Sunday, August 17, 2014

Nurturing the explorer within

"We rejoice in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces
endurance, endurance produces
character, and character produces
hope.  And hope does not
disappoint us."

                             -Romans 5:3-5

Oh oh.  It's getting to be that time of year again, when my mind starts wandering--yes, yes, for those who know me it is always wandering--and the adventure bug begins to bite.  For some odd reason, each fall--but this year it seems to be coming on a bit early--I start to dream.

"All men dream, but not equally.  Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity.  But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible."
-T.E. Lawrence
(one of my all-time favorite movies is Lawrence of Arabia)

For the formable years of my life, age 17-25, I wrapped myself in a circle of adventure addicts.  In addition to personal training, I worked at Midwest Mountaineering and REI in Minneapolis.  I found comfort in knowing there were others who spent their free time pouring over maps and wondering "what if?"  And although I never became an adventurer like those around me--some of the best known mountaineers, paddlers, skiers and Arctic explorers all came out of Midwest Mountaineering--they nurtured the gift of curiosity my parents had given me.

Now, I tend to read fewer non-fiction adventure books--I keep it down to about four a year--partly because it's a painful thought to have to quit my job just to head out on long trips, partly because a little bit of me has grown soft and I like the creature comforts growing roots has given me.  Sure, if I didn't "have" to work for a living, I'd be planning adventure after adventure with stints of cocooning and licking my wounds in between, but this is the real world and so I'm stuck trying to find balance between the two.

The book I have just finished brought out the adventure side in me full tilt.  The title "The Explorers" says everything.  I have no interest in walking across Africa like Burton and Speke, or sailing in the cold, icy waters like Shakleton, but it isn't the specific trip which captures's the feeling.  Reading about these amazing people's journeys makes me want to get off my ass, or at least transfer it to a bike saddle, point my handlebars anywhere and go.

As I creep closer and closer to turning forty in a mere two weeks, I'm beginning to do the thing I said I never would.  Thoughts about who I would be now if I had continued on my climbing or dogsledding journey cross my mind when I'm feeling stuck.  Then, reality hits, the veil is lifted and I realize I would most likely be a divorcee (not because my husband doesn't love adventure but because most adventurers I know blow through spouses), working at an outdoor shop or as a guide (neither of which are as glamorous as they seem), living part time out of the back of a pickup, and teetering on the verge of alcoholism when not on trail.  This is sad but true, and it is the image I have of most adventurers I know who are my age.

As I said before, finding balance is key.  There is no way I could keep living without dreams or possibilities, and it is one hell of a job trying to fit these things into a tightly run schedule, but I'm going to have to keep trying.  One or two day adventures are completely attainable--the gravel grinders and winter rides do a really nice job giving me my fix for short periods of time--but this is the time of the year when I start thinking bigger.  One trip which keeps grazing my mind is biking the Dempster Highway up in the Northwest Territories.  It's been done, probably thousands of times, what hasn't really?, but it hasn't been done by me and it would be one hell of a test mentally and physically--partly due to the nagging mosquitoes and black flies.  There aren't many places that would feel so remote by bike--plus still be me--and that is part of the reason I'm drawn to it.

There is this great quote by Mallory, who was the first explorer of Everest.  It sums up all my feelings  perfectly.  When I was with Outward Bound, this quote was buried deep since the goal of each trip was not to find "joy" but instead to go through turmoil to find oneself.  I think I like this way of approaching adventures a bit more.

"The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is of no use.'  There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever.  Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation.  But otherwise nothing will come of it.  We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron.  We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food.  It's no use.  So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go.  What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy.  And joy is, after all, the end of life.  We do not live to eat and make money.  We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life.  That is what life means and what life is for."

