Pack Monadnock

Martine hiking on the Wapack Trail

Shortly after I bought a new bicycle in New Hampshire, I decided to go on a bike ride. I think it was still the 4th of July, the same day the bike shop was inexplicably open for me to buy the bike. A few miles later as I climbed up a hill, I had a flat tire. Bah.

Luckily I found dad’s patch kit, and hacked the pump into working well enough for Presta valve stems instead of Schrader valve stems. It was enough to get me home, but not enough to inspire confidence for a longer ride. A close examination determined that I needed a new rim liner: the one that came with the bike was unsuitable for double walled rims.

After the stores opened up and I got the needed supplies, I set out again on Wednesday. This time, I was bound for the top of Pack Monadnock, a small peak nearby.

This whole “peak” thing may require a bit of explanation for those of you who live way out West in the Pittsburgh area. Unlike here, New England has peaks instead of just ridges. Even where there are a lot of hills in Pittsburgh, none of them lead to a distinct high point with a scenic view in all directions, topped by Big Sky. Peaks provide a much greater sense of accompishment than ridges and rolling hills.

And so it was that I set off towards Pack Monadnock, south summit. My route took me primarily on back roads, and I very quickly realized another difference between cycling in New Hampshire and cycling in Pittsburgh. In the city, I need to go on long rides just to find a little bit of “middle of nowhere.” Even then, I’m really just riding through specially zoned suburbs and not the True middle of nowhere. In New Hampshire, I hit the edge of Nowhere within a few miles. If I lived in New Hampshire I’d probably get lazy, because I wouldn’t have to ride nearly as far to find a nice winding, hilly forest road.

Wait a minute. Where’s my pump? I forgot it! Oops, I probably won’t need it, right?

The day was warm, but the ride was cool and shady under the trees. When I got to Chase Rd. it looked a bit more like an overgrown grassy entrance road to a 200 year old cemetary. Luckily there were a few summer employees there. “This is a through road, right?” “Yep. A bit rocky though, be careful.” Soon it changed from grass to gravel, and then a proper dirt road through the woods.

Next came the first challenging hill. I pretty quickly wished I had my wimpy Pittsburgh gearing, but the Nishiki’s lowest gear was the bike boom standard 40/28. This hill was too soon, I wasn’t warmed up. Or maybe I was out of shape already? Whatever the case may be, I had to rest. Already? How would I ever get up to the top of Pack Monadnock? What a wuss.

The rest of the ride to Miller State Park was uneventful but enjoyable. There were more sections of dirt road, and almost the whole ride was through forests. Just before the park entrance there were a few miles of 8% grade, but that wasn’t too steep. That’s good at least.

Once I entered the park, the road was closed. This was half expected. But bicycles are small, so I decided to see if there was any good reason for the road to be closed or not. It turns out there wasn’t: people were hiking on the road, and a car even came up and passed me on the way.

The last 1.25 miles had about 800 feet of elevation gain, and wasn’t a constant slope. That’s an average grade of around 12%, which is nothing to scoff at. It was hard, and I had to stop several times. Most of the time it didn’t feel as steep as the Dirty Dozen hills I’ve done around here, but it was longer than most of them, and I had a much higher low gear.

I got to the top, looked around, and then went back down. I continued on Route 101 for a while, down the 9% grade on the other side, and missed my intended turn onto Mountain Rd. That turned out to be a good thing, because Mountain Road was another tiny dirt road which was much hillier than the route I ended up taking, and I was basically out of water at this point.

The first store I hit was in Temple, where I got some liquid and energy, and continued on. Eventually it started raining a bit. It was enough to earn me a skunk stripe and remind me why all my bikes have fenders, but not enough to soak me through from the top.

In the end I rode about 40 miles, and had a great time. I didn’t need the pump, which is good because I didn’t have tire levers either. I did have a cell phone, but I’m not sure I had any coverage where I was riding. The only technical problem I had was easy to fix: the clamp-on downtube shifters were apparently a bit loose and slid down the downtube.

A few days later, we drove out and hiked to the top with Grandpa and the kids. This time I wasn’t riding a bike, but I was on very rocky trails with Ezra on my back. We took the steeper, rocky Wapack trail on the way up, and the tamer Marion Davis trail on the way down. As usual, we came across several stone walls. Even way out here in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a difficult rocky forested slope, the land was once cleared and used for the grazing of cattle. The trees have grown back across much of New Hampshire over the last few hundred years, but I bet the originals were much larger.

