A Seat at the Table

December 29, 2013

Our trip is slowly drawing to a close – by Monday we’ll be embarking on what looks like being two days of torture-by-travel, complete with an oh-god-hundred hour start, a six hour layover in Salt Lake City followed by an overnight flight to Manchester via Paris (and who even knew you could fly direct from Utah to Paris…) and then home by train on New Year’s Eve with whatever the weather gods have left to throw at us after all the that’s been going on in the last fortnight.

Today we made the most of the time we had left, getting out for one last day in the mountains. On the way back, taking the scenic route, stopped by Bishop’s Castle, which is basically a castle built single-handedly by one man who – when he’s not building castles – apparently fills in the time writing signs.

bishops castle bishops castle2

We were going to explore further but, frankly, the tide of crazy (I missed out the sign which proved conclusively that the constitution meant you didn’t need a driver’s license because I was getting a bit worried about the guy in front of us in full camo muttering ‘Amen’ as he slowly read each sign) just sort of pushed us back into the car.

laminated photos

Then tonight we decided to fortify ourselves and headed off to one of the approximately 17,000 Mexican restaurants in Pueblo for some decent Mexican food.* We drove down to Jorge’s Sombrero, and were promptly seated at a booth for four where the table was covered in laminated photographs of some event or other which we didn’t pay much attention to because the chips and salsa arrived promptly and there were menus to peruse (and in my case desperately try and remember the difference between a taco and a tostada and a fajita and a burrito and which one wasn’t going to end up blowing my head off). At least until the other half peered a little closer and said ‘isn’t that Barack Obama’ and lo and behold it was.

Barack Obama

For we weren’t just in any booth – we were at the President’s table. It seems he stopped by for a quiet family meal with just Michelle, Sasha, Malia and the assembled press corps during the 2008 election. This kind of surprised us as Colorado comes across as a pretty conservative place where about 90% of the billboards are advertising gun shows (the other 10% urge us to ‘put Christ back into Christmas) and the mall has to have a sign on the door saying ‘no weapons’ -although, thinking about it, the 17,000 Mexican restaurants might have been something of a clue that the demographics aren’t entirely 100% redneck. But it turns out that more than half of Coloradoans voted Democrat in 2008 – including much of Pueblo county

Although I’m guessing the creator of Bishop’s Castle wasn’t among them.

* note to any British readers – if you have only ever eaten Mexican food in some sort of themed joint where tequila shots are semi compulsory, and 98% of the clientele are stag and/or hen nights and the food is, frankly, irrelevant, then you haven’t actually eaten Mexican food. Come to Pueblo (or, at a pinch, Mexico) and find out for yourselves.

Crossing Continents

December 28, 2013

One of the downsides of being 7 time zones behind the bulk of your normal twitter peeps is that the evenings are long and silent (on twitter, obviously – I could talk to the actual people around me but let’s not go mad here) whereas when I’m blearily checking what’s going on while having my morning coffee everyone else is half way through their day and ready to discuss pedestrian countdown timers and flashing amber signals and other such important matters in great detail.*

So, despite my blood-coffee levels being rather low, I was drawn into a conversation about one of the things I dislike about American roads (I mean, apart from the fact that even the residential roads here are wider than Big A Road at home, so crossing anything more than a cul de sac takes serious sprinting ability) which is the way that even when you’ve got the green man, the cars turning left or right also have a green light so they have to give way to the pedestrians. And while they mostly do (although not when there’s something important to get to, as I’ve found in the past) I’m not that keen on sharing MY light cycle with a bunch of people in enormous pickup trucks.

The problem is that there’s a school of thought among cycle people that we should switch to doing a similar thing in the UK, because this allows for separate light cycles for bikes without messing too much with the traffic (or something – I’ve never really sat down and gone through the reasoning). They argue that the Dutch and the Danes and in fact everywhere except the UK has drivers turning across pedestrians crossing on the green man so it should be fine, but I’m not convinced. For a start not *everything* the Dutch do is wonderful (scooters in bike lanes, cheese for breakfast, the whole clog thing) and for another start, Dutch drivers have had years to learn that when you turn left or right you’ve got to check for pedestrians even if you have a green light, whereas UK drivers have had the same amount of time to learn that green means go, like now, come on what are you waiting for? Given how reluctant they are to stop for people on zebra crossings, what are the chances that a driver with a green light will give way to some poor pedestrian who thought that the green man might actually mean it was safe to cross? And besides, I have long been of the opinion that making things better for bikes should NOT be at the expense of making things rubbish for pedestrians, however much sense it might make otherwise. So the fact that only the UK has pedestrian-only phases at junctions should be something to celebrate, not do away with.

