Saturday, October 30, 2010

The straight and narrow

For the last in this series recapping our August visit to the US, we find ourselves on this road, a well-maintained bike path cutting through the green summer woods of Ohio.  This unassuming but tidy sliver of pavement has run through my hometown for years, but it wasn't until our recent trip that I actually had the chance to get on it and check it out for myself.

I've been an avid bike rider since I was a kid.  I can still recall the hours that I spent in abandoned construction areas in my neighborhood with a BMX bike and a couple of friends, tearing up and down the dusty paths that gave me enough momentum to go flying off the many hills built up in the clearings between the trees.  As I got older, I graduated to a mountain bike and started taking longer trips all around the city.  The simple act of going from one side of town to the other and back using nothing more than my own legs gave me a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, far greater than the intangible reward of a high percentage on a report card, for example.

Once I was old enough to drive, I got a car and pretty much left the idea of bike riding behind, up until a day at the university when I was driving home and got plowed into head-on by another college kid making a left turn.  He was apparently too eager to get to the party around the corner and didn't bother to look before he went.  Neither of us had been driving very fast but the impact was still enough to have torn up a lot of what was under the hood of car.  Enough so to have resulted in the other guy's insurance company declaring my car totaled and cutting me check for its value.  I spent a few days considering what kind of car to get next, before ultimately deciding not to get one at all.  Instead I bought a new bike and used it to get around Columbus for the next year or so.

In so doing, I rediscovered the youthful joy I had once derived from going from place to place under my own power.  I also found a new satisfaction in cruising around the college campus and beyond on a warm sunny day, experiencing the urban environment without the filter of windshield and motor.  I made the most of both sidewalk and curbside lanes on the road to maneuver through heavy traffic as I pleased, and found new single track and new hills and mounds to get a mountain-biking fix every now and then.  There were also days when I'd be out and far from home and the sky would open up with an unrelenting downpour.  On days like that I'd ride home with the spray from both tires pelting me front and back, quickly reaching that saturation point where it didn't matter anymore how much it rained because I was already soaked.

Today in Cuenca, I'm back in that place again, car-free and leaving it up to my own feet, my mountain bike of the moment, and public transportation to get me around and out of town.  During those rare times when I do find myself in a car, I can't help but feel like I'm buckling into an amusement park ride.  It was with that frame of mind that we visited the US recently.  At the same time, by virtue of our cross-country trip and the desire to see many parts of Ohio while we were there, I was behind the wheel of a car for the first time since I left the States some years ago.

I even had a bike waiting for me in Santa Fe, but due to lack of space in the car we drove across the country, I ended up giving it away at the last minute to the Chain Breaker Collective, a non-profit dedicated to getting people on two wheels in Northern New Mexico.  I was happy to be able to give the bike away to a group like them, but sad at the same time to say goodbye to that particular bike.  I'd had it for over 10 years, and even though it had been slowly rotting as it waited for me in Santa Fe, it was the only bike I had in the States, and I had been hoping to get out and do some riding once we got to Ohio.

Fortunately I was able to borrow two bikes while we were there after all, and so Nancy and I were able to get out and do some riding together.  Plus, on a few different mornings and afternoons when little else was going on, I took the opportunity to finally get on that trail you see pictured at the top of the page.

Once I was on the path, I discovered that I had entered Ohio's veritable Highway 1 for bikes (and other forms of non-motorized travel).  A quick look at the map posted at the trailhead revealed a growing network of such trails.  Years ago, many of these trails didn't exist, but they are slowly beginning to link up, incorporating already existing paths within cities and connecting them with long stretches such as this one, between towns.  Maybe in a few years, it will be feasible to travel from one State to the next on your bike, using strictly these designated bike paths.

Projecting yourself into such a future, you can begin to imagine a new sort of cycling trend emerging, one in the same vein as an intrepid hike along the full length of the Appalachian Trail.  On a bona fide network of interstate bike trails, one could take a tour of any given region of the US, visiting its respective cities and national parks.  You could camp each night if that were your angle, or you could stay in the hostels or roadside inns that had sprung up to accommodate all the traffic passing through.

