Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Scottish Fiddle Contest

The second weekend in October is always overbooked with the Seaside Highland Games, the Goleta Old-Time Fiddlers Convention, and AYSO. Something has to go and we made one good and one bad decision this year. The good one was that right after Anya's soccer game on Saturday, the whole family hopped into the car to drive to Ventura. Was getting a bit stressful with traffic, but we made it just in time for the 1-2 pm round of the Scottish Fiddle Contest.

There are not very many Scottish Fiddle Contest around, in fact, this may be the only one in California. It is organized by Shauna Pickett-Gordon, who with her husband founded the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles and now runs the Peninsula Scottish Fiddlers group. Colyn Fischer, a national champion himself, is the judge. The winner of the contest also qualifies for national championship. It is a very peculiar format and demanding as it requires playing an air and then a set of consisting of a march, a strathspey, and a reel. This is a large entry barrier as few people even know what that is, let alone are able to play it. Consequently, it is a fairly small contest, very different from the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest where almost everything goes and which has 200 contestants. 

It is a small and friendly group at the contest and contestants know each other well, in fact, even more often play music together. Obin competed in the open division and Anya in the junior division. Obin was his usual self and didn't really prepare anything, he was just winging it (even picked up Anya's violin just for the contest). But he knows the genre well enough to take 3rd place overall. This was his air:

Anya,  in contrast, worked hard on her set and won the junior division.

As soon as we were finished, we headed over to the stage in one of the exhibit halls and played a set with the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles. Kids played fiddle, Kathy guitar, and I played bass. Worked pretty well, even though Celtic Spring is a tough act to follow....

The not so good decision was on Sunday. We skipped Goleta this year because it is a long drive, Kathy wanted to go running, Anya play soccer. But it turned out that Anya didn't have much fun at the 5X5 tournament and I managed to break my collar bone rather badly. Totally dumb fall, slipped off the pedals, almost like slipping in your bathtub.  Biked home and made Anya some lunch, then off to the emergency room. Had surgery later that week and takes me out for the rest of the year....

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Coconino Bikepacking

The last bikepacking adventure of the year was also my first time mountain biking in Arizona. The Coconino Loop is a surprisingly hard 250 miles that runs from Flagstaff to Sedona to Mingus mountain to Williams and back to Flagstaff. 250 miles doesn't sound like much - it would be an easy 1 1/2 days on roads - but on those trails 250 miles actually is 3-4 hard days worth of riding (and a few hours of pushing). All the pictures I took are here:

I left Thursday after teaching my graduate econometrics class (my teaching schedule is very light, this is the only course I teach all year and my indicator that fall is really here). I expected to make it to Flagstaff early in the evening, maybe even before dark and see a bit of the area and also find a safe place to leave the car for the weekend. But a flat tire (big nail) 50 miles before Needles slowed things down. Very unpleasant having to change car tires in the desert and on the freeway - but I made it at least to a rest area. Tried to pump, but it was clear that the tire was beyond help, so the spare went on. This also meant having to get a new tire ASAP, Needles being the closest town, as there were 200 miles or so to go. So it was late in the evening when I made it to Flag and I checked into the Comfort Inn - pleasant hotel although near freeway hell.

I bought food for the next two days on Friday morning, checked car tire pressure, and parked the car in a residential area in north Flagstaff opposite an empty lot. Seemed a safe area. I rolled out of Flagstaff on the Arizona Trail at about 10 am.  The plan was only about 50 miles that day, most of it very nice, but there were some rather slow and surprisingly tedious parts (rocky bumpy surface). Too many gates to open and close. At about 1 pm, Lynda Wallenfels zoomed past and for the rest of the gate circuit, she opened them and I closed them a few minutes later. Approaching Munds, there was a stretch of dirt road as well that reminded me too much of Tour Divide: lots of dust from off-road vehicles to breathe. So at that point, I was torn: What is worse, very rocky slow grind single track or sandy/gravely dirt road with traffic? Neither one is that much fun. But once you turn off the dirt road to Munds, it was nice riding again. I made it just before sunset to the Sedona overlook, a mountain ridge maybe 2 hours away from the town. Spectacular view and a few other cyclists were camping there as well. Not a particularly hard day, although more than distance or elevation profile indicate.

