Day 25 – Fowler to Monticello

There’s something about the atmosphere of Bed And Breakfast establishments that prevents me from getting good sleep. Maybe it’s the air, or the Victorian style architecture of the places I’ve stayed in. In the early morning I woke up so freaked out from a nightmare that I asked Erika to call me up and talk to me so I could calm down enough to go back to sleep. In the end I only got about five hours.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the way the house felt during the day. Intense wind was pummeling the walls from the south, but it was warm and quiet inside. I walked around and took a few photos:

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Breakfast was an excellent omelet. I ate slowly, reluctant to head out into the wind, but eventually the desire to avoid bicycling in the dark later on made me stumble outside and don my hemet. I exchanged photographs with the proprietor before pedaling away. If she were a next-door neighbor I would definitely visit!

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I stopped at a snack station and used my knife to cut the hat-brim away from my bike helmet, since I was no longer in danger from the sun and the wind was catching on the brim and pushing my head around. Across the street I saw this silly sign:

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Then I was off, riding into the sideways wind. It changed directions erratically, blowing to the north or to the east. The stripey farmland resumed from yesterday, and I also discovered hundreds of majestic wind turbines all around me, slowly rotating and generating power.

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I took a short video of them as I rode along:

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Much later, I realized that those slowly blinking red lights I’d seen yesterday night were probably signal lamps at the tops of wind turbines, warning low-flying aircraft of their presence.

I finished off “The Worst Hard Time” and then decided to go for something a little more abstract and sciencey, so I queued up the new edition of “The Blind Watchmaker” again. The chapter explained how certain frivolous-seeming physical traits in creatures – like the peacock’s ridiculous tail – can be explained by positing sets of genes that combine the presence of the physical trait in one sex with the interest in that physical trait in the other sex. The mathematical model created by the pairing is a positive feedback loop that tends to push for maximum exaggeration of the trait. Fascinating!

That kept me enthralled as I zig-zagged along the 40 mile path towards Monticello. Along the way I stopped to photograph a cornfield:

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… And I discovered an unexpected hazard of biking through a farmland in the wind. Corn husks in your wheels!

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I also discovered this creepy structure in the woods:

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And found this nifty seed pod. What is it?

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Sooner than I expected, the magic-hour sunlight settled over the landscape. I got some very nice shots in it:

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My leg muscles were signaling me with little twinges of pain that I interpreted as a strong need for rest. It wasn’t pain at the joints – it was pain inside the bulk of the muscles. A strange, sharp, electric sensation.

I got to Monticello and checked into a motel, and then cruised over to a restaurant where I devoured two meals at once – another omelet, and a taco salad. Again I seriously considered the idea of finding some alternative transport to New York, so I didn’t have to go at such a relentless pace. There was a car rental business on the corner… Perhaps I could rent a truck in the morning and pitch my bicycle into the back.

I switched into my jeans to do laundry and realized they were big on me. This, despite my ridiculous eating habits of the last 3 weeks. Exercise is awesome!

Day 24 – Rantoul to Fowler

The Amtrak station turned out to be a bench inside a booth with no actual employees around. A schedule posted on the back of the booth listed two trains that stopped at the station only a few times each week, and the latest train had rolled past at 10:00am while I was still packing my things up at the motel. No train service for me. Might as well ride on, despite my complaining legs.

I ate at a run-down diner and got the usual amount of attention and the usual questions from the half-dozen customers and staff. The waitress brought me an omelet that covered my entire plate and was bursting with veggies, and between that and the hash browns I had to ask for a to-go container. While I ate I amused myself with a theatrical radio performance of “At The Mountains Of Madness”. So many books and radio shows, so little time and attention!

The wind was blowing from the south, which didn’t help me when I rode east but made riding north a breeze. (Pun intended!) I zig-zagged my way northeast towards the state border, thinking about the wind. It wasn’t blowing against me when I rode east, but it still seemed to make forward progress harder. Why was that? If I thought about it just in terms of mathematical vectors it didn’t make sense. Was it just my perception?

