Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Curious George

There's an article in the New York Times (registration required, but free) about how Curious George survived the German invasion of France in World War II. The authors were German Jews who'd left as the Nazis asserted themselves in Germany. They had moved to Brazil and become Brazilian citizens, then were back in Paris in 1940. The Germans invaded in May 1940 and quickly overran France in a remarkable display of military effectiveness. The authors of Curious George, Hans Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein, who took the last name Rey once married, escaped the oncoming Germans by bicycle. Quoting the article (and as always, the ellipsis show where I'm skipping bits):

But in truth, "Curious George" almost didn't make it onto the page. A new book, "The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H. A. Rey" (Houghton Mifflin), tells of how George's creators, both German-born Jews, fled from Paris by bicycle in June 1940, carrying the manuscript of what would become "Curious George" as Nazis prepared to invade...

With refugees pouring into Paris from the north, Mr. Rey built two bicycles from spare parts, while Margret gathered up their artwork and manuscripts. They then joined the millions of refugees heading south, while German planes flew overhead.

The Reys found shelter in a farmhouse, then a stable, working their way by rail to Bayonne, and then to Biarritz by bicycle again. They were Jews, but because they were Brazilian citizens, it was easier to get visas. One official, perhaps thinking that because of their German accents they were spies, searched Mr. Rey's satchel. Finding "Fifi," and, seeing it was only a children's story, he released them.

They journeyed to Spain, then to Portugal, eventually finding their way back to Rio. "Have had a very narrow escape," Mr. Rey wrote in a telegram to his bank. "Baggage all lost have not sufficient money in hand."

The couple sailed to New York in October 1940, and "Curious George," as Fifi was renamed - the publisher thought "Fifi" was an odd name for a male monkey - made his first appearance the following year.

Interesting that they used bicycles to escape. A few months ago I was looking for information on LED lights and came across a website that was full of survivalist gear. The guy had suggested items for your tactical bag, your bugout bag and your combat bag. The bugout bag was for when you had to evacuate the city, and he was talking about spare socks and moleskins to treat your feet because you'd be walking 20 miles a day. I was thinking, why wouldn't you ride? Twenty miles? You can do that before breakfast on a bike. Unless you have to go up and down canyons or something, you can move five times as far with much less wear and tear on you. I didn't want to email him, particularly, not wanting to initiate a conversation with this guy, but bikes get around the shortages of gas, bypass clogged lines of cars, can be lifted over obstacles that stop a car and take paths unusable by other wheeled vehicles. I like some of the descriptions Montague uses describing its military bikes; stealthy, efficient, low thermal and acoustic signature, off-body load bearing, can traverse any terrain, refuelable with local water and food, needs no POL (Petroleum, Oil, Lubrication) support. It may not be a surprise that, for those with the Hummer personality defect, Montague makes the Hummer Tactical Mountain Bikes. Mate these with one of my t-shirt ideas ("Conceal, Carry and Ride") and you'd have a bike you could sell to the Rapture Right.

We don't maintain a bugout bag, but it's interesting to see that Curious George is here because the authors escaped impending disaster by bike.

The book title is a good juxtaposition, as well, with President Bush, our own Incurious George. Newsweek this week relates how the reality of what was happening with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans didn't really sink in until late Thursday (8/30), long after any tv-watching regular American was acutely aware of the unfolding disaster. Newsweek says...

The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One.

How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.

The next day, the Friday, President Bush went to New Orleans and congratulated the head of FEMA, Michael Brown, on the great job he was doing. Ten days later, Brown, the old college roommate of a former Bush campaign advisor, already relieved of his New Orleans duties, resigned from FEMA (of his own choice, accounts say, though I'd love to have heard the conversations he'd had the last few days), sparing the President the task of firing an incompetent. It was the same day President Bush was taken though the flooded parts of New Orleans, now safely cleared of any people who might express displeasure. This is typical; President Bush's audiences are famously screened to keep out dissenters and disagreement, and while New Orleans was in flood and full of angry Americans he observed it with imperial isolation from a window of Air Force One as he flew over. Now he makes a ground visit only after the residents are cleared out. This is unmanly. This is the man who said that catastrophes are where you get to show your mettle. We've now seen his mettle, and seen how an agency stuffed full of his political buddies has responded. God help us if a smart terrorist attacks, this crowd can't even handle a hurricane with days of warning. Maybe I should get some bugout bags together after all, panniers all around, headtube holsters and some weapons training.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Catch and Release