So this leaves us with the problem of how to fit in bike phases of the lights as well as all the other phases (assuming we’re not just going to let the cars wait until nightfall…). So I had a brilliant idea (hey, it was early): we already have ‘green scrambles’ for pedestrians where all traffic stops in all 4 directions and the pedestrians can cross any way they want to. The Dutch also have them for bikes, which works pretty well too. So how about this, at any busy city 4-way junction: first the pedestrians get their green light and can go in any direction. Then the bikes get their green light to go in any direction. And finally the cars get their green light to go or turn in any direction, negotiating amongst themselves who gets to go in what order. The shared-space people would love it because they’re always claiming that there’s nothing better than a little uncertainty to make the cars behave. And for anyone else who’s thinking ‘but that would be carnage!’ then I respectfully submit that so would it be if we suddenly changed the rules so drivers could turn into roads where pedestrians were crossing with the green man, only the pedestrians would have even less chance than the other drivers…

Anyway, this is all just a long winded way of explaining why I’m not a traffic engineer (thankfully) so I leave the last word to Karl-on-Sea for his winning suggestion

Oh, and it was gloriously sunny and warm again today, but I’m trying not to bang on about it.

* I gather there is a whole other twitter out there where people talk about reality television programmes and send each other pictures of cats but what can you say, I seem to have fallen in among traffic engineers…

Merry Christmas

December 24, 2013

tiny christmas tree

We’ve been following the weather in the wind-and-rain-battered UK with a mixture of anxiety and relief. I hope everyone reading this made it where they wanted to get to for Christmas.

And once you’re safely indoors with the hatches battened down you could do worse than have a play with this – a hypnotic wind map of the earth… enjoy.

May all your winds be tailwinds for 2014

Getting Our Money’s Worth

December 23, 2013

We were out at the State Park yesterday, which meant shelling out $7 for a ticket for the car (it was too cold and too far to be a pleasant bike ride, realistically, although we have done it before). The ticket lasts until noon the next day so this morning we decided we’d better head out again and get the full value from it (and yes we have been living in Scotland for five years and your point is?)

There are a number of different entrances to the park, and we were heading past one when we spotted a large number of birds circling up above a small lake. They turned out to be gulls – but as we slowed down to have a look, we realised that what had disturbed them was a bald eagle. We needed no more encouragement to stop and park and take a closer look.

morning sunshine on the river

We only saw the eagle again once, but we did spend a lovely morning pottering around doing some proper birdwatching, something we’ve been shamefully neglectful of recently. Not just looking for eagles – anyone can appreciate an eagle – but spending ages trying to identify a nondescript sparrow (American sparrows are an absolute bugger – there’s hundreds of them and not only do all the species look pretty similar to each other, but individual species vary widely in appearance). In the end we decided it must either be a new bird to science or a Song Sparrow on the grounds that it was the closest and the bird book not-very-helpfully said there were 30 different races ‘not all shown here’. It’s sometimes the least-spectacular birds that make for the most satisfying experiences, although it doesn’t always feel that way as you page through the book trying to match up description, picture, distribution maps, and actual bird which always manages to show you every feature except the crucial eye-ring, wing bar, tail notch or chest patch that will definitively distinguish it from 13 other similar-looking species. It helped that, while still cold, it was gloriously sunny and still and, apart from the fishermen,* almost deserted so the little birds mostly stuck around, although the ducks were more flighty – sensibly, as they shoot ducks round these parts.

ice and sunshine on the lake

In short, a morning well spent (despite the distressing lack of donut shops on the ride home. In America. I know). And capped off by going for another walk in the afternoon and seeing a Great Horned Owl at close quarters, apparently just hanging out and enjoying basking in the sun.

I know exactly how it feels

* I believe that under Colorado State law that there must be a taciturn man in waders standing in the water every thirty feet along every suitable stretch of river. Certainly we’ve yet to find one where there isn’t.

