cycling · fitness · Guest Post

Spring Solo Rides: Northward on the Katy Trail (Guest Post)

I scheduled a break for my students this week in the Syllabus, knowing how long the semester will be for everyone without a traditional Spring Break. While they’re watching short documentaries related to their class, I’m in an AirBnB in St. Charles, Missouri, along the storied Katy Trail, working on my book.

If you’ve read my previous entries for this blog, you know I usually cycle with my youngest, who loves distance riding, often when I am on a trip with him and my cycling spouse is not. But I’ve come to enjoy solo cycling every once in awhile so this week, I brought my bike.

And yes, this is the week that the trees are greening and the invasive bush honeysuckle is a bit welcome as one of the first plants on the forest floor to leaf out. The magnolias have bloomed, the occasional wildflower is out while more are hovering right on the edge, and the dogwoods and redbuds will bust out any day now.

And I, being unable to work every waking hour, have made space on nice days for some rides. If you’re ever looking for a trail-related getaway to the midwest, biking the length of the Katy Trail across Missouri and camping/catching hotels, or picking a town and radiating out in either direction, might be fun.

For me, I want just an hour or two on the trail, in the 10 to 20 mile range. Someone else might fancy a bigger bite of it, and be delighted by the way the scenery changes over the course of each day. The bits I rode were only slightly inclined and, by and large, pretty flat and fast, even on my comfort hybrid bike.

The entire 240 mile length of the Katy is one of the longest stretches of converted Rail To Trail in the US, built on part of the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas/MKT, or Katy, Railroad. There are 26 trailheads along the way where one could park a vehicle and explore either direction. The trail surface is soft pea gravel, possibly even finer than that. I wouldn’t want to wipe out on it, but it’s pretty solidly packed in most spots and one only occasionally hits a bit that shifts out from under you. There are sturdy benches approximately every mile, some with lovely views of the Missouri River or surrounding woods and fields. This blog entry will be about my Northward venture from St. Charles on a stretch of the Katy.

If you’re setting out on the Katy from St. Charles, you’ll start somewhere along the Missouri Riverfront, probably at Frontier Park. There’s car parking nearby at the Lewis and Clark historical sites, or the strip of parking between the historic Main Street–brick surface, timber, colonial architecture, and all–and Frontier Park. The percentage of parked vehicles with bike racks is a good bit higher than most places, for good reason.

Going north from town (the direction behind me in this picture), you pass by some neat old warehouses and steel foundry buildings that have been converted into an arts centre, an indoor soccer facility, and the excellent climbing gym Climb So ILL; it started in southern Illinois just across the Mississippi from St. Louis. If you like climbing as well as cycling, it might be a good stop to add. Then you might notice numerous little trails off into the woods between the Katy and the Missouri River. These are lovely for a walk or even biking. But you might want to make sure you have a bike, and trail riding skills, ready for some light hills and rough trails. They’d be a cool oasis in mid-summer, I’m sure.

Not too far out of the city, you will pass a junkyard that is just waiting for you to engage in the world’s most exciting game of jenga. But in no time at all, the woods remain on the east between you and the Big Muddy AKA Missouri River, while bucolic stretches of flat Missouri farmland stretch into the distance.

After a short bit of sunny trail, straight as an arrow, you come to a winding bit that enters woods on both sides. Here, the trail surface is a bit softer, but still in pretty good shape. As you enter the wooded area, you may hear a woodpecker pecking, or frogs calling out for mates–as I was riding, the spring peepers and click toads were picking up steam.

Even in the woods, you’ll find benches with a view of the river, or looking back into the trees.

I snagged one up for a bit to watch the river pass. And such a lot of river there was!

I carried on about 5 1/2 miles out past the wooded section, on into the areas between fields on either side. This was when I really noticed the wind behind me and thought about pushing back against it on my return trip for even longer if I carried on out into the countryside. I got my scenic agriculture on, appreciated a cluster of silver silos and a red barn in the distance, and decided to turn around.

On my way back through the woods, the wind was fierce (you can hear it on the audio, along with a slight rub of my front brake calipers on an irregularity of the wheel), but this video gives you a sense of the wooded areas of the trail, running alongside Big Muddy, south back towards St. Charles.

All told, I went almost 11 miles–though you won’t be able to tell from my Runkeeper screenshot, below, since I only started it at the point at which I decided to turn around and head back, into the fierce headwind.

It was hard work and there’s just nothing quite like the feeling of moving through the world, putting the power down, on a bike. That’s true of any ride. But solo rides offer particular pleasures, especially for people like me–I am a short fat woman who sweats really well–who wonder how their exercise is being perceived by others but who love to move and feel our own strength.

On a solo ride, only you set the pace. You decide when to stop and explore a little hiking trail. Or whether to snag a bench. Or that you’ve gone far enough and would like to see that last batch of things now, from the other direction.

It doesn’t matter if you worry about keeping up with other people; there are no other people.

It doesn’t matter if a sight or sound strikes your fancy that you don’t want to make other people stop for; there are no other people.

It doesn’t matter if your outfit isn’t as fly or sparkly or spandexy or even as functional as other people’s in your group; there are no other people.

It doesn’t matter to other people how you breathe or how you jiggle or how you puff and lean going up a hill; there are no other people.

Every ride is a no-drop ride when you ride alone.

When I got back to St. Charles, I propped my bike up against a mighty tree outside the Bike Stop Cafe–food, beer, wine, bike equipment, and bike rentals including e-bikes–to sit at one of the well spaced-out tables, with an option to sit by a gas firepit. I took off my helmet to let the wind dry my sweat-damp hair, and had a cold soda. Not a bad way to end a good, short bike trip.

