Arrowheadata

With this year’s Arrowhead now complete, I’ve crunched some numbers.

In my view, the big story of the race is Tracey Petervary’s third straight win. With the three-peat, T-race is now the winningest Arrowhead bike racer, female or male. Her winning times have ranged from 27:22 in 2014 (the cold year) to 18:27 last year – just 9 minutes off Eszter Horanyi’s women’s record (2012). (John Storkamp has three wins on foot.)

On the men’s side, Jay Petervary’s win places him alongside Dave Pramann (2006, 2008) and Jeff Oatley (2010, 2011) as two-time champions.

The 2017 race could be interesting simply as a chance to see if any of those three riders can win for a third time or if other one-time winners like Jorden Wakeley (2015), Kevin Breitenbach (2012), or Todd McFadden (2013) can win again. (Sarah Lowell [2007, 2008] and Alicia Hudelson [2012, 2014] both have won twice on foot, and Jim Reed appears to be the only person to have won the race in two disciplines – ski in 2010 and foot this year.)

Here’s a spreadsheet on all of the AH winners: https://goo.gl/lkam5Z

Obsessing a bit about ways that I can get faster, I ran some simple analyses of bike finishers the last two years, basically tabulating the time taken to ride the four legs of the race (start to Gateway, Gateway to Melgeorges, Melgeorges to Skipulk, Skipulk to finish) and time spent at the checkpoints.

The two takeaways are stupidly and slightly less stupidly obvious: first, the fastest racers go fast on the course, and second, the fastest racers spend very little time at the checkpoints.

While the top five men all got to Gateway this year in less than four hours, only Jay Petervary, Will Ross (2nd man), and Dan Dittmer (3rd man) did the second leg of the race in under five hours (4:13, 4:16, and 4:44, respectively), and only Petervary (5:33) and Ross (5:44) did the leg to Skipulk in under six. (Dittmer was next closest, at 6:25). The flat fourth leg saw a huge accordion effect, with fifteen racers going under four hours, including Ross at 2:52 (the only person to cover that leg in under three hours) and Jill Martindale (2nd woman) doing it in 3:41.

Fast on the bike, fast off it: Plenty of folks – including most of the men’s top 10 finishers and Martindale – didn’t stop at Gateway at all. (Like several others, Tracey Petervary stopped for only a minute). At Melgeorges, only Jay Petervary, Will Ross (2nd man), and Ben Doom (4th man) spent less than 10 minutes refueling. Eight men spent less than 10 minutes at the luxury of Skipulk, led by Dittmer at 2:00, Petervary at 3:00, and Doom and Pat Adrian (6th man) at 5:00. All told, Jay Petervary spent just 6:00 at checkpoints (about three seconds per race mile!), while Ross spent 12:00 – more than accounting for his three minute gap behind Petervary at the finish. Only seven racers – including Jill Martindale – kept their total stops to under an hour.

Too long, didn’t read? Ride fast, stop quick.

Here’s the full spreadsheet of data for this year’s race, which can be sorted as you might like: https://goo.gl/AZmKJE

For the hell of it, here’s the data for 2015 too: https://goo.gl/oet9TK

Arrowhead Race Report – Arrowhead III: Revenge of the Snows

I was lucky to have Salsa Cycles publish my Arrowhead 135 race report on their “Culture” blog!

Arrowhead III: Revenge of the Snows

They wove in a bunch of my own photos as well as some much better shots taken by Mike Riemer from Salsa, like this one.

Early On (Photo by Mike Riemer)
Early On (Photo by Mike Riemer)

Blue Monday Art (Guest Post by the Girls)

**JULIA**: What a great morning: Muffins and art and snagging the window chairs at Blue Monday. It made me appreciate how pretty and quiet Northfield is on a Sunday morning. The red Raleigh outside the window had “Townie”written all over it. Northfield is a bike town, even in January. I have to admit, that bike is nice, but the owner would get more admiring glances if she rode a Salsa Beargrease. :)

Julia's version

**GENEVIEVE**:
A perfect morning always starts with a sketch, and a beautiful Northfield scene in the background lit a match of ideas. And so my drawing began there. The bike immediately caught my interest. It was my kind of challenging sketch: complex and not too colorful. Of course, I would have put more effort into the art (although I put plenty into this one) if it were a green and black Salsa Beargrease!

