Gondola Stories – I

The mid-day sun warms up a gondola cage, even on a cold day in January. Skiers fresh from the shuss down Little Nell, then removing skis, carrying them up to the loading dock, and hoisting them into those racks on the side of the car, sit down, and immediately start removing gloves, hats, scarves, anything to cool off.

The guy opposite us, a friendly-looking chap, took off his helmet and balaclava, revealing, in addition to a blond and grey beard, twinkling hazel eyes, and a smiling, wrinkled gaze, an old-line cycling cap, the kind with a small brim and logos across the sides – “Ajax Cycling Club”, in his case.

“Oh, you’re a roadie!” I offered with a grin. He fumbled at his topper, ready to take it off and look, but instead, he launched into a quick explanation.

“Oh, yeah; no. I’m mostly into mountain biking these days.” A crisp hint of a fading Aussie accent. A chuckle, “Yeah, I was at a race last summer, I kind of lost it, I think. It was back in Hunter Creek, near the end where it drops onto Red Mountain Road. My Garmin bike thing” – here he makes a rectangle with his thumbs and forefingers – “my Garmin showed I just stopped dead. When I got to the bottom, end of the race, I saw my daughter, she said I looked OK”

He continued in an elliptical fashion for a few minutes, the gist of which was this: He was riding dead last in this race, got off his bike to ford a drainage ditch, and the next thing he remembers, he’s at the bottom, talking with his daughter – “I must have lost 30 minutes”. His Garmin showed a four minute stretch when he wasn’t moving. He thinks he must have fallen, passed out with a concussion, and then started riding again, but without any memories being made. Pretty common for a concussion. He daughter was a nurse, he used to work ski patrol on Ajax, so they knew to keep an eye on him for signs of decreased awareness and other symptoms of a worsening sub-dural hematoma. He did not go the ER at Aspen Valley Hospital.

I responded, “You know, every since that lawsuit a few years ago, you come in with a loss of consciousness, they do a CT scan on everybody. The one time I had a concussion skiing, couple of years ago on my first run of the year, at the bottom of Funnel on Snowmass, where there is this large bump in the run from where the lift used to be, I decided to go up and over it. Fell down, knocked my head, and lay there for 6 minutes, all recorded with my camera here” – I showed him the Contour on the side of my helmet – “without moving  until somebody came along. They took me to Aspen Valley Hospital, found some blood in my brain, and I got to fly to Denver on a helicopter for observation.” I’ve always found this story pretty amusing, so I said it with a full smile, and he went along with the good humor.

The Aspen Silver Queen gondola is a bottom-to-top affair, a full 3300 vertical foot, 14 minute ride. This gave us time to share more war stories, which of course had to include my encounter with a pick-up truck at while biking at 25 mph. “You can see that one on my bike computer real easy.” I moved my left hand flat across in front of my face, then dropped it 90 degrees straight down. I just stopped like a crash-test dummy hitting a concrete wall when I hit the tailgate of that pick-up” I couldn’t stop there, so I had to tell him the story, 12 days in the ICU, lost Kona trip. I left out most of the gory details, only admitting to losing a few teeth.

“But did you lose consciousness; what’s the last thing you remember?”

“Oh, I remember everything as it happened. You know that sound you hear, when two cars collide, and you’re inside, kind of like metal crunching or crumpling? That was the first thing I heard.”

“That was your bike hitting the truck?”

“No, that was my jaw! Bent my neck back, knocked out my teeth…and it’s funny, the only thing going through my mind was how can I get on my bike, get back up and start riding!”

“So how old are you?”

“Sixty-nine.”

“Hmm,” he mused, “just a little younger than me.”

By this point, we were thoroughly bonding over bike accidents. He seemed to know the area very well, saying he’d been here over forty years, so I asked his name.

“Ed Cross…”

“Ed Cross – yeah, I’ve seen your name on Strava segments – you’re always near the top there in our age group.”

Again a rowdy chortle. Ed, though much Americanized, still had a lot of Aussie in him. “Yeah, but it’s mostly on the downhills! I think as guys get older, they get a little slower going down. Not me, I guess.”

Since I’d mentioned Kona, he brought him his swimming background, in a round-about way: “So, I’m curious…how much do you slow down swimming. I used to be a swimmer. How fast can you go, say, 800 yards.”

I tried doing some calculations in my head, and figured I would say, “For a short course tri, we go maybe 750 meters, I do that in 14 minutes.”

“Wow, that seems pretty fast. I can’t do that any more. Back in Australia, I was on the national team, had a shot at the Olympics. I did pretty well in both the short course races, and the surf lifeguard championships.” I wanted to throw in some respect there. Australian beach lifeguards are well known as the baddest of the bad-ass when it comes to open water surf swimming. But Ed was on a roll. “Yeah, when I was young, I was doing the sprint in 26 seconds.”

“50 meters?”

“Yeah; but now I can barely make 46, 47 seconds for 50 yards in the pool here. That’s all out, just one time. ‘Course, it’s at altitude, and I’m not in shape, but still…So I was wondering, just how fast do you slow down?”

“Well, I swam on teams when I was a kid, but never that fast, not near as fast as you. But right now, even here in Aspen, I can go 46, 47 seconds for 50 yards, on the minute” – meaning, I started a new 50 every 60 seconds – “for 20 repeats. And an Olympic triathlon, that’s 1500 meters, I’ll do maybe 29-30 minutes. But that’s open water, with a wetsuit”

“That’s pretty good.”