Such is the vision of the Rails to Trails Conservancy.  By taking land once set aside for our nation's deteriorating system of railroads and carving out a 8-10 foot wide stretch of pavement along the easement, you create an affordable bike trail that runs along a relatively flat and straight path.  And since defunct railroads exist throughout the country, a comprehensive project to establish such trails along enough of them would lay down the foundation for an interstate transport system to rival Eisenhower's in its scope, but for nowhere near the same pricetag.

With some luck, we'll have something like that to look forward to.  In the meantime, I made it as far as one town to the south and one town to the north of my home in Springfield.  My first destination was to the south, none other than Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Once I had jumped on the trailhead on the north end of Springfield, I followed the trail over an old train trussel.  When I was younger, I thought these things were just a way to take a dive into the river below...

Later, the trail led through Springfield's rusty industrial district, and also within sight of my old church and elementary school grounds:

Next I rode through downtown Springfield, past the old Marketplace building you see on the left, and then headed into the south end of town.  Here, the trail spills out onto residential neighborhood streets before picking up again as a separate trail south of town.

Once out of town, the trail makes a straight shot towards Yellow Springs, through the woods and cornfields of rural Ohio.  One fundamental difference between riding in the high mountains I've gotten accustomed to in recent years and the low country of the Great Lakes is of course the expansive stretches of flat land you'll find in Ohio.  Another important difference for a cyclist is the bugs.  Ohio in the summer is rife with insects, and sunglasses are a must even on a cloudy day, unless you want to pick bug guts out of your eyes while you're riding.

Between Springfield and Yellow Springs, you ride for many miles along a flat course girded by trees on both sides.  With the sound of leaves and locusts in your ears and the uninterrupted line of the bike trail unfolding endlessly before you, you reach cruising speed and just keep going.  And then all of a sudden, the line of trees breaks and you're in a new town:

The Yellow Springs station.  Once a true train station, the rails are gone and its original purpose has given way to a rest area and information center for cyclists.  With a public restroom and drinking fountain, as well as endless brochures and a map of the bike trails throughout the area, this is indeed a welcome center for all those arriving to town by bike.

Yellow Springs is a college town, a liberal enclave and a tourist destination well-known throughout the area.  It's a preferred destination for me because it has the great combination of good restaurants and one of my favorite forests, Glen Helen.  And yet, in all my life I've only this one time gotten there under the power of my own two legs.  And it took me just over an hour to get there from my doorstep on the north side of Springfield, and that was with all the stops I made to take pictures.  Not too bad!

This trail, I'm told, can be taken all the way down to Cincinnati and the Ohio River.  That particular day I contented myself in having made it as far as Yellow Springs, as dusk was already setting in by the time I got there.  But I was buoyed by the feeling of empowerment I got from connecting these two nearby communities by bike power, and vowed to do it again as soon as I could.  And on my way home, as I was pummeled by a new salvo of nocturnal insects, I decided that one day soon I'd follow the trail to its northern terminus in Urbana, the community north of Springfield.

And sure enough, it wasn't more than a week before I took off spontaneously one morning, determined to make it to Urbana.  I originally planned to ride as quickly as I could to Urbana and back again, just to see how long it would take.  But then I found a sign for Cedar Bog, a state park preserving a small segment of what was once a huge swamp covering a large portion of the State.  I hadn't been there since I was a kid and I couldn't resist ducking into the woods and having a look around.

Upon entering the park, the sight that greeted me was this fine tree standing at the entrance to the forest, and a wooden trail carefully laid out atop the marshy wetlands underfoot.  I'm not sure if it was meant for bike traffic, but since it was Labor Day and there was no one around to tell me otherwise, I decided it would be alright.

It turned out that this wooden platform extended throughout the park, and I was able to coast along the length of it as I explored.  The park, while relatively small, covers several different ecosystems, including some open meadows and a nicely shaded forest with a river running through it.  Along the way I learned from the various signs that some 25% of Ohio's plant species can be found within the park.  I also learned the fine shades of meaning between a fen, a bog and a swamp.  If you're interested in such things for some reason, I'd be happy to share.

After I had gone all the way around the park without ever actually having set foot in it, I got back on the trail and followed the railroad into Urbana.

