Tuesday, September 20, 2011


We're writing this from the Ketchikan Public Library as we take shore leave on our our "repositioning cruise" from Vancouver BC to China on the Diamond Princess, which continues on to Australia without us for a winter of cruising Down Under during the antipodian summer.

However, today's post will be a quick summary of our own repositioning from biking in Wisconsin to our departure from North America. We'll tell you about the cruise and our adventures en route and in China in future entries, but don't know if time and the Chinese government will give us that opportunity before our return to the US on November 22. If our past experience in China is any guide, we will probably be waiting those two months to tell you, since blogspot was on their Do Not Fly list last time around -- waaaay too subversive, it seems.

We took Amtrak west with no floods or other disasters blocking our way this time.  You can see our tandem making its way from the baggage car on the Milwaukee-Chicago train to the Southwest Chief, which took us via Kansas City and Albuquerque to LA.  Louise's son Brian was back from his acting gig at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago to pick us up.  He has been offered and has accepted the same job as understudy to three of the actors in Chinglish when it opens next month on Broadway.  With an open run, if the play has legs the odds are in his favor of reaching that acting pinnacle of pinnacles, a live appearance on the Great White Way!  We're already talking about a trip to New York next Spring.

We stayed in LA for a week to visit with Brian and his wife Ardy and our newest grandson, 1-year-old Cedro.  Also in town for her sabbatical year is daughter Lisa, husband Ray and two more of the grandkids, almost-7-y.o. Elise and 4-y.o. Issei.  Elise and Issei love to hang out with their cousin Cedro and vice versa, and we had some great beach weather while we were there to have a big family get-together.  Our week in LA also gave us plenty of chances to see Cedro try to get the knack of walking.  At sea yesterday our own walking looked kind of like Cedro's, but we'll wait 'til the next blog to tell you all the rest of the cruise details.

We had a nice adventure one day visiting the Getty Museum with Lisa, Elise, Ardy and Cedro.  You park or, in our case, get off the city bus next to the Interstate and a tram whisks you up the hillside to an amazing campus of gleaming white buildings filled with art, all for free other than $15 for parking for the automotive crowd.  They even offered us free use of a stroller for Cedro!   They also have a gallery where patrons can sit and sketch for a while, and Elise tried her hand, apparently with more of an eye for drawing than either of us has ever had.

The view to the skyscrapers of nearby Westwood and Century City and to more distant downtown LA was impressive, as is the art collection inside those buildings.  Though much of the work is from periods prior to our main interests, they did have a good grouping of Dutch paintings and two large rooms of pre-Impressionist and Impressionist works, including the energetic and colorful Irises painted by Van Gogh while he was recovering at the asylum of Saint-Remy; Monet's 1873 Sunrise, and Camille Pissarro's Hermitage Garden, Maison Rouge, painted in 1877.

We had an interesting bump during our stay.  Our rental apartment was on the second floor, and Ray was holding the elevator for the kids to get on after a visit with us.  It was a very impatient elevator, and started closing its doors sooner and more vigorously than Ray expected.  Before he knew what was happening, his keys went flying out of his hand and found, with an almost magnetic determination, that tiny crack between the elevator and the landing.  Poof! They were GONE!!!

A series of emails to the rental agent only resulted in a wait while she tried to find the owner to see what the owner thought could be done.  By day 3 Ray and Lisa had worked out a complicated set of contortions to make life work with only one apartment and one car key between them, when Jeff got the idea to pull out his cell phone, turn on the flashlight feature, and look down the crack while the elevator was on the lowest floor.  By golly, it was only 3-4 feet down to a remarkably clean cement floor, with almost no debris save Ray's set of 5-6 keys and car door clicker.  Back upstairs for a wire hanger and down again with Louise as designated door-holder, and he determined that the hanger was a few inches too short even though unwound to its full 3' length.  Back upstairs for another wire hanger and some creative work making the two parts stay attached to each other, then down again for another fishing expedition.  Bingo!  After about ten minutes team redtandem finally got just the right angle to snag the keys yet not drop them while hauling them up.  Luck continued to hold, and they came up through the narrow crack between elevator and landing without slipping off again.  Whew, that was an adventure!

After our one-week apartment rental was up we stayed on in LA two more days to do a road trip with Lisa and family to Ojai, a small town in the mountains 75 miles west of LA.  We had rooms at a nice motel with a swimming pool and hot tub that got good use, and paid a visit to a nearby farm that produces high-end olive oil.  Gourmet Lisa stocked up on several varieties, and found yet more outstanding items the next day at Ojai's remarkably good Sunday Farmers Market.

That evening we had a Thai dinner in town that featured a flaming crock of Tom Yum soup that was pretty impressive, as well as good tasting.  On the way home we got a call from Brian to tell us that he and Ardy had let themselves into Lisa and Ray's place and that supper would be ready for us when we got back to LA.  It is so nice to have kids who are better cooks than we are, and who play so well together even as adults!

