Archive for September, 2016

For those of you who wonder how I do this when I travel by air, my PBW brand folding bicycle fits in a plastic Samsonite suitcase.   I carry my clothes and stuff in a small trunk bag that I strap to the back rack of the bicycle.   The trunk bag has a shoulder strap for when I am not cycling.   The only drawback to the arrangement is that I have to find somewhere to store the empty suitcase.   Tootie took this picture of me leaving for the airport from our apartment with the bike and the trunk bag, everything I need for four days Chicago to Milwaukee.




Chicago Midway Airport is on the southwest side of Chicago.  It is unique in that it is completely surrounded by dense city residential neighborhoods on all sides.



I was flying into Chicago on Southwest Airlines from Raleigh/Durham on a Thursday morning to meet my buddy Lyman Labry who was flying in from Austin, Texas.    We met in Midway Airport at about about ten thirty that morning.  Our mission was to bicycle north to Milwaukee in the coming four days.  There is an excellent bike path that runs most of the way.  Having done Chicago to Milwaukee twice now I really think this is one of the best city bike trips in America.    We had reserved a one-way rental car to drive back from Milwaukee in time to fly home Monday night.

Lyman also has a folding bicycle, a Bike Friday.   Enterprise Rent-A-Car graciously agreed to hold our suitcases at Midway airport.   We spent about half an hour putting the bicycles together, then set off.

On the left of this photograph the car rental parking garage immediately abuts the residential neighborhood of Vittum Park.


We had chosen for this trip to ride directly north through the city from Midway Airport, rather than taking the lovely lakefront bike path which starts downtown.   Since we were bicycling on the South Side of Chicago we felt it important to check the crime rate of neighborhoods we were cycling through.     Going directly north looked safe, and this would also allow us to cycle up to Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Oak Park, about eight miles north.    We headed off from the rental car garage through neighborhoods on residential streets.   The cycling through these neighborhoods was delightful.  The land in Chicago is as flat as a pancake and almost all streets are in a grid.






Twice we had to leave neighborhood streets to get on bridges to cross canals or rail lines.   Cycling on busy highways across a bridge was scary but we usually could ride on the sidewalk.  At the top of one bridge we could see downtown off in the distance.


We saw several early (1893-1909) Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Oak Park, including these two.




Our lunch of hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and baba ghannouj in downtown Oak Park at a Middle Eastern place run by a Moroccan was one of the best meals of the trip.   After lunch we continued cycling through neighborhood streets to Evanston, which is on Lake Michigan north of downtown Chicago.   At this point we had cycled through almost thirty miles of continuous residential neighborhoods.

We did not want to push ourselves physically on this trip.   Lyman had had some kind of heart “event” less than a month earlier.   We had planned this trip before that, and his doctor OK’d he continue with the trip as long as he did not exert himself too much.   The doctor had given him a setup with wires connected to little suction cups to keep stuck on his chest.   This apparatus connected wirelessly to a souped up Blackberry.   The device had a cartoon picture of a heart on it which you could see pumping.  This would allow his doctor to look back and see what Lyman’s heart had been doing during the entire long weekend.


We stopped at a Starbucks and I looked at on my phone.  I found a hotel in downtown Evanston near Northwestern University called The Homestead.   When we got there I was impressed that The Homestead, built in 1927, seemed to have changed hardly at all.    It was well kept up but everything seemed 1927.

They gave us a place to put our bicycles and we walked in through the back door.





The single tiny elevator was too small for modern fat Americans.



The hotel had a nice front porch scene in the pleasant late summer cool weather.    The women just to the left of the front door were talking loudly in some language other than English that we could not recognize.  When we ate dinner outside three hours later they were still talking.   When they got into a cab later that evening we asked them what language they had been talking in.   They said it was Turkish, they were here to drop off a relative at Northwestern.


We cycled north on the lakefront bike path the next morning.   The Northwestern campus is right on the lakefront but did not seem particularly attractive.




Going north we cycled through Chicago’s richest suburbs like Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, and Lake Forest, all spread out along the lake.    We could have gone on a parallel bike path but it seemed more interesting to ride on Sheridan Road and look at where rich people lived, and them out walking their dogs.




In Glencoe we biked a few blocks off the main road to a small cluster of houses called Ravine Bluffs, for which Frank Lloyd Wright designed this tiny bridge in 1915 along with several houses.  The houses are examples of Wright’s “$5000.00 fireproof house”, his idea of semi-affordable housing.



