Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mountain Biking: something new for Sage

I am still out West, having completed the conference at Tahoe and now taking some vacation days in Southern Utah.  The conference was a lot of work, but we were given Wednesday afternoon off.  This story came from my adventures during our "free time."

Sage and his rental bike
I think I’m going to die.  My heart is pounding so hard that I can feel it.  My breathing sounds like a steam locomotive chugging uphill.  My thighs are burning.  This bike may have been the nicest of the rental lot, with its 29 inch tires and five inches full suspension, retailing for a whopping $3500, but it doesn’t make the climb any easier.  There’s still a good piece of real estate to cover.  “I gotta stop,” I yell to Malcolm as I drop my bike into some bushes on the side of the trail and sit against a tree.  “Just let me catch my breath,” I tell Malcolm as he too stops.  I eat some dried fruit and nuts, and offer some to Malcolm.  I take a swallow of water.  It tastes good and washes the dust out of my mouth, but I worry if I’ll have enough to make it to the top. 

A group of hikers make their way down the trail.  My heart rate has moved out of the heart attack zone and I can finally talk without gasping.  “How much further to Marlette?” Malcolm asks.  “It’s taken us a good thirty minutes walking,” one of them says.  “This is the steepest part,” the other guy says, pointing pack up hill, “but the effort is worth it.”  My heart rate begins to race again.  These guys are walking downhill which makes me wonder if we can make it.  But I am going to try and soon we’re back on the bikes.  The trail gets so steep we both start walking our bikes, but after ten minutes or so the trail levels off and we’re back riding.  Soon, the trail crests the hill and we begin to coast downhill, toward the cool inviting waters of Marlette Lake.  I’ve made it.  The hard part is over.

Malcolm along the edge of the mountain
I got to know Malcolm and his wife 25 years ago, when I was in Virginia City, Nevada.  Before coming to the conference at Tahoe, I’d spent the weekend in Virginia City and ran into him at church.  He asked if I had any free time this week, suggesting we go mountain bike riding.  Having never ridden a mountain bike (I might be the last biker in the world not to have ridden one, as I ride a touring bike on the highway), I readily agreed.  Since the conference was only scheduled for a half day on Wednesday (which made up for the late evening sessions on the other days), we arranged to meet at the Village Ski Loft in Incline Village.  The guy at the store was not only helpful but excited about where we would be riding.  I too was excited, having skied to Marlette Lake before (but always returning back to Spooner). We left my rental car at the shop, put my bike on Malcolm’s rack, and headed south to Spooner Lake, where we’d begin our ride. 

Marlette Lake
The first 4.5 miles was steep, as we climbed to MarletteLake, a body of water created high in the mountains to supply the needs of Virginia City, Nevada.  Water is withdrawn and flows down the east side of the Sierras at such force that it pushed back up into the Virginia Range where it flows into a small lake, before being sent to the taps in town.  The water system is an engineering marvel and in the 19th Century, it supplied not only the needs for tens of thousands of people, but also for massive milling operations.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to linger or take a dip, so after purifying and refilling our water containers, we continue, following an old flume that was used to haul timber down the mountain to Incline Village. 

View of Tahoe
At first, the trail is very steep downhill and at one bend, filled with boulders, we have to carry the bike as we navigate the rocks.  But then the trail levels out and the vistas along Tahoe open up as we ride on a narrow path on the edge of the mountain.  A left turn along this section would be suicidal and I’m not sure my helmet would do me any good.  But the views are incredible and we stop several times to gaze in awe.  There are a couple of rock slide areas where we have to carry the bikes, but mostly this is easy riding—one just has to be alert for rock boulders jutting out of the side of the mountain at head height.   After several miles of such pleasant riding, we come to a junction.  The trail to the right leads to the Tahoe Rim Trail, but we take the left fork back to Incline Village.  Its 7.5 miles; about the distance we’ve already covered in the past three and a half hours.  We make it down in roughly 20 minutes, riding our brakes (my fancy bike has disk brakes!).  

