African Connection links are now in the sidebar to the right, just below the My Travel section.

Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Friday, August 27, 2010

False Summits

It's a long way to the top. And, when you get there, it's a lonely place, so I've been told. But we climb. To get away from what's below? Or to get closer to what's above? Whatever, it seems to be in our blood.

Growing up in New Orleans, you'd think I'd have no concept of hills and climbing. But you would be wrong. Thanks to a WPA project in the 1930's, New Orleans had one (a hill) - the 28 foot high Monkey Hill at the Audubon Park Zoo. It wasn't for the zoo's monkeys; they had their own island complete with castle and swing sets. No, it was for us, the children of New Orleans. So we could experience a real hill. And what a hill it was. There was a path worn in the grass on one side where we would run up then, after taking in the view from such a breathtaking height, run or, preferably, roll to the bottom. It was my introduction to hills.

Monkey Hill in the 1950's. Apparently today it sports a rope bridge and other "amenities." No comment.

Riding a bicycle also gives one a chance to ponder the meaning of elevation. I came across an article in a cycling magazine about how to ride on flat terrain and promptly dismissed it. There are, after all, no flats, only hills you never noticed until you saw them from behind the handlebars of a bicycle. Hills were daunting to me when I first started riding. In fact, I thought, in all seriousness, that if I could ever haul myself and my bike up Bliss Road ONE time, I'd retire from riding. But I did ride it. And I didn’t retire. Instead, I've been climbing hills ever since.

All of this climbing has introduced me to the phenomenon of false summits. When you get to the Alpine Inn at the top of Bliss Road, you have arrived. A destination in its own right and on a section of flat road to boot. But keep going just a short distance and the road pops up again.

Then there is the false summit on the climb up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. After working your way up to about 12,000 feet, you find yourself at a rest stop from which you can see the road ahead, finally, start winding down. But after descending about 200 feet, you come around a curve and encounter a rising switchback. It is only after another 400 feet of climbing that you reach the REAL summit at 12,183 feet.

At the real summit on Trail Ridge Road.

Let's not forget the "rolling ascent" where the road undulates with each high point higher than the previous one. And this is ALWAYS the case on rollers. I've never experienced a rolling descent, even on roads that I ride out and back. Must be an Escher thing.

Rolling towards Lanesboro, MN from the south. See that last peak? The one waayyy out there in the distance? ...

...It wasn't as intimidating as it looked from afar.

But the thing is, false summits have, in spite of the somewhat negative connotation of the name, a certain appeal. For one thing, they provide a chance to rest and reflect on the climbs - the one behind and the one yet to come. And they are, as the name summit implies, high points in their own right. And isn’t it nice to know, that while you can enjoy the high of the elevation provided by the faux peak, there is higher ground ahead. More challenges to embrace. And a better view to enjoy.

It's been like that over the course of the ten mission trips I've taken. Each has had a high point or two. False summits, it has turned out. Some were more impressive than others, but each was special in its own way. Several were followed by brief "descents" that, at the time, seemed to be only lost ground. But a few have been revealed to simply have been leading to new highs. And some of the others, I expect, will eventually lead there, too.

As for riding, I'm pretty sure I've already been as high as I'm ever going to be on my Trek. Or on any other bike, for that matter. Breaking 12,183 feet is NOT on my list of fifty things to do...

So, keep riding. Accept the challenge to go up. And may all your highs be nothing more than false summits.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Albert Einstein

You've heard this definition of stupidity, right? But what we should say, in most cases, is that it is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same the results. For us engineers, we know that no matter how hard we try, if we make one thing and then another of the same thing, the two will be different. Make a third, fourth, and so on and these will be different as well. If all of the things we make are "close" to the same, then we are, at least, precise. If they are "close" to what we want them to be, then we are accurate. Accurate is getting it right. Precision is being consistent.

"Why did this subject even come up?," you ask as you move closer to the edge of your seat to hear the answer. Well, it all comes from the situation pictured below. This is a NOTPHOTOSHOPPED snapshot taken in the cafeteria where I work. So, just where do you think this project stands in terms of accuracy and precision?

Pole next to the "POLE X HERE" target, clearly showing pole THERE, NOT X HERE.

Several hundred engineers work in this building. Did they think we would not notice?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Me and Chuck

"Rainwater blowing up under my hood,
I knew that was doing my motor good."
Maybelline by Chuck Berry

With the first two days of the tour ridden in early-July heat, it was a relief to start out in the coolness of this July 5th morning in Lanesboro, Minnesota. Early in the ride, Chuck Berry's rendition of Maybelline was wandering around in my head - (where it had a lot of room to roam. Possibly because it was RAINING. So, while I couldn't see so well with the water collecting on my glasses, I was comfortable as the rainwater did, in fact, do my motor good.

The weather also played a role in another aspect of the ride. I was following the popular Root River Trail yet, after passing two groups just out of Lanesboro, I saw only two lone riders on the remainder of the ride to Houston. The one in Minnesota.