Stay tuned for the second installment of my short solo rides on the Katy Trail, headed Southward from Frontier Park, a few days later. Some more of the same, but also some different scenery and more miles and a tip on where to stop for snacks.

cycling · menstruation

Of Period Puns and Bicycling Groups (Guest Post)

My husband and youngest son have been bicycling together for awhile now, long distances and fast, with other groups and just with each other. If you’ve been following my posts here at FIAFI, you know I sometimes cycle as well, recreational-only and mostly with Son 2 though sometimes en famille with friends. Well, this past Monday night, I took a non-family bike ride. Honestly, my first in… probably decades. I’ve met some of my husband’s cycling friends, which includes a lot of great women, and they and my husband have been talking up a regular St. Louis bike ride for women and nonbinary folks called… wait for it… The Monthly Cycle.

The first Monday of every month, The Monthly Cycle meets outside a gelateria on South Grand in St. Louis. Bert and Son 2 dropped me off around 6:30 and then carried on to their own bikes event nearby (a fast hard ride of folks who take it seriously). Women of all shapes and sizes trickled in, forming a magnificent clot on the sidewalk until the ride began at 7 pm. The total eventual headcount according to one of the organizers? 53. Several of them, some of whom I knew and some of whom I didn’t, helped me get properly kitted out with a forward beam-light and some medical tape to help fasten my helmet, which had an unfortunate buckle failure. A few were in costume for the October Halloween theme–rides are not usually themed–and ready to make 3 stops for ghost stories at allegedly haunted venues. Unaccustomed to city riding on trafficked streets, and new to riding in large groups, I took no pictures while moving. Thanks to the ghost story stops, though, I was able to snap a few shots that reflect what went on.

Not depicted but awesome:

  • the cyclists with wifi enabled speakers blasting out playlists with varying tastes; one person had a playlist of Halloween-themed music from both radio and musicals including Monster Mash and Thriller and songs from Rocky Horror Picture Show, while another was playing Rihana and Brittney Spears and Spanish-language tunes
  • occasional warbling singing-along to the tunes, while riding; hilarious when going over bumpy roads
  • the kids and families and other friendly residents hanging out on their porches in the dark who gave friendly shouts and waved at us as we passed through neighborhoods inhabited by a wide range of people (this ride made no attempt to stick to the middle class white notion of “safe neighborhoods” that so dominates cycling culture in many places)
  • the guy who, as we passed through a commercial district, stepped out onto the street to give every passing cyclist a high 5
  • the many folks who asked “what is this? it looks awesome!”–men but also women in cars and walking and riding their own bikes who we passed along the way–to hear a friendly shout of “It’s the monthly cycle! Women and nonbinary only!” with an added shout of “look us up!” for the folks who were presenting as women or nonbinary
  • the riders who held the intersections as we came through to prevent cars from riding into us as much as possible, and the uncountable “thank you”s that riders shouted to drivers who waited, whether patiently or impatiently, for the whole crew to pass
  • riders shouting “hole!” as they passed a big one in the road to alert those behind them, “car up!” if a car was coming toward the group to encourage everyone to get into just one lane, “car back” if a car was behind the group, and calling out turns or “slowing” so that folks in the back knew what was happening
  • the shared drinks and snacks at the Tower Pub where the ride typically winds up

All told, it was a little under 10 miles, total, with some hills. Enough to work a little but totally doable by someone who doesn’t bike much. It started around 7pm and I was all done and heading home a little after 10, needing only to bike a few blocks down the street from the Tower Pub to the place my husband and Son 2 had ended up for the ritual post-ride drinks and snacks at their own habitual endspot.

I am planning on hitting the Monthly Cycle up at the beginning of November with at least one friend who saw my social media post about it and was instantly all-in. I don’t know if I will stick with it through winter, given the cost of winter gear and the hazards of riding slippery roads. But the ride itself was a delight from start to finish and the folks could not have been more welcoming.

Is there a Monthly Cycle or something similar near you? A no-men cycling event or other sports community? One that isn’t anti-men, but is about a space for the kinds of relations that people who aren’t men can have with each other when men aren’t part of the group and are, at most, passed by just for a little while? What do you think the value of such groups is?


There and Back Again Part 3: the bit where we are back again… ish

This is the final installment in a three part series on staying/being active while travelling with kids. While my kids are a bit older (11 and 14), we have been canoeing or kayaking and hiking together since they could walk or hold a paddle. Parts 1 and 2 of this installment are two tales of our travels this summer, the “There” part of “There and Back Again”, about biking the Via Appia Antica in Rome and kayaking a caldera in the hills above Rome. In the “Back Again” part of “There and Back Again”, we return to the states and visit the old family stomping grounds in “Up North”, e.g. the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan AKA the top of the mitten.

Back into my childhood, since I was a baby in a stroller, and before that when my mother was a young woman and then a teen and then a child, herself, our family has gone to the community of Elk Rapids, Michigan every summer almost without fail. It goes back to the late 1940’s, our relationship with this area. The town of Elk Rapids is on a bit of land between Elk Lake and Lake Michigan. From Elk Lake, you can take a boat along a “Chain of Lakes”, traveling from one community to another, past folks’ houses that bump up on the water, past restaurants and convenience stores that have boat docs as well as car parks. Maybe someday we will try that with a kayak, and get picked up on the other end.

Some years, we make sure to bike the easy beautiful 9 mile circumference of Mackinac Island, which allows no motorized vehicles but only horses and bicycles. But this summer, we did what has become a new guaranteed activity: a bike trip on local trails with Son 2 who is a budding cyclist with a kit of his own at 11 years old. We even brought his own road bike from home, since it fits in the back of our family vehicle nicely with the wheels off.

