It was time to get back on the road. I had been thinking of bicycling from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan for several years. I knew almost nothing of the area, other than there is an easy direct Amtrak train the two hundred miles from Grand Rapids MI to Chicago. Why not fly to Chicago, bicycle to Grand Rapids over several days, then return to Chicago by Amtrak?

My friend Lyman was also chomping at the bit to bicycle somewhere. He lives in Austin TX; I live in Chapel Hill NC. Whatever the weather was like in Chicago and Michigan it certainly had to be cooler than the summer furnace climates both of us live in. We both were drowning in unused American Airlines frequent flier miles and there are nonstops to Chicago from both cities. This would be my first airplane ride since Covid began a year and a half ago.

Both flights were scheduled to land about the same time on a Saturday morning. We planned to meet at O’Hare airport at 10:45 AM, each of us having checked a Bike Friday in a suitcase. On arrival I exited my airplane, walking toward baggage claim. It had been weird to be wearing a mask for such an extended period.

All was fine until I received a text from Lyman, saying that his flight was still on the ground back in Austin TX. There was a mechanical problem with his airplane, and he would be at least two hours late.

What to do? Our plan had been to take the CTA subway to downtown Chicago with the bicycles still in the suitcases, then put the bicycles together downtown. Lyman had found a downtown luggage storage deal on the internet, to hold the empty suitcases for five days. By the time I learned of his delay I had already passed through security and I was lugging around a suitcase-with-a-bicycle-in-it. I learned (later to be confirmed by a Yelp search) that there is almost nowhere to eat or drink at O’Hare airport except on the airplane side of security. The difficult exception was the on-airport O’Hare Hilton Hotel. Getting there was a bit of a hike with a heavy suitcase but once in the basement of the Hilton a huge chicken sandwich washed down with a beer really hit the spot.

Finally Lyman did indeed show up. I had saved half of my Hilton chicken sandwich for him, and he made short work of that. We found our way to the on-airport CTA subway to the city. The CTA turnstiles now accept a credit card just by waving the card above the turnstile checker. It took about twenty stops and forty-five minutes but we walked above ground into central Chicago, looking for a sidewalk spot where we could put the bicycles together.

There is a bicycle in each of the large suitcases.
the Bike Friday emerges, piece by piece, photo by Lyman Labry

It took about half an hour for us to put the bicycles together and be ready to go. We dropped off the empty suitcases at the storage spot, a Seven-Eleven (!). We took off by bicycle, first eastward towards the lake, then south along the lakefront. We each were carrying a small trunk bag as our luggage for five days. Lakefront Trail is a godsend for bicyclists. On other trails in other cities I have noticed constant near collisions between pedestrians and cyclists on these paths. Along the lakefront Chicago has constructed separate trails for walking and bicycling. They prohibit pedestrians on the bicycle trail.

We headed south. We soon stopped near the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, just south of downtown, and checked in with our friend Bob. Bob and his wife Helena normally live in Tampa FL; his wife Helena grew up in Hyde Park. Bob and Helena were in town to fix up the apartment she had inherited from her late parents and Bob met us at the lakefront. He showed us the spot where Helena has done long distance swims in the lake. We chatted for half an hour, but Lyman and I had to get pedaling. It was about 5:00 PM and we still had a long way to go.

Bob
Lyman and Bob

Downtown Chicago is often called The Loop, and the Indiana state line is about seventeen miles south of it. We had booked an Airbnb in central Hammond IN, about ten miles further south of the state line. The Lakefront Trail allowed us to bypass sketchy south side Chicago neighborhoods, before we had to turn inland to cycle around various small bodies of water that protrude from Lake Michigan. This South Side lakefront landscape had miles and miles of former industrial sites, many now totally empty.

This is the ride we were to take over the next five days.

After the Lakefront Trail ended we jostled through southern suburbs. In both Illinois and Indiana we bicycled past bungalows and worker cottages, most built in the distinctive Chicago style.

We cycled up to our Airbnb at about 6:30 PM. It was nicer than it looks from the outside; a basement apartment of this house in a conventional neighborhood in Hammond IN. There were two double beds and essentially two bedrooms in the basement. We had been cycling in light drizzle with the temperature was in the low seventies. We felt relieved to be at our day’s destination.

Lyman and I enjoyed meeting the Airbnb proprietors, a couple and their young daughter. After we had showered and gotten our stuff together, we got back on the bicycles to cycle one mile to go out to eat. The proprietors were hanging out on their porch.

Dinner at the very old school Freddy’s Steak House in central Hammond IN was only just OK. In hindsight we were too creative with our orders (grilled lake perch was fresh tasting but not filling enough; Lyman’s steak sandwich was leathery.) We should have split a large steak instead. The universal first course of bean soup was likely out of a can but still satisfied on this chilly evening.

The shelves of our Airbnb basement were filled with books I would not otherwise have known about.

The proprietors had strongly recommended we visit Les Cafe Pancake House for breakfast the next day. It was filled with families and what looked like church groups on this Sunday morning. Inspirational bible verses were on the walls. Breakfast was pleasantly filling. Banners of military veterans labelled as Hometown Heroes lined the streets of town.