As I sit in my comfortable Midwestern home, knowing I won't have a large planned adventure for quite some time, I must make do with finding small adventures on my regular bikabouts.  I have to go back to thinking the way I did when I was eight--heading out into a snow storm, building a snow cave, and pretending I was a polar explorer even though I was in the heart of Minneapolis.  I have to make a point to take roads not normally on my planned routes.  I have to pay extra attention to the flora and fauna around me.  But most importantly, I have to find and nurture joy.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dairyland Dare Elixir No.9

Getting ready to roll out
A mere six weeks ago, around 10pm, tornadoes ripped through the driftless area of Wisconsin.  Roofs were torn off buildings, some buildings were moved off their foundation, and trees were turned into kindling in a matter of moments.  This same storm hit Madison a short time afterwards.  I remember the sirens going off, I remember being an idiot and choosing not to go in the basement and I remember watching the news the next morning only to hear tornadoes had touched down in two spots about a mile from my house.

It's rare for tornadoes to touch down in Madison, but the driftless area, sadly, has seen its share of destruction.  Almost thirty years ago to the day from the Dodgeville tornado, Barneveld experienced the most destructive tornado to date in the United States.  The entire town was demolished and many lives were lost.  Just like the Barneveld tornado, it took almost the entire city of Dodgeville to come together and clean up after the tornadoes this summer.

There were so many trees without their tops from the tornadoes
Soon after the storms, there was a note published on the Dairyland Dare Facebook page letting cyclists know what they would see on this year's ride.  Riders would be going through the hardest hit areas, including the property owned by the ride organizers, Stewart and Michelle Schilling.  They would ride along CR ZZ, and stop in Bethel Horizons Camp.  They would see stumps where trees once stood…many, many stumps.

Just one brief week prior to the storms, I rode through this entire area.  I wrote about how the hills kicked my ass, and I wrote about the never ending beauty.  Little did I know that when I rode through the area again, it would be a different landscape.

I'm not trying to make this a "Debbie Downer" post, I just want to give some background on what led up to this year's Dairyland Dare and I can't help but make comparisons on how the community of Dodgeville comes together, with strength, to rebuild in so many different ways.  Without this amazing group of people, the ride wouldn't exist and many residents may still be suffering from the loss of their property from the storms.  On to the ride!

Rest stations, like this one, are run so smoothly by volunteers

DD, known to some as the best supported ride in the Midwest, and to others as a pukefest.  I would have to say both are correct.  On this magnificent day, cyclists can choose how much of an ass kicking they want to endure.  50km-300km--none of which is easy, but all of which is beautiful.  Although I had the idea of riding the 200km, other commitments which forced me to head back home early sealed my fate at 150km.  Was I upset, um, not really.  Climbing hill after hill, some long steep accents, some blackout farm rollers, is "fun" for about 100 miles in my book, then it just becomes work…at least for me.

Cut it short, or just keep rolling?

Like in years past, the DD starts at the Lands' End corporate office just outside of Dodgeville.  Riders are greeted as the sun comes up with welcome packets, cue sheets, Kickapoo coffee and smiles.  As the sun begins to climb, the cyclists are staggered in their starts, with the 300km riders rolling out first. Personally I think this is a brilliant approach since it not only prevents the roads from clogging up but also keeps the aid stations running smoothly.  Just another reason I see Stew and Michelle as being some of the best ride organizers in the country.

I rolled out with two gravel riding friends a bit after 6:30 to the sound of a fellow bike fed board member making announcements through a microphone.  "This is an open course, follow the rules of the road, signal your turns, thank the volunteers and only make 'five fingered waves'.  You will be seeing the organizer's neighbors on the nice."

All of the distances brought riders into one of my favorite state parks, Governor Dodge, for our first thrilling descent, followed quickly by our first accent.  Within moments I began to wonder if folks had low enough gears.  It's not a good sign when almost everyone around you is climbing out of the saddle with a hundred more miles of hills to go.  One gentleman, insisted on calling out our gradient changes throughout the entire first two climbs.  I wondered quietly to myself if this made him feel stronger.

