Category Archives: Letter from America

Letter from America

Letter from America.

Getting from A to B is a serious business for Americans. Look at the success of Driving Miss Daisy. To be a True American, there are certain beliefs that one must accept. Here are some of the big ones:

  • Four wheels are always superior to two
  • Gas power is always superior to any other power source
  • Not pedalling is always superior to pedalling
  • all two-wheeled vehicles, except powerful motorcycles, are toys and should never be considered as anything else

Fortunately, not all Americans accept all of these beliefs. Anthony Panzica doesn’t, and thousands of Americans are better off because of it.

Mr. Panzica, 39, lives in Long Beach California, about ten miles south of Los Angeles. For three years now he has been driving impaired drivers (mostly drunks) home in order to keep them from harming people on the roads of Southern California. He and his cell phone prowl the bar areas of the Beach Communities, and when he finds or is referred to a problem driver, he goes into action.

…Some 16,000 Americans are killed in drunk-driving crashes each year…

The Panzica attitude is simple and direct.When somebody can’t stand or walk, they can hardly drive a vehicle. Now they’re putting me and my friends and family at risk, and I’m not gonna have that’. Some of his ‘clients’ are worried bar patrons, and some are bartenders worried about legal liability from bar patrons. All who come to his attention are offered a free chauffeur to get them home safely, and if they refuse, they are threatened with police intervention.Very few refuse.

This effort started as a personal crusade, but now Mr. Panzica has recruited volunteers and has formed a Scooter Patrol. He says, ‘We tried to come up with a solution to how you get the guy’s car home with him.We talked about a tow truck or a skateboard or maybe folding bicycles. And we finally hit on scooters that fold up.’ The Scooter Patrol’s vehicle of choice is the Go-ped ESR750 electric fold-up scooter. The scooters carry the volunteers around the bar areas, and then return them to the front line after the drunk driver has been safely delivered home.

The Scooter Patrol and its Go-peds are serious matters along the Southern California Beach areas. For example, Seal Beach has 21 drinking establishments within one mile and is the Times Square of local alcohol consumption. Since 2003, volunteers have delivered more than 2,500 impaired drivers home safely.

They know how small their efforts really are, however. Some 16,000 Americans are killed in drunk-driving crashes each year, and the number of wounded is easily five times greater. Folding electric scooters will never solve America’s drunk-driving problems, but they are better than nothing and they at least take a few dangerous drivers off the roads for one night.

Mr. Panzica and his volunteers do not charge for their services, but they accept tips, which help defray the cost of the Go-peds. Local police and businesses encourage these patrols. Drunk drivers are bad for business, especially alcohol-related business.

The Scooter Patrol volunteers with their Go-peds and distinctive uniforms are highly respected in the Beach Communities, but some see the Patrols as shielding drunk drivers from California’s ‘Driving Under the Influence’ laws. Anthony Panzica himself admits to being a reformed drunk driver, and his change of behaviour came after he ran into the full fury of California’s DUI laws. It has been calculated that a first-time conviction without any injuries or property damages will cost the driver at least $12,000, when fines, attorney fees, court costs and insurance adjustments are added up. If there are injuries or property damages, the costs can go much higher.

For this situation, drivers can bless – or curse – groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving which constantly agitate for ever-greater penalties. MADD and its millions of allies are not much impressed with anything that offers protection to drunk drivers. According to some, it would be better for volunteers to act as scouts for the police and to direct them to likely candidates for DUI arrests. Attorneys who specialise in these cases report that 96% of all drivers who get a first-time conviction never get another. The courts deliver a much stronger message than any Scooter Patrol ever will.

Scooter Patrol members prefer to build trust with local drinkers.They post adverts in the bars and ensure that local bartenders have the phone numbers to summon volunteers when they are needed.The volunteers prefer the non-threatening approach, although they will call in the cops as a last resort. No doubt the local police forces have their own watchers, and they quietly use the DUI laws in their own way. It all helps with a problem that really has no complete solution.

Author’s Note: Readers might wish to visit Ken Kifer’s website, one of the most interesting and unusual bicycling sites in the USA. Recently, Ken Kifer was killed… by a drunk driver.

