Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Gray Day at Dachau (1964)

I took a year off from school after my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara to travel in Europe. Planned studies in the fall at the beginning of this period (Goethe Institute in a small village south of Munich) and at the end in the late spring-early summer (University of Goettingen) served as bookends for 6 months of intentionally unplanned travel. The travel began in Munich in late fall. Gowing up in southern California spoiled me for weather.  I hardly knew what it was like to have your breath visible in the cold air.  I sure had some lessons to learn about the real world, and the fact that in the winter things get very cold many places was the least of my world lessons.

I stayed mostly at youth hostels during this unplanned travel time.  One of the best things about staying in youth hostels is the local color you can get from other travelers. One evening I asked what I shouldn’t miss when in Munich. More than one fellow traveler told me to make sure I visited Dachau, which was not far to the north. The next morning I made my way to the Autobahn and hitchhiked north towards the infamous destination. Drivers who picked me up would ask where I was going. When I replied “Dachau”, the response was uniform; the conversation quieted to silence. In retrospect, the response shifted from awkward embarrassment to naked shame.

I had to walk the last 2 or 3 kilometers to the entrance, as it was far away from any settlement. There was no commerce or residence in the area. The day was very gray, and it was as if the whole countryside was sterile. As I approached, there was a very long border of high wire fence. Walking through the entrance I found no one in attendance. I moved in turn through all the buildings and the displays. I never found a soul the entire day, at least none that were living. The dead were extremely prominent. I recollect photos of bones covered by skin, of “scientific” experimentation by hypothermia, of long, unheated wooden buildings (still standing at the time) where the inmates slept and became infected with lice and typhus.

It wasn’t the crematoriums that impressed me. What hit me hard was the fact that the crematoriums turned out to be far too slow at processing bodies, so they were largely abandoned, in favor of firing squads and tossing bodies in large pits dug by bulldozer.  Although plentiful, I'm not including any photos of this, because the images are ones that I don't want in our minds more than they already are.

My other memory was the undeniable stench of rotting flesh. I know it can’t have been actual odor because this was 20 years after the war, but the smell in my nostrils was nonetheless visceral.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Daughter, the Naturalist

My son and daughter grew up with their Mom in Davis, California. I haven’t been able to live with them closely since they were very young.  While being away from them has been very difficult for me, they are now grown and we sometimes now have wonderful times together.

My daughter graduated from UC Santa Cruz last June, and she decided to stay with me while applying for grad school and work. She wanted to take a year off before continuing with school. Unfortunately she made that decision well before the economy went to hell, and she hasn’t had the job opportunities that she hoped for. She has always been fascinated with the natural world, and wants to do field research on marine mammals.  Due to a great deal of effort and persistence, she recently managed to land a four month internship in Gloucester, Massachusetts studying humpback whales starting in February. 
She and I decided to take some vacation time this fall.  We followed a fantastic clockwise loop through many of the national parks in the Four Corners area. I won’t attempt to do a full narrative, but here are some highlights, along with a few photos to illustrate the wonder of these places, and some of the wildlife we saw there.
Zion – This was our first stop. We hiked Angel’s Landing. If you haven’t had the pleasure, try not to miss it. It’s a wonderful climb, especially for novice hikers. We both qualify by that measure. It’s promontory pinnacle that juts out into Zion Canyon. You have to climb up a knife ridge, but there are ample manmade handholds to help in climbing.

Bryce – After leaving Zion, on the way to Bryce, we came upon some Big Horn Sheep crossing the road. Only time I’ve seen them in the wild. Bryce is amazing. Richly sculpted landforms in reds, yellows, and browns that just don’t stop.

Capitol Reef – We climbed the Golden Throne, an area that doesn’t get many visitors. Beautiful vistas, some small, like this circular patterned lichen beside the trail.

Arches – We got seriously dumped on one night. I thought we were going to get washed away in our tent, but it kept us dry. The next morning, waiting to hike the Devil’s Kitchen, a bolt of lightening came within a few hundred yards – no delay at all between the light and the crack of the sound. While we were here and in Moab, we read to each other from Ed Abbey’s books, especially Desert Solitaire.

