Monday, August 7, 2017

The Pillow That Giveth but Mostly Taketh Away

Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Premium

I have a love/hate relationship with the Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow. In brief, I love how it packs and travels; however, I have issues with actually using the pillow.

The pillow is a dream to pack. Having two air valves, one for intake that holds in the air, and one exhaust valve for quick release of air, it is a jiff to inflate and deflate. It packs to the approximate size of a baseball but is, of course, soft and “squishable” when packing, coming with a nice little sack for storage. On the road, it’s light and malleable.

Using the pillow has some positive aspects and quite a few negatives. The positives are that the pillow inflates easily, which is important since mine loses air slowly. It’s quick to re-inflate in the middle of the night. Too bad that I have to, though. I inflate the pillow fully, so that it’s as hard as I can make it. That’s pretty comfortable. If I partially inflate the pillow so that it’s softer, then it’s a night of nuzzling the pillow to get it comfy, and then having it pop up the back of my head by air displacement--you know, like a balloon. That gets old fast, and since the pillow slowly oozes air, that’s the nightly sleep reality. There are even times when I toss the pillow aside and wad up and use my long-sleeved linen shirt that I bike camp with for sun protection.

Some folks may not be concerned with the fact that the pillow slowly leaks. Actually, that’s not a big issue for me. It’s the “balloon effect” that really gets my panties in a wad. I can’t mold the pillow to the shape that I want (and need). The pillow giveth, and the pillow taketh away. Therefore, I can’t give my ultimate blessing to this product.

It packs so well and is so comfortable with its softly textured surface that I always begin my night’s sleep with the best of thoughts towards my Aeros. I fall asleep snuggled to my peachy pillow. Sometime during the night, though, we have our break-up. I wake up feeling I received a punch for every caress. I’m empty and without substance--or is that the pillow I’m talking about?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Trails, Gravel, and Highway--Oh, My!

No way was I bike camping in SE Iowa when the temperatures and humidity both were in the 90’s. I stayed home, watered the garden, and rode my bike for commutes around town. Then the weather was forecast to be highs in the low 80’s and lows around 60. Time to go because more moderate temperatures might not come again soon!

Nice spot on the Cedar River. Stopped here last year, too.
I chose to repeat a bicycle tour I did last year, north of Fairfield, Iowa, starting from Evansdale and following the Cedar Valley Nature Trail south towards home. I had a few variations in mind, though, mostly leaving the trail at some point and heading west and south to cover some new territory west of Cedar Rapids and the Iowa City/Coralville area in order to skip the more urban route after the CVNT ends (even though there are excellent bike paths through Cedar Rapids and the Iowa City area).

My wife took me up to the trailhead at Evansdale, and I was about 140 miles from home. She was shopping with our step-granddaughter, and I was pedaling.

CVNT, lime chips and shade
Day 1 was a diverse route that included Rails to Trails paved and lime chip surfaces, gravel roads, and asphalt and cement highways. Just jumping on the bike and traveling 48 miles on the first day was quite a shock to my system. It was still summer and humid, just not excessively so. I had brought and drank a lot of water, which was good. My legs tired by the end of the day, though, so I walked up some hills at the last part of the ride. I don’t mind some walking; it stretches different muscles and provides some respite for the ol’ rear end. In this case, though, I had to walk, due to my legs giving out.

I remember that old Bob Newhart joke:
“Where’s your get up and go?”
“It got up and left.”
There were two closures on the CVNT. One was a 30-yard washout in the first nine miles of the trail. Luckily, I was able to walk through the damage, using a single track path beat out by previous travelers. I thought that maybe I’d have to remove my panniers to finish the cross-over because the last bit was quite steep for about ten feet, but I power-pushed the bike up out of the washout’s drybed and was back on track.The second detour is at Gilbertville, routing around a bridge washout near La Porte City. Last year I had to take this same detour. 

A 30-yard adventure
After rerouting and then returning to the trail, I headed on toward Urbana and then cut west off the CVNT to try the Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area campground. This route change included about five miles of gravel and around twenty miles of asphalt and cement highway. I enjoyed the chance to acquaint myself with my (fairly) new bike and my new Jones Loop handlebars. Also, I played music from my phone, which helped me pace myself.

Beautiful resevoir but not close to the campsites
For both the first and second days of the ride, I was amazed at how my route wound through the rural populated countryside but not near places to eat. In Brandon, I went off route, following an arrow to a “homestyle” restaurant; however, the establishment was closed. Heading west of the trail, there was a lot of farmland along the highway but not much in terms of eating, unless I wanted junk food from a gas station.