The thing I failed to adequately predict was exactly how much faster than me he would be with me on a rented bike and him on his very own, me with my adult body pushing against a sometimes fierce headwind and him cutting through it like a knife. It didn’t bum me out much, but it sure did slow him down. He loves to cover 17 miles in an hour, wind cutting through the slats in his helmet to dry the sweat. We did it in two and a half hours, including breaks to chat with people along the way, such as a kid who plaintively asked if they could be best friends with Son 2.

Since some of you might want to use the same trail we took this year in the future, I will tell you a bit about the trail and the amenities as well as the experience. The trail is the Leelenau Trail north of Traverse City. The Leelenau Peninsula is famous for its wineries and agriculture, as well as its cute vacation towns which have drawn tourists since the mid-20th century.

An image of a sign shows the Leelenau trail, with terminuses at the southern end of the West Arm of the Grand Traverse Bay in downtown Traverse City, and in Suttons Bay about halfway up the Leelenau Peninsula. This image was taken halfway along the trail, as the “You Are Here” label indicates.

It connects TC and Suttons Bay over 17 miles of only occassional road crossing and virtually no sharing a road with cars. Suttons Bay is a town filled with boutiques and cottages and a good public library and some truly superb ice cream. It also pairs nicely with the Bike-and-Ride bus routes which have room for as many as 11 bikes: 3 on the front and 8 in the back half of a converted school bus. This makes it easy to ride the trail one way (either way) and just bike one way. Both towns are on the lake, so there’s no elevation difference in how the ride goes for either direction. I didn’t think to ask the driver, but it occurs to me now that, looking at the racks, I am not sure whether the buses can transport full-size trikes or recumbent bikes, both of which are sometimes used by folks with balance issues or with seating requirements that preclude using a typical bicycle.

We parked our car near the bus station in downtown Traverse City just a few blocks from the lake; this is one of several places where the buses for the Leelenau trail route depart from and return to. It’s also the only place where you get a good mile or so ride alongside the lake on a TART trail before you connect to the Leelenau peninsula.

Left: Son 2 is pretty excited about this whole prospect. At this point, we’ve just crossed the street from the bus station to the lake-side park and its corresponding ped/bike trail. His bright red road bike and purple and black and white biking kit and huge grin mean he’s ready to go. Right top: A view of Lake Michigan with the TART Trail sign showing the direction to the Leelenau Trail and other destinations. Right middle: Bikes selfie! The author, with the trail behind her, the lake to one side, and the car road on the other. Right bottom: a view of Lake Michigan with sailboats in the distance, a narrow strip of sand beach in the foreground, and white fluffy clouds dotting a blue sky.

As we transferred from the TART trail to the Leelenau Trail, Son 2 decided that he’d grown quite a bit since his bike was last adjusted (it had been a month or so since he rode it, and it’s been a growth spurt kind of a summer for him). Fortunately, there was a bike repair station with a set of basic bike tools and air pump at the Cherry Lane trailhead which made short work of the adjustment (image below). I didn’t check to see if there was a chainbreaker as well as the basic toolset, but probably most people who could break and repair a chain would have those tools and parts on them, regardless. It does have struts on which you can hang the bike to work, and the tool set retracts into the metal shelter when you’re finished. It’s a nice touch to find on the trail about 2 miles in.

Once you hit the trail itself, there are mile markers every so often, not only every mile but also at points between miles so that you know how far you’ve come and how far you have yet to go. The trail moves through woods, through fields filled with cherry trees or other fruits, through vineyards–some well-established and some just getting started–, through corn fields, past homes. At one point, it passes a retirement home and in that area, the trail fills with older pedestrians, some helping wheel chair using neighbors get a bit of trail time in and others taking a bit of a wander down the trail. There are benches roughly every half mile, some in the shade and some with views of the peninsula’s rolling hills, some commercial and some a kid’s Girl Scout or Boy Scout badge project, some marked as paid for by trail management and some clearly put out by whomever owns the neighboring property. Some homeowners ignore the trail. Others decorate to welcome cyclists and runners and walkers. Some even put snacks or water out for trail users. One, memorably, had a cooler of ice cold water and a watertight transparent box containing a journal and a pen which functioned as a kind of guestbook of trail users who had stopped to refresh themselves.

Top left: decorations with multiple American flags strung over and planted next to the trail. Top right: a cooler containing ice cold water kindly left at a trailside table about halfway between TC and Suttons Bay. Bottom left: a guest book with pen inside a water-tight container, signed by trail users. Bottom center: a bike handle protrudes into a view of shallow rolling hills covered in crops. Bottom right: the author smiling, taking a selfie while riding through woods with the sundappled trail receding into the distance.

At the water cooler pitstop, a pair of older women cycling the route on good bikes in comfortable kits offered to take our picture. At first, Son 2 was shy, but he really does enjoy these outings we take together and he wanted something to remember us both by. By this point, my hair had been soaked with sweat under my helmet and dried again, a cycle that repeated many times before the ride was over. The same was true for Son 2. He referred to this stage of physical activity as the “crunchy hair” point. As we neared Suttons Bay, we began to see distant ridges behind flatter marsh and wetland. Widlflowers lined the trail and sumac groves reared up, red-tipped. These descriptions are as good a caption as any for the images, below.