Fisher Towers – After having hiked many of the Arches best areas, a ranger suggested we hike out of the Park. Fisher Towers is southeast of the Colorado and east of Moab. It’s an area that’s as spectacular as Arches, but hardly travelled. We took this photo with a self-timer by setting the camera on the tip of the overlook. I stepped past it very gingerly to lie down beside Danielle, because the drop was several hundred feet straight down.

Mesa Verde – We visited these cliff dwellings, but some of the best times we had there were hiking the snake trail where we spied a pair of falcons (prairie falcons, we suspect) at the top of a sheer cliff.

Natural Bridges – Like many of the vistas in the national parks area, you can drive very close to the 3 huge natural bridges and get a great view of these bridges. There’s another way to see them, however, by an 8 mile loop hike in the bottom of the creek bed that has formed the bridges. This was the way we enjoyed the bridges, and the effort it takes to get to them makes the views that much more satisfying. Also, because they can be seen by car, few enjoy this hike, which means you have the place to yourselves. It had rained the night before, and there was only one hiker ahead of us (we were the last for the day, just extricating ourselves from the canyon as night fell; now that was a close call!). Well, there was one other traveler on the creek-side trail that we followed for about 3 miles: a good sized cougar! We never saw the animal, but it saw and heard us, because it was only a short while ahead of us, and the canyon was narrow, with only one trail through it.

Grand Canyon North Rim – This was our last National Park that we visited. It’s vastly more enjoyable than the South Rim, but both have a very large number of visitors. Being high on the North Rim, you can look down on the hawks and vultures, some soaring below you; some resting on rocky prominences below. I visited South Rim a couple years ago, and my main recollection there was the huge number of tour buses. Give me the North Rim!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bike Stories - Me 'n Lance (2002)

In 2002, I had a business meeting in Austin , Texas in mid-April. I decided to travel early, the weekend before, to visit a friend, Chris Williams, who lived in Austin. Thinking I would try to get a bicycle ride in, I borrowed another friend's Bike Friday to carry with me on the airplane.  A Bike Friday is a small-wheel travel bike that fits in a suitcase and can be carried on a plane, generally at little expense.

I also looked on the Internet for Austin cycling clubs, and when I looked at the Austin Bike Club's ride schedule for Sunday, April 14, it said "no rides scheduled ... supporting Lance Armstrong's Ride for the Roses." What luck! I went to the link that was displayed on the bike club’s website, and signed up for the ride. I registered for the 100 mile ride. There are shorter distances as well, but being a distance rider I opted for the longest one shown.

I arrived Saturday and had a wonderful supper with Chris. We took plenty of time to reminisce. Chris and I shared two years in the Peace Corps in the late 60’s, teaching English as a second language in the Marshall Islands, a group of atolls in the middle of the Pacific.

Sunday morning Chris drove me to the starting location.  When he dropped me off, he took the photo shown above.  It turned out I was almost too late. But, by blind luck, this worked to my advantage. At the ride start I looked across the huge staging area where the riders were assembling for the start, and I saw several huge groups of cyclists waiting for their turn to begin the ride.

As I was puzzling over where I was supposed to assemble, I heard an emcee announcing the ride start. I could hear him exchanging quips with, of all people, Robin Williams. I knew he was a cyclist and friend of Lance, but I didn’t know he was expected to ride that day. As I looked across the thousands of people, I saw an area with a large banner above it, and a cadre of photographers with cameras raised high. I had brought a camera in my jersey pocket, so I made my way to where the commotion was and ... Egad! ... There was Lance, and next to him, Robin Williams, Eric Heiden, and Davis Phinney! There was just enough time to grab a couple of quick photos with my camera before the announcer blew the horn for the start for the first group, the group with Lance, where I was standing. I jumped on my Bike Friday, and we rode out of the stadium.

We started through the western outskirts of Austin, heading further west. At first, we were on a well-traveled highway. I could see Lance farther forward in the group. I could tell it was him because of his US Postal Service cycling clothes and his rapid cadence, which stood out from that of the others. Leading the group was a stake-bed truck loaded with paparazzi taking pictures of the celebs in the front.

I was reluctant to go farther forward and snap a picture of Lance riding in the peloton for fear of making the congestion at the front worse than it already was. I thought there might be an opportunity later when the front pack thinned out. But when we got further out of town, the pace picked up to 25-30 mph and it was all I could do to stay with the group. Finally, at about mile 35, I had to drop from the front pack. I've never been a great climber, and having extended myself just trying to stay with the group on the flats, I was quickly dropped when we went over a small rise. But I'm happy I was able to stay with them as long as I did. I heard someone say that we averaged about 25 mph for those first 35 miles. When the next group came by (the fastest riders of the next group to start), I jumped in with them and continued at their fast pace. Later I heard someone say we did the first 60 miles in 2 1/2 hours.

