Mississippi Love

It’s been over two weeks since I completed my Minnesota ride — so it’s high time for a brief recap of the last couple of days of this beautiful week.  After a rather long day on Wednesday, I was in the mood for an easier Thursday, so rode down from Brainerd, exiting via the wide shoulder of MN371.  The city of Brainerd represents somewhat of a border between the northern coniferous forests that define Minnesota’s iron and logging regions and the rich agricultural and deciduous lands of its southern half.  The defining feature of my final two days was without a doubt the widening Mississippi river, along whose banks I would ride for the remainder of my trip.

Thirty-or-so miles down the road in the southern reaches of Crow Wing County, I passed the site of historic Fort Ripley, an abandoned American stronghold established in the 19th century to attempt to exert influence over the territories of what is now northern Minnesota.  It was interesting to contemplate that at that time (1849) this was as far north as non-indiginous American influence extended.  The fort is only an overgrown historic site now, though some of its ruined embankments can still be seen in a bend the lazy river as it flows south.  I paused for this photo in the noonday sun, looking through the trees across to where the old fort would have been.  I thought of genocide, and the terrible legacy that these sorts of places represented for the local Ojibwe and Winnebago peoples.

lazy river at the site of Fort Ripley

The river had widened since I’d last seen it way back in Grand Rapids, where boys waded well into its central channel to fish in the middle of town.  Here, after more than 150 miles of winding and collecting through lakes and past the mouths of its tributaries, the river was the wide watercourse you’d imagine the Mississippi to be — already a great great river, seemingly ready to drive its way south through the middle of the country.

Big river

I was privileged to be able to spend the night with two dear friends who make their home just south of Little Falls, MN, in Morrison County.  Here they are:  two of my favorite people — Bob and Linda Mueller:

Bob and Linda

Bob and Linda and I go back a ways, and the story of our relationship is long and involving a small mountain village in Washington State, their daughter (and one of our best friends) Bethany, dogs, Seattle, family of choice, Lutherans, Vietnam veterans, Thanksgivings, emails, weddings and many other things — like I said, a long story.  But it’s a joy to have people along the route of one’s bike ride who are willing to open their home in such a hospitable way, to share a meal and to show one around their beautiful town.  I spent a wonderful night in Little Falls with these two in their gorgeous pine-shaded house nearly on the banks of the great river.  It was a joy.

The next morning presented a choice — I could push on to my final destination in Minneapolis in one very long day (107 miles I made it) or I could spend the night somewhere between Little Falls and the twin cities.  I prefered the first option since it would mean another great reunion with friends and one less night of camping on hard ground — but it also mean putting in a very long day of pedaling.  I’d had an easy day on Thursday, and my time with Linda and Bob had refilled my energy reserves, so I set out somewhat early from the house and headed south along the river with the intention of ending my ride on Friday.

Blanchard dam from the Soo-Line crossing

The morning ride was lovely — one of the best parts of the trip.  The subtle valley of the Mississippi widened and becme suddenly more rich.  Farms, which had been sporadic north of Little Falls, were suddenly all around.  The forrest thinned and then finally almost failed, replaced by the isolated treed areas that ones sees among the fields of the cultivated midwest.  Morrison County, like some of its surrounding areas (Mille Lacs and Benton Counties as well) is intensely Catholic, with Germans and Poles representing the bulk of the early settlers.  The names of many of the towns are French — a legacy of les voyageurs  who used the Mississippi as a super-highway in the days that they used to travel in this land.  Every town — even the smallest — featured a beautiful 19th century catholic parish, with tall steeple.  St. Could (named for Saint Cloud, Hautes-de-Seine, the Paris suburb through which I had bicycled in June  one afternoon to reach the Palace of Versailles ) made a good late-morning stop, and the excellent MRT continued to guide me well into the shady center of St. Cloud St. University for a break at 45 miles.

The edge of the Prairie

After St. Cloud things began to change.  A lovely bike path extended down the river about 10 miles south of the city, but after that it was out on the Great River Road for almost the remaining 60 miles of the day.  There was more traffic, and it drivers were in more of a hurry.  I was in the orbit of a city, and would soon enter the ex-urbs.  The river road (designated by Congress as a scenic by-way in 1938) is in this part of the country a collection of old roads that follow the course of the river.  These are no doubt very old routes, developed first for wagons and horses and only later for cars.  Before the interstates and US highways were built, they were the primary overland route through central Minnesota.  I am fascinated by America’s so-called “secondary” roads — these connectors of the old parts of towns and villages.  So cruelly surpassed and obviated by superhighways (I94 intrudes closely on the river road a number of times south of St. Cloud and in places like Monticello) they were the originally routes along and around which European settlement was defined.  These sorts of roads wound over and around hills rather than flattening them in the manner of larger and ruder freeways, and when they approached the limits of towns they often narrowed and turned, becoming main street, until emerging on the other side as the main artery to the next inhabited place.  It was along this way that I pedaled in the now-muggy midwest day, reaching the bend in the river some 30 miles north of Minneapolis in the late afternoon heat in time to carb-load for the final push.

