Monday, March 27, 2006

Bicycle! Bicycle! I Want To Ride My Bicycle!

I used to be unbeatable on a bicycle. I was the Greg Lemond of southeast Iowa or at least that was how I thought of myself. When I stood up in the pedals, my biceps flexing underneath my Marlboro t-shirt, I was the god of the pavement and nobody, at least in my family could even come close to following in my slipstream.

In between the seasons of planting and harvest, weather permitting, my family and I would go for evening bicycle rides. Mostly on weekdays we would ride north to town and then north of town to an intersection with what we call the Lebanon road and then back home again with an extra spin through town on the way back called “scooping the loop.” All told, we would put about fifteen miles under our belts every evening. On the weekends, we often times extended our jaunts to forty miles as we road to the county seat for pizza or to go swimming or neighboring towns just to add miles.

In the early years, all this riding, some one thousand miles a year was in training for the Registers Great Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) that is held during the dog days of the end of July every year. In one week, upwards of fifteen thousand people from Iowa and across the nation would ride five hundred miles across a state that is anything but flat from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. But life has a way of changing and after a couple years of completing RAGBRAI, our family moved onto other pursuits. However, our bicycling never stopped. We still kept up our schedule of almost daily bicycle rides weather permitting.

After we scooped the loop in town and headed south the last three miles of blacktop home, things were different. The last three miles consisted of some rolling hills followed by a half mile straight away to the gravel road that leads to our farm. Gradually as we headed up the first hill into town the pace would inevitably quicken and a little jockeying for position would occur. My favorite position was in third behind my father and younger brother but that didn’t always work out. But you dealt with the cards given.

Down the hill and across the bridge over the Little Fox River we would fly carrying our momentum as best as we could up the next hill. We would tear past McLain’s place gradually stepping up the pace and swoop down into the valley through the ess curves by Ead’s and up the final two hills. On the final hills when the pace slowed to accommodate gravity, if you were an invisible fly watching three of us (my mom having long since faded back) pop the tops of our water bottles and after a final swig empty the remaining contents onto the pavement. This was serious business and all extra weight was off loaded.

Cresting the final hill, only a half-mile of perfectly flat blacktop lay between us and the gravel road to our farm. Here things got really serious and all talk or joking stopped. Just like an Olympic event, we would jockey back and forth trying to keep a good position but not expend all available strength reserves until the last minute. Lead man was never good because you were not only breaking the wind but also blind to what was happening behind you. Second was pretty good as long as the person in third didn’t blow by and battle it out with the first guy meaning you had to swing well left to get around both. Third was ideal because you had the element of surprise to both those in front of you and if you got around man number two, you could in essence block somewhat forcing them to expend more strength to take the long way around.

Air whistled by your helmet as you watched in front of you, your mirror and tried to listen for the ratcheting sound of a chain moving into a higher gear meaning someone was making a break for it. When that sound came, all hell broke loose. I would stand up in the pedals and quickly ratcheted through the gears as I pumped for all I was worth. Body moving opposite the swaying of the bike to keep the center of gravity somewhere close to the tire contact on the pavement, my breath would start coming is raspy grasps as my lungs strove to keep up with the oxygen demand of my legs.

I inherited my mom’s long legs. My father on the other hand had short more stocky legs and so I was able get more force into the peddles due to a longer moment arm (engineering term). My brother who also had the gift of long legs was just younger and not as developed. Thus I inevitably won, shooting past the gravel road and gliding as my now jellied legs limply hung onto the pedal clips and I focused on one breath at a time into my oxygen starved lungs. Momentum spent, we would turn around and slowly ride back to the gravel road where we would meet my mother and together ride the half-mile down it to our farm.

