Friday, December 11, 2015

My Old Kentucky Roads

People in small towns tend to get fired up when a big national paper like the New York Times does a piece on them. The righteous outrage is even hotter when it’s a foreign newspaper.
Back in July (timely, I know!) the NYT published an article by Seth Kugel in a column entitled “Frugal Traveler: Tips for how to navigate the world on a tight budget.”  The article was titled “A Bike Tour of Eastern Kentucky’s Back Roads” and it made the Facebook rounds with most of my cycling friends.  In general it was well received.  I have to say up front that I liked the article.  It was great writing and the author toured through my stomping grounds!  How can someone not be jazzed about that?
Dawkins Line bridge over KY 114 (Mountain Parkway)
My criticism with the piece was the overemphasis on a certain person.  And because of my personal connection and history it ruined the article for me.  I recognize that doesn’t make it a bad article, and I am trying to rectify my previous radio silence.
Any article that begins with “Ale-8-One is…” must have something good inside.  Ale-8 was the first liquid that passed my lips besides milk.  I have a certain uncle on my mom’s side whose traditional role in the family was to administer the first Ale-8 to each baby for the first time.  We have photos…
Anyway, the disproportionate ink given to Joe obscures what might have been a great description of the author’s self-discovery of the Red River Gorge.  But everything Mr. Kugel says about Eastern Kentucky is true…even the stuff about Joe.  
Paris, KY
At some point I would like to recreate the article from an insider’s viewpoint of the roads the author travelled.  It seemed his main criticism of the area was the sparseness of services including cheap lodging.  From Abner’s motel where Mr. Kugel stayed his first night to Paintsville is about seventy-five miles.  A detour through the Red River Gorge would add nine miles.  If he had aimed to stay at the Budget Inn in Salyersville (I’m not suggesting anyone should) it would have been sixty-six miles from Stanton with Gorge detour and then another eighteen into Paintsville the next morning to get his rental car for his return trip to Lexington.
I appreciate that Kugel didn’t harp on loose dogs and the ramshackle look of the homes along the way.  Too many people want to point out the ills that exist in every state as if they’re unique to Kentucky.  Maybe we air our dirty laundry (literally) more prominently, but ours is no dirtier than yours.  Kugel doesn’t point out the figurative grass stains he obviously saw.
Kentucky is a fantastic state for cycling.  Eastern Kentucky gets a bad rap, but the truth is the cycling of the Cumberland Plateau is amazing.  There are problems.  None are more frustrating than those pointed out by bike blogger Tony Cherolis in his September 2015 post “Don’t Go to Kentucky on a Bike. Ever.” on his The Beat Bike Blog.
Great reason to ride in Kentucky.  Pilot View Road, Clark County
I also agree with Cherolis’ view of Kentucky bike travel.  Well, I don’t agree with his post title.  I think he had a bad experience along a certain stretch or road at a certain time.  I’ve had exactly the same bad experiences with gravel trucks on my home roads and can relate, but I’ve also had many more wonderful experiences on my bike in my home state.  It’s partially having the home court advantage and knowing where to ride and partially being able to deal with the frustrations of poor infrastructure in creative ways.  That’s something that’s difficult to do on a bike tour when you’ve planned a certain route and don’t know the best detours.
Paolo Laureti (in the lead) and Giorgio Murari climbing Big Hill in Madison County during the 2014 Trans-America Race
But I get his frustration at the poor bicycle accommodations.  The rumble strips on tiny shoulders are one of my biggest frustrations.  And I’ve been in meetings where well-meaning transportation planners and engineers have politely told me that those rumble strips are for safety and maybe I had better rethink my position.  And I typically counter with less good manners that we need to stop making it easy for people to drive inattentively.  We’re training drivers to text and talk more and giving them a “safety net” to do so when we should be demanding that they (we) stop ignoring the road.
I was in a meeting last week and a slide came up on the screen which showed a streetscape with trees along the roadway and the transportation planner next to me leaned over and said: “That would never happen; we don’t allow trees in the clear zone.”
I held my tongue in that particular instance, but I was incredulous.  I have begun to understand why Kentucky towns are becoming ugly and uncharming: safety policies.  Instead of educating and encouraging drivers to take more responsibility and to take driving more seriously we are just padding the roadways and telling any unfortunate soul that gets in the way of out-of-control vehicles piloted by mobile device zombies “too bad.” 
When I speak up in transportation planning meetings regarding my opposition to the arcane policies that are making our roads less and less bicycle and pedestrian friendly I feel like a lone hold out.  The very people who should care most about creating and fostering better accessibility to roads for more modes of transportation conceded defeat to the notions of motor vehicle dominance in our culture.  It’s not because the motor vehicle IS a superior mode of transportation but that we’ve allowed ourselves to believe it is.
I have to continually remind myself that if I don’t stick to my guns and fight the good fight then then apathy and stubborn attachment to 1960s thinking wins.
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