Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Social Life of My 34 Bicycles

Bicycles have been a part of my life for over four decades now. Most people fondly remember the bicycle of their youth, but they usually give up their fascination with two-wheels when they earn a driver’s license. Of course I drive more than my share of highway miles, but I have also managed to keep my youthful enthusiasm for bicycles (and for a variety of modes of human-powered travel). I ran cross-country and track in high school, and began racing bicycles as well. I dreamed of national championships and Olympic gold medals in my youth. While those dreams have faded with age, I have tried off-and-on through the years to make cycling and/or running part of my daily routine. In 1995 I added inline skating to my aerobic activities and have skated several thousand miles as well. I began keeping a journal/log of my mileage when I began running in 1979, and have continued to do so ever since. In the intervening 30 years I have managed to accumulate over 98,000 miles of human powered travel (road cycling, mountain biking, running, hiking, and skating). They have been such big part of my life for so many years, I thought it would be fun to document the social life of my bicycles. Bicycles have accompanied me through decades of life change and travel around the globe. Of course my inward journey, the one of moving towards spiritual maturity, has been more important than the physical journey, but even still I think it will be interesting to view a snapshot of my journey through life as it is reflected through the social life of my bicycles.

As a footnote, I would like to say that while I enjoy the exercise of cycling, and of going fast and far on fast bicycles, I have never been a techno-geek, always buying the most expensive equipment or upgrading every time a new innovation comes along. This is probably more a reflection of poverty rather than priorities. For example, my road bikes still had friction shifting derailleurs twenty years after the invention of index shifting and brake lever shifting systems. I’m sure if I had more disposable income, I would spend it on bicycles and/or cycling clothing and equipment. As I look back on the list of bicycles I have owned, I am amazed at the number of bicycles that I have rescued from trash bins and then ridden for years afterwards. With the invention of the internet and of Ebay, I seriously doubt that I will ever buy another new bicycle again. I am continuously amazed by how much money people will spend on bicycles, only to let them sit in their garage for a couple of years before they sell them on Ebay. Okay, I’ll admit it. I do wish I had the most modern light weight custom titanium for carbon fiber frame outfitted with Dura Ace and XTR. Maybe someday.

Red and white steel tricycle (1966). I don’t have any focused memories of my tricycle, but there are pictures of me on one in my parent’s photo albums. The pictures are in black and white, but I distinctly remember the tricycle being red and white. I was born in Jasper, in East Texas, where my dad was pastoring a small church. He had just finished his undergraduate degree at East Texas Baptist College in Marshall (where my older sister, Susan was born) and had taken this pastorate in Jasper. He commuted to Forth Worth during the week where he was in the Baptist Seminary. He would come back to Jasper on the weekends to preach. I don’t know if I had the tricycle in Jasper or if I got it when we moved back to Fort Worth when I was two. I do remember pedaling it as fast as my little legs would spin. I also remember standing on the back of it and kicking with one leg, scooter style.

Blue and white kids bike with training wheels (1968). My first bicycle. I am guessing that it had 16” wheels. I don’t think I have any pictures of this bicycle, but I do have a mental image of it. It had a blue and white paint scheme, silver fenders and a cruiser style blue and white seat. I received this bicycle as a gift from my grandfather (E. E. Beams). Several years earlier he had given my sister and I a pony named Honey Boy, which he kept for us on his rented farm where he raised a few cows. I remember playing with my sister in the hayloft of the barn and around the stock tanks. We didn’t have a chance to ride Honey Boy too often. My grandfather said he got too mean to ride, so he sold the pony and used the money to buy my sister and I matching bicycles. I must of have been four years old. My dad removed the training wheels when I was five. I distinctly remember the frustrating process of learning to ride a “two-wheeler.” My dad would run along behind me holding the seat steady until I got up enough momentum to balance on my own. I remember the fear and exhilaration of those first few pedal strokes—the exhilaration of going fast with the wind in my face, and the fear of falling over, and of not being able to either stop or turn around. Now, four decades later, I have enjoyed teaching each of our children the joy and freedom of riding a two-wheeler. In the prime of their adolescence, both Nathaniel and Luciana are avid cycling enthusiasts. Isaiah says he is going to be a bicycle racer just like his brother and his dad. I gave him a trophy I won from a mountain race here and Bolivia and he treats it as if he won it himself.

We moved to Waldorf, Maryland in the middle of my kindergarten year. The little blue bicycles got left behind at my grandparent’s house. My parents pulled a U-haul trailer behind the family station wagon on our move to Maryland. I can only assume the bicycles did not fit.
Schwinn Stingray (1970). Stingrays, also referred to as “spider” bikes, were quite popular during this era. This style of kids bike preceded the BMX era by several years. I must have gotten this bicycle as a birthday or Christmas gift when I was in the first grade. I have pictures of me riding it when we lived in the parsonage next to the First Baptist Church of Waldorf. My Stingray was painted gold with 20” wheels, and a banana style seat. It had high rise handle bars like were popular on the chopper motorcycles at the time. Later I installed a high rise “sissy bar” on the back of the seat. I also added a speedometer that measured speed and distance. I think the addition of a speedometer is where my obsession with going fast and far on my bicycle began.

In second grade we moved out of the parsonage in Waldorf and into our own split level three bedroom home in La Plata. I wasn’t allowed to ride my bicycle off of our street, Austin Drive, which was only a quarter mile long at most. I wanted to venture out onto Turkey Hill Road, a road that I knew would open up to me the rest of the world, but my parents said the road was too busy and I was strictly forbidden to leave our street. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac where I would ride in circles for hours and hours watching the tenth’s of miles click off on my odometer. I think the furthest I ever rode at one time was twelve miles. It had a rear coaster brake which allowed me to lay long black skid marks on the driveway. Later, for style more than anything, I added a front hand brake. My neighborhood friends, Scotty and Jamie, and I used to also set up small ramps with scrap pieces of plywood and bricks, jumping from one ramp to the next, just like Evil Knivel would do on his motorcycle. I would also put on a football helmet, shoulder pads, and as many layers of clothes as I could fit into and I would practice diving off of my bicycle at high speed, trying to train my body for future stunts. I’m sure I would have been into BMX, but it had not been invented yet. Unfortunately I grew too tall for these bicycles before the sport matured. I don’t exactly remember what became of my Schwinn Stingray. I have a vague memory of it being run over by my father’s car. I think I may have left it laying behind is car where he backed right over it. I only know for sure that it was replaced by a big green five speed.

Sears five-speed cruiser (1972). This was an unexpected and slightly odd gift that my parents surprised me with. They bought my sister and I huge matching green five-speed cruisers. I remember seeing the bicycles in the Sears sporting goods section, and being really impressed by their size and potential for speed. The frame was way too big for me. I could not touch the ground when I stood over the top tube and even with the seat all the way down to the frame I could barely reach the pedals. My dad actually taped blocks to the pedals so I could reach them at the bottom of each pedal stroke. This bicycle was in the style of a classic English touring bike with full fenders, a chain guard, upright curved handlebars, a broad spring-suspended seat, and two side pull caliper hand brakes. It had a single front chain ring and a rear five-speed freewheel. A cheap plastic Simplex derailleur with a single down tube shifter changed the gears. I remember being fascinated with the mechanical marvel of shifting gears. These bicycles also had matching racks behind the seat. I remember this vividly because one day my sister was carrying my baby brother, Chris, on her rack when his foot got caught in the spokes of the rear wheel. He couldn’t have been more than three at the time. I remember his manic crying and his foot swelling up and turning black and blue. I must have gotten this bicycle in third or fourth grade and kept it until seventh grade. I was still not allowed to leave my neighborhood street, but I continued to be fascinated with riding long distances on the road. My old speedometer did not work on this bicycle, but I bought a little odometer that mounted on the front wheel axle and clicked off the miles I rode.

