Archive for May, 2009

Up (not U.P.)

Saturday, 30th May 2009; 10:02 am - Location:

up-pixar-posterAt the risk of turning this into a movie blog, I want to mention another movie relevant to my trip: Up, the latest masterpiece from Pixar. The adverts tell you the basic premise: a brusque old man launches his house into the air with balloons, and with an earnest young tag-along, has a great adventure.

But like any Pixar feature, there’s much more to the story than the plot summary. You see, Carl Fredricksen wasn’t always a solitary old man; he had a childhood friend who became his soulmate Ellie, and together they dreamed of the adventure they would have together. But the unavoidable complications of life got in the way, and then the unavoidable complication of her death did. If you and the person you love are still together, this movie is a reminder not to put things off so long that you don’t get a chance to do them together; for others (like me) for whom that’s too late, it’s an encouragement not to let that loss stop you from doing it anyway.

But again, there’s another level to the story. In the end Carl needs to let Ellie and their dream go, and begin his own adventure. Without her. I’m trying to do that. I’m sure Andy would have loved scootering around Lake Michigan with me, and I wish to God we could take the trip together. Or even just sit together on our (perfectly stationary) front porch. But we can’t. So what do I do now? I don’t know. But maybe a scoot by myself around Lake Michigan is part of it.

Easy Scooter

Friday, 29th May 2009; 11:28 am - Location:

I may be old, but I was way too young to see Easy Rider when it was in theaters back in ’69. (The Love Bug was more my speed.) But it’s a legendary, landmark piece of cinema, one of the key films of the post-studio/pre-blockbuster era of the 1970s, and it’s about guys on a road trip riding motorbikes, so I figured I should see it before my ride.

The movie stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as Wyatt and Billy (think “Earp” and “the Kid”), bikers who smuggle some coke into the U.S. and sell it to Phil Spector, then set out from L.A. toward Florida, where they plan to live on the money they’ve made from the deal. Various things happen along the way, and something big happens right at the end, but that’s really the “plot” of the movie. What the movie is “about” is them and the people they encounter. These include a hippie hitchhiking to his commune, an alcoholic ACLU lawyer (Jack Nicholson), a couple Nawlins prostitutes, and a variety of “regular folk” (both decent and not).

Billy and Wyatt are the subject of both fascination and hostility for their “long hair” and scruffy appearance, which seems a little bizarre by today’s standards. It would never cross my mind to accuse shaggy, mustached Dennis Hopper of looking like a girl, and Peter Fonda’s haircut looks downright conservative to me. Not a body piercing, or tat to be seen. As one of their two-wheeling kin, I find it fascinating that these motorcycle-riding characters were once an archetype of menace to society. Maybe if they’d driven scooters instead of choppers…

Anyway, I suspect I’ll turn some heads along the way, but presumably in amusement, not fear and loathing.

New photo gear

Tuesday, 26th May 2009; 1:10 pm - Location:

I commented previously about the question of which photo gear to bring with me: the digital all-in-one with the huge storage capacity, or the 35mm SLR with nicer controls and an assortment of lenses from 24mm-500mm. I’ve solved that dilemma by getting a new camera that pretty closely covers both bases.

sp-570uzIt’s the Olympus SP-570UZ, a recent descendant of my 5-year-old digital camera (the SP-500UZ). I got it used but in like-new condition from B&H Photo, one of the big New York City camera stores, paying $289 (with shipping) for a customer-returned camera that routinely sells for $400-450. Deal.

