Thursday, July 31, 2008

RAGBRAI 2008, Part 1

Ragbrai XXXVI has come and gone, and it was a fantastic time. I forgot how much fun it was. The last full Ragbrai I participated in was in 1991. All the years since I’ve come up with a myriad of excuses why I couldn’t do it (busy with other things, don’t own a tent, put it off, I hate camping, etc.) When I heard that Ragbrai was stopping overnight in Ames this year, I knew I had no more excuses.

My good friend Denny Smith drove up from Corpus Christi to participate. The longest he had ever ridden his bicycle was 14 miles, so I knew he was in for a challenge. Ragbrai averages about 68 miles a day, rain or shine.

One thing I noticed is how much easier it was. The weather, mileage and climbing were all about the same as they were last time. I was 18 then, I’m 35 now, and it wasn’t nearly as challenging. I think because now I ride my bike every day and am just in generally better shape. I have a better bike, but not that much better.

We rode with Team N.A.D. (Not Against Drinking), which consisted of a couple guys from my work and a bunch of their friends. The bus got into Missouri Valley late Saturday afternoon, and Denny and I decided to ride our bikes to the Missouri River, which was about 13 miles away. We ended up missing the turn into the state park and went 4 miles too far. We eventually got to the river and dipped our back tires in the Missouri, a Ragbrai tradition (at the end you dip your front tire in the Mississippi). When we got back into town at dusk we had ended up doing about 35 miles.

The first night we didn’t get much sleep. It was terribly humid, and we had to keep the rain fly on the tent because thunderstorms were near. Denny and I ended up sleeping outside on the grass. Day 1 was a good start. It was hilly, but calm, so we didn’t have a headwind. I had to stop and wait for Denny several times, which I expected. He was doing well. We rolled into Harlan at about 2PM. It was hot and humid, but we pitched the tent.

Team NAD had arranged a host house in each of the overnight towns, which makes a world of difference. We had a place to pitch our tents on their lawn and they let us use their showers and bathrooms. It was fantastic. The Kastens, the family that hosted us in Harlan, were wonderful. They had cookies, lemonade and other goodies waiting in their basement. A group of us hung out there all afternoon in the air conditioning after a shower. The house was two miles west of the actual town, and none of us felt like riding into town and getting all sweaty again, so we ordered pizza. That night we were in the tent, and we woke up at about 2:30 to howling wind. The sky looked awful. Just then a sheriff’s deputy rolled through the neighborhood and on his loudspeaker announced that all Ragbrai campers were to take shelter immediately. So we all packed into the Kasten’s basement. After a while some people went back outside to their tents, but Denny and I ended up crashing on the floor.

We woke up at 6:00 again in an effort to beat the heat. We packed up the tent and got ready for the next day. After emphatically thanking our hosts, we hit the road, more or less ready to ride 83 miles to Jefferson. Day 2 was more of the same. Calm, sunny, mid-80’s and hilly. I had pulled ahead of Denny and came upon a food stand called Pastafari. I dedided to grab a spot in line and wait for Denny to pass, intending to call out when I saw him. Minutes passed, and no Denny. I tried calling him a couple times, but his cell couldn’t get a signal. Sprint sucks. By this time I was halfway through the line, so I decided to grab some pasta on my own. I had a tomato penne with cucumbers that was delicious. I hopped back on the bike and rode ahead, passing riders and scanning for Denny, hoping that he wasn’t in either of the two ambulances that passed me.

Later I heard that one of the ambulances was for a guy who was one of the self-contained riders (hauling his own equipment). He hit a parallel crack in the road, lodged his front wheel and went over the handlebars. Audrey, I’m sure you can relate to this.

After a while Denny called me. He couldn’t even get a roaming signal until he reached the next town. He told me he had hauled ass trying to catch up to me, and he had been walking around Coon Rapids for about 30 minutes looking for me. “Well, you caught me alright”, I said. We took a break and had some bananas and Gatorade. We then pressed on to Scranton, making jokes about The Office all the way (“Hey, I wonder if Scrantonicity is playing a gig there!”). Scranton ended up suckin’. We noticed a storm front up north, complete with lightning, and decided we could make the 9 miles to Jefferson if we hurried. We got back on the road and with Denny on my back wheel we burned into Jefferson. The rain started falling right as we rolled into town, which felt good. 83 miles in the can. The longest day was done!

Day 3 was cake compared to the previous day. 57 miles, mostly flat. We replaced Denny's rear inner tube due to a slow leak, but fortunately that was the only mechanical problem the entire trip. We made good time, stopping at a smoothie stand on a farmhouse lawn outside of Ogden. Best smoothie I think I've ever had.