I don’t know if it was a strategic move on my parents part or not, but the replacement of the Schwinn Stingray with the Big Green Cruiser resulted in a shift away from stunts and ramp jumping and toward an increased focus on road riding. This bicycle moved with me from Waldorf to Lufkin, Texas and then on to Benbrook, Texas. In Lufkin I would ride laps around our sub-division. We lived at 612 Willow Oak Drive. One lap around our neighborhood was a little over a mile. I would pluck a leaf from a particular overhanging tree on each lap and drop it in my shirt pocket. I think the most I ever rode was 15 laps. Most of my friends were still riding Schwinn Stingrays or the newfangled BMX bicycles. I would occasionally borrow a BMX and we would set up “jumps” in the front yard with boards and bricks. My long distance forays on the cruiser were primarily solo efforts because my friends weren’t motivated to follow me for hours on end on their smaller single speed bicycles.
We moved to Benbrook, a suburb on the southwest side of Fort Worth, when I was in seventh grade. Fort Worth is where both of my parents grew up and where all four of my grandparents, and almost all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins still lived. It was a homecoming of sorts for my parents who had been living away from “home” since I was five years old. In Fort Worth my parents gave me a little more freedom to travel beyond the immediate confines of our neighborhood. I became intoxicated with the freedom and independence I gained from traveling by bicycle. We lived in the parsonage next door to my dad’s church, the First Baptist Church of Benbrook. I visited my friends homes who all lived within a two to three mile radius and we would ride out to the Benbrook Lake dam where we would ride on the steep off-limits embankments of the concrete spillway. By seventh grade I had a cruising range of at least five miles. I remember really pushing myself physically as I sprinted up the few hills around the lake and battled strong North Texas headwinds. The big green cruiser finally met its end in my garage where I dismantled it piece by piece.

20” Schwinn Pixie (1977). When we moved into the Benbrook parsonage I found an old blue Schwinn 20” wheel bicycle, that had been left there by the previous family. It was a girls frame with a step-through top tube. I believe this particular model was called the Pixie. I took it completely apart and repacked the bottom bracket, hubs, and headset with fresh grease. I had grown quite tall for my age and was already too tall to efficiently ride this bicycle by the time it came into my possession. I could only pedal it standing up because if I sat on the seat my knees hit the handle bars. I still rode my big green cruiser around town, but the little girls Schwinn was my stunt bicycle. I used it strictly for jumping over ramps. It was not at all made for this and later as I got heavier and began jumping further and further over dirt hills, the wheels fell apart beneath me and I ended up throwing it in the trash. By that time my younger brothers were riding BMX bicycles and I would borrow them on occasion for stunts and off-road sprints on home-made BMX tracks. By the time BMX racing became popular in the late 70s and early 80s I was already too big and lanky to ride these small bicycles. I remember sitting on the handle bars of my brother’s BMX bicycle and trying to pedal it backwards, like a stunt I saw a circus clown do one time. I fell hard and cracked my chin open on our gravel driveway. That was the third time I had stitches in my chin.

AMF 10 Speed (1977) One afternoon when I was rummaging around behind the storage shed at Mamaw and Papaw’s house (Nelly and O. L. Simmons, my mother’s parents), in East Fort Worth, I found the rusty frame of an old AMF 10 speed bicycle. The wheels were missing, but everything else was present. I was excited by the prospect of riding a “racing” bicycle with a low turned-down handle bars, and ten speeds. I asked Papaw if I could have the bicycle and he said that would be fine. He did not know where it had come from. The previous owners of the house must have left behind the shed when they moved. Once back in Benbrook, I devised a plan to combine my two bicycles, removing the wheels from my big green cruiser and installing them on the racing bicycle. I took everything off the frame of my new 10 speed. I dunked all the components in gasoline and cleaned them up as best as I could. I used steel wool to take the rust off of the handlebars, cranks, and other steel parts. I sanded the rust off of the frame and repainted it with candy apple red spray paint that I bought at Bolen’s Bike World. This is when I first began frequenting bicycle shops, bugging the mechanics for bicycle tips, and falling in love with the new racing bikes on the racks high above my head.

I painted gray racing stripes on the frame and began to reassemble the parts. I didn’t wait long enough for the paint to dry and the frame soon became scratched up and old looking again. I could not figure out how to get the chain off of my cruiser so I cut the frame with a hack saw to get the chain off. I soon realized that conversely, I could not mount it either. I had to buy a new chain from Bolen’s that the mechanics installed for free. I also bought new cables and housing, new brake pads, and new tires. My little project was soon way over budget. The end product was a heavy slow department store ten speed, but I didn’t know it. I began riding that bicycle all over Benbrook, pumping my legs as fast as they would carry me around the neighborhood. I remember the screaming pain of lactic acid as it built up in my thighs while I sprinted up the long hill on the way to Phillip’s house.

Later that summer I concocted the grand scheme of riding my bicycle all the way to Cresson and back. Cresson is the first small town west of Benbrook on Highway 377. I passed it often on trips to Lake Granbury with my grandparents. It would be a round trip of almost 50 miles. Finally my parents agreed to let me de the ride and I convinced Phillip to accompany me. We set out one Saturday morning, excited by the prospect of newly found independence and adventure. I had two water bottles on my frame. I bought a black vinyl handlebar bag large enough to hold my sack lunch and a spare tube and patch kit. We strapped a floor pump to Phillip’s bicycle frame. I remember the hills, the heat, the wind, and the traffic whizzing past. Phillip incessantly stopped, saying he could go no further. I kept convincing him to go on a bit further. We finally made to Cresson where we stopped to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the shade of the general store’s brick wall. We had a tail wind all the way home. I remember the incredible speed as I flew down long hills with a strong hot wind pushing me from behind. I believe the total distance we road that day was 45 miles. This ride truly marked a turning point in my independence as a young adolescent and my confidence as a cyclist.

I do not remember what became of this bicycle. We moved from the Benbrook parsonage out to our own house on the west side of Benbrook Lake in the summer between my 8th and 9th grade years. That is where I got my next bicycle, the Schwinn Traveler. I remember getting too big for the AMF frame. I was quickly headed for my current height of 6’ 2”. I must have either sold the AMF in a garage sale or given it away when I got my new bicycle.

Schwinn Traveler (1980). I had a number of interests during my teenage years—primarily running track and cross country on my high school teams, and riding motocross motorcycles with my buddies in the neighborhood—but my interest in cycling never waned. For Christmas 1979, when I was 15, I asked for a new road racing/touring style bicycle. I had been looking at the bicycles at Bolen’s for several years and had my heart set on getting one. The cost of a bicycle was more than what my parents usually spent on the kids at Christmas, so my parents contributed about $50 to my “new bicycle fund,” and I began saving my allowance and other income. On January 25, I picked up my new $160 Schwinn Traveler. It had a 25” chromoly steel frame painted deep blue. The Traveler was a low to middle-of-the-line production Schwinn. I believe the Varsity and Sport were below the Traveler and the LeTour and Super LeTour were above it. It had 27” wheels with aluminum rims and 12 speeds (a six cog freewheel and two chain rings). It was still not a true racing bike, but was lighter and faster than anything I had ridden up to that point. The frame was as too big for me, but my dad suggested the biggest frame they sold, thinking I would grow into it.

We bought the bike from Massey’s, an old bicycle shop in downtown Fort Worth. A couple of years after I bought this bicycle the owner of Massey’s retired to Aledo, a small town 20 miles west of where we lived. He took all of his old bicycle stock and parts with him to a warehouse way down a country road. I visited him occasionally years later and rummaged through his stock looking for the odd hidden bargain. I was extremely proud of my new Traveler. I kept it in my bedroom and would wipe off the dust and road grime every evening. Massey’s gave me a free 30 day tune up. They said it was necessary to adjust the brake and derailleur cables after it was ridden for a while. After the check up I noticed what I considered a big horrible scratch on the paint right in the middle of the top tube. If I remember right, it was about two inches long. It could have been easily repaired with touch-up paint, but I was so incensed that they would treat my bicycle so roughly that I wrote a letter to Schwinn headquarters in Chicago explaining what happened and asking that they revoke Massey’s Schwinn dealership license. I received a letter back not too long after explaining that Massey’s had a good customer service record and that I should take the bicycle back to them for touch up. I did. The manager apologized, touched up the scratch, and sent me home with the bottle of touch-up paint.

On January 25, 1980, the day I brought the Traveler home, I rode 24 miles. I know this not because I have a great memory, but because earlier in the summer of 1979 I began recording my running workouts in a handwritten journal. After I got my Traveler, I also began riding regularly (10 to 30 miles four or five times a week), and recording my mileage. I am still keeping a journal today (2009) and have recorded over 98,000 miles of riding and running. Riding the Traveler on the park roads around Lake Benbrook, I began to dream of winning gold in the 1984 Olympics.