The 570UZ doubles the zoom range of the old 500UZ, to 20X. At the wide end, it equals a 26mm lens on a traditional SLR, which is almost as good as my 24mm, and at the long end, it equals a 520mm, which actually surpasses my 500mm mirror lens! The 500UZ’s zoom range starts at 38mm, which in my opinion is not a “wide angle”. I was never even happy with the 28mm that most experienced photogs use as their wide lens (which is why I went with a 24mm), so I consider this a huge improvement. And as long as you have a way to deal with camera shake, you can never have too long a telephoto.

widetele1Speaking of which, one shortcoming of the 500UZ (even when it was new) was the lack of image stabilization, which is a technology that’s possible with digital cameras and very helpful when using a lightweight camera with a long telephoto lens. The 570UZ has it, and with just the little bit of experimentation I’ve done with it, I’m amazed at how sharp the results are, even with a long zoom and a fairly slow shutter speed. I always used to take pride in being able to do 1/15 sec. with a 50mm lens, and this camera just did a pretty sharp 300mm shot at 1/10!

One of the reasons I got the 500UZ instead of one of the other 10X cameras available back then was the fact that (unlike most non-SLR digitals) it wasn’t stuck on “auto everything”. I’ve never liked autofocus (slow and subject to error), and I’m used to selecting exposure parameters myself, and Olympus’ SP line lets you do things manually… after a fashion. Unfortunately, on the 500UZ that’s done by poking at buttons and switches, and watching a read-out on the display instead of twisting controls on the lens, like God obviously intended. The 570UZ changes that… or at least it tries to. It has a ring around the lens that controls a servo to zoom the lens in and out. That’s better than just pushing alternately on “wide” and “tele”, but it’s still not direct control, and it has a bit of lag, which is annoying. It also doesn’t stop when you reach the end, which feels weird. Then when you put the camera on manual focus (which is now a simple switch rather than something you have to find in the on-screen menu, thank you) you can use that same ring to focus (almost) like a real SLR! Unfortunately, it takes an ungodly amount of cranking to get from infinity to close up. Still awkward, but it’s better.. and I’ll take “better”. I just wish they’d get over this digitally-controlled-motor fetish and do manual focus and zoom like an SLR does it.

The 570UZ is noticeably bigger than the 500UZ in every dimension, to the point of being nearly the size of a 35mm SLR with a large standard lens. And when zooming in, the lens extends rather indecently. ๐Ÿ™‚ That’s unfortunate, but it was inevitable with the more complicated zoom lens on this model. It’s still much smaller than a full 35mm kit with lenses would be, which is important when packing everything into the modest storage space of a scooter. And it’s self-contained.

They upped the sensor to 10Mpixels instead of 6Mp, which I don’t really need, but it’s nice to have if I want it. There are also some other new features in the 570UZ, but most of them are gee-whiz bits of artificial-intelligence that I don’t have any use for (e.g. a mode that detects when the subject smiles and snaps the picture at that instant). In effect, I paid just under $100 each to: upgrade the zoom range, add stabilization, and get better controls. (And that’s before selling the old camera.)

The biggest remaining question is what to do about snapshots. I won’t be able to ride with the 570UZ around my neck, and it can be a little time-consuming to start up and slow to adjust, so I’ll want something handy and quick for those oh-quick-look-now moments. I have my decade-old fully-automatic 1.3Mp 3X zoom Olympus D-460, which will fit OK in a jacket pocket. Or there’s the Aiptek PenCam I picked up for $15 on a whim a few years ago. It’s the equivalent of my first store-brand 110 point-and-click back in the 70s: barely tolerable quality, but idiot proof. It’s small and light enough to wear around my neck under my jacket.

Practise day trip

Sunday, 24th May 2009; 7:44 pm - Location: , , , ,

I went on a practise day trip today. I went from home in Grand Rapids, to Saugatuck (on the lakeshore to the southwest), through Holland, up to Grand Haven (on the lakeshore to the northwest), then home. It was a total of 137 miles (according to the odometer, which isn’t very precise), with an elapsed time of about 5 hours, 20 minutes.

I picked this route for several reasons. First, it’s about the same distance I’m planning to ride on some of my longer days on the big trip, to give me a feel for what that’ll be like. Second, it’s fairly familiar territory, so the chances of getting lost were small and the consequences wouldn’t be all that dire. Third, one of the legs (GR to Saugatuck) will be one I’ll be taking on my weekend shakedown cruise, and another leg (Grand Haven to Grand Rapids) will be the first leg of my expedition, so I can try them out. Fourth, that means the segment in between is a section of the Lake Michigan shoreline that I’ll be skipping on both of those rides, so this is a way to include it. And finally, it was a nice place to ride.