Not a great cycling weekend, this last one, 91 on Saturday and 89 on Sunday, humid both days and very windy. Sunday I rode to church. I unwittingly joined the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour for a bit of my route. I'd ridden down Hoyt and worked my way through the neighbourhood to Como Ave where, from a distance, I could see a surprisingly large number of cyclists passing by. When I got to the Stop sign, I remembered why; this big 31-mile bike ride was going on, and there were cops at the big intersection and cones marking off lanes. I rode down Como with the flow of cyclists. At the Intercampus Transitway, one of my favorite routes to downtown and the University, the Saint Paul Classic turned left and headed up over the bridge while I carried on down Como. I turned on Raymond and passed under the Transitway but discovered at Energy Park Drive that the Classic had rejoined me, getting off the Transitway at Energy Park and doubling back. A bunch of us got clogged up at a red light at University and it was the same group I'd started off with. We rode down a block and they all turned right. On my own again! Another block and I turned, and sure enough, there they were again, all pedalling down Pelham. I was mingled in with the crowd until the Lake/Marshall bridge, where I got off to cross the Mississippi as the Classic continued on down the East River Parkway.

I have mixed feelings about these big rides. I thought about doing it, but it would have been $40 for me and $12 each for the kids. Sixty four bucks to ride on public streets in a crowd on a muggy day seems a lot of money to me, we can do this anytime, without all the others crowding us, and on a nicer day. Sure, we don't get a t-shirt, but we have too many clothes anyway and I have three t-shirts from my bike race volunteering earlier this summer. On the other hand, to people who don't ride much (including, for instance, my wife, were she to do it), cracking off 15 or 31 miles is a real accomplishment and the safety of closed-off streets, traffic police at big intersections and coned-off pathways makes it less intimidating than riding the same route on a normal day. For some people, it's a way to safely test their ability to ride intermediate distances on the bike, see the town and gain confidence, and that aspect of the ride is great. It's just not for me.

We caught our groundhog. I ran a picture of him outside our kitchen window a couple of weeks ago. He was actually pretty cute and if it weren't for his digging holes all over the place I wouldn't have minded him being around. Also, he kept pooping on our back patio. I did try to kill him one day, we came up to the driveway in the car and he was munching grass right next to the driveway so I tried to run him over. He saw us and took off running with the car right on top of him. Our driveway kind of weaves around this big oak tree and I hadn't felt the characteristic "thump" of hitting an animal so as I slowed down he ran from in front of the car over to the house and dived down one of his holes, although it looked to me in his rush that he bonked his head on our siding first. It must have been a pretty hilarious sight from in front of the car but secretly I was kind of happy I hadn't hit him.

Anyway, on Saturday we rented a Havahart live trap (a Model 1045, judging from the website) and baited it with slices of peach, some tiny carrots and nice lettuce. I put this outside his garage hole, which he'd started work on, very industrious this little bugger. Nothing happened. After church Sunday, Henry and I saw him by the kitchen patio hole, so moved the trap there. Five o'clock passed, the 24-hour mark on the rental, and nothing. About 6:30, I was in the living room and mentioned to Henry that he should peek out the kitchen window and see if we'd caught anything. I'd half expected to nab myself a succession of squirrels and rabbits. Dad! We haven't caught him, but he's right by the trap! We zoomed upstairs, so as not to startle him, and watched out the upstairs porch window. We quietly gestured Karla and Geneva in as well.

