Friday, May 27, 2016

Perfection at 'Experiencing a Book'

Perfection has never been my ideal. Not everybody thinks like that. Many people may remember Curly's (Jack Palance's) speech about the beautiful woman backlit by the sun, in "City Slickers". Or consider the climax of "The Red Violin". There are other examples of worshiping perfection as an ideal from the days of chivalry, religious devotion, or military courage.

All I can say is, they are welcome to it, if that is what they want. For my part, I will continue to believe in the semi-universal S-shaped curve for Benefits versus Costs. (Notice the 'semi'.)

But it is always fun to make an exception. My recent problems with a broken leaf spring on my trailer resulted in a perfect experience of a certain type.

It was so easy to admire the competence and usefulness of the mechanic who drove the tow truck to my trailer, and then repaired it. He knew where to get the replacement part quickly, whereas I would have bounced around on the internet for hours, spending most of that time reading half-truths and advertisements. 

He managed to get the trailer onto the flat bed of the trailer, with one inch of space on the side of the trailer's wheels. (Recall, it has outboard wheel wells.)

He was not chatty, but neither was he grumpy. He was simply taciturn in a professional sort of way.

In contrast, consider the dispatcher at the towing service, Coachnet. Both the service and the young man dispatcher were excellent at their jobs. But why so much extraneous information? Is that all the world amounts to anymore: a bunch of cubicle-thralls entering unnecessary information into a computer system? 

The dispatcher's job was somewhat squishy and subjective, whereas the mechanic's job had more objective criteria. There is no guessing about whether he succeeded or not.

The dispatcher was a bit better spoken. Was he a college boy? Is his job an example of a 'knowledge worker', of the type that our service economy is supposed to need? The dispatcher was not wearing grease-stained coveralls as the mechanic was. So he is a 'white collar' worker.

Do you really believe that the dispatcher is as skilled as the mechanic?

This is the perfect example of what Matthew Crawford was writing about in "...Working with Your Hands...", a book that I had just finished before this leaf spring problem happened.

One more thing: the young mechanic might end up owning the auto garage someday. It is the only one in town. The dispatcher will never own Coachnet.  He will spend his whole life in fear of downsizing. But since insurance companies don't really compete with Chinese labor -- and why don't they? -- he may survive. He might even become a manager there someday. Whoopee.

Perhaps I should collect some of Crawford's juicy quotes, which encourage a more favorable view towards skilled professionals who work with their hands, instead of automatically assuming the superiority of white collar, college-educated Nobodies, who are really nothing more than petty clerks.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Can I Benefit from a Setback with my Trailer?

Care is needed in writing about a practical problem. But it can be an enjoyable challenge to the writer, who must keep thinking about the general reader, and avoid too many messy, picayune details.

The broken main leaf on my trailer, in the center of photo. The axle and wheel are to the left; the bow is to the right. The break is 3.5" aft of the fore shackle (in "front" of the wheel). Ignore the horizontal steel bar along the bottom --it is tow truck hardware.

The main top leaf broke at the point where leaf #2 touches it from underneath.  The bow of the trailer is towards the right in the photo.

One of the leaf springs broke on my single-axle trailer. Fortunately this occurred at walking speed, after bumping into a partially submerged rock. So no damage was done to me or the frame or axle.

But what if this happened to a single axle trailer at high speeds? I always worried about single axle trailers just for this reason. Perhaps I was right all along.

One could argue that it would be preferable to have rubber torsion axles that don't have leaf springs, and therefore don't break. From experience I know that you can permanently bend rubber torsion axles (such as the Dexter "Torflex"). But that's a lot better than breaking something loose; you can still drive the trailer to a repair shop. On the other hand repairs are more expensive than for leaf springs.

So once I get back on the road, what shall I do to ensure this doesn't happen again?  When I bent the rubber torsion axles of my first trailer, I replaced them with heavier duty axles/springs. The problem never happened again. Should I try this for my current trailer with its leaf springs?


How can this setback be used to advantage?  Clearly, I need to take some weight out of trailer, even though it is just under the nominal rating. [1] You can't remove significant weight by winnowing the socks or underwear drawer. You must attack water, canned goods, books, tools, and BATTERIES.

Nothing shakes up the slovenly habits of daily life like reducing the number of batteries. I will probably reduce the four batteries to two, for a weight reduction of 150 pounds. After all, computers and LED lights use less energy today than years ago, when I resigned myself to needing four batteries. 