Genevieve's version

13.5 Quick Thoughts on the Arrowhead

The Arrowhead Trail, near Kabetogama Lake
The Arrowhead Trail, near Kabetogama Lake

1. It’s an outrageous, unearned privilege to be able to do a race like the Arrowhead. I can’t think about this fact too much or I’ll start dehydrating through my tear ducts.

2. When the winner of the race says, “It was the hardest conditions I have ridden in with such an intense pace,” it must have been a damn hard race.

3. There must be a time and a place for margarita-flavored Shot Bloks, but the Arrowhead is neither. #yuck

4. On the other hand, sliced salami is a delicious and nutritious race snack at any time!

5. Next year I’m not sharing my Red Bulls with anyone! I need that crap. It’s magical.

6. I’m sure some egghead can explain the fancy science behind ibuprofen, but that crap, too, is magical.

7. I love the “racer against the trail” feeling I get leaving Melgeorges (checkpoint two, at mile 72) to tackle the hardest section of the course.

8. I’m almost happier to reach the last checkpoint – Skipulk at mile 111 – than the finish, because if you can get there, you only have 24 miles to go. The finish is more a relief than anything.

9. I think that with more and better training, I have a real shot at a top-ten finish next year.

10.Some carbon rims would help, cough cough.

11. I also need to cut my time at the checkpoints down to under an hour, total. That’s what fast racers do. (Wearing a wristwatch and starting the timer each time I hit a checkpoint was a good reminder to keep my stays short.)

12. Riding bikes often humbles me, but watching Tracey Petervary and Jill Martindale ride away from me in the last leg of the race was humbling, awe-inspiring, and motivating. I couldn’t hold either of their wheels, but my weak attempts to chase first T-Race (who won) and then Jill (who finished second) did speed up those endless straightaways after Skipulk.

13. It’s a question as to which racer was tougher this year: Mike Brumbaugh, who skied twenty miles after breaking a ski pole and then finished the race after using PVC pipe and strapping tape to fix the pole; Jim Wilson, who was the last biker to finish, in 55:28; or Sveta Vold, who was the third-place female biker and who stopped during the race to nurse her new baby and pump milk!

13.5. Hungry.

Arrowhead Clothes

I get several recurring questions about fatbike riding:
"Do you get cold?"
"What do you think about?"
"What do you eat?"
"What do you wear?"

The questions interlock: I do get cold, sure, but not usually that cold, in part because I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I’m cold or hot and adjusting accordingly. I also spend a lot of time thinking about eating and drinking, and of course actually eating and drinking. And when I get everything just right, I don’t have to think about being cold or hot because I’ve chosen the right clothes, and can think about the race itself, about conditions on the trail, about the state of my body and mind, about other racers, et cetera ad infinitum.

I’ve already thought a lot about the race-day weather. Conditions at this year’s Arrowhead look to be similar to last year’s – around 20°F – though we might get a little snow this time. Given this straightforward situation, I’m going with a very reliable set of clothes that I’ve used in other races and long rides, stuff that keeps me warm and, as important, dry but that is also comfortable and easy to adjust as needed. After I put this clothing on around 6 on Monday morning, I hope I don’t have to think about it again till I’m done!