At the end of the trail in Suttons Bay, everything becomes town shockingly fast. Antique candy stores, cafes, sandwich shops, restaurants, gimcrack stores, and yard ornament shops pepper the streets. We hopped off our bikes, locked them up, and took a walk. My butt insisted I not get on a rented bike again for quite some time, and bring my own bike and saddle next year. After a bit of a toddle, we headed towards the Suttons Bay Library from whence we would catch the bus back to TC. Along the way, we stopped for ice cream and I was amazed to see Lemon Poppyseed and Lavendar ice cream. We tried samples, and they were superb and unusual, but I reverted to my favorite and hard to find Black Cherry. Cold things with sugars and fats after a long bike ride pushing against a headwind in the sun on a hot day? Yes, please! The tip jar read “Tipping: Bad for cows! Good for us!” We finished our snack and walked the two blocks over to the library which sits on a small hill overlooking the Bay in question. Across the bay, the sun shone on the orderly rows of a vineyard, while people and pets played on the grass and sand, sailboats in the small marina raising their masts above the water. We had timed it perfectly: the bus pulled up just as we arrived at the library, and the driver helped load all the bikes. All of these can be seen in the images, below.

Another successful outing, seeing parts of the world it would not have been so easy (or pleasant, or invigorating) to see by car. If you’re ever up in this area, I recommend checking out the TART trails. In fact, for these trails, and the kayaking in Rome, and the riding in Rome, we wouldn’t have found them if we hadn’t been actively looking for something active and exercise-y to do that would also help us get to know these areas a little differently.

I am reminded of an annual event in Lansing, Michigan, where I used to live, called Be A Tourist In Your Own Town. And while we did these activities in places that were There and Back Again, we have increasingly begun to look for these kinds of things in our own area near St. Louis Missouri, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. There is a wonderful rails-to-trails system, there are many festivals, and there are loads of cultural events related to physical activity that welcome various skill levels from cycling to acro-yoga to dancing. The trail system on the Missouri side even offers Juneteenth history tours and other black history tours by cycle. Integrating activity with my kids–and, when he is able to join us or we are able to join him, my spouse–into travel and into our lives at home has become a critically important part of how we experience the world.

I am sure this is the case for many of you. And we had to build these habits over the years, until the thing we ask when we travel to a place is “So…. bikes?” or “So… hikes?” or “So… kayaks?” Someday, we will have to amend them. But I hope we hang onto them. Because they are delightful, whether we do it there, or back again.

family · fitness · Guest Post

There and Back Again: Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series of staying active while travelling with kids. Parts 1 and 2 take place in Rome, Italy during the author’s travels there without her spouse, with a friend and the friend’s son, during a conference trip. In Part 1, the group goes cycling along the Via Appia Antica on a sweltering hot Roman summer day. In Part 2, they escape the city for the hills above Rome and kayaking on a crater lake.

We actually slept in a bit the morning of our kayak trip, and put in a few hours of work before we headed out on a transportation mode extravaganza that by the end of the day involved walking, taxi, minibus, kayaking, more minibus, train, and a taxi. The task: escape the heat of Rome as the mercury climbed to nearly 100 F (37 C).

Mission accomplished.

We went out to Lago (lake) Albano, a lake in a caldera above which rises the summer home of previous Popes and below which lie the wrecks from naval training battles. It was apparently host to the 1960 Summer Olympic canoeing and rowing events. Pope Francis apparently does not summer there, believing it to be too elitist, and has converted the residence to a museum. The locals appreciate the upside: crowds of devout Catholics and tourists used to flock to the area on hopes of seeing and being near the Pope AND the streets would be shut down by police and his guard. Now, tourists and city dwellers still come for the lake, but the traffic is entirely manageable and the numbers are not a strain.

A screenshot of Google Maps showing Lake Albano, an oval crater lake, with the Sport Club from whence we launched marked in green.

The whole group was quite excited for this one, as well: both adult women (myself and Randi), the two 14 year olds (my Son1 and Randi’s son) and my 11 year old (Son 2, the avid cyclist among us). It was a bit spur of the moment in response to the heat, booked just a few days before as I paged through AirBnB’s new Experiences feature. I hate to give a plug for them cause capitalism and ain’t nobody paying me, but they did hook us up with some folks we would never otherwise have found including the former competitive rowers and kayakers who run the kayak trip we signed up for.

We took a taxi to the train station where we were to meet at the end of one of the metro lines; since the line was closed for repairs, our options were limited. The taxiride took us past beautiful fields and a distant rural section of the Via Appia Antica that we hadn’t peddled out to the day we rode (See Part 1). At the station, we rendez-voused by the “old blue train car” and the guide piled us and a few other folks into their well-loved, battered minibus for a rude even farther out beyond the edge of the city into the hills.

A weathered blue street car takes pride of place in an open area with an enormous agave in front of it, sitting on train tracks that go nowhere.

The lake was formed by two overlapping craters. We set off from a launching spot amongst the reeds near the swimming beach.

To the left, reeds and grasses rise tall above the water. Other kayakers in the group have already paddled out ahead of me. The red tip of my own kayak is visible in the foreground. The water is sandy-colored in the shadows. The rim of the caldera rises in the distance.

We kayaked almost 7 km, out and back across to the opposite side. Randi and Son 1 shared a canoe on the way out, her son and Son 1 had solo kayaks and paddled together much of the way, and I paddled about at will.

Left: the author, sunwashed and hair not yet sweat-plastered flat. Second from left: Randi and Son 1 taking a short break from paddling, Randig resting an elbow on the kayak and leaning back to turn to smile at the camera. Third from left: Randi’s son in a quiet moment, face shadowed. Rightmost: Son 1, eternally with a silly face for a camera, reeds behind him near the starting point.

At various points we were all quite close together in a flotilla as the guides talked us through the plan for the day and the history of the area, with an English-language flotilla and an Italian-language flotilla. We weren’t able to see the ruins of the ancient Roman naval practices that litter the floor of the lake, but we are assured they were there.

From left to right: Randi’s son in his own kayak (short dark hair and pale skin, smiling), Son 1 also in his own kayak (grinning until his face has wrinkles, short dark blonde hair beginning to clump with sweat), Randi in her glasses and baseball cap (dark hair pulled back in a ponytail), and Son 2 (very blonde short hair and pale skin, grinning). The kayaks are all red. Behind them, the rim of the caldera rises, covered in lush green trees. Palatial homes step their way up the side of the hill.