Meeting one of the group members from my father's cycling club in Minnesota

The hills ticked by, I got to ride a new one which will also now go onto my "favorite list", and it was shaping up to be a perfect day to be out on the road...for hours.  Around mile 25, a guy rode up behind me and said "Hey, I know that kit!"  I had wondered if anyone from the Twin Cities would be down here, and the kit I had on was from my father's riding club in Rosemount.  It only took me stating I was Gary Johnson's daughter and then a slew of chatter soon followed for about 15 miles.  This is what events like this are, a rolling reunion/social event if you will.  I often get to catch up with folks I only see a couple times a year, and I always end up meeting people I know through other riding connections.

Cresting another hill with just another beautiful farm
Around mile 40, a knee/hip issue I've been struggling with this summer started to creep in.  There was no way in hell I would pull out, so I opted to stop at almost every rest stop (Stew and Michelle place them every 15-20 miles apart), and stretch.  Sure, it ate up time, but it also gave me a chance to slow down, take in the scenery even more, and chat with the volunteers and other riders.  There is something to be said about going all out, but there is more to be said about enjoying the experience you are in to its fullest.

farm rollers
South of Dodgeville brought the endless farm rollers I experienced on my tour earlier in the season.  I silently thanked the bike gods for prepping my mind--knowing what to expect is almost always good when it comes to hills.  I was even more thankful to be on my "plastic" bike vs. my steel touring frame
with loaded panniers.  Sure, the hills were still hard, but not once did I come close to puking or blacking out--a sensation I played with multiple times on the tour.  A quick spin through one of my favorite spots in Wisconsin, Mineral Point, and then it was on to my nemesis road--Survey.  Yep, those rollers were still the hardest ones on the entire ride for me, but low and behold I ran into a riding friend from Madison, and we got to do them together.  Misery loves company...enough said.

Paul made Survey road "fun"!

As I made my final turn, and pulled back into the Lands' End compound, I was greeted by cheerleaders.  Yes, you read that right, cheerleaders stood out there all day with pompoms actually chanting cheers for each cyclist who passed under the finish banner.  Awesome.  A quick stop to say "thanks" to Michelle for putting on such a stellar event and I was off to gorge myself as well as partake in the "elixir" brought by Capital Brewery, who so often sponsors bike events.

finish line


Me and Chris at the finish line

As I go over my day in the saddle, about 6 hours 50 mins with over 9,000 feet of elevation gain (the DD site says about 7,500 ft. but everyone's Garmin was reading higher), the riding itself is not what comes to the forefront of my mind, although it was a grand day cranking the pedals for sure.  What really stands out is all the volunteers.  Everyone seemed so happy to be helping and everyone seemed to be having just as much fun, if not more, than the riders.  This event really is about the community. You can read more about the community fund that Stew and Michelle started here.  If you want to be a part of a ride that is flawlessly executed, beautiful beyond words and raises money for so many great causes, I highly encourage you to sign up next year.  Until then a HUGE THANKS goes out to everyone who made this event possible!

For more information on Stewart and Michelle Schilling, and the work they do with bike events, as well as advocacy, here's an article I wrote about them for Silent Sports magazine.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Some of the future bikabout ambassadors for Madison, WI

You've most likely heard the term "walkabout"--when a young Aboriginal male goes on a wilderness journey lasting up to six months--but have you heard the term "bikabout"?  If not, do yourself a favor and get acquainted with not only this term, but this new business.

Megan Ramey, the owner of bikabout, is on a mission.  A mission to make cities more bike friendly, show people they can travel to cities they may not know, use a bicycle as their form of transportation, and give visitors to these cities incentives, like discounts to other businesses, for biking.

Megan with her daughter 
This all started when Megan, her husband and their child took a trip to Europe.  She was amazed how easy it was to get around the cities by bike and all of the websites, which supported cycling in the cities, were easy to access.  Here in the United States, not so much.  Megan found she had to have hundreds of different links just to piece a bike friendly vacation together.  And this is what got her thinking "Why does it need to be this difficult, and maybe I should design a website where people can go and have most of their questions answered."  And this is how bikabout began to roll.