What followed was five minutes of some of the finest family entertainment we've ever had. Mr. Groundhog warily looked in the trap. The food looked pretty alluring. There is this plate in the center that, when weight is applied to it, releases doors at both ends of the cage, catching the prey inside unhurt. The food was on this tray. Mr. Groundhog nosed around, then sat down and began to eat. He liked the peaches; they went first. He crawled out to eat one, then went back in to get the other and actually sat in the cage eating it. He came back out and examined the cage some more, getting up on his back legs and looking over the top while hanging on one of the sprung doors. I was afraid he'd trigger it while on the outside and then there'd be no way he'd get close to it again. This all happened at an excruciatingly pace. The door didn't trigger. He went back in and ate the lettuce in a leisurely fashion. He got one carrot and came back out and sat down to eat it, then nosed around some more. He looked wary, and at one point looked as if he might go back down his hole. Maybe there were pedestrians walking by in front of the house or something. Fortunately, there was another carrot, and it had fallen off the back of this angled plate; to get it, he'd have to step on the plate. He looked around, nosed back in, and with agonizing slowness tentatively moved down to the middle of the cage. The tension in the Cole's back porch was thick! He saw the carrot, moved forward onto the plate, it didn't spring yet, another step and SNAP!, the doors slammed closed and a roar went up from the crowd! We had him!

We tumbled down the stairs and went out to have a look. He was unhurt but unhappy and had lost interest in that last carrot. He made little clicking noises at us which I expect indicated displeasure. Now what? We got the pickup truck out and put the trap in the back. It's an extended cab Ranger and fit all four of us comfortably when I got it eight years ago, but is now a real squeeze. I recalled a good spot from my bike ride to the J.A.R. bridge in August; the Bryant Avenue bridge that dead-ends next to a wetlands and has railway tracks and a busy street between it's turnaround and any homes. I don't want to inflict this guy on any other homeowners (actually, in a couple of un-Christian moments, we'd cackled at the prospect of releasing him by the homes of some deserving individuals, but our better natures reasserted themselves). We drove down there. Unfortunately, this bridge had chained and locked metal gates closed across it. Hmmm. We drove on down to the J.A.R. bridge at 66th Street in Inver Grove Heights. It's all overgrown wetlands and forest right there, too, and the bridge sure isn't used. We parked there, got the trap out, opened the door and...nothing. All of a sudden he loves the cage. We gave the reluctant Mr. Groundhog a jab with a stick. He took off out of the cage and went zooming off into the undergrowth exhibiting the same burst of speed he must have had when I tried to mow him down with the Avalon. Born Free! As free as the wind blows! I hope he has a happy life.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Trip Post Mortem

More than a week has transpired since we rode up to Duluth. School has resumed, church choir has restarted, I'm back at work, and suddenly the trip has this weird sense of unreality about it, like vacations so often do when viewed from the humdrum of daily routine. I look at the pictures, children in a real sweet spot of attitude and ability, and it's almost like someone else did it.

It's funny how those things go. I don't remember when I first thought up the idea of the three of us doing this, last June probably, and we picked the dates to fit in between all the other schedules of a busy summer. It wasn't like we trained for it; it was all pretty matter of fact. While actually doing it, we were preoccupied with all the details of riding; where the next town was, the current state of the wind, fretting about traffic, thinking about food. I look back at what I wrote here and it is startling how little distance we made before lunch each day--it makes me glad I have the written record to confirm it, my impression would have been that we'd gotten much farther.

The kids are at a great point. I have a guy in my football pool whose wife just had a child while we were gone, the same birthday as mine, and another joining choir who is expecting their first in early November. Infancy seems a long time ago now, diapers and sleeplessness, learning to walk, all that. My kids right now are actual people, with very distinct and surprisingly different personalities, and as 7th and 8th graders are entering the arc which will result in them leaving us in five or six years. As parents, we can't control that arc, we can only hope to influence its trajectory, and it's odd to think of them on their own, making their own friends, developing their own interests and passions, beginning to live a life as distinct from ours as ours is from our parents'. I find myself surprisingly wistful about this, and it reinforces my desire to enjoy these days and years while I have the chance.

As for bikes, they worked out well. We didn't suffer any flats, probably because I carried two tubes and two pumps. The trails weren't flat-prone, but there is the usual accretion of glass, gravel, metal scraps and plastic shards on the highway shoulders, which we rode on quite a lot.