Univega Gran Premio (1980). I did not have my Traveler long before I began thinking about trading up to a true racing bicycle. I picked up a Univega catalog in the Wondering Wheel, a small upscale bicycle shop across the street from Bolen’s and fell in love with their higher end racing sport bikes. The catalog showcased the gold painted Gran Premio against a black background. I loved the sleek look of the styling and the scant weight of the entire package. The chromoly steel frame was decked out with upper end Suntour Cyclone components. I believe the bike weighed 22 lbs (a good bit lighter than my 30 lb Schwinn Traveler). I couldn’t believe I was contemplating buying a bicycle that cost $500. That summer I began working, hard. I helped my friend’s father put in swimming pools for $3.00 an hour. I worked from sun up till sun down, putting in 50 to 60 hours a week. I made a down payment and put the Gran Premio in lay-away. On August 13th I paid off the note and picked up my new bicycle. I felt like I was floating on air. I rode twice the first day I got it, 25 miles in the morning and another 15 miles in the afternoon. I was still running a lot, training for cross country, but I also rode my bicycle every chance I got. The pedals had toe clips and straps. Joe, the manager of the Wondering Wheel convinced me that I could ride much more efficiently and faster if I bought a pair of stiff soled cycling shoes. I spent $70 on the most expensive pair of leather SIDI cycling shoes in the shop.

I went on my first club ride on December 7, 1980. I did not have any experience riding with other cyclists. In theory I knew about drafting, but I had never tried it in person. I’m sure the other cyclists could tell I was a beginner. Even though I had on my new SIDI cycling shoes, I was still riding in running shorts and a tee shirt. Everyone else had on black wool cycling shorts and colorful jerseys. We met in Aledo and rode the locally famous hilly eighteen mile Aledo loop. About twenty of us started out together. I was bursting with energy, ready to challenge anyone to the top of the hills. The group split up pretty quickly and I stayed with the front group. Several of them introduced themselves and gave me pointers on drafting and riding in a group. In the ensuing months I bought several pair of wool cycling shorts, wool jerseys, went on a number of club rides, and joined the Fort Worth Road Club. In March of 1981 I participated in my first road race on my Gran Premio. In May 1981 I upgraded the stock wheels with a pair of used sew-ups that I bought from Joe at the Wondering Wheel.

Twenty-nine years later (2009), I still have my old Univega Gran Premio. In 1982 I upgraded to a better racing bike, but I kept my Gran Premio as a second/back-up bicycle. I converted it to a single speed fixed-gear bicycle for early season training sessions. It also served as a commuter bike for many years, sporting fenders and a rear rack. Later, after I had kids, I converted it to a triple chain ring touring bicycle. I also upgraded it with aero brake levers and clipless pedals. I used it for loaded bicycle touring and camping and to tow Nathaniel in a Burley trailer and later on a trailer cycle. After Luciana came along I would hook the trailer cycle and the Burley to the Gran Premio, towing a bicycle train of kids behind me. This often caused drivers to nearly veer off the road as they looked in their rear view mirrors trying to figure out what they had just passed. The Gran Premio has been primarily relegated to the garage or the attic the past several decades, as I have spent the majority of my cycle time on other machines. But in 2006/07 I was on furlough in the U.S. and it once again became my primary road machine (I left my Eddy Merckx in Bolivia). I would have liked to get a newer bike, but this one still works so well I have a hard time justifying the expense. I was even on the original wheels until the furlough. The rear rim finally cracked beyond repair so I replaced the wheels with a new aero wheel set that I bought on Ebay for about $150. It has breathed new life into my old trusted friend. When Nathaniel and I went on club rides, other riders with new 16 pound carbon fiber or titanium bicycles would look at me as if I was one of those retro cyclists who fanatically rides antique equipment. One kid commented that he couldn’t believe it when he saw me reaching down to my down tube to make a shift.

Nathaniel, now sixteen and six feet three inches tall, splits his time between the U.S. and Bolivia because his mom and I are divorced. He is a hardcore bicycle racer and works in a bicycle shop in Kentucky. He has a several high end road and mountain bikes, but he still rides the old Univega, now with fenders and a single gear, almost every day as his primary commuter bicycle.

DeRosa (1982) I began working at Bolen’s Bike World in January 1982, my senior year of high school. I was always hanging out there after school and had been begging them to hire me as an apprentice bicycle mechanic. The manager knew I was doing some road racing and was a fanatic lover of all things bicycle so they finally hired me to work after school and on Saturdays. Gary, the manager, and Dane a fellow employee, were both in their mid-thirties. Being a bit heavy and slothful, neither of them raced bicycles, but they encouraged my youthful enthusiasm for the sport. Gary promised to sponsor me during the upcoming racing season. He said he would get a me a top-of-the-line racing bicycle—whatever I wanted. Later he said he could not swing a frame, but that if I bought the frame he would build it up with wheels and components from the shop. I ended up getting a frame from the Wondering Wheel—a new high-end DeRosa chromoly steel road racing frame. DeRosa was a fairly small Italian frame builder well known for nice handmade racing frames. My parents bought it for me as a gift for my upcoming high school graduation. It cost $500. Gary took top end Campagnolo components from the display cases and built up my bicycle. It was absolutely a work of art. Later I found out that Gary did not have permission from the shop owner to do this. In fact he did not care if the shop made money or not, and was pretty much running it into the ground financially.

In January 1986 I took the DeRosa with me to the Netherlands. I spent six months in the Netherlands as a Baptist Student Union semester missionary. Officially, I worked as a youth minister in an English speaking church in Hoensbrook. Unofficially, I raced bicycles. During my time in the Netherlands I shuffled between three different expat military families. I lived with Stacy Gray and his wife Lisa in a four hundred year old timber frame cottage. There was hardly room for my bicycle in the house, so I slept with it standing right beside my bed. I rode among hundreds of cyclists everyday as they commuted to school, went to buy bread, or trained for the local racing circuit. I found little family-owned bicycle shops on almost every block of every village. One particular shop in Esloo, where the Gray’s lived, an aging ex-racer convinced me to upgrade my frame. I still had a pocket full of cash from having sold a returned engagement ring, so I bought a new Eddy Merckx Super Corsa. Of course Eddy Merckx was the most famous cyclist of all time. Since his retirement he had begun making bicycles in Belgium, right next door to the Netherlands. Several professional teams were riding his frames, including Panasonic, the local professional Dutch team, and later the Seven Eleven team began using them in the U.S.

Eddy Merckx (1986). The Eddy Merckx Super Corsa was also a chromoly steel frame, still practically the only frame material used for serious racing bicycles. I convinced Stacy to buy my old DeRosa frame for $100 and build himself up a bicycle so we could ride together. I transferred all of my old DeRosa components, mostly Campagnolo Super Record and Nuevo Record, over to my new frame. I bought new wheels and had it fitted out with new cables, housing, brake pads, etc. I think I spent another $400 on the upgrade, so after selling the DeRosa, I had $1300 invested in my new ride. The new Eddy Merckx was slightly smaller than the DeRosa and my riding partners said it was better fit. I must admit, I spent more time on the Merckx, training and racing with a local team, than I spent preparing for my responsibilities as a youth pastor. Stacy spent several hundred dollars building up the DeRosa frame with economical components and we went riding together a handful of times before I returned to the States. I did not keep in touch with the Gray’s, so I don’t know the ultimate fate of the DeRosa.

I finished up in the Netherlands in the summer of 1986 and took my Merckx back with me to Waco, Texas where I continued working on my undergraduate degree. I raced it hard through my collegiate years. In one particularly harsh crash, I squarely hit the back of another cyclist laying on the ground and flipped over the handle bars. The down tube buckled slightly, forever changing the frame geometry and handling. As I continued my life as an impoverished, newly married graduate student and missionary volunteer, the Merckx continued to be my primarily road bicycle. I upgraded to aero brake levers and clipless pedals, but I maintained the old school friction shifting system. I don’t remember how many wheels I went through. It generally stayed behind when I traveled to Mexico, Peru and other parts of the world. A mountain bike became my primary mode of two wheel transport, but I always came back to the Merckx for road riding in the U.S. It is now, in 2009 with me here in Bolivia. I brought it over in 2006 so I would have a road bike as well as a mountain bike to ride. I raced on it even into my forties in the local masters class races. Finally, in January 2008, I bought another road bike on Ebay to replace the faithful Merckx. The Merckx, twenty three years down the road, now sits dismantled and forlorn in my garage—collecting dust and guarding memories.