The scenery drifted by for several hours as I chewed on the problem, and finally I came up with something that seemed to explain it. Basically, the wind was trying to push me over, and to compensate I leaned slightly to the side, into the wind, and converted some of that wind pressure into downward force onto the road, which increased my rolling resistance. So the only really favorable wind for a bicyclist is wind that comes from behind, and any other direction is actually unfavorable. Percentage-wise, that sucks!

I rolled up to a gas station that was hosting a charity fund-raiser of some kind, with parents and kids gathered around a sign-up table and talking about local schools — I couldn’t hear the details. I could feel dozens of eyeballs on me as I kickstanded the bike and went inside in search of junk food. One kid came up and nervously asked what kind of bike I was riding, and when I told him it was a recumbent he thanked me and scurried shyly away. Points to you, kid, for being brave!

With my mind no longer puzzling over windspeed and momentum, I decided to continue listening to “The Worst Hard Time“. The last time I listened to this book was during a bicycle trip to Pinnacles National Monument, years ago, and I only got as far as the beginning of the crash, when everything started to go downhill. It felt appropriate to resume it now, since I was still passing through mostly farmland. The story it told was stunning, and brutal.

In the late 1910’s, citizens were encouraged by the federal government to take part in a land-grab in western Texas, Oaklahoma, and other states, for purposes of farming. They broke up the soil of the Great Plains, ripped away the tall grass, and drilled wells for water. Some of those people were my ancestors, the Birkles, living in Shattuck, Oaklahoma. Life was difficult but they turned a profit through their crops and their cattle and found some happiness. Then the weather turned against them. And then the economy tanked.

As the 1930’s began, the entirety of the Great Plains entered a period of relentless drought. No one expected it to last as long as it did. No one had kept any records to study. In retrospect it explained why the Great Plains was covered with grass and not forest: Grass could endure the cycles of drought, trees could not. But now the grass was all ripped away, leaving dry soil to bake in the sun – and get picked up by the wind. Enormous curtains of dust began to roll over the land with increasing frequency and severity.

It blanketed homesteads, turning day into night. Dust would seep in through tiny cracks around every window and door, and no amount of cleaning would remove it all. People would wake up in the morning with a clean white silhouette of their head on an otherwise black pillow.  They would get up and shovel drifts of dust off their doorsteps, then away from their windows to let in light. After big storms they would have to dig out their cattle. The dust was sharp and built up enormous charges of static electricity in anything made of metal. People tended to avoid shaking hands because they could potentially knock each other down with the discharge. Gardens that weren’t simply torn apart by the wind were sometimes electrocuted to death instead.

Cattle could not find anything to eat. Not a single blade of grass in the dirt.  They got so hungry they would chew on fenceposts. Owners crushed up tumbleweed and mixed it with salt, and the cattle survived on that for a while, but they all either starved to death or were shot – to put them out of their misery – or were filled up with so much dust that they could no longer digest food. Same thing with people.  Doctors would open them up and find dirt packed inside them. This is not some fiction writer’s idea of a horrifying what-if scenario, this is what happened. At some point these people would accumulate too much dust and lapse into what was called “dust fever”, and then in a matter of days they would die. Some people just went insane, wandering the streets, their land or their children abandoned.

By the middle of the 1930’s, dust storms were blowing through northern Texas at an average of one every three days. In 1935, northern Texas got one short rainstorm for the entire year, allowing some farmers to raise meager, stunted crops … and then a plague of grasshoppers descended on the fields and ate everything down to the ground.  They crawled over the polished handles of the shovels, trying to eat them, too. The National Guard tried to crush the pests with massive rollers and poison them but it made no difference.

The year 1935 brought one of the worst, and the most documented, dust storms of the entire era. The day it struck was named “Black Sunday”. Several people in Dalhart TX were struck blind by the flying grit from this storm and never recovered their sight. It was the event that pushed the federal government into full action and led to an avalanche of recovery programs, assistance, and legislation, some of which is still in place.

In Kansas, on the first day of bicycling for this trip, I passed through the Comanche National Grassland, which is one of the preserves that was established by the New Deal as part of the land restoration effort. Even that grassland does not look like it did before the dust bowl.