Once we got to the opposite side, the guides stowed all the kayaks in a great big precarious-seeming pile and sat on rocks and ate sandwiches the guides brought and drank water and swam in the lake and NO ONE GOT STUNG BY JELLYFISH because there were no jellyfish. This seems an odd thing to mention, but several days before we’d gone swimming in the ocean and Son 2 got blistered fiercely in several spots. So, the enthusiasm for no jelly fish was strong. Everyone was glad for a break. One strange feature of the water was that it wasn’t very cool at all. There seemed to be quite warm spots, not just sun warmed but perhaps geologically warmed. We never did get to ask about this, but I wondered if perhaps hot thermal springs feed the lake from below or some other kind of geothermal heating.

So, no jellyfish. There were, however, at least four lizards that Son 1 spotted and loads of red dragonflies darting about above the surface. Randi’s old elbow injury acted up a bit by the time we got to the swimming spot, so her kiddo took over being her kayak companion, a job that has been Son 2’s on the way out. About halfway back (3/4 of the way through a quite long bit of kayaking), Son 2 got tuckered out. One of the guides offered to use her life jacket to tie his kayak to the back of hers. He paddled when he could and rested when he couldn’t and she was quite happy to help. Another guide did the same for an adult who was tapped out, and the guides said they were quite impressed that a kid his age had gone so far without needing help yet, which took the edge off of having to ask.

Because the trip was well-designed to include a nice break, multiple guides to help people get the most out of this kind of activity regardless of physical condition, and also included help from the guides when needed, a good time was had by all across a variety of ages and injuries and capability levels. Those who love doing hard work got to do hard work and those who love swimming got to swim and those who love watching lizards and bugs got to watch lizards and bugs and those who love not being in a hot city on a 90+ degree day got to be on a lake in a caldera instead.

NEXT UP: Part 3 of There and Back Again, in which we are back in the States, Randi and her son have gone back to their home, and Son 2 and I set off on our annual bike ride along some part of the Northern Lower Peninsula of the State of Michigan.

fitness · Guest Post

There and Back Again: Part 1

I am fortunate to be able to travel for work and family, sometimes. On occassion when I travel for work, I bring my family along. This post is the first of a 3-part series on how I stayed physically active this summer while travelling with my kiddos. I hope the series is of some help to folks in re/thinking about whether it’s feasible to pursue fitness activities with kids in tow. Please note that while mine were 14 and 11 this summer, I’ve been able to do a number of activities with them while traveling over the years by taking their stamina into account and not underestimating them. We’ve done some awesome stuff that I’ve never blogged about (hiking on the Isle of Skye when the kids were 11 and 8 springs to mind). This summer was no exception. Well, except that now I am blogging about it.

The author rocking a most fashionable rented bike helmet

This summer, my spouse had other commitments when I was scheduled to travel to Rome for a conference, and yet I very much wanted to bring the children. They’re both borderline obsessed with ancient history and Roman mythology (thanks, Rick Riordan and Doctor Who). I rounded up a good friend of mine, Randi Papke, a woman whose son is friends with my eldest (both 14 at the time of our travels) and we made such plans! So, really, parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series are There and Back Again With Two Women Over The Age of 40 And Their Kids. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to my kids the same way I do on social media as Son 1 (age 14) and Son 2 (age 11), and will refer to Randi’s son as, well, Randi’s son.

When we first started talking about traveling in Rome, I asked the three kids to each pick out something they wanted to be sure to do in Italy. While Son 1 had the simple request of finding a store that sold cards in his favorite fantasy game, Son 2 asked for what he always asks for when we travel: a cool bike ride unlike anything we could do at home. No problem, for a mere mile from our AirBnB in Rome lay one of the great wonders of Roman engineering: the Via Appia Antica which once connected Rome with Brindisi, allowing trade (and military movement) to travel hundreds of miles on a cobblestone surface from central Italy to the far southeastern corner of Italy, or what you might think of as the heel of the boot which is the metaphor so often used for the shape of Italy. And along that nearby stretch of the Via Appia Antica lay a large archaeological park in which Catholic Church buildings and homes coexist with sites thousands of years old, including several catacombs open for tours. Given this combination of factors, every single one of the five of us was pretty excited about this option. In fact, we looked forward to it for months.

When we finally arrived in Rome in July, we looked at the weather forecast and blanched: with the exception of one day early on and right at the end, it would be well over 90 Fahrenheit (about 33 Celsius) most days. So we decided to do our bikes trip our first full day in the city when it would only be in the high 80s F (30 C or so). We walked through the neighborhoods between us and the bike rental shop handily located at the northern end of the archaeological park, discovering along the way a grocery store, a whole host of serviceable apartment buildings with balconies trailing flowering vines and verdant with vegetable plants, and grates in the streets filled with cigarette butts. A small detail, but it struck me.

We also passed, at the edge of the archaeological park near the bike shop, one of Rome’s famous Nasoni. These public water fountains take a variety of shapes, but Nasoni (“big noses”) all have crystal clear ice-cold safe drinking water running constantly. Some, like the one at the Vatican Museum, are embedded in statuary. Others, like the one we stumbled across at the edge of the park, are humbly functional and, in the weather we were about to experience, entirely welcome at every turn. We refilled our water bottles and continued on to find our bikes.

The nasone on the edge of the archaeological park. It is a tall grey cylinder with small decorations such as a leaf pattern carved into the domed top. A spigot sticks out the side, and clear water streams from it. The part of the Nasoni below the spigot is brownish-greenish from algae growth but the water and the metal of the spigot are pristine.

