Jan 27 2015

Cold Comforts: Welcome Reassurance for Those Days When the Weather Outside is Frightful

If, as the philosopher Santayana famously asserted, “the longing to be primitive is a disease of culture,” then we have a ready explanation for the popularity of such anachronistic pleasures as cycling and canoeing. After all, these take us back to an earlier time, offering a taste of life as it was lived when most humans still had to depend on their muscles to get around. Of course, this is only a taste, and a rather sanitized and denatured one at that—as we’re reminded every so often, when nature’s caprices disturb our routines and challenge the comfortable certainties of our everyday lives.

I got just such a reminder last week, when a fast-moving storm delivered, first, torrential rain, then a glaze of ice, and lastly, heavy snow, all in the space of a single day. But I was lucky. The power stayed on, and the comfortable tenor of my workaday life continued undisturbed, even as thousands of my less-fortunate neighbors shivered in the dark. Still, I’ve already endured enough winter days without heat or light or running water to be thankful I have a second home sitting only a few feet from my desk, one that isn’t dependent on the local electric grid to maintain its habitability. I’m speaking of my getaway pack. It is, in Colin Fletcher’s memorable phrase, a “home on my back.” So long as I have it with me, I can never be truly, totally homeless.

In fact, any outdoor enthusiast’s closet or garage probably contains everything he (or she) needs to weather all but the most malign of nature’s fancies. If you can camp by a river for two weeks without discomfort, or spend a weekend above treeline on a mountain in winter, you can certainly keep yourself fed and warm in your house long after the lights go out. And if you have a Kindle 3G or a similarly thrifty tablet computer—and if the local cell network stays up—you’ll even be able to read about it in the papers!

Not convinced? Then take a look at this short list of items, all of which can be found in nearly every backcountry enthusiast’s collection of gear:

  • Warm clothing
  • Propane or alcohol cooker
  • Shelf-stable staple foods
  • Water-disinfection tablets
  • Sleeping bag
  • Battery-powered LED lantern
  • Headlamp

OK. These won’t keep you in the style to which you’ve become accustomed. But they will ensure that you’re adequately warm and reasonably well-fed, whatever the weather. And that’s what really matters, isn’t it? Sure it is! You’ll need to keep your head about you, of course. Using a cooker indoors is fraught with potential hazards to life and property, for instance. Yet anyone who’s managed to melt snow for drinking water in a two-man tent and then gone on to make a pot of stew in a blizzard, and done so without asphyxiating herself or burning down the tent, should be in no danger.

So the next time the weather forecast delivers lugubrious warnings of arctic gales and towering drifts, don’t panic. Just check your gear. Then settle back, secure in the knowledge that however wild the storm, your cold comforts are always at your side.

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Jan 26 2015

Bike Monday for January 26: Stand by Me

If you ever have to work on your bike — and that day may come, even if there’s a bike shop on the corner — you’ll be glad you have a workstand.

I’ve accumulated four of them over the years, but my first, and in many ways my favorite, is the Stand By Me from Nashbar. It’s cheap, compact, and easy to use. It’s also hardy. Mine has seen seven winters now, and despite regular baths in salty slush — I use the stand when I wash my bike and drivetrain — it’s still going strong. A bit of rust here and there, to be sure, but that’s all.

I only wish I was bearing up this well.

Stand by Me

And no, Nashbar isn’t paying me to puff their products. See our Product Evaluation Policy for details.


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Jan 24 2015

Birth of a Bicycle: A Backward Glance at What We’ve Lost
On the Road to the Promised Land of Ease and Comfort

My great-grandfather was born in the 19th century, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the age of 12, he started work as an apprentice machinist. It was a steady trade, but on the eve of the Great War, he decided there and then to seek a better life in America. It was a good decision. Trained machinists were in demand in the States, and my great-grandfather’s language skills—he was equally at home in English, German, Magyar (Hungarian), Slovak, and Czech—served him well. Before long, he’d landed a job with the New York Transit Authority, and he stayed with it for 30 years before retiring.

I called him Pop, and during my early years—Pop died when I was five—I spent long hours watching him at work in the little machine shop he’d built in the barn next to his retirement home. Those hours left me with an abiding respect for the skill involved in transforming raw steel into useful implements. Which is why I found a 1945 film entitled “How a Bicycle Is Made” (see embedded link below) so fascinating. A documentary produced by the British Film Council, this film takes the viewer through the Nottingham (UK) Raleigh bicycle factory, and while it certainly shows its age, it gives the viewer a pretty good idea of the scope and complexity of the work that went on inside the walls of the giant plant, at a time when bicycles were still a major component of the British transport economy.

In particular, I was impressed by the amount of sheer physical labor that the factory workers’ jobs entailed. Take, for instance, the “girls” who fitted tubes and tires to wheels. They could mount a tire in less than a minute, and they kept at it all day long. If you’ve ever had to mount a new tire on a rim without using tire levers, you’ll appreciate how much strength their job required. I’ve done it a fair number of times myself, but I’ve never managed to get the tire on the rim in less than a minute—and I can’t imagine doing it again and again throughout an entire eight-hour workday. The Raleigh women did just that, however, and they did it day after day, week in and week out.

Automated machines, like the ubiquitous personal automobile, have certainly made our lives much easier. There’s no doubt about that. Clearly, though, we’ve lost something in the process. Several things, in fact. Physical strength. Endurance. Even the sense of satisfaction that comes from shaping useful (and often beautiful) objects from raw materials, in processes that rely largely, if not entirely, on our own muscle, skill, and stamina.

In any case, watch the film when you get a chance. (It’s about 18 minutes long.) And then spend a few more minutes reading what former racer and frame-builder Dave Moulton has to say about it. His blog brought the film to my attention, and his comments illuminate several points that the film script failed to make clear.

Believe me, it’s worth your time, if only as a reminder of what we’ve lost in establishing a post-industrial economy in our Republic of Happy Motoring. If Pop had ever watched this film, he’d have seen very little that was outside his own experience, and the same could have been said of most men (and many women) of his age and background. But today? The work of the Raleigh factory might just as well have taken place on another planet, so remote is it from most folk’s everyday experience. Yes, our lives are easier. But are they better? That’s the question, isn’t it? And I’m by no means certain that I know the answer.



References and Further Reading


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