Monday, August 24, 2009

Up the Mountain... and Down (AKA Vacation, part 5)

One of the many activities Deborah had planned for our stay here in New Hampshire was to go and climb Mt. Monadnock.

Now, I need to back up and tell you another story. Several years ago, before we were married (I guess that'd be 12 or 13 years now), we visited New Hampshire, and one of Deborah's relatives invited us on a hike with her kids. I went, of course, happy to do some real hiking. I was disappointed — the only thing they could have done to make the trail easier would have been to pave it. They had talked it up like it was some great hike. I was unimpressed.

So, fast-forward to the present, and everyone around me is talking up this great hike we were going to go on. I kinda shrugged, and figured it would be fine for our group. The kids could do a few miles on those trails, sure. Might wear 'em out a bit. We had a grandmother, a three-year-old, a five-year-old, two women carrying babies (Deborah, externally, in a wrap; Sara, internally, at 8 months) plus Paul and I. Totally appropriate choice for an afternoon hike.

Fiona and Aiden, while they were still well-rested and clean.

It was once we got there that I started to realize that this was not the same hike. In the restrooms at the trailhead, there were signs all over that, in essence, said, "please arrange for your own rescue." Hmm. Either they were being overly dramatic, or maybe this wasn't the pleasant walk I'd imagined...

Chips for the chipmunk? Chips? Chips? This little beggar was scurrying about under our picnic table while we ate prior to our ascent.

It started out quite pleasant, a nice path through the forest, like I'd imagined. Soon the trail started going from roots and logs, to large rocks, and on into the range of "you've got to be kidding me." I fancy myself a hiker, but even I had to stop at some of these and figure out how I was going to get up. After a while, the question was no longer how I was going to get up, but how Aiden was going to do it.

Deborah wanted me to get a shot of these cool tree roots.

Aiden utterly amazed me. He's three. Three! And he went all the way up the side of that mountain. Teenagers coming down after abandoning the summit attempt gawked at him, gave him wild blueberries, and kept asking how old he was. Aiden was bemused by the attention. Still three, guys, same as the last time you asked.

I can still hear myself saying, for the thousandth time, "Look for the small steps, Aiden, look for the small steps..."

We went on like that for hours. I was a bit of a funny sight, as I was carrying one of the backpacks. Mine had eight bottles of water, some snacks, jackets and sweatshirts for everyone in case it got cold, and, poking out the top, a box of tissues. I forget why we decided to bring the latter, but it was an inspired choice; I got very good at reaching over my shoulder and whipping out a tissue for anyone who needed it. To my sweaty regret, we didn't need the jackets, and we needed a lot more water than we brought.

While searching for handholds, beware of slugs that look exactly like the things you want to hold on to. Deborah missed this one. Well, she didn't exactly miss it, and was grateful for having some tissues handy...

We had a break, snack, and photo op before our attempt at the summit.

Finally, the terrain flattened out for a bit, and we could see the summit. It was encouraging, and it was heartbreaking. We were still having fun, and we wanted to get all the way to the top since we were so close.

How is it that there are ponds and streams on top of a mountain? I'm not sure how that works, but the higher the got, the more streams we found. Where was it all coming from?

Risanna was a pretty happy camper throughout the whole climb, even if she didn't exactly make things easy for Deborah.

Aiden was slowing down, and I stuck with him as my climbing buddy while the others got a good distance ahead of us. I was getting a bit worried about this. My instincts kept telling me to head back down with Aiden, but person after person coming down assured me that we were almost there, and that it would be a shame to miss the summit. I asked Aiden, and to my amazement, he wanted to keep going. So we did.

See how far we've gone? I was so proud of my little guy.

The last hundred vertical feet were more than I thought Aiden could handle, up or down, but fortunately Deborah, Sara, and Grandma Renaud were camped out below it on a nice overlook, and Deborah artfully told Aiden that he'd made it all the way to the side of the top. He plunked down for a well-deserved rest.

Aiden the conqueror.

I scrambled up for a look from the very top. It was amazing to look out and see hawks wheeling below you. This is what makes mountain climbing worthwhile.

It was both serene and surreal at the summit. Watching birds from above, and at the same time, hearing teenagers remark about how good the cell phone reception was up here.

Ya-ta! Paul, the Triumphant.

Fiona made it all the way to the summit... in cowboy boots.

We reveled in making it to the top for a while, but it was getting late, and we still needed to get back to the car before dark. So we heeded the advice of the ranger at the beginning, and took the White Cross trail down. It was about at this point that we all realized something significant: going down was harder than coming up, not only because of the perspective, and the tendency of a body in motion to stay in motion, but also because we were tired.