Indeed, this experiment is turning positive. I had gotten into the terrible habit of watching DVDs at night, and during the night, as a sleeping pill. I have switched to soothing background music as my sleeping pill, because it uses less electrical power, and even better, I wake up in the morning feeling more refreshed.

Of course, the biggest energy draw is the DC compressor refrigerator. The best way to reduce its energy draw at night is to keep it full of water, and turn it down to near freezing in the late afternoon, before the solar panels shut down. I will also experiment with raising the temperature set-point at night.

[1] The trailer with all my stuff in it weighs 2900 pounds. The Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is 3000 pounds. But that is with the 4" drop axle from the factory. I had that axle replaced with a straight axle.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Back to Marvelous Dirt Road Mountain Biking

Going back to mountain biking on dirt roads -- rather than single-track trails -- is a straightforward opportunity to think independently of the System, and to reap rewards. Surely, this is easy to preach and hard to practice.

If you limit yourself to areas with networks of single-track trails, you will tend to pin yourself down in more touristy areas. The more uncrowded areas, with the best dispersed camping, have no single track trails, but they have many regular ol' dirt forest roads. 

New Mexico is under-rated as a place to mountain bike on dirt forest roads. The best feature is the balance between scenery and rideable topography. Look at this photo:

The cliff is pretty high and steep, and therefore fun to look at. But imagine there were a road along the top of the cliff. It would be challenging enough, but at the same time, not too steep. Those are the magic words for enjoying mountain biking, "not too steep."

The land was cooperating with me. Have you spent a little too much time alone if you start to anthropomorphize topography? At any rate Coffee Girl and I headed up a dirt road to a mountain peak because I was trusting the land. The climbing started immediately from the van. Uh-oh.

But the dirt road wasn't too rocky. There was enough dirt for some interesting footprints to show. I never realized how human the footprints of a bear are! I stopped and studied them, but it was impossible to photograph them. Should I snap little missy onto her leash? Remember her chasing the black bear on the Uncompahgre Plateau last autumn?

There are plenty of black bears in New Mexico, but I decided to leave her off-leash, and hoped that the tinkling bells on my bike scared off the bears. Soon we saw the big square butts of elk, and she chased them -- for about 4 seconds. Doesn't gravity mean anything to animals like that?

As usual I forgot to bring my GPS gadget. There is an advantage: instead of an uninteresting number, progress up the mountain is marked off in stages that seem subjectively interesting: unzipping the vest halfway, and then all the way; unclipping the left shoe as the road got steeper, and then the right shoe, as well; and suddenly the ponderosa pines giving way to the yukky subalpine spruce and fir that I don't even care to learn the names of. (But these things look so uninteresting on the page.)

There is a strange contrast between the mountain biker's keen awareness of the world around him and his self-absorption with the straining of his body. These two behaviors seem like the opposite of each other, and yet they don't cancel each other out.

What's this? A perfect campsite near the top, at least for a primitive camper. But was I near the top? I was going to turn around there, but then saw the forest fire watch tower on the top, not so many minutes away. It really is fun to whip out the first decent monocular of my life and check things out.

We finally humped it, and were rewarded with a view of the Plains of San Agustin, to the east. Surely it is one of the most unique areas in the Southwest.

To the west was the mighty little metropolis of Reserve, NM.

The descent was pure dessert, as it usually is, when mountain biking. One can get addicted to throwing everything you have into a monotonic climb, and then getting your payoff on the descent. It is a pleasure you don't get when you get sucked into single-track riding. (Nor do you get it on hikes.)

But the brakes didn't turn cherry red, nor did I feel like I was going to break my neck. Not too steep.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Extremism as the Route to Celebrity-hood

I waylaid an RV buddy this morning at a cafe. His and my dog both went berserk. By the time breakfast was over, we had the world pretty straightened out. We also talked about couch surfing, a topic that was new to me.

In fact a European friend and I had just finished a week of informal couchsurfing, with them in my van, and me in the trailer that is pulled by the van. It worked. I am curious about doing more of it. At the very least it is one more reason to own a van as the tow vehicle, instead of a pickup truck.

Restaurant noise bothers me more than it used to. To escape, we went outside to finish our coffee. Up walks a woman backpacker, who my friend had seen hitchhiking a few miles back. Oh sure, we all know about the cultural fad of backpacking across the country in 1969, by young hippies. But people still do this? Women?

And she had done some couchsurfing, too. As my friend left, he suggested that I have a conversation with this woman, who was eating alone. But I didn't. 

