Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tour de Wyoming Day 1: Worland to Ten Sleep

My watch alarm finally went off. I’d set it for 5:00, since breakfast was served from 5:30 to 7:00 and I’d planned to be on the road every morning by 6. As if on cue, the sounds of camp breaking down floated across the field. Everyone else had the same idea I did.

We lined up in the community center’s hallway, filing through the old cafeteria for a breakfast of stale pancakes and sausage. I’d hear later that they ran out of food, so the early rising bit was a wise idea.

Amber had announced at the orientation meeting that the Worland mayor wanted to ride out with us in a mass start. At 6:00 I was in front of the building, waiting to go, and other cyclists took off in small groups. Kathryn snapped a picture and I decided the hell with it – I’d skip the mass start and just go.

A few turns in Worland put us on 789 north, heading to Manderson, where we’d have our first rest stop and make our first turn. It was a gorgeous morning – low 70s, the Big Horns a dark ridge to our right. Those mountains, of course, were on our route. The following day we were scheduled to climb Ten Sleep Canyon and ride all the way to Buffalo, and we all knew it. As the sun rose higher and the dark ridge became defined by snow-covered peaks and other mountainy features, some folks stopped to take pictures.

Yours truly just kept pedaling, averaging somewhere around 15 mph. The shoulder was good and it felt great to crank away some miles. There was a palpable sense of relief, too – I’d trained hard for this, the day was here, and riding felt great.

It was on this first stretch that I first detected a trend that will shape my future training: even moving along at 15 mph, riding strong in higher gears, people – old, chubby people – blew by me. “Your left,” someone would call, and invariably I’d see white hair flowing beneath a helmet or a beer gut stretching a bike jersey beyond its normal capabilities.

In Manderson we climbed a small ridge, and at the bottom was a café with portable shade tents and a group of cyclists. This was clearly our first rest area. That’s one of the truly cool aspects of the Tour: every ten miles or so, Tour volunteers have shade tents, snacks, and fluids. All part of the Tour fee – you just show up, lay your bike down in a safe place, and fill your bottle with Gatorade and eat bananas, cookies, or Fig Newtons. It’s a great time to hit the porta-potty or just chat with other cyclists.

Onward to Wyoming 31, taking us east toward Hyattville. I’d made the rest area by 7:30 or so, and by 8:30, somewhere on 31, the infamous Basin heat made its appearance. The wind, too, picked up as the morning progressed. Whatever romantic notions I’d had about riding Wyoming back roads disappeared. I pedaled, sweated, pedaled, sweated, pedaled, climbed small hills, took no pleasure from the downhills due to the wind, sweated, and pedaled some more. Finally, the second rest area appeared on the horizon.

More bananas and cookies. I ran into Linda and Monte, fellow Landerites I’d been introduced to by the aforementioned Tour veteran, and we chatted a bit. Then it was time for another leg, to a rest area roughly halfway between here and Ten Sleep.

This next stretch on the Lower Nowood Road is hazy now, just over a week later. I remember an increase in hills, heat, and roadkill. For the uninitiated, death has a particular smell. Dead squirrels in a corner of the yard smell bad; you know something’s wrong and it usually doesn’t take too long to find the fried little guy.

But large animals next to a highway are something else entirely.

Depending on the wind, you smell them for a long, long time before you reach them. Time is relative on a bicycle, especially when you’re in pain, so “long, long time” in this case means something around a minute. But that’s long enough to make you pedal faster, which means inhaling sharper, which means accidentally breathing through your nose if you’re not careful, which means damn near puking.

Sometimes you see the blackened, bloated carcass on or by the road, and you’re suddenly upwind and free of it. Sometimes the winds are so damn contrary that even if you pass the carcass, you’re not necessarily out of its clutches. Sometimes you never see anything at all, you just pass through a cloud of death smell.

The last rest area, 8 miles or so from Ten Sleep and thus shade and chairs, appeared on the left. There wasn’t much traffic, so crossing the road wasn’t a big deal. At this point I was broiling – I remember filling my bottle with Gatorade and hanging out in the shade of the U-Haul truck being used as a supply vehicle.

The final leg seemed like it would be nothing, or at least not a killer; another hour or so of small hills and roadkill. Oh, sure, I was sweating and my wrists, neck, shoulders, sit bones, and ankles were all a bit sore, but my lungs and legs were fine. I still had gas in the tank, as they say, and I was eager to put the first day behind me.