A to B 48 – June 2005

Letter from America – Who Buys Those Folders?

Folding Bikes in the USAThe story of folding bicycles in the USA is unusual. In the UK and Europe, folders are everywhere.They appear every working day on buses and trains during commuting hours, and are seen tucked away in offices and other workplaces in all major cities.They are, as our saying goes, ‘as common as crabgrass’.

Not true in the USA. Folders are seldom seen on American buses and trains. Almost every American bus now has a rack on its front which will carry two cumbersomes, and full-size bikes are allowed on most trains whenever they do not inconvenience other passengers. A visitor from the UK could ride an American bus or train for months without ever seeing a folder in use during commuter hours or any other time.

Folding bicycles do sell here.Well-stocked bike shops will carry at least a couple of models, usually Dahons, and they are also sold by catalogue retailers like L. L. Bean & Co. So where are they?

Welcome to the world of recreational vehicles (RVs). All over the USA, these vehicles lumber along American highways and streets.They come in all sizes and types, from small collapsible trailer-campers which cost the average worker a month’s wages, to luxurious behemoths as large as an intercity bus which cost more than the average house.

These RVs, at least the larger ones, are considered one of the common pests of America’s roads and suburbs.There are millions of them and they are everywhere.They block streets, clog driveways, create road hazards on freeways, and are driven and loved by millions of Americans.

Some are trailers which are designed to be towed by standard cars and trucks. Most, especially the larger ones, are built on truck or bus frames and are fully self-powered and self-contained. A whole industry has developed to support these vehicles.There are literally thousands of campgrounds for them. Some are publicly owned, but most are privately operated.They can welcome either a few or a few hundred of the RVs.The largest RV campgrounds operate like small towns, and one can stop there for a night or a month or longer.

It is in these campgrounds that folding bicycles are so useful.The traveller with a trailer can hook it up to water, gas and electricity sources, and then use the towing car or truck for local transportation. But the owner of a self-propelled RV needs a compact and dependable personal vehicle for use around the campground and for trips to nearby shops, etc.The folding bike has become such a natural part of RV life that some dealers supply a free bike with every purchase.

Most of these RVs are kept at home and used for weekend or vacation trips, but there is a new species of RV owners who have no home.These are the ‘full-timers’ who have sold their homes and live in their RVs all year long.They have their own clubs, such as the Good Sam Club (, Escapees (, and Loners On Wheels (

The RVers are the modern American nomads.The clubs can provide insurance, travel information, mail forwarding, medical referrals and anything else that the club member might need and be willing to pay for.The full-timers also have a magazine ( that matches RVers with part-time jobs so that they can show some income during their travels.The usual agreement is an exchange of a free campsite (with all amenities provided) in return for perhaps 16 hours of work per week. Some arrangements pay an hourly wage in addition to the free facilities, and others do not.The RVers make their own agreements with the employers, and many follow an annual circuit and return to the same jobs year after year.

There are also many volunteer opportunities in our National Parks and National Forests.The government provides campsites in return for a few hours of volunteer work each week and all the beautiful scenery one can absorb. Thousands of RVers take advantage of these opportunities every year.

It would be wrong to give the impression that these ‘full-timers’ are people who have nothing better to do than to rumble around going from nowhere in general to nowhere in particular. Many RVers are highly skilled in a particular field and need to relocate from project to project. Here in Southern California we often see RVs in use on movie and TV locations in a variety of support activities.The most luxurious ones are used by actors as homes in less salubrious locations.

There are millions of RVs on the road, and not all of them are vacation toys.They perform many useful functions and provide travelling homes for thousands of workers. Kay Peterson described it best in her book, Home is Where You Park it.

When I take my Brompton L5 for an early morning ride through the local neighbourhoods, I usually count 10-15 large RVs per hour, and at least as many smaller ones. I have no idea how many folding bikes are hiding in those vehicles, but I do know that the RVers are probably the largest group of folder buyers in the USA. So don’t despair if you visit the USA and do not see folders where you expect to see them.There are many thousands at large, but one has to look inside the RVs to find them. As the old- time salesmen used to say, ‘Ya gotta know the territory’.

