Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Quad-B Setup

Like when I'm hiking or kayaking, when I set out on my bike, the Big Box Beater Bike, better known as the Quad-B, I'm usually on my own.

In an attempt to slant my solitary Quad-B excursions away from fool-hardy and more towards a calculated risk, I don't just jump on wearing a few scraps of spandex (Now there's a disturbing visual!) and a helmet with cool graphics. When I set out on my two wheels it's more of a reasonably equipped expedition.

At $159 from Walmart the bike itself is nothing special, which is kind of the point. Since I have so little invested in it I'm not too worried about it hanging out there on the rack behind The Van in all sorts of weather and I'm less likely to have an emotional meltdown if something destructive or larcenous happens to it.

But I have added a few aftermarket items to the bike such as the rear rack and a small saddle bag under the seat. (Which is also an aftermarket item since the original seat looked like something a doctor would use in unpleasant ways while your feet were up in the stirrups!)

I'm not quite sure what was in the marketing department's minds when they named this particular model the Fragment! Is that supposed to remind me of what happens if I crash???

The tires are slimed to deal with small punctures, but just in case I also have a pump strapped to the down-tube 

and patches and a set of tire pries in the saddle bag.

When I'm not using it to keep things in place, the adjustable bungee-cord is wound up and stuffed into the saddle bag too.

The hooks are always larger on these, which can be an issue once in a while, but I love adjustable bungees. Put it in place, adjust the tension, and pull the loose end into the lock to keep it there. No muss, no fuss and it always fits. This particular model is adjustable from either end.

Speaking of bungee, I've got a cheap (Again, Walmart) 1.5 liter hydration pack that I carry. As a bonus the $20 pack also has a small compartment accessed from either side by full-length zippers that is just large enough for carrying a small lunch or a snack or two. If and when the cheap bladder fails I have already test fit a couple of 700 ml water bottles into the bladder compartment. (What's all that got to do with 'speaking of bungee' you ask??  Wait for it. . .)

But instead of wearing the pack on my back I strap it onto the rear carrier with my handy-dandy bungee.

Depending on the ambitiousness of the current outing, I slip another water bottle into the pack's tie downs.

And, subject to the current chill-factor relative to workload, I can remove any extra layers I have on, roll them up, adjust the bungee a little, and tuck them away right there on top of the hydration pack.

Speaking of clothes, when on the Quad-B I dress the same as if I was hiking, Long cargo pants, a long-sleeve shirt and the same layered socks and boots I wear when hiking. And, depending on the weather I'll either be wearing my extra layers or they'll be strapped to the carrier behind me just in case. Oh, and of course there will be a proper helmet on my noggin. I'd feel pretty stupid splattering my brains all over during a minor fall because I was too macho to wear the helmet!

Of course I'm always dragging my camera along and to deal with that on the Quad-B I use this. It's actually designed to carry two of the lenses a serious photographer lugs around and can be slung from an over the shoulder strap or hooked over a belt or pack-strap via the secure Velcro'ed flap on the back. It wasn't designed for it, but it just so happens that this bag is just the right size for my compact-but-too-big-for-a-pocket Cannon SX50.

I hook it over the left side of the handlebar with the bag facing me and it works out very well. Extra camera batteries slip into the front pocket of the bag and if the trail is rugged enough I can secure the camera in place with the top-flap's Velcro closure. If the weather gets wet there's a rain-cover inside the zippered compartment at the bottom.

But the heart of my Quad-B gear is a lightweight sports vest. The kind with lots of pockets for all my crap.

One of the most important pockets is the big one that goes across the width of the small of my back. It's zippered on one end and can handle two of the 700 ml water bottles I use for just about everything - water related that is. Since I don't actually wear the hydration pack but rather use it as extra water storage, these are my 'active' water bottles.

Between three water bottles and the hydration pack I can carry just under 4 liters of water with me. I have never actually used all this water on any one outing, but I'd rather it be there than to run dry if I end up being out there longer than expected, which can be a far more serious situation (Running out of water that is.) than a lot of people seem to realize. I say that because I'm constantly seeing people out on the trails with far too little water for the planned outing let alone if they get into trouble. 