The EcoBike shop appears on maps as Centro Servizi Appia Antica. It has bikes for children as well as adults–not as good as our ones at home, but perfectly serviceable–as well as a wide range of bike helmets and bike locks. They also rent e-bikes and electric golf carts for folks who might have reasons to not pedal as their primary source of power, and offer tours on bike or otherwise. But we are the ride-around-a-self-guided-tour sort of folks, so it was much appreciated when EcoBike staff provided a map of the archaeological park and oriented us to traffic patterns including how to take a side street with very few cars until we got to the section of the Via Appia Antica where cars are no longer allowed except for residents. Not coincidentally, it turned out, that section is also the one that is paved with ancient cobbles which you can technically ride a bike on but which we found ourselves moving up onto the well-worn dirt paths on the side to avoid. I wouldn’t have wanted to bike the rest of Rome without a better sense of the local unspoken rules of the road, but this experience was no trouble at all. The few vehicles we encountered seemed to expect to encounter us, and were slow and patient.

Son 2 circling back to see whether I was slow due to taking pictures or just… slow.

The views were pretty amazing right from the get go, with ruins just casually scattered, well… everywhere. The local cicadas filled the air with their hot summer buzz, and a good cross-breeze added to the wind of our passage without giving us too much of a headwind. In short order, we discovered astoundingly old and modern things along it dating back 2000 years and as recently as pretty darned modern, and also bars and eateries and nasoni at regular intervals.

I was, at this particular moment, a bad blogger as I completely failed to make a note of which structure this was. There were so. many. structures. It was amazing.

We were surprised to discover that a number of the sites, including the first catacombs we stopped at, were closed for the noon hour. This is pretty common, as we would learn. So we carried on until we came to one that was open continuously. We stopped to enter, buy tickets for a tour, grab some ice cream while we waited to be able to enter the catacombs, and then see what there was to be seen at the Catacombs of San Sebastian. The ice cream was, by this point, a needful thing. Everyone got something containing sugar at cold temperatures while we waited in the shade on the not-as-cool-as-you’d-think marble steps.

Son 2 knows where it’s at on a hot day after some hard work.

One of the folks working the snack bar had a tip jar out for a very charming reason so I dropped them a Euro in support.

A tip jar in a snack bar at the Catacombs of San Sebastian reads “Help I need Money for Techno Party”

The catacombs of San Sebastian were well worth the few Euros for a tour down into the coolness below the earth, out of the hot and the sun, our hair already caked with dried sweat. The history was only half the draw, but such history! No pictures allowed, alas, below ground. The catacombs themselves were the Ur catacombs, as it were: the first below-grown burial chambers to be called “catacomb.” When Christianity first spread to Rome, its adherents did not follow Roman cremation traditions. Instead, they needed a place to put their dead that would not leave them prone to being eaten by wild animals or destroyed by their persecutors. The abandoned quarry beyond the city walls that became the catacombs of San Sebastian was perfect for these purposes. But the church above ground was magnificent, with a ceiling decorated in a style not unlike the Sistine Chapel but in much bolder colors and textures, with trays demarcating one piece of art from another but covering the entire surface in a riot of gilt and jewel tones. No inch of that ceiling was left unattended.

We left the church of San Sebastian and sat for a moment in the shaded courtyard behind the cafe under flowering vines until everyone was feeling up for pedaling on through the hotness. We had, in what would have been clever if it hadn’t been so fortuitous, spent the brightest part of the blazingly sunny day underground and inside or sitting in the shade with cold drinks/food.

The Via Appia Antica recedes into the distance, lined with tall narrow evergreen trees. To the left, we see a ruined segment of wall, and behind it a modern home with a bright green garage door and a small white car parked in front of it. To the right, we see a low wall and a black sign reading, in both Italian and English, “The Ancient Via Appia, with its monuments and trees, is an indivisible and unique complex, recognizes as a monument of significant national interest. It symbolizes a monumental historical landmark of everyone’s heritage. You have to respect and protect it for future generations.” There are also some QR codes which we could presumably have used to pull up further information, in different languages.

We carried on and began to reach the old parts of the road, a combination of more recent tiny even cobbles and old giant square-foot cobbles worn by thousands of years of traffic in which one could sometimes see what might have been wagon wheel ruts.

On the left, you see a close up of the worn, giant cobbles. This part was very uncomfortable to ride on and we hopped up onto more recent even cobbles along the side or, farther down the road, up onto worn tracks in the soft arid dirt on either side of the road. The cobbles shine in the sun, pitted by the years. On the right, Randi pushes on ahead of me, riding on the more recent even cobbles with the oldest part of the road to the side. The kids are way in front. Behind the walls are residences.

We did reach a point where we just couldn’t go any farther having decided we were about halfway done. The road surface and the heat had taken its toll. Before we turned around and headed back, though, we took a group selfie. We weren’t out of good, yet!

Left to Right: Me, then taller Son 1 and shorter Son 2, then Randi’s Son, then Randi. We are all smiling, having decide to just sweat and not worry about it. You can see the soft dirt paths alongside the ancient cobbles and, in the distance, ruined walls soft with erosion as well as Italy’s distinctive stone pine AKA “umbrella pines” whose lower branches self-prune as they grow to great heights.

Along the way back, we stopped at a sandwich shop. It was delicious, but a lot of the flavor came from hunger which is, as they say, the best sauce. The cold beer Randi had was, she attested, perhaps more necessary than any cold beer that came before it.

It was a footsore, butt bouncing delight to walk to the Via Appia Antica, ride it, walk around, ride back, and return on foot. I confess that for the last mile or so of the ride, I was up on my pedals cause ain’t no way my butt was going to sit that seat another second. Up on pedals, wind in your hair through the slats in the helmet, on a good surface after a hard day’s work in the hot sun with an ancient city laid out before you kinda can’t be beat.

