Monday, February 27, 2012

I Am Not Wolverine?!

We all have different reasons for getting on a bike. For some of us, it's the thrill of racing -- maybe for money, a medal, or just bragging rights on the Tuesday night group ride. For others, it's how we get to work, school, shopping, and grandma's house. For ultra riders, it's a personal best on a 400K, or a 1200K without sleep. For the group out noodling in the country, it's an opportunity to experience the world more intimately than you can passing through it in a car.

But, for almost all of us, there's that "health" reason. We started riding to lose weight, get fit, bring our blood pressure down, or recover after cancer treatments. Maybe we can't live forever, but getting in shape allows us to make the most of the years on this planet that we do have.

Sometimes, part of that "experience the world" thing that I mentioned above is experiencing the pain of a long climb or a ride that's just on the edge of your pace, or maybe it's the pain of road rash when your wheel slides out on a wet corner, or the broken collarbone when you smack the ground a little harder.

Pain is integral. You cannot appreciate the sweet without the sour. The joy of seeing the sun rise on the third day of that 1200K, knowing that you're only 40 miles from the finish, is the payoff for the cold night before when you couldn't find a spot on the saddle that didn't bring tears to your eyes. It is the long hours of training at stupid wattage while your quads burned that put you on top of the podium in the spring, making you feel like a god atop Mount Olympus.

It's yinging your yang. It is balance.

I'm out of balance.

I feel great. Maybe a few too miles for this early in the year, but the weather has been incredible, even for south Florida. I may be stronger than I've ever been, at least for late February.

Last week, I had a regular checkup. Well, not really a regular checkup, since they did a whole bunch of tests on me that I don't normally get. It's not like we were worried about anything, however; it's just a thing that RandoGirl's employers offer to their employees -- and their spouses. So, we thought, hey, let's run the old body through the diagnostic system.

To be honest, I was looking for bragging rights. I wanted them to test me and go, "Holy crap! You're 53 years old?! That's inconceivable!"

And, on most things, that's what they said. For example, on heart and lungs, if I get killed in an accident and you are on the list for a new one and you get mine ... well, you're one lucky sumbitch. Same goes for kidneys and liver and most of the rest of my stuff. As an organ donor, I will be a bountiful harvest.

My hearing was normal, but I consider that pretty good for someone who's been drumming in bands since he was 16. And my skin was not showing too much damage, which is darned good for somebody who spends way too much time outside riding a bike.

And then we talked about my bone density.

Regular readers of this blog know that I -- like most cyclists -- have had my share of unintentional dismounts. There was this one, and this one, and this one, and there were a couple before I started this blog that I never told you about. At one of those earlier crashes, I separated my shoulder -- tearing all of the tendons -- but didn't break any bones. In fact (and people shudder when I say this, because it's tempting fate), I have never broken a bone in my life. Really. And that's through years of being a big clumsy oaf, and years of training and competing in martial arts, where I got whapped a crap ton.

To be honest, I'd almost started to wonder if I was Wolverine from the X-Men, and my memory had been erased so that I didn't recall having a skeleton of adamantium.

Too bad they couldn't get someone as handsome as I am to play me in the movie.

Anyway, according to the bone density scan, I was full of it. Or, actually, not full of it. Calcium that is.

In case you haven't been following the research, lately scientists have found that endurance cyclists lose bone density. Part of it's because cycling isn't weight-bearing, so that your lower back and hips don't feel the need to be ... well, dense. Another part is that we lose calcium from sweat, and don't take in enough while we're working out. It turns out that the body is like a heroin addict in a lot of ways. If it wants something, it goes out and gets it -- and not always from the best place. So, when you don't have calcium in the foods you've been eating and drinks you've been drinking, the body steals it from your bones, much like a heroin addict in early withdrawal will take the needle right out of the arm of the guy that just died of AIDS.

Fortunately, my body isn't quite at the heroin addict withdrawal state. The damage can be at least partially repaired. I'm going to start lifting weights regularly, taking calcium supplements, and drinking lots of milk and eating lots of cheese. We should be able to turn this around.