We hit the Des Moines River Valley and the monster hill that came with it. I stopped at the top to film Denny's ascent, but he must have passed me while I was farting around with the camera. I guess he wasn't that far behind. Anyway, the same thing happened as it did on Day 2. I pressed on to Boone and walked around for about a half hour looking for him. Called him twice, but again, Sprint sucks a fat one. I decided to press on alone to Ames. Denny called right as I left Boone; he finally got a signal.

Me: "Where are you?"

Denny: "I'm about 2 miles from your house!"

It seems he hammered again, trying to catch up to me, not knowing that I was way back looking for him. I still had 18 miles to go, and he was already in Ames. So I hammered on, passing everybody, with nobody passing me so I couldn't even get into a decent draft line. Finally I hooked up with Team Air Force and drafted them all the way into Ames. I thanked them for the pull and headed to my house. Denny wasn't there, but he had left his water bottle at my garage door. I went into the apartment and said hi to the cats. He came in 5 minutes later. Seems he couldn't wait so he took a shit at the convenient store around the corner.

After showers I threw in three loads of laundry and we crashed for two hours. I was going on 8 hours of sleep in the last 3 days. I could've slept for 12 hours straight. Later we had dinner at West Towne Pub. Afterwards we went to Jax Outdoor and picked up all the camping stuff we should have brought with us in the first place. Stopped by Skunk River Cycles so I could pick up a new bike computer. Mine had crapped out. Later we went to Welch Ave. Station and met up with some of Denny's friends. I'm so glad you can't smoke in bars in Iowa anymore. Sorry, smokers, but it was pretty annoying. Anyway, we wanted to see Styx but we decided a good night's sleep in a proper bed in air conditioning was in order.

Part 2 coming soon…

Return to San Francisco

Over the weekend of the 12th I visited the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. I’m thinking of getting a Master’s Degree in Illustration, so I took advantage of their hospitality weekend, and stayed a couple of nights on campus. I love that city. I arrived Thursday afternoon and the first thing I did after riding the BART into the city was to sit down on the steps at the plaza by the Montgomery Street BART Station and just take in the sights and sounds. The weather was beautiful, and it stayed that way all weekend.

I checked in at the housing office, and they gave me my room assignment; the Commodore on Sutter Street. Freshman dorms, but it was surprisingly quiet all weekend. Probably because of summer. I read a book while having dinner at a Thai restaurant. I had been up since 4:00 AM, (2:00 AM Pacific). By the time I got settled and talked to everyone on the phone, I was so tired that I collapsed around7:30. I slept for nearly 12 hours.

Woke up at 7, had breakfast at the Taylor Street Coffee Shop. One of the best in SF. Read the paper, walked around for a bit snapping photos and trying not to look like a tourist. Found a spot at an outdoor café named La Boulange on Market Street. I drew in my sketchbook for a bit. That's a great spot to sit and watch people go by on their morning commute, especially the cyclists. SF is an incredibly bike friendly city.

At 10 I met up with an admissions advisor, and he told me that I have a killer portfolio and I should have no problem getting in. Then I met with a financial aid advisor. Money is the big issue for me, but I was pleasantly reassured after meeting with him. This isn’t going to be impossible. After a lunch of sushi I took a tour of the Schools of Illustration, Interior Design, Fashion, Animation/Visual Effects, and Film. I was very impressed. Lots of great facilities and student work.

Afterwards I had dinner at a small Italian restaurant in the Nob Hill district. Tired again, I went up to my room and read for a while before going to sleep.

Saturday morning I got up and had breakfast at the Pinecrest Diner. I checked out of the Commodore and into my room at the King George Hotel. I dropped the bags in my room and went to Bay City Bike to pick up a bicycle rental. Now that’s the way to go. Much quicker getting around than walking and you don’t have to rely on bus schedules. At first I was a bit nervous about cycling in a big city, but like I said, SF is very bike-friendly. There’s a rhythm to it, and I was able to keep up with vehicle traffic. Some of the hills are BRUTAL. I was hammering up Taylor Street, and even in the granny gear I had to stand up in the cranks. Then I rolled down crooked Lombard Street, because you can’t bike in SF and not do that.

I went to City Lights Books on Columbus Avenue, right next to Jack Kerouac alley. I could’ve spent hours in there. Almost an entire wall on the second floor was devoted to Beat literature. I picked up Roomanitarian by Henry Rollins.

Afterwards I rode down to Brannan Street to check out the Academy of Art Spring Show. I was blown away by the quality of student work. Overwhelmed, really. This is an annual show where industry professionals from companies like Pixar, BMW, Canon, Adobe Systems, Cisco, Mercedes Benz, Lucasfilm, Nickelodeon, Microsoft Games, THQ, ILM, Walt Disney, Sony, EA Games and more are flown in to review portfolios and interview graduating students. I’m definitely going to school here.

