people who were outraged at the income disparity in their country. They also were personally affected by the lack of a comprehensive medical system that left people vulnerable to possibly bankruptcy due to medical costs.  Not native to Delaware, they had a considerable worldview, having traveled extensively not only across America, but around the world.  They could appreciate the world from many points of view.  Although they never spoke of it, I had the sense that there faith was important to them from the muted references I saw in their home.

A couple of days later and about 50 miles further south I spent quite a bit of time with another unique American. A former military man with a son and daughter in the military he was ready to acknowledge his fundamentally conservative views, but was also quite open to another side of any argument. He was, you might say, an open minded conservative.  His college training was in agriculture. Although he liked the notion of local organic agriculture, he didn't feel we could feed the world that way. He did, however, feel that he was a "steward" of the earth and was most concerned about some of the more rapacious agricultural and industrial practices he had witnessed.

Next stop was Cincinnati. Big city feel, big city thinking, big city views. I met progressive liberals and fundamental Republican Romney supporters.  Some of the young people simply felt it was a matter of time before the old guard "Tea Party" types would die off and that the world would ultimately be a better place.  Many of these young people however mixed their progressive views with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.  Those of my (the baby-boomer) generation were very saddened by the current divisive political discourse. The difference this time was that they put the blame on the Republicans.  The Romney supporter clearly felt that a business background was essential to running America.  "What does Obama know?" he asked rhetorically. He doesn't know anything about business. "He's never had a real job." he opined.

In Madison Indiana I chatted for at least half an hour with John W.  a retired Indiana State trooper.  Our discussion ranged from gun control to religion to medical insurance. (Indeed, almost every conversation I have had with Americans on this trip has at least touched on the issue of medical care.)

John's opinions on issues leave any preconceived notions you have about Americans in disarray.  He initiated our conversation proclaiming that "Most Americans don't know their own history."  "Did you know that our first four Presidents were Deists?"  He shook his head scornfully as he recalled one glorified portrait of George Washington on his knees praying to the Almighty.  "Washington would never have been on his knees in prayer." he assured me.   He literally laughed out loud as he talked about those who believed that "God would save them" from whatever may happen to them. "When it comes down to it", John concluded, "I'm an atheist."

"You go talk to Americans," he told me. "They don't want us to continue to be Sheriff of the world. We'll sell 'em the weapons if they want to buy 'em, but we shouldn't be fighting these wars."  He agreed with me when I suggested that America's stance on this harmed their international reputation.

He was curious about the Canadian health care system.  I told him that it wasn't perfect, but that what I liked the most about it was that Canadians were largely protected from catastrophic health care costs. He nodded his head attentively.

He then asked about gun control. "I understand you have a much lower murder rate. Is that correct? he asked. Although I couldn't provide him with the exact statistics I assured him our murder rate was miniscule compared to the U.S. "You probably don't realize this, but as a former state trooper I have a lifetime concealed weapon permit and I'm carrying a .38 revolver right now." he stated in a matter-of-fact fashion.  "You know, where more of the population is armed, there is less violent crime." he offered as support for everyone  being armed.  He agreed with my assessment that over many decades Canada and the U.S. had developed distinctly different cultures regarding gun control. 

No doubt, America is a complex, multi-faceted place. At least as demonstrated by those I have been talking with.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Visiting the Kent State May 4 Memorial

Today was a difficult, tearful, most touching day. I spent this morning and early afternoon at the site of what is referred to today on wikipedia as the Kent State Massacre. Almost invariably, most "baby-boomers" are familiar with what occurred on May 4, 1970.  At 1224 PM, within thirteen seconds, 28 Ohio National Guard fired 67 shots into a crowd of students. They were demonstrating against the decision by President Richard Nixon to extend the Viet Nam war by invading Cambodia.  Four students were killed and nine others wounded. 

As I wandered the site this morning all the memories of that tumultuous time in our history came back.  I constantly was welling up with tears as I walked around Taylor Hall. Almost invariably whenever I started to speak with anyone this morning about it I started to cry. I met a young woman looking at one of the displays on the grounds.  I started to speak with her and as soon as I did my voice began to quake. Although I hadn't been there, I felt as if I had.  I well up now as I type this. The four students killed were aged 19-20. On that day, in 1970 I was looking forward to my nineteenth birthday.  I got to experience that birthday, and many more. They never did. As I walked around the site I was constantly confronted with the feeling that it could have been me.

Today was difficult, very difficult in many ways, but it was a journey I needed to make.  I needed to come here today to pay my respects not only to those who died, but also to those who have struggled to come to terms with what happened that day.  It was a very very angry time.  America was engaged in a brutal war and it was, almost literally, tearing the country apart.

I was privileged today to have the opportunity to have a brief tour of the yet to be opened memorial display housed in the basement of Taylor Hall.  I met one of the curators whom I had been told was present the day of the shootings. As much as part of me wanted to, I could not summon the courage to ask her about her experience that day for fear that I would simply break down before her or that I would summon the same in her.  Yes, it was that emotional. 

For "baby boomers" it brings it all back. For all of us it provides another perspective on what was happening in those so difficult times.  I urge everyone, if you have the opportunity, to spend the time you need at this site to inquire, learn and reflect. 