This very Friday was Lyman’s 65th birthday, so we celebrated for lunch at a Cuban/French restaurant in Highwood IL.    I got the feeling that this restaurant started out as Cuban, but changed to French so they could charge more.   Still, the salade nicoise was good and not all that expensive,  the atmosphere festive, and the tile decor fetching.  The doors were open to outside.      Everyone eating there looked prosperous and idle on this workday afternoon  (O.K., so were we!), with lots of examples of what seemed to be Ladies Who Lunch.



Back on the bikes, after we cycled past the even more prosperous town of Lake Forest, we began to see the income divide in America.    The bike path followed an arrow straight former railroad line through poor mixed race neighborhoods in Waukegan, Illinois that went on for miles.


The path looped around the Great Lakes Naval Base.   There were few hotels along this route and our only real choice was a Country Inn & Suites motel in Zion, Illinois, just a few miles south of the Wisconsin line.    The motel was new, clean, and friendly and faced the huge parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly.    The motel atmosphere could not have been more different from that of our lunch at the French restaurant.   Apparently there is a large Cancer Treatment Center of America hospital in Zion and people come from afar for treatment there.    There were lots of very sociable working class people staying at the motel while they or their relatives had cancer treatments.    There was always two or three people hanging out in front of the motel, smoking cigarettes.    I walked over to buy some beer at the Piggly Wiggly.  Almost everyone in the very slow moving line at the supermarket looked white, unhealthy, and poor.  Country Inn motels have a front porch, and it was relaxing to sit in the rocking chairs and each drink an IPA.


Because we were on bicycles we could not go far in the dark to eat dinner.   We did not really like the choices available.  We ended up talking to the African American owner of Herm’s Bar-B-Que.


Herm said since he rented his space from the owners of Al’s Tap & Package Liquor next door they would not mind if we bought takeout and ate it at their bar.   So that is what we did; I had fried chicken and Lyman had a brisket sandwich.   The three other people seated around Al’s bar, all guys about our age, were very cordial.   They told us what it had been like to work at the American Motors factory just up the road in Kenosha.   Note our bicycles in the lower right corner of this picture.


We left the next morning for Wisconsin.   I have a particular interest in the former American Motors (AMC) factory in Kenosha WI,  about fifteen miles north of our motel in Zion IL.   My dad was the owner of Marshall Rambler in Virginia Beach, and the whole time I was growing up we drove nothing but Ramblers.   As a kid I was fascinated by cars.   Essentially all AMC Ramblers had been built at the Kenosha WI factory and my Dad was always talking about it.   This factory started making cars for Nash in 1902 and finished with making engines for Chrysler when the plant closed for good in 2010.     The factory was completely torn down in 2013.     The huge site is surrounded on all sides by Kenosha neighborhoods and we biked by it on the way to downtown Kenosha, looking for a place to eat lunch.


Downtown Kenosha had American Motors memories on a wall.



It was noon on a Saturday so brunch at an Irish pub on Kenosha’s renovated waterfront seemed to fill the bill.


Wisconsin has a deeply rooted bar culture.    This pub claimed it was their tradition that bloody marys be accompanied by a small glass of beer.   I did not get a bloody but this lady got two!


On the other side of us at the bar we talked to an older couple who said they had worked about thirty-seven years each at the American Motors plant.  They did not dwell on the fact that it was closed and torn down, but rather what great jobs they had had there, depending on one’s view of “work”.    I would have taken this all in stride except their description of excessive drinking at the AMC factory was exactly what the guys had said the night before at Al’s Tap in Zion IL.   The men in Zion had said the factory had more bars adjacent to it than “any auto factory in the world”  (their words).     These stories took place mostly in the nineteen seventies and eighties, a time when American car companies were being pummeled because of their reputation for poor quality.   The lady here in Kenosha said that her job had been wonderful because  “where else could you just tell your supervisor just to go f*** himself?”   She said that anything and everything went on in that plant; drinking, smoking pot, sex, all of it.    She and her husband remembered “covering” for a co-worker who was drunkenly passed out on the factory floor.    She also said women had to be tough to work factory jobs in those days; there was a lot of harassment going on.   Neither of them talked about any job satisfaction of making quality cars.  They did say they had always owned AMC cars.   She was a really funny person and she let me take their picture.


We reluctantly left this pub about two o’clock.  We rode across town Kenosha and stopped for a coffee.


It was about fifteen miles to Racine where we would spend the night.    The lakefront north of Kenosha was inviting.