(2018 update: Nat had the Merckx painted and he took it back with him to the States.  He grew to be 6'6" so I think he is too big to ride it now, but it is dismantled and hanging on his wall to this day).  

Nishiki Track Bike (1988). I bought this used track bike from Mike Healy, a Baylor cycling buddy, for $150. It had been given to him by a trackie who had raced up north somewhere. A new velodrome had recently been built in Houston and I wanted to try my hand at track racing. The chromoly steel frame was too small for my lanky frame, but I got an extra long seat post and stem so it fit okay. The bike originally came with a single fixed gear, no brakes and tubular tires. For commuting around the Baylor campus I outfitted it with heavier clincher wheels and a front hand brake. I did finally make a pilgrimage to the Alkek velodrome to try my hand a track racing. They had Friday night races during the spring and summer. I raced in the match sprint, the pursuit, the kilo, and the miss and out. I certainly felt out of my element on the steep banks of the track. It was a blast and I intended on making it a regular part of my racing schedule. But it never happened. I stuck to road racing a little closer to home. I didn’t have the cash for gasoline or the time to go down to Houston every weekend.

In the spring of 1989 I was living in a rental house with my roommate, John Fugate. It was a old wooden frame farm house set among new apartment complexes. It should have been torn down (and I think it was a few years later), but rent was cheap. I hung the Nishiki upside down from hooks in my bedroom. You could see the bicycle through my window from the front of the house. One morning I rode my Merckx to work at the Tailwind Cycling Center, a thirty minute commute across town. John went to class, mistakenly leaving the front door unlocked. Around mid-morning a big, clean-cut blonde fellow walked into the shop with a bicycle. Obviously a Baylor student, I did give not his presence much thought until I noticed the bicycle at his side. It was MY Nishiki track bike, the one I had left hanging in my bedroom not two hours earlier. My heart began to race, but for some reason I played it cool, pretending not to recognize the bicycle. I queried him on the reason for his visit. He said his sister had given him the bicycle as a gift, but he wanted to trade it in on a mountain bike, which would be better suited to commuting around campus. I told him he was lying, and to tell me the truth. The blood ran from his face and he stepped back, stuttering the same story and assuring me it was the truth. Then I lost it in a way that I had never lost my temper with anyone in my life. I felt violated; adrenaline was coursing through my body. He must have been six foot four, but still I grabbed him by the front of his shirt, lifted him up on his toes and told him right in his face that that was my bicycle and he had stolen it from my bedroom that morning. To make a long story short, he confessed to having purchased it not an hour earlier from a guy in aWhataburger parking lot for ten dollars. He said he figured it was stolen but that he didn’t want to pass up such a great opportunity. The police were involved and they told him that if he did not find the fellow he bought it from that he would be charged with the robbery. I never heard the end of the story. In 1990, as I finished my student career in Waco, I sold the Nishiki to a friend on the Baylor cycling team for three hundred dollars.

Uncle Bob’s mountain bike (1990). Jana and I were married in August of 1989. We had both finished masters degrees in environmental studies by the summer of 1990 and were soon on our way to Peru for two years as short-term missionaries with the IMB, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptists. I wasn’t planning on bringing a road bike to Peru and I didn’t have the cash to purchase a mountain bike before we left. I guess I was hoping to pick one up after we were settled. Just before we left my uncle Bob have me a mountain bike he had purchased a couple of years earlier. I am racking my brain trying to remember the brand. I vaguely remember it being a Ross. It was a mid-range 18 speed mountain bike with fairly cheap components. It had cantilever brakes, high handlebars and no suspension. The frame was chromoly steel and was chromed rather than painted. Mountain bikes were just becoming popular in the late 1980’s. We sold them in the shop where I worked and many of my roadie friends were dabbling in mountain bike racing, but I had never had the means to get into it myself. I was also a bit resistant to the whole notion of fat-tired heavy bicycles. I think you could say I was a bit of a roadie snob. That mountain bike weighed well over thirty pounds. I modified it to give a bit more a road bike feel. I added a longer seat post, a longer lower stem, and I added aero road bike brake lever hoods to the flat handlebars. I mounted them just to the inside of the brake levers, giving me an alternative “road bike” riding position. I came up with this adaptation on my own before “bar-ends” were even invented.

I had the bike shipped to Peru in a freight shipment that arrived in Cajamarca a month after we arrived. Cajamarca is in the northern Andes of Peru. We lived in a valley at about 9,000 feet, surrounded by dirt road mountain passes climbing to 13,000 feet in every direction. I worked in a water well drilling development project. Mountain biking became a huge part of my recreational activities and daily life. I commuted around town by bicycle because I did not have a car. Also, every weekend I challenged myself by climbing up rocky trails into the highlands. I had one of the first mountain bikes in Cajamarca. I saw a couple of people around town on them, but most people there still rode old single speed chacareras that looked like they were from the World War II era. I was definitely the first person to actually ride up into the mountains on a bicycle. The single speeds were not at all appropriate for the rough steep trails. They were confined to the valley floor. I passed many people with dropped jaws as I spun a tiny gear up the trail, or bombed down faster than anything they had ever seen.

Every weekend was an adventure. I constantly got flat tires, as many as four on one ride. One time both tires went flat and my plastic mini pump broke. I was up in the jalca at 12,000 feet many miles from anyone with a tire pump. I ended up trying to stuff grass into my rims. That did not work. I finally arrived home to a worried wife after ten in the evening. Another time, a group of ronderos, vigilante community protectors, tried to impound my bicycle (illegally), but I got away under a hail of stones. Once, an old campesino insisted on seeing my “motor” because he said it was impossible to pedal a bicycle up the trail I was on. Jana and I were actually planning on riding bicycles back to the U.S. from Peru after our term was completed. I even brought in racks and panniers and was in the beginning stages of planning the trip when we found out that Jana was pregnant with Nathaniel. The pregnancy cut our term short and we left Peru before our two years was over. I sold the Ross to a friend of mine named Lindburg for $100. I think I only got fifty dollars from him. The bike was pretty well trashed when I left.

Diamondback Apex (1992). After finishing our term in Peru, Jana and I moved in with my parents in Fort Worth until after Nathaniel was born. We weren’t sure what our next move was going to be. I applied for several local environmental jobs but didn’t land anything. I started working in a bicycle shop, Bikes America, to help make ends meet. Of course working in that environment, I got the racing bug again. I still had my Merckx to race on, but after having been on a mountain bike in Peru, I wanted to get a real mountain bike and try my hand at mountain bike racing. I found this used Diamond Back Apex for sale in the Fort Worth Star Telegram. I paid $300 for it. New, it probably cost around $800 dollars. It had a chromoly steel frame and was painted gray with a smoked black overlay. It did not have any suspension, although the top mountain bikes in the early 90’s were coming stock with a front suspension fork. It had mid-line Shimano components and was really too heavy for racing, but it was all I could afford at the time. I raced it in a handful of cyclocross and mountain bike races in the spring of 1992, but I mostly stuck to my road racing roots.

The Diamondback made the move with us from Fort Worth to Lexington, Kentucky were I started graduate school in anthropology in the fall of 1992. I added a rear rack and fenders and turned it into my commuter bike. We only had one car between us, so I committed myself to commuting by bicycle to the UK campus, about five miles away. I was proud to say that from 1992 to 1995 I never missed a day of commuting due to foul weather. I even rode to campus when it was 21 degrees below zero and there was over a foot of snow on the ground. By Spring of ’95 my personal life was in shambles, but I still had my bicycles. Jana left me for another man and we were divorced by the end of ’96. Nathaniel was growing from a baby into a little boy. By the Spring of ’97 I had gotten my act together. I passed my qualifying exams, had scored a research grant and was headed back to Peru to begin my dissertation. I put the Diamondback and my road bikes in storage and headed to the bicycle shop to buy a new mountain bike that would accompany me to Peru.

Giant ATX 770 (1997). At the Pedal Power bicycle shop in Lexington, I explained what I was looking for and where I was headed. The salesman, Billy, gave me a good deal on one of last year’s models, an aluminum frame, front suspension mountain bike, the Giant ATX 770. It’s funny that over a decade later, Billy is still working at Pedal Power and has become friends with Nathaniel. I never could remember the exact name of the model I bought from him, but he always brought it up and remembered the exact model. I did not record the exact amount, but I think I paid around $800 dollars for the ATX 770.