It was funny, though, how the news that I am not Wolverine hit me. The day after my tests, I went for a solo training ride, and kept thinking that I needed to watch out! Suddenly, crashes meant something again. What if I broke a hip, or my back?

Near the end of the ride, I was going down a neighborhood street when a car coming the other way came around a parked truck, and then the driver stayed in my lane for a while. She was about 50 yards away, but I pulled further left, into the middle of my lane. Maybe it was to make sure that she saw me, but part of it was "playing chicken." This is my lane -- get the hell out of it!

Fortunately, she did.

But I thought about it afterwards. You idiot! What if she'd hit you? You can't bike like that any more!

The hell I can't.

I hope that I am biking that way when I'm 95 years old. So long as I can turn the pedals over and see well enough to hold my line, I hope that I will continue to demand that which is rightfully mine. That which would destroy me will only destroy me if I let it keep me from being me.

To live fully -- with the pains and pleasures of cycling or any other activity, smelling the sweet smells and stinky funk of this world, tasting the sublime and the foul, seeing ugliness in beauty and the exquisitely captivating in what you find intuitively repulsive -- you cannot live in fear. I won't.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Dryer Run

Last month, I did an overnight camping trip up to Alva, FL, on my bicycle. I wanted to try out this kind of touring in preparation for a longer trip this September (more on that in a couple of weeks). It was fun, but I identified a couple of areas of improvement.

Monday and Tuesday of this week, I tried it again with the improvements in place. It was even more fun, and I identified a couple of other areas to improve. (To those who think that this constant tweaking is just an excuse to go off camping ... well, you may be right. Please don't tell RandoGirl.)

I worked Monday morning, and thus was not able to get started until 11 am. By then, the wind was blowing nice and steady out of the northeast -- basically, the direction that I was headed. Fortunately, I knew that this would be the case, and had even (reluctantly) planned for it. If you're going to wrangle a fully loaded bicycle 65 miles day after day, you might as well see how well it does in a good headwind and crosswind.

The bike actually handled quite well, thanks to the fact that I had added a rack to the front for this trip. With small panniers up there, it handled better than it had in January with all of my luggage on the rear rack. I stopped once to tweak things, moving the back panniers up a bit and the front panniers back a bit to put everything closer to the center of effort. After that, the bike barely shimmied in the 15 mph crosswind.

Stopping for lunch at the Chick-Fil-A on Alico Road, a few people again asked where I was headed with all that stuff. It's probably natural for people to be curious about bike tourists -- I just wish more of them would do it.

The route was roughly the same as January: The usual bike lanes east and north past the airport, then cut over through Gateway and Lehigh Acres to Buckingham. The wind was blowing harder, and cars zipping closer, as I headed northeast on Hwy 80. I stopped to drink a Coke and see if the manatees were out at Manatee Park (they weren't), and then continued to the Publix at the intersection with Hwy 31. I bought groceries for dinner and breakfast, fresh drinks, and a box of Girl Scout cookies from the kids at the table on the way out.

My plan this time was to try a different park than January. Caloosahatchee Regional Park was nice, but I wanted to see what the State Park down the road was like.

It was really cool. But it was also full.

The website had led me to believe that there were spaces for RVs, but also campsites for idiots like me who can't tow a camper behind their bike.

Maybe there were campsites, but they were full of RVs, too. They did have docks, as well, so you could take your boat there. That would have been just as cool, if not more so.

After the lady at the gate said that they were full, I asked if it would be okay for me to look around. She said it would be fine, so I checked out the locks for which the campground is named. The picture above shows how the water level is different upstream from downstream.

In case you didn't know what locks on a canal are all about, they control the water flow and make it possible for boats to "go uphill." Since Lake Okeechobee is about 12 feet above sea level, there are a few of these locks to pass through as you head inland from Fort Myers on the Caloosahatchee River.

Boats enter the lock at the far end of a chute in the picture below. The door at the end of the chute is closed, and water is let in to raise the boat. Then the door at the front of the chute is opened, and the boat continues east. Easy breezy.

While I was there, folks from the RVs were fishing from the lock and looking at more manatee. It looked like a great place to camp. Some day, maybe I will.