Rolling out of Flagstaff on the Arizona Trail:
Sunset (and stop for the night) on a mountain ridge above Sedona:

After a breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee, I got to ride spectacular single track descending towards Sedona. The morning of the second day was the highlight of the trip for me (the last day would have probably been next, but I had to miss that because of mechanical problems). 

Lots of cactus pretty soon because now the route goes from pine forests into the high desert. I was glad it was not a hot summer day, but a gentle October day. Crossing the valley in the afternoon would be very hard for me in 100 degrees, which it certainly will hit in the summer, although the ride towards Sedona would be nice even them. The descent towards Sedona was slightly technical, not particularly difficult, not easy either. Very much what I had been looking forward to on this trip and there is a reason for Sedona's reputation as a mountain biking destination. 

By 11 or so, I got into Sedona, which is quite the New Age town, this goes on forever. I didn't know that there was a convenience store on the route that probably is the best resupply stop, so turned right into town and got to see a lot more of those new age stores. It is a funny base for an economy, but based on what I saw, that is Sedona's main industry. Ever wondered if the annoying yelping of your poodle might really be the echo of a desert coyote rather than inbreeding in Europe? I'm sure there are suppliers in Sedona that will be able to help you. 
More terrific, but very needly single track afterwards. Great riding out of Sedona, although I was getting hot and I was very glad this was a cooler fall day.  Basically a continuation of the morning ride, although more up and down rather than just down, but it lived up to expectations. Narrow trails and a lot of cactus meant now was time for the 100% all-natural traditional Southwest accupuncture! I mainly got it in my toes and shin, though. Single track and cactus, so you have to hold your line very cleanly or you catch a few. I quickly started picking cleaner lines. Did not distract from the riding experience, it was a great trail. 

The second day eventually became very long. As nice as the trails out of Sedona were, after crossing Red Rock State Park, you end up on the Lime Kiln trail, all the way to Cottonwood. Lime Kiln trail is very hard at the beginning and very tedious in the second half. It starts with a grueling hike-a-bike (and more cactus needles as it is too narrow for the bike and you). Then came a nicer descent where I  met Sharon and David Sell from Alaska as they were fixing flat number 14 that day. They were looking forward to getting to Cottonwood and buying more tubes. I was glad about my tubeless setup as it sealed all the punctures quickly. Maybe some cactus needles, but the problem with Arizona singletrack seems to be more goatheads/puncture vines as you collect dozens on a long ride like this. Maybe it was a particularly bad year. But Lime Kiln wasn't finished, so after some nicer parts, there came plenty of tedious sand to grind through, plus some seemingly extra loops to visit trash sites. My front tire got a cut on some rocks that took a bit longer to seal, so I went to the bikestore in Cottonwood for a refill on my sealant, also some duct tape to fix my shorts, which had a big gash. Probably caught on some barbed wire fence that I had to climb during the day.  If I get into this area again, I probably skip the hike-a-bike on Lime Kiln and take the road until it intersects with the trail again. Some parts just aren't worth riding/pushing, although more of that came in the evening.

I made it to Cottonwood maybe around 4, made some inefficient resupply decisions that wasted time (looked for a supermarket, but they are out of the way, better to stay on the route and resupply at a gas station). So I puttered around for too long in Cottonwood, but I also wanted a break as toughest part of the day was still ahead: A 4500 foot climb up Mingus mountain. I personally like doing those seemingly endless climbs later in the dark, partly (but not only) because it is cooler, too. 