This week, Megan and her family visited Madison, Wisconsin.  Madison wasn't new to them since she has several ties here.  It only made sense to add this to her first year's tour.  Athens came before Madison, and Minneapolis will follow next week.  Essentially, she puts a call out to folks in the bike community in each city, asks them to spread the word, and then comes into town to have a welcoming social.  Megan's job is meeting with bike friendly businesses to see if they want to be a part of bikabout and then meeting with potential ambassadors asking them to design fun routes in and outside of the city.  All of this information will then go onto the website and facebook page, hopefully helping others visiting these cities.

You can even travel with pets by bike!
Personally, I love this idea.  I've always said exploring a city by foot or bike is the best way to really get to know it.  You see more, you get connected with the locals (often times because you have to ask directions), you stumble upon the coolest restaurants and bars and you learn to slow down.  Honestly I wouldn't visit a city any other way, so you know I'll be using this website, which is free to travelers by the way.  The icing on the cake is bikabout is dedicated to donating 25% of their earnings to local bike advocacy groups.  Our social today asked everyone to donate $5 to the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation.

Sadly, Megan and her family have to return home to Cambridge at the end of the summer.  But before they do, they will be visiting and holding bikabout ambassador socials in Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Chicago, followed by Fort Collins in late fall.  If you live in any of these cities, or have bike connections in them, please shoot a message out to Megan.  After all, her site is about getting input from locals and "those in the know".

Part of our group meeting for the bikabout social

Megan does a great job making the gatherings fun

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Take a ride with me

What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world?
Moreover locomotion--the privilege of animals--is perhaps the key to intelligence.
The roots of vegetables (which Aristotle says are their mouths)
attach them fatally to the ground, and the are condemned like leeches
to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them 
at a particular spot where they happen to be stuck...
In animals the power of locomotion changes all this pale experience into a life of passion,
although we anaemic philosophers are apt to forget it, that intelligence is grafted.

-George Santayana

Sometimes I enjoy going on a bikeabout.  I may have a loose destination in mind, but at least one of the stretches is left completely open for me to wander wherever my senses choose to take me.  This usually works best when alone.  It is then that I don't feel pressure to be back at a specific time, listen to others legs or worry about staying on course.  On these rides, I am usually in search of beauty--not too difficult to find in the driftless area.  I pay more attention to both the big and little picture--sometimes stopping to look more closely at flowers or butterflies and I almost always pause for a moment at the top of a large climb to admire the vista.  Today, my bikeabout journey brought me west through Spring Green and back while winding north prior to hitting Madison again.  I was so acutely aware that it is now August.  The light, the flora and the fauna all told me summer is coming quickly to a close.  I told myself not to get down about this, and instead take it all in.  Here is my ride through my eyes.

The geese are coming back--here to a recently harvested wheat field

Chicory--and to think we made "coffee" out of this.

The short window when bergamot and sunflowers overlap

It's rare to see beef cattle vs. dairy cattle in these parts

I always stop for farm cats

So many old farms still grow old timey flowers--here it is zinnias

A tell tale sign summer is losing its grip--this is the first ride I've seen goldenrod in full bloom
This farmer has a nice sense of humor

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Blasts from the past

Okay, I'm going to try my best not to get all "airy fairy" about this, but I must say this has been one strangely aligned week.  You see two old friends, and one not that old--one dating back from my high school days, one from my early twenties, the third from just over a year ago--just happened to roll back into my life this week.  I use the word "roll" since all were cycling connections.

As I get older--yep, I'm looking down the barrel at 40--there is this little piece of my mind that hovers a bit too long on what/who I was when I was in my teens and twenties.  Not that I want to relive my twenties or even go back to who I was, but once in a great while, I like to think of the places I lived, the rides I did, the mountains I climbed, the people I tried to keep up get the picture.  Along with that, comes thinking about old friends.  Some are still with me, others I've lost touch with.  This week, I got the wonderful treat of reconnecting with three I had lost touch with.