It was after 4 pm when I finally got to Caloosahatchee Regional Park. Since it was a school holiday, many of the campsites were taken, including one large area that was full of boy scouts running amok ... or, at least as amok as boy scouts will usually run. I found a site as far away from them as possible, got set up, and took a shower. I had gotten a cuban sandwich and a can of soup at Publix, and I cooked the soup while I ate some Girl Scout cookies. By the time the sun was setting, my belly was full, my dishes washed, and I was ready to take it easy.

Bill Glass had recommended that I get a Big Agnes inflatable air mattress and a fitted sheet. This was more comfortable than my old Thermarest pad, and much easier to carry. I decided during the night that it needed to be about 10 inches wider, since I regularly rolled off of it. I also wished that I had brought some warmer clothes, as during the early morning hours the temperatures plummeted into the upper 40's -- a "freeze warning" compared to our recent 80-degree days. These were the two main areas of improvement that I identified during my trip.

Other than those issues, I slept pretty well. The boy scouts had been telling ghost stories or something until almost midnight, but that only woke me up once or twice. Come daylight, the birds started in, and I eventually poked my head out into the cold to fix some coffee. I also heated up a can of corned beef hash and a bagel. This trip gave me a good chance to test my cooking and eating gear, and I found very little there that needed improvement.

By the time I had finished breakfast, cleaned up, broken down my camp, and packed everything up, it was warm enough to put on bike clothes and get moving. Retracing my route back North River Road, I stopped to get a good picture of some donkeys, just for my friend Vida.

A little further west, somebody was raising llamas.

The wind had shifted during the night, and I had a headwind on many of the early stretches of road. Fortunately, it was a little lighter than it had been the day before, and was mostly blowing across me by the time I passed through Gateway and the cattle fields beyond.

I managed to get to Bonita Beach before needing a stop at a Walgreen's, where I refilled my bottles with lemonade. The day had gotten warm, and it felt good to sit in the shade and drink a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper while eating a box of Hot Tamales candy. The sugar rush gave me the power to cruise the rest of the way home with ease.

All in all, it had been a successful test. I think that I've got a solution for the narrow bed problem, and it will be easy to bring some warmer clothes for cold nights. Although the bike handled well, I still think that I'm going to convert my single-speed Salsa Casseroll to a geared touring rig, since the all-steel frame and fork will make me worry less about any carbon-fiber cracking, as well as accommodating wider tires.

I promise to let you know soon the trip to which all this is building. It may even be possible for some of you to join me.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Surviving the Autocalypse: Episode VII

I couldn't believe what Miller had just told me. "The machine makes gasoline?"

Miller hedged. "Well, not exactly gasoline, but close enough. To a car, it would be like 94 octane unleaded gasoline, though. Of course, it will only work in high-end cars -- it would burn up the engine of a delivery truck."

He grinned conspiratorially. "But that's the beauty of it, see? This will get cars back on the road ... but just cars. Mostly, we're talking fast, expensive cars. The road will be wide open for Beemers and Mercedes and stuff ... oh, and my Harley, of course. With no truck traffic slowing us down."

"But, trucks are the vehicles that people need most right now," I answered, feeling as if I was explaining something that should be obvious to a five-year-old. "Why not make diesel fuel, instead?"

He shook his head. "Wouldn't work. The enzymes aren't right. Besides, trucking is coming back already using big electric motors. Between those and coal-powered trains, manufactured goods will be moving well enough again in five years or so. Everyone's building electric cars and the infrastructure to support them as fast as they can, so people that want to drive short distances really slow can get around. But this lets folks start driving the cars that they already own right now, without any conversion. They just have to be fast high-end cars.

"And since it's only for high-end cars, it'll make me richer than hell," he added.

I nodded. "And the part that I brought ..."

"That's the last piece of it. Here, I'll show you."

He quickly undid the wrapping and opened the box to show a gleaming stainless-steel box with fittings at either end. Within a minute, the part was bolted into its place.

"Now, let's see if it works."

Going to a corner of the room, he pressed the starter on a small generator. "My last gallon of real gas," he yelled over the noise. "Saved it just for this." Then he flipped a switch on the machine, and it started pumping and groaning. Moving to the spigot, he watched the needle on a pressure valve creep clockwise. After a minute, he put a bucket under the spigot and turned the valve. A stream of liquid poured out.