Somewhere along the line, probably through my mom’s old job at a t-shirt printing place, I inherited a Marlboro t-shirt and probably because it was like forbidden fruit in our smokeless house, it was my favorite. At the time, Greg Lemond was the king of the Tour de France and my inspiration. I rolled up the sleeves to accentuate my biceps and the logo was my jersey. Passing the gravel road, I was leading the peleton after a particularly grueling day in the Alps and that red shirt with while letters was my yellow jersey. I was the Greg Lemond of southeast Iowa and I was unbeatable… in my family.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Traveling Ted

Being a free roaming dog, Ted sometimes chose to hitch a ride with me in the farm truck. It was easier than walking for sure and often times it went to territories outside of a day’s walk or trot if you will. Most of days he would ride in the back of the pickup up on top of the rectangular diesel fuel tank up near the cab that we used to fuel up tractors left in the fields. It was of perfect height to allow a full size yellow lab/golden retriever dog to stand on and just see over the cab. Down the road we would go with Ted’s nose to the wind and his body leaning this way and that to maintain balance as we went around corners.

Only twice in my memory did he ever lose his footing on this perch and one of those was his choice. During his younger days he had decided to give chase to a rabbit and completely forgot the fact that we were traveling around 40 miles per hour down a gravel road. By the time his body quit spinning down the shoulder of the road and got the dust shook free of his fur, he had completely forgotten about chasing the rabbit but he did learn a lesson. The second time occurred while going around a curve on a highway when for unknown reasons, he lost his footing. If it weren’t for the scraping sound of toenails digging into the top of the diesel tank, he would have probably fallen off and died. But as luck would have it, with most of his body hanging over the road and only the two front paws digging in preventing him from hitting the pavement, we were able to get almost completely stopped before he lost grip completely. I would have thought he might have been skittish over this but he hopped right back up on the tank for the duration of the trip.

On cold days or rainy days or simply days when I needed companionship, I would let him up into the cab of the truck. He would hop up on the bench seat and sit right next to me, butt to butt, shoulder to shoulder as we drove down the road. It always embarrassed me and I’m sure amused passersby to see us driving by looking like two lovers out for a cruise. As my grandpa used to say, “There’s one of those trucks that take two to drive.”

One of my favorite pictures of Ted hangs in the hallway of my parent's home and was taken of him in the farm truck. It was one of those sunny fall days and my brother and I were windrowing pumpkins for a buyer to load later on. Ted had joined us but had decided to sleep the day away on the seat of the pickup. I had picked a small pumpkin earlier and set it between his front paws and he had fallen asleep cradling the pumpkin with his paws and head resting on top. The lighting was perfect in the morning sun. One of my parents snapped the picture. I would post this picture of Ted on my blog but his life and my life as a camera owner never coincided.

Towards the last couple years of his life when the arthritis really started setting in, he was unable to jump up into the bed of the pickup or even the cab. He had good days and bad days like perhaps anyone with the disease so I would sometimes forget. I would hop into the cab and hear a low whine coming from outside the door. I would have to get out, walk around the back, and lift Ted up and into the bed before proceeding. He could still leap down on all but the worst of days so I didn’t often have to hoist him out.

Ted died in the early nineties and over the years most of my memories have faded to the point where I remember the incident but can no longer visualize it like a home movie as I used to be able to do. But two of the images remain crystal clear. The first being the picture of him cuddling the pumpkin in the pickup mostly because I have a picture of it that I see every time I go back to the farm. The second mental image is of him and my father driving down the driveway, my father behind the wheel and a large reddish brown dog leaning heavily on his shoulder like two young lovers in one of those pickups that take two to drive.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Life of a Farm Dog

The life of a farm dog is a pretty envious life in my opinion. Back when my dog Ted was around, he made full use of his environment. He slept insides most nights on the porch or at the very end of the hallway. He was never allowed on the carpeted areas or even outside of the confines of a small rug that was his bed. We did this to eliminate odor or shedding problems. After breakfast he would go outside with us and stay out there until the late evening when we got in from our chores. If he was restricted on the inside, outside Ted was king.

My parents farm over a couple thousand acres which is more than enough to contain even an adventurous dog is our farmstead were exactly in the center of it all or if dogs understood the concept of boundaries. But since it wasn't and they don't, Ted went where he pleased whether it was on our property or not. As he got older and his arthritic hip began to affect him, he mostly stayed on the farm proper but when he was younger or on the day after his arthritis shot, he roamed like there was no tomorrow, sometimes four or five miles away from the farm.