This was also a very good trip, and I’m glad we did it. It was good to get Martine out in the woods, that’s usually difficult. She did a good job of keeping up with us on the hike, and then she was full of energy for the rest of the afternoon when we got back.

Mount Monadnock, from the summit of South Pack Monadnock

Going up Pack Monadnock stood out as one of the most enjoyable parts of our trip to New Hampshire, I’m glad we decided to do it. Maybe next time we go out, the kids will be old enough to get up Mount Monadnock, which has several miles more hiking along its shortest route. Both of these are small mountains compared to the presidential range in the North, but they’re accessible and very scenic, and that counts for a lot when we have kids in tow.

Essential Skills

BoingBoing recently posted a link to 18 Essential Maker Skills and referred to a Heinlein quote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

As a dedicated Jack, the last line resonated with me: Specialization is for insects. I’m reminded of a quote which Google just helped me attribute to Nicholas Butler:

An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.

There is certainly value in becoming a Master. But the important part of this journey is to never consider yourself a master. As soon as you do, you essentially claim you have nothing else to learn.

I don’t consider myself a master, but I’m well trained as a know-it-all. If you aren’t skeptical enough, you might think I know what I’m talking about. But if you aren’t skeptical enough, you get what you deserve. I’m the sort of person who finds it humorous to say things which are obviously false for ironic effect.

As for the specific 18 Essential Maker Skills presented in the link above, well… “they’re wrong and I’m right,” of course (see “know-it-all,” above). Those skills are all very useful. But if I had to choose only 18 “maker” skills out of everything anyone has ever done or made, I’m not sure those are all the best choices. Many of them are too domain-specific, not universal enough, and too dedicated to the use of special purpose tools.

I’d probably start with the basic necessities in life, and move on from there. Let me be clear: I don’t claim to have all these skills. I only claim that I think they’re important.

  1. Learn how to learn. The most important skill, and the basis for all others, is knowing how to learn new skills. Different people learn in different ways, you need to know what works for you.
  2. Make a meal, from earth to plate. Whether it’s vegetable or an animal, know where your food comes from, and how to get some if you can no longer go to a store. At the very least, learn to make your own meals well enough that you’re willing to eat them.
  3. Make clothing. Again, get as close to the earth as you can.
  4. Make shelter. If I were getting more specific, I’d say “use an axe,” as this is another very basic and important skill, but that may only be because I grew up in the forest instead of the desert.
  5. Set a broken bone. Good idea, Mr. Heinlein. As you can tell: I believe staying alive is important.
  6. Make something from nothing. Become comfortable with thinking and with constructing models and ideas in your mind. Even if your ideas never take physical form, being able to think ensures you will always have something to do. Writing is a good approximation of creating something from nothing. So is computer programming, which is just writing in a different language anyway.
  7. Use tools. The only people likely to read this blog may find the concept very silly, but many people don’t know how to use even basic tools such as a screwdriver, wrench, or hammer. I remember someone who learned how to change a car tire: “That’s it?” Yes, that’s it. Just because someone else says something is difficult, that doesn’t make it difficult. You may just not be skeptical enough: try it and find out.
  8. Fix something. Anything, it doesn’t matter what: make something work, that previously did not.
  9. Make yourself happy.
  10. Ask a question. Learn to figure out what you don’t know, and how to express this in the form of an answerable question.
  11. Tell the difference between success and failure. It’s a lot easier to do well if you can tell the difference between doing well and doing poorly. When starting in a new hobby or learning a new skill, find a master and try to figure out how what makes their work masterwork. As long as you think you’re just as good as they are, you aren’t making progress.
  12. Find the value of things. Value is a very personal concept: the value of something is how much you are willing to sacrifice to attain it. If someone else values something more than you do, they may place a price on it which you don’t want to pay. Become confident enough in your ability to assign value to things that you won’t sacrifice more than you want to, when attaining them.
  13. Take something apart and put it back together again. Make sure it still works, or at least that you know exactly why it doesn’t work anymore.
  14. Formulate a plan. Can you tell someone else how to put together the thing you just took apart?
  15. Follow instructions. When you come back a year from now, can you follow the plan you just formulated for putting that thing back together?