Miller closed the spigot, turned of the machine, and shut down the generator. He brought the bucket over, showing me what looked like two gallons of dark amber liquid. It smelled oddly sweet. "Pure gold," he said.

He carried the bucket over to the far wall and pulled a canvas cloth off of a huge motorcycle. He poured the contents of the bucket into the fuel tank, climbed into the saddle, and gave me a wink.

"Let's light this candle," he said, and turned the key. The engine sputtered reluctantly to life. He revved the motor and let out a whooping "Yeee-haw!" The building began to fill with smoke as he drove out the door. Soon, he was out on the main road. I watched his lights go left and right in front of his property for 15 minutes, listening to the doppler-shifted roar of the Harley, until he returned.

"Congratulations," I said, when he shut down the engine.

"Thanks," he said, climbing off the big bike. "I was always good with machines, and the idea just came to me one day. Wheat, you know?"

I nodded. "Yeah. But don't we need all the wheat we grow now for bread, so people can eat?"

"Well, sometimes you gotta make the tough choice."

We listened to the motorcycle's engine ticking itself cool. It had been a long time since either of us had heard anything that loud, and the silence of its aftermath was chilling.

"You mind if I set up camp in your yard? I've got to leave early."

He slapped me on the back. "Shoot, boy, you can sleep in the house if you want. You brought me that part all the way from Jacksonville -- why, I couldn't have finished the machine without you! Stay here tonight, and I'll fix us a big breakfast come morning."

It felt wrong to sleep on a mattress with clean sheets, the wooden slats of the ceiling above me bearing ever more solidly down. The previous day's inactivity and naps left me feeling antsy, as if there was a tremendous task that I had failed to perform. Eventually, I lay down on the floor and fell into a fitful sleep, rousing when the early birds twittered at a hazy dawn's approach. As the sun rose, I lay on the floor finishing "To Have and Have Not." Soon, I heard Miller stirring in the kitchen.

The smell of coffee flooded my senses as I walked in. "That's almost the last of my stash," he said, indicating the french press. "Thanks to the machine, of course, I'll be able to run up to Atlanta and buy a couple of pounds any time I want." The thought tickled him so much that he laughed.

I fixed a big mug and drank deeply. It cleared the last cobwebs.

"Bacon's done," Miller said. "How many pancakes do you want?"

Putting down my mug, I stepped over to looked at his griddle. Three big cakes were almost ready. "Those will do."

Stepping in quickly, he never saw me break his neck. He was dead before he hit the floor.

I turned off the propane to the stove, and then shuffled the pancakes to a plate with a fork. Miller had butter and syrup on the table. It was all delicious.

Miller weighed at least 250 pounds, and dragging him out to the barn was not easy. I took a long shower, shaved, and then checked the house and yard to make sure that I had left no signs. Then I went to work on Miller's machine, pulling some of the more elaborate parts and stashing them in my bike's trailer. I would toss them in various lakes and bogs on my trip back south. Other parts of the machine I smashed with a crowbar. I checked the house to make sure that there were no copies of plans or schematics other than the ones on the walls in the barn, and then poured the last of Miller's "gasoline" on his corpse and cursed machine. As I walked out, I lit a match and dropped it.

I could see the flames licking through the roof when I got back on Highway 239. The smoke followed me for miles. I had a tailwind, and the travelling was good.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Surviving the Autocalypse: Episode VI

There was an ancient dynamic between John Miller, the judge, and the sheriff. Maybe it was something from high school, but it seemed to go beyond that ... a family feud, or a clash of archetypes older than mankind's latest iteration. It was uncomfortable to watch, but so mesmerizing that you had no choice.

"Wondered when you'd show up, John," Dwight said, resting one rump on the edge of his desk.

"Heard from somebody that my ... uh, gee-gaw, isn't it, Allen? Yeah, that my gee-gaw was here."

Judge Allen's chin sunk further into a sulk. "This has nothing to do with you, John," he said. "This vagrant picked a fight with Tom Ellerby and Jack Parker. We can't have lawlessness ..."