Letter from America – Flop!

letter-from-america-flopMake your dreams come true! Come to the USA and leave with a small fortune.The time-honoured way to do this is to bring a large fortune with you, arrive in Las Vegas and spend a month or so gambling the nights away. If you are lucky, you will leave Las Vegas with a small fortune. If you are unlucky, you won’t have enough money left to buy breakfast.

That is one way.There is now a better method. Bring over a large fortune and open a group of electric bicycle shops. No matter how beautiful and well-run they are, your large fortune will disappear quickly. Sell out soon and you may still go home with a small fortune.Wait a bit longer and you will almost surely go broke. Many have tried and given up, sadder but wiser.

Reading the adverts in A to B gives the impression that the electric bike market is thriving in the UK. It isn’t thriving here. My local bike shop, which is a large and serious place, now has one electric bike standing in a corner in the rear of the store. It is dusty, marked down to half price, and attracts little interest and no buyers. It has been there for almost two years.This shop has tried to sell at least four brands of electrics over the years, and the results have been the same. Little interest and hardly any buyers.Why?

It isn’t this way everywhere. Chinese sources expect sales to top 4 million units this year. Japanese sources report sales of 500,000+ in 2003 and increasing steadily.The Western Europe/UK market seems to be humming along with 50,000 sales each year. And yet in the USA, with a population of 290,000,000 and bike sales of 10,000,000 units per year, electric bike sales probably don’t exceed 15,000 units annually, and that may be an optimistic estimate.

…to Americans, practical transport has two (or more) wheels…

letter-from-america-flop-3I know of only one successful electric bike shop in all of the USA. It is in our Pacific Northwest, in the state of Washington.The owner has by far the best American website in the business ( and even he uses the website for occasional grumbles about the market. How can this lack of interest be explained?

The American mindset gives some clues.To Americans, practical, useful transport has four (or more) wheels. Anything with less than four wheels is automatically classified as a toy.We have many types of scooters for sale.There are electric-powered, gas-powered, and people-powered scooters, in both stand-up and sit-down models. Most are very cheap, many are unsafe and none are legal for street use.Transport in the USA is about cars.There are a few starving students cruising around on 50cc motor scooters, and of course there is the testosterone-crazed motorcycle crowd (also known as organ donors), but it really is all about cars. If you were to stand on a street corner of any American city, you would see rather few bikes, and you would quickly determine that the riders are on the bikes because they probably cannot afford to drive a car.You would be most unlikely to see a single electric bicycle unless you stood on that street corner for a year or so.

I am a daily bike commuter, and I see one every six months. Americans do not favour any sort of physical effort in their choices of daily transportation, and they have the waistlines to prove it.

The American Way of Life encourages this mentality. Relatively low taxes and relatively high spendable income are treasured parts of the American scene, and woe unto any politician who tries to change that. One economist has described our economic policy as, ‘private wealth and public squalor’. A low-tax policy will produce that sort of thing. The most important part of the policy is Cheap Gas. UK visitors quickly see that the price of gas in the USA is less than half the price in the UK.The difference is not the cost of gas. It is a difference in national taxation policies.

Cheap Gas encourages living far from work, endless driving, using cars for almost every activity, suburban sprawl on a grand scale and short changing other forms of transit. In the USA we ‘invest’ in highways and roads, but we only ‘subsidise’ public transit.The words are important, and they tell the story.There is very little place for the practical electric bicycle in that story. And so it goes all over America – on four gas- powered wheels, not on two electric-powered wheels.

There is, to be fair, some possibility of change.The era of Cheap Gas may be ending, whether Americans like it or not.There are also signs that many Americans are tired of endless driving and the costs involved, and are moving closer to their work, and may even be using some of those millions of bikes in their basements and garages for neighbourhood travels.The children of today zipping around on those toy electric scooters could well be the teenagers and adults of tomorrow zipping around on electric bikes.

The American Way of Life did not always revolve around cars, and expensive gas. Global warming concerns and the necessity for alternative energy sources may produce drastic changes. No one knows for sure, but some signs are out there.

In the meantime, let me offer some good advice for UK visitors. Leave your large fortunes at home. Do not bring them to Las Vegas. Do something sensible like buying nice swamp land or digging a tunnel from London to New York City.You will be happier and more successful. And do not even consider moving into the electric bicycle business here in the USA.Trust me on this. For the present, there is only one word that describes the USA electric bike scene. FLOP.