The ride is fast and exciting.  The only time I worry is when we’re going through sand and the braking causes my bike to fishtail.  But I hold it up and we make it back to the road fifteen minutes before the bike shop closes.  Heading back into Incline Village, the road climbs steeply and I get about half way up the hill and my right thigh begins to cramp up.  I drink some water and give my bike to Malcolm, who is more used to the high altitude.  He takes off to the bike shop.  I walk Malcolm’s bike until the cramp is gone, then ride through town, arriving at the shop a few minutes after 6 PM.  They are still there, but Malcolm had already turned in my bike and picked up my copy of the rental agreement.  I drop my helmet off and we arrange things to fit Malcolm’s bike into my rental car and drive back to his vehicle.   Before departing, we go for a swim in Tahoe and enjoy a beer over dinner.  It’s been a good day, but I expect I’ll be walking a bit bowlegged tomorrow. 
View of Sand Harbor

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Moon setting over Tahoe

Click to enlarge!

I am having to endure sitting in a conference room for 6-8 hours a day this week, looking out at Lake Tahoe. I was up early this morning and took this photo of the nearly full waning moon setting behind the Sierras.  This is a lovely place!  (I only wonder why I didn't pack a 300 mm lens.) On, and the internet isn't very good, but that's okay because when I'm not in meetings, I want to be outside and without a computer...  So, it may take me a while to catch up with everyone.  But I will!  And now the lecturer is staring at me as I think he realizes I'm not taking notes...  Be good.  Bye! 

Monday, July 22, 2013

How Sage ended up at the Mall of America

Nevada Jack
Nevada Jack Reporting

Although the dude has written over a 1000 blog post, I don’t think he has ever talked about going to a mall.   There is a good reason; Sage ain’t a mall kind of guy. He hates them.  This is the dude who loved the IGA at Trout Lake with its groceries, hardware, fishing tackle and ice cream.  As Sage has often said, “you can’t get groceries in a mall except overpriced candies, teas and coffees.  Nor can you find hardware and if there is a store with fishing gear, you can bet they’ll have everything you need to look like you look like a L.L. Bean model on a river.”  Sage ain’t the model type.  Of course, as Sage has complained to me, you can get over-priced ice cream in the mall at a place called Cold-Stone Creamy, not to be confused with stone-cold which nearly became his state when his heart missed a few beats after hearing the price demanded for a small serving of ice cream.   With this background, you can see that no one was more surprised than Sage himself when he found himself inside the Mall of America, the super-mall by which all other malls are measured. 

In the middle of last week, the stars must have been all aligned wrong or maybe God (or an employee of Delta Airlines) thought it was a time for a practical joke because Sage found himself, at the Mall of America.   He should have learned by now not to fly on a summer afternoon, but he insisted he had stuff to do in the morning.  The last three times Sage has flown West in the summer, it’s taken him as long to fly as it would have been for him to take a train.  This time, however, weather wasn’t an issue.  It was mechanical.  There was something wrong with the plane and thankfully, the people at Delta decided to change planes, which was a double blessing.  Not only was Sage blessed not to end up splattered across the landscape, he was also blessed because mechanical problems meant that Delta had to picked up the tab. 

Sage had an hour and a half lay-over in Minneapolis, but because of the problems, he arrived with only nine minutes to get from one side of Minnesota to the other.  The airport is huge and confusing enough that it must be by design.   After getting off the over-stuffed plane, in which at least three or four people actually followed the flight attendant’s suggestions that those who could let those whose connections are close go ahead of them (and of course, Sage was sitting in the last row of the plane), Sage ran across the airport and along its moving sidewalks, only to arrive at gate G-22 in time to wave to his plane heading out toward the runaway. 

“No problem, Man,” the ticket agent to Sage.  Sage was a bit confused, as he never realized Minnesota was a haven for displaced Jamaicans, but I reminded him of the Jamaican bobsled team and how they have to have someplace to train.  The Jamaican assured Sage he could put him on the 9 PM flight to Vegas and all would be well in the world.  He started punching some keys on his computer and then began to shake his head and said it looked like Delta no longer had that flight…  He sent Sage to the rebooking agent, who informed him that he would be flying to Vegas at 9 AM the next morning and that they would put him up at a new Radisson Hotel that’s connected to the Mall of America.  She even offered Sage an overnight kit.  I told him to take it, to get what he can why the getting is good, but Sage has flown enough to never travel without a toothbrush, deodorant and a change of underwear in his carry-on bags.  Combs and brushes are unnecessary, at least in Sage’s case. 