"Oh, save the speech for the next election, judge," Miller said. "I've heard the story from a few folks, and managed to piece things together myself. I'm just here to pick up the part for my machine."

Dwight looked at my bike, then. It was obvious that he did not like the idea of the machine.

"Can't do that, Mr. Miller," I said. They all turned, slightly surprised that I was still there. "I was told to deliver it to you at your farm. I can't hand it over here."

Dwight gave me a quizzical look. Judge Allen kept sulking. Miller was obviously unhappy to have his indomitable will thwarted, but pressed on. "No problem, then. I can bail you out, and give you a ride to my farm in the morning. I brought my wagon."

"I've got lights on the bike, Mr. Miller. You can follow me, and we'll head out tonight."

"Why the rush?" the judge said.

"I've got a deadline," I replied. "You folks were about to make me miss it."

Miller smiled, pulling out the fat wallet chained to his wide leather Harley-Davidson belt. "Excellent. The sooner, the better."

While Miller and the judge counted the money, Sheriff Gordon unlocked the cell. "The rest of your stuff is on your bike trailer," he indicated with a nod.

"Thanks. And thanks for the book," I started to hand it back.

"Keep it. Pass it on to the next sheriff."

I smiled thanks, then shot a glance at Miller and the judge. "What is it with Miller's machine?"

The sheriff shook his head. "I'm not sure, really. I've just heard ... rumors. And I know John Miller."

I grunted and shook his hand, then rolled my bicycle out the door behind Miller. Ten minutes later, we were riding into the sunset, Miller in his wagon and me on my bike. I rode slower than usual, but Miller still pressed his horse hard to keep up, flipping the reins regularly. It was fully dark when we turned off State Highway 239, but my dynamo-powered headlight lit up the road from edge to edge.

"Go straight back to the workshop," Miller called out. "The green building."

The small barn was about 50 yards beyond the house, near the edge of Miller's wheat field. I leaned my bicycle against the wall, then fished around in the trailer for the package and receipt. By then, Miller had unhitched the horse and let him into the field.

"Come on," he said, pulling out a flashlight. "I'll show you what all the fuss is about."

The workshop was actually a fairly stout building, with a heavy metal door secured by two deadbolts. After unlocking it and rolling back the door, Miller went in and lit two kerosene lamps. The machine sat in the middle of the room.

Waving an arm at the mess of tubing and shiny cylinders, obviously proud, he asked, "What do you think of her?"

I shook my head. "I don't have a clue."

He laughed, and went to the far end of it. "We start with a wheat slurry, fermented for about a week. The machine then filters some stuff out of it, adds other things in, compresses it, expands it, and the juice comes out here," he finished, pointing to a valve.


Miller laughed deep and hard. "No, you fool. Gasoline!"

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Surviving the Autocalypse: Episode V

Dwight didn't have "A Farewell to Arms," but did have an old library copy of "To Have and Have Not." It was missing its cover, so someone had written on the first page in red magic marker, "To Have and Have Not a Cover, by Ernest Hemingway." The book -- and the shoddy shape it was in -- fit my mood perfectly, and I spent most of the afternoon reading it.

From the angle of the sun coming in through the front windows of the jail, I guessed that it was almost 5 pm when the judge finally came by. He opened the door and leaned in, looking me up and down for a couple of seconds, and then walked the rest of the way in. The sheriff watched him from behind "Islands in the Stream," but didn't take his feet down from the desk until the judge was in front of it.

The judge wore a decent dark brown suit -- off-the-rack, but still fit him well -- with oxblood tassel loafers. The right shoe had lost a tassel somewhere. He had excellent hair that almost hid his outsize ears, but somehow emphasized his weak chin. He was the kind of guy that you could tell was custom-made for some kind of embarrassing moment within minutes of meeting his wife.

"Sheriff Gordon," he said, nodding. A classic southern baritone, it was a voice well-suited to lulling a jury into a coma. "I heard that you needed to see me."

"Yessir," Dwight answered, getting up slowly. "Thanks for coming so soon."

The judge pretended to ignore the rebuke. "Certainly, Roger."