I had spent half an hour in my bed that morning plotting a route to bicycle across the infamously decrepit Gary IN, a town famous to me because of the song in The Music Man, as well as the birthplace of Michael Jackson. Further mapwork revealed a surprisingly thorough network of paved rail trails across northern Indiana, a network that was too nice to pass up. We would have to miss Gary and pass just south of it. Cycling on rail trails without car traffic is indeed relaxing as we ambled across northern Indiana.

We had come north from North Carolina and Texas to get away from the summer heat and we certainly had succeeded. Skies this day were overcast and drizzly with a temperature that leveled off at about sixty-five all day.

wet but otherwise delightful rail-trail in northern Indiana

It was over forty miles to Michigan City, Indiana where we knew there were hotels. The map showed rail trails almost the whole way. Unknowingly we were succumbing to the frog-in-boiling-water trap. We cycled through an hour or more of drizzle so light as to be barely noticeable. That transitioned to light rain, we pretended not to care. By the time we had cycled into more remote wooded areas the light rain transitioned to heavy rain. Lyman had on a nice Showers Pass brand jacket of Gore-Tex like fabric and I had just a cycling shirt, but both rainwear strategies were failures. We both got very wet and were overcome with shivering if we stopped exercising. I could no longer take photos because I had to keep my phone and camera dry.

In the rain we transitioned into Indiana Dunes National Park, expecting sand dunes and the continuation of the smooth paved trail, as the map showed Calumet Trail just inland from Lake Michigan. Calumet Trail turned out to be a rutty dirt road next to some woods and under a power line, surfaced with two or three inch bumpy gravel, almost impassible with our narrow high pressure bicycle tires. Every few hundred feet there were giant rain-filled potholes. Soaking wet and shivering, we struggled along for about five miles before finding an off-ramp where we could cycle in the rain on a conventional highway. We were at our wit’s end as we limped into the town of Michigan City, Indiana at about four or five in the afternoon.

We thought we would have to subject ourselves to further danger and humiliation by having to cycle two miles on a major highway in the rain out to the Interstate Highway interchange, where the only motels on the Hotels Dot Com app were clustered. Michigan City, Indiana is a faded lakefront industrial town about five miles from the Michigan state line. Its claim to fame is that it is the home of Indiana State Prison. Standing under a restaurant overhang to stay out of the rain, at the last minute I located one possibility on Google Maps in downtown Michigan City, the Bridge Inn. I phoned from a few blocks away. Yes they had one apartment suite left, two single beds. They had no office but the guy would meet us in the parking lot. The room suite and the hotel turned out to be quite nice. I took this photo the next morning after it had stopped raining.

Our luck improved further when we learned that the hotel owners, three sisters, also owned the Bridges Waterside Grille across the parking lot. After cleaning up and drying out, we found seats at the Caribbeanesque outdoor bar. It was still drizzling, with temperatures in the sixties. People in this part of the country know to always bring a jacket, even in the summer. Everyone was drinking hard liquor.

I sat next to the couple on the far left in the above photograph. They live in Crawfordsville IN, a hundred miles to the south. The two had been travelling whenever possible the past couple years, looking for a place to retire. Their list of places to retire included the entire state of Florida, coastal South Carolina, and Michigan City, Indiana. (!)

We also met people who had come to Michigan City just to vacation.

Lyman got a cheeseburger, as I recollect.

I took the recommendation of the bartender and got the fried lake perch dinner, served drunken, which meant the addition of a spicy heavy coating. It ranks among the best fried fish I remember eating.

We cycled out of post-industrial Michigan City the next morning.

Looking out of our hotel room window at the Michigan City “yacht harbor” an Amtrak train passes every day over this incredibly rusty swing bridge.
Brutalism, downtown Michigan City IN

This video by Lyman Labry is only seven seconds long.

Cycling northward we discovered that there is a whole world of vacation towns along this shore of Lake Michigan, stretching northward. For the next three days, in the post-pandemic summer pandemic rush, everything, especially hotels and restaurants, were extremely crowded.

From Michigan City north to the Michigan line and beyond we cycled along the road accessing miles of lakefront vacation homes that front Lake Michigan and the sand dunes.

Lyman always wants a protein filled breakfast but on this day we had delayed it by ten miles; waiting to eat until we arrived in New Buffalo, Michigan, which we discovered is very much a tourist town, with yacht harbors and t-shirt shops.

At 10:00 AM on a Monday there was a wait for a table at Rosie’s, named after my dog back in Chapel Hill NC. I worried a little about Covid even though both Lyman and I are fully vaccinated. On hears about parts of America being vaccine hesitant and inside Rosie’s all the people were maskless and jammed together. I forced myself to ignore this and enjoy the breakfast.

I got the chorizo and eggs

Back on the bicycles we headed northward. When possible we stayed on the residential street directly along the Lake Michigan shoreline, looking at rich people’s houses facing the lake.

Owing to the rain the previous day we had not seen much of a Lake Michigan sand dune in Indiana Dunes National Park, but we certainly did this day in Michigan’s Warren Dunes State Park, which also had a public beach.