The steps seemed a lot bigger going down.

The look on Paul's face pretty much says it all.

We plunged downwards as fast and as safely as we could go, but it wasn't enough. My role shifted from getting Aiden where he needed to go (often by carrying him) to helping Deborah, who was steadily losing it. As dusk began to settle, Sara took Fiona on ahead, and I asked Paul to get Aiden off the mountain any way he could. He pulled his hand-crank flashlight out of the pack, and forged on. It was just me, Deborah, Risanna, and my mother-in-law left. At this point, the baby was crying, and Deborah was worn out and at the point of tears herself, but I coaxed her on, trying to squeeze as much mileage as possible out of the quickly dwindling daylight. I felt badly about it, but a break now would all but ensure that we wouldn't get off before dark.

Dark descended anyway.

We walked into the darkness as long as we could, trying to discern the path by the shapes around us, but that strategy failed soon enough, as well. We came to a standstill; we couldn't see where were were going, and we certainly couldn't see what we were stepping on. We already had some tweaked ankles and a sore rear end from missteps. What were we going to do?

Right about then, we heard voices, and called out to them. A few minutes later, small glowing squares started bouncing down to us in the darkness. Three college students were making their way down the trail as well, lighting the way with the screens on their iPods. Someone produced a working cell phone, and the Rangers were called. Remarkably, one of the college students knew the trail very well, and was able to tell them exactly where we were. The rangers sounded relieved — we were only an hour from the gates by now, not all the way at the summit, as they'd previously heard, and confirmed that Fiona and Sara had made it out just as total darkness had fallen. Half an hour later, a new flashlight bobbed up the path towards us, and the Ranger on duty met us with a great deal of relief all around.

Once we were all back at the cars and mostly rehydrated, we started swapping stories about our separate adventures coming down. Sara and Fiona made it down in good time, and Fiona even seemed to have some energy left. Paul, with many pauses to rewind his flashlight, had basically carried Aiden off the mountain. I asked him to kneel, and I took my staff and knighted him for his heroism.

I've made a few notes to myself for next time we go hiking: take more food, more water, flashlight, a working cell phone, and start a lot earlier in the day!

Then again, what's a vacation without a little adventure...?

Friday, August 21, 2009


Just before we left on vacation, one last, sad duty had to be performed: the dismantling of The Cart. It had been breaking down as fast as any of us could fix it; even my father-in-law gave up on it. He kept that thing running for years — decades, even — but time and entropy had caught up with The Cart. And so, the inventor called his creation home, and sent a list of parts he wanted off of it for other projects. Removing the motor and transmission felt like removing the heart from an old, dear friend so that some stranger could live.

It was somehow fitting that I should be disassembling it by Bree, who had one wheel in the junkyard, but now has a buyer. Or, at least, a buyer who's 50% paid up.

Even so, I wasn't terribly upset; the Cart had been good for us, but new and better things would come along. That wasn't so much a statement of faith as it was of fact — weeks earlier, I bought a trailer kit, and had it shipped directly to my father-in-law in New Hampshire.

We specifically took Paul's car for the trip, because it has a towing hitch. (The fact that it also had working air conditioning didn't hurt, either.)

A little bit more back, a bit more, a bit more...

So, what did we put on it? A whole 'nother car!

This is a Bombardier Class-E electric car. It used to be my in-law's main vehicle while they lived in Ecuador, but now that they're back in New Hampshire, it's a good deal less practical. But it's perfect for Winona Lake! So, even though it's technically not "ours," we brought it back on more-or-less permanent loan.

NEVs (Neighborhood Electric Vehicle) have a lot going for them: by Federal law, as long as they are solely electric, don't exceed 25 mph, and weigh less than a certain amount, they don't need to be titled or insured, and don't require a license to drive. They're pretty much ideal for short commutes, too; by most accounts, you have to drive a gasoline-powered car at least 4 miles to sufficiently warm it up so that you don't rust out your exhaust system, among other things. Most of Winona Lake/Warsaw is closer than that! It's certainly generated a lot of interest when I take it places — so much so that I'm probably going to print out a FAQ sheet for people who are really interested.

It took us a little while to decide how to refer to it. "The Bombardier" was too long, as was "the electric car," and "the cart" already meant a different vehicle. Finally, Deborah was inspired by the door closures, and called it the Zipper. It fit.

In the meantime, we've been using a new word around the house: zipar ("to zip"), which I conjugate as a Spanish verb — zipo would be "I zip," zipamos would be "we zip," and... well, here, how about I just give you the chart?