Final approach to Minneapolis on the left bank of the river from the north

Getting in and out of cities is always the least pleasant part of any ride.  Minneapolis is not so bad as these things go becaue it features a network of excellent trails which extend well into the suburbs.  By Brooklyn Park, about 15 miles north of downtown Minneapolis, I was off=road, only emerging back into a bike lane at the northern limit of Washington Street for the final ride through gritty northern Minneapolis and then into downtown.  For a few tired miles I could see the high-rises of Minneapolis framed in the perspective of the avenue, and I knew I was nearly done.  I felt gratitude for my physical safety, and for the great privilege of riding through this amazing state.  I am a western boy — I love my mountains and the marine air as it hits my face flying down the green western face of the Cascades.  But if I have another, non-Cascadian home, it would surely be here in Minnesota: this stark, bountiful, forbidding and infinitely welcoming place whose extremes of climate and terrain are balanced by the mildness in the heats of its people.

I rolled up to my friends Bethany (Bob and Linda’s daughter!) and Stamatis’ house as the shadows lengthened.  Bethany is a VA social worker who treats PTSD and addiction in veterans.  Stamatis is a psychiatrist, working in community health with those affected by mental illness.  They are two of my favorite people on earth.  They’d just put their 9-month-old son (and our future God-son) Photios to bed, and we all relaxed in the calm backyard evening of their south Minneapolis home.  I felt none the worse for wear after 107 miles, Matt L was due to arrive early in the morning, and I was surrounded by people who are like family to me.  There are no better endings than this — to be at peace and in community after a long journey.  Arrivals and homecomings are a big reason why I love journeying by bicycle, and why moving slowly, under my own power, lends extra meaning to the landscapes, both physical and human, through which I travel.   Plus, there was beer, and a hot tub, and a chill weekend in Minneapolis to look forward to.  All was right with the world.

Satmais and Photi in full dad/son mode on a weekend bike ride

 

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Northern Star

 Vacationland:  Lake Roosevelt in the mid-afternoon

Like the stream that bends to sea,
Like the pine that seeks the blue;
Minnesota, still for thee
Thy sons are strong and true.

— Minnesota State Song

Call me biased (went to college here, have many Minnesotan friends) but I love this state.  It is quite possibly the most humanly friendly and guileless place on earth, and once you get a bit south of its somewhat harsh most northern reaches, it blooms and opens to embrace you — at least in summer.  Such anyway was my experience today.  I covered something around 90 miles in easy riding, and ended up in the town of Brainerd, which was a bit farther than I’d planned to make it.  The coming day will be an easy ride to Little Falls, MN to hang out with dear friends Bob and Linda … which is good, since the last day of this mini-tour is going to be a doozy.

What a difference the weather can make.  It was fine and sunny all day, but even more importantly there was a very subtle tailwind of about 5mph which made everything instantly easier.  This part of Minnesota is also rich in bike trails, and for a good part of the day I followed the MRT (Mississippi River Trail) … This particular route is off-road for only sections, unlike the nearby Paul Bunyan State Trail which runs for some 110 miles completely off-street.  Impressively, these are not urban trails, but connectors between the state’s small towns, which makes it plausible to bike much of the entire state on a separated trail.  Washington State has a whole bunch to learn from this … due to lack of investment and political will, we have no real state trail system, and very poor state-level support for cycling (this is our version of a statewide bike map, for comparison purposes.)

A glorious Minnesota state trail near Crosby, MN

For whatever reason, this was one of those days on the bike that just flew by.  I passed lake after lake after lake.  Some were wild and somewhat forbidding, way out in the middle of nowhere.  Others were remnants of the Cuyuna Iron Range, their shores dotted with abandoned concrete works (this was especially the case around the town of Crosby.)  Most, however, were surrounded by resorts — a word that in the upper midwest has a very different connotation than  perhaps it does elsewhere.  Resorts are neither tropical nor particular fancy — they’re often centered around fishing, pontooning and accommodations are almost always cabins (though sometimes lodges) of a modest nature.  They are, in short, of the people, in a way that is hard to capture.  Many of the beautiful lakes I passed today were ringed by such resorts.  I imagined the families that inhabited the cabins I saw flash by:  suburban parents, excited children, sullen teenagers.  I stopped at a roadhouse called “Just Up North” and sat in the shade for a while on a wooden bench that had been damaged by over-use and watched the vacationers stroll by.

Expresso sign in Outing, MN. Hmm. http://grammarist.com/usage/expresso/

Cycling in the evening is particularly calming … the temperatures subside, the winds generally die down and a calm descends.  In this calm I pedaled down the streets of Brainerd, MN — so cruelly portrayed in film and TV’s Fargo.  Residents waived from their front lawns.  There was a bed waiting for me.  90 miles felt like 20.

From the woods and waters fair;
From the prairies waving far,
At thy call they throng with their shout and song;
Hailing thee their Northern Star.