Those tiny specks in the above photo are people walking up the dune
Lyman and Lake Michigan

About twenty miles further was the double city of St. Joseph / Benton Harbor MI where we had decided to spend the night. St. Joseph had a busy downtown with souvenir shops; the Lake Michigan beach nearby down a steep hill.

We had a beer on the sidewalk of St. Joseph MI and looked at the tourists (were we one of them?). We searched on my phone for a place to spend the night. There were two hotels in St. Joseph that had rooms, but each cost over three hundred dollars for a two double bed hotel room. Furthermore, we decided the vibe in St. Joseph was just a little too cutesy for us. Only a couple miles away, on the other side of the St. Joseph River, was the city of Benton Harbor. I had heard the name Benton Harbor because I knew from somewhere that it was and is the headquarters of appliance maker Whirlpool. Airbnb offered a what turned out to be a really nice full apartment in downtown Benton Harbor. We accepted online and biked over there.

We had codes to get into the apartment but we ran into the proprietors and enjoyed chatting with them. Downtown Benton Harbor looks essentially abandoned but these guys told us of several restaurants. I have since learned from Wikipedia that Benton Harbor’s population is 89% African-American, although I saw no African-Americans in my brief stay in its downtown.

our Airbnb proprietors
The Airbnb was on the third floor of this nineteenth century building
Interior of our apartment. I slept on the sofa in the living room.
I told Lyman he could have the bedroom

The apartment had a great television and was really spacious. It even had a fully stocked kitchen for us to make our own breakfast the next day. It turned out that the two restaurants those guys had told us about were really the only places to eat dinner in Benton Harbor. This must say something about America. The one restaurant that was open was Houndstooth, a fancy place with entree prices over thirty dollars. It sounded good but we were just not in the mood for Big Food, at least not this day. The other place The Livery which features pizza, sounded great but was closed on Mondays. We had to carry the bicycles down the stairs to the street and cycle a couple of miles to the restaurant of a hotel in St. Joseph. It looked out over the harbor. It was crowded, with a long line to get a table. We discovered almost no one was at the bar around the hotel swimming pool, where we learned we could order food. A shared charcuterie plate really hit the spot.

From our pool bar vantage point we enjoyed watching a huge Great Lakes freighter departing from the harbor. We did not know but wondered what specific cargo this Canadian flag vessel had discharged here. We imagined the ship must look a lot like the Edmund Fitzgerald, in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, also a huge single purpose vessel built to carry one bulk commodity on normally flat seas.

The next morning we took the opportunity from the Airbnb and cooked our own breakfast but we had to use the ingredients we were given; Oatmeal, then Eggo waffles, bacon, and eggs.

The cycling this day went through a landscape that was more wooded and less populated, interspersed with a couple of the resort towns that line the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Our day’s halfway point would be the town of South Haven. The last five miles into town were on this excellent bike trail.

Van Buren State Park Trail

South Haven MI was the most touristy spot we had seen on this trip; people were all over the streets of town, apparently just wanting to walk around the streets.

There was a coffee place downtown and we got lattes. We also found a bike shop for some chain lubricant. We wanted some kind of light lunch. What to look for? Tacos, especially since Lyman came here from Texas, seemed destined for failure. Why not that Midwest standout, the hot dog? A walkup hot dog place in Saugatuck had all sorts of styles, each with the same price of five dollars. Lyman got the Detroit style (chili and onions), I got Chicago.

Chicago style hot dog, but in Michigan

Back on the road heading north we were in lovely wooded terrain.

We rolled into Saugatuck MI at about four in the afternoon. We still were not sure if we were going to continue on to the the larger town of Holland MI; twelve miles further north. Saugatuck MI was at least as crowded as any of the coastal resort towns we had visited but had a more upscale feel. Cape Cod or Nantucket on Lake Michigan.

Although we had no idea where were going to sleep that night and we already knew that all the hotels and restaurants were pretty full, Lyman and I responded by looking for a place to get a beer. We found The Mitten, a brew pub in an old house, named after the shape of Michigan on a map. We were able to get a seat because we were standing there when they opened at 5:00 PM. They had excellent pizza and beer. We could watch the scene walk by on the street.

View from the front porch of The Mitten

I had wanted to keep cycling the twelve miles to Holland MI but it became clear that it made much more sense to go to the one motel that we had found on my phone; their last room, out on the highway about two miles back in the direction we had come from. I hate going backwards, but whatever.

It was actually a pretty good motel. Standing and looking out the window of our room in the twilight we could see rabbits running around on the grass underneath all the fireflies.

photo by Lyman Labry

My original idea of this trip was to cycle to Grand Rapids MI in the allotted five days. To keep this plan and our airplane and Amtrak reservations we would need to cycle more than fifty miles the next day.

Our motel just south of Saugatuck had free pre-packaged bad breakfast, and after packing up we cycled back through Saugatuck and then the twelve miles to Holland MI, arriving there mid-morning.

Holland MI is aptly named, as it was settled by Dutch religious fundamentalists (also described as Dutch Calvinist separatists) starting in the 1840’s. A significant percentage of the population of the Holland / Grand Rapids area still claims Dutch heritage and religious tradition, including Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I had heard that Holland MI has such a vibrant downtown that many people come to visit just for the urbanism. We cycled into downtown Holland and found this pleasant looking local coffee place. We stopped and got a latte, sitting outside in those wonderful plastic Adirondack chairs.