Letter from America – The Party’s Over

letter-from-america-the-party-is-overHow do you explain Jan Lundberg? He isn’t at all what one would expect from his family background. What do you say about a man who has torn up his driveway and planted a vegetable garden in its place? Perhaps he is just odd, or maybe it is because he lives in Arcata, California, a small town in the far northern part of the state. Arcata is in redwood country – cool, damp and foggy. Life among the redwood trees takes some strange turns for some people. It has happened before.

In 1855, about 12 miles down the road from where Mr. Lundberg lives now, U.S. Army Captain Sam Grant was busily destroying his Army career. He was stationed at an obscure Army post, far from home, lonely and thoroughly miserable. He spent most of his days wandering around the post in an alcoholic haze. Captain Grant’s dereliction of duty was so clear that his commanding officer strongly ‘encouraged’ him to resign his commission and leave the Army. He did, and returned, defeated and humiliated, to his family roots in the Midwest. For the next five years, former Captain Grant failed at just about every profession and occupation available to him.

In 1861 the American Civil War erupted while Sam Grant was working as a clerk in his father-in-law’s leather goods store.The Federal government was desperate for any sort of military experience in its drive to suppress the Southern Confederacy and Sam Grant managed to talk his way back into the military life.Two years later, in 1863, after a series of small victories and then the destruction of an entire Confederate army at Vicksburg, Mississippi, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Federal armies by President Lincoln. As far as General Grant’s ‘difficulty’ with certain beverages was concerned, Mr. Lincoln’s answer was: ‘I can’t spare this man. He fights.’

…world oil output will peak around 2015, and after that will enter a long decline…

For the next 20 months, General Grant – Unconditional Surrender Grant to the Northern states, and Butcher Grant to the Confederates – directed a series of ferocious campaigns against the failing Confederacy. By the summer of 1865, the Confederacy had been wrecked, the war had sputtered to a close, President Lincoln had been murdered, and former Captain Grant found himself hailed in the victorious Northern states as the Saviour of the Union. In November 1868, Sam Grant was elected President of the United States. Life takes some strange turns in the redwood country.

Jan Lundberg’s life, though not nearly as important or as dramatic as General Grant’s, has taken some strange turns as well. For many years his family has published The Lundberg Letter, which still advertises itself as ‘The Bible of the Oil Industry’. Mr. Lundberg’s roots in the oil business are wide and deep, and yet he has turned away from all that.These days he operates the Sustainable Energy Institute from his headquarters in Arcata, and publishes articles like ‘The Fall of Petroleum Civilization’ and ‘Peak Oil: A Turning Point For Humankind’. His website [] is stacked with articles like these, both about oil and related subjects. Jan Lundberg does not like a lot about modern life. He does not like cars. He does not like roads. He considers our dependence on oil, especially foreign oil, as a gigantic dead-end. He has been singing this song for about 15 years now, and lately many other voices from the oil industry have joined the choir.The general consensus among the oil experts is that all of the world’s oil supplies, with the exception of the fields of the Middle East, have reached and passed their peak. American oil production peaked in 1970, and has been declining ever since.The best estimates these days are that world oil production will peak sometime around the year 2015, and after that will enter a long and irreversible decline.The title of Richard Heinberg’s book on the subject tells the story – The Party’s Over.What happens then?

A to B readers would probably think in terms of the effects on transportation.That may be the least of our problems. One expert has calculated that if petroleum were to disappear tomorrow, world food production would drop by two-thirds. Every area of modern life will surely be affected, and we cannot even begin to see the total picture.The USA is well positioned to make the transition away from the Age of Oil, but it will be vastly expensive and difficult.We have huge reserves of coal in America, but then coal is dirty and rather inefficient. Nuclear energy is available – and lethal.The American Southwest has good potential for solar energy production, and the American Midwest has enormous potential for wind power.The Age of Oil came into existence over several decades, and will fade out the same way, if current projections can be trusted.

