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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Go Ahead, Make My Day!

It was on the road coming back from Grandad Bluff park where a couple in a minivan made my day week month. Having completed the climb up Bliss Road to the Alpine Inn, I decided to swing into the park before looping back towards Barre Mills. Just after turning around, this van pulled up beside me and the lady on the passenger side said they had passed me on the way up. She then asked, "Did you climb all the way up the hill?" I answered in the affirmative and she responded, "We could not imagine anyone riding a bike all the way up that road."

My observations to that were something along the lines of "It might not be as hard as it looks," and "If I can do it, anybody can." But she offered one more comment,"Well it looks like a REALLY hard climb. We are very impressed."

What could I say? "Thank you very much. I appreciate that."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hard Rock Philosophy

To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven

Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds

Every generation has the music that speaks for it and to it. Lyrics for the most popular songs appear again and again, connecting current issues with themes from the past that shaped those who moved to the rhythms of their generational anthems.

Turn! Turn! Turn! sent the message that we could expect the times of our lives to change as surely as summer changes to fall. As unique to the 60's as we might have thought this message to be, the words were first put to music in 1959 by Pete Seeger. But this hardly represents meaningful temporal distance from the Byrds' version, seeing as Seeger borrowed from third century BC writings, words we can find easily if we just open our Bibles to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. As I have noted previously, if you want a new idea, read an old book.

One of the seasons of my life has been marked by the last several years during which I took up and pursued bicycling. Now, bikes were a part of my daily routine during my junior high school years in north Florida. There were relatively quiet roads in our neighborhood which was surrounded by pine forests. It was a good place to practice vehicular independence and our neighborhood group did a lot of that until we got older, moved apart and started driving cars. It was not until 2005 that I got back on a bike for any serious riding. When I had reached the point of taking my first real cycling tour, I noted that "You only get to do something for the first time once." In the years that followed, cycling gave rise to numerous other firsts: first time riding across the Rocky Mountains, first time riding in Switzerland, first time breaking a collarbone. You know, all the standards cycling has to offer.

You can only do this for the first time once

Having just returned from this year's International Compressor Engineering Conference at Purdue, I got to thinking about the first time I attended it. That would have been a long time ago. This thought occurred to me in large part because the conference I just attended may very well have been my last, leading me to the logical flip side of my "first time" observation, namely, "You only get to do something for the last time once."

The last time?

But there is a difference - last time events are not so uniquely identifiable as first time ones. When you do something for the first time, you have done it. It is over and can't be undone; it's the "you can't un-ring a bell" phenomena. But in general, it is not so for last times. Doing something for the last time once is, in actuality, just as clear and absolute an event as doing something for the first time once. The difference is that in many cases we won't know for sure that the last time was really the last time. This fact is elegantly described in the following:

Well this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don't know...

The Last Time by the Rolling Stones

It COULD be the last time; MAYBE the last time. I plan to retire before the next Purdue conference and am not likely to attend it. But I probably COULD, as there are opportunities to stay connected to my job. MAYBE I will make that choice. But I don’t know.

When I came to the last stop of that first tour, I was, I admit, moved to a few tears. Preparation had been hard work. I was so unsure of how it would go, did not know if I could ride that far; if I could go up the mountain passes; or go DOWN them. But the result was an affirmative in all cases. It felt good.

So I find it a bit odd that I did not have that all-choked-up reaction to the conclusion of the last presentation of the last session of the conference. It wasn't cause for celebration either. Why? I'm thinking that there are some last time events that are as they should be for the changing of life's seasons. As long as we are excited about the next seasons and the opportunities for new first times, then there isn't a whole lot to be choked up over.