— Minnesota State Song

Days of our Lives

Yesterday was a pretty short day as long-haul bike touring goes — I shortened it to 47 miles after feeling pretty spent from my battle with Monday’s winds. The day was quite overcast, and very cloudy, but the wind had died down significantly.  There was the threat of rain for much of the day, but it never quite came to pass.  I didn’t camp last night due to the possibility of overnight rain and storms.  Instead I holed up in the Grand Rapids Super-8, where I slept like a log.

filtered view of sky, trees, water, Johnson Lake, Itasca County, MN

In the morning I got going pretty late after a rather fitful night.  Some racoons had awakened me at around 2am, and I found it mildly difficult to get back to sleep after that.  I finally hit the road around 9, remembering that there was a full 7 miles of riding back into the town of Bigfork where I could get some breakfast at the place simply called Pizza Parlor, although it was also a dining room and general purpose cafe — the only one in town.  As I rolled up, a weathered man of maybe 70 (it was hard to tell) looked me directly in the eye from his place on a bench outside the cafe and said in a deep but shaky voice, “Like sands through the hourglass.  So are the days of our lives.”  “You got that right,” I replied.  He’d said it almost liturgically, as if it required a response, or was of particular weight in that moment.  I went inside the cafe and ordered breakfast.

Patriotic child art from inside Bigfork’s Pizza Parlor.

Breakfast was huge, and it took a little while to both prepare and consume.  Meanwhile I observed the collection of patriotic art by local children which adorned one of the walls.  The children’s’ liberal intermixture of national and Christian symbols suggested a theocratic politics, or perhaps a nationalist Christianity.  A kind woman in the cafe saw me there and  asked about my trip as a means to tell about the time, many years ago that she’d done RAGBRAI.  I love it when people tell me about their own past tours — and it happens a lot.  Already three people in two days have told me about their past rides:  a man who road from the Twin Cities to Yellowstone with friends after high school graduation, the RAGBRAI woman, and another man who’d crossed the country.  Sometimes you can tell (especially if they’re older)  that they would love to ride away with you at that moment.

Speaking of riding, I did actually do some of that too, covering the remaining 40 miles to Grand Rapids in about 3.25 hours of riding time — not too bad for the extent of what I’m carrying.  Minnesota 38 between Bigfork and here has sections which aren’t all that big on shoulder, but remain crowded with construction and logging trucks.  If you’re reading this in search of a route, I don’t recommend the road, which is also somewhat hilly in parts.  Dangerous situations are possible.  The guys at Itasca Trail Sports in Grand Rapids recommend staying in Highway 6, and in retrospect they were right …  But everything went well and before long the road opened up again into a shouldered, wide highway with massive amounts of space.  Before long I was in Grand Rapids, crossing the Mississippi under gloomy skies and humidity.

Fishing below the power plant on the Mississippi in Grand Forks, Minnesota.

The Falls

Yesterday was a day of riding down lonely roads carved out of thick arboreal forests, down highways connecting towns that still feel like they’re on a frontier.  I rode about 85 miles, from International Falls, MN down US 51 to the town of Big Falls, and then into side-roads through the beautiful desolation of northernmost Minnesota.  Last night I lay in a tent by a lakeside campsite.  I was worried it might rain, but it wasn’t really expected until today (if at all) so I didn’t attache the rain fly so that I could see the stars.  I felt a sense of peace.

The day started at the Voyageur Cafe in International Falls, MN — a scruffy border and mill town across the Rainy River from Fort Frances, Ontario.  I’d skulked around the town for the previous 24 hours, gathering my energy for the ride to come and taking care of various practicalities before I started off south.  Groceries at the town store  (not the Super-Kmart), a trip to the post office to mail a large box of stuff to my friends Bethany and Stamatis that would not be making the trip with me: those sorts of things.  The organizing of this trip had been (to say the least) logistically interesting.  I’d just been in Scotland for work, so getting here, with a bike, ready to ride was challenging.  Before my work travel I’d staged my bike with a very understanding woman named Stephanie who owned International Falls’ coffee place — Coffee Landing (it’s a cool place if you’re ever in the Falls you should check it out.)  In any case, I’d figured out all of the stuff, and my bike and I (somewhat jet lagged) were finally ready to go.

The outskirts of any town in much of the world contain the same sorts of things:  a transfer station or dump,  utility plants, gas stations, an airfield, golf … I passed all of these while making my way out of International Falls and toward the turnoff of US 51, where it turns away from the Rainy River and makes a straight line for Bemidji, MN, some 110 miles to the southwest.  I may or may not make it through that small city, but I spent the morning and early afternoon chugging down the wide shoulder of 51 toward it as traffic — mostly trucks of various kinds — whizzed by.  I was definitely in the great north woods.  This was the logging territory of Paul Bunyan and his blue (why?) Ox Babe, and the actual current logging territory of the many rigs that sped by bearing loads of recently harvested pine.  These were not the great trees of the Pacific Northwest — the wide-trunked Douglas Firs or massive Cedars of my youth.  These were scraggly trees in comparison, but one had to respect their ability to survive the conditions of this place.  In winter, this area is often the coldest in the lower 48 states,

The Big Fork River

My enemy all day was a 10-15 mph headwind that continuously smacked me pretty directly in the nose from morning until evening.  It blew without respite, bending the reeds and rushes that crowded the ditches and marshes to either side of the highway in a direction that perfectly opposed the way I was trying to go.  I nevertheless cruised through the town of Little Fork, declining it’s admirable and many posted invitations to visit and contribute to the local economy.  By the town of Big Falls, some 40 miles in, I was ready for a break.  Rolling into town I crossed the Big Fork River for the first time.  The falls in question looked cool and there was a campground and park where kids scrambled over rocks in a rather unsafe-looking way toward the river.  The rest of the town was depressed and empty.  I pulled up in front of a general store and had lunch from the town grocery, run by a friendly woman (did I mention that Minnesotans are friendly?  I’m going to leave out anecdotes proving how friendly they are since that’s somewhat, shall we say, well-known.  But assume everyone I write about is friendly unless otherwise mentioned.)   I sat for about an hour recovering my energy and eating cheese, meat and carrot sticks. 