Zipar — Present Tense
Singular Plural
1st. person (yo) zipo (nosotros) zipamos
2nd person (familiar) (tú) zipas (vosotros) zipáis
2nd person (formal) (usted) zipa (ustedes) zipan
3rd person (él) zipa (ellos) zipan

(If you'd like to take this to its logical extreme, you can get a complete set of conjugations for zipar here.)

So now when you're in Winona Lake, and you see a tiny little white car zip by... you know who it is!

Cute, eh? And the car's not bad, either!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Horse Knows the Way (AKA Vacation, part 4)

Theoretically, one of our main activities that we had planned was horseback riding lessons. In practice, it only took up an hour or two per day, but it was fun, and we all learned quite a bit.

Each lesson started with about half an hour of learning to take care of the horses, a process that felt a lot like fine woodworking. You start off by rubbing the horse down with a hard rubber sanding block er, curry brush, going over their fur in circles. (It's really quite surprising home much hair and dirt comes off when you do this!) Then, you follow up with a stiff scrub brush, and finally a soft one. Mentally, I was thinking sandpaper grits, and figured a nice coat of lacquer was next...

Aiden, you get the bottom part of the horse. I'll get the top.

Paul and Deborah learn how to clean out a horse's hoof. Most of the hoof is hard, but you have to be gentle with the "frog" in the center.

See? Look at that beautiful grain. Wouldn't that make a pretty coffee table?

With the exception of Risanna, everyone in the family got in some riding time. Aiden was a bit young to really reach the stirrups or control the horse, but we gave him a little ride around the ring a few times before he headed home with Grandma Renaud for a snack and a nap.

How many people does it take to give one boy a ride on a horse? Three, apparently: one to lead the horse, and one on each side to catch him in case he falls off.

Fiona, by contrast, was roughly the same age that our trainers, Lindsay and Julia, started riding, and they taught her accordingly.

What is it with young girls and horses, anyway?

While Fiona was off on Nellie (whoa, Nellie!) I was at the other end with a feisty horse named Bubbles. It took some getting used to, but I apparently caught on very quickly. I was puzzled by their amazement; all I can figure all the motorcycling I've done helped somehow. Mostly, I followed the a few simple principles of driving any vehicle:

  1. Trust the vehicle.
  2. Look where you want to go.
  3. Give subtle, but firm inputs.
  4. When in doubt, accelerate.

Apparently, this works on horses as much as it does on their mechanical brethren — and works fairly well in the rest of life, as well.

Lindsay: "Are you sore at all? Do you need a break?"
Me: "Nah, I'm fine"
Lindsay (surprised): "Really?"
Me: "Well, I just rode here from Indiana on a motorcycle. I'm sorta used to it..."

A great deal of credit, of course, goes to our quiet trainer, Lindsay Labrie, who, I learned much later, is a three-time world champion in the very things we were learning. If her assistant's mother hadn't mentioned it, I might not have known.

When Fiona's and my time was up, Paul and Deborah came out to have a turn. Paul in particular made a point of listening to all the instruction I was given, and trying to do those things from the beginning.

Paul looked right at home on a horse.

Deborah, a little less so at first, but improved greatly as the week went on.

Later in the week, we also went on a trail ride, at a different stable, and discovered how much of a difference the horse makes. Previously, trail rides were the only kind of riding I'd done. I got a semi-retired Belgian draft horse ("Sandy") that resolutely knew the way, and walked in it. After scarcely a week, I missed the control that I'd learned with the other horses — a lot of what I'd learned apparently applied to Bubbles, who responded right away to subtle cues... not this horse! One trains the horse as much as the rider, I suppose...

Anyway, we had fun. it wasn't cheap, but we all felt like we accomplished something!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New Hampshire, how do I love thee? (AKA Vacation, Part 3)

New Hampshire, how do I love thee? Let me count thy roads.

Preferably, of course, by riding all of them.

There's something special about the roads out here, a smooth conservation of energy that takes you from place to place in all kinds of directions, with minimal input on the bars or throttle. It twists and turns, rises and falls, but never so fast that you're caught off-guard by it; a quiet sense of getting there by going nowhere in particular.

What strange sort of animal is this?