There have been so many great first times. A number of satisfying last times. And some of each that are painful. But assembled, they define a variety of seasons, each one turning and becoming another; each providing challenges and each serving a purpose, if we let it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Working on the Road

Friday, March 16
Oftentimes the most difficult parts of the ride were the finding our way out of town in the morning then locating the hotel in the next town in the afternoon. Once out on the open roads, there were fewer choices as to turns and it was easier to get a sense of direction. We had GPS units, but sometimes these got a little confused in the narrow streets. We did get out of Matera without much difficulty though and were FINALLY riding on the rural roads of southern Italy.

That was until we weren't riding. Seems as if it was road work season and the narrow road we found ourselves on was blocked by men and machinery as a portion of the road had been excavated. Off to the left was a field with tall grass - just the ticket for getting around the obstruction. Except for the mud. Good grief, the ground was soft, wet clay and the short off road excursion left shoes and bike parts coated with a sticky goo that was almost impossible to get off with the sticks and various items of road detritus available to us. A rather inauspicious start.

Roadside cleaning station as we try and get the mud off

Only 19 km to lunch!

Gioia del Colle was the first stop, this being for lunch. One of the treats of these rides is the chance to check out bakeries and butcher shops to get bread, cheese and drinks for the on the road midday meal. It is almost always good. But glamorous it is not. On this day I found a place around the corner from the square. Sitting outside. On the stone steps. It was a notable lunch.

Typical lunch on the road. You can still see a bit of the mud from the morning's off road excursion on my shoes.

Bob had a flat as he rolled into Gioia and set about getting the tire back in shape after lunch. We had looked at the route to Alberobello and decided against the somewhat more direct highway. Instead, Bill and I set out to find hopefully quieter roads by riding a bit farther north, skirting Putignano then heading back in the direction of our day's destination.

The decision was the right one. There was little traffic and the road was in fine shape. We rode through olive groves for a good portion of the time, the fields being segmented by low stone walls. As we rode on, we also began to see some of the conical-roofed buildings that were responsible, in part, for Alberobello being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our second such destination in a row.

Before we get to Alberobello, let's go back a few miles. We are out in the country, olive groves, stone walls and the occasional farm house go by as we pedal along. Pastoral is what I think you might call it. And then... up ahead sitting on a chair drawn up nearly to the edge of the asphalt, is this woman. Dressed shall we say, rather immodestly, with RED lipstick visible from 100 meters. Behind her about 6 meters sits an upholstered sofa, looking as if it was not brought in during rain showers. Riding by, I remember thinking, "What is THAT all about?" The thought had no sooner made a lap around my brain (yes, I know - it's a short trip) when it was clear I knew exactly what it was about. Sheese...

The buildings in Alberobello were special. They were generally square and made of brightly whitewashed stone. But the roofs were round at the eaves and made up of rather smaller gray stones, stacked neatly to form a cone atop the home or shop. And what was most unique, was that the entire building was built without any mortar. This "drywall" technique was adopted early on in the history of the town as a way to avoid taxes on permanent dwellings. Homes could actually be deconstructed into a pile of rocks then built up again rather quickly. Make a tax rule and someone will find a way around it!

In Alberobello

After a day on the road and an afternoon walking around the town, it was time to settle back and start the process of re-hydrating. This bicycle touring is tough all right.

Hydration station

You are wondering about Sassi and Trulli, I know you are. Well, you have actually met them already. Sassi means stones in Italian and this is the name given to the stone homes in Matera. And, as I am sure you can now guess, Trulli are the conical-roofed buildings in Alberobello. Two World Heritage Sites in two days made for a great start to the tour.

Ride totals      Today      Tour
Distance:           47.5     56.7 miles
Total Ascent    1,729   2,789 feet

Today's ride:

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Maybe we Should Actually Ride our Bikes

Thursday, March 15

The riding started and then got into full swing during the next two days of the tour. It just seemed the right thing to do, being a BICYCLE tour and all that. Today's ride was, shall we say, a reserved effort as we had some things to see and, of course, did not want to get into serious pedaling too quickly.

Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a unique place, worthy of a closer look. Accordingly, we all agreed to ask Corinne to arrange for a local guide to spend the morning with us. It was a wise decision. I know, that's a bit hard to believe, but it happens every so often.