And guess what!  Seventy years later, and we’re still floundering in the aftermath, still requiring major course corrections! What a world. I honestly don’t know what to do about it. In the broadest sense, there will always be people interested in having a go at living in a location that is not suitable for farming, necessitating either inefficient shipping or destructive terraforming. Always.  Not even the highest most electrified barbed-wire fence or the direst warnings would keep them out. What solution is available, for such a tragedy of the commons?

Boy, I sure did go all-out on that digression. Let’s bring things back on track with these lovely photos of a nest and an Osage orange I took today:

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As I was pedaling through the side-wind, headed east and enjoying my book and some chocolate, a woman drove up alongside me and offered me a banana from the open window of her car, leaning over her young son who gazed at me from the passenger seat. “Do you need something to eat? I’ve got this,” she yelled at me.

I was dumbstruck but I held my composure. She was just trying to be friendly. I turned her down as gently as I could. She wished me luck, then pulled ahead of me into a driveway to reverse the vehicle, and went back down the road. She had pursued me to offer me a banana. Strange…

The book was fascinating and before I knew it, the sun had set:

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I pedaled on into the night, eventually stopping on a small bridge behind a cluster of trees growing along a riverbank. Here I rested for a while, enjoying the shelter from the wind and snacking on the remains of the omelet. A few pairs of headlights drifted past me but I averted my eyes, lest they think I was encouraging them to stop by looking at them. People are inclined to be helpful and I didn’t want them to feel silly for that urge.

The stop was uneventful and after about 20 minutes I was back on the road. Five minutes later a truck rambled up alongside me, and since it was obvious the driver wanted to engage in some sort of dialogue I hit the brakes. Once my eyes adjusted from the glare in my rearview mirror, I saw a man and a woman sitting side-by-side. The woman leaned out the window and said she’d spotted me while driving the other way about 20 minutes ago, asked how I was doing, and then, with a hint of shyness and embarrassment, offered me a roast-beef sandwich that she had prepared at home especially for me.

I was beyond flattered by this – I was touched. I have always had a serious soft-spot for people cooking or preparing food just for me. Something from a shelf or a package I could take or leave, but something prepared by hand, with me in mind?

We chatted for a while and I eventually accepted the sandwich with as much grace as I could muster. I tucked it away and forgot about it until late that evening, when I took it out and got a closer look:

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They even threw in a wee chocolate for dessert! Aawwwwww! I don’t know who you are, but you guys are the greatest! Thank you!!

I kept on cycling and zig-zagged my way over the state border, crossing into Indiana on highway 18. There was no sign for me to photograph myself next to … oh well. I saw rows of red lights on poles in the distance all around me, blinking in unison. I couldn’t figure out what they were for. There was no airport around, according to the map… Any ideas?

I also paused at the foot of a hill and made this nifty recording of the wind:

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At long last I arrived at the Pheasant Country Bed And Breakfast, in Fowler, Indiana. The proprietor woke up to let me in, and served me tea while we talked about travel and bicycles. She asked lots of enthusiastic questions and I enjoyed her company, but I was exhausted, so pretty soon I stumbled up to bed. What a day!

Day 23 – McLean to Rantoul

On my way out of town I was rolling happily over the low hills, open fields on either side, when I was abruptly plunged into an invisible cloud of stink. It was a very intense, alchemical smell, like detergent and urine. I craned my neck to find the source, but all I could see was a row of featureless metal buildings on my right. Each long building had a pair of metal tanks on scaffolding connected to it, one tank on either side. What was this?

I rolled to a stop, feeling disoriented from the assault on my nose, and examined the buildings. That’s when I began hearing the sound over the wind: The shrieking of angry chickens. That explains it. These buildings were industrial chicken farms. The tanks were water and chicken feed. The smell was tons of concentrated birdshit.

