Eve of the Last Chance Randonnee: The drop bags are all packed, my bike is ready, and in an ideal world I would have been asleep hours ago for my 3 a.m. ride start here I’m always surprised at how many details there are to take care of and how damned slow and/or disorganized and/or frazzled I always seem to be as zero hour approaches. Things always get better when the ride starts, at least until my ass starts hurting. Which reminds me I thought of writing a nice little post on the Top However Many Dreads that afflict one before starting a long-distance ride. There’s no time now for the wonderful artful one I composed in my head, but here’s the outline:

1. You’re just not up to the ride. Not fit, not physically prepared. The ride will be pure misery because of that and you won’t manage to finish.

2. You’ll suffer some bad physical breakdown: maybe your knees, though my thoughts tend to settle on the sitting part of my anatomy.

3. You’ll hit some dreadful weather that will turn the ride into a trail of tears. The two top characters in my awful weather fantasy — given I’m a habitue of mild California — are rain and headwinds. Of the severe, unceasing variety of course.

4. Your bike will break down. It’s happened to me once or twice.

That’s enough. I need to sleep. If I can check in from the road, I will.

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The Uni Experience

Uni is what’s left of United Airlines after you subract Ted, whatever that is (I’ve never flown Ted, but gather it’s the kinda cool pared-down Southwest-like version of United; one shudders at the thought). I’ve flown United for years and years; one of the big things it has going for it is that it has skads of flights between San Francisco and Oakland to O’Hare, and it’s usually cheaper than those alternatives that don’t force you to connect or fly overnight.

To save money and help cut its workforce, Uni (and most of its competitors) push online reservations and checkin. That’s great if you don’t need to check a bag; you print out a boarding pass at home and go directly to the security checkpoint when you get to the airport. If you’re one of those who needs to check bags — more and more of us in the new no-fluids-in-the-cabin era — the check-in process is pretty bad, at least in Oakland.

On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, United’s “Easy Check-In, with Baggage” lines were ridiculous — at 5 a.m. It only took a minute to see why. The scores of people waiting to check bags were being served by three or four clerks. Luckily, I got moved through the line because my flight was only an hour off — only an hour! — and they wanted to get all the baggage on board.

Today, the Easy Check-In, with Baggage line was a lot less intense at first glance. Maybe 15 people in line, some who had already gone through the automatged check-in process and were just waiting for some kind Uni soul to come along and tag their bags so they could go to their gates. This time, though, just one person was working the half-dozen kiosks at the counter. She was doing double duty trying to take care of someone whose flight had been canceled. Another worker was dealing at length with the two people in the first-class line; she wasn’t in a hurry to address the plebeian mini-throng growing at the counter. Meantime, a supervisor type and another worker were standing behind the counter beneath three signs that said “Economy Check In/Position Open.” When I approached them and asked whether I could check in at that counter, the supervisor guy gave me a look like he had caught the scent of dog crap and said, “No.” After a few more minutes of conversation, he went over and talked to the lone worker at the Easy Check-In desk, then said, “See you later,” and sauntered past the people waiting along the counter without a word to them.

In the end, it was really no big deal to me. The reason I have time to sit and write about it now is that my flight to Denver, where I’m going to ride my bike, is two hours late. And the experience was not entirely negative: I admired the patience and aplomb of the single counter worker who managed to deal with a lot of impatient stares without losing her cool; it was pretty impressive. But Uni — what are you trying to do? Make me find another airline?

That Day

Did this last year. It’s still one of the best things I’ve encountered regarding that day: an abridgment of a passage from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that Scott Simon read on NPR the weekend after September 11, 2001:

“I understand the large hearts of heroes,

The courage of present times and all times;

How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm;

How he knuckled tight, and gave not back one inch, and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,

And chalk’d in large letters, on a board, Be of good cheer, we will not desert you:

How he follow’d with them, and tack’d with them—and would not give it up;

How he saved the drifting company at last:

How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when boated from the side of their prepared graves;

How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men:

All this I swallow—it tastes good—I like it well—it becomes mine;

I am the man—I suffer’d—I was there. …

I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken;

Tumbling walls buried me in their debris;

Heat and smoke I inspired—I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades;

I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels;

They have clear’d the beams away—they tenderly lift me forth. 

I lie in the night air in my red shirt—the pervading hush is for my sake;

Painless after all I lie, exhausted but not so unhappy;

White and beautiful are the faces around me—the heads are bared of their fire-caps;

The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches. …

I take part—I see and hear the whole;

The cries, curses, roar—the plaudits …

Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs … the rent roof—the fan-shaped explosion;

The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air. …

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;

Missing me one place, search another;

I stop somewhere, waiting for you.”