The road that Deborah's parents live on has a few quirks to it, as well. Namely, it passes back and forth repeatedly between four different towns. The only problem with that is that each town has assigned it's own house numbering system, and they don't necessarily line up. At all. As I was rolling in the last few miles, I kept thinking I was getting closer to my goal (617) but then the numbers would jump from the 400s to the 80s, and then into the 50s, and back to the 400s for a while, then back to the 50s and 60s... I ended up finding the house by remembering the distinctive shape of the tree out front, and that there was a radio antenna just over the next hill!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The League of Sane People Against Interstates (AKA Vacation, Part 2)

I don't remember all the details of day 2 of my travels to New Hampshire, but apparently some part of it — or even most of it — was horrific enough for me to tweet (that means "post to my Twitter account," which one can do from most cell phones) that "I never want to drive on another interstate highway as long as I live." Aside from the stress of having to ride hard among the truckers and their fierce turbulence, the defining moment was a multi-mile traffic jam where four lanes constricted down to one to allow for roadwork.

Now, to people in cars, this is merely an annoyance. To someone on a motorcycle, it's oh, so much more than that. I had inched forward in traffic so many times that my clutch hand was getting cramped. It was a hot summer evening, and was wearing my full gear, sitting on top of a toasting engine, breathing the exhaust of a thousand idling cars. I didn't know whether I was going to pass out, or throw up.

At that point, I justified something that is legal in California: lane splitting. If you can prove what state I was in, I'll pay the fine — it should be legal everywhere, in my opinion. Of course, in doing so, I figured out pretty quickly why it's not: grumpy drivers, particularly the guy that opened his car door in front of me and spat on the ground. I don't think it was a coincidence that he did it in front of me, even though I was going all of 5 miles per hour. But the moving air did do what I needed it to, and I tucked back into the non-moving traffic until I couldn't stand it again. An hour later, at a rest stop, I was an utter wreck, both physically and mentally. Too many people, driving too-big vehicles, in too big a hurry.

By the time Paul and Deborah caught up to me, I was ready to go on (being able to see the Milky Way from where I sat helped — I hadn't thought I would be able to see it from that part of the country, but there it was) but still with little love for the route and road we were taking. At that point, Deborah got out the maps, and plotted me a new route altogether. It was lovely, and I was utterly alone on it.

So, who's with me? The League of Sane People Against Interstates? Is "sane" redundant? Do we need a better acronym? Chime in on the comments.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Heading Out for Adventure (AKA Vacation, Part 1)

I did end up taking Route 6, as planned. Mostly. I probably should have taken it more than I did. And for all my high-tech, eye-in-the-sky planning, I've learned a few things:

  1. There's no replacement for having a real map; and
  2. There's no replacement for actually knowing where you're going.

How did I learn these things? Ah... well, read on.

I'm a stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of guy when I'm on a motorcycle (or, more accurately, photograph the roses...) and a great lover of little side-trips. One I hadn't planned on was the Mid-America Windmill Museum in Kendallville, IN. It's one of those things where you see the sign, and say, "A What Museum? I have to see this." So see it I did, although I limited myself to a 10-minute stroll among a surprising variety of wind-powered machinery.

This is a Robertson post windmill, so named because the whole thing rotates on a post to take advantage of the prevailing winds. If the winds change, go out, raise the stairs, and use the telephone-pole-like arm to turn the entire building, grinding stones and all. This is claimed to be a replica of the first windmill built in America.

Back on 6, I motored on at a lively pace between small towns, and a more prudent one in them. Some people don't like going through small towns on trips — I don't mind. It breaks up the monotony, and makes gas & Gatorade stops pretty easy. And besides, you get to see neat little bits like windmill museums, or the sign for Christs's Church in Butler, IN, where skateboarders are welcome. Hey, that's my kind of church! For all the potential deviations, though, I had planned my ride, and I was sticking to the plan. For every town where Rt. 6 didn't pass straight through, I had a printed detail map, so I knew exactly what to expect.

That didn't help me much when I got to Bowling Green, OH, where I was to meet an old college friend for lunch, and realized that I hadn't written down their house number! My printout had a picture of what Google Street View thought their house looked like, and I was going house-by-house, comparing the picture to the house. Close, but no banana! Fortunately, my friends saw me and hailed me wildly, which I missed because I still had my earplugs in, but the folks having a yard sale across the street noticed and pointed them out to me.

I had to laugh when they got out the fixings for lunch: turkey and salami sandwiches with provolone and mustard on Oatnut bread. In other words, the exact combination that I had in my saddlebags for my supper! It's a good combination, though, so I didn't mind one bit.

Happy and full, I hit the road again, and turned up my tunes. The iPod Deborah gave me for my birthday was just made for trips like this, and I'd found some combination earplugs/headphones that did a nice job of cutting out the wind roar and delivering my hand-picked-for-this-trip playlist. Music is a wonderful thing to make the miles go away. I'd started the day out under brooding, gray skies to Stryper's Abyss, but by Ohio, I was into the U2 and Vigilantes of Love, and riding away from the storm that never dripped on me even once.