Why not? Was it just because she was a lot younger than me? That her travel style seemed reckless and unappealing? No it was something more. It was her impertinence.

It's not that she was doing something wrong. She was polite, pleasant, and well spoken. (And had gorgeous eyes.) But I felt vibrations that she thought she was some kind of celebrity, who outranked us because her travel style was more extreme.

I was simply unwilling to play that game. Extremism in travel is no more grounds for admiring somebody than extremism in anything else. Are they doing it for some kind of boost to their self-esteem?

Well, this young woman is doing something that works for her. I am not trying to correct her. Rather, I can see that a blogger like myself is also capable of coming off with an air of impertinence.  My style is more energetic than many more bourgeois travelers. From there it is easy to puff up, as if arduousness in travel is automatically a claim to some higher form of wisdom.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Economics 101 When a Town Barely Has a Pulse

It's been a long time since I took an economics course. All I remember about it is that they don't call it the "dismal science" for nuttin'. Let me suggest another approach to the subject. Forget about the hectic noise of the big city, the stop-and-go traffic, and the endless running around to buy crap, most of which is superfluous.

Imagine taking it all away. Simplicity, bliss? Not so fast. Your first couple hours in a really small town pound it into you how difficult it is to get anything done. What if you have something as trivial as a flat tire? Will you have to call your towing service and get towed 200 miles to Phoenix or Albuquerque?

Are any of their stores serious about doing business? Maybe they are just tax write-offs. Except that the place doesn't look high-income-enough to need tax write-offs.

Can you find a business that is open the same hours two days in a row? I actually bring a pen and clipboard to write down the complex schedule of hours when the silly place is actually open.

My cellphone doesn't work, but the internet does. It seems to be impossible to throw away a simple grocery sack of kitchen trash, because there are no trashcans in town! At least it is easy to find water in mountain towns.  

There are times when I feel like giving up. Let them board the place up.  Maybe local yokels wouldn't even care, until they closed their post office.

Clearly the place is impoverished, and yet you see more smokers around than anywhere else. Are 'smokes' covered by EBT cards? Their mental life is pretty much limited to the Bahbll and satellite television.

But it only gets so bad before you hit bottom. Then you start adapting. That is what makes this an 'authentic' experience. You start to appreciate how flexible a human being can be if they have to be. You really can buy a little food at the grocery store if you stop trying to impose city-ish notions on them.

The town even had a hardware/lumber store. Home Depot it isn't. I stopped at the section for tapes and adhesives, and started to imagine what kind of things I could fix with this tape and that adhesive.

Today I was in the grocery store and grinned from ear to ear when I saw a key-making machine at work. 

The closer you look, the less hopeless it seems. You start to see 'necessities' as falling into sub-categories: mere conventionalities; conveniences; occasional versus immediate; toys, status symbols, and entertainments.  

Better yet, life seems less regulated and bureaucratic. Interactions between individuals seem more relaxed. Of course you don't want to ruin that by fostering exaggerated, nostalgic sentimentalisms about small town people.  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Rite of Spring in the Travel Blogosphere

It is my favorite time of year as a reader of travel blogs. Bicycle touring blogs, that is. In the winter "Crazy Guy on a Bike" goes into semi-dormancy because even the "Southern Tier" route across the USA is not that popular. That leaves the southern hemisphere, which is a rather small place and expensive to get to

In particular it's worth keeping an eye out for the blogs about the GDMBR, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which goes from the Mexican border to the Canadian, while staying pretty close to the physical continental divide. Since it consists of dirt roads on public lands for the most part, a dog lover could at least fantasize biking it with their best friend. Not so, with the road cycling routes of course.

But I still give the roadie blogs a glance. Once in a great while, one of these is quite enjoyable. So why not celebrate the occasion? Recently that happened with "Looking for America", by Dan Schmiedt.  I have only read half of his blog up to the current date. It is fun to try to explain why a blog like his is so much more enjoyable than the average blog.

Perhaps what I am searching for, when scanning a list of mostly dreadful blogs, is the right travel-paradigm for me. Forget 'how to' blogs. Forget the 'scenery' blogs, who stubbornly disbelieve in the existence of anything between a person's ears other than a pair of eyeballs. 

Schmiedt's blog is more concerned with interesting observations, the sensual impact of cycle touring, and conversations with real people.  His title made me a bit wary: it sounded like a Charles Kurault-wannabee blog. But Schmiedt takes people as they are; he isn't looking for ostentatiously eccentric, colorful, licensed-lunatic types who fit a preconceived template for a 'feel good' story at the end of Walter Cronkite's evening news.