Quietly emerging from the vast fields of central Ohio into one of the countless small wooded towns poking out from the sea of yellowing cornstalks is a normal, everyday task when you do it in your car.  In fact, passing through a town like Urbana often means a resigned foot on the brake and a prolonged wait at a series of traffic lights before thankfully speeding back up to 55 and punching the cruise control back on again.

But when you do the same thing on a bike, when the first sign of the ubiquitous water tower or church spire signals your triumphant entrance into a new town, you first feel the satisfaction of having traversed a wide open space in order to get there.  Then you see the place through a new set of eyes, ones bare of the glass and metal filter that often rob us of the real experience of being in a new place.  There was also something about riding around the streets of Urbana that brought back the many memories I'd had in that town.  At the same time, as I stumbled upon neighborhoods and alleyways I'd never seen before, I felt as if I was experiencing it for the first time.

When traveling, whether it be cross country or just across town, you'll see more in an hour on foot or on your bike than you'll see all day in your car.  Likewise, a five mile trip across the countryside or urban landscape under your own power and out in the elements will reveal more about that place than hundreds of miles will grant you when you're behind the wheel.  Don't get me wrong, our trip this summer would have been impossible without the various cars we used to get around.  But I was happy to have also gotten the chance to experience my old stomping grounds once again on a bike, because that's how I got to know them in the first place.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

That's nice!

As many of you know, we were in the US in August.  It was the first time there for my wife and daughter, and only my second visit home since coming to Latin America over three years ago.  My first time back during that time was for just two weeks, and happened more than two years ago, already.  Some people talk about being away from the US and then feeling culture shock all over again when they got back.  I never felt like I had any kind of "reverse culture shock" or anything like it, myself.  In fact, it was really easy for me to adjust to being there again.  But knowing that I was there only for a visit, and being there with someone who'd never been there before, these things helped me see the US through a different set of eyes than I had before I started my extended stay outside of its borders.

I also had the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite aspects of international living, which is to take a look at certain things people (including myself) take for granted as they go about their daily lives in their respective countries.  I'd say that in any given country, there are certain things that people do as a society - usually without thinking consciously about them so much - which work really well.  Then there are things that they do which really don't work so well, but they do them anyway.  Mostly because from their perspective, that's just how things are and even if it's annoying, that's life.  So I'd like to spend a few photos and paragraphs today looking at three institutions that I see in the US which I highly admire.  Institutions we have the fortune to take for granted in the US as always being there, which may not be the case in many other parts of the world.

The first on my list will be beer:

The carryout you see here is in Columbus, OH and was never more than a short trip from any of the several apartments I lived in there.  Inside, you can find dozens of high quality imported and domestic beer and wine.  There are dozens of other locally owned carryout stores like this one throughout the city, and a comparable number of local bars with plenty of good beer on tap.  There are so many of both in a college area like this one that an easy-going college kid has no reason to ever doubt in the reassuring ubiquity of some tasty imbibe.

Many people don't know that we owe today's deluge of microbrew varieties to Jimmy Carter and the Congress of his time.  In 1978 an amendment was added to a federal tax bill that permitted the making of beer and wine at home with no need for registration or taxation.  When Carter signed that bill, a time-honored industry of American craft beer was revived in the US.  What had been a web of costly legal overhead costs which all but prohibited amateur brewing became a wide open opportunity for anyone to try it out with very little investment.  Many of those amateur brewers, once satisfied with their unique and delicious creations, decided to go professional after all.  30 years later, we can enjoy the many fruits of their labor.

Today, we are enjoying a renaissance in craft brewing made possible by that small detail in a tax bill.  It's ironic that's all it took to bring it back, considering the veritable golden age of brewing in the US was cut short by a full-out 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, known popularly as Prohibition.  Looking at Columbus again as an example, today there is still a part of town known as the Brewery District, which prior to Prohibition had been the home to five local brewing companies begun by German immigrants.  Before the waves of German immigration and the widespread national embrace of their brewing styles, Columbus and the rest of the US had been drinking English-style ales.  Personally, those are my favorite.  Today's blending of American barley and hop varieties with traditional English ale styles is as good as it gets.