The governments of the world are of course well aware of these projections, but have chosen not to publicise them, so far. Such estimates in the past have proven too pessimistic, and no government is interested in stirring up needless panic.What looks different this time is that the pessimism is coming from the oil industry itself, not from the usual collection of eco-buffs. It appears that we of the 21st century will once again learn the truth of the ancient Chinese curse.We are going to be living in interesting times.

Sam Grant and Jan Lundberg – two lives separated by 12 miles and 150 years.Yet they are tied together by more than redwood trees.The American Age of Oil began around 1870 with the operations of an obscure Ohio businessman. His name was John D. Rockefeller, and in those years he began to put together the American colossus of oil, the Standard Oil Corporation. It happened during the White House years of President Grant, and with his enthusiastic encouragement. Now, in our time, clear notice comes from Jan Lundberg and others that the Age of Oil is about to peak.

For the young, this transition will probably be the great event of their lives. How will we cope? We will surely be brave. As one of John Steinbeck’s characters said in The Grapes of Wrath, ‘It’s easy to be brave when you have no other choice’.

Letter from America – Well done, Mr Breeze!

mr-breezeJoe Breeze is unlikely to be a famous name among A to B readers, but most of us will be aware of his legacy. About 25 years ago, north of San Francisco, California, the young Joe Breeze and a few friends started a bicycle revolution.They gathered on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais and began trying out some ideas, utilising little more than old bike frames, single-speed drive trains, fat tyres and lots of testosterone. A few hikers and many horses were utterly terrified, but out of all this activity, along with a few broken bones and perhaps a scrambled brain or two, came the mountain bike we know so well.

The American bicycle industry sat up and took notice quickly. Sales had been stagnant, and the industry was looking for Something New.They found it in the mountain bike, and within ten years mountain bikes made up the bulk of American bicycle sales. All sorts of accessories were invented to add a bit of profit for the retailer, but the basic system remained the same.The machines had a frame, two wheels, handlebars and a seat, and little else. Suspension came later.

As usual, there were some unintended consequences to the revolution. Everyday bikes – those designed to carry the ordinary rider from A to B – disappeared from the American bicycling scene.All bicycles were sold like mountain bikes – frame and wheels only, without accessories. Selling a bicycle was a low-profit activity for retailers, while selling accessories was a high-profit activity. Everything that could be sold as an accessory was sold separately. First there were the ‘10-speeds’, then ‘cross’ bikes, then hybrids and comfort bikes, but they all looked more or less like mountain bikes. Customers had a hard time telling the difference between them.

…These days, less than 1% of all trips in the USA are made by bicycle… Re-enter Joe Breeze…

Mountain bikes invaded Europe too, but there the everyday bicycle, with its fenders, luggage rack, bell, mirror and lights survived. It did not happen that way in the USA [or in Britain. Eds], and the situation today is much the same as it has been for years.

Two years ago I bought a new comfort bicycle for commuting to work. By the time I had finished adding on all of the accessories which might be considered standard equipment in Europe, I had increased the price of the bicycle by almost 50%, given a good workout to my skills in assembly and profanity, and had laboriously produced a new creation. A to B readers would no doubt call it a commuter bicycle. I call it a UBC – Urban Battle Cruiser.We think differently about many things around Los Angeles.

My UBC has almost 5,000 commute miles on it now, with no mechanical problems and no flats. It does the job and does it well.There are some advantages to buying bicycles without any accessories.The buyer can customise the final product as desired, and tailor it to his/her needs.That is the good news about the American sales system.The bad news can be seen by standing on any American street corner and watching the passing traffic.There are very few bicycles out there…

These days less than 1% of all trips in the USA are made by bicycle. Observers will notice immediately that almost all bicycles are ridden the way they are sold – without any accessories except the legally mandated reflectors.These machines are almost useless except in excellent weather, on excellent road surfaces and in broad daylight. In fact, most American cyclists would not know a well-equipped commuter bicycle if they saw one. It has been many years since any have been seen in our shops. Until recently, that is…

Re-enter Joe Breeze. Mr. Breeze, now middle-aged and somewhat thinner of hair and thicker of waist, has re-entered the bicycle market with a new line of ‘Breezers’, which he advertises as ‘Transportation For A Healthy Planet’. He may have some real winners here, because once again the American market is stagnant and once again the industry is looking for Something New.