The Atlantis gearing worked out very nicely for flat-land riding. Long-time readers, all three of you, may recall that I did a very tight cluster on my cassette, a 13-15-16-17-18-19-21-24-28 where the one-tooth differences through much of the range allow fine-tuning of cruising pedal cadence. This was a pretty flat trip and I never once got off the middle chainring. I did like the ability to subtly change my ratios. The downside of this is, if you do go up a hill, crest it and then head down, you end up shifting several gears all at once, but the indexed Dura-Ace bar-ends and Deore derailleur make this very easy.

We absolutely lucked out on weather. The dates were pre-selected, the hotel rooms reserved, and we got two lovely warm-but-not-hot days, not humid, even lots of puffy clouds to cut the relentless sun. The winds were more or less neutral; we had a slight headwind component much of Monday, but they weren't brutal soul-destroying headwinds. And it didn't rain.

The lack of rain was a good thing. I don't know how waterproof the panniers are. I trust my Ortlieb front bag to be water proof, but not the Jandd front bag Geneva was using. We would have had to buy a quick supply of plastic bags had serious rain threatened. Also, neither of the kids' bikes had fenders so that would have been messy. Even on a dry ride, it was illuminating to see how dirty Henry's water bottle got compared to mine just from stuff being thrown up by the front wheel. We'll have to get him some fenders.

Hotel touring is sure nice! I hadn't done this before, but it was great to pull in, check in and then tidy up and swim and sleep in a comfy bed. Combine this soft living with not having to haul a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, cooking gear, etc. and it makes bike travel much more attainable and fun. And expensive, of course.

Bikes can be a great way to get around once you're at your destination. Different places are differently suitable, but Duluth worked out well (New York, for instance, might not be as good). The lakeside bike path was easily accessible across the freeway from us, Canal Park, the tourist center of Duluth, was 2.75 miles west, there were (barely) sufficient places to lock up the bikes, and the bikes give quick and cheap access to places around the area. The bad things about bikes in Duluth is that Superior, the other Port in the Twin Ports, is nearly inaccessible. You have to ride forty blocks west and take a two-mile long bridge across the harbor that has a narrow pedestrian sidewalk and is subject to high winds, and which dumps you in the western fringes of Superior. I was going to try this, but didn't, as it was very windy one day and time slipped away on the other.

At one time, the Vista Fleet (harbour tours) would allow you to board in Duluth and get off in Superior, then re-board. I don't know if they allowed bikes on board, but this would be very handy. However, even for pedestrians, the stop in Superior has been abandoned, so there's no longer an easy way to get to the SS Meteor museum on Barker's Island, for instance. That should be revised. Superior doesn't have all the attractions of Duluth, so this isn't a tragic situation, but it is something to consider.

Duluth isn't altogether welcoming to cyclists. Besides the lack of access to Superior, there was no hint of how to get downtown from the end of the Munger Trail, some difficulty in getting a Twin Ports Bike Map (I finally got one at the Ski Hut at 11th and East 4th), and a shortage of suitable bike racks in the Canal Park area. We ended up locking up to light poles, metal frameworks meant to protect gas meters and crowd control fencing. Duluth isn't alone in this, and I find even in the Twin Cities that many bike stores don't even have very good bike parking.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Few Days in Duluth

The children and I rode our bikes to Duluth, a ride detailed in Day One and Day Two, should you have an interest. After we'd arrived, Karla joined us and we spent a few days. Here's what we did.

The Best Western Edgewater under construction
In daylight, the abrupt end to our bike trail by the hotel became clearer. This hotel is adding a big enclosed waterpark on this end and there was lots of construction disruption. When we'd arrived, well after dark, we'd had to pick our way through the grass and parking lots around to the front of the hotel. It was much simpler in daylight. This waterpark is supposed to be done this winter, and perhaps the whole hotel will have a less ad hoc feel to it. We still liked it well enough; it has a pool, free breakfast, decent location and the balconies to park some of our bikes on.

Henry heads down the overpass ramp
There is an overpass over Interstate 35 with the switchbacks to get down. Here goes Henry. This one has blind corners at each switchback, so we'd ring our bells to alert other users.