The Giant was a huge improvement over the Ross I had on my previous trip to Peru. I went back to Cajamarca for my research, and again I didn’t have a car, so the bicycle played a huge role during my almost two years in Cajamarca. I rode myself into pretty good shape on the daily commute up the 3,000 foot, twenty mile gravel climb to Porcón, where I was doing my interviews. Of course, the hardest part was the climb up in the mornings. On the way down in the afternoons I could coast almost all the way to my door step if I wanted. Thunderstorms blew up in the afternoons, so I would often be covered head to toe in mud by the time I got home. The front suspension softened the ride considerable over the rough rocky roads around Cajamarca. I didn’t get nearly the number of flats I had six years earlier. Also, by 1997 there were a huge number of cheap department store type mountain bikes in Cajamarca. I even found a few campesinos riding them on the trails in the mountains.

Nathaniel came to visit my first summer in Cajamarca. He was five years old. I made a few modifications to the Giant to turn it into the family station wagon. I strapped a cushion onto the top of the rear rack and lashed a short section of plastic pipe with hand grips to the back of my seat for a handlebar. There he often accompanied me all the way up to Porcón and back. Sometimes we would just go for hours long rides up into the mountains. I met Vanessa in May and we were married in December. I carried Vanessa on the rack and Luciana sat on a pad strapped to my top tube. Eventually, the bottom bracket wore out. It had more than an inch of wobble at the peddle. I couldn’t get a replacement part for the newfangled cartridge bottom bracket in Peru so I just had to keep riding it that way. I even won a local mountain bike race, sprinting for the win with that God-awful wobble. As I left again for the States I sold the Giant ATX to Tino, a friend from church. I asked for $200 and finally agreed on $150. He gave me $50 up front and never paid me the balance.

Motiv (1999). I picked up an abandoned bicycle that I found under the Tates Creek High School stadium while I was there inline skating. It was a fairly nice, almost new, department store brand mountain bike. It was all muddy and the wheels were whacked out of true. I took it home—I suppose, to care for like an injured bird. I figured someone had stolen it and left it there after they had had their fun. I thought about giving it to a neighbor, or to the police. But after thinking about it, I figured if I just left it there someone who wasn't the owner would end up with it. So I took it home with me and converted it (by combining some parts from my old Diamondback) into a commuter bike. New, it was probably a $250 dollar bike, and it was new. It has a chromoly main triangle, but high tensile fork and rear triangle. I was an improvement over my old commuter. It certainly shifted better. All I did was put on my 1 ¼ inch slicks, fenders, longer stem, better seat, bar ends, and rear rack. The frame was still smaller than I would have liked. It is the same size as my old Diamondback. I stripped the Diamondback of its remaining components and threw the frame in the trash. The bottom bracket on the Diamondback had been somehow smashed out of round and I could not figure out how to replace the dead bottom bracket. I was glad to be rid of it.

Gary Fisher (2001). Our family was living in an old house (built in 1900) that had been converted into apartments. It was in downtown Lexington, on Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. in a terrible part of town. We moved there for the large cheap basement apartment, but did not realize how troublesome it would be to live in that crime ridden neighborhood. I finished writing my dissertation and graduated in August. Isaiah was born in May the following year. One of our neighbors moved out, leaving behind his old Gary Fisher mountain bike. It was a early nineties model with a chromoly frame and rigid fork. The owner had left it locked up outside and someone had stolen both wheels. Rather an replace the wheels he had simply thrown it out with his trash. I quickly rescued it. Another bird with a broken wing. By simply adding my wheels from the Motiv, I had a complete bike with nicer components and with a frame that fit me a bit better. I actually returned to mountain bike racing on this bicycle.

In 2003, when Nathaniel was eleven, he wanted to start racing mountain bikes. I accompanied him to the races, he entered the junior races and I the masters, riding on this old Gary Fisher. I’m sure I was the only one racing on an old school rigid fork mountain bike. It was a bit embarrassing to race such a machine, so I soon made a significant upgrade and relegated the Fisher to the garage where it played a minor commuting role and puller of kid trailers around the neighborhood. I honestly don’t know what happened to the Fisher. The last time I saw it, it was in my parents basement in Owingsville. They moved back to Texas last year and I never found out the final fate of the Fisher.

Klein Attitude Race (2003). The invention of Ebay did much to improve the quality of my riding stock. I replaced the Fisher with another used mountain bike I picked up on Ebay for about $500. It was a late-nineties Klein Attitude Race with a super light aluminum frame, a cool blue paint job, and full XT components. It had retailed for around $2000 just a few years earlier. The picture on Ebay was terrible and the frame had been wrapped with electrical tape by the former owner to hide its value when it was used as a commuting bike on the streets of Seattle. The Seattle police department was auctioning it off from their stolen merchandise department. I guess not too many Ebay bidders recognized the value of the bike because I won the bid at a bargain price. This Klein was so light and smooth after I gave it a little tender loving care, that it soon became one of my favorite bikes of all time. I raced the Klein a handful times in Kentucky, and then in the spring of 2004 it accompanied us to Bolivia.

The Klein became my adventure bike, accompanying Nathaniel and I on many weekend rides up into the Andes west of Santa Cruz. Mud and sand do quite a job on drive train components in Bolivia. I replaced the chain, cassette, and chain rings numerous times. Eventually the shifting became so degraded that it would need a major overhaul to it to continue working well. I reluctantly agreed to sell it to a Bolivian riding buddy for $400 before we came back to the U.S. on furlough in 2006. I think he finally paid me $300 saying that if he gave me a penny more his wife would kill him. I still see him out riding it today and regret ever selling it.

Specialized Stump Jumper Pro (2006). Nathaniel spent 2005 back in the U.S. with his mom. He bought this 2001 Stump Jumper hard tail on Ebay I believe for around $600. He was growing like a weed and had outgrown a Gary Fisher he had gotten the year before on Ebay. Then in the spring of 2006, Jim, his step dad, went all out and bought him a new top of the line full suspension Stump Jumper, so I bought this Stump Jumper hard tail from Nathaniel. It’s a good bike. Fairly light weight and has the work horse Shimano XT components. Today, it is my primary mountain bike here in Bolivia.

Kona (2007). Upon Nathaniel’s return to Bolivia in 2007 we didn’t have a mountain bike for him. I gave him back the above Stump Jumper and then bought a used Kona from Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, a bicycle tour company based in La Paz. It was I believe a 2005 model, more of an all-mountain than a cross country racer. It was heavy, had hydraulic disc brakes and a long travel front suspension fork. I paid $800 for it and honestly, I don’t like it much.

Nathaniel just keeps on growing. He is about six foot three now, but his legs are about four inches longer than mine. We switched bikes again, him taking the Kona because it has the largest frame of the two. When will he stop growing? We improved the ride of the Kona a bit by replacing the hydraulic disc brakes with mechanical ones, adding lighter wheels, and by swapping the forks between the Stump Jumper and the Kona. Now the Stump Jumper has more travel and is heavier and the Kona is a bit lighter.

Salsa Campeon (2008). Again, Ebay comes to the rescue. My first couple of years in Bolivia I was training on the road on the Klein Attitude with slicks. Being on old roadie, I knew I could go faster, so I finally brought over my old Merckx, now practically an antique. I did a couple of road races, but even by Bolivia standards it was quite outdated and I succumbed to the desire for a new road ride. I saved my pennies and bid on my current road ride, the Salsa Campeon. I won the bid for $1200. The bike was only a year or two old and looked like it had rarely been out of the garage. New it would probably retail for around $3500. The frame is a mix of scandium (a special aluminum), with a carbon fiber rear triangle. The components are full Shimano Dura Ace. I have finally joined the world of 21st century cycling technology. I love this bike. I think it weighs about 17 lbs. Considerably lighter than the old steel Merckx.

Sad side note: Over Christmas (2008), Nathaniel borrowed the Salsa in an attempt to do a one day Santa Cruz-Samaipata-Santa Cruz ride. About 250 km of mountain climbs, bad pavement, and gravel. I followed him in my pickup just in case he had trouble. Unfortunately about 5k before the Samaipata turn around, a link in the chain came apart, snagged the Dura Ace derailleur and ripped it right off the bike. I have been riding Nathaniel’s old Specialized Allez frame built up with an assortment of the old Merckx components and a few other odds and ends. I should be getting the replacement parts to reactivate the Salsa shortly.