It was an excellent paved bike path all the way to Racine.


We were looking forward to Racine for two reasons.  One was that we had made reservations for a tour the next day of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Johnson Wax building.    The other was that we Racine connections; my good friend Tom from Jacksonville, Florida; his father was born and raised in Racine.   Tom’s cousin Charlie, a judge, lives in Racine.

Racine had a Midwest factory town look.


I biked past a wedding party across the street having their picture taken and they saw me take out my camera.


We stayed at a hotel on the Racine lakefront.   Charlie was not in town, but gave us another invitation to Wisconsin bar culture. Charlie had relayed to us that we HAD to get a drink at Rickey’s on Main Street downtown, and ask for Suzette.

We did get a drink there before dinner.   Suzette was great.


We had dinner at a restaurant with the linguistically awkward name of Olde Madrid.  Tapas were non-Spanishly huge in size, but the food was quite good, and one tapa each was plenty to eat.    The Spanish American chef came out after dinner and pressed the flesh.

I got up the next morning and walked around downtown Racine at seven-thirty in the morning.    Its downtown has some empty storefronts but it is unusually well preserved.   Racine more recently has built a yacht harbor adjacent to downtown.







Lyman and I biked around Racine that morning.   Racine has a beach.   I only got my feet wet but you could almost imagine that you were at the ocean.



That afternoon we took our tour of the S.C. Johnson headquarters,  built in 1935 and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.   The company which makes Johnson Wax, Glo-Coat, Raid and many other products is still headquartered here in an inner-city Racine neighborhood.    Wright did not like cities, so he built this building to draw attention to the inside rather than making a splashy presentation to the outside.     He wanted to create his own natural world within.

We saw the Great Workroom.  We were not allowed to take interior photos so this picture is lifted from the internet.   Wright designed all the furniture including the desks and even the chairs.

We then toured inside the adjacent Research Tower, also designed by Wright and built in 1950.

The tour finished about three-thirty, and we pushed off to bicycle the almost thirty miles to Milwaukee that afternoon.   A bike path goes only part of the way.   We rode most of the way on Wisconsin Route 32, weaving through a succession of towns.    The road had two lanes but a fairly large shoulder.   The wind was at our backs.    Along the way I kept thinking that these Milwaukee suburbs are the political base of so many nationally famous Republicans:  Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus, but most of all Governor Scott Walker, who built an entire career by playing up fear and resentment of the people in these towns towards the more urban Milwaukee.

Eventually we were able to get off Route 32 and ride through a grid of city streets.  At some point we realized we were in the city limits of Milwaukee.   Milwaukee feels like a big city.    We rode through city streets for quite a while, finally settling on a hotel on the north side of downtown.      We walked that night to an Italian restaurant.

I got up early the next day and walked around, first towards the lakefront and the Santiago Calatrava designed Milwaukee Art Museum.


I also walked to the central part of downtown.    Milwaukee clearly was a wealthy and important place at the turn of the twentieth century.  The city hall was the tallest habitable building in the United States for four years, 1895-1899.   The only taller building was the Washington Monument.


After breakfast we biked north to the Glendale area where we were to pick up the rental car.   We passed through miles of early twentieth century neighborhoods.



Milwaukee is famous for neighborhood bars.   This is one of dozens we passed.


On the north side of town the Milwaukee River Greenway is a great bike path that led almost all the way to the rental car place.


We both had flights departing Chicago Midway early evening.    We put the bikes in the Prius and drove back to Chicago.  We had time for a Greek lunch near the Loop, and to walk around downtown Chicago for an hour or so.



I had read about the recently completed Virginia Capital Trail,  a delightful paved bike path that runs over fifty miles from Williamsburg to Richmond, along Virginia state route 10 on the north shore of the James River.   Historic plantations, many from the 1600’s, line the route.    The original Virginia colonial settlement of 1607,  the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and most of all the Civil War; it all happened here.       There is a creepy old schooledness about the area.    The level of history seems oppressive; it makes it hard to concentrate on the present.  It felt very Southern.    Tootie commented that she could sense in the air some of the pain from all the slaves that used to work this land.

In the middle of Labor Day Weekend, we drove up from Chapel Hill and parked the car at Charles City Courthouse, just over thirty miles from downtown Richmond.   We pulled two bicycles out of the trunk of the Honda and set off.    The plan was to ride to Richmond, spend the night, then ride back.



