Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In tandem

Last weekend I encountered an irresistible fleet of bicycles -- Dawn, Denise, Mike, Russ, Susan, and Bob -- who invited me to ride with them from Sanderson to Del Rio, TX. The group roughly doubled the total number of touring cyclists I have come across on the road so far. I was glad for the pleasant company, especially as we passed through a part of Texas known for illicit activity in recent years. (Have you seen No Country for Old Men? The feel of the film, supposedly set around here, was eerily accurate.) For two glorious days we cycled together, ate together, laughed together. And, yes, they offered to tote my obscene amount of gear in their RV. Unburdened, Ollie and I practically flew up some of those West Texas hills. Woo hoo! A girl could get used to this.

I've been contemplating something that Mike said while I was pedaling alongside him and his wife of 43 years the other day. "Riding a tandem is a lot like maintaining a healthy marriage," he sagely pronounced as he and Dawn rode their bicycle built for two. "Not everyone can do it. The key is good communication." No kidding: if one partner isn't paying attention and loses his or her balance, the other needs to act quickly or both eat pavement

By now you probably know that I love a good metaphor. I've been kicking Mike's words around for a few days. (What? Yes, I recognize that it's a simile rather than a metaphor. Good grief.) Riding a [literal or figurative] tandem without crashing requires each rider know his or her own boundaries and, to a degree, those of their partner; trust their partner implicitly; diligently and calmly predict and avert trouble spots that may arise; and promptly address crises when they come up. A pothole, a shard of glass in the tire, an aggressive truck driver invariably make appearances on the scene, but calm and clear communication can save the day. It did during an earlier bike trip when a front tire burst on the tandem as Mike and Dawn were flying down one of the narrow, shoulderless passes along Highway 1, hemmed in by railroad tracks on one side and careening trucks on the other. Dawn admitted she thought it was the end -- she couldn't get unclipped from her pedals and had said a quick prayer under her breath. But she followed Mike's instructions, the two managed to regain control of the bike, and lived to tell the tale.

Now, I am pretty used to being on my own these days. In fact, I recall the struggles I faced when Aaron joined me for nearly a month on the way through eastern Arizona and New Mexico: I suddenly had to learn how to bike and camp with another person. This meant adjusting my pace (usually speeding up), curbing my natural tendency toward reflective silence on the road, not making all of the decisions myself. (Aaron knew enough to leave all food-related matters to me. Smart man.) I am quite comfortable being on my own again, but I wonder if the solitude might be indefinite. Hmmm.

I've had lots of time alone with Ollie and open stretches of asphalt (and the occasional, cursed loose gravel country road). I sing a lot and take pretty regular snack breaks, and visits with friends and farmers provide regular social interaction. Even so, I'm left with a lot of time on my own to think. I'm starting to wonder how on earth I am going to be able to sit still one day. More to the point, I wonder if I will be able to handle being around a particular person for any length of time after this. There have been only two partners in my life with whom I would've considered [figuratively] riding a tandem. Obviously neither worked out. I finally overcame my fear of riding a regular [literal] bicycle...I wonder if the figurative equivalent will follow some day. Will I ever feel at ease when I'm clipped into the pedals? I wonder.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Helping your neighbors

These days I often stumble across kindness in unexpected places. (A woman in a trailer at the campsite in Sanderson, TX walked over with a still-warm plate of pork chops and sweet potatoes for me as I started drafting this very blog post.) So, too, I am regularly astonished to discover people I would not have suspected quietly working away to make the world a better place, starting with their own community.

After an exhausting, uphill grind in the freezing headwinds last Saturday, I rolled into Sierra Blanca, TX. With nose and toes still frozen from the previous night's camping in Fort Hancock -- a town perhaps only notable for a passing mention at the end of the (brilliant) Shawshank Redemption -- I vowed that no matter what I would sleep indoors that night. The only open motel in town had rooms for $20 and a odd assortment of characters in the front office. I decided I would shower in my swimsuit, sleep in my sleeping bag on top of the bed, and pile my gear against the door. Yeah, sketchy. But indoors.

Before getting settled, I rode around the corner to pick up some milk for the next morning's breakfast at a quickie mart/used gun shop. (It's Texas.) After a brief chat at the checkout, Darlene suggested I retrieve my stuff from the motel and stay in her extra apartment, featuring a clean bed and one of the hottest showers I have ever had. I thought she was just a kind person. Well, she is, BUT there's more. It turns out Darlene is an avid organic gardener. As she showed me around the yard on Sunday morning, proudly pointing out blossoming fruit trees and fresh herbs, she also told me about her plans to develop 300 new green jobs in her area in about two years through the construction of a wind farm and a second project that will harness methane gas as an energy source from the nearby sewage treatment plant. This is not at all what I had expected to encounter in this sleepy little West Texas town, certainly not from someone I had met about 20 yards from the used handgun display.

Three days later, as Ollie and I rolled into Alpine, we poked our heads into the office of the West Texas Food Bank. (My plans to work with a local rancher had fallen through at the last minute so I was inquiring into other sustainable food goings on in the area.) Lulu, it turned out, was not only the food bank's outreach coordinator but also the driving force behind the town's first community garden. What luck!