At last we left LA, at least until we're back in late November.  We flew this time to Seattle, and the security procedures and sardine-in-a-can seating again reminded us, especially 6' 4" Jeff, why we generally prefer the 36-hour alternative on Amtrak's Coast Starlight.  Good friends Steve and Janet put us up at their place for a few nights and pulled out the suitcases we packed for China back in June and left at their place.  They are equally avid boaters as well as tandemers, and took us out for a trip on Puget Sound on Hobbes, their sailboat which performed as a motorboat this time around, given the wimpy 4 knot wind.  Then again, it was so calm we didn't have to have Dramamine hors d'oeuvres, which are always good things to avoid.

We filled our last day in Seattle with all sorts of adventures, including 3 immunization shots each, haircuts, last-minute shopping, and lunch at our condo as guests of Victor and Janice, who are renting it from us while we explore various corners of the world.  Less than 24 hours later we saw the condo one last time, ever so fleetingly, as the Amtrak Cascades took us along the edge of Puget Sound to Vancouver BC for our cruise departure.  We had two surprises in store for us, however.  One was the presence on board Amtrak of long-time friend Eric, an earth sciences professor at UW who is also, with stoker/spouse Julie, an avid tandemer.  He was travelling with his single bike to Mt. Vernon WA, a 25-mile bike ride away from the Washington State Ferry that runs to Friday Harbor, where he had a lecture to give the next day.  It was great to catch up with him and hear about his plans to buy a second tandem now that his kids are 7 and 10 years old, old enough to be stokers as Julie takes on a new role as captain of the second tandem.

The other surprise was the phone call a few days earlier from yet another tandem couple we've ridden a lot with, Don and Ericka, to tell us they would meet us in Vancouver!  They drove 25 miles, took a ferry, then a bus, then Vancouver's newest Skytrain, and made it right on time to our designated meeting spot in front of the Hudson Bay Company store.  In the next 24 hours -- they got a room at the same hotel we were using -- we caught up on each others' news, shared photos, and then said goodbye with our cruise ship the Diamond Princess in the background.  It's the larger white ship to the left of the Canada Place cruise terminal across Burrard Inlet, with a Holland America boat on the other side that we think was headed south for the winter.  You can also see Vancouver's high-capacity Sea Bus over Don's shoulder, headed to North Van to pick us up and drop us a few meters from Canada Place and our departure for China!  The second shot was from the Princess looking out one last time at Canada Place and downtown Vancouver after we'd made our remarkably quick and easy way through customs and onto our home for the next 23 days.

We'll close with two shots of shops in Vancouver's Chinatown.  It will be interesting to see how close -- or not -- they are in appearance to what we see in China itself in the coming months.

Here's hoping we get to update our blog while we're on the road in China.  If not, we'll tell all when we're back at Thanksgiving time!  'Til the next time . . .

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

End of One Adventure, On to the Next Ones

We started this year's bike trip at the Amtrak station in St. Louis and ended it at the Amtrak station in Milwaukee, a distance of 370 miles according to the timetables. We never got lost but we did wander a bit . . . and our bike computer showed a total of 1947 miles ridden! Straight lines may give you shortest distances but almost never the most interesting routes.

We left Green Bay along the Fox River and the excellent Fox River Trail, which started as a twisty brick path, changed to a smooth paved 8-foot wide bike trail (yes, that what picture # 2 is, as seen from a few inches above the tarmac), then morphed into a typical Wisconsin rail trail with a crushed limestone base and occasional railroad-related businesses still standing alongside the way. By the way, the astute among you might have recalled that we also pictured and praised a Fox River Trail in Illinois, but they're two unconnected rivers and quite separate trails, though equally deserving of praise for their scenery and trail quality.

640 of those 1,947 miles were on bike trails, and over 400 of the trail miles were on limestone surfaces. Because we knew the majority of trail miles would be on limestone, we mounted 26 x 1.5 inch tires, rather than the inch and a quarter tires we normally use. They did give a ride that seemed stabler. The downside is that they are heavier and run at a lower pressure, 80# vs. 100#, so are less efficient. A crushed limestone surface also creates more surface friction, which slows us down 1-2 mph for a given amount of effort compared to a well-paved road or trail. While we still prefer a limestone trail to a busy road, we agreed by trip's end that we much prefer Minnesota to Wisconsin since the former has only paved trails.  Two days after riding the last limestone trail we were still shaking limestone dust off the panniers and our clothing, another reason for our lessened enthusiasm.

While we could have followed the coast of Lake Michigan down to Milwaukee, we decided to stay 30-40 miles inland to see Lake Winnebago and then travel through Glacial Moraine State Park. Winnebago was only mildly interesting -- it's just a fairly big, more-or-less oval body of water from the west side we travelled down, lined by an unbroken string of modest homes.  But our route did take us through Oshkosh.  B'gosh, we were sorry to learn, you can no longer visit the famed maker of children's clothes -- blame it on insurance companies worried about slip-and-fall lawsuits, says one guidebook.

But Oshkosh is also home to the third-biggest UW campus, in this case UW standing for University of Wisconsin, not Washington. And therefore home to Cordelia and Michael, two professors at UW-Oshkosh, and their 2 children, Konrad and Zosia. We met them while waiting for the ferry to Washington Island at the top of the Door Peninsula, and by the time the boat had docked we had an invitation to stay with them. It will remain one of the special memories of this trip.