“You’d think, with swimming being so technique-dependent, that you wouldn’t slow down as much, But I’m not slowing down nearly as much biking and running. I guess it takes a fair amount of strength to hold that proper technique”

Ed had an idea. “You ought to come and do our races with us, if you’re ever here in the summer. Every Wednesday night.”

“Sure, I know those races. I’ve never done a bike race, a stand-alone bike race. I used to do Xterras – you’ve heard of them?”

“Sure, one of our guys here” – he points vaguely up the mountain – “Alex Gonzalez, he’s one of the champions.”

“Xterra – I was good at swimming and running, but I never did learn to really race on a mountain bike.”

“Well those Wednesday rides would be good for you. We get a lot of older fellas doing them. And of course, there’s the climb up the Pass, in May – but that’s probably too early for you.”

“Oh, no, I do that every year. Not the ride, I’m too cheap to pay for it, I just go by myself to the top the day before the road opens.”

This earns a hearty laugh from Ed, who must be a life-long sports bum – surfing, swimming, skiing, biking. We are apparently brothers in our cock-eyed view of what constitutes fun.

At this point, he finally admits what is slowing him down. “I’ve got two fake knees”, he says, as the gondola approaches the unloading dock, doors, swinging out and back. I wish we had more time to explore that bombshell. But we have to go skiing down, and he’s meeting folks at the Sundeck, so I just wish him, “Stay safe, Ed.”

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The Long Way Home

It was twenty years ago today…that Linda Tripp contacted the office of Independent Counsel Ken Starr to talk about tapes she had made of conversations with Monica Lewinsky, allegedly detailing an affair she had with then-President Clinton. A week later, the Drudge Report web site would reveal those allegations, which were picked up by other news services within the next few days. When I first heard the reports, my heart sank. The last thing I want from our President, especially one whose political beliefs aligned with mine, is to be embarrassed. Leaders are role models; Presidents dominate the moral tone of our country. The next three years, while robust economically, were a minefield of prurient disclosures, with parents worrying about, “How can I tell my children what a ‘blow-job’ is?”

The next two Presidents, no matter their political beliefs, managed to uphold a public face of rectitude and good behavior. Times were tumultuous economically, and US-led wars in Asia boiled and simmered. But at least the man in charge was attempting to display a positive attitude for the rest of us to model. Recall George W. Bush’s comments after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and terrorist attack on the Pentagon by 19 Muslims from Saudi Arabia: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. … The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”

Barack Obama, after the horrific slaughter of black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, said, “I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”

And now…now, we are once again faced with disgrace and embarrassment from our leader. According to the New York Times (and Washington Post), “President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from ‘shithole countries’ rather than from places like Norway, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation…When Mr. Trump heard that Haitians were among those who would benefit from the proposed deal, he asked whether they could be left out of the plan, asking, ‘Why do we want people from Haiti here?’ ”

Two Democratic Senators at the meeting, and one Republican confirmed those remarks and his attitude. Two other Republican Senators could not recall the details, and would not confirm the language or nuance.

Labeling Africa as full of “shithole countries” is not simply politically incorrect nor is it good immigration policy. It’s RACISM, and THERE SHOULD BE NO PLACE IN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY FOR IT. Watching Republicans try to defend the thinking and beliefs of their party’s leader is …sad.

Many Sub-Saharan African countries have the fastest growing GDPs in the world, thanks in large part to Chinese investment in infrastructure. Are we going to abandon all those new consumers coming online to Chinese businesses? Bad deal for America!

Here is a list of all the Sub-Saharan countries with GDP growth more rapid than Norway in 2016: Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Rwanda, Malawi, Sao Tome and Principe, The Gambia, Togo, Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe!), Uganda, Cameroon, Madagascar, Ghana, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Dem Rep of Congo, Gabon, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Sudan, Comoros.

The list is equally long for Central and South American countries, including Haiti. Norway is tied (with North Korea) at 87th on this list of 120 countries from the International Monetary Fund.

Somebody is making these countries grow. People who grew up there, live there, and want desperately to see their friends and neighbors succeed in this world. Smart people, productive people. We should be the place smart Africans, Haitians, and others want to come for their education, their MBAs, not China.

A businessman in the White House should be helping “the people who talk that way in bars all across America” [the Fox News excuse for Trump’s language] see the economic advantages of inclusion, not assuaging their reptilian ids.

After the Second World War, we had visionary leaders who knew that helping Europe and East Asia recover from the ravages of that time would be good not just for them, but for our country: more people making more money means bigger markets for American goods. To that end, we held out a welcoming face to peoples just recently seen as the embodiment of evil (Germans), and even  supported the resurrection of a country whose American citizen descendants had been incarcerated during the war (Japan). We showed our better nature to the world, and we all benefited from that. We’ve done what we can in Europe and East Asia; we need Latin America and Africa to keep us growing and Make America Great Again. Calling them names, disparaging their homes, not recognizing the progress they are making is counter-productive in the extreme.

It is beyond ironic that I am writing this on the eve of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. Nothing can be done about the racism in Donald Trump’s heart. But the rest of our leaders – Republicans and Democrats – can still get on with the project of helping the world improve itself, starting here at home.

