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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gravel Grinding

I love an epic ride, and I wanted a challenge. I'd originally thought of signing up for next year's Dirty Kanza, a 200 mile gravel race that goes through the Flint Hills.

I'm on record as saying gravel roads are made of the shit you're supposed to sweep off a proper road, but like I say I wanted a challenge. And I wondered if part of my aversion to gravel was just a lack of experience on it. People seem to get seriously hooked on it, really enjoy getting out on these gravel roads.

So the Pony Express Gravel Dash presented itself to me at the perfect time: when I was thinking of Dirty Kanza, but this one had several advantages. It was in September, so no need to wait a whole year (but still some lead time for training); it was free of charge (to the first 100 riders to get a postcard in), and Velo+ was even supporting a team and offered me a spot, so I'd have support. And at 120 miles, it's easier for me to get my mind around—I've done nearly that distance before, although it was on pavement.

It's coming up here in two weeks, and while I've worked on riding distances and with greater intensity, I haven't spent nearly as much time on gravel roads as I felt like I should have. One thing and another seemed to thwart my efforts, and then I spent two long training rides on the Prairie Spirit Trail, which is sort of gravel-ish, but it's devoid of hills (trains don't climb hills) and the crushed rock is a far more predictable and rideable surface.

So today I got my bike on the car and took it out north of McClouth, KS. The terrain is similar to what's around Marysville, the glaciers definitely worked this part of Kansas over—if you think Kansas is flat I've got news for you.

I started with a little piece of minimum maintenance road, and it was actually the easiest riding of this outing. Old gravel, with grass growing up out of it, but well settled with no loose gravel piled up anywhere.

When I got on the 'maintained' gravel road, it got more difficult. The loose gravel tends to accumulate on the steeper slopes, which means it's tricky to control the bike going down steep hills (I fall with all the grace of a sack of hammers, so that's pretty nerve racking for me). Then on the climb that follows, when I hit the loose stuff my back wheel spins out and I wind up walking the bike up the hill.

To make things worse, I'm trying to maintain a 10 mph pace because they sweep the course of the event and if you can't make 10 mph you don't make the cut-off, don't get to finish. I know I can do the distance, could even make that pace on pavement, but walking a bike up a hill at 2 mph, even if you fly down the next side you've given up so much time on the climb it sucks your average down.

Then there's the farm dogs. Some of the people who live along these roads have this notion that big, scary dogs running loose is necessary for their protection. It's an idiotic notion, you're out in the middle of nowhere, so while help may be a long ways off, so is any real danger. I don't believe there are gangs of criminals staging random home invasions all over the countryside, and if they were they'd probably get their asses shot because the same people who let their dogs run free are also armed to the teeth as a rule.

I'd come prepared for dogs. Besides my usual pepper spray, I'd put several Milk Bones in my top-tube bag where I could reach them easily. I figured a Milk Bone can't blow back in my face like pepper spray, and throwing something at a dog is a pretty good way to get them to at least pause.

By the time I was five miles from the car I'd encountered five dogs. The last one didn't even bark, I was riding downhill in some fairly loose gravel, concentrating on staying upright when I felt his breath on the back of my leg and looked over my shoulder to see a very large brown dog. I snarled at him, largely out of a startle reflex, and I guess it was a convincing snarl because he did back off when that happened.

But I have some PTSD issues when it comes to getting chased by dogs (which I've related here in the past), and while I know that most dogs mean me no harm, it still causes a huge adrenaline dump for me.

I rode on a bit further and stopped to collect myself. A dog that doesn't bark is extra spooky to me because I figure if he's putting all his effort into the pursuit and none into barking, he probably actually means to attack. Maybe that's not true, and if he wanted to bite me, if he was close enough to huff on me he was close enough to bite. I started to continue on the ride and before I could go down another hill full of loose gravel, I realized something. I wasn't having any fun at all. I can't remember having less fun on a bike, ever, including riding hurt all the way home from Big Lake against epic headwinds.