By the time Sage arrived at the Radisson, checked in, cancelled his hotel in Vegas and told the rental car folks to hold the Yugo he’d reserved for another day, the Mall of America was closing down.  We walked around a few minutes, then headed back to the hotel where he spent his twenty-five dollar voucher for dinner on a Walleye Sandwich and a local oatmeal stout beer (when in Rome, eat like the Romans) and nothing for his favorite bear who had is eye on the salmon.  Then, he slept in a hotel bed that probably cost three or four times as much as his hotel would have been in Vegas, and better yet in Sage’s cheapskate mind, he didn’t have to pay for it.  

Sage is attending a seminar out west, tying it together with a week vacation where he’s been enjoying life as he drives across the deserts and spends time soaking in hot springs and riding in the cab of a 1914 steam train.  I’m sure he’ll be posting more stories soon. 
The Lego creations at the Mall of America was pretty cool

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Stop at Trout Lake

The "Y" at the middle of the intersection in Trout Lake, MI

After crossing the Big Mac into the Upper Peninsula, I pay the four dollar toll at St. Ignace for the privilege.   But I don’t follow US 2 which runs along Lake Michigan shoreline, opting instead for Michigan 123 that runs into the heart of the UP.   The road follows the former roadbed of the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad which Ernest Hemingway rode a few years after the Great War as he and friends headed to a fish camp along the East Branch of the Fox River outside of Seney, Michigan.  That adventure provided the fodder for his classic short story, “The Big Two Hearted River.”  In those days, one had to cross the Straits of Mackinac by ferry, but in 1957 the bridge opened, spanning the straits.

It’s getting late in the afternoon when I stop at Trout Lake.   There is a small IGA here with wonderful sandwiches, piled high with sliced meats.  As I plan to have dinner with friends once I arrive in Marquette, I choose instead a cone of hand-dipped black cherry ice cream.  Waiting for the clerk, I look around the store for a minute.  In addition to groceries and a deli, they have fishing gear and some hardware.  The store seems to be a place from the past, which is why I like stopping here.

As I step outside, the bells of the railroad crossing are clanging and I walk around the building to watch a CN engine pulling a mixed assortment of log and tank cars in from the Sault.  The engineer stops at the “Y”, just shy of the road crossing.  The brakeman steps off, unlocks and then turns the switch.  The train then proceeds, its diesels rumbling and the cars swaying, as it makes its way through the junction and across the highway, taking the tracks that will lead on toward Seney and probably eventually to the paper mill at Munising.   I watch it rumble down the tracks for a few minutes, then get back in my truck and continue driving.

I’ve stopped at Trout Lake many times, but have never lingered more than a few minutes.  But I like the area and I like the IGA with its wonderful ice cream and homemade sandwiches.  There’s a nice lake here but I’ve only seen it from the road.  Today, this area seems so isolated, mainly a place for fishermen on the lake to replace tackle or buy beer and for snowmobilers in winter to race through on their cross-country runs across the UP.  It’s not always been this laid back.  A 100 years ago, Trout Lake was a small but bustling community at  the crossroads of the Eastern UP.  The Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad that ran across the South Shore of Lake Superior crossed the Soo Tracks here as it headed toward St. Ignace.  The Soo ran from Ontario, through Sault Ste. Marie and past Trout Lake to Naubinway and along the North Shore of Lake Michigan through Manistique, Gladstone, into Wisconsin and eventually to Minneapolis.  Today, the old Duluth line only runs from this point to Munising, mainly servicing a paper mill and a lumber yard.  The old Soo line is still intact, but the track gauge is light as is the amount freight along the line. Over the years these railroads have gone by a number of names and an equal number of owners.  Today, they’re operated by the Wisconsin Central (it’s an old name but a new corporation that handles a collection of lines own by the Canadian National). Sadly, the Duluth and Boston Express and other passenger trains along this line stopped running long before my birth.