In Ecuador, in comparison, there is a woeful dearth in beer options.  Ecuadorians love beer, especially their Pilsener querida.  Right on the label of the iconic 22 ounce Pilsener bottle (meant for sharing), it says ecuatorianamente refrescante, paying homage simultaneously to national pride and the beer's refreshing quality on a hot day.  I'll admit, especially when it's nice and sunny, or if I'm eating seafood, I do enjoy a Pilsener.  But there are few other beers around to be had, and those that do exist closely mimic that same commercial, light lager style that you can find repeatedly from any given country throughout the world.  Red Stripe, Corona, Budweiser, Molson, Foster's or Tsingtao, every country's got at least one.  Don't get me wrong, that style is fine for the right occasion, but some other options would be very much welcome.

Needless to say, after two years straight of largely doing without, during our trip I made a point to sample many different styles from different parts of the country.  From 2nd St. Brewery to Marble in Santa Fe, from Rogue in Oregon to Red Tail in California. Goose Island from Chicago, Great Lakes from Cleveland.  And bigger names like Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada.

I was so hot on the trail for beer that I even stumbled across an extended swath of wild hops:

I thought they were hops when I saw them, and some comparisons with photos of the real thing prove (as far as I can tell) that these are, indeed, hops.  So what were they doing growing out in the wild?  Seeing as how hops are not native to North America, I can do no more than speculate that the area I was in might once have been planted with hops in order to supply breweries, and now their progeny stand in silent tribute to the days of brewing past.

Whatever the case is, someday, if I'm living in the States again, I'll go to that place, cut me a viable switch from those vines and perhaps revive a strain of hops forgotten by the ages.

One thing I will say in defense of Ecuador's brewing industry is that it still operates under the very pragmatic system of the bottle deposit.  The deposit here is 25 cents a bottle, quite high compared to the 10 cents that Michigan requires, especially when you consider the difference in cost of living.  Let's say you have empty bottles in your house.  You go down to the store with your empties and exchange them for full ones, and that way you don't pay the deposit.  Each store, in turn, has cases of empties that they swap out for full ones with the distributor.  Easy, simple, and it prevents waste.  Most conspicuously within the city, where you don't see broken glass all over the place as you often do in the US.  The thick bottles look a little roughed up on the outside from going through the bottling process over and over, but they're fresh on the inside!

Our second consideration for today is the parks system.

There were a number of things that I was looking forward to as I anticipated our trip to the US, and one of them was a walk in Glen Helen.  Located just outside of Yellow Springs, Ohio, it's technically part of Antioch University.

In high school and college, I spent countless days and nights wandering around that place with various friends or by myself, often bearing witness to things no less than magical.  The quintessential trail through the green forest for me will always represent the simple joy of being alive and in nature.  I'm endlessly thankful that there are places which are left to be forest in a world full of cities and planted fields.

The parks we visited were forests.  They were also manmade lakes:

Surrounding this reservoir outside of my hometown is forest, a disc golf course, and a meadow of wild flowers and grasses designed to recreate and preserve the wild meadows that once blanketed the extensive wetlands now drained and given over to cornfields throughout much of the State of Ohio.

Parks are also grounds for historical reenactments, such as the Fair at New Boston, which I hadn't visited since I was a kid.

This Fair recreates the time of the early independence and expansion of the United States beyond Ohio and the Great Lakes.  My interest in history only grows as I get older, and this reenactment was an enjoyable way to spend a day at one of the many green spaces outside of my home town.

One of the smallest but most beloved of the parks we visited was Iuka Park:

It's a small, slender sliver of green space running along a ravine through Columbus.  It runs past the nicest of the many apartments I lived in during my college days, and was the setting for some laid back Sundays and fun parties for a couple of years.  I imagine it still is, for the people living there today.  I was happy to see that the massive slice of tree trunk I had rolled up onto my front porch and called a table was still where I had left it.

I was also happy to see that some permanent garbage cans had been placed throughout the park, as litter was a serious problem in the park when I lived there.  Which was inevitable, since there were places to sit and eat, but nowhere to discard your waste back then.  Once I had even gone around town and taken some public garbage cans from areas of town which I thought had enough already, and planted them in the park.  I called that Robin Hood tactic "urban osmosis."  For a few months, someone even came periodically and collected the garbage from those cans, but then one day the cans were gone.  The day we visited, the sky was blue, the grass was green and the park was clean.  Still a fantastic place to spend an afternoon.