Breezer BikesThere are eleven models of Breezers, all well equipped for daily transportation from A to B.Three are folders, and any similarity in geometry to a Brompton or a Birdy is strictly coincidental, of course – these are the Compact models.Two other bikes, called Range models, designed for heavy duty long distance work, are closely related to the classic tourist bicycles of yesteryear.The six Town bikes are the most interesting for the average daily rider. All are fully equipped for daily use, with internal hub gears of various speeds, fenders, luggage racks, lights and all the other small accessories which make for practical cycling.These models are supplied with either diamond or step-thru frames and are colourful and stylish machines. Premium prices for these premium bicycles do not seem to present any problem to buyers.They easily outshine my UBC which, sad to say, is neither colourful nor stylish.

Once before, Mr. Breeze revolutionized the bicycling world with his mountain bikes. The first revolution happening largely by accident.This time he is trying to do it again, by design. As industrialist Henry J. Kaiser once said, ‘Find a need and fill it’.There isn’t much testosterone embedded in these bicycles, but there is much good sense and practical design.They are truly transportation for a healthy, safe, practical and sensible USA. WELL DONE, MR. BREEZE. May your tribe, and your Breezers, increase and multiply!

Breezer Bikes tel +1 415 339 8917 web

Letter from America – The Simple Life

letter-from-america-36Henry Thoreau never rode an electric bike – or any other kind of bike, for that matter. He died in 1862, during the American Civil War. Had he lived in our time, no doubt he would have delighted in all the alternatives featured in A to B. He would probably have been a faithful supporter of the magazine, and might have contributed an article from time to time. He would probably have seen that the magazine is about more than bicycles and scooters. It is about sane, sensible living, and he had a few things to say about that subject.

Mr.Thoreau lived almost all of his 45 years in Concord, Massachusetts.That place is sacred ground to Americans who know their history. UK readers may recall that in the 1775-76 era a certain unpleasantness erupted between the troops of King George III and his American subjects. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson described it best in 1835 in his Concord Hymn:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world.

Sacred ground or not, Henry Thoreau did not think much of his society. He saw those around him rushing through their lives and doing whatever it took to ‘get ahead’ during the 1840’s and 1850’s, all the while staggering under their burden of debts and obligations. He saw it all, and in his classic book Walden (1854) he observed, ‘The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’. Later in the book he gave his remedy for all this misery. ‘Simplify, simplify’, he wrote. Mr Thoreau would have been very comfortable with A to B.

Historian David Shi tells us that in the USA there has been a regular shift between periods of excessive luxury and periods of a return to simpler living, which in the early years of the American republic was called republican simplicity.The current name for this return to sane, sensible living is voluntary simplicity.The leading American spokesmen for Henry Thoreau’s ideas today is Duane Elgin. He, in his book Voluntary Simplicity, sees the need to eliminate much clutter and stress from our lives in order to find a life that is, ‘Outwardly Simple And Inwardly Rich’.

Our modern world has given us wealth and convenience beyond the dreams of past generations. It has given us other things, too – workaholism, frantic living, mindless consumption and a never-ending supply of tranquillizers. Something is clearly out of balance, and we would do well to take a close look at how we live.

Mr Elgin’s thoughts are those of Thoreau, updated to reflect the dilemmas of modern life. Like Thoreau, he sees lives of quiet desperation all around him, and like Thoreau, he sees that it does not have to be that way.There are remedies, if we will only adopt them.

A human face for all of this has been supplied by Linda Pierce, a self-described reformed Yuppie lawyer. In 2000, she published the results of her Pierce Simplicity Study, which she titled Choosing Simplicity. It is a survey of 211 Americans: ‘Real people finding peace and fulfilment in a complex world’.

The heart of Ms Pierce’s book is in the responses of these 211 people, 40 of whom were interviewed in depth by telephone. All 211 were invited to fill out the usual forms and check off the usual boxes.They were also asked to add any personal comments they wished about their attempts to find a slower, saner and simpler lifestyle. Most did comment, supplying the author with everything from small note cards to 30-page handwritten letters.