Committing Pedestrianism

December 20, 2013

I suppose in the interests of strict accuracy, I should report that it’s not always blue skies and gloriously sunny weather here – while yesterday we had lunch sitting in the sun before going on a 3-hour bike ride, today the temperature barely crept above freezing, and we decided it might be time for some of those car-based errands we’d been putting off while the weather was so gorgeous, like going to the grocery store and the giant bookshop and other shops surrounded by acres of parking. And hunting down the mysterious pop-up baklava shop that had no website and appeared to be in an abandoned used car lot, if Google Streetview was anything to go by…

We decided that we’d better do something a little bit active as well, especially if we did find that baklava shop, so we headed down to the riverwalk where you can walk a mile, sponsored by Toyota (the river was actually diverted away from the city centre after it flooded the whole place, but when they wanted to create somewhere for people to walk, they diverted some of it back as long as it promised to behave).

toyota_mile toyota_mile_2

For those who find walking sedately around a glorified duck pond a bit tame, you can always try sprinting across the roads instead…

downtown street

It’s fortunate the drivers around here are mostly pretty patient, but there’s no doubt that round here the car is king. Outside of a tiny historic downtown area, and the mall of course, even parking and walking from shop to shop just feels, well, wrong. Not illegal or anything, but wrong. Well, maybe a little bit illegal if you don’t cross in the crosswalks. If you want to walk and not get funny looks, get a dog. Or stick to the Toyota mile…

Oh and the baklava? We found it in the abandoned used car lot as promised, and it proved absolutely delicious if a little calorific. Looks like we’ll need to do a few more circuits of that riverwalk pretty soon….

Lunch with a View

December 18, 2013

fire towerWe swapped biking for hiking today – although I made the mistake of dressing for the mountains in December, instead of, say, Miami. There’s a bit of a Chinook going on at the moment which means it’s unseasonably warm, even for here. There’s something very odd about picking your way along a snowy path while feeling as if you’re about to broil to death.

We’d stopped at a deli on the way to pick up sandwiches as big as our heads, so having climbed far enough and high enough to put a dent in the resulting calories, all we had to do was find a suitable picnic spot – somewhere with a view. Like the fire tower at the top of the trail…

With uninterrupted views of, well, everywhere, basically.



I could get used to this. Actually, I may already have…

pine trees

snowy forest roads

We Interrupt this Broadcast…

December 16, 2013

… of sunny skies and glorious weather (high of 65°F today and counting) to bring you news of home. It turns out that our very own Papershop Village was considered and then rejected for a trial of 20mph speed limits on trunk roads. This is good news for the Muckle Toon, which is included and desperately needs it, but a bit of a blow for Papershop Village which equally needs a bit of a break. It’s bisected by Big A Road and although there’s a 30mph speed limit through the village (by no means a given around here) the traffic through it is heavy and somewhat reluctant to actually slow down.

So why hasn’t it been included? Well, Transport Scotland’s explanation is:

“…for the period of the assessment, there were no recorded vulnerable road user accidents. In addition, the nature of the carriageway does not support the use of a self-enforcing 20mph speed limit. The key objective of the proposed 20 mph limits is to improve safety for vulnerable road users and, in this instance, there is no case for reducing the speed limit.”

Hmm. Quite apart from the whole morality of basing your road designs on the body count – rather than, say, making the roads safer before somebody’s parent, child, sibling or partner has been harmed – it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The only person I’ve ever seen crossing the road at Papershop Village is the postman, and he does it at a sprint. Hell, even I don’t cross the road at Papershop village, even though this means breaking the law (yes indeed I am one of those scofflaw cyclists you love to hate). I’m not sure how those inhabitants who live on the wrong side of Big A Road actually get to the shop – they might be better off just getting into their cars and driving there – but it’s not surprising that very few ‘vulnerable road users’ (that’s ‘people’ to you and me, by the way) have been injured because it’s not a road you’d use lightly unless you were safely in your car.

As for the ‘self-enforcing’ thing, that appears to mean ‘we’re only going to put 20mph speed limits on roads where you’d be hard pressed to do more anyway’, which makes you wonder why they bother. And besides, as I’ve said before, it would be perfectly simple to narrow the carriageway and slow the road by encouraging everyone to park in it instead of on the pavement as they do now. Traffic slows down, pavements are free to walk on, I’d be able to cycle safely on the road – everyone wins except those people who object to getting to the ferry all of 45 seconds later than they would have otherwise. Why I’ve not been put in charge of Transport Scotland by now, I will never know.