Riding with one such group, I started talking with a female who was asking about the Bike Friday. I mentioned that I rode with the front group that included Lance for 35 miles. She replied "Oh, then you started with the VIP group!" That’s how I learned that the first group consisted of specially invited people, including those who had each raised at least $1000 for the Cancer Research Foundation. So that's why I said I was lucky to have come late, because I got to ride with the VIP group without even having to feel guilty about it. I didn’t know that I had crashed the party!

The weather was perfect. We had a cloud cover that kept us from heating up too much, and it even sprinkled a few drops of rain a couple times. I continued the pattern of riding with a fast group until I got dropped on a hill. I’d then wait for the next group coming through and jump in with them. And there were plenty of fast groups, so I had ample opportunity to ride in fast pelotons.

At about mile 80, after having exhausted myself trying to keep up with these fast groups, I was on the verge of cramping in my calves. I only stopped once before then, to get more liquid. I was drinking fairly dilute powdered Gatorade, with a small amount of powdered milk for protein. I also had a banana the one time when I stopped. On that occasion, I stretched a bit. When I resumed, it was at an easier pace, and I was able to recover quite a bit. There was a final rest stop at mile 92, where I got more liquid, some orange slices, and a few pretzels. That was enough to get me to the finish, with no more threat of cramping.

When we arrived at the finish, I found out that we rode the 100 miles in about 4.75 hours! It was the draft from the fast riders that enabled such a fast time for me. At the finish, there was a wonderful music group playing old Beatles songs, especially Sergeant Pepper tunes. There was also free beer at the end, courtesy of a local micro-brewery. Chris finally picked my up, and after a long shower to clean up from the effects of the high humidity, I took a nap. Life was good that day!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

“She Could Kill Herself There!”

In my early 20’s I was a novice in a monastery in Santa Barbara. The religious tradition doesn’t matter; the story I will tell could have happened in any tradition.

I was one of two young men who staffed a small residence used by the church’s cleric when he visited on weekends. We also did other landscape and household maintenance for the church and for the convent across the street, which housed a small group of nuns.

One night an obviously mentally ill young woman showed up on the steps of the church. She had come to talk with the cleric. The nuns in charge (they were the first to come upon the young woman) told her that the cleric wouldn’t be there until the weekend, a few days away, and that she should come back. The young woman said she’d wait.

The woman was known to the church, and had come before in similar circumstances. The staff had contact information for her parents, but they lived over 100 miles away, and it was too late to arrange transportation for her to return to her parents’ home.  The parents had to retrieve the young woman from situations similar to this on prior occasions.

One of the senior nuns said to me: “She can’t stay on the church steps. She could kill herself there.” The nuns told her that she could come back in the morning after staying in a motel overnight, one that they would arrange for her. I was called to drive her to the motel. She was reluctant to go, but the nuns convinced her to allow me to transport her to the motel.

I did as I was asked. This was my first occasion to be around someone who suffered so obviously from mentally illness. As I drove, she talked to herself, quietly at first, repeating various phrases over and over. Her self-talk got louder as the sound of the car speeding through the night got louder. I was able to get her to go to the motel, but she was not at all happy with the arrangement, and I felt uneasy in the situation.

As I fell asleep that night, I realized what had been bothering me, which was this: the nuns’ fear wasn’t that the young woman might take her life, but that she might do so on the church steps, with the unwelcome publicity that would bring.

The young woman didn’t take her life; at least not that night. I don’t know what happened to her, other than that they sent her to her parents house on a bus in the morning. I also found out that they never intended to let her see the cleric. That morning I packed my slim bag and left, and never looked back.

You could say I was inexperienced and overly idealistic. Of course, you’d be right. But just as I know the sun comes up in the east, I know that place was no place for me.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Life and Death, Part II

Driving to Mt. Palomar this morning with my friend Chuck Chen, we talked of the recent deaths.  Chuck also knows David Slaton, who was riding with Don Murphy when he was killed in the hit-and-run described in my last post.  Without knowing exactly what was amiss, I expressed my uneasiness with many of those in attendance, including the family, saying that they knew they would soon be reunited with Don in the next world. 