I turned around and headed back to the car, which meant dealing with all five dogs again, but lord knows how many more waited had I continued on my way. I thought about just riding up and down that minimum maintenance stretch, but I was so disheartened I couldn't bring myself to do it, especially when I saw that thanks to all those walk-up-hills I'd only averaged 7.5 mph.

I haven't decided if I'm going to drop out of the Pony Express Gravel Dash or not. Vincent says he didn't get chased by any dogs on Dirty Kanza, and maybe with a hundred riders ahead of me to wear them out they wouldn't be as much of an issue. Also if I can find some riders I can ride with there's the safety in numbers thing. But a big part of me is feeling like the whole gravel grinding discipline is just a mistake for me. I don't do downhill mountain biking, I don't do trials riding, or bike polo, there's lots of stuff on bikes that doesn't seem to be for me. Maybe I'm a city cyclist at heart, more comfortable in traffic than in the boondocks. There's lots of challenges to be had riding on pavement in places where every mile doesn't feature a run-in with some hillbilly's dog.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lewis & Clark at Kaw Point

The Garden Tour

I haven't blogged as much about the garden this year, I think that's in part because I found myself really burned out by gardening. Around the time I got the tomatoes transplanted and the peppers in grow bags, I started feeling the endless list of tasks as a burden rather than a joy.

I once heard the difference between children and adults is a child tells you all the things they 'get' to do, an adult frames it in terms of the things they 'have' to do.

Fortunately, Corinna has upped her gardening game (which was already at a pretty high level). Her brain injury after effects (bike crash followed a few months later by a car crash), she has times when her regular work gets overwhelming and the garden is an escape.

But while the chores of the garden haven't been so joyful for me this summer, I haven't burned out on the idea of an edible yard. We eat really well, tons of fresh vegetables, and relatively cheaply. There are expenses related to the garden, and I do know where to get cheap produce in this town, but even factoring in the water bill, ruining a tire on a truck borrowed to haul compost (free load of compost cost over $100 with that tire figured in), the occasional spray of pesticide (I use the pyrethrin stuff—those gray beetles wiping out my cucumbers two years in a row disabused me of the 'organic' fantasy), and so on, I bet we come out ahead long term.

And I think it's beautiful landscaping.

In fact, the other morning I was leaving to take Molly to school and I had to stop and take a picture of the front yard because it's so awesome.

I love, for instance, the way the squash planted along the edge of the driveway spills out into it. It's getting to be a little bit of a hassle, we have to keep training it back into itself because it wants to take over to where we couldn't get in and out of the garage or the rest of the yard, but it looks great.

And even parts of the yard that are out of control are out of control in a cool kind of way.

As an example, the back row of the Tomatosaurus Rex beds, the eight raised beds I built at the end of the driveway, originally intended to be all tomatoes (maxed out that'd be 48 plants), we never have quite gone all tomatoes there. Last year was three fourths tomatoes in that area, 36 plants with two beds given to other crops. This year, I thought I was cutting back on tomatoes. I think I preordered 24 plants, but then between one seed exchange, a couple of impulse add-ons, I put 31 back there. That left five stakes at the back edge by the rose bush.

Against my better judgement, I planted squash in those five spots to climb the tree stakes I drove into the ground last season to support monstrous indeterminate tomato vines. I say against my better judgment because squash are thugs in the garden. We have along that row a spaghetti squash vine which has climbed the fence and taken over a neighboring bed, climbed the rose bush and as with the pumpkin, muskmelon, cantaloupe, and acorn squash I planted along with it, never given up on strangling the tomatoes across the hall.

I say I'm burned out on gardening, but having ripe pie pumpkins in the kitchen waiting to be stuffed is pretty awesome. Between bouts of not wanting to go deal with the plants, I find myself scheming with Corinna for next year's garden. Well, not even 'next year' because there's the fall crops to think about and the stuff that can overwinter. And spinach, which is both a fall crop and an overwinterable one.

And as much as I know the garden is good for me nutritionally, it's also good for me in other ways. The physical activity required, sure, and there's the veggies on the table. But my arachnophobia, previously documented in these pages, well...