In contrast Schmiedt has a way of making more-or-less normal people seem interesting.

He also avoids the great besotting vice of bicycle bloggers: biting off too many miles per day, and ending the day with nothing to talk about other than ride statistics and weather reports.

Consider taking a look at his blog, especially while it is still ongoing. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Purple Papoose, Part 2

Bounteous. It is a pretty word that doesn't get used much. It has an interesting etymology. It is the best word I can think of for a recent experience with a seamstress. That isn't where you would expect to have a memorable experience.

Consider how difficult it is for travelers, especially unmarried men, to get any garment repaired. Even if they are married, most gringas these days can barely sew; or they consider it beneath them because it is sexist and traditional, almost to the point of being neolithic.

First of all, you must find the seamstress. They tend not to have webpages or billboards. Sometimes there is a simple, hand-written card on the bulletin board in a laundromat. That is where my luck started. If the seamstress is more of a tailor, she will be busy with wedding dresses, and not have time for old-fashioned, low-cost repairs.

Woe unto you if you bring her an unclean garment for repair. That is the sort of blunder that a male neanderthal is prone to.

I drove up to her house. It was hard to park on the steep gravel driveway. The place was a dump -- not just the house, but the yard around it, with all the detritus of hillbilly heaven, especially a dozen yapping curs. But I preach decomposing situations into their component parts; this was certainly a chance to practice what I preach.

What a relief it was to find the seamstress pleasant and well-spoken. I could tell she didn't have many customers. Perhaps many potential customers had been scared off by first impressions. Glad I wasn't.

She worked fast and did great work. So I returned home and cleaned out my 'dead and wounded' garments. Why not throw everything I had at her? What a strange, powerful feeling that was! A long overdue feeling of relief; and a feeling that all things are possible in this sorry old world of ours. Besides the tip I gave her, do you think she got satisfaction from doing something tangible and beneficial to another human being? Remember that somebody who travels in a small space has exacting requirements on their possessions, no matter how they look, superficially, to the casual observer.

As luck would have it, this thought ties in perfectly with a string of books I recently chanced onto, by Matthew B. Crawford. I read the preview of his book, and have paid him the ultimate compliment of shipping a dead-tree version of the book to the post office, with all the agonies that involves. (A first, for me.)

There is no better travel experience than one that combines with some other part of your life. What does [a travel experience] + [a book] = ?  Think of how two-dimensional and sterile words are, on a page. But a real life situation animates dull words. Where was it?, in the movie "Roger Rabbit", when birds on the page of a child's coloring book were suddenly brought to life, and began flying in circles above the book, while cheeping and chirping away. I am getting to enjoy a pleasure of that type now. I can't wait until Crawford's book shows up!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hitting the Jackpot with the Service Economy

So this is what it feels like to hit the jackpot! Despite the cliché that 'America has a service economy', an experienced traveler knows how difficult it is to get a dog groomed or a car fixed. Even more frustrating is the search for a seamstress. It would be easier to schedule brain surgery than to get a zipper replaced, when you're on the road.

That is why I hit the jackpot in Silver City when I threw myself on the mercy of a dry cleaning place, the same place where I had been saved a half dozen years ago, when this same winter parka had suffered 'wardrobe malfunction'. The way things go these days, perhaps I shouldn't complain about the new metal zipper surviving heavy use for that long. (It was twice as long as the original nylon Delrin zipper.}

Back then I remember the disappointment of the best winter parka of my life failing so prematurely, and fearing that it would now be put in the dumpster. It's funny how that works: we never remember the pretty scenery and the perfect weather and the smooth rides. But we remember the misadventures and the disasters. The wardrobe malfunction had happened on a cold blustery spring day in New Mexico. I was angry and miserable, walking through town, looking for seamstress help, while holding the parka closed with my soon-to-be-frozen fingers. 

But soon I started to like it. I had been walking to town with no particular purpose. Perhaps I would have ended up squandering time and money at a coffee shop. But now I let the cold wind cleave the parka in two. I was now engaged in a great and noble battle with Evil, testing whether this parka, or any parka so conceived and so dedicated, would long endure.

Well, that was Then. And Here we were again. This time the seamstress put an even bigger metal zipper in. It looks like it was made by Caterpillar Tractor Co., instead of YKK. 

And by the way, does YKK Corp. have some sort of global monopoly on zippers? Maybe that is why zippers are the bane of our existence.