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Treasure Hunt

It’s very quiet here. Thom just returned to Oregon; he and Kate left with a minivan-load full of stuff yesterday morning, and he’s busy getting his house set up in Eugene. Kate’ll be back this evening. Scout, the dog, is morose.

I just came back from Chicago — well, I came back on Tuesday. Tomorrow, I’m flying to Denver to do a 90-hour, 750-mile ride, the Colorado Last Chance 1200. That’s a staggering thought, actually; I was on a waiting list and didn’t really expect to get in. Then on Thursday, I got an email saying a spot had opened up. I trained to do one of these long rides this year and was hoping to do the Cascade 1200 in Washington state. But I fell off my bike three weeks before that event and wasn’t really healed completely when the time came to ride (what I missed was four days of very tough and very, very hot riding). But over the summer, I got back into a pretty good riding rhythm and now I’m going to Colorado.

The route is through eastern Colorado and out into northern Kansas, principally on U.S. 36 ((the Kansas portion of the route has its own booster’s association, which is planning a weekend of garage sales from one end of the highway to the other starting next Friday: “The First Annual Great U.S. Highway 36 Treasure Hunt.” The easternmost point in the ride, Kensington, Kansas, is in Smith County; back in America’s 48-state days, the county was the site of the geographical center of the United States, near the town of Lebanon. This is a part of the country that has been losing people for over a century. For instance, census numbers show Smith County’s population fell more than 75 percent between 1900 (when there were 16,384 residents recorded ) and 2005 (4,121, down 9 percent just since 2000). You could pick almost any county out there in the dry Plains and find the same story. So then you get attractions like the Great Treasure Hunt as a way of drawing people out there to see what they’re missing (lots of fresh air, lots of room, lots of quiet, lots of homes that look cheap by comparison with what big-city folks are used to. The problem is, people who say they’d like all that, and I’m one, would like all that in moderation or in carefully controlled doses; and they still need someplace to go to work to support their wide-open-spaces lifestyle.

Looking forward to seeing it all, though, even though I think I’ll miss the Great Treasure Hunt

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Big-Ass Tree Fungus


Encountered on Francisco Street, between Milvia and Martin Luther King, earlier this week: A large mushroom-like fungus growing on an old non-flowering plum of some sort; it’s about 16 inches wide and 12 inches high and protrudes maybe a foot from the tree trunk; big enough to be considered a fellow citizen here in Berkeley. I took a couple pictures, but they didn’t come out. Went back today expecting that it had shriveled up or that some bored passer-by had decided to knock it off the tree for the fun of it. But there it still was. My mycologically inclined neighbor and friend Jill says this kind of organism actually is pretty woody and durable and likely to last a long time. She also said that it’s likely non-toxic and that if you ever find yourself hard up for food in the woods, the thing to do would be to break it up and boil it and drink the broth; of course, you’ll need to be carrying the right equipment to do that when you’re hard up for food in the woods.


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One More Cemetery Visit

Back in Berkeley now — since late, late Monday night; remind me to bore you with the tale of United Airline’s feat of taking half an hour to move a planeload of bags 100 yards — but I undertook another family cemetery excursion in Chicago before returning west. And another cross-city bike ride, too.

I decided to go out to Mount Olive Cemetery, where my dad’s parents and other relatives are buried. I’ve only been there once: for my grandmother’s funeral, thirty-one years ago this month. Otilia Sieversen Brekke was buried next to my dad’s dad, who died twenty-two years to the day before I was born. I’d never seen his grave before: Sjur Brekke. 1876-1932. He was a Lutheran minister and member of the Hauge Synod, a branch that rebelled against the state-established Lutheran church in the early 19th century (bits of the history here and here). He died when Dad was just 10, of Parkinson’s Disease, long before there was an effective way to treat it.

I rode from Dad’s place, roughly Touhy and Western (7200 North, 2400 West) to the cemetery, near Narragansett and Addison (3600 North, 6600 West). I did an online map of the route I took, but the rough path was: Pratt west to Kedzie; Kedzie south to Irving Park; Irving west to Pulaski; Pulaski south to Addison, and Addison to Narragansett; on the return: Narragansett north to Nagle; continuing north on Nagle to Gunnison; west on Gunnison to Austin; Austin north (with the help of a pedestrian overpass across the Kennedy Expressway) to Bryn Mawr; Bryn Mawr east to Elston; Elston north to Central; Central north to Devon; then winding through side streets east and south back to Bryn Mawr (there’s a river and expressways and forest preserves in the way of a direct route); Bryn Mawr east to California, and California north to my starting point.