The following is a brief description of bicycles I have acquired over the years for significant others.

Schwinn Super LeTour (1982). When I was working at Bolen’s Bike World in high school I rescued this old Schwinn from the trash bin. Someone brought it in as a trade in, but when we saw the condition it was in and only offered them a few bucks, they threw it in the dumpster on their way out of the parking lot. From the mid-seventies, it was a good bike in its day. It had a five speed freewheel, double front chain rings, mid-line Shimano drive train, etc. It was way too small for me to ride, but I put new tires, cables, brake pads, etc on it and gave it to my mom as a gift. I think she may have ridden it half a dozen times. It sat in their garage or attic for years and years. By the late 90’s and early 00’s, I rerescued it and refurbished it for Vanessa to ride, and then later it became Nathaniel’s first road bike when he was eight or nine years old. I don’t remember its final fate. We must have given it away.

Cannondale road bike (1985). While attending Baylor University, I asked my neighbor, Susan, to marry me. She was a nice girl, but we were too young and the relationship was ill-fated from the beginning. I was working at the Ordinary Bike Shop at the time, so I bought her a nice little purple Cannondale road bike. I had dreams of her becoming a great cycling enthusiast. I think we rode together twice. She did go with me to a few races.

In May of 1985 she traveled with me down to San Antonio for a circuit race. It was a big race with something like 70 people in the Cat 3-4 race. I was on fire and won several primes and then the final field sprint for first place. The pace had slowed because no one wanted to initiate the sprint, I was boxed in next to the left curb, so I to a chance and drifted all the way to the back of the twenty strong pack. With about 300 meters to go I swung to the far right curb and started my sprint. No one reacted quickly enough to catch my wheel. I soloed in for the victory with about 30 meters to spare. Susan ran over to congratulate me, but I had put so much effort into the final sprint that I began vomiting there on the side of the road. Embarrassed, she walked away back into the crowd. Susan broke up with me a few weeks later. She gave back the engagement ring (which I used to buy the Eddy Merckx) but for some reason she kept the Cannondale.

Bianchi mountain bike (1990). Fast forward to 1990. I was married to Jana and living in Peru. Jana and I flew down to Arica, Chile to work on our immigration papers. We also spent a week backpacking on the Chilean altiplano, close to the Bolivian border. There were a number of fairly inexpensive mountain bikes for sale in Arica, so we bought one for Jana ($200) and brought it back with us to Cajamarca. It had a heavy steel frame with cheap components, but it was better and anything available in Peru at the time. This was going to be her bicycle for the grand tour back the U.S. the following year. That never happened.

Burly Trailer (1992). I bought this kid hauler in 1992 when I was working at Bikes America in Fort Worth. It cost around $200 even with my employee discount. I strapped Nathaniel’s car seat inside and started taking him on rides when he was six months old. After we moved to Lexington, I took him on club rides, riding in a pack and averaging over 20 mph. Some of the guys were surprised that I could even out climb them while pulling the trailer. Later I used the Burley for Luciana and Isaiah. I will never forget our family outings when I attached the trailer bike to my bicycle and then the Burley to a trailer bike, making a train. Nathaniel and I pedaled pulling Luciana in the Burley and Vanessa followed on her bicycle. We made quite an impression on passing motorists out in the Bluegrass horse country. In 2008, I gave the Burley to a friend from Crossroads Christian Church who has a couple of young kids.

Bianchi road bike (1993). Jana and I were living in Lexington where I had started graduate school at the University of Kentucky. We found a used Bianchi road bike for sale in the local newspaper. It was a late-eighties model—an Italian chromoly steel frame with Suntour Cyclone components. A descent mid-level road bike. We actually rode together quite a bit, towing Nathaniel behind in the Burley trailer. Nathaniel inherited this bike when he was finally big enough for the 57 cm frame. It was the bike he was using when he first started entering road races in 2006. Later, it was demoted to being his commuting bike. Now he is way too tall for the frame and it has gone back into storage at his mom’s house.

Giant Boulder (2000). This was Nathaniel’s first mountain bike. His mom bought it for him and this is the bike he used when he first started mountain bike racing in 2003. This bike was way too heavy for racing, but he quickly out grew it anyway. Later it became Luciana’s primary mountain bike. I not sure where it finally ended up. I think my parents might have given it away when they moved from Owingsville.

Centurion Dave Scott Ironman (2000). I bought this road bike used on Ebay for Vanessa. It was in great shape for an early ‘90s model. I won the bid with $375. It was made specifically for small women. It had a light chromoly frame, good Shimano components and a 24” front wheel that lowered and shortened the riding position. We rode a good bit together when we lived in Kentucky. Now it is in storage someplace collecting dust.

Adams Trailer Bike (2001). The Adams is a kid’s bike that attaches to the back of an adult bike. It has one wheel and a five speed cassette. I began taking Nathaniel to school on this bicycle when he was in first grade at Maxwell Elementary. It was about a five mile commute from our house. I was working from home on my dissertation while Vanessa worked full time outside the home and needed our one car. Our only option for picking Nathaniel up from school was the trailer bike. He and I both enjoyed our commutes immensely. After he out grew it, I took Luciana to school on the trailer bike. It now sits in storage in Kentucky. I wish I could get it to Bolivia to use with Isaiah, but with reduced weight limits on the airlines, it would be hard to justify the cost.

Gary Fisher Big Sur (2004). Nathaniel’s next mountain bike after he grew out of the Giant Boulder. We bought it on Ebay for about $500. I had an aluminum frame and descent Shimano LX components. We took it to Bolivia where it was pretty well trashed from the harsh riding conditions. It is now a single speed commuter sitting in our bike room in Santa Cruz.

Haro 24 (2005). This is a little 24” wheel mountain bike we bought here in Santa Cruz. It fits Vanessa and Luciana well. It was about $300 new. It’s not a great bike, but it serves well enough for short rides around town.

Specialized S-Works Stumpjumper FS (2006). The bike that Nathaniel’s step dad bought him. It is a top of the line full suspension cross country race bike ($5,500 new). Nathaniel raced on it a few times. He started doing more road racing in 2006, so he really didn’t get much use out of it before he out grew the frame. It is still at his mom’s house in Kentucky. He plans to sell it on Ebay so he can get a larger frame.

Specialized Allez Pro (2006). Nathaniel’s first nice road bike. It was a 56 cm red aluminum frame with Shimano Ultregra STI. We bought it on Ebay for $600. Nathaniel brought it Bolivia in 2007. He out grew the frame so he left it behind. I built it up with the old components from the Merckx. It is now the spare road bike I am riding while I’m waiting for my Salsa parts.

Kona King Zing (2008). This is Nathaniel’s latest road bike. He bought the frame new on Ebay for $700. It is a top of the line carbon fiber frame. One reason it sold for so little was the pink paint job. He built it up with the components from his old Specialized Allez. Since he began working at Pedal the Planet in Lexington, he has upgraded to the best SRAM component group, Red. It is now a top of the line road racing bike that weights about 16 lbs. But it is pink and red.

Haro Zoom 18 (2009). This is Isaiah’s latest bike. He and all the kids have had quite a few little bikes they learned to train on that I don’t remember exactly. This particular one is a little 18” wheel BMX style bike with coaster brakes and hand brakes. Cost $200 new. He is getting pretty good on it. He wants to start racing BMX at the local track here in Santa Cruz. He is not ready for that yet, but we are working on it.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Space Aliens

We have been in Santiago de Chiquitos for a couple of days. We drove down here on Friday, looking for a quite place to hide during the crazy Carnival weekend. Last year we went to Concepcion. Not a good place to be during Carnival. Santiago is smaller and though there were several comparsas marching around this weekend, most of the partying was done in their houses and not right on the main plaza. It was interesting to see them dress up and come dancing and playing in their little bands around the plaza. We are staying in a new “five star” hotel called Hotel Buela. I don’t think it is quite five star, but it is surprisingly nice for a small rural community of this size. It has a great restaurant, and clean well appointed rooms with a great bathroom. Santiago de Chiquitos is a difficult 10 hour drive, mostly off-road, from Santa Cruz. I won’t give complete details of our trip, but suffice it to say it was quite muddy and slow and bumpy and we were all at each others throats by the time we arrived in Santiago. It would probably be better to take the train next time.