Layers are key from top to bottom, because they help manage moisture – preventing excessive sweating that could lead to dehydration or, worse, frostbite. In pursuing layering nirvana, I have not chosen much cycling-specific clothing. In fact, only the boots are something I couldn’t wear for any other outdoor winter activity.
Full Kit

The boots are 45NRTH’s Wolvhammer cycling boots – sturdy, warm shitkickers that clip into my pedals. Inside, I wear compression socks inside thin wool socks. (If I expected colder temps I’d wear thicker outer socks.)
Feet

On my legs, I wear thermal windbriefs, fairly lightweight Craft baselayer bottoms (super long so they stay tucked into my socks), and an old but wonderful pair of fleece-lined Craft skiing tights. I’ve never had cold legs, so I know this combination works.
Legs

On my trunk, I often wear a thin wicking undershirt under a long-sleeved but lightweight Craft baselayer shirt (the match to the longjohns). I may forego the undershirt this year as it’s too effective an insulator for 20° weather. I wear fairly thin fleece gloves, as I usually have my hands buried in the big overmitts called "pogies" that are fixed to my handlebars. I carry several pairs of gloves to have options if one pair gets sweaty or if the temperature fluctuates. (At the halfway checkpoint this year, I plan to change into a completely fresh set of baselayer items: both pairs of socks, windbriefs, long bottoms and top.)

Trunk and Arms
My outer layer is a soft shell jacket by Eddie Bauer’s "First Ascent" line. It’s a fantastic piece of clothing: close fitting but very stretchy, with two deep side pockets and a deep chest pocket, a full zipper, and a huge hood that, pulled up, protects the neck and even my lower face. I also wear a very lightweight reflective vest, to comply with race rules that mandate a certain amount of reflective material – the better for other racers and especially snowmobilers to see you.

Head
Keeping my head warm but not sweaty is a challenge. I usually carry two or three different hats so that I can change out of a sweaty one or into a warmer one. The jacket’s hood is a secret weapon here. I always wear some sort of eye protection – usually clear-lensed cycling glasses, though I carry regular cycling sunglasses too, because even an overcast day can be damn bright on the snow. I wear a headlamp all night so that I can see and be seen, but also in the hours before and after dark when I need to be seen in tricky flat light. Fatbike races typically don’t require racers to wear helmets, so I forego that too, which makes regulating my head temperature a lot easier.

Though all this stuff is expensive, it’s all very effective at keeping me warm and dry and therefore safe. And I’m inordinately proud of the fact that I didn’t pay full retail for a single one of these items, except the boots, which I bought with a bonus a couple years ago.

Quiet on the Set

Tonight I spent three hours in downtown Northfield with Julia, waiting to see if her choir would have a part in a movie that’s being filmed in our fair city. It was both interesting and dull – the former, because, turns out, making movies is the latter.
Testing Lights

Julia was a trouper, though. We were first supposed to report at 5:30. When we arrived, we learned that the choir scene had been pushed back to after 7:00, and before 10:00. We went home and returned at 7. The group received some instructions from a (crabby) production assistant and practiced “Silent Night” for a while.

Practice

Then they waited. Outside, inside. Standing, sitting. Across the street, on the set. In a big group, in little pairs. Shivering, warming up. I had a coffee. And three cookies. Then some cocoa and two more cookies.

Meanwhile the director ran the same scene over and over and *over* – a couple actors come up the sidewalk, cross the street, and enter Bridge Square while townspeople mill behind them. The throng of townies shrank each time they ran through the scene.

Finally, around 9:15, he got it, and we received word that we needed to stay till 11 for *our* scene. Julia rolled her eyes and pronounced herself “done with this!” Riding home, she said she was a little bummed that she didn’t get to be in the choir scene, but that it still has been fun to see a movie bring made. I’m glad she saw the silver lining in the massive light reflectors.

Crush Snow at the Snow Crush

I was happy on Saturday to race again, this time in the inaugural Snow Crush event at River Bend Nature Center, a gorgeous and well-run educational preserve on about 750 acres of prairie, woods, and river floodplain in Faribault, just south of Northfield. I’ve been to RBNC many times, most often for school field trips but also just to enjoy the landscape, which is pretty great for walks and mountain biking. 

The Snow Crush races were RBNC’s first foray into bike racing, so the center’s staff worked with the local MTB club, Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails (CROCT). Together they put on a hell of a good event, including presentations on winter cycling, vendor booths, beer from a local taphouse and coffee from a local roaster, demo bikes for adults and kids, and two races on a great five-mile loop – a one-lap race for "beginners" and a three-lap race for "experts." Notably, all the race registration fees went to RBNC and CROCT, which was pretty great. 