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Zapotrek, Part II

“We’ll drive out to Tule, and start our ride from there,” Eric continued, once we’d left the chaos of downtown Oaxaca. We were slowly making our way along a crowded street, rather than taking the main Carretera Internacional a few blocks north, the same highway I had been running beside the past week. Soon, we merged onto the local version of a freeway, but immediately left when it dipped south. We landed on a shaded, divided boulevard, with a small path down the center median.

“This is the bike path you can take from Oaxaca to Tule, but we’ll stop there, Israel will find a place to park, and we’ll get something to eat. Oh, and there’s a local attraction in Tule, the Tule Tree.”

“Right, we saw that on our tour last Sunday,” I offered. At first, it had seemed a little odd to be taken to see a tree. I mean, sure, there are Sequoias and Redwoods which are massive, or tall, but I doubted anything like that grew around here. However, in a protected greensward, part of a larger plaza next to the local cathedral and mercado, stood a quite impressive tree, looking something like a cross-between a cedar and a banyan. While it rose about 75 feet up, and had a full head of evergreen needles, it was the girth of the trunk which astounded us.

Probably wider than any Sequoia, it seemed to take up an entire city block. Simply circumnavigating the thing took several minutes. It was definitely worth a stop. Luckily, though, Eric had as little desire to return to the Tule Tree as we did, and took us instead to a deserted restaurant just south of the church. So far, this bike trip was getting off to a rather slow start, and things did not move any more quickly once we’d finished eating, as our next stop was to a local healer’s shop.

“Her mother was the healer for my family. When it came time to have babies, or just make a big decision about something in our lives, she was the one we went to. Now, her daughter has learned those ways, and keeps up the tradition.”

The shop was dark and narrow, but a beaming Zapoteca, thirty-ish, led us past the little skeleton and skull knick-knacks she had on display. Eric continued, “She knows how to tell you all about yourself, by consulting her charts based on your day of birth.” Which she proceeded to do, in Spanish, with an instant translation by Eric. I think they had done this bit before. Sort of like a pre-Aztec astrological reading.

It worked, at least enough for us to buy some local tea and spices from her. This seemed to please Eric enough, that he led us back to the van, where Israel had our bikes ready for us.

And off we went, following level dirt roads from village to village. Each small town had its own church and market which Eric dutifully pointed out. But the main pleasure at this point was simply pedaling along the gentle Oaxacan country-side. Past farms and canals, through groves of pea-green brush, snaking beside stands of cacti, with the ever-present mountains ringing the valley, grabbing clouds to grace their crowns.

The hamlets had not yet been restored or razed, so the buildings sported a decaying artifice which Cheryl found irresistible.

About an hour into the ride, we headed up the only hill of the day, to a cache of ruins, the Dainzu archeological site. Oaxaca is littered with the remains of pre-Columbian cities, from a variety of cultures, not just Aztecan. Monte Alban, within the city limits, and Mitla, a large complex which has been thoroughly surrounded by gift shops and street food vendors, are the largest and most famous. This little site, however, was deserted. We spent an hour climbing up the stair-stepped pyramid, where Eric claimed human sacrifices had been documented. We explored an underground grotto, said to be a tomb for royals. And we imagined playing the local ball-game on the rectangular playing filed, surrounded by what looked like a seating gallery.

“Actually, the people watched from up on top. Those stair-step walls were really part of the field. The best players could make killer bank shots using those blocks. It must have been maddening trying to get a carom right – a lot harder, then tennis,” Eric laughed.

The day, though mild, was still drying, so we finished off several of the water bottles Israel had loaded, and off we went on the final leg of the trip – to the village of weavers, Teotitlan. To get there, we went about 5 kilometers more up a gradual double track gravel road, and into the cobbled streets of town. Every store front, it seemed, boasted of the woven goods within, and Cheryl was eager to stop and look. It was getting past 6, near sunset, and she worried the shops would close, and she would not get her goal for this trip – photos of women working on hand-woven rugs.

But Eric seemed determined to get us to the top of town, where, naturally, another church awaited. We managed to convince him we really didn’t need to spend long on the interior, no matter how alluring the hand-painted scenes within.

So we walked down the street half a block, and entered the first open door we saw. The large space within belied the modest stucco exterior. Based on old Spanish colonial hacienda architecture, the place was filled with rooms, open courtyards, and, most of all, brightly colored textiles full of the Zapotec-inspired geometric patterns.

“Which one of these do you think I should get?” Cheryl showed me a couple of narrow rugs, or various widths and lengths. Some were earth-toned, some were brighter blue pastels, and some a deep blood-red. But all featured patterns reflective of the carvings we had seen across the arches and roof beams in the local ruins, a distinctive jagged image which embodied the past and present here in Oaxaca.

Cheryl managed to limit her purchase to several rugs, hoping that one would be the right size of our dining room table. It was now past dark, and we still had an hour’s drive home, so I became anxious when the cheery abuelita insisted she had to finish the textile by tying off the decorative white strings at each end, “so they won’t un-ravel.”

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Zapotrek, Part I

“Maybe we can go on a bike ride this weekend,” Cheryl ventured. We’d seen a few cyclists in a group rambling through the valley floor on our excursion the previous Sunday. Lonely Planet listed a few local outfits which visit the outlying villages via mountain bike. It seemed a perfect blend for us – Cheryl would get to see the weavers in Teotitlan, and I would give my legs a break from all this hill running I’d been doing every morning.