"Sure. Well, I needed to see you about this fellow. I arrested him this morning for disturbing the peace. There may also be a couple of cases of battery, but those could be ... well, tricky. I don't think the boys involved in the fight really want to press charges."

"Yes," the judge answered, looking me over. "I heard about it." He studied me for another few seconds, and then, "Well, sir. What do you have to say for yourself."

I'd been lying on the bunk through the whole charade, but got up now and carefully laid the book down. I walked up to the bars on the door before speaking.

"I'm just passing through. I don't want any trouble. I'm delivering a package to John Miller."

The judge nodded. "And what is in the package."

"It's a package ... sir. It's wrapped up. I have no idea what's inside."

He lifted an eyebrow at me. "Really?"

"Yes, sir. Plain brown paper, tape, and twine. It's about two feet long, one foot wide, and six inches high -- just big enough for Sheriff Gordon's boots. Weighs about 10 pounds."

The sheriff had the next question. "Where did you get it?"

"Crayton Industries in Jacksonville, Florida. They do machining. I've been delivering small specialty couplings off and on for them for about a year. Mostly for farm tools, going to small towns in north Florida and south Georgia."

The judge and the sheriff exchanged a look. I'd confirmed some kind of suspicion.

"Why not send it by train?" the judge asked.

"That would take a week, at least," I answered. "I left Jacksonville three days ago ... well, four now, since you fine folks have managed to disrupt my schedule."

Sheriff Gordon grunted. "Well, I'll be. You're the Federal Express guy?"

I nodded. "I'm what passes for UPS in the Autocalypse."

The judge was nonplussed. He had the chin for it.

"Well, I don't care what you are. We can't have strangers coming in to town and beating up law-abiding citizens on the street. In these trying times, it is ever more critical that we maintain order." The sheriff rolled his eyes a bit at that, recognizing one of the judge's stock speeches.

"Guilty. Fine is $100, or you can spend 30 days in jail. Maybe John Miller should have tried to get his gee-gaw by train after all."

"You want cash, Allen?" a big man said then as he walked in the door.

The judge turned, looked up at the man, and then deflated. "Hello, John," he said.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Surviving the Autocalypse: Episode IV

Just as the town had seen busier times, so had the jail. The cell that I was in was clean, but showed signs of abuse in the not-too-distant past. Stains on the cheap linoleum floor ran the gamut of the lower end of the spectrum -- all the way from burnt sienna to ocher. Initials, aliases, childish pornographic art, epithets, promises, and just manic scratches lent a visceral texture to the institutionally painted cinder-block walls. The lighting was somehow both flickering and blinding.

But today, it was mine. All mine.

The other two cells in the small jail were completely empty. Each had four benches bolted to the wall and floor, with one of those strange metal toilets that you only see in jails and prisons in a corner behind a two-foot wall. The front was all bars, and faced an open area with two desks. The sheriff was sitting at one of the desks now. There were no deputies.

My bike was leaning against the other desk. I considered that a very good sign.

The jail was a block and a half from the restaurant. After putting handcuffs on me, Sheriff Gordon -- or was it Sheriff Roger? The people we had passed en route here had either called him "Sheriff Gordon" or "Sheriff Roger," so I think he was one of those fellows with two first names. Either Gordon Roger or Roger Gordon. I decided to stick with "sheriff."

I'm not one for wasting energy. Never was, even when energy was easier to come by. So, after shown my new temporary home, I'd quickly identified which bench afforded maximum comfort and minimum light, and laid down to take a nap. Around noon, I awoke when the sheriff put his book down and got up from his chair to stretch.

"What you reading?"

He tried to give me that hard look cops use on criminals to keep them in their place, but it fell apart. I think he realized that he didn't really have the moral high ground here.

"Islands in the Stream. Hemingway."

I nodded. "Good one. I wish Hemingway had written all of that one himself. Who knows how it would have turned out. But there's some good stuff in there, either way."

"Yeah, you've got to give his wife credit for finishing it so it still sounds like him."

"Sure." I chucked. "It's almost the 'true gen.'"

We both laughed at that.

"So, why are you all messing with me? Or is it Miller that you're really messing with?"