Technically, it was 8 miles and about an hour. Emotionally, it became a kind of crucible. The soreness became acute pain, and on a bicycle there is no way to alleviate that pain. You can stand on the pedals to help the sit bones, but that makes the pain in the shoulders worse, not to mention stressing the legs. You can take one hand off the handlebars to help the shoulder, sitting upright, but that makes the sit bones and other shoulder hurt worse. You can’t do much about the neck pain, and you can’t do anything at all about the ankle and foot pain.

With around five miles to go, the heat and pain became personal. Cyclists were still blowing by me, the wind was constant, and the only inspiration I could find was in the form of self-flagellation. I’d feel pretty stupid, I told myself, if I quit now. I’d feel especially stupid if I quit because of mere pain – getting hit by an RV or running into a cow and breaking the bike, those were good reasons for quitting. But not pain. Especially not when other cyclists were clearly dealing with the same pain and not, apparently, bothered by it.

One final climb over Nowood Creek, outside of Ten Sleep, and then – puhRAISE Jesus! – we turned onto the downhill into town. It was somewhere around 10:15, and Kathryn would later tell me I came in sooner than 75% of the others (not that I was keeping track, not that it was a race, not that there was a certain amount of ego involved in this whole thing for me . . . ). One of the first businesses in Ten Sleep, coming from the west, is a café. As I pedaled by it, Kathryn called from the deck “Hi, Honey!”

I stopped, clipped out of the pedals in the gutter, and barely got off the bike. I laid down in the shade of a tree in front of the café. I could barely hold a coherent conversation with Kathryn.

Though it was technically morning, we got beers at a Ten Sleep bar, watched some of the U.S. women’s World Cup match, and took a stroll through town. Throughout this whole trip, Kathryn was a champ about setting up and breaking down camp, and camp at the Ten Sleep high school was a rather crammed affair through no fault of hers.

But you learn, on a bike tour, to disregard that which really doesn’t matter. Tent proximity doesn’t matter when you’re asleep, unless someone snores, but you’re usually too tired to notice anyway. Adolescent locker room or toilet anxieties don’t matter when you’re all old and bald and you just want a freaking shower.

Ten Sleep High School’s hallways were lined with bikes and people. It was relatively cool in there, so people just found a spot where they could. Some folks chose to “camp inside,” which meant setting up sleeping gear in the gym or just out in the halls. After the beer and food, I was ready for a nap. I found a great spot beneath an empty trophy case, threw down my Thermalite, and rested my face on the tile. I fell asleep like that, face down, arms at my sides, and slept for at least an hour. Kathryn, meanwhile, set up one of our camp chairs and read her Kindle. It was a lazy afternoon.

Dinnertime is 5:30 to 7:00 on the Tour, and ours was served at a park a few blocks from the school. We lined up, chatted with other cyclists, and got pelted with rain. It was a welcome change. Jalan Crossland played for us, a Tour tradition, and when the rain became a true gullywasher, Jalan invited everyone into the shelter to make it a more personal affair.

To bed in the tent. I slept well.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tour de Wyoming - Check-in

The Tour lets you pick your accommodations. Communities are generally supportive of the Tour, and more often than not, schools are home base. You can purchase breakfast and dinner plans, and students often help prepare and serve the meals. The quality of meals varies quite a bit, but the truly cool thing about this approach is that it gets the community involved. Imagine a rolling horde of 400 people descending on small Wyoming towns – it makes quite an economic impact.

Speaking of economics, if you’re looking to do the Tour on the cheap, you can camp outside on school grounds, camp inside in the schools’ gyms (or hallways under trophy cases, as we’ll see), or anywhere else you can find a spot. Those with a little more cash can opt for hotels or indulge in services like Shuttle Guy, who lugs all your crap and provides a tent for you. Shuttle Guy also does cool things like have shade tents and treats set up at the end of the day, and you might be surprised by just how valuable a patch of shade can be during the Tour.

This year’s Tour route began and ended in Worland, a town of 5,000 or so in the Big Horn Basin. If the words “Big Horn Basin” instill romantic images of the West, think again. Oh sure, you can see the Big Horn Mountains to the east, but Worland is notorious for its awful summer weather. The Basin often claims statewide record highs.