I took two videos for y’all if you want a sense of it, at different points on the ride, first farther out on the road where the trees and the fields open up (well outside what would have been the city walls of old Rome) and then on our way back in to return the bikes passing through the residential area. You can hear the cicadas hard at work, and the bicycle bell on my bike gently tinging from the bumps.

When we got back to our place, replete and exhausted, I noticed the literal mark of a good day riding.

The author’s leg, taken from above. There is a big dirty tire mark up the middle of her shin.

Next up in Part 2 of There and Back Again: we flee the heat and crowds of the city of Rome for an afternoon in the hills kayaking and swimming in a volcanic crater lake.


Scorn and Fetishization of Food: Gender Norms, Bacon (mmm… bacon), and Pumpkin Spice Lattes (like, yum!)

AUTHOR’s NOTE: This blog entry includes image captions that are rich image descriptions to convey the most relevant content to readers who don’t perceive the same content in the images as does the author, for whatever reason. As they do contain content, I recommend reading them where you might otherwise skip captions.

Feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky has written that femininity is a disciplinary regime that not only subjects women to the judgment of the male gaze but also, in a modernization of patriarchal power, causes them to internalize those judgments and recast them on both other women and upon themselves whenever they turn their mind’s eye upon their own bodies and behaviors.  Masculinity also functions in this way, preventing men from being their full selves and penalizing them for deviating from gender norms. However, as Marilyn Frye has observed, men who restrict themselves in order to conform to gender norms gain social power (taking up more space, dominating discussions, exerting power, etc.) by doing so while women lose social power (becoming smaller, giving way in discourse, attaching themselves to those in power, etc.). In this blog entry, I am going to take these ideas about the power of gender norms, which includes food behaviors, and apply them to a bit of internet culture that has come across my radar recently in the form of a meme.


CAPTION: The image shows a screenshot of a discussion forum in which a user says “the social acceptability of bacon culture vs. the hatred of pumpkin spice culture” and “this is an example of misogyny. because male interests are always cool and female interests are always shameful.”

Now, it is certainly possible that the simple fact that many women like bacon and many men like pumpkin spice is a counterexample for this argument. However, almost none of the images and text I have found in internet culture associate bacon with femininity and pumpkin spice lattes with masculinity, while many do the reverse.  I believe there is something to this claim however simple it’s presentation here.  It is not simply who has the interests. Rather, it is that the interests pertain to food. And food is highly gendered. Indeed, the positive valence of bacon in internet culture, combined with the negative valence of pumpkin spice in internet culture, indicates that something else is likely at work.

Consider the following series of images which illustrate these valences and some of their content.


CAPTION: There are 4 memes in a 2×2 grid.  One shows actor and action movie star Liam Neeson looking very serious with the text “If you try to pass off turkey bacon as real bacon one more time I WILL FIND YOU AND KILL YOU.”  A second shows celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey yelling at an Asian woman in the kitchen and saying “This bacon is so undercooked it’s trying to pull me over for speeding.” A third shows a picture of rapper Xzibit smiling and laughing with the text “You dawg I heard you like bacon. So I put bacon on your bacon so you can eat bacon with your bacon.”  The fourth and final image shows the Dos Equis beer brand’s spokesman (The Most Interesting Man In The World) with the text “I don’t always eat bacon. But when I do, I put extra bacon on my bacon.”

Note how the visual and textual content is masculine: not only are men overwhelmingly pictured, but many are aggressive, as in the Liam Neeson image in which he delivers a bacon-related threat while maintaining a stoic face, and the image of a celebrity chef yelling at kitchen staff for improperly preparing bacon. Note also that the Neeson meme specifically not only lauds bacon from pigs, but demeans the lower salt, lower fat bacon made from turkeys. I doubt it is a coincidence that lower salt and lower fat turkey bacon has a connotation of being better for dieting, and dieting in turn has a feminine connotation. Consider the experiments conducted by Luke Zhu and his colleagues on priming—how culture imprints concepts in our minds—and food.  Zhu’s team asked 93 adults to consider the following foods and say whether they were masculine or feminine: baked chicken vs. fried chicken, baked potatoes vs. French fries, light potato chips versus regular potato chips, and baked fish versus fried fish.  People tended to see healthier options as feminine and unhealthier ones as masculine.

The images above also involve excessive consumption, itself a kind of unhealthy risk-taking: would you like bacon on your bacon? Xzibit is ready to offer you some and the Most Interesting Man In The World always has extra!  Compare this with the classic image of women eating small salads alone with apparently great joy.


CAPTION: This image, a screen shot of Google search results for the term “women eating salad”, shows many women eating small bowls of salad smiling and laughing, alone, while they move food towards their mouths, but never actually chewing. Most appear to be white, though there is one who may be racialized as Asian. None would be deemed black, and few could be racialized latina on appearance alone.

Both aggression and excessive consumption are traits associated with what RW Connell calls hegemonic masculinity. This form of masculinity is the one that is dominant in a given culture, and generally promotes the dominant social position of men while subordinating the social position of even gender-conforming women and of other people with subordinate or non-conforming gender identities. In US culture, it tends to be characterized by violence/aggression, emotional restraint except with respect to anger displays, dominance displays, risk-taking, and competitiveness.  All of this helps to make sense of why eating fatty, salty meat in large quantities lines up with hegemonic masculinity quite so well.  As writer Juliana Roth has said,

Embedded into our very cultural fabric is a connection between meat and the stereotypical masculine realms of American life: sports, weight lifting, bar culture, cars, running a family. Imagine the Super Bowl without buffalo wings, or watching March Madness over salads instead of burgers and beer.