Aside from the woman at the store and some children I saw running around, the residents of Big Falls appeared to be in various states of dysfunction.  A man in cammo sauntered out of the all-day liquor store and passed by me mumbling.  He wasn’t menacing exactly, but might well have been fully drunk.  An older man with a profound limp, a metal cane and what appeared to be a kind of sippy-cup attached to his neck by a string passed me by and said hello.  His shoes weren’t all the way on, but I couldn’t tell whether this was because they were broken or didn’t fit, or for some other reason.  A large man with a ruddy face drove by in a dilapidated Cutlass sedan with chunks of car body seemingly in the act of falling off of its sides.  An obese woman bought cigarettes from the store.  I was back in rural America, Trump country … whatever you want to call it.  These were the sort of places that people like me ignored at our peril.

Forest road with bike. No end in sight.

I forsook 51 in favor of side-roads for the rest of the day.  There was very little traffic, and the sun beat down while the headwind continued.  There were flies — big ones.  They seemed to enjoy racing behind me as I rode, chasing after the flying thing that smelled of sweat.  Some were big enough that I could see their shadows — the shadow of a bug! — as they pursued me down the forest road.  Bigfork was a welcome sight when I arrived.  I bought sausage and carrot sticks and fresh raspberries for dinner at the market.  The check-out boy, who looked to still be in high school, asked me if I played basketball.  I told him I didn’t and he looked disappointed.

Coon Lake, where I spent the night. There were indeed racoons.

The state park where I stayed overnight was a further seven miles up hill from town, and my hamstrings screamed as I plowed down the road for the final time today … my legs full-on hurt at that point, and yesterday’s battle with the wind has prompted me to shorten today a little bit.  But the night on the lake, the loons howling and laughing, the night’s sleep on the soft ground made it worth it, and made me glad that I decided to do this ride. 

Summertime

Summer, like life, is short. So it’s important I think to maximize time in the saddle during these months where the days are long and the touring possibilities are many. This summer so far my riding time has been limited, and I’ve been somewhat geographically scattered due to work, but I’ve made an extra effort to work cycling into as many of my movements as possible, wherever I go.  Here are some thoughts on that theme, and an update on a few rides I’ve taken lately and haven’t written anything about:

  • I think a sort of seasonality is part of the human tradition, at least for people who don’t live near the equator. For my own part I know that I adjust my internal clock and schedule during the summer — I’m more active, awake more, and more energetic. My cycling habits change too — I feel like doing more miles and more rides.
  • Like most people, my job doesn’t allow me to pause for any particular season. In fact, I tend to travel for work a bit more in the summer months than at other times. Luckily my job sometimes takes me to interesting places, and I’m occasionally even able to add a few days onto a trip here or there to make the cycling more interesting (as I did in France).
  • for business travel, I’ve found that almost anywhere of any size that you can fly (or at least where I have recently) there are great places to rent serviceable touring bikes. I’m on my way back from Scotland now (more on that in a minute) where this was super easy to set up. Paris was the same.
  • unless you’re the owner of one of those cool folding touring bikes (I’m not) shipping or flying with a bike, while not impossible, can be difficult and expensive, especially internationally.  Inside the US, it can be more realistic to bring your large bike, but still for business travel (which for me tends to last about a week usually) this still represents a lot of overhead.
  • an indispensable item for me has been a set of traveling panniers that double as cary-on-able luggage. Ortlieb makes several examples of this sort of bag, which will come with shoulder straps, a really great quick-release mounting system that pretty much fits any bike, and a 5-year guarantee. This isn’t the only way to pull off portable bike luggage (I can imagine, for example packing traditional panniers in a compressible duffel) but if you can swing for the really good panniers with straps, I’d recommend it.
My bike and baggage on the Clyde in Glasgow. At the time, I was about to do 30 miles in a strong headwind on very little sleep. Oof.

So anyway … with those notes out of the way, where have I been riding this summer so far? Post-France, it was important to me to keep in the saddle and in shape for the rest of the summer, so in addition to some rides around Seattle I did somewhat of a repeat of a trip I did up the John Wayne trail through Iron Horse State Park. This is the route that departs from North Bend/Snoqualmie and continues all the way to the Columbia River and beyond. This time I rode up the hill after work one Friday, camped just beyond the pass at one of the state backcountry sites up in that area. These sites are very primitive, with no running water, but aside from a few mosquitos, it was a pleasant sleep.

Dusk, before bed at Keechelus Lake, east of Snoqualmie pass.