South Light on Duluth Ship Canal
We went to Canal Park. I was dying for a decent coffee so left the kids playing on the rocks and went to Caribou Coffee. Afterwards I rode out to the lighthouse at the end of the Ship Canal. The first day there started out pretty cloudy. From here I could see the children playing on the rocks--those flourescent yellow jackets really stand out, though they're behind me and not in this photo.

Fishing Boat coming into Ship Canal
One of the cool things about Duluth is that it's a working port. Our license plates say "10,000 Lakes", but that understates it by about 50%. Lake Life is big up here, but for all the charms of the cabin on the lake, I like working water. That's why I like the Mississippi and Lake Superior. Here a charter fishing boat comes in off Lake Superior while in the background you can see the Antigua-registered 606-foot Federal Matane ocean-going freighter at anchor waiting to go to CHS to get a load of grain. To those not from Wisconsin or Minnesota, it might seem odd that ocean-going freighters come in to Duluth, 2,300 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, but this is the far west end of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and this trade has been going on for decades. It's not that exotic, either; a Polish ship, the 591-foot Pomorze Zachodnie, also sailed in for a cargo of grain during our stay.

Fishermen show off catch
You get very close to the action here. As the boat came by I asked if they'd caught anything. One of the guys, in the red jacket, grappled around and held up this big fish, a lake trout, I'm guessing. (As with most photos on my blog, if you click on the photo you'll get a bigger version and the fish might be more evident)

Roger Blough coming in
A lot of the ship traffic is Lakers, ships confined to the Great Lakes. It may sound counterintuitive to those not familiar with Great Lakes shipping, but these tend to run bigger than the ocean-going freighters that come to Duluth. This is because the ocean-going ships have to fit through the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls, to get from the Atlantic to the upper Great Lakes. In this instance, the 858-foot Roger Blough is approaching the entrance to the Duluth Ship Canal.

One of the charms of Duluth is that there is a hardcore shipping enthusiast who publishes a daily sheet (and has a website) called the Duluth Shipping News. This lists expected ship movements and times so you know when to watch.

Roger Blough coming in
And here she goes through the Canal. The famous Lift Bridge has raised to let her by. You can see the close proximity of tourists to the actual ship and even see a little boy racing along after it.

Faith and Matt
I swear, I never touched her! The base of the lighthouse has quite a bit of graffiti on it. Faith and Matt, another Matt, memorialized their devotion out here for all to see.

Duluth hills as clouds break up
Duluth is pretty hilly. I've driven in San Francisco and Duluth's not that steep, but going straight back from the lakeshore you do climb (or descend) some pretty brutal hills. We avoided riding up and down these on our bikes!

Seagull poop on cycling glove
I love the cry of seagulls, it's such an evocative sound even if they are pretty much rats with wings. Sadly, the ones around Canal Park are very used to tourists. Apparently they get irked if you don't feed them; one came flying towards me and, with remarkable precision, made a deposit on my cycling glove. I've decided cycling gloves are among the vilest concentrations of filth and squalor around (full of sweat, dirt, snot, etc.) so this only added to the mess. I went back to Caribou and washed off the poop in the Men's room. Next time the kids need to grow some bacteria in agar for Science class I'll just have them toss a cycling glove in there.

Montrealais turns to starboard around buoy
I'd noticed that the lighting would be better from the south pier of the Ship Canal so when another ship began to approach I moved to that side. Once you get over the bridge and it raises, you're stuck--there's no other way off the peninsula called Minnesota Point. Locally, this is known as being "bridged". Here the 730-foot Montrealais executes a slow turn to starboard around a buoy in the harbour to begin the approach to the Ship Canal.

Out of interest and perhaps an excess of boyish enthusiasm, Geneva and I decided to pace the ship and see how fast they come out. We rode our bikes down the breakwater at the same speed as the Montrealais as she went through, 6.5 mph by my bike computer, then we zoomed ahead.

Henry races Montrealais out
It was not hard to get ahead of her and take this photo. On the far left you can see Henry racing the ship out as well. In the old days, when people weren't so concerned about liability, you could stay on the Lift Bridge and ride it up. That would be fun! Now you have to stay off when it does its thing.

Montrealais departs Duluth
And out she goes into the lake.