Kathryn and I had headed to Casper on Friday night to see my dad and stepmom, who were in town for a friend’s memorial service. Chad, Melissa, and Parker came down from Sheridan and we all had dinner at a steakhouse that used to be a fancy-pants Casper dining experience.

A note here about Casper.

I shudder every time I go there. Passing landmarks from my adolescence and young adulthood is very strange, and although it’s not unpleasant, whenever I drive by Smith’s Food and Drug, cruise downtown, or go to Eastridge Mall, a flash of something funny and tragic and slightly pathetic pierces me. I think it’s my youth.

And there’s a new note to these feelings. Casper’s always had an element of terrestrial and social grit to it, thanks largely to wind and energy jobs respectively, but a more malicious edge is evident now. Tough-looking dudes in black baseball caps lurk in every restaurant, and huge, loud diesel pickups are everywhere. I’ve never thought cops have an easy job, but in Casper it must be especially awful.

We spent the night at a hotel on the east side of town, had breakfast, watched my nephew swim and got Vicki on Facebook, and then it was time to head out. After lunch at Hardee’s (another old haunt), we were finally on our way to Worland. That’s not a particularly pretty drive unless you like high deserts and gas wells.

At Shoshoni, however, the drive does get nice as you turn north and head into Wind River Canyon. That place blows my mind every time.

We rolled into Worland around 2:30, far too early for the 4:00 check in, so we scoped the Worland Community Center (formerly Worland High) and decided to set up camp on the old football field. It was broiling hot – somewhere in the upper 90’s – and once the tent was up, we headed back inside, where other cyclists trickled in.

Registration was easy: you went to a table and found a bag with your name on it. Inside the bag were some maps, wristbands if you bought meal plans, a t-shirt, and a jersey if you bought one. In February, when I’d first registered, I purchased an extra large because I’d heard that bike jerseys fit notoriously snugly. I’d since lost 10 pounds or so, or at least shifted some fat to muscle, and the extra large was going to look like a parasail. One of the Tour volunteers very kindly let me trade down a size.

At that point we had some time to kill, so Kathryn took off in the car to find wireless somewhere – anywhere – in town, and I just hung around inside the building. A few hours later Kathryn returned, having successfully parked in front of the public library and borrowed their wireless, and then it was time for an orientation session. All 400 of us crammed into the old, non-air conditioned gym, and after some safety instructions and demonstrations, we were done for the night.

The meal plan didn’t include dinner on that first night, so Kathryn and I went to Arby’s. As the sun set lower, it was finally starting to cool off on the field, so we hung around the tent. Night finally arrived. We left the rainfly off, enjoying the stars and a huge moon, and I had one of the most restless nights of my life.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Tour de Wyoming - Training

Once I was officially registered, I started researching and thinking about training. The same Tour veteran friend said that if I could pedal up to Bruce’s, I could do the Tour. Bruce’s is a parking area at the top of Sinks Canyon, seven miles beyond and 2,000 feet above town, and I remember the first time I saw cyclists up there. At the time I’d thought to myself, “You crazy &%*ers.”

So one training goal would be Bruce’s. Another would be the Baldwin Creek – Squaw Creek loop, a hilly rural stretch 10 miles west of town. The ultimate training session would be to Bruce’s and then climb another 1,000 feet on the switchbacks above Bruce’s for a total elevation gain of 3,000 feet from town. Throw in some longer rides on local highways and I’d have both the climbing and the endurance training I’d need. The way I figured it, if I could climb 3,000 feet and still not be good enough for the Tour, then good for the Tour.

By March I was chomping at the bit to ride. My first ride of the year, four miles or so up the canyon, was a blustery, slushy affair. I’d turned around, discouraged and cold. By late March I’d tried the Baldwin Creek loop, and although the weather was warmer, the ride was brutal. I was out of shape, certainly, but the bike itself was cumbersome and particularly unstable on steep descents.

So on April 1, I bought a new road bike, relegating my 10 year old REI hybrid to in-town errands. The new bike, a Giant Defy, felt nimble. You know how some cars just feel like they want to go fast? That’s what this bike felt like.

On weekends, then, I’d ride the loop or the canyon and I gradually improved my fitness.