The next morning I linked up with my other half, who had driven up the pass with our dog. We spent a the next day and a half meandering through the cascades on a warm summer weekend, me hitching rides and sometimes cycling. After Cle Elum we crossed over Blewett Pass and then over Stevens (I didn’t ride all of the passes) and I finished early on Sunday by drifting down the Skykomish valley on Highway 2, which I found to be particularly pleasant before the traffic started up for the day.

early morning near the town of Skykomish

The following weekend I was due to fly to Scotland for a team meetup at work. Since we were meeting in Dunoon, a little town about 35 miles west of Glasgow, it was easy enough to arrange for a touring bike to be waiting for me in Central Glasgow when I got off the plane (shout out to Joe and his staff at Gear Bikes — they do a great job.) The only concern I’d had about riding for a couple hours that afternoon was the fact that I don’t sleep super well when flying, and was therefore looking at some exertion on little or no sleep. And while I’m not sure I’d fly overnight and then immediately bike in every circumstance (or in every city) it worked fine in Glasgow, due in part to the excellence of the British cycling network. I was able to get from the middle of the city, out the through the suburbs and over the fields to my destination on the coast while remaining on single-use bike paths for 90% of the ride. The signage (and ok, sure, the British are fond of their signage) was particularly amazing, with every turn and confusing junction excellently explained. This is often the worst part of getting in and out of a city on a bicycle — the lack of a clear, not to mention dedicated, route. This can lead to annoying situations: dead ends, limited access roads, and actual danger … so much so that I think I’m going to come up with a page or two about how to correctly and safely get in and out of my own city (Seattle) after having to figure out so many others. But in the UK there’s no need for such posts — just follow the red white and blue signs. Amazing.

A signpost in suburban Glasgow

While at my work meetup, it was possible to get out and do a bit of riding around the Loch we were staying on and a little bit up and down the valleys surrounding Dunoon and the southern reaches of Loch Lomond National Park. I invited some co-workers to come with me on a couple of occasions, which was fun. For the most part it was shore-riding along flat and not-overly trafficked roads, though there was some fun climbing in a nearby valley as well. Scotland is a place to which I’d love to return on a bicycle … amazing stuff.

A typical single-track road in a valley near Loch Tarsan in Scotland
The Holy Loch from a ferry

I’m now on my way to Minnesota for a week of not-working and riding. I pledge many more updates about that! I’ll be mostly camping and riding through the Great North Woods from the Canadian Border to the Twin Cities. Gratitude.

The Cemetery

Note:  this post is a little bit about cycling, and a lot about war, history and my extended family.  You never know where a bicycle will take you, and this is where mine took me on this particular day.  Back to more bike-centric posts soon, I promise, but in the meantime, I hope this is interesting to some.

Today I set out from the town of Épernay, France with the objective of riding to a military cemetery.  Such a destination is a first in my cycling life so far — I’ve passed by many graveyards on two wheels, even stopped to look.  But one has never been my destination, until today.

In the United States, particularly in rural places, the graveyard is typically on a hill on the outskirts of town.  I was always told this was to prevent unpleasant post-burial disasters involving flooding — floating or water-logged caskets and the like.  Here in Europe, the old burial places huddle around churches, sometimes exceedingly close or even within the buildings themselves, as if the bodies were jockeying for position.  Military cemeteries seem different, more like parks. The only one I’d actually seen in person before was the huge, famous one at Arlington, Virginia. My maternal grandparents took me and my brother there when I was 10. I remember the ranks and ranks of graves, the tomb of the unknown soldier, Kennedy’s tomb.

But my particular destination today was the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery some 27 miles from Épernay, near the town of Fère-en-Tardenois.  There lies buried a distant relative of mine who died in the First World War: a Private Rhen Hilkert of the American Army’s 28th Infantry Division.  He was my great-grandfather’s brother, or my maternal grandmother’s uncle (though he was already dead more than a year by the time she was born.)  Rhen was 28 when he died, thousands of miles from his home in Indiana.

As my bicycle rolled out of town early this morning, I was mostly thinking about why I chose to make this trip.  No one had necessarily asked me to, although when I mentioned it my mother had been quite enthusiastic about the idea, and had helped out by sending various links and thoughts by email.  Nor was I the first member of the extended family to visit this place.  In the early 1930s, my great-great grandmother, a woman named Olive, had visited the Tardenois as part of a government program that allowed mothers to see their war-dead sons’ overseas graves.  I tried to imagine her voyage by ocean-liner and then train to this part of France which no doubt still bore many of the signs of war.  And then another relative, an enterprising cousin of ours named David, had been to the cemetery some years ago and taken photos of the grave, which can now be found online.  In the end I settled on the idea that it would have been odd for me not to visit this place … being that I’m in this part of the France, and have a few days to bicycle anywhere that I want.

vineyards and fields of the Marne

Between the Tardenois plain and Épernay are two defining geographic features:  the Fôret de la Montange de Reims which is a massive wooded bluff, and down in the valley it overlooks, the river Marne, a tributary of the famous Seine.  I clunked off the road on my tank of a French bicycle and started down the pavement of a beautiful bike path which followed that river and its various side-canals for some 40km in this region.  To my right was the slope of the montange, the first couple of kilometers of which were actually not forested at all but covered by ranks and ranks of vineyards, all producing grapes for the worlds’ champagne.  I passed through little riverside villages and could see others up in the heights.  All day, in fact, I rolled through these sorts of little places — tiny postcard-like villages with largely unpronounceable names, sheltered in the land or cradled by riverbends and always centered around a little church.