Henry and Geneva by lighthouse in Duluth
I had to take the kids' photo with the Federal Matane in the background.

Two 1,000 footers by Superior Entry
Just visible in the distance to the south were two of the thirteen thousand-footers on the Great Lakes. On the left, inbound for the Superior entry, is the Stewart J. Cort, the first of the thousand-footers. There was a guy with a radio scanner there who knew a lot about these ships. He said the Cort was the first one built and the only one with the pilothouse (bridge) at the front of the ship, in traditional Laker fashion. The other 12 were built with the pilot house and machinery spaces all at the stern. Even at this distance, you can see the difference in these two ships as the outbound thousand-footer, whose name I don't recall, has only the rear superstructure. The link to the Stewart J. Cort is worth looking at if only to see the pictures of her when she was built. The bow section and stern were built in Mississippi and welded together into a hilarious-looking stubby little ship (that must have been really overpowered--great for water skiing!) and sailed up the Atlantic Coast and through the Seaway to Erie, Pennsylvania, above the Welland Canal. Here these two bits were cut apart and an 818-foot midsection was welded in, yielding the final 1,000-foot freighter. You wonder who thinks of these things.

We didn't just watch ships come and go and play on the rocks. Nope, we took a train ride too! I rode over to The Depot to book tickets for the 3:00 ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. While there, I saw a cool bike.

Xtracycle at The Depot in Duluth
The beer case has other non-beer stuff in it and the flowers are in a pot behind the bike, not in the Xtracycle, but it's still fun to see these in the wild.

Weeride Child Seat on Xtracycle
This guy also had a nifty child seat called a WeeRide. I saw this chap when I was inside buying the tickets and asked him about the bike. He was big on this child seat, a Canadian product. The kid sits in front of the cyclist and is between the cyclist's arms. It's easy to talk them, he said, and they see the same sights you do, not just your backside.

I booked passage on the 3:00 train. I've always thought that no vacation is complete without a boat ride, but a train ride is a good substitute. We rode over, locked up our bikes to some movable metal fencing, and boarded.

Henry hanging out of train window
Yes, yes, I know what the sign says, but who can resist hanging out the window? We'd never done this train before, but the other people must have. I gather that it gets very crowded on weekends, and you need to sit down and stake out your territory. Well, there were about 30 people on this one and they all climbed on and sat down in the car we boarded on. Not us! We roamed up and down the cars a couple of times to see what the choices were. We settled on the covered open car right behind the engine.

Henry and oblique view of engine
Here's Henry and the General Motors EMD GP30 engine. It started out life as the Soo Line number 700 and remains painted that way. I don't know much about trains other than I think they can be pretty photogenic in some contexts and they are also fun to ride. Funnily enough, my brother-in-law's father was a high-up in General Motors Electro-Motive Division, who built this engine.

Geneva and Karla on train
Geneva and Karla liked the open car as well. Karla had wanted to sit on this one since we saw the train go by our hotel.

Henry on open car of train
While Henry stands transfixed by the view a couple of other passengers filtered forward, finally realizing that you don't need to sit in one place on a mostly-empty train. Meanwhile, I had an idea. I asked the conductor if it might be possible for the kids and I to visit the engine cab. He came back a few minutes later and said we could when the engine switched ends of the train. Our ride goes out to a creek called Lester Creek, comes back a mile and a half to a siding, and then the engine uncouples and moves to the other end of the train to pull us back into town. We could ride in the cab during this move. One of the conductors would come and get us.

Henry and Geneva in engine cab
Sure enough, we got to the siding, stopped, and the conductor fetched us and we got off the passenger car and walked along the train to the engine and climbed in. Here are the kids in the cab.

Our engineer in Duluth
Here is our engineer. He also is an engineer on the Osceola and Saint Croix Valley railroad that runs out of Osceola, Wisconsin. He was very friendly. As a side note of excessive parental pride, in situations like this, it really pays to have polite, friendly children. The kids just charmed these guys with their obvious enthusiasm, pleases and thank yous and pride in having ridden their bikes up from Saint Paul. There's a line in Ysaye Barnwell's terrific song Wanting Memories which says "I know a 'Please', a 'Thank you', and a smile will take me far". It's true. Polite children are a real joy. If you have young 'uns, keep in mind my maxim, "If they can say cookie, they can damn well say please." It pays dividends for years. Today's dividend was when the engineer asked if we'd like to ride all the way back to The Depot in the cab. We said yes.