Now, I'm not one to challenge peoples beliefs if they help them make sense of the world.   You can't argue with what works; "whatever gets you through the night".  But the cavalier and glib reaction of some of those speaking about this death simply did not do justice to the present.  My goodness, this is someone that was cut-down in the prme of his life.  Passing it off as a temporary inconvenience (ok, I'm exaggerating, but you get the idea) seems to me to cheapen life, not honor it.

On a positive not, the riding and company today was terrific. It was Chuck Chen and myself, and two other riders:  Mark Pavelka from San Diego county and Blake Barnett from Aliso Viejo.  We did the South Grade of Mt. Palomar twice. We planned to climb up south grade, then down east, then up east and down south, but on the first climb up south grade there was a strong northerly wind blowing and it was especially windy around the ridges, so we figured it would be so windy on the east grade that we decided to repeat the climb on east grade rather than trying south.  After the second climb up to the top, we rode to the viewpoint at the campground from where you have almost a 360 degree view:  to the east and north, San Gregornio, San Jacinto, even Mt Baldy, and to the west and south and west, Catalina, Coronado Islands, and Mexico. Terrific day.

Above:  Mark and Chuck

Above: Mark, Blake, Chuck, and Dan

Above:  Dan and Mark

Friday, December 18, 2009

Life and Death

Life and Death

What’s to say? I went to 2 memorial services in as many weeks.

Don Murphy - Today was for Don Murphy. I didn’t know Don, but a bunch of people did. There were about 1500 at the service. He left a wife and 2 almost grown daughters. He volunteered at a half-way house, working with recovering men, helping them get their GEDs, and otherwise doing what he could. He gave out 20 dollar bills to some of those at the half-way house to help them setup their first-ever checking accounts.

He was struck in a hit-and-run before dawn on Wednesday of last week while he was out riding his bike with 2 of his best friends. His friends gave him CPR while the car sped away. The driver was later found and has been charged. Unlike the man who killed Armas last June, she wasn’t drunk She was apparently just not paying attention … but how could she just drive away after he bounced off the hood into her windshield, shattering it?  She dragged his bike under her car for a mile and a half before she stopped.  She was later found (bike debris littered her path) and taken in custody.

My friend found a pulse as they continued CPR, but after the EMTs transported him to the Trauma Center there was no brainwave. His family donated his organs which were parceled out yesterday, saving several other lives in the process. But it’s such a waste … such a heart-breaker.

Joanne Penseyres – Joanne lost a very long battle with depression a few weeks ago, at 65 years of age. There was a memorial service for her last Saturday. She was life-partner with Pete Penseyres, legendary ultra-distance cyclist. She crewed for cross-country bike race teams something like 13 times, supporting the cyclists’ dreams. There were so many people that spoke of all the support they received from Joanne. But she didn’t save quite enough support for herself. She was also a very articulate poet. Here’s one she wrote “for all cyclists”:

Come Share Their Dreams

I’ve been there many times,
To care for the men who ride after their dreams,
Seen their foreheads glazed with perspiration,
Their faces taut with concentration,
Even pain.

To the public they’re crazy men, gone insane Over riding a bicycle,
But I know them better; I’ve been there.
They’re riding their dreams.

If you doubt me, come see them.
Look past the pain, the sweat, watch their eyes.
You’ll see the dreams coming true.
Come share their dreams,
And you may catch a dream or two.

Rod Armas – About 25 years ago Rod Armas bicycled the Grand Tour Double Century put on by the Los Angeles Wheelmen. This past June he wanted to introduce his 14 year old son the this great adventure, so he dusted off the helmet he used on that earlier occasion and started out with his son. I saw them in mid afternoon. I was sagging the ride, and they were the last riders on the course. We gave them some water and drove ahead to the lunch stop, where they arrived a bit later.

They were in good spirits, but the lunch stop was almost closed. We scraped up something for them to eat. I noticed that they didn’t have anyplace to keep their route slips, and I taped a metal binder to the handlebars on each of their bikes and put a fresh route slip in them. I didn’t see them any more that day, but Jim Watrous took the attached photo of them after they left that rest stop. I had to drive someone who had DNF’d to the end, and drove home after that, not seeing them again. You probably know the rest. They were hit by a drunk driver along PCH not far from the finish of the ride. Rod was killed; his son Chris had many broken bones, but survived.