Santiago is at about 1500 feet elevation, and 1000 feet above Robore, a regional city on the train line to Brazil. Robore is notoriously hot most of the year, but Santiago is surprisingly cool and fresh. I don’t think I will recount all of the details of our stay, but I did want to document a hike I took this evening. My memory is growing progressively worse as I age and if I don’t write it down I will probably not remember it in five years. Vanessa amazes me with the detailed memories she has of events that happened years and years ago. She can remember the dialog of our conversations when I cannot even vaguely remember the situation or event.

Vanessa and the kids went to visit our friend Katharine Whittaker on her dairy while I took off alone up to the ridge above town, hoping to get some good pictures of the rock cliffs and towers at sunset. We had gone hiking in this area several days earlier with the kids and it was a lot of fun, but I didn’t get in the photography I wanted to because we went in the middle of the afternoon. The light was bad and it was hard to move around the rocks and cliffs with Isaiah in tow. So this afternoon the light looked promising—patches of sun and a few dark clouds rolling through. I got on the trail with just about an hour and a half of good light left. The trail climbs through a forest and rock crags before emptying out onto a large flat grassy plateau with magnificent views of cliffs, rock towers, and the Toluma valley. You can see a hundred kilometers across the valley to a distant range of mountains that hides the community of Santo Corazon where World Concern has some micro credit groups. The road I came up actually crosses the Toluma valley and makes its way over to Santo Corazon 140 kilometers away. The road is in such poor condition that it is impassable by vehicle. Other than flying, the only way into Santo Corazon is on foot, mule, or to hitch a ride on an occasional tractor. In any case it is at least a two day journey with an overnight stop in the wilderness. There are no settlements or people living between Santiago and Santo Corazon.

On my way up through the crags I spotted no less than a dozen toucans (like Toucan Sam of Fruit Loops fame) flying through the trees. I wasn’t able to get a picture of one because they were too high in the canopy and I couldn’t spot them until they were already on the move. They look so awkward sitting in the trees, but they really are beautiful in flight. When extended, their huge hollow beaks look like the front of a fighter jet. Their short little wings flap quickly; their flight looks inefficient, but they are obviously uniquely adapted to their environment. I climbed on up to the plateau, maybe 500 vertical feet above the truck, and began photographing the rock towers and cliffs. The clouds were moving quickly overhead so I waited for just the right light on the formations and distant mountains. On the very top of the plateau was a 50 foot high rock island that looked like a man-made fortress topped with trees and cactus.

I was working my way around the fortress when I heard a strange and out of place, almost otherworldly noise. It sounded like a kite crashing to the ground—the loud flutter of fabric or perhaps sails against the wind, and then silence. Then I heard it several more times. The hair on my neck stood on end and in my mind I began imagining strange and perhaps invisible extra-terrestial crafts playing games with me. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my body, unconsciously preparing itself for fight or flight. My fears were calmed when I finally caught a glimpse of what was causing the noise. Birds were literally falling out of the sky, twisting and turning as they dove with incredible speed into what appeared to be solid ground. I walked closer to where they were vanishing and saw that they were actually diving full speed into a crack in the rocks. The crack was no more than one or two meters wide and filled with trees and bushes along the edge. I peered over the edge and could not see the bottom, only a dark twisting chasm. In another place I could see the bottom but it appeared to be at least 200 or more feet down. This fissure in the rock began on the cliff edge and ran parallel to the cliff line maybe 50 meters from the edge. It ran all the way to another set of cliffs maybe half a mile further down the range. These birds, small to medium sized brown or black birds (I didn’t get a good look at them), must have been roosting for the evening. It looked like some form of play. They purposefully flew with as much speed as possible, and making as much noise as possible, into the thinnest and deepest of cracks. I could hear them whistling and calling to each other in the depths of the crevasse. It looked as though I might be able to scramble down through passages through the cliffs and enter crack from one end. But the sun was setting quickly so I will have to leave that for another day.

I walked on down the ridge and sat on a rock overlook where I had a magnificent view of the whole mountain range. It looks like a series of waves that are slowly rising to a peak and are about to crash down into the Toluma valley. Essentially, this might be what is happening, but on geological time scale beyond my perception. I found a unique little tree on the edge of the cliff that I wanted to use in the foreground of a landscape picture, but the light was not right. A dark cloud was passing overhead and I was afraid it would not clear before the sun set behind the ridge to the west. It began to rain and I worried about keeping my camera dry. The storm passed as quickly as it had appeared and then moved out over the ridge into the valley a thousand feet below me. Patches of sun, shadow, and rain raced across the vast valley floor. Just five minutes before the sun set behind the ridge, the sky cleared and a bright ray of sun lit up my little tree, then a huge rainbow appeared out over the valley before me. It was the biggest, brightest and most intense rainbow I have ever seen. It was almost three quarters of a circle, beginning far out in the valley and arching over to a green plateau among rock ridges no more than a kilometer down the range. My adrenaline began flowing again as I haphazardly ran in circles on top of the ridge trying to find the best vantage to capture the rainbow along with my little tree and the mountains in the background. The rainbow faded after about five minutes, but the magical light continued for another half an hour or so. I got some beautiful pictures of condors playing the air currents on the ridge line and of the setting sun. I snapped over 300 pictures in less than an hour. I suppose “out of context” all of this sounds a bit corny, but it truly was a unique spiritual experience—a too rare commune with God in his creation. To be honest, I was a bit spooked as I descended into the forest in complete darkness. Every sound I heard caused me to pick up the pace and I literally ran back down to the trail head where I left the car parked. It’s difficult to describe in words the emotion I experienced as I heard and saw the beauty of God’s creation this evening. I hope I got some descent pictures that can even half way represent what I experienced. I will probably be as disappointed with my images as I am with this written narrative. Hopefully they can serve as reminders so I do not forget the true experience of living in the moment.

You can see a few pictures from San Jose and Santiago de Chiquitos at

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Went on a hike today into the Parabanon area. But first a little background. Luis, Chelita’s brother, is hosting a mission team at his school this week and he asked me several weeks ago to take several of his team on a hike. I checked into going to the Surutu falls, but the trail is still closed because the ladder down the cliff has not been replaced. I decided to drag the team along on a hike that I have been wanting to attempt for a couple of months now. I had heard through several sources that there was a big but fairly inaccessible waterfall near the Parabanon mountain, about 50 km to the south Angostura along the front mountain range. One height estimate was of 400 feet. I figured that was probably an over estimation because I have not seen anything approaching that height in Santa Cruz. Carlos met a family in Bermejo who were originally from the Parabanon area and who verified the existence of the falls and said they were actually located on their family’s property.

Carlos and I drove up to Bermejo yesterday to ask for permission to enter the area and to get directions. We were directed back to El Torno where we met a cousin of the family who knows the area well and agreed to take us in today. So we left this morning at 5:00 A.M. not really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. Here is the cast of characters. Myself, Carlos (my Colombian well drilling buddy), Luis (Bolivian school teacher and mission team leader), Ernando (18 year old local guide), Samuel (Bolivian school teacher working with Luis), Rob (20 something year old mission volunteer from Indiana) and Mark (61 year old mission volunteer from Indiana). We picked up Carlos and Ernando in El Torno and everyone crammed into my Nissan for the bumpy three hour off road trip to the trail head. Ernando wasn’t sure which roads were passable so we stopped at several relative’s houses for advice. The road was increasingly less traveled and more difficult to follow. The mud and sand got deeper and the forest closed in around us. We crossed two rivers—the second crossing was at a place I was not too confident we could make it through. After a bit of machete work, rock rolling and shoveling I gunned the motor and we made it through the river and up the steep sandy embankment on the other side. I definitely need to get a winch. It is just too stressful constantly thinking I am going to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere. We parked the truck at the end of the road where we left it in the care of one of Ernando’s many aunts who still live in the area. The aunt and her two tiny children were all sick with a fever. She asked if we had any medicine so I came up with something from my truck's first aid kit. This family lives at least three hour walk from the nearest road where they could get a truck out to civilization. Their home was a loose collection of rotting boards nailed to four posts and roofed with palm leaves and their yard was a swamp full of pigs and mosquitoes.