As Ollie hung out at the food bank, Lulu kindly drove me around town to try and find me a place I might work and stay for a night or two with local organic gardeners. First we visited Sharon, a park ranger who was letting the local Boys & Girls Club use part of her property to form the inaugural community garden. There was work to be done, but the ranger was done working for the day, so Sharon joined us as we next drove to Beverly's place. Here, we learned of the outspoken activist's innovative use of shade cloth and how to repurpose drip irrigation line to build row covers. Fruit trees abounded, I marveled, and not a shred of black plastic in sight at this year-round organic garden. (Yes, I'm still harping on the rampant use of black plastic involved in most organic production farms. No plastic here: Beverly's hardcore.) After a brief stop to meet The Bikeman, Lulu and I visited Tom, the local expert on organic food production, a successful farmer with weekly orders from local families and businesses, and author of a guide to organic gardening. (The Bikeman had showed me his copy of Tom's guide -- it was well known around town -- as well as his own little tomato and pepper patch behind the bike shop.) Tom gave us a tour of his large garden and explained some of the techniques: he is also a proponent of shade cloth and recycled materials to protect plants from the region's extreme wind, drought, and pests. Lulu secured offers of help with the nascent community garden from both Beverly and Tom. Alpine? Home to a bevy of organic gardeners? Who knew?

After a night of pleasant conversation and tasty food (and a warm bed!) at Lulu's, I took Sharon up on her offer for a lift to nearby Marathon, TX, where she'd been meaning to revisit for some time. I spoke with a few folks around town -- including Sharon's friend Kate, who manages the lush gardens at the local B&B -- and discovered that here, too, there are folks quietly going about improving their local community. In particular, I was impressed by Danielle, a bartender at a friendly, local watering hole, who poured me a cold pint of beer while she expounded on the town's need for more small-scale businesses.

In a little town like Marathon that primarily supports itself on a sporadic tourist economy, there isn't much of a middle class, she insisted. The key, she explained, is to empower individuals to produce "value-added" products (dried fruit, preserves, cheeses, handmade goods) that can put a little money in their pockets and cultivate a local economy, then later perhaps look to expand to the region or even across Texas. Danielle has been involved in securing a shared workspace for entrepreneurs interested in starting one of these microbusinesses. Meanwhile, she is also trying to garner support to start a patchwork of community gardens around town as a first step toward getting more fresh, affordable produce into the hands of locals while cultivating the beginnings of a greenbelt. (Does your local bartender do this kind of stuff? I think I've been frequenting the wrong pubs until now... and not just because Billy Tom bought me a second pint.)

The small towns of West Texas may soon be greener than any of us might have imagined, all thanks to these dedicated women who are trying to help their neighbors help themselves.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A raw deal

I read an article the other day entitled "Is raw, unpasteurized milk safe?" (http:// It got me thinking again about why folks are so polarized about raw milk. Good god, in foodie circles it's an issue as divisive as healthcare reform or the war in Iraq. Or perhaps abortion offers a more apt parallel: the legality of selling raw milk varies by state. (No joke.) In the few parts of the country where you can buy raw milk at the market, like the California co-op where I snapped this pic a few months back, there are labels reading "WARNING: This product may contain harmful bacteria." And yet plenty of folks seek it out, will find loopholes like "cow shares" (where one isn't *buying milk* but rather picking up a portion of the assets of an animal that they partly own -- an important legal distinction), will drive ridiculous distances to procure a gallon and pay a pretty penny for it. The milk has not been sterilized, begging the question: is it worth the risk?

Now, I've come to love raw dairy. The milk, cheese, and yoghurt that I've had the opportunity to sample at small family farms around the country taste different from the grocery store stuff I'd been consuming my whole life. Richer, creamier. Not only does it taste better, but frankly, I think it's healthier. While the FDA claims there are no benefits to unpasturized, raw milk, I am not convinced. (I guess that puts me nearer the "rabid supporter" end of the spectrum. I'm not rabid, though. I've had all my shots.) I swear my hair, my nails, my skin have never been so healthy as when I've had frequent access to the creamy deliciousness of raw cow, sheep, and goat milk over the past 11 months. It makes sense: the good stuff hasn't all been zapped out of it during the usual pasturization process.

I am not anti-hygiene, mind you, or anti-food safety. (I am, however, vehemently against antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers, but that is a soap box for another day.) There need to be standards, sure. The animals need to be healthy, the equipment clean, and the milk kept cold and free from harmful pathogens. It should be tested regularly (and it is). This is entirely possible at a small-scale dairy run by a conscientious farmer, like the place I helped out at in Foxboro, MA back in June. Heck, Terri was a USDA dairy *inspector* before she started her own raw milk dairy. She knows what she's doing and her loyal customers trust that she would not sell them something she would not drink herself.