The result of all these efforts provides a fascinating look at people who seem to live largely without quiet desperation. Most live in cities and suburbs, rather than mountain tops. Most have regular jobs and homes or apartments.There is Joe Judge, whose life is quite different from Armando Quintero, whose life is extremely different from Colette Bryant. For all their differences, these people and the rest, report lives of considerable fulfilment. Mr Thoreau might find their accommodations to our modern world a bit odd, but he would probably not quarrel with the results.

There are millions of people all around us who are living differently from the mass of men.You might find it worthwhile to wander into your local library or bookseller’s and meet Duane Elgin and Linda Pierce.They would be pleased to share some thoughts with you. Henry Thoreau will be there too, of course. Modern readers will probably find that his expressions are a bit out of date, and that his thoughts are not. As we all move through these times, it is well to keep in mind an old Chinese proverb:

When the student is ready, a teacher will appear


Letter from America – A Cunning Plan

letter-from-america-cunning-planWhile most of us are focused on Iraq, there is a disturbing scenario unfolding in South America. For a month there has been a national strike in Venezuela, touted as a, ‘middle class protest against a corrupt, left-wing regime.’

Little could be farther from the truth.The inequity between rich and poor in Venezuela is just a little larger than that in the US, where 13,000 Americans earn more than 22 million of their fellow countrymen. Venezuelan political history is full of such strife between Left and Right, with the Right (often getting covert support from the US) winning out.

President Hugo Chavez has tremendous support from the poor and disenfranchised. Like Salvador Allende in Chile during the 1970’s, he promised a ‘bloodless revolution’, to address the inequities between rich and poor. He also thumbed his nose at Mr Bush by inviting Fidel Castro to visit, and by visiting Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Not a wise move unless, of course, you supply 15% of the United State’s oil.

Venezuela’s oil power is a two-edged sword. If the US weren’t so caught up with Iraq and North Korea,Venezuela would be due for the kind of monkey business that caused the overthrow of Allende. However, Mr Bush has more pressing issues, at least for the near future.

If (or, perhaps when) we go to war with Iraq, we will loose more oil (yes, we’re Iraq’s biggest customer, accounting for 70% of its exports). So if the Venezuelan strike goes on, we will be losing more oil than OPEC can cover by extra production.This is the real Achilles heel for the US.

And, here’s another interesting set of facts. Our oil refineries on the Gulf coast are set up to take Mexican and Venezuelan crude. Switching over to crude oil from the Middle East takes about three weeks and costs many millions of dollars, which the oil companies are loathe to spend. And oil coming from the Middle East takes six weeks to arrive, while crude oil from Venezuela takes only a week.

According to some analysts, an oil shortage of this magnitude will result in a world- wide recession to rival the slump of the 1930’s… to say nothing of putting an end to the SUV craze.That might just be the one bright spot in this whole scenario!

Being a pacifist – and very much against going to war to satisfy the vendetta of a spoiled fraternity boy – I am much troubled by the Iraq question. Maybe we (the world community, not the lone US cowboy), should put an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein to avoid a real bloodbath in the future?

Ask yourself this question; if we could have stopped Hitler in 1935, would it not have been better than waiting until 1940? Surely, the regime of Saddam Hussein is as bad as Hitler’s? They have invaded other countries, gassed their own civilians, and done unspeakable things to maintain power. Given the chance they would do far greater harm to the world, and the policy of containment only seems to have prolonged their end goal.

For a country totally dependent on oil imports, like the USA, war could be serious. And the prospect of a global recession should certainly be considered when decided whether to go to war. But can we, as civilised people, not do more to avoid some of the mistakes we made in the last century? Can we really afford to let this regime of tyranny fester within its borders? Is the regime of Hussein a cancer that could spread? I’m damned if I have the answer, but I’m not sure I will let my antipathy for Mr Bush and his antics cloud the real picture.

United States – The Third Way

united-states-the-third-wayDon’t ask me why they named it Ridgecrest.There is no ridge and the town doesn’t sit on the crest of anything. Ridgecrest is a nice quiet community of some 30,000 people on the edge of a huge valley in the middle of the Mojave (mo-HAH-vee) Desert, about 190 miles northeast of the Los Angeles area, where I live and work.