We were finally on the trail and hiking by 9:30. It was a late start, steamy hot, and I was already feeling the pressure to hike fast so we could be back to the car before dark. Ernando had estimated it would take three to four hours to get to the falls, or longer depending on the condition of the trail. We followed the river, a gentle current knee deep and 10 meters wide, two or three kilometers upstream. Ernando, already impatient with our teams pace, disappeared into the bush with his machete, looking for the entrance to an old trail that climbs a steep ridge out of the river valley. Ernando’s family has a long history of living in this area. I wasn’t sure if Ernando had ever lived here for any length of time, but he certainly knew the area well. He said he had been hiking in the area with his grandfather ever since he was a young boy. Ernando’s grandfather is a somewhat legendary figure in the area because he was captured by Che Gevarra in the mid-60s during his revolutionary campaign in Bolivia and forced to guide his army through these steep mountains and canyons. He is mentioned by name in Gevarra’s personal diary. The trail we hiked today is one of a scant few trails that traverse this uninhabited range of mountains and is probably one that Gevarra’s army used during the two years they hid in the mountains of Valle Grande. Cecilia, Ernando’s cousin who we met in Bermejo, said that as a child she lived in a cave near the waterfalls. Ernando said he could guide us to both the cave and the waterfalls but that he would not go in the cave because a giant snake lived inside. While there are huge boa constrictors and anacondas here, there are also fanticiful tales of magical creatures that live in caves, on mountain tops and in bodies of water in the Andes. Most locals avoid these areas at all costs.

The trail was over grown so our route up the ridge was agonizingly slow. Ernando and Carlos were up front opening up the trail with machetes. It doesn’t look like this route has been used in at least a year. Five minutes into the climb Mark and Rob were suffering from the heat and humidity. Certainly a shock after having just arrived from the middle of an Indiana winter. The overgrown trail switch backed and forth up the ridge. I could see that the trail had at one time been well traveled. It was generally no more than a couple of feet wide, but on the steeper sections it had been carved out of the rock with picks and shovels. Three or four places had recently washed away in mud slides and we had to carefully pick our way across steep exposed slabs of rock, hanging onto roots and grass to maintain our balance. I never felt these traverses were particularly life threatening or even dangerous, but several on our team hesitated a good while before committing to the crossing, and then joyously celebrated once safely to the other side. Mark, a landscaper in Indiana is in great shape for being 61 years old, but I think the heat hit him hard and after about 15 minutes of climbing he had to sit down and get off of his wobbly legs before he completely fainted. After frequent rests and slow steps he eventually recovered some strength and was able to continue hiking well. After three hours of hiking we finally broke out on top of the ridge above tree line and had a magnificent view of the steep mountains around us and the Amazon plain stretching out like an infinite green sea before us. My GPS told me it was about a 1200 ft climb from the river to top of the ridge—not a tremendous gain in elevation but still a valid effort given the trail condition and heat. We settled into a shaded grove of trees to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that the volunteer team had packed along. We filled our water bottles from the silty pool of a small spring seeping from the mountain. Ernando and the other Bolivian’s drank straight from the stream. I decided to be a cautious wimp and filter the water with my handy dandy filter bottle before ingesting it. After lunch Mark, Rob, and Samuel decided their legs had taken all they could and opted to stay behind while the rest of us, in search of the falls, descended back into the canyon on the other side of the ridge. Ernando side the trail was even steeper and more difficult going back into the canyon. Now that it was only Carlos, Luis, Ernando and myself, we were practically running down the trial trying to get down into the canyon, back out again and then down to the truck before night fell. It felt like we were trying to do a two day trip in only one day.

We quickly dropped into a steep canyon and made our way down 500 feet or so into the river course were Ernando showed us a waterfall that was maybe 40 or 50 feet high. It was beautiful and the flow of water was impressive; nevertheless I was disappointed as I was expecting something a bit bigger. We worked our way around through the forest and to the top of the falls. Ernando said he had heard there was another larger fall a little further down the river but he had never gone down there because his grandfather had never wanted to risk the scramble down over the rocks. Then I found out the real reason the didn’t go near the pool at the bottom of the falls. Ernando said that when one of his aunts was a child she was bathing alone in the pool below the falls and a hichi came up out of the water and scared her. A hichi is another of the mystical creatures that inhabit the wilds of Bolivia. She claimed it was serpent like in form and had a huge dragon head with horns. We scrambled around through the woods and found a passage between the cliffs where we scrambled down to the pool below the falls. Ernando bravely followed us despite the hichis all around. We snapped a few pictures and then turned our interest downriver. I could hear the roar of larger falls and began to make my way over the boulders made smooth from centuries of flowing water. The river bed dropped way before me and when I finally gained a view of the falling water and the valley below I was shocked at the height we were perched above the canyon. While it is certainly hard to estimate heights when looking down, I would guess the falls were minimally 500 feet high. My GPS said we were at 988 meters elevation, and earlier I had recorded the river at 740 meters where we had crossed. That is a height difference of 248 meters (813 ft). I'm sure the river drops some between the falls and where we crossed but the falls themselves could easily be 600 to 700 feet high. From the top there was no direct way to get down to the bottom of the falls. It was box canyon with sheer cliffs on all three sides.

It was already pushing 4:00 P.M so we didn’t even have time for a dip in the stream. We headed back up the trail to find the rest of our group. It was a steep climb out. I was struggling to keep up with Carlos and Ernando. My knees were hurting and I was definitely at my physical limit. I couldn’t wait to pick up the rest of the group so our pace would slow back down and I could rest. Ernando seemed to have the eternal energy of youth and was still bounding up the rocks and ledges and then waiting for us to catch up. I was truly impressed with his strength and endurance and quite appalled at my own lack of either. We found the rest of the group lounging in the shade of a lone tree on a ridge above the river. Andean condors were playing in the updrafts above their heads. Condors are impressive because of their size, up to a 12 foot wingspan, and they do possess a certain mystique because of the folklore surrounding them, but they really are just big ugly vultures. I screwed in my long telephoto lens and got a couple of descent shots of one sitting on a fence post. We descended quickly down the ridge trail back to the river and there soaked our aching feet in the cool water. The remaining kilometers back to the car seemed to drag on forever. I saw the car through the forest just as the last light was fading from the sky. After another three hours back down the dirt road we made it out to the highway by 10:00 and I was back home by 11:00—an 18 hour day. I think for the next hike to the falls we will follow the river all the way to the base of the falls. I’m sure the hiking will be difficult over the boulders, but there should be less climbing and I think the view will be just as or even more rewarding.

Epilogue -- March 16th (a month later)

Jason, Stephanie, and Brynlee, my brother and his wife and four year old daughter, are here in Santa Cruz visiting with us for about ten days. Jason will be participating with four other guys from his church on a mission trip. They will be working with a start-up peri-urban church here in town. Today Jason had a free day before the team gets here on Saturday morning so I set up a little adventure so Jason could get out and experience rural Bolivia. We went back to the Parabanon falls. This time the plan was to hike all the way up the river valley to the base of the largest falls. I also invited Rudy Freeson, a newly arrived missionary and fellow neighbor, Michael, a man working with YWAM for a month, and Carlos of course.

We left Santa Cruz at 3:30 in the morning and were on the trail hiking by 7:30. I asked a young man near where we parked the car if he or anyone he knew had ever tried to get to the base of the falls. He said no. It was slow going because there were so many boulders to climb over and or find away around in the river bed. We hiked for four hours before we finally made it to the falls. There were several other good size falls on the way. The main falls are I think the prettiest I have seen in Bolivia. They are not has high as I had estimated from the top, but impressive none-the-less, probably 300-400 feet high. We ate lunch and swam for about two hours and then headed back down the trail. All of us were tired and sore on the way back out. We eventually made it back home by 9:30 that night. Still an 18 hour day just like the previous hike in the area. Jason was exhausted and said the hike rivaled the difficulty of our Rainbow Bridge hike in Arizona back in 1995. Years ago he promised he would never let me lead him into anything so difficult again. I guess the years have helped sand the edges off of his memory. I got some great pictures. The area is absolutely beautiful. We didn’t see a scrap of trash all day. There were not even any old plastic bottles or bags in the high water snags. This is probably one the remotest, least peopled areas I have ever seen. Nothing of this caliber exists anywhere in the U.S. If these falls were in the U.S. there would be a paved road built to within a 10 minute hike of the falls, and the path would be paved or at least graveled and would have hand rails and “no swimming” signs posted about.