Now, let me be clear: there are risks. I would tend to apply the same doctor's guidelines for raw milk as I would for, say, sushi. Probably best not to chance it if you're pregnant or under 2 years old. (Speaking of raw animal products being dangerous, why, I wonder, isn't the FDA trying to shut down the sushi industry? I may need to do a bit of sushi research.... Yum.) The Seattle Times article suggests many opportunities for fecal contamination during the milking process. (Ick. Did I really just type "fecal contamination"? Yes, I believe I did. Double ick.) It isn't that there's less poop in pasturized milk, but the germs (as well as the good stuff) are obliterated by the high heat exposure.

There are risks one should consider when consuming raw dairy (or raw anything, really, if you consider the tons of chemicals dumped on most crops these days). But I suspect that the chances of getting sick from a glass of raw milk from a small, local dairy are significantly smaller than, say, getting salmonella from your bag of grocery store spinach or e. coli from a fast food hamburger. Have you noticed the rise in factory farm food recalls in recent years?

I actually think the issue comes down to scale: raw milk can be safe if the dairies are small enough. Time and energy must be devoted to doing things safely, and a farmer's diligence and intimate knowledge of each animal are critical. Sorry, Big Ag, but raw milk operations should not (and cannot safely) be scaled up to your factory farm specifications. As such, it's no wonder that food academics like Michael Pollan suggest that it is "an emblem of noncorporate food." Ah, *another* reason to celebrate raw milk.

Want to try some? Well, you can't buy it in DC or Maryland. (There is hope, though slight: you can get it through a cow share in nearby Virginia.) Here's a great resource, including information on where you can (and can't buy) it around the country: (Thanks for the link, Mike!)

I love raw milk. If I lived in a larger place with a yard, I'd consider getting my own dairy goat. Unless that's illegal in DC, too.... (Have I mentioned lately that goats are my favorite barnyard animals?)

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Sunday, March 21, 2010

When Ibti met Ollie

Today is a momentous one. Not, not because of a particularly long or grueling ride. Not a mileage milestone, nor an exceptionally poor-weathered day....

One year ago today I first laid eyes on my beloved Ollie and brought her home. She was as beautiful in the catalog as she was in the... steel. (A mail order partner, what can I say?) And she's only grown more lovely as I've gotten to know her, each ding and rust spot steeped in memories.

With no champagne in sight -- it is West Texas, so I could perhaps rustle up a bottle of the Champagne of Beers -- we have decided to collaborate on a poem to commemorate the occasion. Narrated by my fearless ride, and in the style of our all-time favorite poet (who I hope is not rolling over in his grave), I give you:

The Love Song of J. Olympia Surly

Let us ride then, you and I,
Toward where the road just meets the sky
Off to find the true America and food;

Let us go, traversing half-deserted streets, Sometimes needing to retreat
Share restless nights in one-night cheap campsites
And beercan stove dinners filled, at least, with lots of spice:
Facing winds that blow like an obstinate argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .

Oh, do not ask, "Are we there YET?" We've come so far, and still you parrot.

The long haul truckers pause to say
Did you see that loony on a bicycle on the highway?

The cursing from inside your tent I hear
When the morning frost encrusts the rain fly on mornings clear,
Pricks its tongue into the corners of the sleeping bag, Lingers upon your fingers and your toes.
I discern you falling back onto the sleeping pad for just a few moments more,
Then, determined, you emerge fully dressed, make a sudden leap,
  And seeing that it is a bright March morn
Start loading up, lest you be tempted to lollygag and crawl back to sleep.

And indeed we change our view of time
For the unflagging headwind that hits us in the face,
Slows us down again;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the farmers that you meet;
There will be time to weed and cook and learn,
Yes, time for all the works and days of hands
And hope that when they let you into their kitchens, the rice you will not burn;

Time for us to slowly make our way,
Not quite time yet for a hundred miles--
I suggest just 40 or 50 for the rain today is wild--
Before the taking of yet another pb&j.

The long haul truckers pause to say
Did you see that loony on a bicycle on the highway?

And indeed there will be time To wonder, "Uphill again?" and, "No, seriously, AGAIN???"
Time to push onward and descend,
While the odd rash on your thigh is one more thing with which you must contend.

[They will say: "How her boobs are growing small!"] Your shorts too tight, fitting snugly to your legs and all,
With shirtsleeves grey with grease, no longer white, and a few specks of gravel from when you fall—
[They will say: "But check out that bike glove tan!"]

Do I dare
Disturb the traffic flow?
At a stoplight there is time
For us to topple, clipped in, as we have done many times when we accidentally crash instead of go.
For we have eaten dust on roads, even in ditches, many times;
And always, though sometimes through gritted teeth, you smile,
I have measured out my life in miles;
I know the sound of tire tubes bursting, pinch flats, and the maddening, leak of air
As a thorn or shard of twisted metal scratched.
So how many have you patched?
Oh, I have known the flats already, known them all—
The tubes you fix as darkness starts to fall,
And when I am wheels-up, sprawling on my handlebars, On the roadside as it starts to rain,
Then I count them. As I recall each, a dozen now, dare I complain?