About half way home from the Instituto, we passed every day through a nearly deserted plaza, towards an archway which led to the narrow streets surrounding La Betulia. The day before, I’d seen a sandwich board set up outside a tiny office, advertising “Zapotrek”, one of the companies recommended in the guide book. The office only seemed to be open in the middle of the day, so when it appeared again, I suggested, “Let’s go in here, and see what this is all about.”

The interior was dark, but not cluttered like so many other Oaxacan establishments. Right inside the door, a round-faced man, young in affect, but rather worn of face, sat smiling in front of a computer. We practiced a bit of our new-found Spanish on him, but it quickly became apparent his English was as colloquial and unaccented as ours.

“We’re thinking of taking a one-day mountain bike trip, and wanted to see what you have.”

A bit of negotiation followed as Eric, the owner of Zapotrek, took his time learning just what we wanted: Do some mellow riding, nothing really hilly, see the local villages, and maybe include a trip to the weaving town of Teotitlan, for Cheryl. Oh, and we wanted to leave between noon and one, so we could go to the Instituto in the morning, tomorrow.

Zapotrek usually did their day trips starting at sunrise, or 7 AM. But Eric probably had no clients for the next day, so decided he could flip things around, and take us on a spin in the afternoon, “When it’s hotter, so we usually take a siesta,” he said, laughing. He wanted to pick us up at La Betulia, which was only about 600 meters away, on foot, that is. The combination of the one-way streets and the traffic meant it was way easier for us to come to him then vice versa.

So we showed up about 12:20, and found a 12 passenger white van gleaming under the tropical mountain sun. A lean older man had just finished polishing off invisible dirt, and started to load four bikes. His right pant leg was tucked into his sock, a tell-tale sign of a serious town cyclist.

Eric came out, smiling as always, and introduced Israel, who would be our driver. He threw a few water bottles and helmets into the back, and invited us to hop in.

We headed East out of town, immediately getting trapped in a “pop-up” demonstration. A small articulated truck was jack-knifed across the main highway. “The city workers don’t like how they are being treated by the government,” Eric noted, “so they stage wildcat strikes every now and then.

“How do the people feel about the government?” Cheryl asked.

“Well, about ten years ago, things were very bad here. The government was so corrupt, the people literally threw them out. For six months, no one was in charge. Local neighborhoods started providing their own protection. Everyone recognized the value of having a central authority, that actually cared about the needs of the people. Oaxaca is 80% indigenous, Zapotec, mostly, like me. So the new government is more in line with that, not the mestizos like before.”

“You’re Zapotec?”

“Yeah. I was born here, in Tlacolula. My parents, when I was ten, went to the Untied States, took me with them.” Eric said nothing about how they entered, whether it was legal or not. “I grew up in Anaheim, just a regular kid. I forgot how to speak Spanish right, and just wanted to be American. I did good in school ‘cause my parents made me, so I ended up at UCLA, graduated there. But a few years later, when my parents had gone back to Mexico” – again he said nothing about why or how – “I went back to visit them. I was old enough to understand my heritage finally, that I am Zapotec. I saw how the local people here don’t necessarily get the best deal or opportunity in their lives. So I decided I would come back and see what I could do to combine a lot of things. I’d learned to like being outside in California, biking and hiking. I wanted the world to know about the Zapotec people, their history from before the Europeans came. And I wanted to do what I could to bring some of that wealth which was coming into the state, from the tourists, to the local people, not just the big corporations. So we founded Zapotrek, to do all that.”

As Eric was talking, Israel had found a way around the blocked roads, and we were driving by one of the innumerable churches which pop up everywhere in downtown Oaxaca City. “Look, there, that’s the church of San Matias Jalatlaco. They’re having a special night tomorrow, a Day of the Dead contest for dogs. The dogs dress up like everyone else does for Dia de Los Muertos. It’s really something, maybe you want to come see it.”

(To Be Cont’d)

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Christmas, 2017

It’s been a quiet year in Gig Harbor, our hometown. Mostly because we were here so rarely. Skiing in Snowmass January and February. Early March, a trip to California: Sebastopol, Morro Bay, and LA for Cheryl’s 50th HS reunion (Pacific Palisades version).

For three weeks at the end of March/early April we joined the first (and possibly the last) collection of Americans to bicycle Cuba, end-to-end. 1000 miles, 600 on bike, the rest on bus, in 12 days, with time at either end to enjoy Havana. Cuba is truly a socialist paradise, complete with fake economy, free education and health care, and no corporations to bring wealth and misery to people’s lives.

In May/June, another road trip down to California, staying on our old street in Venice. We got to visit with Annie who’s living in Los Angeles while she commutes to Seattle (and around the world) for her band, Chastity Belt. Cheryl attended her 50th HS reunion (Westlake School for Girls version), and Al biked & ran along the littoral. On to San Diego for brother-in-law Craig’s 70th, and through Utah to Colorado. There, several weeks of bike camps for Al with Endurance Nation team-mates. Cheryl wisely went home early, before cruising the Oregon and California coasts with lifelong friend Sylvia to celebrate her retirement.

July and August are always best in the Northwest, so we took a breather (Al did go to Lake Placid to spectate at the Ironman there). The solar eclipse drew us to Madras Oregon, where we marveled at totality for over two minutes, with 20,000 other campers. End of August found us in Penticton, BC for the ITU World Championships. September, once again back to Snowmass for more cycling.