Pretty typical view for Day 2
Day 2 was a ride of 45 miles. I was stronger this day, my legs not giving out. I did have to walk the bike up the hills entering Kent Park; however, these were very steep hills. That seems to be pretty common for county parks. The ride was on highways the whole day, so I played lots of music to help the miles pass. The highways--94, 151, and 6--for the most part had a paved shoulder--white stripe, a rumble strip, and then 14-18 inches to the right. This made for a safer day, although I had to pay attention in order to not get “rumbled.”

One new experience happened while riding Highway 6 east of Cedar Rapids. It was Saturday, and a motorcycle group passed going the opposite direction--about 200 bikes. I was able to keep an eye out behind me for impatient cars that wanted to pass me but couldn't because of the long line of motorcycles. All was well until one yahoo in a sedan pulling a utility trailer decided to pass me in the middle of the motorcycle convoy, crowding both me and the motorcycles. Because I use a mirror, I saw the situation coming and was able to make an informed response--in this case to just be aware of the car coming up beside me and to measure distance.
Iowa River: nice view on Day 2
I also discovered that bikers have way more cool signs for acknowledging other passing bikers. From the bars, I kind of wiggle my fingers and nod. They've got all these cool moves with their hands, low and lean--peace signs, subtle low waves. I have to say that by the time the 200 passed, there was some lust in my heart for a mechanism with a motor!

Kent Park features only electric camping spots, so the fee was $20. It was quiet and shady, though, and the park has clean showers and flush toilets. The camp host and rangers were friendly, although it was an unexpected moment to notice that the ranger was packing a pistol. Better he than a kook, though.

Kent Park has a lake, but it has been drained and procedures are active for dredging the lake of its silt and also providing buffer areas to maintain water purity, due to farming in the area. It’s such a tragedy that nowadays big farming equals big pollution.

On Day 3, I rode only eleven miles to Coralville to rendezvous with my wife and grandson at the mall, where he was visiting the Children’s Museum. The Sunday traffic was light, although upon entering the suburbs the riding lane was lost. This was a good ride, much like my ride last year except that I left the CVNT at about its halfway point in order to explore some new territory. Connecting with my wife also saved me about sixty miles of riding through familiar territory in order to get home; instead, I spent some quality time with my family.

The trip would have been much easier for me if I had stopped on the first day at a campsite near Urbana, thus putting in fewer miles and making the strain on my body less. I am glad that I saw some new country, though, and look forward to my next trek, which will probably be to the south of Fairfield.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Bike Mirror That Fits the Jones Loop Bar

After changing my touring handlebars from straight mountain bike to Jones Loop Bar, I found the mirror I’d been using didn’t work. The straight bars were perpendicular to the bicycle’s body, and the Jones Bar ends at a 45-degree angle.

Searching for an alternative mirror, I first tried a couple of mirrors I already had, one that attached with a clamp to the handlebar, and another that fit inside the bar end (as does the Hafny). The first vibrated too much, interfered with bar bags and such, and did not project enough to the side to provide good visibility. The second adjusted for a good angle but was too cheap and provided a distorted view and excessive vibration; in addition, it kept getting out of adjustment.

Researching mirrors online, I came across the Hafny Bar End Bike Mirror. Its reflective surface is somewhat smaller than my cheap-o bar end mirror, but the stability of the mirror and the quality of the stainless steel reflective surface provide a good image. Also, the Hafny is versatile and allows me to adjust to exactly the perspective I need.

I’m pleased to find a mirror that is the perfect fit for my Jones Bar handlebars. I can’t use a helmet mirror, and I don’t want a mirror that provides a distorted view and is difficult to keep adjusted. It should also be added here that the mirror comes with a one-year warranty, and after my online purchase, the company sent me an email affirming that. I ride mostly in Iowa, and last year eleven bicyclists died here. I do what I can to make my rides safe. The Hafny mirror looks like a winner!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Mysterious, Elusive Austin County Park

I'm gingerly riding on loose gravel, a few hundred yards from Kilbourn, Iowa. Down the steep hill to river level, I can see the road bend up ahead, probably rolling into Kilbourn and on to the bridge. A couple in a pick-up come from the wide-spot-in-the-road town and stop. They had just passed me earlier on their motorcycle.

"Like the gravel?" the man asks. 

He is, of course, being sarcastic. The gravel is a loosey-goosey concentration exercise, just to get down to river level on the newly applied gravel.

"I prefer it more hard packed," I reply.

"Where you headin'?"

"Austin County Park."

"Well, you can't get there from here. You'll have to go around, through Keosauqua."

"Why, the bridge out?"

"Been out since 2000."

"OK, so much for Google Maps."

"They've dug a deep trench cutting off the access to the bridge on each side. I guess you could throw your bike up on the bridge, go across, and then do the same on the other side."

"No, thanks. I'll just go back."

With a wave, my information source is gone, and I'm alone again, contemplating my next move. I wish I had traveled on around the bend in the gravel to see Kilbourn and the bridge, maybe take some photos. I didn't, though. I just disconsolately turned around and headed back up the hill, soon pushing my bike up the grade, feet slipping occasionally in the loosey-goosey gravel.

The Van Buren County Conservation website describes Austin County Park as follows:
Austin Park currently has gravel pads for primitive camping.  There is no electric or water available at this time. In 2008 this area was hit by large ice chunks.  These natural events plus several floods later has left it in a more primitive state. At this time the Conservation has no funding to rebuild it.  
I see it with my mind's eye--early spring on the Van Buren River and the splitting sound as huge chunks of ice crack, mass together, and move downriver, scouring the banks, wiping out the campground. I wonder if I heard the man in the pickup wrong. Maybe the bridge was damaged in 2008, not 2000.

My trip to Kilbourn had been made enjoyable because of a tailwind--riding with a push from the friendly north wind. However, my overnight trip took a change for the worse with my decision to camp at Morris Memorial County Park, fifteen miles away, most of the directly into the wind with one staight northern route on Stockport Road. I had my Rohloff gearing down to gear 2 or 3 out of 14 too much of the time, slowly slogging into the wind.

I had planned a short 16-mile overnighter as a start to getting in shape, but it ended up 30 miles, and my legs let me know it was a bit much. Adventure cycling!

The mysterious Austin County Park still eludes me, see only in my imagination as glaciated ruins and now-placid waters. I already have a new route planned, via the Douds bridge and along ten miles of Eagle Drive that skirts the Des Moines River, about twenty-five miles. It should be a great ride.

Of course, assuming those ten miles of gravel are still able to be ridden. But as I've found out before, sometimes my assumptions are presumptuous.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

We Aren't There Yet

Public transit and bicycles. This is a photo of bikes at the train station in Maastricht, Holland, in April of 2015, by two bicycle tourers, Patrick and Rachel Hugens. (

I strain to imagine a similar scene in my area. People would be so much more healthy!

Monday, April 3, 2017

I Fulfill a Greater Goal

What with the colder, wetter, windier temperatures, I didn't pop my tent for an overnighter this 2017 March. Now, I could have. There were some manageable days (and nights). There were a couple/few nights I could have been tucked into my mummy bag, wind buffeting the tent, waiting for sleep, satisfied and thinking, I did it!

Instead, I took a couple/three hours a dozen times over the month to spin some great rides with my wife on our local loop trail, some time to plant spring greens and work on my greenhouse, some great time with my wife and our grandson, playing in the neighborhood. 

Great memories. Good choice, Tom. 

The weather is slowly improving, the garden is slowly getting planted, and my bike is in the shop getting new brake hoses that fit a new Jones Loop Bar set of handlebars. 

Tulips and daffodils are blossoming. The trees in bud, and the grass is definitely greener on my side of the fence. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Will I Fulfill My "Somewhat" Goal?

If the road isn't too muddy, this is actually quite a smooth ride!
My "soft" goal is to see how many months of the year I can bike tour here in SE Iowa, the tour including at least one night of camping.

Last year I camped in March, missed April because of rain and a cold, missed May because my wife and I traveled, I don't remember June but know that I went to California to help family . . . and so forth. This year I've already camped in February, but this March has proven to be much colder and wetter--snow, temperatures in the teens, wet and dreary.

I still have a window, one or two days for an overnighter, if the forecast is accurate and I don't mind a little soggy. Hmmmm . . . We'll see--there's one camping site about ten miles away, primitive, but that's OK for an overnighter. I just bring my overnight gear and a Thermos of stew for dinner.

The trip does include about five miles of muddy gravel roads, so I'll just have to see how it goes. The temperatures promise to be around 40-60 degrees, which is manageable, since I'd mostly be either riding or in the sleeping bag.

Wish me lucky weather!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Round Prairie Park: First Bike Camping Trip of 2017

Once again, I was off on my bike for a camping trip, but this time in February in SE Iowa!

The fields were faded tans and browns and the trees were leafless skeletons, but the sky was blue and the temperatures in the high 60's. The next morning would be around 50, and the extended forecast predicted a return to more normal (lower) temperatures soon. One day for a quick overnighter.

This trip made the third year in a row that I started my bike camping season with an overnighter to Round Prairie Park in Jefferson County, Iowa. It's fourteen miles from my front door, and even the moderate headwind didn't faze me. The hills on Glasgow Road, the gravel on Tamarack Road, and the utter isolation of the empty campground in February were expected, almost old friends. The rookery of crows in the distant trees with their cacophony of raucous cries also brought back memories.

I remembered my first trip to Round Prairie Park, coming off a spring cold and still weak, struggling to get home the next day, having over-packed to "see how the bike handled with a load." Well, it handled like an over-packed bike! Lesson learned.