Our guide a) who introduced herself and b) whose name I forget, said the earliest inhabitants simply lived in the depressions and shallow caves in the walls of the ravine. Fronts were gradually closed in and the caves eventually all but disappeared from view, being absorbed in the structures that emerged. However, the people, having the history of living in the open caves, did not put doors on the buildings. Ever. Over the years, conditions in the old part of town deteriorated into a state of severe poverty, the area rife with diseases such as malaria. It got so bad that officials had apartments built in the 1950's and pretty much forced the residents to move into them. The first thing the people did was remove the doors from their new dwelling places. Cultural DNA is a powerful force.

The walking tour gave us a chance to see a variety of buildings in town, now clean and occupied again. There are homes, apartments, shops, hotels and restaurants. One stop was a restored private dwelling, providing insights into daily life early in the last century.

Old photo of the family in the restored home we visited on the tour

The family home, restored for us to try and grasp what it must have been like to live there

So many of the buildings in Matera incorporate caves, including the Rupestrian churches. This designation arises from the paintings on the rock walls, something we had a chance to see on our tour.

Rupestrian church artwork

It was a fascinating, educational morning. And, a bit sobering. Life was not easy for the people who lived in this area prior to the condemnation and subsequent renewal. Many worked in fields at distances that required them to be away from their homes for days at a time. Children too young to work suffered greatly as they were left at home with little care, Thankfully, things are better now. I must admit, touched as I was by the history shared by our guide, it was hard to see this place as anything but a unique, beautiful town.

And now, it was time to ride. Really, I mean it this time. We actually put on shorts and jerseys, got the bikes out of the storage room at the hotel and set out for an afternoon jaunt.

Our guide had suggested a ride out of town to visit another church, and we set out in that direction. I think. As we navigated through town, the group separated; as Laurenz had asked a policeman on a motorbike about the best way out of town, Bob and Bill continued on. Thinking they were unaware of what was going on, I took off to get them back. But Bob was sure that our destination was on one of the routes Laurenz had suggested in the pre-tour information we had been provided and that he was on that route and he would continue. In the end, the three of us headed out to find our own way.

We rode out of town and quickly missed the turn for the route we were pursuing. A mile or so later the road we were on ended as it merged onto a multi-lane, limited access highway. It was here we realized what had happened so back we went, up the road - literally up - to the point where we should have turned. It was then a steep, short descent during which we were accompanied by some farm dogs who kindly came out to cheer us on.

While this was technically the right road, it was not one for road bikes. Bob was determined to press on, so we invited him to go off the pavement which had ended abruptly and report back what he found around the next turn. He went on down the deeply rutted dirt road then came back a few minutes later saying what lay beyond was worse.

This does not look like the route. Unless you are Laurenz, of course

We came down it, now we had to go back up

At this point, our little trek was redefined as a short bike check ride and it was agreed the bikes were in good shape. Having reached this key point in the tour, we headed back to town, found a pub and had a beer (or two) to celebrate.

Next, we really, really get going on the cycling tour as we head east from Matera to the city of Alberobello where we would meet Trulli.

Ride totals
Distance: 9.2 miles
Total Ascent: 1,060 feet

Today's Ride:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Friends, Old and New

As it seems to be with Lorenz and Corinne, we were with people who all had made at least one other of their European tours. I knew Lorenz, Corinne, Bill and Bob. Andre, Christian and Pat were not on their first tour with Lorenz, but I met them for the first time on this one.

Then, here in southern Italy, we all made new friends: Sassi and Trulli. They are unique, southern Italian individuals and it was a pleasure to have made their acquaintances. Sassi is strong and good on the hills. Trulli, on the other hand, is nimble and quick, changing directions on tricky curves in ways that leave others looking on in wonder. They were good companions who provided us interesting stories and lasting memories. But, before we discuss this pair, let's get through the transition from tourists to cyclists...