The route up to Mingus might have been the most brutal single climb I've ever done. The last section is very steep and difficult to even lift get the bike over some ledges. Other routes have similarly steep climbs (e.g. the top on Fishcreek Wash on the Stagecoach 400), but they are always very short. Mingus, however, gives you that difficulty for a long time, certainly more than an hour, maybe 2. I don't think I'll do the front climb again as there is an easier climb from the back that is more rideable. It was well after 11 pm when I made it to the top and stopped for the night at the picnic tables. It was chilly, although not too cold, and little humidity, so I just put the sleeping bag on the tarp. Some extremely noisy animal woke me up at 5 am, ugly sound and very loud. Don't know what it was but a bit bigger than a cat and moving around fast. 

After climbing all evening, the next morning was all about decending back down into the desert to the Verde River. Overall, an enjoyable early morning ride. Around 10 am, I met Mark Allen from Arizona who was trying to filter some water but decided against it as it looked extremely filthy and had a dead rat swimming in there. So next water supply was Verde River. We started riding together when suddenly several spokes on my bike broke. Bad news as this ruined my tubeless setup in an area where tubes are a bad idea. Mark helped me getting the wheel ridable again (and he had a spoke that fitted perfectly), but this was stressful. 

 I made to the Verde River around 1 pm and filtered 7 liters of water. A few other cyclists were hanging out in the shade as well as there was going to be a hard climb from 3000 feet to close to 9000 feet - and the next few hours were fully exposed before getting into the pine forest again around 7000 feet. 

My tire was leaking, but manageable with occasional pumping - but a few hours later during a repump, the valve broke off. Now I had only one tube left and I know that this would end the ride for me in Williams unless I could get my wheel repaired. I was already resigned to rolling straight into Williams when I caught up with Mark Allen. He had spare tubes and talked me into doing the full route (which would add another 2 hours to the day). Unfortunately, I pinchflatted at the bottom of Bill Williams and had to put it my last tube. I spent the rest of the daylight removing thorns from the tire, at least 20, to give the tube a chance to survive for a while. I must have gotten most thorns out and didn't collect too many new ones because I made it without pumping to the town of Williams. However, the tire was pretty much flat by then. Losing the remainding daylight, however, was disappointing because it was clear as we were starting the climb up Bill Williams that this would be a very nice section of technical trail. Mark was strong, but I also bonked and could hardly ride anything uphill once we got going again. We made it to the top probably around 8 and then started a technically challenging descent. Something that would be great to do fresh in the morning, but in the dark after a long day and worrying about the tire it was not so much fun. 

So I checked into a Motel and was hoping to find a bikeshop in the morning. Unfortunately, no bikeshop in Williams, so I had to skip the last section of the loop and went to search for  a car ride back to Flagstaff.  Mark still tried to convince me to start and offered one of his spare tubes, but that really was too sketchy - a long day on a wobbly wheel, goatheaded tire, and out of backup options. Fortunately, the motel owner offered to take me back to Flagstaff and I was back at my car by 11.

Too bad, because I expected that the last day might have been my favorite part (no desert riding). Have to come back for it some other time.

Even though I thought I had found a safe place to park my car, somebody crashed into it and tore off the left side mirror. Nothing too bad, just the side mirror, and I could tape it together to drive back. Just about $200 to get it replaced, but not the best ending to the trip.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Schwarzwald - Murgtal Radweg

We had 2 nights in Germany before flying back to California, the weather was excellent, and Obin was back from Italy, so we left for one last overnighter, this time into the Schwarzwald. We biked through the Schoenbuch to Herrenberg, where we took the train to get into the Schwarzwald (an hour further west)There was just a little bit of single track after Weil im Schoenbuch.

Auf der Teufelsbruecke (or maybe not, but one of the bridges)

It was a fairly chilly morning, Anya complained about her hands getting too cold, so the girls were  exhausted by the time we made it to Herrenberg and hopped on the train.