Geneva in cab of engine
Dad, this is so cool!

Henry in cab of engine Soo 700
Henry here watches to make sure things are ok. There were a couple of other guys in the cab too. One of them had just got his engineer license today so he could be in charge of operating this train.

I should note that another reason we got a ride in the engine was that it was a quiet day. This is an advantage of being there mid-week rather than on a crowded weekend. Faced with the same polite inquiry and a train packed to the gills my guess is the answer would have been "no", in part because then dozens of people would want to do it, so if you're up there some Saturday and ask for an engine ride and are declined, don't raise a stink, just try again on a quiet Thursday afternoon.

Geneva and Jack the conductor
Karla, who used to be a quiet wallflower, has become more social over the years I've known her. She and Jack the conductor had been talking and discovered we had mutual friends in Saint Paul. When we got off, Geneva chatted him up for a while but only after one of the other conductors had taken the kids down to get a couple of souvenir rusty railroad spikes, which I got to carry on my bike!

We did other stuff too. The kids and I toured the William A. Irvin, a retired US Steel lake ship. Here I ran into the double conundrum of digital photography, as my camera ran out of memory at about the same time Geneva's ran out of battery power. Darn! So, you are spared photos of the Irwin. It's worth a tour. We did Glensheen Mansion, a robber-baron mansion on the shores of Lake Superior where a sordid murder took place in the late 1970s. This mansion has in common with many robber-baron mansions I've toured over the years that the owner gets it built just so (imported exotic woods, hand carved this, hand blown glass shades, etc.) and then doesn't get to enjoy it very long. This guy lived eight years in it before he died, though his widow was there for much longer and his daughter, by then an old lady, was one of the victims of the murder. We rode our bikes around, we threw rocks in the lake, my birthday happened during our stay and we ate a delicious meal out for that. I even got a long-desired item, a Frigits Advance set, a remarkbly engaging toy to put on your fridge.

Boat way out on Superior in sunlight
I love the ocean. It's a funny thing to say coming from someone who has lived his entire life in the interior of the North American continent, but I do love it. Lake Superior is a pretty decent substitute. You get the same ever-changing interplay of water, clouds and light, the same flow of ship traffic passing by, the combination of charm and seediness. You don't get the same smell; the smell of the sea is really the smell of the seashore and all that lies rotting in the tidal areas. Without tides (which brings up an interesting point--how big does a body of water have to be to become tidal? Is the Mediterranean tidal? The Black Sea?), there's not as much rotting stuff along the shore nor that twice daily rhythm of the waters coming and going, yet there remains a seasonal and daily flux and the same sense of constant motion you get at the seashore. For a few days of wasting time before the routines of school, church and kids' activities kick in, Duluth and the North Shore make a great place to hang out.

The rest of this is about New Orleans. Everyone's got to have their $0.02 worth and this can be safely ignored. Well, the whole blog can be safely ignored, as far as that goes.

Matt's New Orleans Observations--nothing to do with Bikes
It was with morbid fascination that we watched the news each night, as New Orleans flooded, the crowds pushed their way to the Superdome, and reports began arriving of the squalor, shortages, danger and death. The parallel to our vacation in September 2001 was reinforced by the common denominator; the abscence of President Bush in any public way. There are many aspects to the destruction in New Orleans including the longstanding corruption in state and local politics there, lax environmental standards friendly to industry but corrosive to the buffering coastal wetlands and the less-satisfactory aspects of living in a low-tax state, but the story thread that caught my interest was the FEMA leadership. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has long been an ineffective beaureaucratic backwater when President Clinton came into office. Under Al Gore's Reinventing Government initiative, he appointed a guy named Jamie Lee Witt to run it and he did a great job. Governor George W. Bush even specifically cited Witt's excellent work in his first debate with Al Gore in the 2000 election, debates in which Mr. Bush also said natural catastrophes were "a time to test your mettle". Once Mr. Bush became President, though, he dismissed competence and instead appointed his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh. When Mr. Allbaugh left to pursue the more-lucrative lobbying business, he was replaced by his old college roommate, Michael Brown. He had gone to a non-accredited law school, briefly worked as a lawyer, then resigned under pressure for corruption while leading the International Arabian Horse Association, which he did from 1991-2001. At this point, he was basically a failed lawyer, but lucky for him he was well-connected, and got a position at FEMA and became its head when his buddy left. This is cronyism at its worst. This gentlemen has overseen the sluggish response to the events in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. And don't tell me this was unforeseen; people have realized the risk here for more than 150 years and even I, who have never been there, knew that the Mississippi flows high above the city. (as an interesting aside, the New Yorker has rerun a snippet of John McPhee's 1987 article about New Orleans here. I highly recommend his book The Control of Nature of which 1/3rd is about the lower Mississippi).