Now consider the scrutiny that women fall under when they eat in public, where women’s eating is too often seen as shameful.  Indeed, the constant notion that one’s behavior, like one’s body, is subject to the gaze of others—and the internalization of this gaze—is classic Bartky-style disciplinary regime. Such regimes are meant to control, not to benefit the one who is disciplined.

As I have written elsewhere: “There is some pretty good evidence that dieting and food surveillance do indeed result in disordered eating and in unhealthful weight-control behaviors.  Emphasis on food control and shaming as a means of meeting social expectations has serious pitfalls…”  With this in mind, let us return to the subject of the original comment that sparked this reflection, and consider how pumpkin spice latte consumption is often—not always, but illuminatingly frequently—framed.  Consider the following illustrative memes, how they interpolate the consumer of pumpkin spice latte as female, and what attitudes or behaviors or dress or other characteristics are associated with that consumer.


CAPTION: These four images are common internet memes about pumpkin spice latte consumption. The first image shows Ryan Gosling, whose “hey, girl…” has amusingly been adopted for feminist Ryan Gosling memes. This, however, is not perhaps so feminist. Over Ryan Gosling’s image, stoic-faced in a plain white t-shirt with his arm muscles showing, are the words “Hey girl, I got you a pumpkin spice latte, let’s stay home and talk about our favorite parts of fall.”  In the second image, a background of an autumn tree has upon it the words “If you look in the mirror and say ‘pumpkin spice latte’ three times, a white suburban girl in yoga pants will appear and tell you everything she loves about fall.”  In the third image, there is only an orange background and the words “I spilled my Pumpkin Spice Latte, and now a bunch of ants are making brunch plans and doing yoga.”  In the fourth image, we have a version of the “first world problems” meme type which always uses the same image of a white woman crying; the overlying text says “I want a pumpkin spice latte. But Starbucks doesn’t sell them until September.”  In the final image, a Tampax box is pictured with an orange stripe across it, orange wrappers seen through the transparent portion of the box, and the words “pumpkin spice” across the orange stripe.

As we can see, all four of these portrayals of pumpkin spice are heavily gendered—is there anything more gendered than feminine hygiene products? They also tend to conceive of the pumpkin spice latte not just as female, but as a “girl” rather than a woman, thus implying immaturity.

However, the above images are also raced and classed: “white suburban girl” in “yoga pants”, and the implicit “first world problems” nature of the fact that these beverages cannot be consumed at Starbucks until September.  This complicates matters somewhat. I would be interested to hear the reader’s thoughts on the role of race and class, as well as gender, in social judgments on food.  I am sure we can think of types of food or ways of consuming food that are raced, classed, and gendered.  One of the most distressing stereotypes of black southern folks is the “fried chicken and watermelon” allusion, which is also associated with inarticulate, lazy, easily frightened, useless buffoons. This racialized food imagery has been used in the media by some people to re-center President Obama’s and Michelle Obama’s blackness (search “Obama” in the previous link) and was used by a private girls’ school in Northern California to incorporate Black History Month into lunch time with a lunch of these items and cornbread.

But for the moment, let’s leave what I believe to be the clear fact that pumpkin spice latte is a food that is raced, gendered, and classed.  Let’s look at some of the demeaning responses to pumpkin spice latte consumption.


CAPTION: There are four images. The first image is a modified cell from a Batman and Robin comic book. It shows a costumed Batman slapping Robin across the face as though to snap him out of some delusional state. Robin is saying “Pumpkin Spice Latte, Pumpkin Spice Cookies, Pumpkin Spice…” and Batman, while hitting him, is saying “PUMPKINS ARE FOR CARVING!” in much bigger text as though yelling. In the second image, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey is seen leaning forward, bent at the waist, face fully forward, yelling “PUMPKING SPICE?!? The only ‘flavor’ I want in my coffee is whisky!”  In the third image, a deliberately stereotypically dorky looking man is smiling and laughing in self-mockery.  The words overlayed on the image say “I like pumpkin spice. F*ck me, right?” In the final image, we see a light-skinned woman with long dark hair, smiling with her chin resting on her hand. The superimposed words say “If liking pumpkin spice lattes & wearing uggs makes me a basic white girl, than [sic] please, just call me Becky.” This latter is a reference to a line from a Beyonce song in which the narrator tells her lover that if he is going to treat her badly he can just call “Becky with the good hair,” whereas Urban Dictionary defines a “basic girl” as “your run of the mill white girl that has no identity of her own… like a cracker-jack house in a middle class neighborhood.”

Like the bacon responses to turkey bacon, these demeaning responses to consumption of pumpkin spice latte are masculinized, aggressive and sometimes even violent, in one case valuing alcohol consumption over flavoring in a clear kind of risk-taking, and even in one case self-directed (for failing to meet masculinity norms). Note the reoccurrence of a certain celebrity chef who seems to crop up in masculine food memes. Disliking pumpkin spice latte is strongly associated with masculine ways of expressing dislike, as in these popular memes. And like the images of pumpkin spice latte consumption more generally, they are not only gendered but also classed (Uggs) and raced (“basic white girl”; “call me Becky”).

I’ve tried to show how gender, class, and race are working in reinforcing ways to frame our thinking about pumpkin spice latte consumption, but I think that bacon is framed almost exclusively in terms of gender.  Agree or disagree with respect to my claims about these particular foods, it is clear that there is some loaded rhetoric here, carrying a heavy cargo of gendered fetishization and scorn. And even when bacon and pumpkin spice lattes are long gone, some foods will continue to carry such cargo.

Now, I am off to eat bacon with my hands and drink me a pumpkin spice latte while wearing trousers and a good bra.