One of these old friends, a person I hadn't talked to or seen since my teens, came into my life through this very blog.  We had become friends through bike racing, and this common connection is what made our opening conversation flow like we never lost touch.  For that, I am so thankful I live in the age of the internet (you will rarely hear me say this by the way).  The second friend, someone back from my Bend, OR days in the mid-late nineties, will be in Madison for Trekworld.  Since he owns a bike shop out there, once a year he makes the pilgrimage to Wisconsin to be dazzled by their new product.  Until a few years ago, I had lost complete touch with this friend as well, but it was the bike which somehow brought us back together.  The third friend is a person I actually wrote a post about.  He came into my, and my cycling circle's life, made a huge impact, and then promptly left in one year's time.  This week, I inwardly celebrated that he will be moving back to Madison for a job--along with riding and beer drinking of course.

I have written several times about the bicycle being the greatest connector and how many amazing people have come into my life through this inanimate object, but it's true.  There are no words to express how lucky I feel to have so many kind, generous, loving people in my life--and most of these relationships have sprung from the biking community.

So here is where the real fun begins.  If I count up how many stellar relationships I've already made through this one object in forty years, I can't wait to see what my life will look like when I'm eighty.  For those who think turning forty is a nail in the coffin, maybe you just aren't surrounding yourself with the right connectors.  Thank you universe for creating the bicycle!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Riverwest24 That Almost Wasn't--for me at least

Team Garage 707 Crashers at the finish line

It's the morning of Friday, July 25th--essentially Christmas eve morning for us heathens.  I hop in the car to pick up some last minute provisions (ie beer, salt, fat, sugar) for this year's Riverwest24.  I get about a mile down the road and start to smell gasoline.  When I pull into the parking lot another block down, I realize the smell is coming from my car.  After inspection, I discover the resident chipmunks in my yard--which are cooking in a large pot as I write this--had eaten holes in the fuel hose and gas had been sputtering all over the engine.  Well shit.  In three hours I was supposed to have the car loaded with bikes, one of my five teammates, gear, and be on my way to Milwaukee.  The auto shops of course can't fit me in, and the auto rentals are booked on my side of town.  I start making emergency calls and thankfully, an angel loans me her Mountaineer.  I haul ass across town by bike and comically find myself in a hulking V8 SUV--mind you I drive once a week, and it's a Toyota Echo--but it's big enough to carry everything and the kitchen sink and it will get us to Milwaukee.

Once we make it through the cluster construction around the zoo interchange, and we find ourselves in Riverwest, I begin to relax, as well as get excited.  Those who have seen me at events, know I start doing this funny little "hop thing" when I'm excited.  I actually start bouncing like a bunny...and bounce I did.  I had no idea what to expect from the event this year, I never do, but I was excited to be hanging with two teams of friends for over twenty-four hours while riding, eating, drinking and NOT sleeping.

Lining up for the start

Waiting at Locust with a friend on the first lap

As in years past, half our team were RW24 veterans, half were newbies.  Our cycling experiences ranged from triathlons to gravel to trials riding.  We were bonded together by our love of cycling and our love for acting like kids.  I got to lead out the first few laps since I was the only one present with RW24 experience (our other two veterans were on their way from Madison after work).  Nothing unexpected, which was such a nice surprise after last years downpour and multiple crashes due to the rain, just hurry up and wait and while waiting, chat with friends at stop signs.

Midnight manifest hand off.  The purple bike is the one that was stolen--if you see it, let me know.

Part of team Riverwestfalia doing their first Beers for Volunteers laps

The laps, bonus checkpoints and riding shifts clicked by.  Evening turned into night, the course became a wave blinking red lights, different music could be heard from every corner along with the stream of "thank yous" to the selfless volunteers for helping keep the major crossings safe and all was good until...

Somehow, in the middle of the night, around 1:30am, my husbands brand spanking new bike was stolen.  It had been leaning against the garage we were all stationed out of, lit up by garage lights and in plain sight, but just in the shadows enough to be snuck away by someone coming through the alley.  I was out on course when it happened.  I came back to hand off the manifest, did the quick switch, and noticed my husband sitting on the curb with a queasy look on his face.  He told me what happened, and I didn't believe him.  How the hell could this happen?  I knew each year at least one bike is stolen during RW24, but we were so safe.  Also, for some stupid reason, I thought my love for Milwaukee (I openly gush about it on a regular basis) and my love for RW24, would shield us from something like this happening.  Besides, I had already paid my dues with the car trouble earlier, we didn't need this--it's supposed to be a happy weekend!