In the top-right pocket of the vest I carry small bottles of sunscreen and bug-repellent as well as a tiny headlamp and spare batteries.

In the bottom right pockets (They're stacked, one accessible from the top and the other from a side zipper.) I carry a signal whistle with a very small but serviceable compass on one side and a tiny little thermometer on the other, spare batteries for the GPS and a medium-duty full-length poncho just in case I get caught out in a cold rain. The poncho can also be used as the basis for a shelter if necessary.

On the left side of the vest I keep matches and fire-starter in the upper, side-zip pocket, a multi-tool in the lower side-zip pocket and the GPS in the lower top-opening pocket.

That might seem like a lot of crap to carry, and when it's on the hanger, including nearly a liter and a half of water in the back pocket, the vest is pretty dang heavy, but once I have it on with the zipper pulled up at least a few inches to stabilize it, I really don't notice the weight..

My pack for hiking, the multi-pocketed life jacket for kayaking, and this Quad-B vest all have their own dedicated inventory of similar 'stuff' and each stays packed and ready to go all the time. (Yep, I'm the guy that refills the water and restocks the pockets as soon as I get back to The Van rather than wait until I'm getting ready to head out next time.)

One other small but very handy thing I did to the Quad-B, after much testing when I first bought it, was to scribe a mark on the seat-tube. 

For casual, everyday riding I set the scribed mark right at the top of the clamp.

If I find myself on a really rugged trail, which has happened more than once even though I don't go seeking these out, I bury the scribed mark about a half inch below the top of the clamp to lower my center of gravity and get my feet closer to the ground.

And when I find myself with some serious pedaling to do, such as when going uphill into a stiff headwind for miles and miles, I set the scribed mark about a half inch above the clamp, like pictured above, for maximum leg power.

OK, that's it, the Quad-B and gear. So if you see some guy out there on a cheap-ass bike wearing a ridiculously lumpy vest, wave hi, And if he crashes while waving back he'd probably appreciate you checking on him, you know, just in case.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Tales from the Road: Christmas 1977

It was Christmas, 1977. I was 1100 miles from home, and alone.

Even with myself there, I was alone.

You see it was towards the end of a dark period in my life and in the midst of it, somewhere along the way, the threads of my first marriage had quietly unraveled.

There was some drama involved, that's a given, but our union didn't implode with a crash, or explode with carnage, with thrown crockery and restraining orders; rather it fizzled away like a handful of damp bottle rockets. Like the delicate tracery of a flame touched to a bit of dried grass there was a brief, aimless, almost heat-less flair, and afterwards the ephemeral ashes scattered unnoticed to the lightest of breezes.

It was a marriage born of mid-twentieth century Ozzie and Harriet expectation and fueled by high-school hormones. For the first few years all went as planned, as ordained, though in hindsight (That nasty bitch that so loves to make us feel stupid.) that was probably due more to playing the game and upholding 'obligations' than anything else. After that initial period our union coasted on for an additional few years, feeding mostly on inertia, before finally shuddering to a halt.

That marriage had been an unsustainable pipe-dream from the beginning and it really did sputter out in the best possible way, but I have never been good at dealing with failure, and at the time this felt like the biggest failure in the history of the world.

I was on-board this first of the series Spruance class destroyer during her sea trials

I spent most of '77 holed up in a two bedroom apartment with a roommate who's name, for the life of me, I can not remember.

I got up every day and took my DOD Top Secret Security Clearance to my $5.25 an hour job at the shipyard there in Pascagoula Mississippi building brand-new state-of-the-art warships for the Navy. Ships that have all since been mothballed or sold off to other navies. At the end of the day I would come 'home' and, though I honestly have no recollection of what or how I ate in those days, I do remember frequently fuming impotently at my roommate's choice of  what to watch in the evening on my little 9 inch black and white TV before sliding into my sleeping bag spread out on top of a couple of stacked air mattresses in my otherwise unfurnished bedroom.

