Posts made in September, 2015

On to Atlanta! Labor Day 2015

From Rockmart to Smyrna, we were on the Silver Comet trail, which at one point got rechristened by Rachael as the Silver Vomit trail. It’s an old rail-to-trail, but over the course of 39 miles there is a cumulative elevation gain of over 1500 feet, and more to the point, the “highlight” is a 6.9% grade on one short stretch. Obviously, that’s not a grade a train would have been able to climb. Between the period when there was a rail bed and its conversion to a bicycle trail, a landfill company acquired part of the area and created what is colloquially known as “Mt Trashmore.” In addition to the “mountain” itself there is a fairly good stretch with some steep hills, all of which took us by surprise as we were expecting the morning would be just an easy leg stretcher. On the bright side, the hills did relieve the monotony that often sets in when riding on a rail-to-trail.
Once we got over the worst of it, the trail settled into quite a pleasant ride. The Silver Comet is probably twice as wide as the Mt Vernon trail here, which means that local riders have no compunction about passing you on the same side rather than pulling out onto the side of the trail with oncoming traffic. This turned out to be disconcerting at first as we were not used to sharing our lane on a bike trail, but most everyone was pretty friendly about it. Our pannier-laden folding bikes marked us out as a different breed of trail user from the grimly efficient sprinters and the chattering dawdlers that crowded the trail as we approached its endpoint in Smyrna.

Back in June, Rachael and I had biked from Buckhead to the Mavell Road trailhead for a short ride on the Silver Comet. Given the heat that day, the prospect of biking back to our motel proved to be less attractive than finishing our ride at a local pub and folding our bikes into the trunk of a cab for our return to Buckhead. So on this trip, I had it in the back of my mind that we might just forego trying to bike into Atlanta to our hotel in Midtown as I was not sure what the city traffic would be like. There is a fairly direct route from Smyrna to Midtown, but it is on major roads that are not exactly set up for cyclists. We went instead with a series of side roads that more or less paralleled the main route but at the cost of repeatedly climbing and descending hill after hill. There was little to no traffic but that was because there was little to no reason to be there!

After making a pit stop at the local wine store, here is how we finished our three-day ride from Birmingham to Atlanta:

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Backwoods Alabama

Our second day’s ride – from Gadsden, Al, to Rockmart, Ga, – gave us a little bit of everything though we remained enveloped in a soggy miasma. Again we set out before sun up, and again there was wind and it was in our face, which offset its meagre cooling effect. Traffic was light as we crossed the Coosa river, and our trek eastward out of Gadsden was quiet and unhurried. Gradually the distance between houses grew until they yielded to trailer homes slumped at the edge of scraggly woods.

Where we live, West Virginia is often the butt of jokes about illiterate bumpkins – it is the foil for us in our version of the regional superiority contest between city sophisticates and plain country folk. As we rode into the backwoods of northeastern Alabama, it came to mind that within DC’s African-American community, “bama” serves as the same sort of positional contrast. But no matter what your comedic target may be, rural poverty just ain’t funny when you find yourself in the midst of it. I’m not talking about Dorothea Lange-type images of destitution; what we were seeing was more relative than absolute poverty. And yet for the “greatest country in the world” that is bad enough. There are legions of overlooked, forgotten and ignored fellow citizens trapped in dire circumstances across the land – we are fortunate that our ideologies are up to the task of assuring us that life is not fair, the poor will always be with us and the safety net must not become a hammock.

As I contemplated this political economy of moral estrangement, we inevitably found ourselves heading down what Jeanne and Randolph, our cycling friends and neighbors, call “bad dog road.” Doesn’t matter if you’re a little tired or if you’re facing an uphill climb, you will find the energy and the motivation to get your ass down the road when a mean ol’ barking dog is chasing you. That is an “all bets are off” type situation where you just need to be gone. We probably had a good 10 miles of country road to get through when the first dog started after us. Initially, it was an “oh yeah” moment that reminded me of when Roger and I encountered our first lightning storm in our cross-country ride. Given the circumstances, it was inevitable in both cases that such an occasion would arise but until that point we had been blissfully proceeding without a concern or a plan. For Rachael and me, all we could do was react on the fly and that turned out to involve a primal scream sonic defense and an unanticipated benefactor.

Who knew – my safe word turned out to be “NOOOO” delivered in the manner of Captain Kirk’s definitive “KHAAAN!”