The thing about irrational fears, phobias, whatever you want to call it, knowing it's irrational doesn't really help. You just get to feel dumb on top of being afraid. Probably to Matilda's relief (I named the spider Matilda, it makes her less frightening), I'm not about to go handling her to face my fear. I'm not even about to pick the chard she's weaved her web between.

But knowing the spider is there, and being able to check back in on her from day to day, see some of the bugs she's eaten and whatnot, that helps me accept the fact that she's actually an ally in the garden.

Somebody once asked me about this whole edible yard thing, about whether we were 'preppers.' I don't have a TV, so I missed the reference, I learned later, to a TV show abut people who are planning for the End of Days (or something like that).

No, I'm not preparing for the end of days. How am I going to preserve the tomatoes three dozen plants throw off with no electricity? For that matter, what am I going to water in plants with in the absence of municipal water, given that I don't have a well on my property?

But then, I guess, we're better prepared to go a few weeks without gasoline, electricity, and so on, than the average American. Which means we're only a little pathetic on those fronts, as opposed to totally pathetic.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Matilda, Guardian of the Chard

I was loading my bike on the car, getting ready to take Mo to school and myself to work the other morning and I was struck by how beautiful our front yard is. I have it on good authority that some people think it's bad form to grow vegetables in the front yard. But it's beautiful!

I've seen some 'gardens' that look like weed patches and I'm not talking about from neglect, I'm talking as-seen-on-Martha-Stewart-Living stuff. Not only ugly but inedible plants that are indefensibly bad landscaping unless the person who says they meant to do that happens to also be the chair of the homeowners assocation. At least asparagus, peppers, chard, basil, these have redeeming qualities beyond visual appeal, you can eat them.

While I was scoping the wonder of this out I spotted a garden spider. Revolting to me personally. I have a bit of arachnophobia that I believe traces back, mostly, to TV commercials for a B movie I was exposed to in my formative years.

I steeled my nerves and photographed her. I even named her, she is Matilda, guardian of the chard. She's huge, and while I couldn't possibly harvest this chard myself while she's nested there, I figure she probably eats a lot of bugs that might do harm to the crop.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

St. John's Park

My Long Haul Trucker in St. John's Park on Strawberry Hill. Kansas City skyline for a backdrop. Great place to stop for a beer when you're almost home.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Midwest Balloon Fest 2014

When I told Mo I was taking her to Midwest Balloon Fest (I'd scored some free passes), I expected her to say 'no.' It's her stock answer to anything that's not YouTube, Fruit Ninja on her tablet, and the 'garage sale store' (thrift store).

She surprised me by saying yes. Not a one-off fluke yes, either. Each time I brought it up, she was down with the plan.

I remember a few years ago taking the girls to a similar deal in Gardner, though it was free to the public (all it cost was coping with the parking situation when 30,000 people visited a city park in a town of less than 30,000 people).

This one had an admission charge (if you didn't have a client offering passes), a pretty steep one at that, but drew at least as many people. They held it at the Kansas Speedway, which was genius because there's plenty of parking and plenty of room for balloons to set up, take off, land, etc.

This is a venue that can accommodate 72,000 race fans, many of whom bring enormous RVs with them, it's a hard venue to overwhelm.

The one in Gardner in 2010 had an impromptu feel to it, and all there was to it was balloons. I can't recall if they even thought to bring in portapotties for it, the hordes may have had to make due with Celebration Park's permanent restrooms.

This was more like a state fair invaded by dozens of hot air balloons. Kettle Corn, motorcycle dealers, carnival rides, meatballs on a stick the whole thing.

When we got there, I heard the guys on the PA talking about the tethered balloon rides that were $10 a person. Well, I knew it wasn't going to be much of a balloon ride, but it's more balloon ride than I've ever been on.

And I knew at that price, the line would be epic and it was. Molly and I got in line about 6:30, a line that wrapped around the tethered balloon, out past the Star Motorcycle huxters, back down through the Christian radio station tents, and around a row of outhouses.