In October, our second Latin American trip, this time to Oaxaca, Mexico (home to the scenes found in Pixar’s stellar Coco). We both tried our hand at Spanish language immersion school for five days, while Cheryl stayed on for an intensive photography workshop centered on Dia de los Muertos. Al spent the first ten days in December back in Snowmass, trying to stay out of Cody’s way while he feverishly finished his work on the family home there, preparing for winter guests. This Christmas, Shaine and Stacy, along with beloved fur-babies, are hosting the celebration in their Pioneer Square condo.

We remain optimistic for the future despite what the daily news may tell us.

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The End of The Road

The Western tip of Cuba angles towards the south, pointing directly across the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico at Cancun, 250 kilometers away. Twelve days on the road, 1600 kilometers total, from Baracoa at the far Eastern end of the island. The final 12 km of our cross-country bike trip followed a deserted beach road through the Reserva de Biosfera Guanahacabibes. This extremity has the appearance on a map of a steelhead trout, with its curved over-hanging snout. We were on the upper portion of the lower jaw, so the water of the Bahia de Corrientes was to our right, or northwest, as we cruised towards Maria La Gorda, our final night’s hotel. This is not the absolute western end of Cuba. That would be Cabo de San Antonio, on the Northern peninsula (the upper snout of the steelhead). But apparently, the land there is swampy, the roads are terrible, and there is no acceptable over-night casa. So we head for “Fat Mary”, named for a large, accommodating lady of the pirate era. When the sailors she was servicing grew tired of her, so the story goes, they dropped her at this lonely spot, and named the place in her honor.

The placid, deserted waters within the large Bahia formed by the steelhead’s upper and lower jaws protect one of the region’s most extensive and best preserved coral reefs. The only activity along this otherwise vacant beach is found at the eponymous hotel, where scuba divers from Europe and Canada congregate for the low prices, uncrowded waters, and superb submarine environment. Bikers were clearly an afterthought, if the quality of the road was any indication. It seemed to have been chip sealed decades earlier, and the subsequent years of rain, wind, and waves had washed away much of the surface smoothness, leaving a pebbly, jarring tarmac, with frequent potholes. Those holes were not a real hazard, as they could be easily seen. Still, the road was rough on my shoulders, and after 75 miles of riding that day, distinctly unwelcome.

I had been covered the previous 20 miles by myself through the scrub jungle of the Reserva, equally uninhabited. The Racer Boys had sped ahead, the stragglers were being picked up by the bus, and I was left in No Man’s Land. But the day was still Cuba Perfect. A temperature in the mid-high 80s (F), a breeze at my back, unthreatening puffy cumulus clouds drifting in from the northeast, every now and then shading the sun, which was filtering through the trees hugging the road’s edge. The bus caught me at the junction separating the northern from the southern peninsula, and I learned Cheryl had gotten back on her bike, determined to ride the final beach stretch.

I slowed down, waiting for her to roll up, which she did after about five miles. We slowly pedaled the last 5 km together, feeling relief, gratitude, and a bit of sadness, marveling at what we’d done. THe road ahead curved to the left, a harbinger of the upcoming resort. We were nearly there, not one flat tire, not even a spill…

Suddenly, the bike hit an unseen bump in the road. The front wheel kicked, the back wheel skidded, but I felt I could control the beast, stop pedaling, re-orient my weight, and return to forward motion. Somehow, all the usual maneuvers wouldn’t work, and I ended up ass over tea kettle, lying on the road, cursing unintelligibly, frightening my poor wife a bit too much.

“Are you all right?” she shouted.

I held my my left elbow, which I knew had taken the brunt of the fall, and would be bleeding from the usual loss of skin on the forearm just in front the the funny bone. Yep, blood was flowing there, along with my leg, where I’d encountered the handlebar as I flew forward after the bike was jerked down.

She did a slow walk-around, and announced, “Uh, your front wheel is taco’d. Or potato-chipp’d. I don’t know what you call it. The wheel won’t turn”

This thought, that my bike might have been damaged as well as my skin, roused me out of my still blubbering oaths, into some sort of action. First, make sure I wasn’t bleeding too much. Cheryl, the nurse, assured me it would be all right.

“Yeah, what do you know,” I grumbled, having suffered way too many gouging holes in my arms in precisely that spot, including one set of stitches. I knew it would be weeks, months, maybe, before it healed over, and I was left with a jagged penny-sized white slab of scar tissue. Oh well, at least I can’ t see it easily in that location.

I turned my attention to my bike. Nope, the front wheel would not turn. But it was not bent. Something odd here…Oh, the handlebars are askew! I must have been stopped with so much force that my tight grip had torqued the bars to the left. Imagine your bike, with the wheels both pointing to the front, but the handlebars above the front twisted to the left about 30 degrees.

“How can you ride like that?” Cheryl wondered.

“Yeah, don’t worry,” I mumbled, as I faced the bike head on, gripping the front wheel between my knees. Grabbing the bars, I gave a good strong yank, and twisted the bars back to normal. The right gear shift was also turned sharply inward. Another application of brute force brought that back out, and the bike was once again rideable. I set about wondering just what had happened.

I walked back a bit to where the whole episode started, and discovered an unseen dimple in the road surface, about six inches around, and three inches deep. The afternoon sun had struck the pavement at an angle which obscured this depression from view, so I had not avoided it as I would have a more sharply demarcated pothole. Apparently, as the wheel got momentarily trapped in there, I twisted the handlebars with gruesome force attempting to regain control, and pedaled forward, thinking they were pointed in the direction of my travel. Which, of course, they were not. My poor brain did not grasp this, and so I steered myself right into a fall. Every bike crash has its own unique odd origin story; if things were normal, the fall would never have happened. So every few years, I fall down, lose some skin near my elbow, and soldier on, Luckily, I’ve never broken a collar bone; I think I must know how to fall with at least some grace.