There is a curious asymmetry between the situations of the lead and the tail rider that I think favors the person out front. Generally, you are the dog’s first target, but if it is some distance away, your escape vector looks pretty good. It’s like the old joke about not needing to outrun the bear. There is always the chance that the dog has the angle on you, but it’s got to be the case that the secondary target is usually in a more exposed situation. So for the first couple of rounds, Rachael had the worst of it. There weren’t any really close calls, but you don’t know that until you’ve gotten away. For a good stretch of bad dog road, she took full advantage of her impressive vocal projection and got schooled in the flight response; happily, fight never came into play.

And then, I saw a dog retreating in the distance. As I came up toward it, the dog repeatedly withdrew down the road. So I cycled back to where Rachael was and suggested we do this one together. It wasn’t clear what the dog was up to, and it seemed only prudent to find out once. Well, it turned out that this was one friendly dog. She was clean and had a collar and ended up running along beside us wagging her tail as if happy to have the company. We tried to get her to go off back home, but she stayed with us for a good distance until she ended up running interference through a final canine cordon. She didn’t snarl at the other dogs but kept herself between them and us until we were well down the road out of the holler and back toward the highway.

Friendly dog notwithstanding, this experience convinced us we would try the highway for the next six miles rather than dropping back into the woods after just one mile on the fast-moving road. Fortunately, it was still early Sunday morning, and though the speed limit was 55 mph, there were two lanes so most cars moved over when they passed us. We set a brisk pace (well, as brisk as riding with panniers will allow) and once we reached the Piedmont cutoff a gentle exultation stole over us. All that had come before was as no more – the early rising, the sauna-like conditions, the dogs and the high-speed traffic – none of it mattered as we were now coasting toward the little town where we would pick up the bike trail that would take us the rest of the day’s ride. Along the way we came across this incongruous fella:

Once we got to Piedmont, we lollygagged about taking some pictures and refueling at the local supermarket. Unlike in Gadsden, the people we talked to were nonplussed about what we were up to as the proximity of the Chief Ladiga trail ensured that the locals were accustomed to weirdly attired strangers roaming the aisles in search of electrolytes.


Once out on the trail, all was solitude and shade. The Chief Ladiga trail took us to the state line, where we picked up the Silver Comet trail and headed into Rockmart and our next rendevzous with a swimming pool.


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Some of you may dimly recall something about the Gadsden Purchase back before the Civil War whereby the United States acquired a sizable chunk of what would be southern Arizona and part of New Mexico in a fire sale from the Mexicans. In any event, Gadsden, Al, is named after the very same Gadsden, who was the ambassador to Mexico at the time of the purchase. The good folks of Gadsden hoped that by naming their town after him, he would be instrumental in bringing in a railroad. (Gadsden and Old Hickory had come through the area so it wasn’t quite as farfetched as it may seem). The railroad thing didn’t happen, but the town’s site along the Coosa river made it accessible to riverboat traffic so I guess it turned out okay.

The previously mentioned “hippie nachos” at the Blackstone Pub and Eatery looked exactly like the sort of hot mess you’d imagine so I decided not to take a picture and memorialize what it was we were about to unapologetically scarf; however, I will say their glorious excess of black beans, mushrooms, jalapenos, olives, etc., was made all the more awesome by the addition of bacon as suggested by our bartender CJ. And of course there was beer (beer geek alert: Gadsden is home to the Back Forty brewery).
The town teeters on the skids with a fair number of shuttered buildings, and though it looks like its better days were in the past, there is a surprising arts district in the old downtown anchored by the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, which was hosting an Andy Warhol exhibit.
But we were content to simply wander about and ended up in a nice wine bar tucked behind an olive oil and vinegar specialty store, which was fortunate because much of the wine available in town was made from grapes grown in Alabama and we had already tasted enough sweat for the day.

This being Alabama and all, there is the expected virginal monument to Southern purity erected early in the Jim Crow era.
But the downtown movie theater still looks good as does the bridge across the Coosa, which we were to bike across early the next morning on our way to the Chief Ladiga trail. Unbeknownst to us, we would first have to traverse Meth Valley.