Aside from that numbing recitation of street names only a Chicagoan could cotton to, I have to observe that while I had to ride on busy streets with plenty of traffic, the local drivers behaved pretty generously to the freak on a bicycle they encountered. I’m sure riding day in and day out you get to see the same hostile attitude on occasion that’s a daily reality riding in California, but on my two long city rides, I had just one car honk at me, heard no one curse me for being on the road, and saw no raised digits.

When I got to the cemetery, I rode in the gate believing I’d be able to hunt down Sjur and Otilia’s headstone from my thirty-one-year-old memory. I rode in a couple hundred yards and when I came to a turn realized how much I’d overestimated my power of recall. Before I turned back to the cemetery office, I saw a sign listing prohibited cemetery activities. Bicycling was one. I rode back to the gate, went into the office, and asked the manager for help finding the Brekke site, mentioning that I hadn’t been to the cemetery since 1975. He complied with no hint of enthusiasm or engagement, but didn’t say anything about not cycling in the graveyard. He gave me a very general outline map of the grounds and marked the rough location of the grave in Section G, Lot 482. The guidance was good enough, though: I found the spot after looking for no more than 10 minutes. Different from how I remembered it.

When we were down at Holy Sepulchre on Sunday to see my mom’s family burial places, Dad commented on how much more activity there was there than at Mount Olive. Tuesday afternoon, I saw just one car in the cemetery. The place has a bit of an about-to-be-overgrown feel to it. The ground seems unlevel. Stones are leaning and atilt, and rows don’t seem to line up. The grass is a little long. It’s not a bad feeling, in itself; the trees out there are beautiful. It’s just that the families that buried parents, spouses, siblings, and children here have gone somewhere else — California, for instance. They don’t come back often or at all, and nobody’s minding Uncle Ole’s little patch up there on the Northwest Side too closely anymore.


A friend of mine recently called cemeteries a waste of valuable property, and I know what he was saying. It’s a lavish use of land. Out of necessity, mostly, other cultures seem to remember the dead a bit more economically; in Japan or China or India, where land is food, it would be reckless to give so much to those who no longer need it. The thought came to me while I was out amidst the Brekkes and Reques and Sieversens (all my dad’s folks) that cemeteries are memory; that’s what gives them value, that’s what makes them poignant and absorbing even when you know nothing about the people you encounter there. Our national fascination with genealogy aside, though, memory — the kind that tries to weigh the past, personal and collective, not to romanticize it but to provide context and maybe a lesson or two for the present and future — doesn’t look like a hot commodity. People without that sense of memory, of the value of memory, of the importance of connecting today with what’s gone before and what’s to come — for them, cemeteries might really be a waste.

Cemetery Visit

Our mom died three years ago last week, and she’s buried (or interred or however you want to say it) at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on the far South Side, along with her parents and a couple of her brothers, one set of grandparents, assorted uncles and cousins, and our brother Mark. Not that everyone is buried in one neat group. Far from it. There are two graves here, three there, and then a big grouping of about a dozen O’Malleys and Morans.

The earliest grave in the O’Malley-Moran grouping is from 1928; the latest 1964. Five of the graves date from a single year, 1939, and four of those from a single date, August 22. That’s the date of what I remember my mom calling “the dunes,” when Mary Moran and Mary O’Malley — her first cousin and aunt, respectively — and John Moran and John Hogan — an uncle and her 11- or 12-year-old brother — drowned at Miller Beach in the Indiana Dunes.

We grew up hearing about the dunes: It was the day after a big storm on the lake, and a rip current swept our mom, three months shy of her tenth birthday, and the others into deep water. How my Uncle Bill, who was 13, was nearly dragged in, too, but escaped and ran up the beach for help. How Mom was rescued just at the point of drowning and was revived on shore (the identity of the rescuer was unclear until a few years ago; a few years ago, it emerged as another cousin, Joe O’Malley, who was only about 17 at the time). The terrible aftermath of funerals and guilt.

But until my mom died, I never visited the cemetery or really knew where the family was buried. It was only last year that my dad showed me the Moran and O’Malley graves, and that was the first time I saw where the people who had drowned were buried. There’s a small mystery about the burials, though: One person, my mom’s brother John, is unaccounted for among the markers on the family lot. The cemetery’s records show he’s there, somewhere. But either his grave was never marked or the stone has been buried or lost. My dad’s started trying to sort out where he is.


In the meantime: Of course, the drowning always seemed real to me. My mom’s account was detailed and haunting. When I was 17 or so, we drove out to Miller Beach, and she showed me the big house the family had rented for a couple of weeks that August. Even so, coming upon the graves — This is the Aunt Mary that Mom talked about, the one who washed her hair that day and insisted she wear a bathing cap — gives the story another dimension, an objective dimension, it really hadn’t had for me before.