Weren't the Republicans supposed to be the "grownups"? Wasn't their strong suit supposed to be competence? Maybe you create this image by admitting no wrong; on Friday, President Bush complimented FEMA's head; "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Lying on a hotel bed in Duluth we could see that this was in fact a horrendous job. On 9/11, 2,800 people died because of terrorist action; in this instance, thousands will have died because of government inaction. One of the quieter news stories running in parallel was the new poll results showing President Bush hitting new lows of approval ratings and highs in disapproval ratings, worse than Clinton ever had, and that was before Hurricane Katrina. Funny to wistfully dream of a real leader in charge, Tony Blair or Bill Clinton, and not this smirking clueless clown. It's embarassing.

There are some interesting long-term questions raised here. Much heroic talk is about about rebuilding New Orleans. One hesitates to ask this, but why? If the city is built in a sinking bowl below sea level susceptible to flooding, why would we want to pay to recreate it? I can see working on the port and maybe the tourist core, but all the low-lying residential neighbourhoods, thoroughly soaked, covered in toxic slime and full of corpses? Who is going to pay for all this? I believe we have a moral responsibility to help those affected by this storm. I don't know that we have an obligation to rebuild in the exact same spot with the continuously increasing vulnerability. And I wonder what the New Orleans diaspora will think of the other parts of the country once they're past this initial shock. Maybe life elsewhere will have its attractions for some of the displaced people, maybe the already-declining population of New Orleans will take a sudden plunge by 100,000 or more.

One also would like to congratulate the FEMA authors who early in 2001 said the three most likely catastrophic scenarios in the U.S. would be a terrorist attack in New York, a hurricane strike in New Orleans and a major earthquake in San Francisco. Less than five years later, they've got two out of three right. The bad news is, any of them could recur. I'd be nervous if I lived in the Bay Area. [And in the You Heard It Here First department, keep in mind a couple of other disasters I wonder about; a bad flood year on the Mississippi redirecting the river westwards north of Baton Rouge, isolating the lower river, as outlined in McPhee's The Control of Nature, something that I thought might happen in 1993 but didn't, and the prospect of a major New Madrid Fault earthquake, centered on southeastern Missouri, that would shake up the entire Midwest. There were three huge ones in 1811/12, big enough to ring church bells in Boston, but hardly anybody lived here yet; the next one will hurt.]

Back to Duluth. At one point, I was chatting with a guy out on one of the Ship Canal piers and said I'd happened to pass through Duluth one day in August 1979 after going camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and that there had been several ocean-going vessels at anchor out in the lake, awaiting the end of a longshoreman's strike that prevented them from loading grain for overseas. He said that strike had long-lasting effects, right down to this day, because as a result of it, many Midwestern grain shippers had shifted their export business to barges on the Mississippi for transport to New Orleans and then transfer to ocean-going vessels there. I worked a couple of years for a commodity company, and it was true even then (1982/3) that farmers got better prices along the Mississippi because of the export demand from the river grain terminals; I hadn't thought of it then as a recent development, but perhaps it was. The grain export trade through Duluth/Superior has never recovered to its previous levels even now. I wonder if the events in New Orleans might shift some of this back, redirecting grain shipments through the upper Great Lakes.

End of Observations

Have a great Fall!