The Marne itself was green and lazy.  Weeds and fish were visible in its depths as I rode by.  Even before eight in the morning the day had turned hot. France was experiencing an unseasonable heatwave, with June temperatures to exceed 93 degrees.  I grimaced at the climbing to come.

the canal and bike path of the Marne in the morning

One little riverside town had dedicated its outskirts entirely to caravaners. RV-camping seems to be popular around here.  Unlike in North America, where such vehicles largely confine themselves to scenic campsites, state parks and the like (the exception being the horrors that are WalMart parking lots),  folks here seem quite willing to camp out in various not-particularly-lovely places:  wide areas of the road, dusty industrial riversides, plots of grass near motorways.  I pedaled very close to some of these RVs, so close that I worried I would run over anyone stumbling out the door of one.  At one point I watched an enterprising French man in his seventies dressed in boxer shorts and a tank top cast his fishing line into the Marne while simultaneously brushing his teeth on the veranda of his caravan.  He was observed from the river by a family of obese swans, who I suspect he was feeding.

At the village of Rueil, I left the riverside and climbed up the side of the mountain through the hill town of Châtillon-sur-Marne.  The climb was pretty intense, but mostly this was due to the increasing heat and the great mass of my bicycle, which I think could be used to plow snow in the winter.  I pushed up … 5 minutes of climbing, 10, 15, on toward the centre-ville, distracting myself as I always do on climbs with audio entertainment.  Being a distractible person works much to my detriment in many settings, but does me a great service when powering through any kind of unpleasant physical activity.  In this case I switched on the continuation of the audio version of David Sedaris’ new book (his journals — hilarious.)  And so I laughed and sweated, up through the steep town and past its grand promontory.

At that point, many hundred feet over the river, stood a massive statue of a pope — I forget exactly which one (maybe one of the Urbans?)  The statue didn’t appear to be particularly well made, but compensated through its sheer bulk, so that the pontiff kind of loomed over everything in the area — parish church included.  His position seemed somewhat at odds with the orientation of the town, as if he addressed something well beyond it.  The valley?  Rome?  Jerusalem?  His arm is raised in what I guess is a benediction, but to me he looked uncomfortable and even cross, like an overdressed traveller who had just missed the last bus back to Italy and is trying, despite his vestments, to flag it down.  I pushed on, ascending above his holy crown and passed into the shaded forest, soaked with sweat.

hold that bus!

In doing so I had crossed an important boundary.  In WWI, the Germans had failed to get their hands on any of the lands through which I’d just passed.  But to the northwest of my position, beginning roughly with these woods and extending for some 40 miles to the town of Soissons, they had in the spring of 1918 rampaged over the entire plain of Tardenois, pushing the French, and their American and British allies, back beyond the Marne and to within 65 miles or so of Paris itself.  Behind them they dragged all sorts of unpleasantness:  towns in this region became massive ammo dumps, fields were cleared to serve as bases for the new bi-planes.  A super-gun with a range of over 70 miles was transported by rail in order to fling enormous explosive shells all the way to the eastern districts of Paris.  The Second Battle of the Marne was the name given to the terrible struggle to take this chunk of land back. It was this battle that cost Rhen Hilkert his life.

Soon I emerged from the trees onto the Tardenois plain itself.  Here the vineyards of the valley were replaced by fields of wheat, corn and beets in all directions, with scattered woods and towns.  For a plain, there sure seemed to be a lot of hills.  One massive ravine stood out, just after the town of Antheny where the road treated me to a thrilling downhill and a somewhat less welcome climb back out.  Allied armies, I’d read, sought protection in these little valleys, finding their wooded bottoms good for concealment from aircraft and machine guns.  But the Germans (and Allies too it should be mentioned) also had poison gas at their disposal, which being heavier than air clung to the bottom of these gullies and caused mass death.

We don’t know exactly how Rhen Hilkert died, but here’s what is known:  in the middle and end of July 1918, the allies stormed into the land through which I now rode to force the Germans back.  Though the German army had taken over the Tardenois swiftly and powerfully, they’d done so at the cost of overextension.  So when the French, Americans and British counter-attacked, the Germans had no choice but to fall back.  In the process they extracted a great cost.  Many villages in this area were wiped completely off the map — so damaged by shelling or intentional destruction that they were never rebuilt, their residents dead or scattered.  It is recorded that the Germans would retreat back a mile or so, and then set up line after line of hidden machine guns and traps.  The guns were often concealed ingeniously in ruins or high crops or woods, positioned to tear to shreds advancing groups of soldiers on lower ground.  As I biked by, I could see all of the terrible places these weapons could have been positioned. Danger would have been everywhere.  There were also mines, and almost continual exchanges of artillery fire and gas.  German planes, superior to the allied ones, ruled the skies.  All of this continued for weeks and weeks, until at last the Germans had been pushed back to the river Vesle, thus liberating much of the Tardenois.

troops marching over the Tardenois, 1918

It should have stopped there.  But in subsequent days, orders came down from on high that the US 26th division was to cross the Vesle to the little town of Fismette, across the small water from the town of Fismes, which the Americans had occupied at great cost.  The Germans for their part occupied the heights above the village, which gave them an impenetrable perch from which to rain down ordinance on Fismes and Fismette.  When parts of the 26th division were nearly wiped out in a single day of fighting (August 8, 1918) the 28th division was ordered to relieve them, a manoeuvre that apparently had to happen in the dead of night to avoid slaughter from above.