We started cycling again.

Modernist bank branch, Holland MI

It was still almost forty miles cycling to Grand Rapids MI. Some of that Dutch cycling aura must have rubbed off on planners around here. In grids of farm roads through the Michigan countryside, in an area where bicycle paths are not even really necessary, there were enough bicycle paths that we were able to bicycle most of the way from Holland to Grand Rapids on separated paths.

bike path in rural Michigan

Grand Rapid’s city population is only 200,000 but it felt like a much bigger city. I have learned that for a Midwestern city its economy has been doing quite well, home of several major industries, including furniture manufacturers like Herman Miller, and Amway, seller of questionable dreams. Over twenty years ago, we had friends in Carrboro/Chapel Hill NC who had to move to Grand Rapids for family reasons. They described Grand Rapids as having “the charm of Charlotte with the weather of Buffalo.” I found it nicer than that.

Our accommodations showed the strengths and weaknesses of Airbnb. Each Airbnb has its own story; read the descriptions and reviews carefully. Here in Grand Rapids for the price of a nice hotel we could get an eighth floor two bedroom, two bath apartment in a new-looking building with an outdoor balcony in a good location. Once inside we found the apartment practically perfect.

Downsides: I had to sign all sorts of non-Airbnb legal release forms my cellphone. I had several tense texts with a non-Airbnb “customer representative” who had a San Antonio, Texas area code, and she gave us special verbiage to use if anyone asked why we were in this building. When finally approved for occupancy I was given the combination to a lockbox to pick up a key, which turned out to be almost two miles away, and I had to bicycle there in the heat of the day through traffic up a steep hill, after I had already bicycled more than fifty miles that day! The entire process did not involve any person to person contact.

bizarre “boxes” in a hipster looking part of Grand Rapids, where I chose “my box” and entered a combination, in order to retrieve a key to an apartment two miles away in a high rise.

Dinner that night was delicious, although I was suspicious of any restaurant with that names itself the French / Italian bastardization “Bistro Bella Vita.”

The restaurant had a huge open interior space, full of people eating, which is a good sign, and it had outdoor seating available, which made us more comfortable in these Covid times. Lyman really wanted the steak frites, even though the price of $52.00 was, in my mind, insane. We told the restaurant we wanted to split the steak frites and it was actually perfect, both portions plenty to eat and nicely presently as if ordered separately. With a split fried calamari appetizer and a split $ 36.00 bottle of pinot noir, the whole meal was not ridiculously expensive.

For dessert we got Asian ice cream takeout and sat on our balcony, listening to the roar of the nearby freeway (a real downside to this apartment if you lived here full time) and looking at the city.

Looking the other direction, the city’s Van Andel Arena, named after the Dutch surnamed man who co-founded Amway, a company characterized by many as a pyramid scheme.

The Grand Rapids Amtrak station was only about a quarter mile from our Airbnb. We cycled there at 5:30 AM for a 6:00 AM departure. Other than having to wear a mask the whole time, the four hour train ride was great. This particular train took full size bicycles, no need to fold, for a $10.00 fee.

We got to Chicago early enough that we could cycle around Chicago for a few hours, including cycling the six miles from The Loop north to Wrigley Field, then back along the Lakefront.

We had a healthy $ 7.00 Middle Eastern lunch downtown at a place called Oasis Cafe, in the back of jewelry store, of all places. My eggplant sandwich was delicious. We retrieved our suitcases and put the bicycles in them before taking the CTA subway back to O’Hare for the flights home late that afternoon.

Many of you know that my son Sam Marshall died on April 24, 2021. He had been living in Vietnam, teaching English. It has been a difficult time for me, my wife Tootie and our son Jack.

Sam and I did not take many bike trips together but we had done other stuff instead. I did take a bicycle trip with him in South Florida in 2013, riding from Fort Lauderdale to Key West.

I do not think that I grieve in a way that one walks around being sad or overwhelmed. I really need to keep my mind moving. Bicycling is the best way I know to do the exercise that absolves my soul. Yes, I am seeing a grief therapist, but the bicycling is fundamental to my sanity.

I have been cycling around pretty much every day the two months since April, Most days I take one of the loops around my town. Except for very short rides around the Carrboro/Chapel Hill downtown, Chapel Hill is not a very good urban bicycling destination. There are steep hills. Except for a few streets, most paved roads are either huge arterial highways or dead end residential areas. One has to look to find local rides. I have constructed a few loops around town that are both safe and interesting, connecting residential streets. My biggest complaint is that I get bored with taking the same rides over and over. The shorter loop of about an hour and a half I have dubbed The Meadowmont Loop, named after the faux-ville (New Urbanist development) that that the ride intersects. My most common longer ride of 3 – 4 hours I have dubbed The Paco Loop, from Chapel Hill to Durham and back, in one direction first to Southpoint Mall, then to Durham on American Tobacco Trail. I like coffee houses away from home, I can get a coffee in Durham, read a little, then bicycle home, mostly on Old Chapel Hill Road.