I’d planned on serious training once school got out, but then I was convinced to teach summer school. It was great money but I’ll never do it again; it gobbled up June and thus ate into training. Oh sure, I was still putting in some good rides on weekends and riding the loop almost every morning, but I couldn’t easily do 3 or 4 hour rides.

That’s what I told myself, anyway. The reality is that I was home by 2:15 every day and although I took some afternoon rides, I should have taken many more., and the rides I did take should have been longer. My training definitely prepared my legs and lungs, but it did very little for my heat tolerance. More on that later.

By mid-June I’d made it to Bruce’s. Some of that road is 6 or maybe even 7% grade, and it smoked me. I had to take breaks every 100 yards or so, but I made it. I remember sitting on a rock at Bruce’s, chewing a Cliff bar and thinking that I’d officially become one of the crazy $&#*ers.

One Saturday in early July, the Tour veteran friend and I rode up to Bruce’s and then up the switchbacks. According to me, I was ready.

According to me.

The Tour de Wyoming - Introduction

The Tour de Wyoming, or just “the Tour” for short, is an annual 6-day bike ride in Wyoming. The route changes yearly, and it isn’t strictly limited to Wyoming; routes often dip into neighboring states. It averages somewhere around 300 miles, meaning that it’s basically five or six 50 mile rides. Some days are shorter than others, but what those days lack in distance they make up for in elevation.

I’d heard about the Tour for years but didn’t get serious until last summer, when I began thinking about some sort of extended bike tour. Cheyenne to St. Louis seemed (and still seems) eminently feasible, but it would take too many weeks out of my precious summer. During the course of researching that route, I stumbled across the Tour website, and I was hooked immediately. It was local, it was only six days, and heck, the pictures showed people having fun. I began researching the Tour in earnest.

Now, the Tour has been steadily growing in popularity since its official inception 15 years ago. I believe the Tour’s organizer, a very cool Laramie woman named Amber Travsky, did some unofficial, personal tours on her own before creating an organized ride. As legend has it, what started as a small group of friends eventually grew to one of the best-kept bicycle secrets in the nation. It’s now to the point where participants are chosen by lottery, and Tour veterans seems to resent its popularity. Hell, I feel guilty just writing about it on a blog that no one reads.

The lottery was held in February and I wasn’t selected. A Lander friend and Tour veteran, however, let me in on a secret that won’t be revealed here. It was all above-board with no strings pulled, and it got me in. At that point, I was committed.

A note here about commitment. Anyone can commit to something like the Tour in February; you’ll be huddled around a pitcher with a group of friends in the Lander Bar, commiserating about winter, dreaming up summer schemes. Suddenly a friend will say something like, “You can totally do the Tour. I’ve done it a few times and it’s really not that bad.” Having no frame of reference for what your friend considers “not that bad,” you say to yourself, “Yes. Yes. I’ll successfully ride the Tour de Wyoming.” And thus you commit to something that may, in fact, be way the hell out of your league.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Teaching Seniors, Part 2

It’s the height of summer, and that means morning and evening tours of my garden, biking whenever possible, and thinking about how to improve my teaching. The garden’s fine: tomatoes coming along nicely after a poor attempt at trenching, peppers growing at an alarming rate, cukes finally starting to climb the trellis. The biking, too, is progressing: I’m in the Tour de Wyoming this summer and on Saturday, a friend and I biked from town up to Frye Lake. That’s literally uphill for 16 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation.

The thinking about teaching bit? Yeah. That’s complicated.

I’ll start by saying that all the systemic reform in the world doesn’t matter if the teacher isn’t willing to change. For intensely reflective people like me, change isn’t a problem. Teaching is either the ideal career for perfectionists, or it’s a nightmare. Teaching forces you to be creative and constantly reinvent your art, but that means you never get it exactly right.

And the kicker is that you never will get it exactly right. You reach 100+ students in a year, and there’s simply no way your class will live up to every student’s expectations. This is especially true in AP.

And here we delve into some sensitive stuff.

For some reason, and I don’t know why this is so, I’m particularly irritated by know-it-alls. Oh, I have some ideas about why intellectual snobbery sends my Rage-O-Meter up a few tics, but I’ve been thinking about this since my undergrad days at Illinois, 16 years ago now, when fellow students literally peered over their John Lennon specs at me in literature classes, parroting some crap they’d read elsewhere but not actually thinking about the text in question. So far the only conclusion I’ve arrived at is that pretense is, at its core, an expression of power. Some people feel better when they demonstrate that they’re smarter than the other people in the room. Why people choose to express power in this way is beyond me, and I’ve met plenty of folks who most certainly are smarter than other people in the room but don’t use their intellect as an instrument of power. My friend Chris comes to mind, as does my father-in-law.

Advanced Placement classes draw the know-it-alls. The vast majority of students aren’t like this, and some graduating classes don’t have any. I’d put them at about 1% of the population. However, if they exist anywhere, you’ll find them in AP. 

The course evaluations for my AP classes arrived yesterday, and some of the comments were particularly snotty. Now, the structure of the evaluation required students to provide specific feedback about how to improve the class, and some of those ideas were valid and truly helpful. Some of it I saw coming from miles – or in this case, months – away. Clearly, my students want me to lay off the netbooks, and I couldn’t blame them one little bit, although I maintain that everyone’s attitudes toward the paperless classroom would change for the better if we’d been on Macbooks instead of $300 netbooks. But I digress.

The overwhelming feedback on the evaluations was positive, and of course that made me feel good. But lordy, I can’t let go of the small percentage of snotty comments.

I wonder if this has to do with students being told all their lives that they’re awesome, that their writing is wonderful, that they’re brilliant at everything they do. I wonder too how much of this is on me, how much on the student, how much on systemic flaws in public education, how much on home cultures that privilege being smarter than everyone else; that enable snobbery. (For what it’s worth, this article addresses these points in ways that I’ve suspected but couldn’t put into words.)

Biking to the hardware store yesterday, I realized a little perspective was in order. Children are parents’ most valuable possession. Of course parents want their kids to receive the best education possible, and of course it’s incumbent upon me to ensure that happens. And of course my class evaluations are going to reflect dissatisfaction – no class can be all things to all students, remember, and let’s not forget that we’re dealing with young adults here. Their brains have literally not yet fully formed. I’ve come to realize that teens take their shots where they can get ‘em. Course evaluations are the equivalent of open season permits.

And that, I think, is why teaching seniors is such a challenge. They don’t know what they don’t know; they’re forced into significant decisions at a young age; they’ve been led to believe that education is a product rather than a practice. And what do consumers do when a product doesn’t live up to expectations? They complain.

Seniors, then, need reassurance, guidance, and support. I make no apologies for taking class time to discuss those anxieties that manifest in strange ways in October or so, when friendships fray and students frequently burst into tears during one-on-one conferences in the hall. Sure, we’ll talk about their APA research papers, but we’ll also talk about why the college application process is so stressful. I firmly believe that everything that happens in a high school building is curriculum, and I therefore try hard to keep my politics and religion out of my teaching, but I think discussing the realities of life after high school is entirely valid. Yes, sometimes I give college advice ad nauseum and bore some kids to tears. But as long as I’m teaching seniors, I’m going to provide them with a framework for dealing with What Happens Next. If some students would rather discuss courtly romance etiquette and thus demonstrate their awesome Renaissance knowledge, well, that’s not what the majority of AP students need. Not at this school anyway.

Ultimately, once these seniors leave high school, parents’ and students’ focus shifts away from me and my class anyway. Maybe some know-it-alls will have epiphanies in college that convince them to stop expressing power in hurtful, self-aggrandizing ways. Maybe some will realize that they’ve been transparent all along, revealing insecurity rather than insight.

Or maybe not; maybe they’ll get smoked by professors who simply don’t care about their relationships with students.

Regardless, I’m going to make it a point this year to ask students what they need from AP and LA 12. That’s harder in AP for various reasons, but it is reasonable and feasible. I’m also searching for the magic bullet solution to parent contacts. I hate telephones and suspect that a lot of parents would prefer email anyway. I used to do email updates to parents who’d opted in, so I might tweak that and make them mandatory – let folks just delete the thing.

Meh. There’s a solution here somewhere. Just gotta find it.

It’s a gorgeous morning out here on the porch. Rigby’s curled up on the couch, the cat’s wandering around here someplace, and we’re all catching some lovely breezes. I’m still trying to recover from last night’s show; the band played over in Riverton and we didn’t get home until 12:30. Our trombone player is leaving, which is a bummer, and last night was his farewell gig. As for whether or not teachers should be in bars playing funk music, well, that’s for another post.