I drive west, I cross the lines of the old Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic several times as I head across the UP on Michigan 28, passing through the quiet towns of McMillan, Seney, Shingleton and Chatham.  

This recollection was from last Wednesday as I drove up north to join a group of volunteers working on a Habitat for Humanity project.  I'm back at work for a few days and tomorrow take off for another trip so I'll be in and out for the rest of the month.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

An afternoon sail

looking up at my newly restored mast
As we pass the point on a windward beat, the wind gusts and the boat heaves to starboard.  Our adrenaline rises as we climb up on the port side and hold on for the ride.  I pull the jib and main sheets tighter, flattening the sail as we skim across the water, banging into the whitecaps as water splashes over us.   It’s wild.  When we move close to the far end of the lake and need to come about, I have release the jib sheet and motion for my friend who’s at the helm to turn us through the eye of the wind.  As he pushes the rudder, the boat turns, stalls for a second as we climb to the starboard side.  I pull the jib sheet and it catches the wind, pulling us around.  I set the jib sheet, then out the main, putting us on a beam reach.  Soon, the boat is flying again as we enjoy the ride.    

It’s a great day to be on the water.   We debated going out when we arrived on the lake for it appeared a storm building and the water was really rough, but since there didn’t seem to be any lightning (and there was none on the radar), we decided to try it.  At first it was rough and we sailed only with the main.  Twice, I about lost my cap, so I took it off and threw it up under the bow.  The wind continued strong for nearly an hour as we raced back and forth between buoys.  Then the storm blew over and sun appeared.  The wind calmed and I set the jib, giving us extra sail to enjoy.  I pulled my cap out from under the bow, in order to shad my eyes (and keep my bald head from burning).   We enjoyed a cold drink and talked as the boat leisurely tacked back and forth across the lake.  But the winds returned and the skies again darkened.  With the main and the jib, we sailed even faster than before, charging back and forth across the water.  The western sky began to look threatening and wanting to get the boat safely moored before any lightning appeared, we headed in.    It was a good afternoon sail as we'd been on the water for a couple of hours and experienced everything for a hard blow to a gentle breeze.

My friend Jim at the helm

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

Breece D’J Pancake, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake (1984, 2002, New York: Little Brown and Company), 186 pages (140 pages of stories plus forward and two “afterwards” by those who knew Pancake).  
I  picked this collection of short stories several years ago after reading about the author in Gregg Bottom’s collection of short stories titled Sentimental, Heartbroken RednecksThe title of Bottom’s book is from a story he wrote about Pancake.  Consequently, I never got around to reading this book until last week.  It’s a delight, even though many of the stories are dark and foreboding (which is how I remember much of the 70s, the decade in which Pancake wrote!).   Pancake was a promising young writer who had attended Marshall University and the University of Virginia.  In 1979 at the age of 26, he committed suicide.  This book was published after this death, although a number of the stories were published in The Atlantic as well as some literary journals during his lifetime.

Shortly after finishing the last story of this book, I heard Everlast on Pandora Radio sing “What It’s Like” which appeared on the album, “Whitey Ford Sings the Blues.” I couldn’t help but think that Everlast had put Pancake’s words to music.  Everlast’s lyrics cause you to pause and have empathy for those who are struggling with life in the same way that Pancake’s stories elicit empathy.  The story that stands out the most is “A Room Forever.”  A second-hand on a tug boat has come into town on New Year’s Eve; he’s to ship out the next morning on the tug Delmar.   People are preparing to party, but you get the sense it’s all empty.  The story conveys a cold gray depressed city.   He can’t decide how to celebrate because he wants to be clear-headed when doing the dangerous work of walking out the barges in the cold and slippery conditions.  He ends up meeting a girl who offers herself to him.  She drinks heartily and he thinks to himself that she won’t be able to drink herself out of this.  He surmises that she’s new in the prostitution business, yet ends up sleeping with her even though he is hurting for what she’s becoming.  He offers her his room for the night, but after collecting her $20, she heads out into the cold.  He later runs into her in a bar and then afterwards finds her in an alley behind the bar, where she slit her wrist.  In the cold, the blood doesn’t flow fast and he calls for help, but quickly leaves before the cops arrive asking questions, heading down to river to see if his tug is ready.   