And shall I reminisce?
For I have known the hills already, known them all— Like elephants the ones in Pennsylvania were [But paling in comparison, we noted, once we conquered the mountainous Big Sur!]
Is it the subtle sound of hissing air
That makes me thus despair? I think it may be number thirteen. And are you swearing now?   This time in French?  .     .     .     .     .
Shall I say, we have journeyed 'cross the country's narrow lanes
And milked the sheep and bottle-fed the kids
Of hungry ewes who tried to eat your pants? . . . I should have been a pair of dull handclippers left out in the rain.        .     .     .     .     .
And the afternoon, laundry blows so lovely in the breeze! Hung by weathered farmers' fingers, Freshly washed . . . sundried . . . yet the sweaty odor lingers, Stretched on the line, up above you and me. Should I, after five thousand miles traveled,
Have the nerve to point out that your favorite smartwool socks have unraveled?

But though I have creaked and wobbled, borne such gear, Though I have seen screws lost (and some grown slightly rusted) 'long the way, I am no road bike–-nor mountain bike as you know from tires busted;
I have known the glory of the mountain's acme, And I have shared the misery of fallen trees which, for us to cross, you needed to unpack me,
And in short, I was overladen.
And would it have been worth it, after all, After the salsa shoes, the saffron, the other frills,
Among the bags of gear, among some talk of your packing skills, Would it have been more wise,
To have left some things behind and perhaps downsized,
To have squeezed a few less things into panniers?

We roll toward some overwhelming question, To say: "I am Ibti, come from DC, Come to hear you all, I shall tell your tale on my blog" If one farmer, setting a coffee cup aside in response to a posting, Should say, "That is not what I meant at all.   That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all, Would it have been worth while,
After the church lawns and haylofts and gas stations where we have slept, After the fear of snakes, of lightning strikes, and death by tree limb falling and crushing us in our sleep— And this, and so much more?— It is impossible to say just what I mean! But as if a magic word would change the way we eat: Would it have been worth it
If your hero, Mr. Pollan, sitting up from writing at his desk or reading fan letters,
And turning to his e mail, should write to you: "That is not it at all,   That is not what I meant, at all."
.     .     .     .     .Yes! You are not Ms. Waters, nor were you meant to be;
But a committed lover of her work, one that has hoped to be heard,
To join the movement, start a seed or two,
Advise the District; no doubt, an easy hope,
Excitable, glad to be of use, Intrepid, joyful, and meticulous; Full of 80s pop culture references, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, a nerd.

We grow old . . . We grow old . . . And you still wear the bottom of your right trouser rolled.

Have we left five thousand miles behind? Do you notice when I squeak? I hope in Austin I shall finally get a tune-up, and move without such creaks. I have heard the rain tapping on the inside of your tent. (It leaks.)
I do not think the rain will bother me.
I have been left out in many storms (ahem),
Endured the deluge without fear
When the wind blows so strongly in your ear.

We have made our way so far from our first ride
From the bike shop now two-thirds around
Till we make our way back home, to share what we have found.

[21 March 2010]

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Friday, March 19, 2010

5,000 miles!

We broke 5,000 miles today! Ollie, sensing that I may have been getting a bit too big for my britches -- she may have a point, the shorts have been feeling snug lately around the noticeably larger quad muscles -- put me back in my place with flat #12 just shy of mile 5,001. Yep. Merely 19 miles on loose gravel and sand roads, headwind, and aggressive Texan drivers would be too easy. (Maybe they would be. I'll never know.) But we made it the 54 miles to El Paso just before dark.

Really, though, it should not have taken over 9 hours. This, after logging 40 miles in 2 1/2 hours on the way to Las Cruces. Embarrassing. As I gritted my teeth amid no less than 8 near wipe outs on the sandy terrain, I finally got past the pathetic rate at which I was pedaling and channeled the spirit of my marathon training buddies: "It doesn't matter. Just keep going." Even so, I did yell a few times. Nobody but the yapping chihuahuas seemed to notice. (I'm so glad the New Mexican choice for unleashed canines is the chihuahua. Much better than the Ohio shepherds or the California rottweilers. They try their best to sound tough, but since they can't reach my calf I find them significantly less menacing. I was chased by exactly 3 today.)

Today's mental mp3 player -- an actual working one never materialized -- alternated between Slip Slidin' Away and the theme song from Hawaii 5-0. And for good reason. Have you ever tried to steer a loaded bike on sand? It's kind of like a cross between hydroplaning and surfing (based on my memory of the single, highly comical surf lesson I took a few years back in Costa Rica). Why on god's green earth Google sent me on 19 miles -- okay, 15, actually, if I hadn't taken a few wrong turns due to the complete lack of signage -- of unpaved roads is beyond me. Oh, I've got feedback for them alright. In retrospect, perhaps it would be wise to check out the street view before blindly accepting Google directions. (I can almost hear you thinking it, Aaron.) Still, I'm willing to give the new bike route mapping program a few more tries. (No, I'm not a masochist. I just really, really want it to work.)

Before I forget, I've a few state license plate rewrites to add:

Arizona: Not as flat as you might think

New Mexico: Paved roads are for sissies

Well, I'm sure Texas will weigh in with a colorful entry once we make our way over 1,000 miles across the Lonestar State. Which reminds me: Meghan, I may need to serenade you at a karaoke bar when I make it to Houston for your wedding. Because you know "I would bike five hundred miles, and I would bike five hundred more just to BE the girl who biked a thousand MILES to fall down at your door...." (Maybe after we've all had a little champagne.)