After a hamburger lunch at Dottie’s Diner I got back on the bike and pedaled down to the Haight-Ashbury district. It was about what I expected. Gentrified and commercialized, but still carrying the ghosts of hippies. Street musicians and bums nested between clothing stores selling $100 jeans. And Ben & Jerry’s of course. I found a great used clothing store and bought a couple shirts. Then I cut into Golden Gate Park and checked out a drum circle, one of the coolest things I saw on the trip. All types of people playing all types of percussion instruments in tempo. Clean, dirty, old, young, white, Hispanic, everybody just getting into the beat. A young woman in a long skirt danced in the center. This is what it’s all about, I thought.

I rode through the park to Ocean Beach and sat in the sand for a while and looked out over the edge of the world.

The sun was getting low so I made my way back to the hotel. I showered, changed, and went out again to find a place to eat. Not a problem in SF. Another Italian place, this time a calzone and salad. I walked around some more (I left my bike at the hotel) and found a bench at Union Square. I observed a crowd of teenagers sitting in a circle. It didn’t look like they were doing anything illegal (i.e. drinking, drugs, etc) They just seemed to be talking. I thought of how different it must be growing up in a big city like this as opposed to a small town in Iowa. I envied these kids and their environment.

One thing I wouldn’t have envied is the panhandlers. As I was sitting on the bench trying to make some sketches a bum (probably a junkie from the way he was fidgeting) came up to me and asked if I had any spare change so he could get something to eat. I told him no. Twice, because he approached me a second time.

One thing I learned quick is to not give money to panhandlers. You might say, “oh, what’s a few coins?” Ordinarily nothing, but these people are everywhere. Every street corner, every park, every store entrance. The only people I give money to are street musicians because they're at least performing a service. The only negative thing I've experienced so far in San Francisco is all the panhandlers. Anyway, I walked back to the hotel and called it a night.

Sunday morning I slept in a little (9:00) and checked out. I left my bags with the front desk and took my bike out. Breakfast at Taylor Street Coffee Shop again (I love that place), and then I went up to Chinatown. I bought a wall hanging for Rose to replace the one her dog destroyed. Walked around some more and observed a rally protesting the mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners in China. I spent some more time strolling around Chinatown, checking out the goods. Some stores had really interesting things, some had touristy crap.

Then I rode over to the Embarcadero and watched a preteen rock band playing a show at Justin Herman Plaza. Very spirited, that’s all I’m going to say. Alright, they sucked, but I gave them an A for effort. They were collecting donations for their future “tour”. I crossed Embarcadero and watched an awesome percussionist banging on rubber trash cans, pots, pans, and bowls while wearing tambourines on his feet. Made my way north to Pier 39, but didn’t go in there. Fell into that tourist trap last time. My mom called, and I talked to her for a while.

I must not have zipped up the phone pocket in my backpack when I replaced my cell because later I realized that my phone was gone. I retraced my steps and couldn’t find it at all. I borrowed a phone a couple times from people and called the number, but no answer. I was a bit upset at my own stupidity.

I went to a coffee shop later, and would have enjoyed the rest of the afternoon sitting outside and reading (great weather again), but the damn phone was bothering me. I went to return the bicycle to the shop and called the police station from their phone, but the cops told me I had to file a report in person. For the hell of it I tried my number again. This time a guy answered! He told me he had already talked to my mother (oh great). We agreed to meet at the Embarcadero BART station. A very nice man met me there with his two kids. Evidently one of his sons found it next to a bush. I slipped him $20 for his trouble, happy to get my phone back.

All things being as they should again, I hopped a cable car back to Powell Street. I walked around some more, talked on the phone with my sister and watched a quartet of young boys singing out of a third-story window. It was beautiful. There must have been some music school in that building. After some Chinese dinner I returned to the King George Hotel and took the airport shuttle back to SFO for my red-eye flight to Des Moines. I went right into work on Monday, a little more certain of my future.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Hi there.

Hello and welcome. This is a page for me to stay in touch and let everyone know what's going on in my life. I'm taking off for San Francisco tomorrow to visit The Academy of Art University and start deciding if I want to go to graduate school for an MFA in Illustration. I'll probably have trouble sleeping tonight; I love San Francisco, and whether I decide to go there for school or not, this will be a fun and exciting weekend.

The week after next is RAGBRAI. My friend Denny is coming up from Corpus Christi. The crazy bastard is driving the whole trip, but with airfare the way it is I can't say I blame him. It's going to be a great time. I'll have my camcorder, and I might bring my laptop to post updates throughout the week. Depends on how much room we have and whether I want to deal with it. It seems odd to have a laptop while you're "roughing it".