Pancake created realistic characters that live in and around West Virginia.  These are guys who work on tug boats, dig coal, mechanics, and farmers.  They are proud, independent and know hard times.  They struggle with relationships, drink, hunt, fight and enjoy cockfighting.   Occasionally they have visions of life out of the hills, of Michigan, New York and out west, but mostly they are tied to the land they’ve grown up on even though in some cases the land is no longer theirs.  Although the stories can often be hard or sad, Pancake is able to capture details that pull you into the story and into caring for the characters involved.  It is sad that this is the only collection of stories from Pancake.  They should be cherished, savored and ponder.  

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Excitement fills the air as we leave Hockeytown Café for Comerica Park.  A policeman halts traffic  on Woodlawn Avenue to allow pedestrians to cross. Mingled in the crowd are scalpers offering to buy and sale tickets.  Up next to the old Fox Theater is a young man preaching the gospel, his voice loud and clear thanks to a small portable sound system, but his good news is tempered with his focus on the approaching judgment.   Maybe we need to hear the message because in the mood of mistreating some visiting angels from Los Angeles .  Personally, I’m hoping their halos are knocked off and their wings clipped.  Across Woodlawn, an old man plays a banged up horn, its case opened in the off chance someone wanted to reward him for his efforts or to help him afford some music lessons.   

We follow the crowd into the stadium, walking  under the large statues of tigers posed like gargoyles above the gate.  Before heading to our seats, we find the Michigan’s Baseball “Hall of Fame” memorial and take photos of Bernie next to it.  Bernie was our local high school coach and his name is on the memorial for having nearly 300 lifetime wins.   Afterwards, we take our seats on the upper deck, right above the catcher.  The sun is bright and it’s warm but humid.  Both teams are on the field, stretching, warming up, and running sprints.  A few minutes later, they line up for the National Anthem, and we all take off our caps in respect.  Then the umpire shouted “Play ball,” and we sit down to enjoy the game.    

The game proceeds rather quickly and is a bit boring, but that’s okay.  I feel blessed just watching what little action takes place as I smell the hot dogs and sip an overpriced beer.  The Tigers go ahead in the third and hold a one nothing lead until the eight.  But there do seem to be real angels at third and in left field, as both players make incredible catches that keep us from adding to our sole run.  We sing during the seventh inning stretch, while the “Ace Hardware” ground crews smooth out the sand in the infield.  Everything is commercialized.  In the eight, they tie the game, as clouds begin to form and a breeze cools us off.  Nobody scores in the ninth as the clouds climb higher.  At the top of the tenth, the Angels score two.  Someone on a smart phone looks up the weather and announces that a line of storms are moving our way.  I don’t want to leave, but agree and we head downstairs to where we can watch the game while standing near a gate.  It’s the Tiger’s final chance to tie or take the lead.  They fail on both accounts and we rush to the parking garage behind the Fox Theater.  This time, we passed another street preacher, a young African-American woman who speaks of approaching doom as distant thunder rolls through the city.  About the time we pulled out of the garage and onto the busy streets leading from downtown Detroit to the suburbs, the storm hits.  We get on 10, heading out of the city and it’s bumper-to-bumper.  It’s a good thing the line of cars are only moving five miles an hour, any faster and I wouldn’t be able to see a thing as the windshield wipers are already working overtime. 

We made it back to this side of the state safely, having enjoyed out trip even if we did get baptized were unable to pluck a few feathers from a faux-angels from LA. 
On a sad note, keep the families of the firefigters killed in that wildfire in Arizona this weekend in your prayers.  Yesterday, I learned I knew one of the guys when he was a teenager, growing up in Utah.  Prayers for his wife, children and mother.