I went down to the race with my friend Dan, a good athlete who was eager to race his brand-new fatbike. We formed up at 1:00 sharp for the expert race, looking into a westerly breeze that was taking the -1° F air temp down to something like -10°. Though I didn’t know how my legs would feel five days after the big ride at Tuscobia, I couldn’t resist going out pretty hot when the race started. 200 meters later, I knew my buuuuuuuurning legs were not in fact ready for race pace!

I pulled back a little and focused on a sustainable effort as we left the short opening pavement section and hit the snow. The track was in good shape everywhere except a few corners, so I was able to ride pretty smoothly throughout the first lap. A couple guys went by me, but they didn’t get too far ahead, and then one took a spectacular crash when he missed a turn. I avoided laying it down and took note of spots where I bobbled, trying to remember them for the second and third laps. The best bit of the lap was a set of downhill switchbacks that could be descended at a decent speed and didn’t require much braking. My friend Jim Wellbrock was shooting photos at a choice spot in this section, which meant that I got a rare photo of myself riding. 


Lap one went by quickly, despite a couple headwind sections, and ended with a fast run down the hill we’d started on and then quick whip through the finish area. I saw the leaders going out on their second lap and gave a wave to a couple friends. Heading out for lap two, I felt much better – like a bike racer. Back on the snow after the pavement stretch again, I could see another rider in front of me – black jacket, dayglo orange and pink bike. Whenever I could, I counted the seconds between the moment Orange passed a certain spot and when I did.

The gap was 30-some seconds when I first noticed him, but crept down into the high 20s when we crossed the bridge over the Straight River (a spot where racers could be traveling in both directions, requiring my friend Todd to do some traffic control). The gap was in the low 20s on the only real climb in the back section, then the teens as we reached a long straightaway at the far end of the loop. I was jazzed. Orange got away a bit on the fun switchbacks, but when we came back toward the front section, he was close enough that I could read the text on his jacket. As we crossed the train tracks that seemed to be about three-quarters of the way through the lap, Orange was five seconds up. I took note of the time on my computer so that I’d have a sense for the last lap of how many minutes were left to race from that same point. I got onto his wheel on the long gentle uphill that came right after the RR tracks, a moment that CROCT maestro Griff Wigley captured.

I sat in for a few minutes as we rolled toward the lap zone, recovering, then went around Orange just as we crossed the lap line – and immediately bobbled in soft snow on the next corner. "Sorry!" I called back to him. I dunno if he had to put a foot down, but he was right behind me as we rode up the pavement section for the last time and onto the snow. Checking my computer, I saw that I’d hit the RR tracks about seven minutes before, so I figured that a hard push from that spot at the end of the lap would mean maybe six minutes of riding to the finish line.

The fact of being on the last lap was motivation enough to press a bit right there. Maybe I could catch the next guy in front of us! I bombed a fun straight downhill that came immediately after the turn onto the snow and tried to hammer the subsequent flat straightaway. Zooming through a very low tunnel under the railroad tracks and then through a gorgeous stand of cottonwoods, I could sense that Orange was close, but not too close – I couldn’t see his shadow. Over the river, up the climb, down a drop to a little bit of prairie, back up a gradual slope to the far-side straightaway, and then through the switchbacks again. My back was getting sweaty, finally, and I could feel the familiar sense of constriction on my cheeks where an icebeard was forming.

Glancing back from the bottom of the switchbacks, I couldn’t see Orange anymore, but I didn’t trust my glance. Maybe he was still there, and I somehow didn’t see him or his insanely bright bike. Going over the bridge across the Straight for the last time, I got up out of the saddle to fight a little harder against the headwind. Some softening track slowed me down a little as I rode along the edge of an open area, but then the trail took me onto some singletrack through woods that I didn’t recognize, even slightly! Bizarre to have ridden it twice in the previous hour but have no memory of it.