Immediately west of Chapel Hill and Carrboro there is world class cycling on lovely rural smoothly paved country roads, usually with sparse traffic. I have cycled out there many times in the past two months including a route that for years has been dubbed The Tootie Loop. Cyclists often refer to the area as “Dairyland”, named after Dairyland Road. I enjoy cycling out there but I admit that I have a preference for cycling through more interesting urban feeling neighborhoods.

At least once during this time I rode to Mebane, which is essentially a ride west to Dairyland, but ones keeps going, a little over twenty miles each way. There is a nice coffee place in downtown Mebane. Side story: A friend of a friend has lived his whole life in California. Retiring, he and his wife looked and studied all over the USA where to buy a second home, somewhere on the East Coast. Before even visiting there they had determined that Mebane NC was the place, somewhere most people in North Carolina have hardly noticed.

Sometimes I put the bicycle in the car and drive somewhere, to mix things up. One day recently I parked our car half an hour’s car drive from home, near the Whole Foods off Wade Avenue in Raleigh, then bicycled the twenty miles each way to Clayton and back.

Garner Road, also called Old U.S. Highway 70 is a pleasant cycle as it meanders the sixteen miles from downtown Raleigh to Clayton. Perhaps because it passes through the least trendy side of Raleigh it remains a road stuck in the past, a rarity in the fast growing Raleigh diaspora. One can see several historic gas stations.

Mid century modern!
This is the only likely pre-WWII gas station I have seen that still sells gas.
VFW hall
used appliances

In its small downtown Clayton NC has a great local coffee house, the Boulevard West. I drank an almond milk latte, two sugars, then headed back to Raleigh.

The southeast side of Raleigh is traditionally the African American side of town. Gentrifiers, presumably young and white, are moving into these neighborhoods, building boxy contemporary houses.

Almost within walking distance of downtown Raleigh

On May 20-21 our friends Lyman and Gillian were in town from Texas to close on the house they have bought in Durham. Lyman and I stole away for twenty-eight hours to take an overnight tour. We drove the now-fixed Prius an hour and a half north to the obscure Virginia hamlet of Sussex Courthouse. We would cycle from there the thirty miles to Petersburg VA then cycle back the next day. We parked in the municipal lot and pulled our two Bike Fridays out.

Lyman loves historic courthouses; he checked this one out. It was built about 1830.

Sussex Courthouse VA

The land in the entire sixty or seventy miles from the North Carolina state line along I-85 north to Petersburg VA is very sparsely populated. Nothing seems to have changed out here for generations. It is lovely cycling as we passed through miles of timber, hardly any car traffic.

Petersburg VA is an underappreciated small city 25 miles south of Richmond VA. There are historic neighborhoods full of eighteenth and nineteenth century houses.

Petersburg VA
1830’s row houses, Petersburg VA

We arrived in Petersburg and found a bar and got beers at an outdoor space. We had both been vaccinated but still felt more comfortable in the open air. We sat near two women from the U.K.; one of them protesting loudly when she heard me talking about some now-forgotten subject, interrupting when she heard me describe the Scottish as “gentle and forgiving.”

That night we stayed in an Airbnb, Lyman sleeping on the bed and I racking out on the sofa in the front room. For only about a hundred dollars total I would recommend this Airbnb to anyone, it has all the details right. It is described on Airbnb as “Historic Home C.1869 English Basement Apt.” Its owner living above is a Dutch guy who says he had been living in nearby Richmond for thirty years before moving recently to Petersburg. There are Dutch language books on the shelves.

Halfway back cycling the next day I felt an urgent need to play music. It was the middle of nowhere. I have a cheap ukulele that I sometimes bring on these trips. I had been singing this song in my head all morning, from an obscure 1973 album by the band Wilderness Road. I had not played the song ever, or at least in the past forty years. I was a little off key and I could not remember all the words. Video by Lyman.

Lyman and got back to the car with no problem and we drove home to Durham and Chapel Hill. The next day I was up early again, cycling around Chapel Hill, trying to keep my sanity.

I lived in Houston, Texas for two years 1979 – 81, just after I had graduated from an international business school in the Phoenix area (Thunderbird) and I wanted a job in “international business,” whatever that meant. I had heard that Houston had a vibrant job market. I wanted to take on the world, to not go back to my hometown of Norfolk / Virginia Beach. After considerable looking I got a job in the air freight business (international!) near the Houston airport. After two years in Houston, in 1981 I moved from Houston to New Orleans. More than forty years later I am still working in air freight, having lived in North Carolina since 1988.

My friends and I had frequently called Houston by the name Boomtown, or BT for short, as a sort of private joke. In about 1980, before deciding to leave Houston for good I had spent time looking to buy a low cost house. All my house searches had been in The Heights, a large neighborhood in north central Houston. Most of the houses were and are small 1920’s bungalows. The Heights back then was populated by mostly working class whites and was only beginning to gentrify. Forty years after I moved away from Houston I knew only two people who still lived in Houston, two people who did not know each other. Both lived in The Heights! One of them, my cousin Susan, has recently moved to New Mexico after decades of living in The Heights but The Heights is still home for my old friend Jorgen.