Marblehead was my only major side-trip, one that I'd left the option of cutting out if the weather had been bad. I came across the Marblehead lighthouse while I was researching routes, and figured I had to go see it, if only to tease my friend Nathan, who says there's really no scenery in northern Ohio. Nope, no scenery here!

Pennsylvania welcomed me, which was nice. Ohio hadn't bothered. This was the only place where I started regretting my decision to take 6; roads that had been posted for 55 or 60 mph in Indiana and Ohio were marked for 30 in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, that didn't last more than 40 miles, but the reduced pace was enough to drive me crazy. It didn't help that it was getting on towards evening by now, when I'd planned to complete the entire day's leg by daylight.

Someone got very creative with the fence for the highway department in Franklin (?), PA. This mural stretched for about 200 feet, and is made up entirely of reflective road signs of every type.

I wanted to stop and patronize this roadside ice-cream stand, if only for having the best name I've ever seen. But darkness was falling, and I made do with just a picture...

I still had most of a state to go, and I was starting to wish I hadn't taken all those long stops. I pushed, promising myself some of those sandwiches once it got dark.

One of the pieces of equipment I bought specifically with this trip in mind was a new jacket. A good riding jacket can be a lifesaver, but black leather in summer often prompts riders to choose between comfort and safety. This, on the other hand, was a ventilated mesh — tough fibers that would hold together for protection, but enough of an open weave that wind just passes right through. Truly delightful in hot weather. The irony, then, was that I hadn't experienced any hot weather all day. By the time I ran out of daylight high in the Alleghenies, I was shivering uncontrollably.

At that point, the angels showed up.

Now, I don't know what your mysterious helpers look like, but mine come with cigars and piercings, and and totally understand the allure of a good backroad. After outlining a route that would shave more than an hour off the rest of my trip, I received a warning I'd never gotten before: "Well, take it easy, and watch out for deer. And bears." Bears? Hmm. So in addition to everything else, look for black things in the dark...

One of the landmarks on my new route was this "big-ass refinery" which was to show up on my left, couldn't miss it. They weren't kidding. You'd never know it from the surrounding countryside that this was here — but I came around a curve, and there it was, the size of a whole city, with as many lights and people.

I rolled into Coudersport (which I pronounced incorrectly; I pronounce unfamiliar words it as if they were German — i.e., Coo-der-shport; Deborah does this too, but tries it in Spanish. The correct, but terribly plain pronunciation is "Cowder's Port.") around midnight, the last town before my departure onto Rt. 44, and set up a mobile command center in the town's central gas station while I sucked down a large coffee and took care of various bits of business while I thawed.

Mind if I stand around for half an hour? No? How about camp out under the hot-air hand-dryers in the men's room? I was frozen, but finally had the bright idea to don my rain gear over my regular clothes for the rest of the trip. It helped quite a bit.

Paul, Deborah, and the kids were nearly at the hotel; I had more than a hundred miles to go. The map suggested that I could cut off 30 miles by taking this little squiggly road... I took it. That decision launched me into "unintended adventure" mode. 44 may have been more direct, but it was at the expense of having any straight stretches, level road, side markings, lights, and anything beyond minimal signage. A regular roller-coaster of a road, in the dark. With fog. I was forcibly reminded of my 2005 trip to Deal's gap, where my last stretch was the infamous Dragon itself, at 1 a.m., on a fully loaded bike. It was later than that now... why did I always leave the most interesting roads for last?

I was in utter blackness whenever I pulled over to answer or make a call. The little LED flashlight I normally keep in my pocket got plenty of use as I tried to read my maps and give directions...

In the midst of all this, I was getting increasingly desperate calls from Deborah, who could not find the hotel. I talked her through it again and again, but to no avail — turns out those very careful directions were also very wrong; the exit wasn't even off the correct highway.

Come on, guys. I don't do detours at three in the morning.

A good seven or eight hours after I'd planned on arriving at the hotel, I was done with the roller-coaster (I averaged 60 mpg down the mountain...) and was hitting detours, conferring with construction workers for directions. Deborah and Paul had finally found the hotel, and had called in the directions to me in the brief moments when I had cell phone coverage. My room number arrived as a very brief text. By 4:30, as it was starting to get light, I finally stumbled into the hotel, and slept like the dead.

A good vacation involves plenty of adventure, right?

Squeak, squeak, squeak...

Really. I'll post something here. Very soon. I have several posts almost ready to go, more than a thousand potential vacation photos, and many stories... it's just a matter of getting them out of my head. I have not forgotten you, dear readers!