And I still use this mug from the 8th destroyer of the series (Those of us who built her knew her as DD-8 since a ship doesn't officially have a name until christened.) which I think has now been sunk as an artificial reef somewhere.

The shipyard had a lot of orders in the years I worked there, a lot of ships in various stages of construction, and the 25 thousand employees spread over three shifts worked a whole bunch of overtime, me included, but even for The Front Office, Christmas was untouchable, inviolate.

It was on a Monday that year and, though I worked Saturday, I had Sunday, Christmas Eve, off and took vacation days for the following Tuesday and Wednesday.

Saturday night when I got home I loaded up my nearly brand new yellow, (To simplify decision making, Honda offered it only in yellow or red in those days.) 50HP, manual transmission, three-door Honda. (I spent most of the year using a bicycle for transportation while I saved up for the Honda which cost me $3300 out the door, $300 of which I had to finance.)

It was still dark that Christmas Eve morning when I pulled the manual choke and started that little beauty up.

Fourteen hours and 800 miles later I eased stiffly off the road in Homestead Florida.

The entire day had gone by on the other side of the windshield and now it was dark again. This, southern Florida, was uncharted territory for me and up ahead was nothing but HWY-1 hopping and skipping it's way down the Keys, so I holed up for the night in a motel with my Big Mac and fries to wait for daylight to return.

The motel was one of those long, low, one-story cinderblock places, painted blue I think, inside and out. In my mind's eye we were a good match, that cold, soulless room and I. It was about as far away from the, It's A Good Life, Disney Specials, Christmas cookie scented, midnight service going Christmas Eve's that I grew up with, as I could get.

But I tried.

When I packed the car the night before I had included the three or four gift-wrapped presents that had been sent to me from the family home in Michigan and after finishing off the tasteless fries I went back to the car and brought them in.

Like the rebel that I am, or maybe it's wish I was, I didn't wait for Christmas morning that year, the usual time to be doing this, the proper time to be doing this, at least in our family, but instead held my own solitary, rebel, Christmas celebration that night while my family back in Michigan were getting ready to go to the midnight service.

I sat there on the threadbare bedspread that doubled as a blanket, bare feet resting on the peeling paint of the cold cement floor, the Doppler whine of truck tires on the highway out front competing with the incomprehensible muffled mumblings of the TV one room over.

One at a time I picked up a gift, read the tag, slipped the ribbon off and eased my fingers under the tape, ends first, then the middle, trying to cleanly separate tape from paper, milking the occasion for all I could.

Unfortunately, today I can only remember details about one of those gifts, probably because of the incongruity. (Oops, sorry Mom, I mean because of the love. . .)

Sometime that year Mom had sat down at her trusty sewing machine up there in the north-country and produced a winter coat for me. A big blue, warm, puffy winter coat, stuffed full of high-tech, super insulating hollow-fill, with freeze-proof nylon zipper, high collar that could be snapped up tight under my chin and snug knit cuffs to keep the snow out.

I can still remember standing there in the middle of a South Florida motel room wearing nothing but underpants and that coat. And I didn't cry for all the warm, happy Christmases gone forever.

OK, so maybe there was a tiny little bit of dampness on my cheeks, but then again, Florida is a very humid place. . .


As the sun rose Christmas morning I reloaded the car, including the neatly folded wrapping paper which I, inexplicably, couldn't seem to leave behind, and slinked out of the parking lot about the time children all up and down the eastern seaboard were tugging mom and dad out of bed and dragging them to the present-laden Christmas tree with uncontainable excitement.

Me, I just looked out at the dawn through my solitary windshield and sighed, then turned right and headed for my destination; Key West and the end of the road. (Seemed pretty appropriate.)

Despite the holiday I don't recall it being especially crowded out there on the roads that day, but remember that in 1977 the population of the US was 220 million, almost exactly 1/3 less than what it is today. That's only two tourists in place of the three out there now, only two cars on the road instead of three.

Back then the 130 miles between Homestead and Key West was mostly a relaxing 45 MPH two-lane cruise and I lost myself in the pleasant drive down, watching the unique little towns go by with their brightly colored buildings, many displaying seasonal decorations more appropriately displayed with a backdrop of snow and scarves rather than flamingos and palm-trees, and marveling at the stretches of water and long concrete bridges in between.