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Getting to the route of the problem

Now, I've been grumbling for some time about the lack of adequate route planning tools for cyclists. I was just ranting and raving after dinner in Tucson a few weeks back about the need for cyclists nationwide to build a national bike map together. Admittedly, touring cyclists comprise a pretty small proportion of the bike riding population. Thus the market for such things is relatively small. But we do exist. (We! I'm one of them! Ever since the bike glove tan, that is.)

Okay, to be fair, there are some resources around for touring and commuting cyclists. There are some clearly marked and relatively known regional routes: I traversed a decent stretch of the on-road Pacific Coast bike route that runs from Vancouver clear down to the Mexican border (though I only took it from west of Eugene, OR to Santa Barbara, CA) along a combination of Highways 1 and 101; I traveled almost exclusively on bike trails from Madison to Dodgeville, WI. There are some states with trail maps, some cities with maps of popular bike routes. Many places around the country have local cycling clubs with online resources ranging from meticulously detailed to downright useless. Adventure Cycling publishes map sets for prescribed routes, and they've expanded the number and variety of offerings recently (nearly twice the options now than existed a year ago when I was mapping out my trip, it seems), but along with the prohibitive cost for a map set that might cover a chunk of Ollie's and my loop around the country -- it's not chump change -- there are no resources for those looking to go to, say, organic farms or other off-the-beaten-path destinations. Historically, there's been no standardized resource to determine one's route by bicycle comparable to the way Google maps and Mapquest provide for pedestrians or automobiles.

[Funny that I find myself advocating for regionalized food systems while lamenting the lack of a standardized national bike network, but there you have it. The irony does not escape me.]

Planning a trip around the country, or even around towns that I am unfamiliar with (which is most of them), has been tough at times. There's always some kind of cross-referencing of local bike maps (if they exist), my state-by-state AAA maps (which are sometimes outdated and don't list some of the smaller, local roads), and the oft-maligned Verizon Navigator GPS (which remains somewhat unreliable), regularly supplemented by verbal directions from local bike mechanics, gas station attendants, and postal employees (many of whom have a very different idea of what "flat" or "5 miles" means). It's an adventure, to be sure, and in the grand scheme of things I've been getting by alright. I've been trying to convince myself that the added challenge of having to navigate my way around the country in this hodgepodge fashion, bucking the more systematic way we usually go about doing things, generally with the focus being speed and efficiency, is something desirable. It's kind of like a riddle. Or a puzzle. (I love puzzles! Especially the Washington Post or New York Times crossword variety.) Even so, sometimes I long for an easier way to do this....

A week ago, Google came out with the much-anticipated bicycling option for their online interactive maps. Hallelujah. I'd joined thousands of other bike advocates over a year ago who signed yet another petition for Google to add a bicycling option and it's finally here. No less than four friends -- some of whom aren't even avid cyclists -- sent me e mails about the exciting news that very morning. I was giddy. Ollie, too, squeaked with joy. (Or was that the sound of her fender screws loosening up again? Hard to tell sometimes. I'd better check that before we embark on our next leg.)

The system is not perfect -- there is not a version available for mobile phones yet and there is some contention about road bike vs. mountain bike routes, with no designation for one or the other that I can discern -- but I was excited to try it out. So last Wednesday, while at La Buena Vida Farm, Aaron and I borrowed Jennifer's laptop and looked at a few possible ways to get to our next farm using the brand spanking new Google bike program. The first set of directions generated didn't look too bad, but a local friend advised us that the utility road that comprised a good portion of the route was a dirt road with regular gates that were often locked. We tried another variation. Also largely dirt roads. I am not a huge fan of bouncing down dirt roads on a loaded bike. We defaulted to my AAA maps which, incidentally, also had us on less-than-ideal unpaved roads part of the way. Exactly 14 miles of the way, as compared to nearly 40 on the Google route to Deming. (Dirt: the difference between a 'state' road and a 'country' road. Noted.)

Maybe the program works better in towns, I thought. As Becky has kindly let me borrow her laptop for a few days here in the relative paved safety of Las Cruces, NM, I decided to try out the bike route planning program in a more urban setting. My trips to the Mountain View Co-op yesterday and the Wednesday morning farmers' market today went pretty smoothly. The roads themselves were crap in some cases, but how can the system account for potholes and cracked pavement? In fact, there's a feature that allows you to send feedback to the Google bike map folks on good/poor/alternative routes. This is where cycling clubs, bike advocates, commuters, and recreational riders can weigh in and make the system better.

So while the start has been a bit bumpy (har, har), I haven't given up on Google bike maps. Far from it. Ollie and I will be testing out the feature some more on our route from El Paso to Austin over the next few weeks, so stay tuned. (Good god, Texas is enormous....)