Two and a half hours later, we were finally at the front of the line and they ran out of propane. Well, sort of. There was more on the grounds, but the eight 100-pound tanks the balloon operator had were drained and there was a mad scramble to get them refilled. A guy further back in the line came up and started to lose his shit at one of the volunteers running the tethered balloon ride.

We could all feel his frustration. We'd all been standing around for hours waiting for this. And if anyone should be pissed, it's me, the guy who had gotten his money out and stepped up to the table, only to have to step back so they could wheel the empty propane tanks to a golf cart. I was there, damn it, and I didn't know for sure if I'd get to go now. But I wasn't chewing on the help.

Not to worry, the gas was at hand pretty quickly and in fact one of the operators came and told the girls at the table, 'Keep selling tickets, we're not done.'

Then there was a call for two riders. As in, they needed a pair to round out a party, and I put up my hand and me and Mo went and stood where we were told until the pilot got a look at us and said, 'No, two smaller people.' The woman who had recruited us ahead of a few people seemed embarrassed, apologized for not being able to guess our weights. He needed two people of average size, I weigh 275 lbs, Mo is easily 200 herself, so we probably add up to more like three people if you're calculating ballast.

Ain't that America?

Anyway, when we finally got in the gondola, there was some ring around the rosey action where we had to get on one at a time while the previous party got off one at a time because that's how balloons work.

The burners were startling. Felt like they'd burn my eyebrows off, maybe set fire to my hair. How many BTUs is that? I was told 22 million per burner (there were two burners). Yikes, I have a King Kooker that runs 200,000 wide open (and I can ice up a 20 lb propane tank running it that way, drain it in less than two hours). That's like the pilot light on this sucker.

I'd seen in the news while waiting in line that Secretary Kerry was lecturing African countries not to develop more farmland, even in areas where one out of four people is starving to death, because it might lead to more climate change, CO2 emissions and all that. I wondered how it looked to people from these impoverished, starvation plagued countries, to be lectured on carbon dioxide emissions by a country where they burn thousands of pounds of propane for the amusement of overweight Americans like myself.

And then I realized the ropes were pointing down to the ground, we were up in the air. Maybe 50 or 75 feet. I could see a lot more of the Speedway grounds anyway. I didn't even realize we'd taken off when that skull-roasting burner went off. The burner is dramatic and violent, but the liftoff is so gentle you don't even feel it.

I guess the balloon ride was anticlimactic, it couldn't help but be with two and a half hours of buildup. And it was over so fast. I can see how people get hooked on this, though. It's not a cheap hobby, you're looking at more than my house cost just to buy a balloon, and then there's pilot training to do, and on top of that you have to be solvent enough to fuel the damn thing. Sport of the gods, perhaps, but more aptly the sport of robber barons.

Darth Vader, the balloon they used to promote the event most, that guy is from Belgium, so he's evidently solvent enough to pay high European tax rates, plus have enough leisure time to drag the Sith all the way to Kansas.

There was also Sharkey, who was huge, and Elvis, all kinds of balloons. The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe was there but she was behind the shark and Elvis, and by the time we were done with the tethered ride and could walk around they'd already put her away.

I went by the Plumber's Union tent to thank the client who gave me the tickets, and Mo spotted the carnival rides. She'd been all about going to the car until that moment, and all of a sudden she was dragging me, literally, toward the carnival.

She'd been such a sport about waiting in line for the balloon, I bought $20 worth of ride tickets and we went and waited in more lines. By the end the lines thinned out, but by then it was getting to be closing time. $20 worth of ride tickets really doesn't get that many rides at a carnival, but I left with a dozen unused tickets because they'd shut down for the night.

No complaints, though. It was a great outing with my youngest daughter (who just started her Senior year of high school and thus is too cool for such outings most of the time). That's pretty damn near priceless to me at this stage of parenthood. Without the free passes, I probably would have talked myself out of going, but it would have been worth every penny even if I'd paid the gate.