The hotel was indeed only a half a klick away. We rolled into the open air lobby, and found both the early arriving riders, and the later arriving bus crew all there, happily enjoying their standard complimentary Cuba Libres in the thatched-rood shade. War stories were told, plans for evening swims arranged, and a final group photo choreographed.

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Valle Viñales

Leandro Malagon, or at least the top half of him, rose monumentally above the deserted plaza. A stray hound emerged from the base, and I squatted to get the correct perspective on the heroic statue which jutted incongruously from the dense forest of Parque Nacional Vinales.

Joany and I had been biking 45 minutes west from Viñales when this memorial erupted near the entrance to Caverna de SantoTomas – supposedly the second largest cave complex in the Western Hemisphere. But we had no time for spelunking. Alejandro had fully occupied our morning with a visit to a tobacco farm.

“Today, we rest. First we go to the tobacco. Viñales is where the greatest cigars in Cuba are made.” Not grown; made. Apparently, growing tobacco is the easy part; making the cigars, of the correct shape, width, length, and taste, is the real art. It was from here that both Winston Churchill and Fidel Castro were said to get their favorite stogies.

Juan angled the bus through another impossibly narrow slot, and parked adjacent to a drying hut. The lecture on growing, cutting, and drying was mercifully short. The main attraction was a demonstration of cigar rolling and smoking. First, the cigar master cut, rolled, and wrapped a perfect cylinder. Then, he sought volunteers to check the quality of his product. Cheryl, of course, volunteered her lungs. I bought a box of ten for US$10.

Viñales is certainly the most scenic spot we toured in Cuba, snuggled in a protected valley abutting the eponymous national park. Large humps of rock rise 1000 feet or more from the valley floor. These “mogotes” bring to mind the sharply etched hills of classic Chinese paintings, covered with lush trees and vines. The valley floor is home to a multitude of tobacco farms, and small houses to service the crops. The town itself is not large, but has recently realized its tourist potential; scores of casa particulares have sprouted throughout the narrow residential streets. Seemingly every other family is now in business for themselves, so we had our pick of lodgings. With 15 in our group, we occupied three domiciles on the outskirts of town.

We would stay here two nights. “Today, you no ride, you need a rest. Tomorrow is a big day,” Alejandro asserted. Of course, being new to bike touring, his idea of a big day, and ours might be at some variance. A few of us took his offer to go on an afternoon explore; the tandem went East, Joany and I headed West. I hoped to make it as far as the St Tomas cave.

But I got sidetracked by the Malagones. The parking lot was empty, and I struggled to let Joany know I wanted to get through the chain blocking entrance. He rousted a middle aged woman out of a small guard booth; she appeared glad for some business, and finally let me know it would cost about US 25¢ for me to enter. The whole time I wandered the site, taking a few photos and video, she kept a very close eye on me, almost as if she suspected me of intending damage.

With my rudimentary Spanish skills, supplemented by 3 years of Latin in high school, I pieced together the basic story. There were twelve local farmers who fought a great battle near here. All but two were buried in tombs on-site, none of them dying in the battle itself. They seemed to serve as a great role model for patriotic Cuban behavior. Pretty mysterious, until I returned home to easy internet access, and learned the full story.

In August,1959, Fidel and his commanders, in power for only 6 months, visited the Caverna de Santo Tomas, and met with some local peasant leaders. The Revolution was still young, and pockets of resistance (“counter-revolutionaries”) remained, mostly hiding is isolated locales such as this. One such group was marauding amongst the nearby villages, and the local peasants, led by Leandro Rodrigues Malagon, asked for help. Fidel, whether on the spur of the moment or with great foresight, anointed Malagon as the head of the first cadre of the Revolutionary National Militia. Castro saw that sustaining his revolution required deep and full commitment by the masses of the people. They were already predisposed towards that, after the perditions of the Batista regime. But if their lives weren’t safe, if they could not farm without fear of losing their crops or even their life, they would not see Castro’s rule as any better.

So he asked Malagon to pick 12 men to become the local militia. He gave them 90 days to find and deal with the “fugitive from revolutionary justice”, “Corporal” Lara. He sent them to Managua for training. Once equipped and ready, they returned to their home hills. Using easily available local intelligence, they surrounded Lara’s hideout, and commenced a shoot-out, which seemed destined to end in a stalemate. Until Malagon, at the front of the house, shouted to his crew blocking the rear entrance, OK, now we bring out the Thompson [presumably referencing a machine gun, which they did not actually have]. This frightened the Lara group, who surrendered immediately.

The Malgones become Heroes of the Revolution, and were paraded around the country, serving as an example of how others could help defend and expand the revolution. They all lived to ripe old ages, and as they began to die off, Fidel’s brother Raul decided a memorial to them in the home valley, where Fidel had the idea for the National Militias, would be fitting. Now, 10 are entombed amidst fountains (which have a curiously similar sound to machine gun fire) and cobbled walkways. Two are still alive, their resting sites still waiting.

