Cheating my way to Columbus

My Cambridge, Ohio host has done this before. A cross-country cyclist from the UK happened upon the same gravel route through Amish country that I did, but he wasn’t on Countri Bike. His thin road bike tires couldn’t handle the rocks, and he had to turn around and take a major detour to Cambridge. The next day, Adam gave the weary UK guy a ride to Columbus and now he’s offering the same to me.

But is it cheating?
I might hesitate to accept a ride if I were on a bicycle built for touring. In case you’re just tuning in, I’m on a 45-pound shared bike with three gears and going a lethargic 8 miles an hour. I walk up hills and wear old gym clothes and sneakers.

I could subject myself to two days in the baking heat seeing nothing of significance, or resourcefully hitch a ride and be in Columbus in 75 minutes. So dear reader, what would you do? Purists call it cheating. I call it common sense. Plus, it’s Labor Day—can’t I take the day off, too?

Before we depart, breakfast is served: eggs on an artisanal English muffin from the local bakery and a kick ass coca smoothie. It’s so good I ask for the recipe: 1/3 cup milk, 1/3 cup coca powder, tablespoon of molasses (Steen’s pure can syrup), dash of salt (to bring out the cocoa), banana and ice. To thicken, add half an avocado.

Meet my cook and driver
Adam, 37, hails from upstate New York. What I like about him is that he knows stuff. Like how to go mushrooming and pick out edible fungi, or how to turn seaweed into a marketable product as his side business. Last night he made sourdough crepes with seaweed topped with cottage cheese and jam. I can barely get through the line at Trader Joe’s and this guy is experimenting with food chemistry.

That’s a good thing because we have a physics problem. Adam is the only guy in southern Ohio who doesn’t own a pickup truck. How the hell is a Citi Bike going to fit in a Volkswagen Jetta? Rather than go buy the right socket wrench to unbolt the bike’s front wheel, we let it hang out of the trunk.

Express to Columbus
During the car ride I learn about the controversial process of fracking. In eastern Ohio, I’ve seen plenty of billboards pointed at land owners: “Do you know what your mineral rights are worth?”

Until three days before my arrival, Adam worked for a consulting firm contracted by a pipeline company. He was a subcontractor for the fracking company and worked on front end stuff before the well pad is placed to drill into the ground.

Adam is not a pillage-the-planet kinda guy. He walks or bikes to work, and drives a clean diesel Jetta that gets 56 mpg at 2,000 rpms. (If you think my ride to Columbus is cheating, read about the VW scandal on emissions.)

Frack what?
Despite the negative connotation of fracking, Adam feels it’s the right thing for right now because technology has made the process more efficient and less invasive.

I have a basic question: what exactly is fracking?

Fracking extracts petroleum products for raw materials and energy (like heating oil and gas/diesel). Adam explains that petroleum is taken out of the ground and split into its profitable parts. Tap shale and out comes methane, ethane, butane and pentane. A cracker plant separates these petroleum products for different uses, such as heating fuel and plastic feedstock.

My mind wanders at the word “cracker.” I’m circling the cheese platter with Carr’s table water crackers in each hand ready to tweeze cubes of pepper jack cheese. What time is it and are we stopping for lunch?

Apparently there is a famous ice cream shop in Zanesville. We swing by but it’s closed for the holiday. Weasel Boy Brewing is probably closed, too.

Anyway, fracking gets more goodies with less impact. Fracking drills laterally along the Utica and Marcellus Shale geologic formations (here’s a map if you’re keeping track at home). This horizontal move is more efficient than extracting petroleum from vertical wells.

“Everything we do causes some damage. There’s a big disconnect between flicking a switch at home and where the energy actually comes from,” he says. “Make someone cold and they won’t care about fracking anymore.”

“People need to learn to do more with less, but no one wants to live like 200 years ago and use whale oil from blubber to light lamps.”

Rather than cast blame on fracking, Adam thinks people should reexamine their energy desires and plastics consumption. Polymers from petroleum, such as ethylene, create plastic, much of which is made in China.

Now that he needs a new job, Adam would like to help minimize impact of our power sources. He’s interested in alternative energy power, such as wind, and sustainability.

Eco-friendly plastics are possible, he says, but there’s a catch. Starch and algae can be turned into plastic, but it’s not lucrative because the source is renewable and the supply is stabilized. Scarcity and volatility of petroleum make it profitable.

“I’d love to see us go to all renewables and biofuels if they can get the algae thing worked out—that’s a great way to get biofuel. But they need to engineer the right kind of algae to produce petroleum… it could be dangerous if that algae gets out into the streams.”

Speaking of waterways, the highlight of the drive is going across an odd Y-shaped bridge where three bridges over two rivers intersect head-on. Sounds like engineering gone amuck, but history buffs read on.

Once in Columbus, Adam drops me at a hostel near Ohio State University. I buy him lunch before he heads back home to Cambridge to meet his next guest.

Tonight I rest and tomorrow I explore the capital of Ohio… and put out an APB to any pickup truck heading to St. Louis.