We skipped the very first part of the Murgtalradweg, which was supposedly just a steep downhill and got of the train in the next town.

Compared to the Donautal, there was a lot of steep ups and downs, despite roughly following a river, but that is how the Schwarzwald is. We stayed for the night at a small village inn, in fact, that picture shows the main road.
We continued the next morning and made it to Rastatt late in the morning. Only an hour of riding to France and Obin was eager to continue and get on the other side of the Rhine, but Kathy and Anya were ready to return. So we didn't ride on, but after a quick look at the Rastatt Castle went to the train station, took the train to Stuttgart, then the S-Bahn to Leinfelden,  and finally rode the Siebenmuehlental back to Waldenbuch.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Family Bike Rides in Germany - Donau and Lauter

On our family vacation to Germany this summer, the weather was miserable during the first week, but turned quite nice in the last week and we went on a number of rides. The longest was a 4 day trip along the Donau and returning along the Lauter and over the Schwaebische Alb. This was just Kathy, Anya, and me as Obin was visiting his girl friend in Italy.
We started in the morning from Waldenbuch, Anya on Oma's bike (so she had the best one - but then as an 11-year old, she should have the fastest bike), and headed to the train station in Boeblingen. Turned out to be rather stressful as the train station was torn up, no information, and we really didn't know how it worked. But we somehow got on the right train and a few hours later headed out of Tuttlingen. The Donautal Radweg is flat and smooth, just perfect for an 11-year old to go on her first multi-day trip. We've done stretches as day rides a few years earlier, but now we were going for 4 days.

We stayed at a Bauernhof between towns, maybe an hour before Sigmaringen.

The next day was all along the Donau, but the weather looked iffier. In the afternoon, the clouds were getting thick and it was a safe bet that there would be a serious downpour. Fortunately, Kathy checked her Iphone during a break and assured us that there is a zero percent chance of rain for the next 4 hours.

Nevertheless, I was concerned and thought we might just make it to Obermarchtal in an hour and called ahead to get a room. Good move because just as we pulled into the driveway of the hotel, it started pouring (with thunder and lightning), but we were off the road. Would not have been the best start for Anya's first biketour to get stuck outside in a heavy thunderstorm.

A few hours later, the storm had passed and we had a pretty sunset and checked out the impressive cathedral of Obermarchtal. As it was getting dark, I didn't take pictures inside, but it was similar in style, but not as over-the-top as the one in Zwiefalten (a few miles up the road) that we visited a week earlier. The picture below is from Zwiefalten (and that's why Obin is in the picture).

But maybe the most interesting thing about Obermarchtal are the storks. You don't see them that often, but they are always nesting in Obermarchtal (and I think that even is the city hall):

Day 3 took us away from the Donau and we started heading up the Lautertal. It was even prettier than the Donau and a bit more gravel/dirt than pavement. The next picture is at the Grosse Giesel waterfall, I remember kayaking it down many times as a teenager. Now, this whole area has become a nature reserve.

We had to get across the Schwaebische Alb, so a fair amount of climbing was on the menu for the afternoon, but we made it to Muensingen, the highest elevation of the ride,  by mid-afternoon. Anya was exhausted (getting cross-eyed is a reliable indicator), but fortunately, there was ice cream and the rest of the day was downhill to Bad Urach.

We stayed in Urach, not a bad town, but the least attractive overnight place of the trip. But it had been a long day, so everybody was glad to be done. The next morning was a initially a bit of city riding through Urach/ Metzingen, despite being a bike route, and Anya got some new biking clothes on the way. This was almost the last climb (and it was at the top of the last steep one out of the Neckar valley in Neckartailfingen).
It was a cloudier day and looked like rain, but we were on the home stretch, so weren't too worried. In between, we took refuge in a bakery during a downpour, but it didn't last too long. Otherwise, it was fairly gentle drizzling only. 