That mystery section ended in sight of the railroad crossing. Six minutes! Up out of the saddle again. Up the grade where I’d latched onto Orange. Through some twisty stuff, including a couple soft spots where I managed to find good lines. Looking up, I could see the volunteer at the spot where we jumped onto the trail back to the finish area. I figured I had two minutes of riding left, all of which I could do standing in my biggest gear. It felt great to really be hammering – first up a small incline and then down the hill where we’d started the race. I slowed to take the last turn, a sharp mushy thing, then got up again to sprint myself to the finish line. I crossed in 1:22, good for tenth place – a very satisfying result given how I’d spent the previous weekend.

Cooling off, I hung out for a bit in the River Bend interpretive center, watching other racers finish and running out to cheer my friend Dan when he came through – happy, tired, and well icebearded. The overall atmosphere was great, with smiling racers, warm volunteers and sponsors, free-flowing beer and coffee, and some spectacular bikes. It was easy to feel like I’d spent the afternoon doing just the right thing.

Adventure by Bike Commute

Wednesday, Genevieve had a bad cold, so she had to miss school, so Shannon had to stay home with her, so I had to drive Julia to school, so I had to drive to work, so I broke my years-long streak of getting to work by bike.

I started biking to work soon after we moved to Northfield in December 2005 – ten years ago. We needed a few months to work out the kinks, but by the next summer I was biking every day. Shannon drove me sometimes during the following winter, but with two kids under three at home, we soon found it easier for me to ride than to get rides.

I’ve taken at least three distinct routes, including one that goes through Carleton’s Arboretum park (because nature) but not including the occasional route through downtown (because coffee). Since Northfield is a small place, each round-trip route is about four miles.

I’ve now commuted on six bikes of my own* and at least two loaners**, and I’ve loved all of them, even though I only ever owned two at most at once.

I’ve used my bike to run innumerable errands; to get to work meetings all over town; and to go to appointments with doctors, dentists, counselors, optometrists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and probably others whom I’ve forgotten.

I’ve crashed a half-dozen times, though I’ve never suffered worse injuries than ruined clothes and scraped arms. (Well, I might’ve broken each thumb at different times, but the X-rays were inconclusive.) I’ve never been hit by a car, and only yelled at once.

I’ve experienced just every possible Minnesota weather condition (never a tornado) in all four seasons, and appreciated them all too, though some are better respected than loved. I’ve only been completely soaked a few times, which made for pretty unpleasant workdays until I started keeping a complete spare outfit at work.

Counting pretty conservatively, I’ve commuted about 240 days a year, which means – with a minimum four-mile round trip each day – that I’ve ridden a total of about 9,000 commuting miles. One corner at a time.

* In order of acquisition:
Kona Lava Dome
Surly Cross Check
Salsa Mukluk (the Beast)
Salsa Vaya (Giddyup)
Salsa Mukluk ti (the Buffalo)
Salsa El Mariachi (the Elk)

**
Salsa Blackborow
Surly Ice Cream Truck

Snow Elves

Every winter, our townhouse association’s plowing service creates a huge pile of snow at the end of a cul-de-sac down the block. For years, my girls have loved playing on “Mt. Sunset” – making sledding runs, carving out caves, building tunnels. It’s a seasonal playground.

Every winter till this one, I’ve needed to go help them with the work, especially cutting into the compacted snow. (Other dads like Todd and Dave have helped too.)

This winter, though, is different. The girls don all their winter gear, grab our shovels, and trundle down the block, maybe meeting friends there. They return 60 or 90 minutes later, sweaty and exhilarated and thirsty, having enlarged an elaborate set of tunnels and ramps. It’s marvelous.

Mt. Sunset

Finally, Riding on Snow

I’ve been lucky to be able to ride on snow every day since we came back from our Christmas trip to Moorhead. We arrived home on Monday about an hour before the forecasted snow arrived. About 24 hours of steady snowfall transformed the landscape and created some excellent riding conditions.