Late in March of 2021 I met up in the Houston Heights with three friends originally from that late seventies / early eighties era. All four of us have been Covid vaccinated. Jorgen is a recently retired shipping executive who I met in New Orleans but has lived in Houston for at least thirty years. Tom is a just about retired lawyer from Jacksonville FL who previously lived in both Houston and New Orleans. Lyman, my frequent bicycle touring companion, is retired architect from New Orleans now living in Austin TX. It was Tom’s idea that we would spend a few days in Houston bicycling around from one central base. During the past forty years all four of us have dabbled in bicycle touring.

I was appointed to find a place to sleep for the three out of towners. Covid gave us a good excuse to NOT share hotel rooms. I chose a 1950-60’s motel on the edge of The Heights that is in the process of renovating itself into a modernist showcase. The rooms were low cost, a half-renovated motel is calling itself The Heights House Hotel.

The Heights House Hotel

Lyman, Tom, and I left our motel that first morning for a bike ride, Jorgen would be out of town until the afternoon. We chose as a destination the now-dead Astrodome, fifteen miles each way through solid city.

There are miles of 1920’s tract housing in The Heights, most quite gentrified but not all.

Tom
Lyman

South of I-10 we cycled through various inner city neighborhoods on the prosperous west side. Houston has tall buildings in its proper downtown but has clumps of high-rise buildings elsewhere as well.

modernism near the River Oaks neighborhood

River Oaks is the most famous rich neighborhood in a city where trying to get rich is something people are said to do with brazen abandon. George H.W. Bush used to live in River Oaks. The pompous Ted Cruz lives somewhere in the neighborhood but we did not know his exact address. Ted where are you?

Lyman in River Oaks on his Bike Friday
Tom in River Oaks

We cycled onward south, through the shaded residential areas of West University Place, the Montrose neighborhood, and the area around Rice University.

The Astrodome was about America’s first indoor domed stadium when it opened in 1965. The Astros baseball team played there until the year 2000, when the replacement NRG Stadium opened , built in the Astrodome parking lot. Now both stadiums sit side by side. Historic preservationists have wanted to save the Astrodome but all reuse schemes have failed and the old Astrodome is just sitting there, leaking. There is a fence around the whole compound so Tom, Lyman, and I could not bicycle as close as we would have liked.

The Astrodome is on the left, just above Tom’s head.

We turned to cycle back north. We stopped for lunch at the Istanbul Grill and Deli. I had just come from New Orleans with its famous restaurant scene, and Houston shines admirably in comparison. We had about four full scale meals during our stay in Houston, and all four were excellent. All had most entree prices way under twenty dollars. All were “ethnic,” two Mexican, one Turkish, one Thai.

Also, New Orleans had disappointed me that during a pandemic few restaurants had decent outdoor seating. While the climates of New Orleans and Houston are about the same, Houston bars and restaurants we visited almost all had welcoming outdoor areas. I do not think it is Covid awareness as much as coincidence. Older parts of Houston seem to have a long tradition of eating and drinking outdoors. The spaces in New Orleans are more confined.

At the Istanbul Grill and Deli we sat outside and ate and ate and ate. It was all delicious.

After filling up on a variety of vegetable appetizers (accompanied by some yogurt based drink) we decided to go “all-in” and split one order of lamb chops. They went quickly.

Two chops each!
Desserts to split

After our two hour lunch we climbed back on the bicycles and head north again. This time we bicycled through the Rice University campus. Even more than Duke University, near where I live, every building and plant and piece of art at Rice looks practically gilded, as if the university has unlimited funds. Lyman (the architect) wanted to see James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace, a campus “building” that has no real function other than as a work of art and to serve as an outdoor music performance space. We leaned up the bikes against The Skyspace. It was not the time of day where we could not see the play of the light that supposedly accompanies each sunset.

Twilight Epiphany Skyspace

Soon after we cycled all the way back to the hotel in The Heights. We chilled at the motel. Afterward our friend Jorgen met us across the street from the hotel at a place called the D&T.

Jorgen

Later that evening we went to a barbecue place nearby, it had the typical Houston outdoor seating arrangements.

The next morning at 8:00 AM all of us bicycled over to a strip mall just underneath the Interstate Highway from our motel.

Indoors there was a long line of Mexican looking people masked and waiting patiently for what appeared to be sausage and egg tacos, starting with tortillas rolled out from scratch, then a selection of fillings. Whatever the filling, they started with a smear of refried beans.

rolling out each tortilla individually by hand

Because of Covid we chose to stand outside and eat our delicious breakfast in the parking lot.

Jorgen took us for a bicycle tour of inner Houston, first cycling through The Heights, then onto Houston’s extensive network of paved trails. This being Houston, the trails intersect and follow not only the natural areas along the bayous, but the freeways as well.

Jorgen and the downtown Houston skyline

Jorgen wanted to show us parts of prosperous River Oaks so we cycled over there as well. On a flat residential street with virtually no cars the four of us just relaxed while gently cycling and making conversation. The street had a speed bump in it. In a maneuver that all of us bicyclists have done many times, Tom cycling into the paved gutter so as to avoid the speed bump. The gutter had a few wet leaves in it, but they must have been decomposing as they turned out to be incredibly slippery. Tom’s bicycle suddenly slipped and fell over, him landing on his side perpendicular to the street.