 How often do you see an egg vending machine? Maybe not exactly the middle of nowhere, but it was at the outskirt of a small town along the bikepath:

Last hour before getting back to Waldenbuch:
 But as it didn't rain, we took one last stop for a Spezi and Radler.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest

The first big event was the 52nd Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival. Since I put together the program for the non-contest part, my planning starts in the fall the year before. We ended up with a great set of bands and that will be hard to match that for future years: 2012 TBFC Schedule

One highlight was that Alan Jabbour, a legend in old-time fiddling, returned to TBFC after an 40+ year hiatus. It was a bit of a coincidence, I had e-mailed him from my TBFC e-mail about something else and he noticed the address to ask whether this might be the same festival that he attended in the 1960s.

Obin and his friends tried their luck in the band contest. Talent is there, but preparation and organization has some way to go.  But they had fun and got their picture taken by a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer (ok, this was Nick's dad).

Obin's sister didn't leave things to luck. Anya took second place in beginning mandolin last year and the boy who won was just a little bit tighter and cleaner - and presumably improved because he regularly performs with a band. So she came prepared with a tight, clean and more complicated tune this year and they traded places.
Anya also repeated winning the intermediate fiddle category, second time in a row. So now she has graduated to the adult/advanced division - but it is December and she is already working on the tune she plans to have ready for May. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Keeping Tunes Alive: “Over the Waterfall” from the playing of Alan Jabbour

I am moving some of my columns from Folkworks to here so that they are easier to find. Folkworks is no longer a print version, but just internet. Columns are archived in a way that makes them hard to find, even with the right keywords, and people can't access the sheet music either. This was the one I did on Alan Jabbour prior to the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival and Alan's transcription deserves improved access and visibility.  

Over the Waterfall” is an extremely popular fiddle tune, even to the extent that it occasionally gets (unfairly) snubbed as a beginner’s tune. But not that long ago, “Over the Waterfall” was at risk of extinction: By the middle of last century, only one musician was known to play this tune, Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, VA (1884-1968). Reed taught the tune (among many other tunes) to Alan Jabbour,  whose band, the Hollow Rock String Band, was at the center of the old-time stringband revival in the 1960s. Alan remembers that his band loved the way the tune plummets down, as if going down a waterfall, and they added some intriguing chords to it. The version they recorded on their 1968 album is the tune as it is known today and Alan has a number of stories associated with it.

The first story dates back to the 1969 Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest. Then, Alan had just moved out to Los Angeles to become an assistant professor at UCLA and was drafted to judge the fiddle contest. Sitting in the judging area, he remembers a young man coming up on stage “dressed in the Topanga garb of that period” to announce that for the contest he would play “a Henry Reed tune, learned from the playing of Alan Jabbour: Over the Waterfall”. The contestant obviously didn’t know that his source was sitting right in front of him (which might have made the performance a bit more nerve-wrecking), but Alan was just as surprised that “Over the Waterfall” would beat him to Los Angeles.

 Alan Jabbour learned much of his repertoire in the 1960s from (then) elderly fiddlers in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia and his fiddling style reflects the intricate and often syncopated bowing patterns of Henry Reed and other Appalachian mentors. “Over the Waterfall” soon was adapted as an instructional tune for other instruments. As a consequence, many people have only gotten to know the extremely simplified versions in beginner books. I thought it would be a good idea to get a better documentation of the real tune and asked Alan to transcribe a version for this column. So this column is a special treat: Alan’s own transcription of his playing (not Henry Reed's). Although there are books of transcriptions of Alan’s playing from at least two of his CDs, you will not find his version of “Over the Waterfall “ anywhere else. He sees some similarities between this tune and a venerable British ballad sometimes called “Eggs and Marrowbones,” in which a woman tries to blind her husband and push him in the river but is tripped and falls in herself. The ballad, which exists in American, English, and Irish versions, may be a relative or even an ancestor, but Henry Reed is the only source for the fiddle tune.  “Over the Waterfall” is now a famous instrumental tune, but it passed through a precarious period where it almost disappeared.