This year, my ultra-light tent set up quickly after my 3:30 P.M. arrival, and I even had time for some stretching asanas and meditation before dark and dinner. The sun sets early in February, but the fresh air and the glowing sky gave promise to an easy night's sleep. We'd see what the morning brought because a fifty percent possibility of rain and then later thunderstorms were forecast. I knew that when I was heading out, but the chance to enjoy an early trip balanced out the possibility of a few miles of riding in the rain. And I did bring my rain gear!

I woke at 2:30 A.M., having slept six hours. The soft glow of the campground's streetlight lit my camp spot, and I had the thought: "I'm awake, slept well and feel great. Why not pack up and head home now, before the rain?" Well, somehow I just didn't roll over and go back to sleep. Part of the surge of energy I experienced was the thought of my new bike's dynamo and lighting system. I'd get to use that!

So pack I did and took off, my light illuminating my way down the two miles of gravel road, the ten miles of Glasgow Road, and the two miles through town to my home. It was a pleasant temperature, the bike handled well, and one side perk of the early ride was having only three cars pass me on my twelve miles to town. I pretty much had the road to myself--and a tailwind. It was a much faster trip home than out, and I felt strong. I like to start my riding season with shorter rides, though, to give myself a chance to get in shape without excessive fatigue.

My one concern was that I was showing up home at around 5:15 A.M., and I didn't want to startle my wife with my unexpected arrival. I texted her when I got to the garage, but she didn't respond. I phoned our landline from the front door, left a message, and I could see her through the window coming to the door. She was sleepy but at least not scared awake by noises in the garage and house. In other words, she forgave me my perky, early morning sojourn.

It is now a week later--cooler, rain expected, but I've managed to spend a couple of days in the yard, working in the garden setting up some cold frames. Kale is sprouting, I've spent some good time outside with my wife and grandson, and in addition to that, I've headed off once again to start a new year of bicycle adventures. Bless our state, county, and local communities that maintain our local parks and campgrounds. They really add to the quality of life available for us to experience just outside our back door.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Riding the Rails on Amtrak Again

My latest trip to California from Iowa was a success and a learning lesson. It was my first experience with a roomette rather than a coach seat--three times more expensive but a definite easier experience with more privacy and a fold-down bed for the nights. My costs at senior rate for the round trip are this: $290, coach; $914, sleeper. At three times the cost, my frugal nature pegs the roomette an indulgence, but sometimes there's nothing wrong with indulging ourselves.

My bike once again had a safe trip, although I came home with a flat, so I’ll have to fix that and discover the reason why, pinch flat, puncture vine, or wire? As usual, the Montague Navigator is a cumbersome transport, but once I arrived in Oroville, it was fun to get some exercise, even though it was raining almost every day.

Everyone was glad to see me. My brother took a two-day vacation to the local resort casino to get some good meals and downtime. Good for him! I told Mom’s care-provider to take the day off for one of those days (she usually works some all week long), and Mom and I just had at least one nice, quiet day to ourselves.

My plan while staying with my mother and brother for eight days was to stay three nights on the sofa (about a year now of accumulated time with the piece of furniture!), four nights in a motel, and then one night on the sofa again before catching the bus out of town. Usually I just sleep on the sofa, but this time I was celebrating my 65th birthday with a little more privacy. Also, I’d get in about fifteen miles of commuting a day for those four nights in a motel.

I set it all up but didn’t figure on the rains. After two days of dodging rains and changing my visiting schedule (not good for my 92-year-old mother), I canceled my last two days and returned to the sofa. However, I did get in one hour’s ride a couple of days later in the area, which was great.

The trip home ended up being seven and a half hours late. That changed the daytime scenery of the usual ride back. I missed seeing the scenic canyons of the Rockies and got to enjoy much of Nebraska . Oh, joy! All the rain and snow really slowed the train down, but it was still a smooth trip home, just longer. I found out later that the mountains have also experienced road closings.

I left on a Tuesday morning, and the next Sunday early evening (around 5pm), the Oroville area and towns south were evacuated because of fear of spillway failure at the Oroville Dam. My mom and brother chose not to leave because of my mom’s frailty, her heart, and her occasional need for her oxygen machine. The evacuation announcement went something like this: “We are monitoring the spillways, and all is OK. . . . Oh, my god, the spillway may erode out within the hour. Flee!!!” Massive panic and traffic jams ensued, some people stuck on roads for over four hours. My mom and brother live on higher ground, and so they decided to avoid the traffic and living in a shelter for several days. They took a risk and survived, and I feel I have to respect their right to make a decision. I hope when I’m 92 that I am still lively enough to be allowed that freedom also.

Every trip I learn more about Amtrak bike travel. Amtrak is getting better and more experienced with bicycle travelers aboard, and for this I am grateful. It’s a great way to get to a new place to ride a bike!