I conclude for now with this quote that welcomes you as you enter the memorial. It is from Alison Krause, (April 23, 1951 - May 4, 1970) who was killed that day.

Dates and facts are not enough to show what happened in the past. It is necessary to delve into the human side of history to come up with the truth.  History must be made relevant to the present to make it useful.

 Mary Ann Vecchio, screaming in anguish over the body of Jeffrey Miller.

It was from this vantage point that the National Guard aimed and fired.

 Yes, it could have been me.

One lethal reminder that exists today. One of the bullets pierced half inch thick steel through this sculpture.  The memorial in the distance is to Jeffrey Miller, one of the four students killed.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

After a Few Days on the Road

Since crossing the Rainbow Bridge and entering Niagara Falls, NY on Sunday, I have cycled about 375 kilometers on my journey into the "heart" of America.  Pedaling across the extreme northwest corner of Pennsylvania I am now in my third state, Ohio.  It is time to try and make sense of what I have experienced so far.

If what I wanted was to experience a slice of "Americana" it would be hard to beat what I came across as I entered Conneaut, Ohio. I felt like I had entered a movie set when I found the White Turkey Drive-In.

From a cycling perspective, the further I have journeyed, the worse the roads have become. New York state impressed me with their wide well maintained paved shoulders. As soon as I hit the PA border, the road surface deteriorated, and the shoulders became narrower. I should have considered myself lucky, for once I entered Ohio, the shoulders disappeared entirely as I cycled on rough pavement that was edged by a decades old curb. Infrastructure was in bad shape, as evidenced by this railway overpass on US 20 just west of Conneaut. How long before it collapses?

Lots of abandoned warehouses, and For Sale signs seemed to be everywhere. In Conneaut, an large church building, with big house, was on offer for $69,900. A real estate office showed dozens of properties, many decent looking homes for less than $100,000. $250,000 would get you a massive home on several acres.

Interestingly, a village police force had the resources to purchase and maintain what I can only call an urban assault vehicle.

It wasn't all bad though, but the bad stuff does stand out.  On the bright side, the Western Reserve Greenway Trail is a well maintained paved route extending from Ashtabula to the outskirts of Warren, Ohio, a distance of more than 40 miles. It is a beautiful easy ride taking you through quiet countryside.

In Austinburg I chanced upon a bbq set up outside Shannon's Mini Mart. It was hosted by Tami Pentek who is running for Clerk of County Courts. Why this is an elected position is one of the vagaries of American politics that I am yet to understand. Lots of relaxed conversation was happening. I chatted with an area cyclist and then spent a few minutes discussing my trip with Ms. Pentek.

As I cycled closer to Warren and started to inquire about motels, I was repeatedly warned away from that city. "They had trouble there. You wouldn't want to stay there.", were the admonitions. I took the advice offered, and found myself at the deservedly named "Budget Motel" at the intersection of I80 and Highway 5. I want to learn more about what is going on in Warren, Ohio. Perhaps another day, or another trip.

I have found people to be almost invariably friendly and welcoming. A lot of the overheard conversations, however, in diners, and other such places, is about the economy, and how bad it is. You don't really have to listen though. All you have to do is look around.

Monday, August 27, 2012

My First Observed Presidential Election Sign

2012 - America VS Obama
This was the first sign that caught my eye regarding the U.S. presidential election.  It started me thinking.  If America (at least, apparently, some Americans) are against Obama the other part of this message, albeit unstated, is that Obama is against America. The logical outcome of this would be that Obama is not only Un-American, but ultimately anti-American.  I saw two of these signs outside homes just east of Dunkirk, New York as I cycled along SR 5. It struck me as quite a divisive "Us versus Them" message. What I found particularly ironic was that I saw these signs only a couple of hours after reading a news article about how  "Romney accuses Obama of running a campaign of anger and divisiveness."

I know I've missed some of Obama's speeches, but he has never struck me as one who engages in "anger and divisiveness". If anything, one of the criticisms I hear about him is that he endevours too often to portray himself as the great compromiser., who seeks to "reach his hand across the aisle."   Perhaps I have misinterpreted these signs. I am certainly open to an alternate explanation of their meaning.

Now I am really curious to see more roadside signs as I travel south.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Morphing Into a Traveling Explorer

Although my cycling journey hasn't yet begun I am now transitioning into a "traveler".  A traveler is someone who, at least in the moment, is without roots.  I noticed this when I glanced over at my  panniers stacked in my brother's living room. Those four little bags, attached to my bicycle, constitute at least the physical essence of my home and life for the next two or three months. During this journey I often will not know in the morning where I will find rest at the end of my day. In the event of bad weather, shelter may be in a mall or under a store awning or a bridge.  My next meal will often be an unknown. To be a traveler means to let go of the security of home, and trust the awesomeness of the world that surrounds you.

This afternoon I hope to get a peek at some of that awesomeness as I take in buskerfest at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto with my good friend Paul. A last wander through the gleaming steel and glass towers of this big city. Should be quite a change once I start pedaling along the southern shore of Lake Erie.