They regularly advertise for ‘retirees’ to come and live there, and in exchange for hot summers they promise 360 days of sunshine per year, friendly neighbours and a low cost of housing. It all sounded interesting, so I entered a one-month mail-order subscription to the local newspaper, liked what I read, and decided to go there for a brief visit.

We set out as a team of four – one slightly scruffy 65 year old prospective retiree (me), one slightly scruffy Brompton L5 folding bike, one thoroughly disreputable Chevrolet pickup truck, and one little book – The Third Act by Edgar Bronfman Jr of the Seagrams Distillery family. Mr Bronfman is a retiree and doesn’t like the idea any better than I do.

We set off eastwards for 40 miles on the great Los Angeles freeway system, then turned north, up through a mountain pass and onto Highway 395 into the Mojave desert. The first sign – ‘Next gas, 50 miles’ – said it all.

On the way up US395 we stopped at three old gold mining towns, which today are little more than ghost towns.The newspapers of 100 years ago tell us that when these towns were in their prime, thousands of people lived liked pigs, worked like dogs and died like flies. Looking over what is left of these towns, I believe every word.

We continued up the highway and finally topped a small hill, rounded a bend, and arrived at Ridgecrest. No ridge, no crest, but a nice green oasis in a huge dry valley.The town is about 100 miles west of Death Valley, which is 2,500 feet lower, 20 degrees F hotter, and you don’t ever want to go there.The Mojave desert is hard country, and Death Valley is the hardest place of all.

After settling into a pleasant motel, I took the Brompton out for a ride in the cool of the evening.Three years ago, I bought my Brompton as an aid to car-free retirement.That idea seems more and more practical, but there has been no retirement yet.

Up and down the wide streets we rode, stopping to talk with the local people from time to time.They like their town and a number of them had come to Ridgecrest as I did, answering some advertisement, visiting for a while, and then retiring there for good.They told me that housing is about 25% cheaper than Los Angeles – something I had already gathered from the local paper.

united-states-the-third-wayFor the next three days, my routine didn’t vary. I started the day at 6am with a cool morning Brompton ride around the sleepy town, and then spent the rest of the morning visiting and asking questions.Afternoons – which in August mean 110 degrees desert heat – were spent in the motel reading The Third Act. Evenings brought more sightseeing after things had cooled off for the day.

The afternoons proved to be extremely valuable. Edgar Bronfman has thought seriously about retirement, and in his book, he divides life into three acts.The First Act (‘Learn’) covers the years of childhood, and the second Act (‘Earn’) the long years of earning a living and developing skills. But his main attention goes to the coming of the Third Act, which he sees not as retirement but as ‘Give Back’. He quotes former US president Jimmy Carter who insists that ‘We are old only when our regrets replace our dreams’. Mr Carter, 77, shows no sign whatever of growing old.

During my wandering around Ridgecrest, my thoughts turned from retirement possibilities to Third Act possibilities. Many assured me that opportunities were everywhere – in hospitals, libraries, schools, churches, public safety sites.There are many places to make use of the skills learned in the Second Act, especially if the community doesn’t have to pay for our work.The message from Mr Bronfman and others is the same – don’t retire from life; give back. Retirement leads to boredom, regrets, and endless old age complaints. Give back whatever you can, wherever you can, whenever you can.

One thing surprised me during my daily travels around Ridgecrest. My Brompton attracted much attention, which never happens where I live, with much folding and unfolding of the machine and interesting comments. Perhaps this is just idle curiosity, or perhaps a symptom of the isolation of the town.The community has no regional rail or air service and Bakersfield, the nearest transportation hub, is about 100 miles away.

The capabilities of a folder would be more obvious to an isolated desert dweller than to the resident of a major metro area. If you were to live car-free in Ridgecrest, the only way out of town would be on the Greyhound intercity bus lines. A folder would be your passport to regional and national mobility.

After three days, it was time to pack up and leave. South, down US395 we went, back past the old mining towns (Red Mountain, Randsburg, Johannesburg), through the mountain pass, and then west onto the fast-moving 10-lane Los Angeles freeway system.

The Third Way. Edgar Bronfman & Catherine Whitney . G.P.Putnam’s . ISBN 03991 48698