As cycling tours go, this one was a long time getting rolling. The time in Naples was part of the tour in the larger sense and we certainly enjoyed seeing the sights. However, the only progress made by bicycles was our rolling them across the hotel parking lot to the trailer and van which would deliver us and them to Matera, Sassi's home and the city from which riding would finally commence.

Bus and trailer loaded and ready for the trip from Naples to Matera

We pulled into Matera in the afternoon and parked near the edge of the older part of the city. There were No Parking signs up, but we figured they didn't apply to us. The idea was to send out scouts to find the hotel. You might think I am making this up, but take into account that many of the cities and towns we visited were built hundreds of years ago (Matera was founded in the 3rd century BC) when motorized vehicles were still only vague concepts in Leonardo's notebooks. Streets are narrow, winding and many lead into cul de sacs. Or is that culs de sac? Whatever... So it only makes sense to scout out the situation before committing a small bus pulling a trailer into the labyrinth - you never know what might happen, although on this day, we were treated to a first hand look at one of the possibilities. The scouts returned and reported with great precision that the hotel was "over that way," pointing in a more or less easterly direction.

Typical of the narrow streets we encountered throughout the tour

We entered the older part of town and quickly came to a point where our options were "left" or "right." The stubby stone post and large rock in the center of the street off to the left and the open access to the street to the right made it clear to Lorenz which way to go. Left. It was only by virtue of his well honed bus-trailer driving skills that he was able to squeeze between the granite obstacles and the buildings that were hard up against the edge of the street.

Stones in the street mean "Do not enter." Sometimes.

Things immediately began to look less than promising so a few of us went ahead to assess the situation. Seems as though the street morphed into a stairway just a few hundred feet from where we were stopped. Upon hearing this report, Lorenz started to drive on; I was sure for a moment that he only viewed this situation as a challenge to his driving skills that needed to be dealt with more persistance. Persistance is, of course, a good thing. When you are right. We were actually reminded of this truth several times during the tour. However, Lorenz quickly decided that perhaps this was not the right way to go so he stopped and began the process of turning around. Now remember, we are at the end of a narrow street in an ancient Italian city in a small bus pulling a large trailer. "Turning around" was not just a matter of turning around. We unhitched the trailer and Lorenz executed the "Y" turn maneuver, requiring something like 27 forward-and-back moves to get the 6 meter long bus turned around in the 7 meter wide street. Upon finally accomplishing the reversal, he drove back up past the stone barrier. We then manually swung the trailer around and pushed it up to the van - this being, thankfully, much easier than I had imagined.

Stuck. Almost.

We were off. For about two blocks. Then, the street emptied into a pedestrian square. Let me just say that getting around this required some more deft driving, advice from several Italian men and finally, Lorenz taking one of them on board to serve as a guide to get back onto the streets and then to the hotel. Now that was Lorenz, the newly commissioned local guide, the bus and the trailer. But not us. We just stood there and watched as Lorenz rolled into an adjacent street and disappeared around the corner.

Into the square

We finally found our lodgings after asking several times for directions. When we walked down the final set of steps to the level of the narrow street at the front of the hotel, we met Lorenz who had obviously been successfully guided to a small parking area. Some the luggage had already been unloaded and we collected our belongings and proceeded to check in.

Last flight down to hotel

At the destination at last

Our view of Matera from the window of our room

It was during all of this wandering around that we had our introduction to Matera. What an amazing place it is. The old part of the city starts at the level of the surrounding countryside, but spills over into a ravine, its white buildings tumbling down one side and washing up the other.

An amazing city

But what was most interesting was that the stone edifices were built around caves which comprised a large part of the interior space, as you can see in this example - our hotel room:

Man cave

It was a long, interesting day that led to a night of deep sleep, aided by the cool night air coming through the windows.

Coming next, we FINALLY get on the bikes. But not until we played tourists one more time.