The sheriff sighed and looked away. "Look, we're no more xenophobic than most other small towns. There are lots of strangers that make trouble on their way through, but there are others just making a living. I've got nothing against you."

"Well, you get points for being a Hemingway fan, and for bringing my bike inside. You also get some for using 'xenophobic' correctly in a sentence. But setting Cletus and Jethro on me was not quite 'friendly.'"

"I needed something quick," he replied. "They wouldn't have really hurt you ... not that they seemed to have much of a chance."

I sighed myself then. "Yeah, well. Sorry about that."

"Where'd you learn to fight like that?"

"Job I had once."

He waited for more. I didn't give it.

"Well, okay. Never mind." He picked the book back up, leaned back, and put his feet up on the desk again. "If nobody's interested in giving me any answers, then we'll go back to waiting for the judge to ask the questions."

I considered giving in, then. Hell, the man could have just searched the bike trailer, found the package, and he would have known almost as much as I did. But he was playing by the rules -- more or less -- and I would do the same.

At this point, I had a few questions of my own that I really wanted answered, such as what was up with this town and John Miller? Since I didn't think that I would get an answer to that one, I tried another tack.

"So, is it Sheriff Gordon Roger or Sheriff Roger Gordon?"

He didn't look up. "Sheriff Dwight Roger Gordon."

"Thanks." Then I pushed my luck, asking the big question.

"Got any other Hemingway, Dwight? 'Farewell to Arms' would be nice."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Surviving the Autocalypse: Episode III

AGRO Date 845.

The wind pretty much blew itself out last night, so I got up early, broke camp, and made it to Ashburn in time for a late breakfast.

Like most of the small towns surviving in a world without gasoline, Ashburn had actually seen a resurgence in the past few years. When people had been forced to consider distance as an obstacle again, they moved closer in to where they worked and shopped. Farmers and ranchers still lived further out, of course, and trips in to town had once again become weekend events that warranted planning, preparation, and a party.

Ashburn had two restaurants that served breakfast. I chose the busier one, partly because logic said it would have better food, but more because I needed information.

As usual, my arrival did not go un-noticed. Strangers are rare in the Autocalypse. Getting by is a lot harder than it used to be, so anybody wandering around was usually wandering around with a purpose. The noise level dropped as I walked through the door and headed for the counter, with a lot of "who's that?" and "never seen him before" mumblings. Someone said something about my bicycle, and they all looked towards the street for a while as the waitress came over.

"What'll ya have, hon?" she asked. I smiled at her, pleased to see that that the diner waitress archetype could survive any global catastrophe.

"Tall stack, bacon, two over light, and milk."

"You got it," she answered with a wink. Five seconds later, she brought my milk, and I drank deeply.

"Contented cows," said a man as he sat down to my left said. He was wearing rumpled khaki pants and a blue work shirt, no tie and no hat. His brown boots were well broke in, but fairly clean.

"That's the secret?"

He smiled and nodded, gesturing to the waitress for a glass. "Yep. If Momma cow ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

I drank again. "Well, Ashburn must do right by its cows, then."

He turned back to me. "It's a nice town. Always was quiet. Some things have changed in the last few years, of course. But we always had enough water, good dirt, good weather, and people willing to work an honest day."

I smiled at him. "Sounds like more than just the cows are happy here, then."

He just smiled and nodded at this, then got to it. "So ... what brings you here?"

"I've got a package to deliver. You know where I could find John Miller?"

The man's smile shifted a bit. "Ah, sure. Yeah, everybody around here knows where the Miller place is. Starts about 10 miles west of town on 239. Goes on for another 10 miles, but you can see the house from the road."


"Glad to help," he said. He drained his milk glass and headed for the door. Whoever he was, he apparently didn't have to pay for milk.

The waitress brought my food then, and I dug in. Sometimes, you just don't know how hungry you are until you've got a big plate full of food in front of you. More than once, I thought how much better it all would have tasted with a couple of cups of hot coffee to wash it down. There were still beans coming up from Central America, but they rarely made it out to smaller towns like this.

After paying my bill, I headed out to my bicycle. A couple of guys, about my age and size, were looking it over.