My last praise of the day is for our libraries, universities and other educational institutions.

This is the Columbus Library.  As the banners say, it was voted the Library of the Year for 2010.  It's been repeatedly ranked as among the best libraries in the country.  Above the front door, it reads, "Open to All."

I have great respect for our libraries.  They are an easy thing to overlook, and lots of people don't really use them very much.  I went with my mom to the library all the time when I was a kid, both in my hometown and in Crestline, where her parents lived.

When I moved to Columbus, I discovered the extensive public library there, and the many modern services it offers.  Music, movies, and an advanced system of requests and holds allowed me to find just about any book, album, film or TV series I could think of and have it delivered to the library branch in my neighborhood, for free.  I even received an email message telling me my request was ready to pick up.  US citizens enjoy countless privileges, but our virtually unlimited access to knowledge and culture via libraries is perhaps one of the greatest among them.

The Ohio State University, besides being a first rate institution of higher learning and a virtual city within the city of Columbus, also has an incredible library, 11 stories in height.  Here's a view from the top:

We spent an afternoon exploring Ohio State.  I lived for seven years in the campus area, and now it's been about eight years since I moved away from there.  The campus area and its surroundings have changed a lot since then, seeing the construction of many new buildings and facilities, and the revival of some classic ones.  One great improvement to the library is the 11th floor.  I used to go up there during long breaks between classes, as it was always quiet and offered views like the one you see here.  But at the time it was a functional floor of the library, full of flickering fluorescent lights and dusty stacks of books, with a utilitarian desk situated in each window well.

We rode the elevator to the top floor during our visit, me with the intention to show Nancy the view.  Little did I know that this level had been remodeled into very comfortable observation deck, complete with wireless internet, overstuffed chairs and couches, good lighting, wooden floors, and big desks for studying, providing an excellent space for the appreciation of the panoramic views of the campus.  This change echoes many of the tasteful changes made around the area, in my opinion.  The new buildings do their best to look modern and blend in with the older structures around them at the same time.  Attention has been given to outdoor space and pedestrian traffic, as well as to the "live-work" concept that has needed to be reinvented in the US after decades of overly assertive zoning codes.  There is also room for local business rather than strip mall after strip mall of parking lots and big box franchises.  Those parts of town certainly exist and continue to expand in their sprawling way, but the new growth in the more central parts of town reflect a paradigm shift in urban planning that I hope can take root throughout the country.  In short, Columbus has seen some tasteful improvements in the past several years, and has remained one of those cities I consider to be a nice place to live.

Another place I always enjoy visiting in Columbus is the Franklin Park Conservatory.

Located in the middle of a big city park, itself in the middle of one of the more stately of Columbus' older neighborhoods, it is a gigantic greenhouse and a sort of zoo for plants.  While one can feel sorry for animals stuck in a cage or artificial habitat, as long as a plant gets its requisite amount of light, heat and nutrition from its soil and what have you, it will be content to be where it is.  Hence this conservatory makes for a happier place for a gardener and animal lover like myself to visit.

The conservatory is divided into several habitats, including a desert, a jungle and the Pacific Islands.  It also has a great palm tree house which reminded me quite a bit of the outdoor gardens along the river in Guayaquil.  There's a bonzai exhibit which features a little tree much older than the US Constitution, and a current outdoor exhibit of carnivorous little pitcher plants.  A truly remarkable place for kids and grownups, if you've never been.

Ohio, like much of the United States, is blessed with nice parks and educational places.  They often operate in conjunction, such as this Conservatory in Franklin Park, or Glen Helen and Antioch University.  That seems right, as education leads us naturally to a place of peace and quiet, and it is peace and quiet that provokes a thoughtful state of mind.  I hope you'll think of such things as you go to the polls in November, for example.  While omnibus spending packages often go without a popular vote, parks and schools always seem up against budgets hinged upon the public whim.  Maybe you have kids in school or maybe you don't.  Maybe you use the parks and libraries, or not.  Either way, there is something very important about knowing that they're there, and that they define our country in a remarkable fashion.  I hope I can take my grandchildren to Glen Helen, to the statue of Horace Mann in the tall grass, and then take a walk in a manicured field in front of this beautiful Antioch building with them, full of the enthusiastic young and old.