Monday, March 15, 2010

La Buena Vida

I first learned of La Buena Vida Farm from Dennis over at 47 Ranch just a couple of days before Aaron and I made our way 84 miles (in a single day! a new record! woo hoo!) to this agricultural model of self-sufficiency in southeastern Arizona. I enjoyed the food and the company during my time at the organic farm, but what I loved most was the story of the family that runs it.

Neither Jennifer nor Jerry grew up on a farm, nor did they study agriculture. Far from it. And yet they are two of the most inspired farmers I have met. A few years ago the pair left successful careers in Los Angeles -- as a high-end boutique manager and a fashion photographer, respectively -- in search of a place to raise their family. After scouting out possible new homes across the country over the course of many months, they landed in a tiny ranching town on the New Mexican border and took up residence at a former vineyard where Jerry's dad had graciously put a down payment on the property. The city slickers were self-proclaimed foodies, however, and quickly realized that while rural life had many charms food options in the area were slim. (This part of the state of Arizona is truly a food desert: 2 sandwich shops and no grocers for about a 50-mile radius. I know this because I was looking for a snack along the entire ride from Douglas, AZ. It's true, ask Aaron.) The couple started teaching themselves about growing their own edibles. Maybe... a modern homestead? They set themselves to building a self-supported operation run on wind and solar and elbow grease (alternative energy sources are abundant here... especially the wind... *sigh*), using mostly human-powered equipment (like the snazzy, bicycle wagon that Jen is sporting above) and DIY contraptions (like the homemade poultry plucker that Jerry built). They began growing just a little bit extra for the neighbors. Jennifer started dabbling with animal husbandry, raising heritage goats, sheep, geese and turkeys. Word spread quickly as a growing number of folks learned of the farm and not long afterward Jerry and Jennifer started selling produce at a farm stand in Portal.

Actually, they are the farmers market: one stand offering produce, eggs, freshly baked sourdough bread, and meat. Demand continued to grow, prompting the couple to take a serious look at their ability to feed the community, a philosophy aligned with their strong Christian values. They discussed how many families the land could support: 20 for the first year with the two of them working full time plus periodic volunteers, close to 30 the second if they could hire help.

In an area with a surprisingly high incidence of folks with extreme health issues (and subsequent dietary restrictions), interest in organic food continues to grow. As we worked together one afternoon on the farm, Jen mentioned an ongoing challenge trying to explain the concept of a CSA to neighbors. If only they checked out the clear and concise explanation on the farm's blog, I thought: "Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) baskets is a way for community members to participate in a small farm like ours by paying at the beginning of the growing season for weekly baskets of freshly harvested produce. This provides farmers like us with some predictable revenue so that we can concentrate on providing a valuable local food source." Folks in the area might not use the term "CSA," but through it the farm and community are supporting each other.

In just a couple of years, Jerry and the farm have become known throughout the region. (No, really. Even as far east as Hachita, NM, I discovered when chatting with the kind folks who let me sleep in their gas station. "Oh? You were working with the organic farmers near Rodeo? Yeah, we know 'em. Good people.") I share in the admiration of these determined, imminently thoughtful and generous family farmers. And not just because they sent me off with a loaf of bread, hunk of cheese, dried fruit and nuts, and bag of fresh produce -- I'd already formed my opinion before the sendoff with unexpected, delicious treats. Theirs not a glamorous life, but it's a good one. Their small home is hardly the lap of luxury, but it in many ways encapsulates la buena vida: comfortable, happy, and filled with good food and people.

I am fascinated by tales of folks who dare to try to live differently, who leave behind successful careers to follow a path their heart calls them to pursue. And I am inspired by them. (My parents were, to put it mildly, concerned that I was leaving my teaching job -- the one with a steady, if paltry, paycheck -- to bike around the country on my savings and volunteer on farms.) Without this pursuit of something greater, what are we left with? I'm not advocating for everyone to leave their less-than-ideal day jobs, but consider ways in which you, too, might seek your own version of la buena vida.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Germs don't stand a chance

No, that's not kambucha. (It does kind of look like it, though, huh?) The photo doesn't do justice to the magical healing powers of "Ib-tea."

The last two weeks of biking, camping, and farming have been windy (and often chilly) ones. Today, as Aaron and I made our way to Las Cruces, NM, I became increasingly aware of cold sweats, then a runny nose, then a growing headache. Drat. There are few things worse than being sick on the road. I decided to mount an herbal counterattack....

My godmother swears by hot water with lemon. In fact, it's one of the things I associate with Aunt Mary. (Well, that and Perry Mason reruns.) Back at Pie Ranch, one of the interns introduced me to the concept of hot water with cayenne, honey, and lemon juice as a cold remedy. I tinkered with the draught a bit, adding in a few cloves of fresh garlic at 47 Ranch last week when Deb mentioned that she was fighting off a headcold. As I sniffled on the phone with mom earlier this evening, I mentioned a few improvements to the recipe. I think it's ready for public release. I give you...

Ib-tea: the magical warm beverage that will burn the germs right out of you

(Makes 1 cup)

In a small pot, combine:
-1 cup water
-2 cloves fresh minced garlic
-1 tsp fresh lemon juice
-1 TBSP local honey
-a pinch of cayenne powder
-1 inch peeled, minced ginger
(you can substitute 1/4 tsp powdered ginger)

Heat on the stovetop until warm.