"Nice bike," one of them said. Something about his tone made it feel like an insult.

"Thanks," I answered, making nice. "It gets me there."

"Where's there?" the other asked, using that same unpleasant tone.

I sighed. I don't like people knowing my business. Never have. Usually, it made it easier to do what I do for a living now.

"Yonder. Sometimes, it's hereabouts. Other times, it's a far piece."

The first one smiled, like I'd stepped into his trap. "You bein' smart, buddy?" He and his friend closed ranks and moved closer. Bad move, I thought.

"No," I answered. "I just don't like you."

"Well, maybe we don't like strangers around here," he said. "Particularly if they're friends of the Millers."

He reached out to push me, then. I moved back with it, and then brought my right leg up in a low round kick to his left hamstring. He dropped to the pavement, yowling in pain, and I moved to put him between me and his friend. He came for me, but had to avoid his writhing buddy. This distracted him enough for me to slide in with a side kick to his solar plexus, which ended everything.

Suddenly, my milk-drinking buddy was there. "OK, that's enough," he was saying -- who he was saying it to was not very clear, however. I had not noticed the badge in the diner, and I certainly had not seen the gun on his hip then.

"Look, sheriff -- or chief of whatever -- I was just ..."

"Yeah, yeah," he said, pulling out a pair of handcuffs. "Tell it to the judge."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Surviving the Autocalypse, Episode II

AGRO Date 844.

Another gorgeous morning, with high wispy clouds from the leading edge of a tired cold front shredding the light blue sky with bloody royal purples fading to the faintest pinks. The high pressure cell rang the doorbell an hour before dawn with a tent-shuddering wind that made me wonder if I'd checked the trees above for widow-makers. My two-person tent would not protect me much from a half-ton of dead pine tree parts.

By the time I finished making breakfast -- instant pancakes, coffee, and some leftovers from last night's corned beef hash -- the wind was blowing steadily out of the north. I considered staying another day in my camp by the quiet field, but I barely had enough pancake mix for another meal. It's not a good idea to get low on supplies in the Autocalypse.

Besides, I still had a job to do, and promises to keep.

Once I broke camp and loaded everything up, I got back on the interstate and trudged into the wind. It's days like this when you regret the amount of wind that bags and a trailer catch, and appreciate a triple crank. You hug the edge of the road whenever trees or a hill give you any protection, and sigh sadly when you round a corner and see the road going straight through a flat empty field.

Just after noon, I saw the first farmer headed south with produce to sell. He and his son, who looked to be about 10 years old, were driving a Mennonite wagon pulled by a mule. They weren't Mennonites themselves, of course -- the kid's Caterpillar cap made it easy to figure that out.

As you would expect, the Amish and Mennonites had no trouble adapting to a world without gasoline or diesel fuel. In fact, their numbers had grown thanks to an almost complete end of attrition from grown children heading off to the wicked world. More than that, however, the past years had seen a serious influx of "converts of convenience" into these communities. Their rise in numbers had allowed the creation of a cottage industry -- no pun intended -- that made wagons and butter churns to sell to "outlanders." These places also made pretty good bicycles, and could repair them, too.

The farmer and I approached one another warily. There are plenty of highwaymen and marauders on the roads in the Autocalypse, which is why so few of us venture past our immediate communities. We chatted briefly, and I traded him two "C" cell batteries for a half-dozen apples and a bunch of carrots. He was just going another few miles with his produce, and I told him the highway was good there. I asked about the town where I was headed, and his look changed. "Yeah, most folks there are okay. Watch out for that Miller family, though."

Figures. John Miller was who I was looking for.

We wished each other a good ride and went our opposite ways. I ate a couple of the apples to get some energy, but it was slow going as the day wore on. Still five miles from my turn off of the interstate, I camped by a small creek. This gave me a chance to take a bath and do some laundry, hanging my clothes in the breeze in hope that my biking shorts would be dry in the morning. I tested the water and found that it was okay to drink, so I filled my empty bottles and set a pot boiling over my little camp stove. Half of the carrots went into that, along with my last two potatoes and strips of salt-cured beef. It was not the best stew that I've ever had, but it worked.