What’s to say? Life is so precious and fragile. Don’t miss any opportunities to tell those close to you how much you love them, and how much they mean to you. No, don’t miss those opportunities ….

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Joanne Penseyres Memorial Service, 2009

Joanne Penseyres

Today I attended a memorial service for Joanne Penseyres. Several hundred family and friends were present. Some knew her from ultra cycling, some from her teaching at Bonsall Elementary School, some from her community affairs. A large number of people shared stories of their lives with her, and how deeply affected they were by her generous spirit, tireless enthusiasm, and dare-devil encouragement. You can read or post a memory by clicking on the title of this post.

She crewed for her husband Pete, and others, making Race Across America and other ultra cycling events possible for them. Among other accomplishments she wrote poetry; this “for all cyclists”:

Come Share Their Dream
by Joanne Penseyres

I’ve been there many times,
To care for the men who ride after their dreams,
Seen their foreheads glazed with perspiration,
Their faces taut with concentration,
Even pain.

To the public they’re crazy men, gone insane
Over riding a bicycle,
But I know them better; I’ve been there.
They’re riding their dreams.

If you doubt me, come see them.
Look past the pain, the sweat, watch their eyes.
You’ll see the dreams coming true.
Come share their dreams,
And you may catch a dream or two.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bike Stories - Tony Almost Calls Home

In the fall of 2007 I rode the Joshua Tree Double Century with one other rider, Tony Martinez, a terrific cyclist and home-builder from Cherry Valley, east of Redlands. The finish of the JT Double is very challenging because it ends with a 50 mile return at a 2%-3% gradient into a very stiff headwind. Both times I've done it, it’s also been very cool as the sun was setting in the desert. Anyhow, Tony and I had plenty of opportunity to visit as we rode the 13-14 hours it took us to finish this double. At the time, we both thought this was the first time we talked to each other.

I next saw Tony on the 2008 Mulholland Double Century, the next spring. I had experienced some challenges early on durng this double and lost time to some of the other riders. At about mile 160, the route turned up Decker Canyon, a 2500’ climb, the first half of which is steep, averaging 10% or so. Part way up, I passed Tony who was climbing a bit more slowly than I. As I approached him, I slowed and we visited for awhile, exchannging observations about the day’s ride. I then continued up Decker on my own. After a time I came upon a recumbent trike rider climbing very slowly. I was surprised to see that it was Peter Pop.

Peter is a terrific rider who had to back-off from his competitive riding when he developed some very bad back problems. He didn’t ride at all for several years, and then was only able to ride a trike. I slowed to visit with him and we talked for some time. I learned that he had come out on this climb to see if he saw any of his old double century riding buddies. He told me of a recent visit with a friend of ours, Hugh Murphy, who used to be the promoter for a large series of Southern California double centuries. Hugh had moved to Lone Pine (he now lives in Cartago) after selling the DC series to Planet Ultra. In any case, Peter and I visited for quite awhile as we climbed at Peter’s pace. Part-way through this visit, Tony rode past us, giving a greeting as he passed. Eventually, I rode on ahead, leaving Peter to his own climbing speed. When I later caught up with Tony toward the top of the climb, he called out to me, and told me this story.

Tony Tells His Story … he says: I just remembered when I first saw you … It was on last year’s Mulholland DC. I was at the bottom of the climb heading up Decker Canyon. I had stopped along the side of the road, leaning against a call box, about ready to call my girlfriend to pick me up. You rode past, looked at me, and shouted out: “What are you waiting there by that phone for? Are you going to call your mother to come pick you up?” When I saw you continue up the road I thought to myself: if that old guy can get up this climb, I can certainly do it. And I got back on my bike and finished the double.

After he told me this story, I recalled the incident from the prior year … and I had to laugh. My comment wasn’t intended to be malicious, just to tease him a bit to challenge him to continue … and it worked. Also, the curious thing is that neither he nor I recalled this initial contact with each other until a full year had passed, even though we rode the entire Joshua Tree Double together in the intervening period! Tony’s done many doubles since then, and finishes them without fail, and with good humor. Thanks, Tony, for this wonderful memory.