In many ways these skills are restatements and combinations of a few concepts. Learn how to think in the abstract, solve problems, and to map between abstract concepts and real-life objects.

Another Bicycle??

Last week in New Hampshire, I borrowed my dad’s bike to go for a 14 or so mile ride to Silver Lake and back, early in the week. It was comfortable enough, but I wouldn’t have wanted to ride much farther on that saddle. The bike was a bit too small for me, but I could manage.

Then, I went to the “bike shop” around the corner. This is basically a big tent in a guy’s driveway, with 50 or so used bikes lined up under it. He does repairs and sells parts out of his ancient garage/barn.

I walked up and down the rows of bikes a few times. Half of them are kids bikes, and half of the rest of them are mountain bikes. Within the selection of road bikes, most were heavy old indestructable monsters by Columbia, Schwinn, Ross, Huffy, and so on. And then there were a few more interesting bikes. A bike boom Gitane? Nah, you can’t get any replacement parts for French bikes. The Univega looked interesting: most of them were made by Panasonic or Miyata in those days.

Then I saw the Nishiki International. It has pretty, fancy lugs, and uses double butted chrome moly tubing so it’s fairly light: probably lighter than the frames I ride here in Pittsburgh. All the parts are aluminum, and relatiely high quality for the time (though not all original). The Suntour Cyclone rear derailer was one of the best available in its heyday, from a performance perspective (but you could easily spend three times as much if you needed the Campagnolo name brand and inferior shifting). The Suntour Power Shifters are smooth and work well.

Maybe I’m just used to city Craigslist prices, but it was a good price for the bike. After doing a bit of research on the component manufacture dates on the Vintage Trek web site, and decoding the serial number in a guide I found online, I determined it’s a 1980 model.

Why do I need another bike? Actually, I don’t need one at all, I’m happy to admit, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want any more. I’ll use it when I’m in New Hampshire, and I enjoy it. At least it wasn’t something new, and it’s not that expensive all things considered: the price of filling a tank with gas a few times, these days.

Higgins Armory

There is a hidden treasure in Worcester, MA: the Higgins Armory Museum. I’ve wanted to go here the last few times I’ve visisted my parents in New Hampshire, but never got around to it. This time around, we made it a priority.

The Higgins Armory holds the second largest largest collection of Medieval/Renaissance arms and armor in North America, and it’s the only museum here which is dedicated to these arms and armor.

Mister Higgins was obsessed with steel fabrication, and founded a pressed steel manufacturing company. This venture made him rich enough to start buying up suits of armor. Eventually he had enough pieces to dedicate a building to their preservation, and the museum was born.

The museum has a great collection of arms and armor, primarily from the “Knights in Shining Armor” period. Interpreters are quick to point out that the period when full plate armor was used was relatively brief: a few centuries in the late Medieval period and beginning of the Renaissance, in Europe.

They have examples of several main categories of plate armor. Field armor is articulated, and provides full coverage without hampering movement during battles. Tournament armor was used for sporting events such as jousting. It was much heavier, and provided superior protection but only the minimum mobility required. Parade armor was light weight and provided almost no real protection. It was used mainly for decorative purposes and bragging rights. They also have a variety of weapons used by fighters wearing plate armor, and weapons used against fully armored combatants.

The Higgins Armory’s strength also reveals its weakness. Plate armor was used during a very short period in a very small part of the world, and the museum mostly ignores weapons and armor used in other periods of time and/or outside europe. They have a few samples of ancient and pre-medieval arms and armor, but nothing substantial. They have only one suit of Japanese samurai armor, but they do have a very interesting helmet patterned after a seashell.

Even in Europe during the late Medieval period, full plate armor was reserved for the rich elite troops. Most combatants were extremely lucky if they got brigandine coats or mail armor. There were a few token pieces of brigandine and mail, but it was obvious that Higgins was most interested in armor which might be reproduced using his pressed steel construction techniques.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the Higgins Armory. Unfortunately I expect “all the rest of the armor” is much less well preserved, even traditional Samurai armor. It’s probably best to live with reconstructions and illustrations for older types of armor, and to go to Higgins if you’re interested in full plate armor.