I'm telling you, germs don't stand a chance. (And with the garlic pervading your being after a mug of this, you won't have to worry about catching anything from someone else....)

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Saturday, March 13, 2010


At the risk of scandalizing my parents, I can't resist relating the tale of officially the strangest (and, in retrospect, funniest) sleeping situation of the trip thus far....

Now, between farms and friends' houses I've camped in sanctioned state campgrounds, mostly. There have also been nights of tents pitched in orchards, on church lawns, and amid the high desert middle-of-nowhere back country. I've slept in exactly one trailer, two haylofts, and the floor of a child's playroom. Two nights ago, I slept on my first plastic table. Well, I didn't sleep much.

After roughly 61.5 miles of riding from Rodeo (yep, it's a real town, right on the border with AZ), Aaron and I found ourselves rolling into Hachita, NM around nightfall. Any of you familiar with southern New Mexico may know that there is a bit of a reputation here along the border for drug runners, coyotes (both the animal and black market people mover varieties), and trucks bearing oversized loads. No back country camping for me here. Shivering as the temperature continued to drop about 5 degrees every 5 minutes, we headed toward the one light in town, hoping that someone there might be able to tell us where there was a campsite in this otherwise abandoned place. The short version: there were no campsites or motels in town, but we were free to pitch our tent in the dirt next to the shop. Actually, the couple who had just acquired the soon-to-be gas station reconsidered as the wind picked up and said we were welcome to roll our bikes in and sleep inside. Sweet. Not exactly a bed and breakfast, but the best option going (the other options being nonexistent). We chatted for a bit longer before Cheyenne and her husband bid us good evening and left.

Aaron and I made some dinner on the campstove, heated water in the coffee maker for me to sponge bathe in the bathroom, and got ready to throw our sleeping bags and pads on the floor. Only it was freezing. No. It was *below* freezing. I thought to myself, "WWMD??" (What Would MacGuyver Do??) I was all out of twist ties and chewing gum, but all was not lost. I scanned the room for something I could use to insulate me from the frigid concrete. Aha! A plastic banquet table! I'd just need to fold the legs in and lay it down flat. And a random Mexican blanket (you know the kind: striped with a fringe)! Score!

Picture Aaron and I lying side by side in our respective sleeping bags, sardines with chattering teeth on a 6 1/2 foot long, 2 1/2 foot wide plastic table, with a dusty blanket thrown over the top, trying not to roll onto the floor.

It was darn cold, even sleeping in my wool sweater and flannel pants. And my sorry excuse for a sleeping pad -- I'll be darned if I can find the air leak -- was in rare form, sliding off the plastic table approximately every seven seconds. (Aaron didn't seem to be experiencing the slide off sleeping pad phenomenon, but I did hear him yelp once or twice when he must've tried to roll over and brushed against the ice cold concrete for a split second.) We alternated between shivering and giggling about the absurdity of the situation. I mean, seriously, lying on a plastic table on the floor of a gas station: what would your mother say?

The next morning, we crawled out of our sleeping bags, scarfed some breakfast -- one of my new favorites, invented when the ladies back at Marana Heritage Farm let me into the kitchen: scrambled eggs with garlic sauteed cabbage wrapped in tortillas -- packed up, restored the plastic table to its former upright position, and, stiff and tired, hit the road. We may not have slept all that well, but in the grand scheme of things, at least it's good for the stories, right?

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Get your grass in gear

While working at 47 Ranch for a few days last week, I learned a bit about ranching. Because Dennis is a veritable wealth of information on, well, everything, I also learned a good bit about alternative energy, regional history, agricultural policy, and local ecology. He's a talker, but also a careful listener -- a seasoned rancher and a college professor all rolled into one thoughtful package. (He's a great hugger, too. Actually, the whole Moroney family are huggers -- I love it.)

One of the intriguing topics Dennis covered during our lengthy chats was the way that the landscape has been changing in southeastern Arizona. Our focus: grass. For many years before his arrival, farmers and ranchers had herds of animals grazing the large swaths of native grasses. Then, just a few decades ago, it seems, farmers in Cochise County started having water shortages. Simultaneously, the grasses started to disappear. Local authorities attributed this to irresponsible resource management and began requiring landowners to purchase water rights. Many farmers lost their land which in their absence became even more decimated, more prone to erosion and topsoil loss. Native grasses continued to disappear.

As we drove past acre after acre of former grassland, Dennis proposed that the water problems were due to an overpopulation of moisture-absorbing mesquite (in the form of shrubs or, at higher elevations, trees). Though the mesquite are native to the region, Forest Service policies designed to prevent wildfires resulted in a change in the cycle of things: instead of periodic natural (or even controlled burn) fires clearing out grasses and young trees and shrubs to set the stage for the next round of growth, the absolute fire prevention meant that when the rare fire did get started, all of the grasses were wiped out but slow-burning mesquites remained, eventually squeezing out the native prairie varieties as they progressively dominated the ecosystem. This, combined with the removal of animals that would keep the invasive shrubs under control, meant that grass didn't have a chance.