 

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The Two Als: ‘Bama and Franken

I wish Al Franken had said this instead: “What I did was wrong, and I have violated the trust of those who voted for me. I should not be representing the people of Minnesota in the Senate, just as Roy Moore should not represent Alabamans, and Donald Trump is a poor representative of the values of our great nation. As soon as Judge Moore withdraws from the Senate race, and refuses to serve if elected; and once our President appoints a special counsel to investigate charges of sexual misconduct which have been levied against him – I’m sure he wants to fully vindicate himself in the eyes of all Americans, and this is the surest and fastest way to do that – then I will resign from the Senate. It is past time for all Americans, especially those who seek and have the people’s trust, to do everything each of us can to ensure that everyone feels safe from sexual violence and abuse.”

This is about improving our society, our culture, not about the fate of any individual within it. The behavior of celebrities, politicians, and sports stars is a mirror, in which we look and decide if we like the reflection we see of ourselves.

For example, Bill Clinton should now stand up and tell the world he was wrong and he should have resigned. That’s what it means to ask for a change in society.”

Then, a miracle occurred, and Doug Jones was elected senator over Roy Moore in Alabama.

The lesson the Democrats seemed to get: go all in on elevating women’s issues as a wedge to deal with both Trump and gaining back at least one house of Congress. It will probably work, but what then? Like it or not, being an asshole, having a chaotic management style, and being just plain stupid are not what I think of as high crimes or misdemeanors. The Democrats should concentrate on being adults, finding policies which speak not to the fringe elements of their base but to the real economic needs of potential voters.

History lesson: this recent Democratic victory in the AL Senate race brings to mind the 1991 special election for Senator in Pennsylvania. Some similarities: Republicans were in the ascendency, with Bush serving the third consecutive term for the GOP in the White House. In April, the Republican Senator John Heinz died, and the Democratic governor appointed a Democrat as interim senator, Harris Wofford. A career bureaucrat, no one gave him a chance against former PA Gov. Richard Thornburgh in the November special election – initial polls showed him 40 points behind. But Wofford made access to healthcare his key policy focus, and won by 10 % points. This led to a change in political strategy nationally for the Dems, and once Clinton was elected, they went all in on universal healthcare at the Federal level.

So safety and equality for women may work to bring in some suburban college educated women who might otherwise vote Republican in 2018. But an additional, and primary focus on economic issues will be critical, both in 2018 and 2020. It is highly likely that a recession will appear between the 2018 and 2020 election. This will re-introduce the worries of those who become left behind; the Democrats need to have a better answer for them next time around. For the mid-terms, however, a relentless focus on the character, competence, misogyny, xenophobia, and covert racism of the president needs to be emphasized.

On social issues, and racial and economic justice issues, I stand with Democrats. But I worry about their tendency to create a huge Federal trough for community groups (not individual benefits like Medicare, Medicaid, SS, Obamacare, etc.) to lap from. Both Republicans and Democrats have been having trouble the last 4 decades managing our nation’s debt, and that is my biggest reason for looking towards the middle for relief. Until the Republicans stop tolerating/relying on racists, homophobes, xenophobes, and misogynists in their midst, it won’t matter what fiscal policies they adopt, I can’t live in their tent. And I still hope there is a majority among the electorate who can be persuaded towards that viewpoint.

 

 

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Americano KOM

Big Jim had been chuckling nervously about today’s ride for the proceeding two weeks.

“ ‘Americano. A masculine name, but a bitch of a climb.’ That’s what it says on the website itinerary.” He had mentioned this almost daily, and had built the day into something to be frightened of. By this time, we all knew each other’s proclivities and abilities as cyclists, and easily grouped ourselves into several units based on speed and ambition.

The Racer Boys scurried out of the EcoResort soon after 8 AM. Unlike most of our tour across the island, we were now in serious hill country – the Cordillera de Gunaiguanico – which makes up most of the western tip of Cuba, the part which drops down into the Gulf of Mexico like an index finger gently pointing southwest. We started on the eastern edge of this massif, in the Santo Rosario mountains. Much of the area is protected as a natural preserve (like our national forests), with true national parks hidden within. The hills are heavily forested, the roads sinuous, uncrowded and seriously steep in places.

We covered the first 15 miles in about an hour and a quarter, seeing almost no vehicles of any sort, horse drawn, pedal powered, or internally combusting. Then we hit the only real climbing we had this entire trip – 535’ in 1.3 miles. I was trailing the group at the bottom, but found myself passing everyone except our resident pro, as the others either stopped to rest, or simply got off their bikes and walked.

The final section was rutted, almost gravelly. The grade stiffened past 8% to 10, 12, 14, peaking at 15%. I paper-boy’d towards the top, panting a bit, heart pounding. Luckily, the shade and elevation combined to ease my sweat rate a bit from the typical tropical torrent of Cuba.

At the very top, the grade lessened more and more, and I knew I had reached the summit. The trip downhill was equally steep. Coming up the other side were a couple of local riders, breathing heavily, but cruising up just fine. Several bone-shaking miles later, John rolled by me, more courageous in the potholes than I was willing to risk. Near the bottom, I saw a small pullout, with a shady snack shack and a stellar black Chrysler from the mid-fifties – worth a look.

“Hey, John, look, on the right,” I pointed at the car. “I want a picture.”

Either he didn’t hear or he didn’t care; intent on making time to the flats below, he swept right on by.