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It was interesting to finally encounter one of these compounds, after hearing and reading about them. All the chickens I’ve seen have been in rural settings, or lived in small pens or houses built with care by families, or simply run around loose in a yard. They had their composure. The noise and the stink and the claustrophobia of the buildings now before me conveyed something totally different, and instantly objectionable. Michael Pollan declared in a lecture that any system of food production that must be hidden from consumers in order to continue is a flawed and unstable system. Seeing this row of putrid charnel houses in front of me, I had to agree with him. I was seized with the urge to find and confront the “farmers” who set this up.

But they were not around, and I was on a schedule. Sadly I rode on.

A few hours later I came across a food spill on the highway. These are very common around here. It’s interesting to think about how these spills are the equivalent of dropping spare change on the ground and then being too busy to pick it up. It’s a huge pile of calories and represents many meals for someone, somewhere, but here on the ground in Illinois it’s essentially litter, useful to no one.

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The ability to move this food from one place to another in bulk is such an essential part of the economy – of our lives – and to so many of us, it just happens invisibly. It’s interesting to try and imagine alternative methods of transport, alternative production setups, that produce and transport food on a more micro-managed scale but still keep everyone fed. How large can a farm get, before plant monoculture is the only way to run it? How small can a farm be, before it gets too small to feed anyone but those working on it? What combinations of plants and animals work, in what environments? All these questions have relative answers, efficient answers for a given part of the country, and it will be interesting to see how people tease them out in this new information-rich era.

I think that farming has fallen out of favor as a way of life, or even as an activity, and people now prefer to make their money moving bits of paper around with clean hands. (It’s certainly been profitable for me.) But I’m not saying we should all be hardcore farmers all the time for our own good. I’m saying that we should all have a hand in producing some little bit of our food, even if it’s just digging a few rows in a community garden, and see what that pursuit teaches us, and where it takes us.

I remember the little garden in Santa Cruz, with the neat rows of lettuce and the impressively tall onions, and how nice it felt to turn those into a salad. Perhaps when I get home I’ll do something with that big planter box in the back yard. But then again … I’m planning to move out of that house anyway. The mold has done bad things to me.

Anyway, I’m totally digressing here. Onward!

Having run out of new podcast episodes, I decided to begin something longer, and I chose “Memoirs Found In A Bathtub” by Stanislaw Lem. I knew nothing about the book, and as it unfolded I got more and more disoriented and fascinated and involved. When it ended I immediately began it again, trying to make more sense of the early chapters.

What an amazing piece of fiction. Lem grabs us by the hand for an amusing walk in what we assume is normal spy-thriller-espionage territory but, unbeknownst to us, on the very first step we passed through Alice’s looking glass and everything around us has been growing more twisted, and less sane, as we go. Where your average thriller is about a bunch of double-crosses, this book double-crosses what it is about, so many times that your brain gets pretzeled. The very plot of the book seems to spiral downward and then stab itself frantically. Totally awesome.

Anyway, I listened to this book and photographed some neat scenery as day passed into night.

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By the time I got to Rantoul it had been dark and cold for a while. I chomped down two meals’ worth of food at a local restaurant as I listened to “Memoirs Found In A Bathtub” for the second time. I had an enormous craving for curry and pho, but neither could be found. I wasn’t surprised.

Next I went looking for a place to stay. All three of the large motels on the west side of the city were full, so I made a phone call and shot across town to claim the last room in a motel on the east side. The room was very foul. The shower ran only a trickle of cold water onto a filthy tile enclosure. As soon as I turned the water on, a cloud of tiny flies came brewing up from the drain. The internet was busted, and the heater was caked with ugly grey dust. There was no way I was trusting the bedsheets, so I threw my sleeping bag on top and crawled into that.

56 miles and 2900 calories burned, according to the GPS. I was feeling very worn out, and only barely keeping up with my schedule. The map claimed there was an Amtrak station here in Rantoul. Perhaps I should ride over there in the morning and see if I can cram by bike onto a train for Chicago…

Day 22 – Lazing about in McLean

Today I stayed in the motel room, writing and doing laundry. The dryer in the front hall only tumbled my clothes, and did not actually dry them, so I hung the clothing from hooks and poles all over the room and cranked the heat. I was totally in my MAN CAVE! My only adventure outside was to the restaurant across the street, where I acted antisocial by propping up the iPad and watching old episodes of The Daily Show as I devoured two meals’ worth of food.