As the thoughts about this incident began to fade, either due to lack of sleep, busting out more laps, being around really cool people who wanted to help or just needing to enjoy an event we look forward to all year, I began to have fun again.  Yes, we were still down a bike, and that sucked the big one, but we were in it with an extended family who fed us, kept us liquored up and got us to smile again.

Getting my first Riverwest24 tattoo

Me after hitting three foul balls while playing soft ball
As part of my bonus checkpoints I got to play softball, fish garbage out of the river, play poker, dance the hand jive and get tattooed.  Yep, for the first time in three years, I chose to get inked.  It wasn't that big of a deal since I've got plenty of body art, but for me, getting inked by an unknown artist is a bit sketchy.  I picked the artist because he co-owned a shop in New Orleans.  Stupid, I know.  But for me, during a crazy weekend, I saw this as a sign because of my infatuation with New Orleans.  So around 10am, my teammate Dan Hobson and I went down to Truly Spoken and I met Terry Brown, my tattoo artist.  I will jokingly say the universe aligned.  First, getting inked in a bike shop is fantastic, second, Terry knew who Dan was since he saw him play with Killdozer at concerts and loved his music, third, another friend who I didn't know if I would see, Tristan, came in and it turned out to be a little party while Terry stuck a needle into me for fifteen minutes, fourth, getting the tattoo pushed our team over to beat our last years lap count (not that I was counting, and not that this is a "race").

Jake showing his love 
As so many people I know who have done RW24 say, the hours between breakfast and four or five pm are odd.  Everyone is a bit tired, the heat usually starts to build, people get a bit edgy, it always feels like you have a headwind and traffic starts to build again.  Things "could" get ugly during these hours--but you know what, they don't.  Folks may choose to take some quiet time by rolling off course for an hour or two or they may choose to walk around the course to get a different angle, but somehow people stay sane.  From five to seven pm, people begin to "smell the barn" or "see the light at the end of the tunnel".  Times are calculated to see if folks can get another shift in or if it's worth hitting another bonus checkpoint.  Similar to how I feel during the last couple days on a bike tour, I get a little emotional.  Although I'm more than happy to end the event so I can shower and eat real food, I'm also a little weepy and I dread having to say goodbye for another year.  I build up this event in my head so much every year that when it's over or almost over, I don't really know what to do with myself.  This year, at the last minute, right after our two teams did our "victory lap", I chose to bust out one final lap with sandals and a skirt on.  I had less than twenty minutes to do it and I knew I had it in me as long as the traffic lights and marsupial bridge congestion cooperated.  Seventeen minutes later, still on my single speed, I showed up one hell of a hot mess.  I don't want to know what I looked or smelled like, I was just happy to do one final spin.

Finishing a previous haircut from bonus checkpoint "snip snip"

Twizzler hand ups

Our "family" just kept growing

I do love surfing

So now, I sit here in my kitchen, and instead of licking my wounds from the shitty things that happened during and before the event, I get to baby my tattoo and graze over all the pictures people posted.  I am so happy to have once again been a part of this magical event.  Thank you Steve, Wendy, Jeremy and all the other organizers who gave up so much time and energy over the last year to make this happen.  Thank you to the 400 volunteers who made the event a possibility.  And thank you to my team, as well as the team who housed us yet again.  As Dan would say, through a construction cone of course, "You are winning!"

Most of team Riverwestfalia--their other member is in the formal finish line picture

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A very thought provoking blog post from a friend who works at the Global Health Institute

If you live in Madison, or like to bike here, you've gotta read this post by Jason Vargo!

I was lucky enough to attend the mobile bike workshop with Jason yesterday--he raises some good questions.