Fismes, Fismette and the Vesle after the battle.

At this time, Rhen Hikert would have been with his 28th division in either Fismes or Fismette, in the midst of terrible carnage.  We know that on August 9th, the American attack was ordered to be renewed, and that the Germans counter-attacked several times.  By that evening of the 9th, the surviving Americans in Fismette were huddled in a few basements in the town, running out of ammunition under continual bombardment by phosphorus, high explosives, flame-throwers and gas.  One survivor described watching soldiers burn “like leaves”.  The path from Fismette to the allied bunker in Fismes was apparently not hard to follow, since it was marked by a trail of dead couriers.  By dawn on the 10th, one way or another, Rhen Hilkert was dead.

Rhen’s grave

This story and much else was explained to me at the cemetery, where I had finally arrived, by A, a lovely French woman who worked as an interpreter and guide at the monument.  Despite my sweaty, buggy appearance, she greeted me warmly in English and said she loved that I’d ridden all the way from the valley.  Her son, she told me, lived in London and had “a passion for the bicycles.”

She and I walked up the manicured lanes of the cemetery in search of Rhen’s grave.  Row upon row of crosses — some stars of David.  The place was immaculate, the pathways so clean you could eat off of them.  The number of crosses was overwhelming — so many that they appeared like a mass on the landscape.  And there it was, plot C, row 35, grave 16.  She took some photos of me standing next to the big marble cross with his name on it, and then let me stay alone for a while.  After staying with Rhen for a few minutes and finally giving his cross a little pat (I wasn’t sure of the protocol) I walked up and down row 35.  What shocked me the most was the number of men who were never identified.  Instead of names, their graves read Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.  There were a lot of these — the next eight or nine down the line from Rhen were all so marked.  I thought of Olive, and how she was lucky to have had a particular grave to visit — that there had been enough of a body left to identify.

The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, partial view of plots C and D

Back at the cemetery office, A informed me that Rhen’s body would have been moved here from a temporary cemetery closer to the battlefield on which he died.  This would have happened sometime in 1919.  At that time, Rhen’s parents (Olive and Isaac) would have had the choice of whether to repatriate his body or allow him to rest here.  I wonder why they chose the second option?  She also produced a photocopy of his draft card, which I found particularly interesting.  Rhen had been 28 when he enlisted, though due to an apparent arithmetic error, the army clerk had listed his birth year as 1880, which would have made him a decade older. He was single, with no dependents, and listed himself as employed as a laborer at the Green Construction Company of Valparaiso, Indiana.  He lived in Westville, Indiana, a tiny town both then and now.  His eyes were blue, his hair dark, with medium height and build, said the form.  So many questions.

part of Rhen’s conscription paperwork. Somewhat shockingly, the bottom left corner of the standard form reads: “If this person is of African descent, tear off this corner” Yikes.

and I were joined by her boss, a Mr. D — a small, sturdy American fellow with a hawk-like nose in his mid 60s.  Mr. D’s tattoos indicated that he was ex-military.  He was nice enough, really quite welcoming, though I didn’t like the frequency with which he interrupted A.  The three of us talked for a little while about history and the war, and then about Mr. D’s travels to various military bases in the United States.  He spoke of them rather as if they were theme parks.  He’d been to Fort Lewis near Seattle, which he mentioned when he heard where I was from.  I think he was waiting for me to say I was a veteran or had some military connection, and may have been a bit disappointed when such news wasn’t forthcoming — don’t ask, don’t tell I guess.  I took my leave, thanking them both for being there and helping me out — I really meant it too.

As I rode away, I tried to imagine A and Mr. D’s working life there together, sitting all day in the small office, or patrolling the grounds together supervising the garden workers from their golf cart.  What did they talk about when there were no visitors like me?  In winter, for instance, it must be just the two of them out there in the fields, alone among the dead.

I cycled back to Épernay with only brief stops for water.  It was well above 90.  Back over the plains, the ravines, and into the woods.  I thought a bit more about Rhen and his short life.  Had he he enjoyed working on the farm, or at the Green Construction Company in Valpo?  How did he feel when he signed that conscription form?  Why didn’t he correct the clerk’s obvious errors?  This made me wonder if he was a passive, compliant kind of person — not the sort to question authority.  But surely there was more to his personality — I found myself wishing I could have asked him even more questions.  What were his dreams?  Did he want to get married?  Was he even the marrying type?  Did any part of him see the idea of going overseas to war as an adventure?

I flew down the hill towards the Marne.  If that’s how he’d felt, I wished he could have found adventure in any kind of better way.  Not that he’d had the choice. His conscription card showed that Rhen enlisted at the end of March and was dead before mid-August.  He barely had time to adjust to what was happening to him, as the gears of the US military processed him. Armies are machines that ingest poor and working people and spit out compliant soldiers and dead bodies — or so it’s always seemed to me.