Anyway, back to sunshine and cycling and general gadding about tomorrow…

They See Bikes Too

December 15, 2013

I’ll say this for the drivers of Colorado – they have this uncanny ability to see bicycles. Coming up to an intersection on the way down to the river path yesterday I could see a line of cars queuing to turn across my path and started to brake, assuming that even if they did see me they would continue to turn either on the grounds that I was on a bike and thus obviously going too slowly to worry about, or that I was on a bike and thus didn’t matter. But no, as I got to the junction the massive pick up waiting to turn sat there still waiting to turn until I had got safely out of the way. And then on the way back, turning into a petrol station for essential lubricants (chapstick) and fuel (Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls), the car waiting to pull out waited until I had pulled in. And if you’re reading this waiting for the surprising part of the story, then you haven’t cycled much in any British city.

But it’s not just on the bike. On foot, the cars actually stop when you want to cross the road, even if they are some way away or turning, which is fortunate as it will be at least a week before I can work out which way to look before crossing the road. There’s none of the UK-style game of chicken that you need to play to assert your rights on a zebra crossing where the drivers only grudgingly stop once you’ve stepped out into the road and only then if you pretend you can’t see them and act as if you’re going to walk right across the road in front of them – they just roll to a stop and wait patiently for you to cross, which given the width of the roads around here could be a while. Then again, it may be merely astonishment at seeing someone on foot at all.

And it’s not even just the drivers. Walking through the University campus this afternoon, some young skateboarders were tooling about at the entrance to the building we were headed for. ‘Stop and let these people past’ one young lad admonished his friend before he could launch himself down the steps we were heading for. I don’t know what the youth of today is coming to, frankly. Perhaps they’re just practising for the day when they have cars of their own and can freak the hell out of a visiting UK cyclist by noticing they exist.

I See Bikes

December 14, 2013

It’s an occupational hazard of spending too much time looking at bikes on the internet that I start to notice them everywhere. And I suppose it’s an occupational hazard of being married to me that the other half can’t even spend an innocent layover in Atlanta without having me exclaiming over the airport’s Fire Rescue bikes (and Fire Rescue chaps – confusingly they’re medics, not firemen) and going over to ask if they minded me photographing their bikes (he did take the opportunity to ask them about the best place to eat while we were there). It will come as no surprise to anyone who cycles anywhere at all to learn that the bikes can get to an emergency faster than anything else, nor that even though they have awesomely loud sirens on their bikes (they demonstrated) people don’t get out of the way and get annoyed at the bikes trying to get past. And it will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that seeing the bikes was pretty much the only good part of the whole journey.

fire rescue bike

Still, we made it, and we woke this morning to a bright sunny day which rapidly got up to a decent temperature. The bikes in the in-laws’ garage are about to get their annual three weeks of exercise, starting today with a quick trip down the river trail to check that all was in order.

wooden bridge

It was.

blue skies


More Testing Times

December 11, 2013

We’re off to the US tomorrow, via an airport hotel this evening (I should probably pack) so stand by for what I hope will be a few weeks of bright winter sunshine, cycling adventures and cookies. Apart from the usual worries of travelling (I would feel more confident, for example, if the online check in would actually let me check in, although on the plus side, if it won’t at the airport then at least I won’t have to fly anywhere), there’s a slight worry about coming back in as they seem to have instituted a quiz to let people back in. Now, my informant on this is a man in a hat at a bus stop in Bigtown* so it may not be 100% reliable, but it was a very nice hat. According to him the process goes like this

Airport official: Are you British?

Man in Hat: Of course not, I’m Scottish.

AO: Well, can you tell me the name of the naval hero of Trafalgar?

MIH: Admiral de Villeneuve

AO: (I suspect quite exasperated by now) Who is the Archbishop of Canterbury then?

MIH: Whit kind of a question is that to ask a Scot? John Knox

AO: And who was the wartime leader who defeated the Nazis?

MIH: Eamon de Valera

He admitted that the last one was a bit cheeky – but he still seemed genuinely outraged about the Archbishop of Canterbury question. I hadn’t realised the Presbyterian battles were still so fresh in the folk memory. Despite all this, they seem to have let him in anyway – you’d have thought just asking for his passport would have been easier. But should Scotland ever get independence, I’m hoping they don’t institute a similar system as I would surely fail…

* I can blame the Brompton for this one as it starts more conversation than a dog. ‘Can you no make it any smaller?’ was his opening gambit