Along the way you cannot see the river unless you turn off the path and bike several miles down dirt roads that dead end at some plantation house sitting on a bluff overlooking the river.   About eight miles into the ride we turned down a side road to go see Shirley Plantation.   I had remembered my parents taking me to visit it when I was a child.   As a farm it claims to be the oldest family business in America, founded in 1614 and with the same family running it since 1638.   The same family has lived in this house since it was completed in 1738.


The bike path runs along farm fields growing both corn and what I guess is soybeans.



There are almost no restaurants along this trail and hardly even a mini-mart.   We had brought our own picnic lunch, and stopped to eat, sitting on a fence.


There is so much history, and there are so many historical markers, that sometimes they bunch together.





We did find a mini-mart when we were almost at the Richmond city limits.


On the other side of Richmond, the west side, Richmond sprawls out for many miles.  On this side, the southeastern side, there are still woods and fields within a few miles of downtown.


We were both sufficiently tired when we rode through downtown and Shockoe Bottom, then uphill from the river to Richmond’s uptown neighborhood of The Fan.


There are plenty of hotels in Richmond, but almost none in The Fan, so we had booked an Airbnb.   This one was run by Catherine, about our age, who says she is a dancer.   She inherited the row house from her parents.  She rents out part of the house as apartments, and lives in a two bedroom portion, one bedroom of which she rents out on Airbnb.     Compared to some other Airbnb situations, this one felt more like we really staying at her home, with all the good and bad that entails.  She was super nice and interesting, but we did not have a private bathroom, and we knew she could hear us through the wall.  It was the first cool day of the end of summer, and the windows were open, and our room had a screen door to the outside.   The breeze was calming and therapeutic as we chilled out and read our Kindles.     We had a fetching view of the wall of the house next door.  It all felt pleasantly urban.


At about sixty thirty we took a long walk in the refreshing cool air through The Fan and into downtown.    Broad Street is the traditional wide shopping street of Richmond, but has had mostly empty storefronts for the past forty years.   As the Richmond downtown revitalizes, these spaces are gradually filling up.    After checking out several options, we sat at the bar and ate Italian at a place on Broad Street called Graffiato, in a space with high ceilings.

Across Broad Street was an interesting piece of milk bottle architecture.


The next morning we biked about ten blocks across town to a Starbucks on Broad Street.   On the way, we passed through parts of the VCU campus, which is pleasantly integrated into the urban fabric.   This brutalist building from 1971 is singularly unattractive, but you have to admire their chutzpah in getting the thing built.



The bike ride back to the car in Charles City was a pleasant on this sunny day, at least before it got hot.    The bike path was sometimes so busy that you had to take care not to run into people.    On the southeast side of Richmond, former industrial areas are being rehabbed into apartments overlooking the James River.



The wind was now at our back.  Life was good, but we were both tired as the day progressed.  When we got back near the car  Tootie reacted after telling me to stop taking her picture so much!



On a Saturday in 2002 I managed to get away for about twenty four hours total.   The memories of my one night in Tarboro are still so vivid that I want to share this story.   It would be eight or nine years before I started writing a blog about my bicycle adventures.

I had seen Tarboro a few times before, stopping briefly on car drives to the beach.  Tarboro is the prettiest small town in North Carolina, rivaled only by that other Down East destination Edenton.    Both exude Southern gentility.  With a population of just eleven thousand, this short visit helped underscore how interesting such a town could be.



Tarboro is about a hundred miles east of Chapel Hill and twenty-something miles west of Rocky Mount.   I had first heard of Tarboro twelve years earlier,  back in about 1990 from a longtime friend of my wife’s.   The friend was from Greensboro.   She had been deeply in love with a guy from a Good Family of Tarboro.    The relationship had ended and she was having trouble getting over it.   She regaled us with stories of various social events, fancy outdoor picnics and barbecues.     Tarboro abuts the Tar River, and a couple times she was in the car with us and the highway crossed the Tar River.  Both times she pointed out “That is the oldest river in the world!”     Anybody from Tarboro will tell you that only Tarboro and Boston, Massachusetts have a Town Common, which is a wide grassy space in the center of town.    The friend seemed to love everything about Tarboro.  I had been impressed by its architecture and town planning but she loved it for its people.

Another friend who I did not know as well in 2002 but have since come to know better is our Chapel Hill friend Martha.  She has the most pleasantly distinctive and cultured Southern accent of anyone I know.  Martha has close ties to Tarboro.   She grew up in Elizabeth City but both her parents were from Tarboro.   Her father is a retired doctor.  Her mother, known as B2 was an artist who died relatively young.  Martha describes B2 as loving and vivacious.