Rhen’s brother John fought in the Marne too — a mere 40 miles away near Soissons.  John’s army hid in a large forest for weeks and then burst out from under its eaves to attack the German flank (or so I read.)  John would survive the war but return to Indiana with severe shell-shock, or what we’d now call PTSD.  My maternal grandmother remembered him well — a ruined man, someone she pitied.  John died in 1930, still young, not long before Olive set sail for France.

By 1931, Olive Hikert had buried her husband and two of her four boys in the past twelve years.  In fact, she would survive all of her sons, save one:  my great grandfather Mayne, who may have avoided conscription himself because of his young son Ralph and his wife Ruth.  Mayne joined the railroad and moved to the city, where my grandmother was born.  She, like her own grandmother Olive, would wait as the men left for war yet again — for her it was a husband who shipped out to the Pacific and made it back.

It was those two — my maternal grandparents — who had showed me around Arlington Cemetery when I was ten.  Thinking back to that day in the eighties, I remember clearly the feeling of holding my grandmother’s fantastically manicured hand as we walked through the park up the hill to John F. Kennedy’s tomb — the one with the eternal flame.  I also remember as a fifth grader being skeptical that it was in fact eternal.  I’d apparently already figured out that nothing really was.

My grandma was quiet that day, largely delegating the wrangling of my little brother to my my grandpa, who kept having to retrieve him from various off-limits areas.  I imagine she was thinking of war, and what it does to families and mothers.  Maybe too she thought of her own grandmother Olive, and of the fields through which I’d just travelled — the place her uncles had come to die.

Street Cycling in Paris

I’ve been attending a WordPress conference while hanging out in France the past couple of days and one of the great joys of this setup has been the opportunity to join the citizenry of Paris in their everyday bicycling.  This great, ancient city is an amazing place to ride bicycles — and this has nothing to do with the normal American associations: you know, the ones that generally oscillate between images of the tour de France and scenes from various movies featuring black-baret’d, baguette-laden persons pedaling antique bikes down cobblestone streets.  The reason biking here is so great is that people here know how to do it, and the other users of the road — cars, taxis, buses, etc etc — accept that cyclists have just as much right to space as they do.  (Someone also told me that the penalties for hitting cyclists are particularly harsh here, so maybe there’s that.)

I’ve done a small ride out to the suburbs (Versaille) and back, and also spent time riding to and from the conference, which is about 1/2 hour from where I’m staying.  Here’s a short video (cheesy music and captions — sorry) that gives you an idea of what riding here on the street is like:

Some basic observations about all this controlled chaos:

  • cyclists are given space, but also expected to take it.  You’ll note that frequently 1/3 – 1/2 of the entire road is reserved for buses and bicycles.  This both advantages these modes of transport and gives bikes a legitimacy on the road that does not disappear when the lane does.  There are many roads in France (superhighways etc) where bikes are forbidden, but everywhere else it’s assumed they’re welcome and that they will ride like the have a right to be there.
  • In Paris (except maybe for a few hours during the night) it’s almost always faster to bicycle anywhere within a few miles than drive.  This is for the obvious reasons of parking and automobile congestion, but it also would not be so without lots of good infrastructure.
  • Parisian motorists are used to being in close proximity to bikes at all times  — there’s no crazy panic-gripping of the steering wheel like you see in Seattle or any sense of irritation when you pass close to a motorist to advance to a light.
  • One way that this hangs together is that people here drive and cycle with predictability in mind.  First, everyone maneuvers with a certain amount (not too much, not too little) of aggression/initiative.  If there is empty space to be occupied in front of a vehicle, or a clear right of way, one is expected to advance (O Seattle how you could learn from this.)  Also, drivers here seem to observe a bargain whereby they focus on the space in front of them more intently than the space to either side or behind.  Trouble only happens when someone (bicycle, bus, garbage truck, car) makes a sudden change in direction that has no discernible purpose.  Lane changes here are rather unusual, and there is an emphasis on maintaining the flow of traffic above all else.  Roads, after all, are meant to travel forward on.
  • One of the first jobs of a cyclist when observing the patterns of a new city is to determine how religiously cyclists are expected to observe stoplights etc … here, the answer is: not very.  It’s actually somewhat more dangerous in my estimation to stop at a Parisian red if there’s clearly no traffic in ahead than it is to proceed through it.  Riding too conservatively might result in another bike ramming into your rear wheel, or at least an irritated commuter.
  • If cyclists here appear to be fearless, that’s because they actually have little to fear.  You don’t see people here wearing armor plating or special clothes, flat shoes (see video above — the badass woman high heels appears at about 2:00) or even a helmet (!) to ride a bike.  It’s such a part of Parisian life that it’s expected you will be able to ride your bike in whatever outfit you’re wearing anyway, and transporting whatever musical instrument, piece of equipment or child you need to haul from one place to another.

I wish I could bring a huge slice of this way of thinking about cycling back to Seattle with me (and perhaps the lack of hills too — Paris is pretty flat.)  I will in any case enjoy riding while I’m here.