I often wished that I could invisibly tag along on these epic journeys of his just to see what drove him to go this way or that. Some days he came as he went, cheerfully plodding along. Other days he would come in beat up, muddy and bleeding from various wounds leaving me to wonder just what had happened. Another time he came home with two of the finest T-bone steaks you have ever seen wrapped in white butcher paper and proceeded to unwrap and eat them in front of me. On rare occasions, he just never came home.

These were the most troubling incidents. Most of our neighbors knew Ted but I worried about him getting shot just for being in the wrong place or the wrong time. He had been shot once as a pup before being dumped alongside the road and that had caused him an arthritic hip and eventually an early demise so I didn't want it to happen a second time. Mostly however I was worried that he would get hung up in a fence somewhere. Animals in the thrill or the pursuit or the sweat of being chased, sometimes run into fences. In a new fence with taut wires, they would mostly likely bounce off and go in a different direction but with an old fence and sagging wires, the sometimes become tangled among the wires and die from blood loss or starvation. This latter troubled me more just because it most likely would have been a slow and painful way to go.

So on the rare occasion when Ted didn't get home around his normal time, I would find myself driving slowly down the country roads calling his name out the window. About half the time I would find him at one of our farming outposts where we have some grain bins or buildings calmly waiting for a ride home still miles left to go and the other half of the time he would be waiting for me back home after I gave up looking. My nearest guess is that he simply lost track of time or under estimated his energy. He never told me why. In the end, fences scraped him up and cut the pads of his paws many times but never took his life. A silly little injection of some drug once a month that took away the pain of arthritis did.

It didn't seem fair but I came to terms with it. Three weeks after his shot of medicine, I could see the pain creeping in with a groan slipping out while laying down or in the extra time it took to get up in the morning. His roaming activity would be curtailed so that he came in earlier everyday until the point where he simply laid around the lawn or out in the shop or wherever we happened to be. Then the first of the month would arrive and I would give him a shot in the evening and the next morning Ted would be like a pup once again. He would disappear for the entire day roaming miles and once again I might occasionally have to go out late in the evening driving the roads and calling his name. I suppose that is why I never scolded him when I found him. I would just open the door, tell him to hop in and together we would head back to the farm. His happiness was mine.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Indian Creek and the Big Dog Repel

I used to have a golden retriever/yellow lab mixed dog named Ted growing up and he went everywhere with me including on our hikes in northwest Arkansas. For some reason, we decided to go on a particularly hard hike down the Indian Creek gorge, which drops several thousand feet in the space of a mile. The gorge narrows in many places so that the only reasonable place to walk is right down the middle of the streambed. Fortunately, the creek actually runs underground for much of its journey down the gorge leaving the boulders on top dry enough to walk on.

There are several waterfalls along the way ranging from six feet to sixty feet in height and in most cases, there is a way to scramble around them. On the final waterfall, you have to actually back track up the streambed twenty feet and follow the slender ledge at the base of the cliff line around the top of the falls and through a short natural arch into a large open faced hollow in the cliff wall. From there, you slide and scramble down to the top of a ten-foot band high band of cliffs right above the streambed below the waterfall.

For a human with opposable thumbs, this challenge is easily overcome by using a tree that grows from a ledge halfway down the cliff to shinny down and then hanging on to the base of it to lower yourself down the remaining five feet to the ground below. For a dog however, it is an impossible feat unless they risk jumping onto the sharp rocks below. Fortunately, on this particular hike, I had thought to bring a rope and simple repel Ted over the cliff and I did, but that was the last time.

Ted scrambled down to the edge of the cliff and looked over for a way down but couldn't find one. When I called his name, he took one look at the rope that I was uncoiling and I think he knew exactly what was about to happen. Now had we been anywhere else, I think he would have slunk away and just waited for us to return. But he knew somehow that the only way was the one down and that if he wanted to stay with us he was going to have to submit himself to whatever torturous plan I had devised. So Ted slunk over to me and allowed me to fashion a rope harness around his middle and up under his front legs.