Now, I've read about the historic conflict between environmentalists (particularly those in the Forest Service) and ranchers -- two groups sharing a belief in the need for land conservation, but with drastically different views on how this should happen. Traditionally, those in the environmentalist camp have believed that animals grazing the land will destroy it (trampling and eating everything down to the ground); meanwhile, ranchers have been frustrated with large tracts of land lying vacant except for, say, the occasional endangered pygmy owl. (Please, I'm not against the endangered species. I used to intern at Defenders of Wildlife, for heaven's sake. And, no, I didn't wear a cape to work.) The key for both groups is healthy flora, starting with the grass. Recent research suggests that the best way to preserve and/or restore the crucial prairie grasses is to mimic the natural patterns of ruminants (deer, buffalo, moose, etc.) that used to keep native flora in check. This is most effectively done through well-planned rotational grazing.

Recent years have shown a rise in self-proclaimed "grass farmers" profiled in books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Deeply Rooted -- folks who periodically shift their chickens, goats, sheep, and cows through a series of fenced pastures. The grasslands are slowly recovering, encouraged in part by land trusts and conservation easements geared toward conservation, curbing the tide of rampant, soil-destroying development. I've read and spoken with folks a bit about these incentives in Pennsylvania, in Iowa, in California, in Arizona. More folks are realizing the critical role that grasslands play not only in terms of wildlife habitat but also soil and water management and even climate change. Finally, it seems, we're getting our grasses in gear.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Organic, schmorganic

I feel as though I've been deliberately avoiding a confrontation with the hot topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms -- for our purposes, GM food crops) for some time now. The truth is that I'm still trying to work out where I stand. There are compelling arguments on both sides, frankly, but I read something earlier today that got me all hot and bothered enough to try and gather my thoughts on the matter.

Some GMO proponents argue for the potential to develop food crops that have a higher nutritional value. This is key in areas where malnutrition can be deadly (the humanitarian argument). There is also the possibility of developing hardier varieties that are resistant to, say, frost or pests or drought; maybe they will require less chemical fertilizers or pesticides (the productivity argument). There are some good points, and thoughtful crop scientists and farmers and researchers working toward these very goals.

On the other hand, anti-GMO folks argue against the use of untested products (the unknown long-term repercussions argument), or harbor an inherent distrust of the big companies running the show (the corporate greed argument), or believe that scientists shouldn't be meddling with nature (the frankenstein argument, or what I heard someone at the Community Food Security Conference I went to back in Des Moines refer to as the "God Move Over" argument -- this last one's a bit too anti-science for my taste).

I'm sure I've inadvertently missed arguments on both sides, and for that I look to you, readers, to help me out here. I'm not anti-GMO, categorically: consider the humanitarian and productivity arguments. There's a lot of possibility for good. But at present, the way things seem to be heading, I can't help but find myself anxious about GM food crops. They've been out on the market for years now, often in the form of the ubiquitous (and popularly maligned yet still consumed in mass quantities) high fructose corn syrup. And yet the long-term effects of GM foods have not been tested nearly as long or thoroughly as, say, vaccines or many prescription drugs before flooding the U.S. market. (Ever wonder why the European Union refuses to produce or purchase GM foods? Are they all just overly paranoid?)

Also, I just don't trust the folks running things: groups like Monsanto, Pioneer, and Syngenta are *profit-driven* above all else. Making money is not inherently a bad thing so long as it does not obliterate any sense of ethics. From what I can discern, Monsanto sells GM seeds at home and abroad that are comparatively inexpensive so as to undersell most other seed producers, their GM seeds are sterile (so farmers can't save seed to plant the following year) and are designed to only to respond to specific pesticides (that, guess what, are only sold by Monsanto), and there are hundreds of cases where the company has tried to strong arm farmers who refuse to buy their seed or who speak out against them. (Shoot, am I on their watch list now? Nah, probably not. My guess is they're not interested in a food-loving cyclist and her raw milk yoghurt recipe.) Don't believe me? Put "The Future of Food" on your Netflix list -- the presentation might be a bit tedious in places, but many of the points raised are good ones.

Regardless of which side of the issue I might some day find myself, one thing is certain: GM crops should not qualify as "organic." And yet, I learned from my friends over at Food Democracy Now, this is exactly what will happen if Monsanto (boo, hiss) pushes a pending piece of legislation through the USDA to certify their genetically modified alfalfa as organic. What's next, organically certified GM tomatoes? It's a slippery slope in a system where the qualifications for "organic" products continue to lose credibility. (Seriously, you should see all of the "natural" ingredients, preservatives, and products are considered "organic" these days. At least the "no lab-manufactured chemical applications" and "no genetic modification" criteria retain some integrity thus far.)

I can hear you asking, "What can I do?" Well, here's a start: add your voice to the group protesting Monsanto's push to certify its GM alfalfa as organic. Here's where to find more info: The deadline for comments is later today: March 3.

Sorry for the late notice on this one. I've been biking all day -- 70 miles! -- and just had a chance to read through the material and become indignant. Now, time for sleep....

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