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Chicago Connectivity Notes

Sporadic posting, email reading, and Web off-goofing in Chicago. Not because America’s Greatest City lacks for newfangled electronic contrivances, including those of the Internet variety. But because connectivity is not readily available during my laptop-toting visits here (which probably turns out to be a good thing, since that makes me actually talk to people and go out and see things, like Millennium Park and that North Side Starbuck’s that the Wobblies are trying to organize. So: Not a complaint; I’m just saying.

(One thing I notice, though: My family is used to seeing me turn on my computer and just getting on whatever household Wi-Fi network happens to be in range. A couple years ago, I could do that just about anywhere because most of the people who had set up wireless seemed to have skipped the part of the Wi-Fi router manual that told them how to restrict access to their networks. Now, most of the wireless nets I see require a password to get on; that shuts out the likes of me, those neither inclined to try to crack someone’s security nor proficient at the tricks or tools you might need to do that. So either people are learning or the manuals are shorter and easier to read.)

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Three Days in Chicago

Day Three

Starting with today, the reason I’m here this time: It’s my dad’s 85th birthday. We’re having a barbecue and Ann and Dan’s — my sister, my brother-in-law — at their place on the northwest side. Beautiful day for it. Sunny, in the low 70s, with a non-prevailing wind and a few clouds pushed this way from that hurricane in the East.

Pop: Happy birthday. Again!

Day Two

My bro-in-law Dan Wasmer and I got on our bikes and rode from the Wasmer-Brekke homestead down to my brother Chris’s place south of Interstate 80 in the south suburbs. By car it’s a 43-mile trip, so not the impossible dream in terms of getting out and riding it. But here’s the thing: The city itself presents itself as a kind of barrier; that’s especially true when you try to ride west out of the northwest side: O’Hare is a giant obstacle that needs to be navigated around; no problem in a car, a pretty good challenge when you’re on your own on two wheels. Riding south, the challenge is a little different: Finding a route that’s reasonably direct and that avoids the unseen terrors of non-Caucasian, non-Spandex-wearing neighborhoods; also, finding a route that keeps you off the busiest streets. Because, though you see tons of cyclists on the lakefront bike paths — too many; too many who are still getting the hang of riding; too many riding among too many pedestrians and runners and random path-crossers; too many to ride at an expeditious pace and feel safe — you don’t see a lot of people on the streets and roads.

We headed south from the northern end of California Avenue until it’s interrupted at Lawrence; we jogged west on Lawrence and then southeast on Manor back to California; then to Grand Avenue, then east to Damen; then Damen down to Blue Island Avenue, and west on Blue Island (which turns into 26th Street) back to California and the Cook County Jail complex; down California to 71st, then, after a brief sojourn on some side streets not all that far from my mom’s old neighborhood, back east to Western Avenue. Western is busy but not impossible at that point; we had one car full of guys yell something at us — whatever it was, I greeted it with a friendly wave — and we rode all the way out of the city before we turned west again, on 123rd. That took us to Kedzie before we hit a detour; Kedzie was fine, and we took that to 175th, then south on Central Avenue, across Interstate 80 just west of the I-57 junction, then a few more miles south (to Vollmer Road, then Harlem Avenue) to Chris’s place. Our mileage: 43 miles, the same as driving (and going at a reasonably friendly pace, we made it in three hours, even with all the traffic signals we hit).

So now I know how to do that.

Day One

Took the 6 a.m. United flight from Oakland to Chicago. Encountered major confusion and building frustration (other travelers’, not mine) at the United check-in counter. My experiment on this flight: I took my handheld GPS unit to see if it would work. I got a window seat (to work, the GPS needs to simultaneously “see” at least tglobal positioning system satellites). I managed to get a window that I couldn’t really look out of, though, it was far enough aft of my seat that the only way to get a view was to lean my seat way back; I prefer not to do that because I know how unpleasant it is have the seat in front of me pushed back in my face. But I did manage to figure out a way to prop up the GPS in the window. When I turned on the device 10 minutes after takeoff, it had no problem acquiring signals from half a dozen satellites, and it worked throughout the flight. The result: I have a track I can view to see the path we took, which admittedly may not be interesting to anyone but me. The problems I found: Since my window was in an awkward position, I couldn’t really move the GPS much to check the map display while we were en route; and I also found the 2-inch display pretty hard to read. The thing to do would be to figure out how to connect the unit to a laptop so you could get a nice big display of the route as you’re moving. Next time, maybe.

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