But by the time I got to Key West I was so used to watching the world go by without me from inside my little yellow bubble I just couldn't talk myself out of leaving that protective cocoon. I couldn't risk breaching that glass and steel barrier between me and the real world. I was allowed to look, but not touch. I was allowed to watch normal life going by, but could not participate.

So after cruising a few of the streets to make my visit official, though I'm not sure that logic actually holds up, I found myself right back on HWY-1 heading the other way, my only actual stop in Key West being a traffic light or two.

Behind the wheel of my little yellow Honda I was disguised as just another merry holiday-maker out there on the way to Grandmas' house, but instead of Bing Crosby's White Christmas I had Harry Chapin's Greatest Stories Live album blasting repeatedly from the cassette player (The album was released just the year before but this was already my second copy, having worn the first out to the point where the tape stretched and the player ate it.)

alternating, appropriately enough, with young love gone sideways in the glow of the dashboard light from Meat Loaf's nearly brand new Bat out of Hell.

I knew every word of both albums and sang along, badly, desperately, as I tried to keep the world out there on the other side of the glass.

I tracked my way back up the Keys, across the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail, and up the west coast of the state, until I finally ran out of daemons, and steam, somewhere around Gainesville.

It sounds pathetic now, but truth is it was a place I, and I alone, put myself. Starting with a choice made many years before and followed by subsequent circumstances and decisions that led me to where I was that Christmas day.

But for me road trips are great therapy, so my recollection of that day is more of a strangely comforting melancholy than crushing depression. And in the big picture it was just another stepping stone along the way that I had to put behind me, and it was far from the last shaky step I would take as I build a life that eventually turned out not to be too shabby.

Not too shabby at all.

It was Christmas, 1977. I was 1100 miles from home, I was alone,

                                                                                            and I was going to survive.

And to all, a good night.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Two-wheeling the Caprock Canyons Trailway

Quitique, the town just south of Caprock Canyons State Park, has one of the seven access points to the 64 mile long Caprock Canyons Trailway. (There's actually eight access points, two in Quitique, but you can only park at one of those.)

For some reason these access points are not marked very well. This is the only sign I found for the Quitique Depot access point (the one with parking) and it was about 700 feet east of the access point itself, but what's a little confusion when you're out to have some fun?

The access points are all self-pay and the daily-use fee for the Trailway is $4 per person unless you have a Texas State Parks Pass, then it's free. I bring this up because you will want to make sure you have a pen with you to fill out the permit, which is required even if you have a park pass. (I've run into more than a few people at self-pay stations searching desperately for a pen, or even a stub of pencil.)

The Trailway used to be part of the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railroad built in the 1920's and used until 1989.

Since then the stretch between South Plains, up on top of the Caprock Escarpment, and Estilline, down in the Red River Valley has been turned into a hike- bike - horseback trail.

Since I can't fit a horse and all the tack that goes with one into The Van, and hiking this smooth almost road-like trail (OK, smooth and road-like was an assumption on my part that wasn't entirely correct!) on foot somehow just felt wrong, getting the quad-B down off the rack seemed the way to go.

There's an elevation difference of some 1400 feet between South Plains and Estilline, and most through bikers seem to favor taking on this trail from southwest to northeast to take advantage of gravity.

But I, not being a through-biker, ignored that logic and  chose to start out at the Monk's Crossing access point and ride uphill to Clarity Tunnel..

It was just shear 'luck' that not only was I going uphill, but there was also a south wind blowing right in my face at the same time. A strong south wind!

Now this is the plains, and the wind tends to not only be relentless, but also to get up some speed out here, but this was ridiculous!

Sitting way up there on top of the quad-B like a big-ass top-sail on a tall-ship it felt like the wind was doing 40 MPH, so, just like when estimating wave height while curled into a whimpering fetal ball in the bottom of a small boat, I cut that estimate in half and convinced myself that I was only facing a 20 MPH headwind as I stomped the quad-B, pedal by pedal, uphill. (Checked with the National Weather Service later and felt vindicated to find out the official winds that day topped out at 29  with gusts to 38.)