Lyman, following close behind on the Bike Friday, ran into Tom’s prone body, Lyman’s small front wheel going directing into Tom’s midsection. Lyman’s front wheel stopped and his bicycle and seat vaulted, flipping directly over end to end, depositing Lyman from above on his helmeted head and his shoulder. I was bicycling right behind them and saw it all.

Immediately it became apparent that Lyman was in worse shape than Tom. Lyman lay on the street with his eyes open. We tried to talk to him but he did not answer. Only after about three or four minutes of lying in the road did Lyman slowly get up and sit with us on on the curb. Tom had been walking around and did not appear to have any obvious serious injury.

We asked Lyman to say something; we asked him over and over “what is your name.” Although I did not hear it, the others swear that his first words after three minutes were a quote from a movie Lyman loves :The Right Stuff, where an astronaut makes an ethnic joke he comes to regret: “My name: Jose Jimenez.”

We did not know what to do. Lyman was clearly not dead but certainly very dazed. I came up with a typical solution; call George, that is my affable brother-in-law in New Jersey who is a doctor. George talked to Tom and me for about twenty minutes but his solution was obvious, we needed to take Lyman to an emergency room to have him checked out.

I called an Uber. Tom accompanied Lyman in the Uber to the Memorial Herman Greater Heights Hospital, Jorgen cycled the several miles to his house to get his pickup truck, and I sat on the grass and Watched The Bikes. After about an hour Jorgen came with the truck and picked up me and the bicycles. After dropping the bicycles off at the motel Jorgen and I hung two blocks away from the hospital another outdoor restaurant King’s BierHaus, and split some sausages. Tom learned from George that saying that you have had a head injury (which was true) puts you in front of the line at the hospital. Tom called me after it had been about two hours and he and Lyman were ready to leave. Verdict: Lyman had a concussion and a badly bruised shoulder.

Lyman felt good enough to go out to lunch, and then again for dinner that night at a non-fancy looking place that Jorgen knew about near our motel. Street Food Thai Market specializes in a certain region of Thailand and Laos. The food was spectacular. This was my noodle soup entree, I wish I could remember its name.

Lyman was not in any shape to ride a bike or even drive a car. The next morning we left Lyman in the motel while Tom, Jorgen, and I took another bike ride through more of those Houston bike trails.

Tom and I that afternoon made an unscheduled car trip; we drove Lyman and his truck and Tom’s car three hours northwest to Lyman’s house in Austin. (Two weeks later Lyman is feeling much better.) Tom and I then drove three hours back to Houston the same day. We got to the Houston motel at about 8:00 PM and went to a Mexican seafood place, Jorgen meeting us there.

The next morning Tom and I drove back east, him dropping me off to Tootie and her sister Kathryn at our new place in New Orleans.

For my regular readers I have a couple of news items: Many of my blog posts feature the white 2005 Toyota Prius that I inherited from my late mother Eleanor. Thankfully just AFTER I recently finished driving the Prius 900 miles each way from North Carolina to New Orleans and back: the main battery failed. It needs to be replaced at a cost of thousands of dollars. We are examining our options; it might be time to replace the car.

The other item is that Tootie and I have purchased a second home, a one bedroom condo in a historic house in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans.

View of our condo building from the outside

By myself I drove the Prius down from Chapel Hill to New Orleans, one way twelve or thirteen hours, done over two days. My mission was to get the apartment down there set up, to have a bed and sofa brought in, to get the internet working. While there I had time to do some bike riding.

Most side streets of New Orleans are insanely bumpy from potholes and their slipdash repairs. I have kept a 1970’s fat tired Schwinn Typhoon down there for several years at my friend Kirk’s place. I really enjoy cycling through the New Orleans residential streets but even on that bomber bicycle one finds oneself looking not for the shortest route but the smoothest pavement. I used the Schwinn to bicycle back and forth to grocery stores and the Walmart and Harry’s Ace Hardware, picking up items to set up our new household.

My 1970’s Schwinn Typhoon in the stairwell of our new place
The Schwinn

I bought a cheap pot at Walmart and made some red beans; a New Orleans favorite. I don’t go all-health all the time, but on this day I chose brown rice and Beyond Meat sausage, with New Orleans’ own Crystal hot sauce, and (not pictured) some stir fried curly mustard greens.

I enjoyed biking around the city on the Schwinn. For longer rides I had brought along my Bike Friday. With tiny twenty inch wheels it is deceptively fast. Over three days on the Bike Friday I did three thirty plus mile bike rides.

Metro New Orleans is surrounded by levees. Governments have gotten it together in recent years and put paved paths on many or most of these levees, they make for perfect bike paths. On the first day I cycled about ten miles on New Orleans city streets before I reached the paved path that follows the levee fronting Lake Ponchartrain. The path starts in New Orleans before passing along the Metairie lakefront in neighboring Jefferson Parish.

The levee is so high you cannot see the houses in the city behind it.

lakefront bike path in Metairie, Jefferson Parish.

Suburban Metairie residents clearly pay extra for waterfront property fronting Lake Ponchartrain, but one cannot see the lake as the levee is too high!