Monday night, a short jaunt through the local MTB trails.
Sechler in the Snowstorm

Tuesday, 7 hours and 58 miles of tough grinding on the snowy gravel, including some hike-a-bike and a couple crashes.
Oxford Mill Road, Cannon Falls

Big Woods State Park, Nerstrand

Wednesday, just a commute to work, but with a little extra riding for fun.
Locked Up

Thursday, New Year’s Eve, a nighttime ride on the MTB trails and a stop for cocoa when it was midnight in Amazonian Brazil.
Night Stop

Friday, New Year’s Day, a fun outing on some of the snowmobile trails outside of town.
Ride to the Sun

Hidden Trail

Saturday, after loading the bike with most of my race kit, another cruise on different snowmobile trails.
Northfield Township

Sunday, more of the same!?

Beautiful Bikes

The thing about bikes – or at least one thing about bikes – is that they’re so pretty. I’ve had occasion over the last few days to reflect on this twice.

Friday, I stripped the Buffalo down to its dryland racing setup for the Solstice Chase. It looked gorgeous, in my opinion, after the race. A little mud only added to the overall look: clean lines, bare titanium tubes, big black winter tires, and two red bags (one fore, one aft) for a little color. The machine was of course as functional as it was beautiful.

Post-race Buffalo

After that short race, I figured I might as well set up the bike for my longer winter races. So Tuesday night, I decked the bike with bags of nylon, fa la la la. I love the way the Buffalo looks in its gray-and-blue [Porcelain Rocket](http://www.porcelainrocket.com/store/) bags, and putting the winter gear on the bike is as meaningful a marker of the seasons for me as decorating the Christmas tree is for weirdoes.
The Buffalo in the Snow

If anything the Buffalo is *more* fun to ride when fully loaded – though yes it’s a little silly to ride a loaded fatbike to work and on errands. However, I should point out you can fit a whole six pack in the seat pack and another in the frame pack.

Had I known that the winter kit would change the weather, I’d have put it on sooner: we got a bit of snow not 24 hours after the bags went on! The bike can’t wait to race on snow again. We’ve got 17 days till Tuscobia, 33 till Arrowhead.

School’s Out Forever

Tonight I filed my final grades for the online history course I taught this fall at Metropolitan State University, a public commuter school based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Owing to their administrative chaos and budget cuts and to my own lack of time (energy, interest…), this is probably the last course I’ll teach for them, and thus probably the last course I’ll ever teach.

I can’t say that I’ll miss teaching, really, but it’s been a good run. I started my history-teaching career in 1999 by serving as a teaching assistant while in grad school at Northwestern. Altogether, I served as a TA in three courses and taught one of my own in 1999 and 2000. No “teaching” I’ve ever done was more terrifying than that first lecture delivered as a TA to a giant auditorium full of undergrads.

After Shannon and I moved back to Minnesota for her first post-grad school job, I taught at least four classes (or was it six?) at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 2001-2002, while simultaneously working on my dissertation. The first meeting of my first class at St. Thomas was postponed because of 9/11. I commuted to that job from our apartment in the western suburbs – my only real experience with hard-core car commuting. (#hatedit)

When my one-year contract at St. Thomas ended, I signed on to teach history courses with Metro State – always only one per term, and always one of two or three U.S. history survey courses. I was by then working full-time in an academic support job at a different university in Minneapolis while finishing my dissertation. At first I taught “bricks and mortar” courses in the evening at Metro State’s branch campus in Minneapolis – four courses from fall 2003 to summer 2005. I remember waiting amidst the bar-hoppers on Hennepin for my bus back home – first a late express (or was it a ride from Shannon?) out to the ‘burbs, then, after we moved into the city, a local to our new house.

When I took my new job at Carleton in 2005, we saw that we (Shannon and baby Julia and I) would need to move to Northfield, so I volunteered to help launch the department’s online courses. I developed online versions of two of my courses: a global history of World War II and U.S. history since 1865 through the lens of science and technology.

These, I’ve been teaching in rotation ever since – spring, summer, and fall, year in and year out, with the occasional term off. All together, I’ve taught them 25 times: 12 editions of the World War II course (which I really liked) and 13 editions of the U.S. survey (which no). Though I never learned to love the online format, and never had the time to master it, I think I did some good teaching – as good as I could while also adjusting to and getting good at a new full-time job, starting and adding to a family, moving to and getting settled in a new community, and getting hooked on bikes.