They have a large older home in a leafy part of town just blocks from Lake Winnebago. A faculty friend agreed to supervise a play date for Konrad and Zosia with his own kids of a similar age so we could start our visit with a gourmet lunch and adult conversation, followed by a six-mile bike tour of Oshkosh's park-filled lakefront. We then swung by to pick up the kids (Michael had pulled them there in a "child chariot" bike trailer, which stayed at the friend's home for our lunch and tour). Back home we chatted away the rest of the day and well into the evening, both couples fascinated with the other's life stories and life styles.

Cordelia's mother is Swiss, courted after the war by her American GI dad, who convinced her to come to our shores. Cordelia grew up speaking Swiss German and English, then later picked up High German and a degree in language acquisition. She now teaches German at the University.

But she also has apparently succeeded in an interesting language experiment at home. While almost 3-y.o. Zosia and almost 5-y.o. Konrad know that mom speaks English (in fact at bedtime she read them a story in English), in all direct conversation with the children she only speaks German, and they in turn only speak German to her. To Jeff's ears, with 3 years of German classes over 40 years ago, they sounded equally fluent in both. In fact when he spoke in German to Konrad about some of his toys, he got back such a torrent of excited kid-talk that he could only catch bits and pieces of references to toy autos and things that were red or small or -- what? He nodded in knowing assent, and Konrad never caught on.

We enjoyed fresh vegetables from Cordelia's garden that Michael cooked up into some delicious pizzas while telling us how he came to America from Poland as a teenager. His dad was active in Solidarity, which after some initial success was suppressed by the government of General Jaruzelski in the early 1980s.  His family was "invited" to leave Poland.  Michael now teaches international political science at UW-Oshkosh, a topic we think about a lot and have studied at the Jackson School of International Studies in our own UW, the University of Washington.

With hugs from the kids and a supply of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers from Cordelia's garden, we left with promises to reunite in Seattle some time when we can stay still long enough for them to catch us at home.

Our last sightseeing was a visit to Glacial Drumlin State Park, which had a great sign explaining many of the landforms continental glaciers have left behind in Wisconsin and other northern states.  We'd love to come back and spend more time exploring, but this time were too focused on getting to Milwaukee to do much more than observe a kame along the way followed by a relaxing picnic lunch at a small kettle pond, Mauthe Lake.

This was our third visit to Milwaukee on bike trips, and the longest at three nights.  Our accumulated desire for ethnic food exploded in a feast of flavors: Thai for the first dinner, upscale American at the Milwaukee Art Museum for lunch, Ethiopian for the second dinner, Vietnamese for the next lunch (that's the one pictured, with a vegetable-filled fried crepe in the foreground that was as messy as it was delicious) and Near Eastern for the third dinner.  Oh, the joy of good food once again!  Vegetables!  Flavor!  Food that's actually healthy!

We had already done the boat tour of the Milwaukee River, pictured in a blog post two years back, so this time turned our attention to the previously overlooked MAM, the Milwaukee Art Museum.  It is in a striking new building on Lake Michigan and had a lot of great art, particularly by German artists and/or about Germany.  We'll share three with you:  Working City, done by Herman Balushek in 1920, which we admired for its dynamism; an 1825 View of Danzig by Michael Carl Gregorovius for its historical view of this charming seaport now known as Gdansk; and Ernst Oehme's Meissen in Winter, painted in 1854, for the way it captures the cold of winter and the contrasting warmth of the room on the left with its Christmas tree showing through the window.

Two other paintings are really worth sharing with you, Jean-Leon Gerome's The Two Majesties and Gustave Caillebotte's Boating on the Yerres.  The first was done in 1883 by a Salon painter, i.e. from the old school that was appalled by the Impressionists, the second actually six years earlier by one of those early Impressionist painters, complete with shimmering water.  Although we are quite fond of the Impressionists, both paintings here are actually quite charming in their separate ways.

Our final day in Milwaukee saw us climbing on the bike one last time for a ride south of downtown on bike paths that at times gave us grand views of Lake Michigan and of the downtown cityscape.  At the end of the ride we pulled into the Amtrak station and boxed up the tandem for the next day's trip to LA and one less thing to worry about before our 11 a.m. departure.

Alas, the red tandem will be somewhat neglected for a while.  We're on our way to Los Angeles for a week's visit with Louise's son Brian, daughter Lisa and families, then a flight to Seattle for half a week's visit with good friends Steve and Janet, a train to Vancouver BC, and on September 17, embarkation on the Diamond Princess for a cruise through the Inland Passage of Alaska and on to Russia, Japan, South Korea and China.  We will be visiting Jeff's son Matt and family in Dalian China, then spending another 6 weeks travelling by train all around that fascinating country.  On November 22 we will be back in the LA area with a 5-week stay in Santa Monica, where our well-rested tandem will hopefully be happy to see us again.

Thanks for following our Midwest Meander, "talk" to you next from the left coast!