The distance turned out to not be a problem. I took very few breaks along the way (and only really got off the scoot to walk around once), largely to test my endurance. I seem to have held up. Riding a scooter isn’t tiring in the same way that a bicycle is (aerobically), but you gotta sit there with your arms out, holding onto the handlebars, maintaining decent posture, fighting the wind for control. etc. I found myself getting a little cramped at times, and when I stopped to walk around the beach in Grand Haven (about 3.5 hours after I started), I had to limp several yards before my hip started working properly. Yeah, I’m not a kid anymore.

I had a few “firsts” on this trip: I “dropped” my scoot for the first time. “Dropped” or “put down” is the peculiarly nonchalant way that scooterists commonly describe it when their bike ends up on the ground… even if the incident involved them doing a midair cartwheel and skidding along the pavement for an eighth of a mile. In this case, it was almost literally true. I wasn’t sure what the next road was that I should be looking for, so I slowed down and pulled off onto the shoulder to check my directions. The pavement just stopped at the shoulder and the gravel/sand was softer than I was prepared for, and I lost balance. At about 2mph. The only harm done to the scooter was getting dusty and the right rearview mirror getting pushed loose (which happens even from a strong wind), so it needed to be screwed back down. The only harm done to me was a small superficial scrape on my knee (through my jeans), a bruised calf, and a slight abrasion on the palm of my hand (I had taken my gloves off to check the map on my iPhone a couple miles earlier, and neglected to put the gloves back on: lesson re-learned).

The other “first” happened several miles later: I ran out of gas. But that was OK, because I did it on purpose. I wanted to see what kind of range this scooter really has, so I filled the tank to the top before I left, and bungeed a full 1.25-gallon gas can to the rear rack. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it the full distance I’d plotted out on the map, which meant that somewhere along the last leg, the tank would empty. I was expecting it when it happened, both because of the distance I’d already gone (116 miles) and because the engine seemed to be gasping a little. Then it cut out, and I coasted to a stop. The tank wasn’t completely empty – I could see a little bit of gasoline sloshing around on the bottom, but it was low enough. So I filled it up again (the gas can holds more than the scooter, apparently), restarted Flash (which took a couple tries before he kept running), and resumed my trip.

Another “first” is that I did in fact get lost. Not seriously, but I missed some turns and each time had to figure out where I was and how to get where I wanted to be. The iPhone was fairly helpful, but not perfect. When you’re away from the city, the first-gen iPhone’s location-detection gets pretty darn vague. Sometimes all it can tell is where the cell tower it’s using is located. But the only place I couldn’t get a signal was when my battery was getting weak, and turning the cell radio off-then-on got me back online. I just had to deal with the fact that it’s slow. And when you’re waiting for it to download street names so you can locate yourself the old-fashioned way on the map, that gets annoying. It’d do in a pinch (assuming cell coverage remained adequate), but I think I’d rather bring a real GPS with me.

As for the ride itself, the route to Saugatuck was mostly roads I’d been on before (either on a bike or in a car), so I knew what to expect. It was some city traffic, followed by a cruise from town to town on the old highway made redundant by I-196 (Chicago Drive), a bit of riding between cornfields, and some more semi-redundant highway (the Blue Star). The main road into downtown Saugatuck was closed (including the bike path, so I couldn’t even walk my scooter), so I didn’t stop there as I’d planned.

The ride from there to Holland was pleasant enough, mostly straight roads cut through the woods on the lee side of the dunes. Because I was hugging the lakeshore, and there’s no way to cross the channel that connects Lake Macatawa to The Lake, I had to take South Shore Drive all the way into downtown Holland (past the pickle plant where Mom worked in olden days), then Ottawa Beach Road back out to Holland State Park. You have to pay to get in to the state park, so I didn’t stop there… then it occurred to me later that I could’ve just bought my annual parking pass today (which I’ll need for the rest of my state park visits), and that would’ve taken care of that. Oh well.