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From Birmingham to Gadsden – the Day of Sweating Profusely

With the heat-humidity index stuck on miserable, Rachael and I set out at dawn through the bleak empty streets of eastern Birmingham toward the old highway up to Gadsden. After making our way past the flotsam of industrial decay that defines an urban architecture of decline, we glided through neighborhoods segregated by income and stratified by class as the sun rose up to assert its centrality to our day.
Though we were heartened to see other bikers on Highway 11, the picture at the top of this post captures Alabama’s general disregard for cyclists – a potentially decent shoulder is denied to bikers in favor of rumble strips to rouse drifting drivers. Happily for us, traffic was light while we were on the highway, but the scenery wasn’t much and we were mostly just grinding it out into a moderate headwind. It was fun to be out biking, and Rachael got some good practice drafting behind me, but mostly we were trying to make time and stay ahead of the sun. That said, there were occasional reminders of lives lived in a different key:
But what most sticks out about that ride was the unbelievable amount of sweat that covered our bodies and poured off of us. When we stopped just to check the route, I had to hold my phone away from my head to avoid the cascade of perspiration. Even in a mild-to-moderate wind, our arms looked as if we had just stepped out of the shower. We were a couple of two-wheeled condensation vectors creating tunnels of cooler drier air as we soldiered on.

Our final approach to Gadsden was enlivened by a jaunt off the main route along less-traveled roads that led to a back way into town. After observing the first task upon completing a day’s ride, we were rewarded with a rejuvenating soak in an outdoor pool with a waterfall.
We felt quite relieved to be off the road by a little past noon, which gave us plenty of time to explore Gadsden – the “big” town on our trip. A little research had turned up a pub that promised outstanding “hippie nachos,” which, if you’re going to try them, there can be no better time than after surviving a “sweaty Betty” bike ride in the hot Alabama sun.

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Ode to Furman

So regrettably we did not see anywhere near as much of Birmingham as we had hoped. Both of us had what we thought were some minor bike adjustment issues that we thought we could get taken care of before the Civil Rights Institute closed. And there is always the “first time you’re in a new city disorganized faffing about time suck that finds you taking far too long to feed your pie hole because after all you’re on vacation, amirite” situation that has to be navigated.

Which is to say that we will need to come back down here in the non-heat-furnace season to take it in properly. The civil rights history here is extraordinary even well beyond King’s letter from jail, the children’s crusade and the church bombings. For example, there is this fearless actionist, nicknamed the “Wild Man from Birmingham,” back when the city was called Bombingham. Today the airport is named in his honor and there is a small permanent exhibit there that is well worth seeing.

Instead of taking in this rich history, we hied ourselves over to Redemptive Cycles to see Furman – whom I had called from DC to see whether he might have some time for any fine tuning we might need after putting our folding bikes back together because, well, such need was going to be a distinct possibility for one or both of us.
There’s a cool story about Redemptive Cycles that I won’t go into except to say they are a nonprofit that basically exists to get bicycles into the hands of low-income and indigent people – going as far as hiring some of them part-time so they can sweat equity their way to getting a bike.
Furman, in addition to being a really chill nice guy is an obsessive bike mechanic with a drive to teach people about bikes and how to repair them. Everybody who bikes and has any interest in knowing more about how to work on them would want a guy like Furman in their LBS. I needed some tweaking on the dérailleur and a brake adjustment, but Furman decided my free wheel wasn’t rotating smoothly enough so he showed me how to take it apart and regrease the bearings – and on and on; if you’re not into bikes or you’re a confident self-repair person you won’t give a shit, but for a guy like me who just blew into town, I was very impressed and grateful. I’ve read some interesting reviews about a book by some guy who extols the soul-enhancing effects of excelling at a craft (that’s probably a shitty précis but seriously look it up [and it’s not like Zen and … Motorcycle Maintenance, which is good but you age out of that shit like you do Vonnegut and then one day long down the road you find yourself reading Franzen and you think, what the fuck happened – is this where I am now?]) anyway, that’s what I thought about watching and talking to Furman – he wasn’t the kind of bike mechanic that has that weird sort of asocial disdain for the hapless Lance Armstrong wannabes (well maybe not precisely him but…) with way more money than him but woeful bike skills who basically make up a big part of the bike shop’s customer base in affluent urban neighborhoods. The man is an artist-mechanic is what I’m saying and Birmingham’s bikers are lucky to have him.
Afterward, we did have the time to at least see the 16th Street Baptist Church.

And Birmingham still remembers that other day that touched some part of something like the nation’s moral conscience:

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About Me

Born in Baltimore and raised in Cincinnati, I have lived on both coasts and driven back and forth across the country a number of times. I now have the "midlife opportunity" to do so on two wheels.