So in 2002 I decided to check the place out by bicycle.   I parked our minivan about thirty miles out of town, pulled the bicycle out and pedaled off to see what I could find.   I got into Tarboro just as it was getting dark.  I rode up to the Ramada Inn on the 64 Bypass, but having to stay on out the highway defeated the purpose of this trip.    Pretty much in the dark I pedaled back into town.    On the north side of the Town Common there was a sign for a bed and breakfast.  I biked up to it, parked the bike,  walked on the porch, and knocked on the door.

If it was not this same building, then it was a building that looked very similar to this.


A woman, maybe sixty years old, answered the door.   She said they normally did not get walk-up business.  She eyed my bicycle outfit.  She hesitated a second and then said sure, they had a room.    I negotiated a price,  parked my bicycle on the porch and she showed me to my room.

She asked “Do you drink?”   When I said sometimes, she replied that I was welcome to join her and her husband in the library.    He was an interesting old guy.   I got the feeling that meeting and talking to their guests was the highlight for this couple each evening.   They were not even Southern.  They had been attracted to the beauty of this town and had moved here to operate this B&B.   I cannot remember what we talked about, but I am sure I ended up telling them half my life story.    I was drinking one of the stiffest gin drinks I have ever had.   He was pouring his own second or third while I was still nursing my first.    We did talk about restaurants in town.     The B&B overlooked the block-wide Common and the downtown commercial strip was on on the other side.    My hosts said that there were really only three places to eat.    The one I should definitely NOT eat at was the restaurant called On The Square.   It was a new place.    The food there looked unusual.  They said the prices were “ridiculous.”    After an hour long cocktail session I decided to escape that second drink and go eat.  I staggered out of the library onto the porch, the onto the sidewalk to walk downtown.

Of course I ended up eating at On The Square.     It was one of the best meals I had had in a long time.


I sat by myself at the bar.  The other bar seats remained empty the whole time I was there.    In fact, at about seven-thirty there really was hardly anyone eating there.   The room was nicely furnished but brightly lit.   Gradually, the place did fill up.   As I remember it had only about eight tables.    A lunch place, they had only recently opened for dinner one or two days a week.   The people eating there all looked well-to-do,  dressed in a Southern country club manner.  They all seemed to know each other, exchanging Southern fake-nice kisses.   I heard women exclaim to each other  “It’s so nice to see you” in high pitched female voices.    Back in 2002 most small North Carolina towns did not have serious fancy restaurants like this.   Such places have multiplied in the years since.

I do not remember what I ate but it was all delicious, eating this three course meal while reading The New Yorker magazine.     Towards the end, somebody who worked there, who looked somehow non-Southern, walked up and wanted to chit-chat.   What he really wanted to know was, what was I doing here?  Why would some random guy be sitting in Tarboro reading The New Yorker, eating by himself?

He was the co-owner.   He said that they did not normally get people like me as customers.   He told me something about himself.   He and his wife had been working as sommeliers at Windows on the World in New York, on like the hundredth floor of the World Trade Center.    They had seen their entire working world be destroyed in a flash in September 2001.     They had both been obviously freaked out by this.   His wife hailed from the town of Tarboro, North Carolina, so they retreated here and acquired this little space.  The restaurant had only recently started serving dinner.   I later found out that both of them were sommeliers with serious credentials.    He told me he often visited Chapel Hill.   He said that being from wherever he was from, he needed to get out of Tarboro sometimes and Chapel Hill was the closest respite.  On The Square has gone on to be a successful restaurant in Tarboro.

It had been a great dinner.  I strolled around through the historic parts of town  before walking back across the Town Commons to the B&B.

The next morning I had the obligatory Breakfast.   I remember being served this breakfast at a fancy dining room table, covered with lace, candelabras, and nicknacks.   The room had a soaring high ceiling.  It all looked like someone’s rich grandmother’s dining room, circa 1951.

I did not see my male host that morning but my hostess seemed to have lots of energy.   Not only did my hostess cook me bacon and eggs, but sat next to me and conducted a long diatribe directed at Bill Clinton.   Even though he was no longer president she still had so much resentment towards that man.   Once, I made the mistake of trying to reason with her;  this only made matters worse.

Still, we were all smiles when I packed up and walked down the stairs off the porch.   Waving goodbye, I rode the thirty miles back to the minivan.   I was home in Carrboro by mid-afternoon.