It was good to catch up on my writing, and my legs really needed the rest. They were sucking up every ounce of protein I could stuff into myself. Even with prodigious snacking I was running a slow calorie deficit. I noticed that my reflection in the bathroom mirror had less body fat on it than three weeks ago.

The Science Of Influence

Between Rushville and McLean, I spent a dozen or so miles listening to the first part of this lecture. It’s all about increasing your ability to sell people products and services, but it’s built around a collection of simple – and I mean bonehead simple – observations about human nature.

As I listened I realized that I could use those observations as tools to examine my own behavior, in my own recent past, and maybe learn a few things. I went through them in my head one at a time:

The majority of people will do far more to avoid losing something they already have than they will to get something they don’t have.

The best example from my recent life is my job. In the struggle to remain productive in my job, I disrupted my relationships, gave up most of my spare time, and eventually lost so much sleep and built up so much stress that I developed a serious medical condition. I knew that if I quit my job I would have plenty of time and space to recover, but I ignored that fact for about a year, and things got very bad.

If I had been unemployed, and was offered that job, and was told that to keep it I would have to let my health decline to such an atrocious state, I would have immediately said “Are you insane? NO WAY am I going to do that to myself. I’ll look for work somewhere else.”

Why did I cling to that job for so long? Pessimism and stubbornness. I was convinced that there was no better job out there for me, and I was convinced that I could suffer my way through these health problems. I never thought of myself as a pessimist, but in that situation, it was true. “There is no more exciting or suitable programming job in the world, than here at Apple, in my exact position.” The thought made me happy, … until it became a barrier to change. And I have always been remarkably stubborn.

If your guidance benefits people long-term, they will remember that and trust you.

What’s interesting to me about this is, I’m seeing it applied in my relationships. The people I have respected and trusted the most – as friends, or as lovers – are people who made decisions or gave advice that showed they were clearly interested in my long-term well-being as well as their own. Two examples:

  1. When my health was declining earlier this year, Erika decided to start cooking meals at my house. It gave us an opportunity to share more meals together, further share the cost of feeding ourselves, and share a morning commute. She was doing something that benefitted me at least as much as herself, and I appreciated the way she’d aligned our interests.
  2. After Carol and I met for the second time, she said she planned to go on a date with – and sleep with – a different guy the next night. I was unhappy about it but I had no “claim” to her so I tried to accept it as a reasonable decision. But the fact was, what she did was in her own best interests, and totally against mine, and she expressed no remorse that it was so. Day 3 of our relationship, and I was already losing respect for her.
A person’s desire for something will often increase if other people appear to desire it too.

A great example of this is the stock market. How much of the stock market is based on hard economic knowledge? Very little. How much is based on second-guessing of what other people want? Almost all. What bollocks.

Personally, this is an interesting one. I’ve always been rather contrarian when it comes to the wisdom of crowds, and I think that translates into my relationships. I am prone to reject someone who acts as though they are wanted by many people – someone who is mercurial and hard to get in touch with, declares that they are “overwhelmed” by social obligations, et cetera. I perceive them as being difficult to achieve intimacy with, and often as having a low opinion of other people. But at the same time, people who simply are in demand can impress me with the quality of their persona and the diversity of their relationships and activities. Everyone I meet falls somewhere on these two graphs, and I am most impressed by people who lead busy lives but can still make time to connect authentically with people.

My own social life seems to go in very long waves. At UCSC I was in constant demand, and enjoyed it. At Apple I was in constant demand, and before my health declined, I enjoyed it. Right now, I am generally hiding from all but a few people, like I did in Carlsbad and in Davis before that. Things may open up again … or they may not for a while.

People like to have choices. It gives them freedom. But, if you give people too many choices they will simply freeze and do nothing.

This also explains my situation. As long as I entertain ideas of doing anything, I’m going to be unable to make up my mind. What I need to do is narrow my future down to a handful of options – four or five – and then choose among those. I think I’ll try this out in a while.