At that point, Ted essentially turned into a statue with all four legs stuck straight out and his tail tucked up between his hind legs. I had to physically lift him and get him started over the edge of the cliff while using another close by tree above the cliff as my belay. As Ted swung free from the cliff face, his legs still stuck straight out from his body just like I had been lowering down a marble statue of a dog. His eyes rolled back in his head and he let out a low whine as I lowered him down into the waiting arms of those already down below. Only when all four paws had touched the ground did the tail untuck, the eyes unroll and the legs assume more flexibility.

Although we had many more opportunities over the years to take Ted on that hike again, I just never could bring myself to do it. Those eyes rolled back in his head and the low whine of terror was just too much for me to subject to him again. Although those pleading eyes when he was forced to stay back inside the cabin while we hiked Indian Creek were almost equally unbearable to withstand. Dogs have a way of making their owners feel guilty.

Monday, March 6, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Balut

If you ever travel internationally and live like the locals by eating the their foods, you will inevitably be challenged to eat some sort of delicacy that would make the average bland food eating American’s toes curl. When compared to other cultures, ‘American’ foods are about as varied as a prisoner living on stale bread and water. It didn’t take long on my first trip before the food gauntlet was thrown down with the mention of balut, which is a partially developed duck egg that has been fermented in the sand for a month before consumption.

Although the word has been tossed out with some phrasing to the effect that I should try some because it is tasty, none ever appeared before me during my first trip. For sure, I wasn’t upset about it. But as time passed, I grew more and more curious about balut. Was it actually as my hosts said or had they been pulling my leg this entire time? I decided to find out for myself and I found out the perfect guise under which to do it.

Whenever you go away from home in the Philippines normally on a trip of sorts, it is tradition to bring back some pasalubong (gift) back for the rest of the family. This can be just about anything, but often times for trips to the town shopping center, it is food. On an earlier trip a cousin of mine had brought back some cinnamon buns that were delicious and so I thought that I would bring back balut from my trip.

I had spent the afternoon walking around with a cousin and a brother-in-law when we ran across a vendor selling balut along Session Road in downtown Baguio City. I carefully negotiated for four eggs to be put in a plastic bag and we headed for home. I say carefully because I put a great deal of thought into the number of eggs to get. I figured three would be too few for the number of balut eating people back at the house and would be considered stingy and insulting. Five or more would more than likely be enough to allow all available eaters to eat one and still have one left over for me… something I very much didn’t want to happen. I rolled the dice, bought four and held my breath.

When I got home, I told my aunt that I had bought her some pasalubong and much to her great joy, it was balut. But I told her that she had to promise me that she would wait for me to photograph it before she ate it so that I could post it on my blog. She agreed, already grabbing the first egg and peeling some of the shell off around the top. There was quite a bit of red liquid pooled near the top of the egg and she delicately sipped it out before continuing to peel the egg. I pulled out my camera and before I could even turn it on, the egg disappeared into her mouth, partially developed egg, feathers and all.

My aunt sheepishly apologized for eating it saying that she was so focused on how good it would taste that she forgot about allowing me to photograph it. There was nothing to do now but grab another egg and start cracking it, which she did without hesitation. After she had it mostly peeled, I tried again to get a couple more pictures but no matter how much I try to get her to sit it on the table, she wouldn’t allow it out of her hands, shaking in anticipation so every picture appeared blurry. I tried three different times before she couldn’t contain her excitement anymore and popped it into her mouth, feathers and all.

There were two eggs left but she politely saved them for two more of the family members to get home from an errand. I went upstairs to pass the time away and must have dozed off. When I awoke from some noise downstairs, all I heard was the word balut being mentioned followed by some noises that were unmistakably eggs being cracked. I grabbed my camera and hurried downstairs but by the time I got there, nothing was left except the bulging cheeks of my other brother-in-law and a very happy look in his eyes. Oh well, I got a few blurry, out of focus pictures but it made my hosts happy and best of all, I didn’t have to eat one myself.