My Metro State students were fascinating. About half of each course’s enrollees were “traditional age” undergrads – say, 18 to 25. The other half were adults who were “finishing their degrees,” often years after starting them. Once, I taught someone who had served in the Korean War, and I had numerous Baby Boomers who offered their first-hand perspectives on the historical events, people, and trends we were studying.

Though most of my students lived in the Twin Cities or at least in Minnesota, a few every term were doing the course from elsewhere in the country or the world, including a few soldiers in some very remote locations. True to Minnesota, I had a lot of Andersons, Olson, Carlsons, and Larsons as well as many Hmong and Somali students – though, interestingly, very few Latino/a students. In one course, I had three Hmong women with exactly the same names – first and last (They were unrelated.) Regardless of background, virtually all of my students were working full-time while engaged with the courses, so we had that in common.

Figuring 30 students per course, I’d estimate I’ve taught about a thousand undergrads since my first course at St. Thomas in fall 2001. Yeah, it’s been a good run. I’m not sad to be at the finish line.

 

Creosote

My maternal grandfather can be politely described as a distant figure. I didn’t know him well and was kind of frightened by him until one day when I was in my twenties on which I realized he was actually a pretty small guy with a flannel shirt over a barrel chest.

Grandma and Grandpa Jauquet
Grandma and Grandpa Jauquet

When I was a kid, he was an “owner-operator” at Jauquet Trucking, driving tractor-trailers for a living.

Grandpa in his truck
Grandpa in his truck

As such, during my visits to my grandma’s house he was usually on the road (hauling logs to the paper mills), working outside in his garages on his white and blue trucks, or asleep on the sofa.

My grandpa’s life then was as probably as far from my life now as two white guys’ lives can be, though of course his work (and my grandma’s, and my other grandparents’, and my parents’) made my present life possible. When I think about these facts of generational change, class mobility, and all that, I think that he would find my current life almost impossibly frivolous. Working indoors all day? In an office at a college? Not making my children work all the damn time? Spending my free time (free time!?) riding a bicycle?

And yet my bike has created an odd sense of connection to him. Being out in all weather? He might appreciate that, though he might also wonder why I don’t earn any money by doing my winter rides.

I’m hardly handy, but I handle some of the mechanical stuff on my bike now and then, and invariably I get grimy and have to wash up at the utility room sink with a dollop of citrus-scented pumice soap. That smell sends me right back to the kitchen at my grandma’s house, where I’d be sitting drawing or reading and waiting for dinner – maybe one of my Grandma’s homemade pasties. When Grandpa came in from the garage, he’d wash his hands at a tiny sink off the kitchen, scrubbing and scrubbing at the grease and dirt with a pumice soap that smelled faintly orangey.

the sink
the sink

His was a no-nonsense block of Lava soap, where mine is probably made from ethically-collected pumice and free-range oranges, but there you go. Once sufficiently (but never completely) clean, he sit down at his spot in the corner and we could all eat.

That indoors memory is complemented by an equally distinct but much less predictable outdoors memory. The truck garages were massive hangar-like spaces, dimly lit, full of trucks and truck parts and tools.

truck garages
truck garages

Their dirt floors were slick and black with oil, and the air was full of the smell of grease. My life now is as un-greasy as could be, except when I work on my bikes and at random moments out riding, when I encounter that same creosote smell. Sometimes it’s coming from wet railroad ties at the spot where some lonely road crosses the tracks. Other times, it’s coming from ties that someone’s repurposed for a bridge on a bike trail. Other times, it’s from telephone poles – maybe a stack of new ones awaiting installation or, like last Sunday, a pile of old ones stacked mysteriously at the edge of a marsh where I’ve paused to take a break. The melting snow was driving out an overpowering scent of creosote, and for the minute I was there, drinking water and pissing into the reeds, I was eight or ten or twelve again, standing in Grandpa’s truck garage. Luckily for me, there was a U.P. pasty waiting for me back home – not Grandma’s, but a good one just the same.