Typical of the houses whose backyards front Lake Ponchartrain, just the other side of that grassy space.

There is a reason this coronavirus will not away, some people are not trying hard enough to beat it. Dining at restaurants works if people eat outdoors. It was a reasonably warm day with temperatures in the sixties. I had heard there were good oyster poor boy sandwiches at R&O’s in Bucktown, lakefront near the Metairie / New Orleans line. I passed by there about 11:00 AM and there was a huge outdoor seating area with lots of empty tables. Satisfied that this looked safe, I continued biking along the lakefront all the way to Kenner and back, returning to R&O’s about 1:00 PM, ready for a great outdoor lunch. These outdoor tables were now all filled, but filled with people waiting for a table at the INDOOR restaurant. Apparently R&O will not let you eat outdoors, which is insane. I biked on.

all masked up but not eating, waiting for an indoor table at R&O.

Dejected and hungry, I bicycled back the hourlong ride through the city back to my condo for leftover red beans and rice.

That night I bicycled around my new neighborhood, the Lower Garden District. Our condo is only one block from Urania Street, the first in of a row of nine streets in New Orleans all named after Greek muses. (Urania/Polymnia/Euterpe/Terpsichore/Melpomene/Thalia/Erato/Clio/Calliope.). Near where my friends Tom and Steve had lived in the 1980’s there is a statue of Terpsichore. It was a dicey neighborhood back then, it has gotten safer in the past thirty-something years.

Terpsichore Street

A couple of days later I cycled on a different levee. Starting in Uptown New Orleans near Audubon Park one can now cycle continuously on the Mississippi River levee about thirty miles upriver towards Baton Rouge. I first had to cycle on the streets through four or five miles of continuous older city, mostly nineteenth century wooden houses. Even poorer neighborhoods in New Orleans are stunning to look at.

I joined the Mississippi levee path near the Riverbend Carrollton area of Uptown New Orleans. I have been following this bike path for years and only recently has it been so complete. You can now bicycle on a smooth paved path along the Mississippi River for over thirty miles upriver, starting in Uptown’s Audubon Park, then into Jefferson Parish, past Kenner upriver all the way to Norco.

On this day I set my goal as the Luling/Destrehan Bridge, about twenty-five miles each way. In many areas the river is obviously at a higher level than the land surrounding it.

Just beyond the New Orleans/Jefferson Parish line, with Oshner Hospital on the right.
Ocean going ships on the river on the left

There were indeed a few places to eat and drink within sight of the path, but this one had no outdoor seating even on this sunny day. I did not stop, I had carried a peanut butter sandwich which I ate while cycling.,

Port Side Restaurant in St. Rose LA, upriver from Kenner LA, covers all the food groups.
The levee path went underneath facilities built for bulk loading ocean going ships on the Mississippi River.

Twenty something miles out I arrived at the Hale Boggs Bridge over the Mississippi. The bridge was completed in 1983.

Almost underneath the bridge and right next to the levee is Destrehan Plantation house, from 1790.

I turned around and cycled back towards New Orleans.

On the way back I passed back underneath that other Mississippi River bridge, the Huey Long Bridge, opened in 1935. The buzz is that Huey Long hated the big city of New Orleans so much that he insisted the bridge be built not in New Orleans but about ten miles upriver.

That night back in the apartment I had a to-go roast beef po-boy from Zara’s, a small supermarket Uptown.

I did one final ride the next day, this time on The West Bank. There has always been a ferry across the Mississippi from the foot of Canal Street near downtown and the French Quarter. The ferry is now smaller and faster than before as it now takes only pedestrians and bicyclists. The area across the river from downtown is called Algiers.

Biking from my new place to the Canal Street Ferry

View of the New Orleans central business district from Algiers, the other side of the river. The building in the center, the one with the round rooftop restaurant, was designed by Edward Durell Stone, the same architect who designed the North Carolina State Legislative Building. The New Orleans building, from 1962, formerly the World Trade Center, is being converted to a Four Seasons hotel.
View from the bike path on the West Bank

Most of the West Bank of metro New Orleans is suburban sprawl but a few areas of the West Bank mimic the “real” New Orleans, with 19th century wooden neighborhoods. This is especially true in the older part of Algiers, called Algiers Point.

neighborhood in Algiers Point

The West Bank of the Mississippi has a nice paved path along the levee, where you can watch the ships coming into New Orleans.

Algiers to Gretna

A few miles upriver from Algiers is Gretna, which developed back when there was the Jackson Street Ferry from Uptown New Orleans. Gretna also has a small 19th century residential neighborhood.

older part of Gretna LA

I found the River Shack in downtown Gretna, a bar / restaurant with outdoor seating during a pandemic. For once I was comfortably able to sit down and enjoy a restaurant lunch, in the breeze. I would have gotten the oyster po-boy, but they only had one size, large, and that kind of sandwich does not travel well. I instead got the small cheeseburger with fries, and a beer. It was all delicious.

I spent the rest of the afternoon biking around suburban areas of the West Bank before riding back to Algiers and taking the ferry back to central New Orleans, and then biking back to my new (second) home.