Several hundred meters later, I heard shouting to my left. Similarly intent on making downhill time while I could after all those days of endless flats, I didn’t see Tony or Joany at the outdoor beer stand. I turned around, and we shared our traumas on that “bitch of a climb.”

Tony allowed as, “Man, that was steep! I had to finally get off and walk.” Tony, while a stronger cyclist than I on the flats, is from Illinois, where people say “Wanna do some hills?” “OK, which overpass?”

Joany and I exchanged a smiling high-five when it became apparent we were the only two who had stayed on our bikes the whole way up.

Strava is the cyclist’s gold standard for comparing your performance to others. Riders all over the world upload their GPS files from their bike computer, and these rides are then immortalized online for all to see. Competition is encouraged via “KOMs” (King of the Mountain) segments (there are QOMs as well). Some cyclists live and die by their performance on these little stretches of road which are used for bragging rights. I had paid no attention to all this for Cuba until I went back to check just where we rode, so I could write with some semblance for veracity. https://www.strava.com/activities/926344824/segments/22618447005

Surprisingly, because internet connectivity is so poor and spotty on the island, Strava users by the score have their Cuban rides documented, just as everywhere else on the planet. On Americano, there are several key segments. The major climb, listed as Category 3, has me 20th/109. And among 65-69 year olds, I am ranked first. I also have two other age group KOMs and a downhill KOM from that day.

At the bottom, we re-grouped in a shaded gazebo near Candelaria, dribbling in by ones and twos, each with a story of success or misery. It turned out that only three of us had actually ridden up the entire climb: Joany, our pro; myself; and Cheryl. When I told her this news, she gave the widest grin, and told me how much fun she’d had, climbing just like at home.

Then we crossed the freeway, and started a 30 mile flat and steamy ride into San Diego de Los Baños where we boarded the bus, heading towards Valle de Viñales.

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Charco Azul

After cycling all morning and into the afternoon from Playa Giron, along the Bay of Pigs, we headed across the swamp lands of southern Matanzas, towards the town of Australia. The odd name of this little municipality stems from the local custom of naming sugar factories after the various continents. While sugar is no longer processed from cane here, the smokestack still features the name in prominent vertical capital letters.

“Tonight we stay in Charco Azul,” Alejandro announced. This sent ripples through the back of the bus, as the itinerary had listed San Antonio de Los Baños for the night, 150 km distant. Scurrying through my trusted Maps.me, I found Azul 50 km further on, in the foothills of the northeastern mountains.

“There is a festival in San Antonio; there is no room at the hotel for us. The Chaco is an Eco-Resort, very new, very modern.”

And very far away. It was already after 3 PM, and given what we’d seen so far of Cuba’s highway “system”, we might not get there before nightfall. But after we loaded the bikes on board Juan’s bus, we entered a true freeway interchange, and found ourselves on a six-lane divided highway, heading towards Havana, traveling at 90-100 km/hour. While passing 60 year old cars belching black exhaust, going half that speed, horse drawn carts @ 15 kph, and even the occasional pedestrian. Twice, we went by packs of cyclists, more youth teams in training.

The land was relentlessly flat, pocked with sugar cane farms and the smokey processing factories which attend them. Around 5:30, we reached the outskirts of Havana, where the freeway inexplicably ended in a traffic jam on unmarked city streets, devoid of traffic lights or even directional signs. A half hour of that, and we got back to cruising at highway speeds.

Before nightfall, we turned off that freeway, and wound along ever narrower roads, into the hills, Jaun homing in on by-now-mystical town locale of Charco Azul. While it appeared on Maps.me, there was zero civilization surrounding it, and no obvious lodgings or restaurant.

The last turn took us onto a one lane path, steeply uphill, into a graveled turn-around surrounded by a series of stucco one story lodges on the left, a well-kept garden in the front, and a two story stone structure rising above a small bar and dining area. We learned this was “Casa de Piedra Charco Azul”, or “stone house at the blue puddle”. The puddle had been transformed into a small pool defined by a precise rocky rectangle, suitable for swimming.

Each couple received a key to one of the stucco bungalows. Inside we found the first truly modern (21st century) interiors we’d seen in Cuba. All the doors closed properly, the toilets were sturdy, beds firm and comfy, beddings new and clean. What was this place?

Apparently a resort for bird watchers. Looking out from our private balcony into the surprisingly dense forest beyond, we heard (but did not see) feathered creatures calling to us as the sun set filtered through the leaves. Later, at dinner, we learned this is also a nature park, featuring hiking/equestrian trails. Clearly not for the Cubans, but meant for northern European visitors.

A stark contrast to our Soviet-era Hotel Playa Giron the night before. Set in an equally stunning spot, hard on the Caribbean shore, this concrete block edifice was filled with non-functioning tourist attractions, such as snorkeling, bodyboarding and a surf-side cabaret. We had likewise stayed in individual stucco’d cabins. But these were flaking, barely furnished, with creaky floors, leaky toilets, off kilter doors, and each set about 50 yards apart it’s neighbor, necessitating a lengthy walk to and from dinner and breakfast. The sea wall was crumbling. It may have served for Bulgarians or Muskovites fleeing an endless winter, but Northwestern Europeans would not tolerate it.

En la mañana, we would tackle “Los Americanos”, a ride through the surrounding nature preserve, up steep hills, down swooping curves, on traffic free roads. This was the source of excited chatter at dinner, nervous trepidation, and early bed times for all but one or two party boys, who found the two stool pool-side bar ample for their needs.

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