I took this shot shortly after I left the trailhead looking back the way I had come. If you could blow it up enough you would see The Van right there under the arrow.

I didn't realize then just how glad I was going to be to see The Van, even way off in the distance, when I was on my way back that afternoon!

It would have been a lot easier if I did this back in the days when I was a serious rider, back when I commuted by bike and spent 50 miles a week in the saddle without even trying and 100 mile weeks were not unusual, but that was then and this is now. Hell, now days I ride a $159 bike with a big wide Granny-butt saddle on it and all summer long I averaged a gut-busting, oh let's call it, 0 miles a week on it. . .

I read a lot of reviews from bike riders complaining about the trail's surface and I did notice that just north of Turkey where the Trailway passes under SR-70, it was more of a weedy two-track than a railroad-wide roadbed, but maybe this section from Monks Crossing to the cave, admittedly probably the most popular section of the Trailway, had recently been redone, because it was in great shape.

Not too far south of Monks Crossing is the site of Edgin Siding

The most visible remains being the foundation of the water tower.

Within sight of Edgin Siding, on private land east of the Trailway, was this semi-permanent camp anchored by a canvas wall-tent complete with chimney for a wood-burning stove. No people around today but it was clearly recently used. After all, tents like this are edging on up towards $1000 so you don't just leave one of these laying around!

Here on the plains things are not as 'flat' as people that don't live here tend to think, and this is one of some 46 bridges along the Trailway.

Among those 46 bridges is this one carrying the railroad, and now the Trailway, across Turkey Creek.

It's clearly more substantial than necessary to safely get me and the quad-B across, but it's a steep climb down to the creek and back up the other side again so I wasn't complaining!

And the prairies are not all grass and scrub either. 

In fact the builders of the railroad would have been up shit-creek if it wasn't for the gravel-beds along Quitique creek!

Although I never saw another person all day out there on the Trailway, clearly it was being used by something other than humans, bikes and shod horses.  I'm no expert but for my own peace of mind I decided these were cows (And not bison!) using the Trailway to get to greener pastures. 

Of course cows (Not Bison!!) aren't the only critters wandering around out here. Judging by the classic 5 long toes closely coupled to a roundish foot and all 5 claws clearly showing, this was a raccoon taking advantage of nearby water.

It was surprisingly nice while it lasted, but the dead-straight, relatively flat rail-bed of the valley


eventually ran into the lower reaches of the climb up to the Caprock escarpment.

By the way, the Park Service specifically recommends against traveling the Trailway alone because sections of it are remote.

It's hard to imagine that a park that's only 100 ft wide can be 'remote' but I can personally attest that it is! Not only did I share the Trailway with absolutely no one all day, I didn't see anyone off the Trailway either. Other than that empty camp, I saw one distant cluster of lifeless looking RV's and at one point I could see the back of what looked like an equipment barn that, according to the map, must have been a good 2 miles away.

And yes, I know it's frowned on in some circles but, as is the case with about 99% of my hiking, kayaking and biking, I did the Trailway alone. That's a choice I make that I've discussed before. I do think I go reasonably well prepared and with the mindset of self-rescue if it becomes necessary. (Unlike those such as Two-sticker from the day before who set out with little more than a T-shirt on their back with the expectation that someone else will come and get them if they get into trouble. . .)

A couple miles after I started the serious climbing I came to the pit-toilet and watering station near the entrance to Clarity tunnel.

This is one of 6 spots along the Trailway where camping is allowed. ($12 per night per tent.)

Note that there are plenty of warnings posted on the web and at the access points about there being no water available along the Trailway. I'm not sure if these watering stations are seasonally maintained or if it was one of those good ideas on paper that just didn't pan out in real life. At any rate they were all dry when I was there so make sure to bring all your water with you!!