The ride from there to Grand Haven was more curvy and hilly… and at times chilly, because the Lake was just on the other side of the trees and hill to my left. My jacket is designed to keep me cool rather than to keep me warm, and it performed that function very well. There’s lots of nice bike path along this road, but of course I couldn’t use it. When I got to Grand Haven I stopped and walked around the beach a little, snapped some photos to prove I was there, and continued on.

My route from there roughly followed the Grand River, but not very closely after a while, so a good chunk of it (like where I “dropped” my scoot and where I ran out of gas) were on large-grid country roads. I ended up on Lake Michigan Drive, which is the opposite of an obsolete old highway; because it’s the only road to Grand Valley State University’s main middle-of-nowhere campus, it has grown over the past few decades into a big, fast, four-lane, divided highway with a 55mph speed limit. But it’s still moped-legal, and it’s the only way across the Grand River going in that direction. I did OK on it, sometimes slowing to 35mph on hills, as the cars (mercifully few on a Sunday afternoon) breezed past me. Not my favorite road, but way better than an interstate, and it took me directly into GR, where I had a simple ride through the city to my house.

Shakedown cruise flight plan

Saturday, 23rd May 2009; 4:13 pm - Location: , , ,

I’ve set a date and itinerary for the MI way shakedown cruise. I’ll be leaving on Saturday 13th June, spending the night at Warren Dunes State Park just north of Indiana, and returning home the next day. I’ll take Chicago Drive and the Blue Star and Red Arrow Highways there and back, explore the Indiana shoreline a little, maybe sample some Harbor Country wine, and whatever else occurs to me to do.

Looking at the online reservations for the state park, it became clear that weekends later into the summer were going to sell out soon. Even the weekend I’ve chosen only offered a handful of sites left, from nearly 200. (And that’s because my equipment is only a single tent.) I’m guessing a lot of Chicagolanders plan to put their toe over the state line. The weekend before was a little more open, but I have plans then, and the weekend before that is too soon.

See, I’ve decided to make this a fully equipped shakedown, with everything I plan to bring on the long trip, whether I need it or not. But I don’t have it all yet. In particular I need a cargo carrier for the rear rack. Maybe a fancy “top case”, maybe just a covered milk crate… I’m still exploring the options.

But now I have a deadline.

Saranac and back

Sunday, 17th May 2009; 5:20 pm - Location: , ,

The weather was rainy yesterday morning, and I really wasn’t in the mood for a cold overnight, so I didn’t try for a weekend shakedown cruise. Instead I took a smaller intermediate step, taking Flash on a fairly short day trip.

I didn’t have a destination as such. Instead I set out on a route I used to take fairly often on my bicycle, back when I rode frequently for recreation and exercise. I took Ada Drive all the way out to Ada (a nice little town that’s incongruously the world headquarters of Amway), then picked up Grand River Drive. This road runs loosely parallel to the interstate, so it’s low traffic, and following the south bank of the river, it’s not very hilly. It’s the sort of road I hope to spend most of my time on for my excursion around the Lake.

I cruised past Lowell (which is about the farthest I’ve gone on my bike) and continued on to Saranac, about 30 miles from home. I road a few blocks through the town, but I was feeling a little chilly, so I headed back for home. It was a total of about 60 miles and a couple hours, which is roughly half of what I plan to do in a day on the road.

In addition to being under 60ยบF, it was also pretty windy. I knew that heading out, and figured it would be good practise: riding with the wind (mostly) at my back on the way out, and in my face on the way back. I definitely handled the wind with more confidence than my first nervous ride out to Ada, the weekend after getting the scooter. And I think the scooter handled it better as well, with the speedometer reading 40mph (which probably means 35mph) even with a headwind.

Certainly not a major challenge, but another step toward the big adventure.