Alan did not stay in Los Angeles very long after the festival and in fact moved to Washington, DC, the same year to head the Archive of Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress. He has never been at another Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival after 1969– until 2012. This year, he will be returning to the festival after an absence of 43 years. After the brief stint at UCLA, his professional career kept him in Washington. In 1976, he became the founding director of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress, a position he held until 1999.

Here is another “Over the Waterfall” story. In 1981, Alan and his wife were invited to Hungary for a set of folklorist conferences. Attending a late-night local party where the schnapps was flowing and fiddlers from Hungary and Brittany were jamming, word got out that the American also was a fiddler player and Alan was invited to join. In Alan’s own words:
“ I agreed, and she turned and communicated with her band in a language I could not understand. But I could tell from the context that they were probably debating what tune in their repertory an American might know. Finally she turned again to me and said brightly in English, “Do you know Over the Waterfall”?

Alan Jabbour and Ken Perlman are headliners of this year’s Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest and Festival on May 20. Both Alan and Ken will also do solo workshops.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

First Bikepacking Adventure of 2012: Stagecoach 400 Day 1:

The last week of April saw a new multi-day bikepacking adventure in Southern California - the Stagecoach 400. A great loop developed by Brendan and Mary Collier of Idyllwild that shows off some of the best mountain biking in Southern California.  Their website is here:
As I wrote on the bikepacking discussion board, it felt as if locals take you on their best neighborhood rides - for 400 miles. This was the inaugural event, so there was much uncertainty about how long it would take, but some fast riders who pre-rode the loop took 4-5 days and these were long days, although not in racing mode. So a time limit of 5 days was set.

We met Thursday evening at Brendan's bike shop in Idyllwild, probably about 40 people from all over the country, including Alaska, Florida, and exotic places like Kansas or Idaho. Jay Petervary from Idaho (who two years in a row set a new record on the Canada-Mexico Tour Divide) and Ezter Horanyi from Colorado (in the green puffy sweater below) were the expected front runners among men and women and lived up to their expectations, with Jay just needing 2 days and 2 hours to finish (eventually a dozen of us finished in under 3 days/72 hours, 14 more between 3 and 5 days).
The start the next morning was a bit delayed because the Spot trackers hadn't arrived yet. But more time to hang out in the town center and talk to other people. Check out how busily almost all of them are studying their spot trackers!

Jill Homer and Katherine Wallace, Katherine was preparing for Tour Divide later this year, which she finished faster than I was last year. At this point, Jill still held the women's record on Tour Divide, but Katherine was a few days faster (and Ezter did set a new women's record in under 20 days).

Here are Brendan and Mary shortly after we really started
The first day was mainly downhill, but not easy. In fact, by the time I hit 100 miles, I really couldn't go any further. From Idyllwild, you mainly go down into the Anza Borrego desert, a lot of sand and heat to deal with on day 1.

As you descend, there is a spectacular view (but also intimidating) of the desert, although the picture doesn't do it justice.

Much of the intial riding in Coyoto Canyon, once you really are at the bottom in the desert is not a trail, but finding your way across a wash. Deep sand, of course.

One of the biggest surprises: In the middle of the desert, you suddenly hit a swampy jungle. Yes, water, totally overgrown, all that is missing are crocodiles jumping at you. It is a very short stretch, but no less impressive.

And in no time, we're back in deep sand, although more on something that looks like a road, and now for the rest of the day. 

The day ends on a long climb and pretty much everybody stopped somewhere there for the night or at least for a few hours. I was really exhausted as I never do very well in deserts, so I had targeted 100 miles and stopped as soon as I got there, somewhere between 11 and midnight. As I found out the next morning, a lot of other cyclists were spread around there for the night as well. This is the Fishcreek Wash climb before it gets dark: