Saturday, October 29, 2016

Upright Cycling in October

October is one of my favorite months. There are years when it seems still part of summer; others when winter is already twisting its fingers around the nights and mornings. Crisp, clear October skies seem particularly able to hold images against them in etched precision. No other month in Western Oregon experiences such an amount of change in temperature or precipitation. October is a month of alteration and energy.

When cycling around Salem this time of year, I am doubly glad I am on my particular kind of bicycle. First of all, it has me in the upright position. I can see around me pretty clearly, and I can notice things that would just wiz by if I were in the lunging/hunching posture that many bikes encourage.

Second, my bike is not built for speed. Between the frame design, its weight, and the gearing, this is not a fast ride. I’m glad for that, especially now. Hugo (as I’ve named him) is a constant encouragement to take time to smell the roses—or other things—along the way. This is of value through the year, but probably in October above all.

Upright cycling requires patience, but even more it benefits from curiosity. Most transportation today is based on the proposition that a person wants to get from A to B in as short a time as possible. I’ll admit, this is generally true for me in my car. But on my bike, I’m quite aware that I’m no speed demon; the focus is on the journey as well as getting there. I like the fact that my bike encourages real enjoyment of this experience, not just more isolation and efficiency.

With October’s weather and changing foliage, a cyclist has a particular engagement with nature. In addition to the sights, there are sounds (leaves crunching or slurping under the wheels), smells (spicy scents of oak leaves, earthy ones of various fungus), and (increasingly) the feel of rain-slicked roads and the crinkly-swooshy sounds of rain gear long stored away in the closet but now packed or worn for the journey.

Below are a few mementos from October Upright Cycling, with the author’s encouragement for you—wherever you are—to take time when possible and soak up the places in which you ride…

Beautiful Street

October transforms very ordinary places into amazing showcases of color. The combination of natural variety and human efforts to plant that variety throughout town is highlighted once again. Trees and bushes one passes with barely a thought in the summer are revealed to be extraordinary horticultural fireworks for a brief few weeks; passing by these displays of leafy chromatic pyrotechnics on my bike is my own version of a New England Autumnal Tour.

Overhead beauty

As I trundle along on my bike at its less-than-rapid pace I have time and opportunity to take in the leafy views overhead. Sometimes this is an exercise in shadow, and at others it is a riotous canopy of boughs all competing for light, forming a long arboreal tunnel. Riding underneath these displays is akin to climbing into a Monet painting.

Autumn’s complex message

Fall is a season of fruitfulness and beauty, but it also heralds winter. As I pedal through town, what was once lovely and variegated becomes bleak and dank as the season wears on. This sequence becomes much more personal as I bike through it, partaking of the feel, the smell of fall transitioning into winter. A year ago I was in the hospital, preparing for surgery on a disease that had been growing for some years inside me but was unknown to me; the busy hum of life was suddenly rendered a completely different landscape in the blink of an eye. We are so fragile; life is changeable in this sublunary world. I think about these things as I make my way through town as the seasons change.

I also pass buildings that tell their own, complex stories. One of them is the former Children’s Unit at the State Hospital. A friend of mine began her career at the State Hospital with a stint in this building, and has told me things so sad I wince just recalling the conversation. This building was closed many years ago, but is now being prepared for demolition. I ride by and wonder at what sorrows took place there, what efforts were made to do something for such wounded humans, or what wrongs may have been perpetrated here. There are so many mysteries and unanswered questions in our lives. It is a regular reminder to pray for those whose pain is hidden from view, but whose sufferings are the most acute.

The Familiar Revealed

Another pleasure October provides is the sudden illumination of the hidden beauty in the familiar. As I rounded the church grounds a few days back, I came upon this tree, tucked next to what we call the “funeral doors” at our church. This was formerly a main entrance, but an addition in the 1990s changed it into a service entrance and the place where the hearse draws up to the building for funerals. Much of the year it eludes my attention.

This tree puts on a spectacular yellow-and-green display for a short while in October, and I took some time to enjoy it as I swept the walkway and summer’s spider webs by the entrance door.

Death is nothing to be afraid of; mortality is the way of this world; there is so much more to life than avoiding death. Just being here by this tree reaffirms all that.


October’s light has a certain clarity and slant combining summer’s intensity with an autumnal crispness of shadow. Add to that the changing colors of street trees, and you have a fleeting but special season. I took this picture as I was picking up something from a local stationery store. The energy and activity going on are frozen into a momentary image. It reminds me (for some reason) of something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Maybe it is that bright yellow square of urban advertising in the middle. As a cyclist, I enjoy the ability to be an observer as well as a participant in the flow of life. I almost never take this point of view when driving.

Aural Cycling

Since I was a kid I’ve always loved the crunch of dry, fallen leaves under my bike tires. I enjoy watching the breeze, like a wave on the beach moving sea foam, lift a multitude of leaves from their temporary resting place and deposit them with a clatter somewhere else. The aural dimension of biking can be one of its more delicate gifts.

At its best, cycling is a very interactive experience and helps to erase some of the distance between modern, technological Homo sapiens and the natural world that produces us. It also brings out the kid in me—something driving doesn’t.

A year after my experience of cancer, surgery, and the beginning of recuperation, I give thanks for the blessing of healing, care, and support. I also give thanks for the simple miracle of being out on my slow, upright bike—taking in the world through the seasons, and especially for October cycling.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Getting Better in Salem

And you thought I had packed it in! Well, no, not really. Just taking an extended break from posting here. With autumn, my attention has turned back to thinking about cycling and especially utility cycling in Salem. For anyone still reading, I’d like to share some about two major (for this town) improvements/concessions to bicycles as a valuable and valued part of the transport scene.

1. The Buffered Bike Lanes Downtown

No solution to the problem of mixing cars with bicycles seems perfect, but the new, wide, buffered lanes on Church and High Streets have been a significant improvement for this cyclist. The "bite" out of the road so far seems not to have cramped the traffic flow too much, and the relationship between cyclists and parked cars has improved. 

It is generally much easier to see a car back out of a diagonal space in time to stop or take evasive action than it is when cars are parallel-parked along the curb. There are a number of stretches along these streets with diagonal parking, and the bike lane-parking interface in those portions is much better. This alone is a big deal. 

The little bit of space provided by the buffering strips actually makes for a great deal more security from through traffic, as well. I was a bit skeptical about this until I tried it; but, it really does work. When I am in my car, I can see plainly that the buffering creates an added measure of seriousness about the bike lane as a real part of the road-scape. The buffered space on the right helps to lessen the likelihood of being "doored" by parallel-parked cars (a major concern).

My only question is what the “proper” (or perhaps I should say “best”) procedure to follow would be when trying to turn left from Church Street on to, say, Court Street. Right now, I’m actually timing it so that I exploit a gap in the traffic and move from the bike lane on the right to the far left lane in preparation for the turn…otherwise, I would have to wait through a stoplight cycle in order to cross Church Street from the corner of Court and Church. Not the end of the world, but rather inefficient. Someone may want to tell me where to go…if that isn’t too great a temptation. [Be nice, now.]

It was interesting to travel along High Street from State on down towards Ferry in the new lane. The old arrangement—if one were going straight through the intersection at High and Ferry—meant getting into the center lane of traffic (not something most folks would want to do) and then swerving towards the right, letting cars pass you once out of the intersection. Now we must first check to see if anyone is going to turn into us from the auto lane (that is one new feature to be careful of) and then, magically, the cyclist finds her or himself on the right of a lane of parallel-parked cars. I first met this arrangement in Portland years ago and thought it utterly bizarre. But, I must admit, as a cyclist I rather like it. This feels quite “buffered!” It still requires some caution (being “doored” by someone getting out of a car is small but real possibility), but it is much improved from the old situation.

When the SAIF building work is completed, it will allow a nice transition from High Street over to Church and then across Mission and up into the west side of Bush Park (one hopes). So, gradually, an effective north-south connection between downtown and the Bush Park/McKinley neighborhoods is being built for utility cyclists (as opposed to high-risk folks taking the major streets). This is something for which to be thankful.

The matter of how these lanes will eventually be made truly effective by a safe crossing of Commercial/Liberty on Union Street is still a big question for me. Breakfast on Bikes may have covered this, and perhaps I’ll look at older posts there, but until this particular (and likely expensive) link in the chain is completed we will have mostly a potential cycling breakthrough in cross-town/south Salem bike routes. But…let’s not get too negative. These lanes are a good next step.

2. The Bush Park-Winter Street Bike Interchange at Mission

This is one of those things I thought about so many times over the years…and suddenly, it happened! Well—it probably wasn’t so sudden to the people involved in planning or building it, but it was for me. This solves one of the more obvious kinks in the cycle route on the east side of Bush Park and points south. Now, it will be much easier to move from Winter Street to the park’s interior. The quality of the job is very nice and it is all so logical. Quite a change from a few years ago, when bikes couldn’t even actuate the stoplight, let alone get up into the park without some pretty fancy turning skills or nearly running over people in the crosswalk!

I would suggest two things for future improvements in the Bush Park connection to Winter Street and Church Street, however. The first would be a wider path from the parking lot at Winter up into the park itself. This path is quite narrow and puts cyclists and pedestrians in some conflict…as well as cyclists going in opposite directions. As this becomes a better cycle route, that latter issue will likely heat up. This may require some way to slow bikers down as they get ready to emerge into the parking lot, as motorists in the parking lot will probably be more interested in finding a parking place than looking for cyclists shooting across to their new access point on Winter.

At Church Street, I am continuing to ask the Powers that Be to consider restoring some form of the old carriageway up from Mission Street into the main portion of the park. The walk from Mission Street to Bush House was never meant for bikes—though it gets a fair amount of use by them. I note that sprinklers went in the lawn where the carriageway sits under the turf, and wonder if that squelches the potential for this much-needed improvement forever? I hope not. Church Street is a natural—and safe—place to cross Mission. It is currently a bit of a pinch-point in the bike route, but perhaps some thought could be given to a not-too-expensive way to relieve this problem.

* * *

It is clear to me that Salem isn’t likely to become a great commuter cycling center anytime soon. We aren’t going to be “Netherlands West.” But, these two developments are helpful and positive steps for those of us who want to use our bikes not as toys or sporting equipment but practical machines for transport. I want to register my own thanks for the efforts and expenditure involved. Gradually, some of the key routes I take through town are getting safer and better. Thanks!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Signs of the Times

I have a penchant for taking pictures of signs…especially strange or ironic ones. I’ve done this for years and derive a kind of mild pleasure reviewing them from time to time. The small follies of human attempt to govern, inform, or control provide a gentle reminder of how fragile our grip on things really is.

So, here are some pictures (mostly in Salem) I have taken of signs that stuck out…

#1: Morning Glory, the Forbidden Horse

When we moved back to Salem some years back, we discovered what is surely one of the odder signs in town while walking around Waterfront Park. This sculpture, placed just outside the Carousel building, appears (at first glance) to be an open invitation to children (and others) for a photo-op. But, no! Even though cushioned rubber matting has been thoughtfully applied beneath it (perhaps at the suggestion of a nervous city lawyer or risk manager?), this horse is most definitely off limits to passengers. As the sign observes, this is not a piece of play equipment. No, siree. If the saddle’s patina is worn to a luminous polish from the many folks who didn’t read the sign, that’s not the fault of the City. Nope.

#2: Just What Sort of Business?

This sign is just off the Church Street Bridge over Shelton Ditch/Pringle Creek, down in a grove of trees by the creek side. There must have been a perfectly logical reason for this sign (perhaps someone could illuminate me?), but having this sign in such a setting begs the questions: “What business?” and “What hours?” It also suggests (at least to me) that trespassing during business hours is just fine...

#3: Face Off

Schools like South Salem High have many parking headaches, but this sign suggests a persistent problem with something I had never before considered…

#4: Ignored

This sign’s command, silently thundered day and night, is constantly ignored by the tenants.

#5: Be Kind to Your Amphibious Friends

While riding in Corvallis, Oregon a few years back, I came upon this thoughtful warning about an apparently common problem there. I will tell you that no newts were injured to make this blog post.

#6: Before and After


These two photos show a change of mind about how to treat the bike lane on one of Salem’s more bike-trafficked roads (Winter Street) during the Hospital’s long stretch of construction a while back. The first picture shows the once-common view that “something has happened to your bike lane, so deal with it.” The latter suggests that bikes and autos both have a place on the road and caution for everyone would be a good idea. This is one place where cyclists in town should express appreciation…and keep up the pressure.

#7: How Quaint

For many years, when St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had its rummage sales this sign was placed on an oak tree near High Street. It looks to date back to the gracious, spacious time when “today” was still hyphenated (at least by the well-heeled) as “to-day.” The reverse of the sign shows the admirable quality of consistency in its spelling of “to-morrow.” I haven’t seen this sign out recently and hope it has not been trashed, as it harkens to a less anxious era…something I find comforting just now.

#8: By Any Other Name…

I took this picture whilst in York, England. In Salem, we call it the “Center 50+,” making it seem oh so sexy and active. But in York, there is a kind of English sobriety and dignity about the facility I find a lot more attractive. I also like the dedication to St. Sampson...something distinctly uncommon on this side of the Pond.

#9: Salem’s Own

Of course, how could I omit Salem’s greatest sign? I even know one of the people whose experience of “interaction” with Owl Capone gave rise to this graphic. I still think people should try wearing a helmet while passing through Bush Park in the spring…perhaps some could be hung on pegs under each sign?

#10: A Sign for the Times

This inscription on the north face of the State Capitol building is extremely appropriate for the current election cycle. The irony that it was inscribed on a building in a time and place that had a very, very uneven record of living up to its ideals in no way mitigates the fundamental import of what it says to every era and nation.

#11: A Reminder of the Dangers of Literalism

This is the sign that made me think about writing this post. I saw it while out today. It suggests either expedience or a singular lack of insight. In any event, it was momentarily entertaining.

#13: A Tale of Two Bumper Stickers

Our family likes Salem a great deal, but some gentle ribbing is good for people and organizations. Many people are familiar with the “Keep Portland Weird” mantra, but an enterprising fellow in town had some “Keep Salem Lame” bumper stickers printed up a few years back, and my wife and I sought high and low how to get one. On a morning walk happened upon the creator of this gem, and he proved willing to part with one—if we promised to put it on our car.

Some time later while in Portland we parked just behind a car with the famous Portland Credo and we decided to take a picture of both sentiments. 

Far from denigrating Salem, our purpose in sporting this bumper sticker is quite genuine: we are happy to keep Salem different from Portland (a place with an increasing number of unsavory problems in spite of all the hopelessly goofy press); if that makes us “lame,” so be it. We’ll take some lameness over much of the weirdness, thank you very much. Diversity is good, right?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Unfinished Escher Staircase Found in Salem, Oregon

Today the art world was staggered by news of the discovery in Salem, Oregon of a work of art thought lost, but actually only misplaced. We speak here of M.C. Escher’s unfinished and unique sculptural project: “Stair Steps to Their Beginning.”

This work, commissioned by the then-influential “City of Salem Guild of Avant-Guard Citizenry” (CoSGoA-GC), and located just south of the Salem Public Library’s main branch (part of the 1972 Salem Civic Center), was to be the culmination of Escher’s long line of mischievous images, inscrutably combining surrealist visionary symbolism with an ode to American Local Government Bureaucracy.

Escher, who accepted the commission with great trepidation and would only agree to it when three barrels of pickled herring were made part of the fee, had never before attempted sculpture in any medium. Being nearly two-dimensional himself, he had kept to illustration in his previous works. But, nearing the end of his life and sensing that, as he liked to say: “Vat do zose Salemites know about Platonic solids und Möbius strips, anyvay?!” he took his final artistic gamble.

The commission itself asked only for “an aesthetically-pleasing means of approach to the Senator Wayne Morse De-accession Bin” using “concrete, brick, or Salem’s traditional building material—compressed cherry pits.” This allowed Escher, a notoriously fastidious and economical man, a great deal of latitude.

The budget, considered exorbitant at the time, was $326.13, with $1.50 being donated by the Greater Salem Arts Foundation, $3.57 from the “Memories of Happy Days at Brush College School Club," and a surprising donation of $22.12 from the Crabtree & Scio Retired Air-raid Warden Association. The remainder was given by CoSGoA-GC from its usual source: a share of the massive annual haul from overdue-book fines. This use of library fine funds for public art ended up causing legal wrangling between the CoSGoA-GC and the once-powerful “Guardians of the Public Purse & Dining Society” (or the GPP&DS, usually just referred to as The Salem Grouch Club) that only settled out of court last year.

The plans for the sculpture were drawn up on Escher’s favorite surface of tanned rhino hide (“because it stands up well to humidity and grease-stains from cheese,” the artist maintained) and sent via the Holland-America Line’s SS Statendam to New York City, where they were mistakenly impounded as contraband. After a diplomatic row requiring then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s personal intervention, the plans were released for transport to Oregon.

Construction was complicated by the fact that Escher had made the measurements in cubits rather than the usual feet or meters. Because several different foremen were involved in the execution of the sculpture, and because the foremen’s forearms were not all of the same length, certain irregularities crept into the project—irregularities which speedily led to Escher’s renunciation of the enterprise, his demand for the plans back, and the ultimate termination of construction before completion. The nearby concrete brutalism library building opened on schedule, but the half-completed stairway meant to intrigue people selecting de-accessioned copies of such classics as A Practical Guide to Surviving Nuclear War was gradually forgotten even while it remained in plain view. Sometime in the late 1970s, the Senator Wayne Morse [Memorial] Bin was moved elsewhere and weeds took over the ill-fated spot, aiding its slide (or, perhaps more appropriately, its descent) into obloquy.

In the 1980s an enterprising hot-dog vendor opened a stand at the top of the stairs for a couple seasons, and Vice-President Dan Quayle made his only speech in Salem (during a largely forgotten tour) late one February night from this location. Aside from that, nothing is known about the “dark years” of the Escher Staircase.

Then, two weeks ago, city employee Zelma Flores happened to stumble over the staircase’s lowest step while making her way to the parking structure. Enquiring with library staff about “that big hunk of concrete” and why it was there, she was met with vacant expressions. No one could remember seeing the stairs before! Lost in plain sight, Civic officials had to be taken by hand from their Doge-like isolation in the City Council Chambers to the site of the hidden gem in their midst. Confronting Escher’s partly-completed masterwork, their response was to appoint an outside consultant to study the stairway for possible sale to help fund a proposed third bridge across the Willamette River.

Curiously, Escher himself never visited Salem, but did keep a postcard of the city (actually of Salem, Massachusetts) stuck in his dresser mirror at the Rosa Spier Huis in Laren, Netherlands until his death. The night after his demise, the postcard mysteriously disappeared and then just as mysteriously re-appeared years later in a book on the Salem (Oregon) Public Library shelves. That book was: Years of Upheaval, by Henry Kissinger, last checked out to the author

The postcard marked a page with these words underlined in lavender ink: “An event that year, involving the hide of a rhinoceros, made clear I must advocate for the opening of China to the West.” Thus, Salem’s too-little-too-late remnant of a milestone (rather than millstone) in art history contributed to the current the World Order.