It is quite a nice ride on the flat, paved trail that follows southwestern Minnesota's Root River, mostly tree-line with an occasional break showing the river of looking out over fields of corn or hay. Early as it was, I was looking forward to peddling into Whalan to visit the Aroma Pie Shop, the self-proclaimed home of "World Famous Pies." Closed. Oh well, a bit more riding and I'd be in Rushford where I could check out The Creamery where I was told I would find some mighty fine ice cream. Closed. I'm going to have to have a long talk with my router about proper scheduling.

A few miles out of Houston, it looked like the trail just suddenly ended in the woods. It did not take much longer to realize that I was looking at the main part of a large tree now resting across the trail. With absolutely no way over it, I had to take myself and bike around what had once been the top of the tree. As I pushed through the weedy undergrowth I began to sense a tingling sensation in my legs. Stinging nettles! Years ago we were in France with our daughter (four at the time) when she walked through a patch of nettles and shortly thereafter told us, "My legs are all sparkly." As good a description as I've ever heard for what I was experiencing.

By the time I got back up to the trail I was itching like mad. I rode on for a minute or two until I found a puddle in the road and washed my legs as best I could. That and the passage of a bit of time took care of the issue and I continued on without the sparkly.

The rain would abate from time to time and I took advantage of those times to take a few pictures and wipe off my glasses - I had the presence of mind to pack away a few paper towels in a plastic bag for just this purpose. The trail ends at Houston where I stopped at a coffee shop and enjoyed a brief respite. The ride from Houston to the Mississippi carried me along very scenic roads which were, as was the trail, mostly flat. Shirley went by in the car when I was about 15 miles from La Crosse. We had discussed signaling so when she passed, I waved and she kept going. Had I raised my fist in the air, she would have stopped. I think. But I wasn't going to run the experiment.

I rolled into La Crosse, stopped at the Subway near my house to pick up lunch and finished the tour a few minutes later. And, speaking of Subway, did you know that a 6" sub fits just perfectly in the rear pocket of a cycling jersey?

And there you have it. A semi-supported tour in which I rode 224 miles with 6,875 feet of climbing (only 943 feet on this last day). An enjoyable weekend that re-enforced the view that this area is a great place for cycling.

60.4 miles
943 feet of climbing

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Two Guys Walk into a Bar...

...and a play breaks out. That's the abridged version of Saturday afternoon in Lanesboro. We attended the matinee performance of Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Commonweal Theater. There are various threads in the running exchanges between patrons of the Lapin Agile, a bar in Montmarte, Paris in 1904. Among those participating are Picasso and Einstein, who debate whether it will be art or science that shapes the future. The answer, of course, is neither, and I'm thinking Steve Martin was just setting us up for the sequel, Engineer's Rule. Because, well, we do, you know.

Think of the elements of science, basic and applied up a level or two - physics, materials, chemistry, math, mechanics - as the palate. Add the artistic creativity of analysis, problem solving, computer programming, and the like and apply these to the canvas of a need and you get an engineered solution. Airplanes, artificial hearts, microwave ovens, wind mills, light bulbs and, lets us not forget, air conditioners. So, whenever you're ready Steve. I'll be first in line for tickets.

Unlike conditions on the two days of riding, it was overcast and rainy on the 4th in Lanesboro. We visited a few shops in town, including a very nicely done art gallery. Lunch at a local diner was, how shall I put this, interesting? Now, the homemade chicken pot pie was excellent - piping hot with lots of vegetables and a flaky crust. A good lunch by any measure. So, in consideration of the reasonable serving size and of two days and almost 170 miles of bicycle riding, I decided to go for dessert. The diner displayed the day's offerings on a blackboard in the center of the room. Included in the list was a key lime pie. Hmmmm... I DO like a good key lime pie.

You are, no doubt, about to warn me that I am in a small town in the upper Midwest where key limes are not exactly indigenous. But if you are reading this anytime after July 4th, 2010 (and I suspect you are), then you are too late. And I knew that at the time. Still, I've gotten a quite passable key lime pie here in La Crosse. It can be done. But not, apparently, in Lanesboro.

My first clue (a.k.a. warning sign) when my order was delivered was the pie's color - a green not occurring in nature, though it does show up in a couple of my more vibrant cycling jerseys. A bite confirmed the visual evidence that this pie had never been near a lime. Ever. The taste was of sweetened cottage cheese. Perhaps it would not have been so unpleasant had it not been for the expectation of that special tangy tartness delivered by a good key lime pie. Which this was, most assuredly, not. Oh well. I will leave the diner unnamed as the service was friendly and the meals we had were, save the pie, quite good. But, if you are ever in Lanesboro, remember this tale and go for the local apple crisp or black cap pie instead.

We enjoyed the play after lunch and managed a nice walk around town before the rain set in for good. Dinner at the Old Village Hall and Pub was exceptional and I did opt for a black cap parfait made with the locally grown wild black raspberries. A fitting end to a fine Fourth of July in a small town in Minnesota.

Lanesboro, Minnesota; July 4, 2010

Stop and smell the flowers...