The current northern entrance to Clarity tunnel is just around the bend there, but up until a 1973 derailment inside the tunnel collapsed part of it and forced the railroad to dig their way back in to get to the trapped cars, the entrance was right about where that white sign on the left sits now. (The sign is a warning to wear long sleeves, a hat and don't disturb the bats while going through the tunnel.)

In fact there used to be two tunnels along here, but a derailment in 1968 forced the railroad to 'daylight' the Gowdy Tunnel. Daylighting is when you remove the mountain above the tunnel and open the rails up to the sky.

The bats had long since headed south when I was there,

but they had left their - ummm - let's call it their mark, there inside the tunnel. This stuff was thick and soft and worse than walking on sugar-sand!! But not wanting to risk derailing and becoming the source of yet another tunnel collapse, I chose to do the wise thing, which I admit sometimes seems like a rare phenomenon, and walked the quad-B through the tunnel.

It's a curved tunnel so I couldn't see the other end until I was a good ways through. If it was any longer I'd have been tempted to get my headlamp out, something you want to avoid when the bats are in residence!

But I made it through to the other end with no derailments, no chittering, air-born rodent attacks on my exposed neck and no icky stuff dropping on my head, though there may have been some icky stuff work it's way down into my boots. . .

This was supposed to be my turnaround point. The spot I called halfway when planning today's outing. But it's also the spot where the Trailway starts to get serious about working it's way up through the twisted canyon of Quitique Creek towards the edge of the escarpment. In other words the spot where things were starting to get interesting.

According to my map it was only another 6 curvy miles up the canyon from here to the John Farris Station. True, that's farther than the 5 miles I've covered so far just getting here to the tunnel, but how could I pass up the opportunity to check out the John Farris Station?! (I know, I know, but it's a guy thing and we can't help it. . .)

It wasn't long after making this - well, to be modest about it, brilliant - decision to push on despite the climbing grade and still relentless wind, that I came to the spot that used to be Gowdy Tunnel. It's easy to see why the engineers had initially decided to tunnel through the unstable rock rather than just cut through it.

This is one mountain that's more than willing to fall down, and some of these rockfalls are clearly recent. Oh shit!!! And here I am standing around at the bottom, ground zero for falling noggin-knockers, just to get a few photos!! (I guess my mama did raise a fool. . .)

Notice that the surface of the Trailway is more cindery and less refined now. I can tell you from personal experience that the 1"-and-fines cinder surface I was on now offered quite a bit more rolling resistance than the 1/4"-and-fines surface down there below the tunnel. In fact I'm not sure it would be wise to tackle some sections of the Trailway on a road bike with skinny, high-pressure tires.

But the grade and wind hadn't been enough to stop me, and neither was this more challenging surface.

So I kept on stomping pedal.

As I climbed the ravines got deeper

and the bridges got taller.

As I gained altitude the vegetation changed too. In some spots I was reminded of Eastern hardwood forests.

I believe that challenging ourselves both mentally as well as physically once in a while is healthy, but I have to admit that for the last little bit of today's challenge I deliberately kept my head down so all I could see under the brim of my helmet's sun-visor was the 10 or 15 feet of trail right in front of me. I didn't want the endless up-hill view ahead to discourage me as, all the way down in low-1, I slogged that last, windy, leg-burning mile, one pedal stomp at a time, until I finally, slowly, drew abreast of the distinctive concrete shell of a trackside phone booth that's pretty much all that remains of the John Farris Station today,

where I more or less collapsed like a dynamited building into the shade of the defunct watering station.

Eventually I recovered enough to partake of a long delayed, well deserved lunch

and check out the map.

I realized that from where I was to the head end of the canyon; to the top of the escarpment and the mecca of flatland; was only another 3.5 miles,

but then I pulled out the GPS and took a look at my track profile so far, stuck my wet finger into the air to verify there was no sign of the wind letting up (It didn't for three more days!) and came to my senses, guy thing or not.

Even with the wind at my back and gravity working for me, I sure was glad to see the tunnel coming up again because that meant I only had 5 more miles to go before reaching The Van's shelter from the relentless wind and the bliss of fossil-fuel locomotion!!

But first let me stop and dump the bat-shit out of my boots again. . .