Last of the mountains: 75 miles to Fort Chiswell, Virginia

Perhaps driven out by the smell of the Appalachian Trail hikers, I was out of my sleeping bag around 7:30, but due to some dawdling, the chance to have a strong cup of coffee and purchase a replacement spork for the one I’d tragically broken, it wasn’t until after nine that I was officially on the road, ready to ride.

Looking at the elevation map, I had two big climbs, and then a series of small rollers in a long, steady downhill. I would be done with the Appalachians, done with the mountains, and soon to hook left and head north. I still have hundreds of miles to go, but thats an order of ten smaller than thousands of miles to go.

The first climb was long, steady, picking its way through a shaded valley with a shallow river. I passed a sign that said “Department of Corrections Roadwork Ahead.” I’d never seen a chain gang, and was a bit excited to see this throwback. Sadly, or happily for them, they weren’t chained, they wielded weed whackers instead of pick axes (I assume to teach them that “weed is whack), and there was no drawling foreman with a gun. I waved to them, they waved back, and I rolled on, somewhat disappointed.

I peaked, and found myself on a slight downhill, cruising along. The day was warm, stupid warm for this late in October, but I couldn’t complain. Climate change has its benefits, if I may be so selfish. With a slight sense of shame, I’ll admit that I even banked on these few weeks of Indian summer when I left so late.

I kept waiting for the second climb to start. I was going up slightly, but not nearly enough to count it as a climb. I waited, double-checked my map to make sure I wasn’t off route, and suddenly, found myself back on a downhill. I was up and over, and hadn’t even realized it. Pleased with myself, I pushed into the downhill, cruising along. Today was supposed to be my rest day, but I was now debating about pushing on another twenty or so miles to 95.

As I got closer to my destination, I decided not to. A rest day is a rest day, and I didn’t want to push dusk on roads I didn’t know. Besides, a lot can happen in two miles–a nice downhill can turn on you, become a mean uphill–let alone twenty. I played it safe.

I grabbed a motel room, and then headed to the convenience store up the road, buying two foot-long subs, three protein shakes, and, in the surest sign yet that I”m back on the east coast, a half dozen of crispy cream donuts. The six-foot-five, three-hundred-pound cashier I’d me skeptically:

“You gon’ eat all that?”

“Yep.”

“You sure?”

“Yep.”

“Damn, dude, y’all musta bicycled type far to eat all that.”

Amen. Back at the motel, I saved three of the donuts for breakfast, watched some of the Cosby Show, my favorite motel activity, and went heavily to sleep.

Meeting fellow travelers, smelling them too

After a close encounter of the naked-middle-aged-lady kind, it was a relief to be back on the road. I road back into Haysi along the mountain ridge, the sun was bright, but the valleys were filled with a thick cottony fog, and as I descended, the day grew grayer, colder.

I rode southeast along the river, the road twisting and climbing, leaving me wary of being caught by a car coming flying around one of the curves. I listened carefully, riding out twards the center of the lane to give the car the greatest chance of seeing me before I disappeared around the bend, and then ducking back over to the shoulder. WIth the exception of a few cars, most were courteous.

Eventually, the road took me into a corner of the valley, and there was nowhere to go but up. And up. And up. I was in my lowest gear, though with my snapped and square-knotted cable, my bike thought it a good joke to pop into a higher gear as I came around nastily-banked hairpins that brought nothing but more climbing around the curve.

Finally I hit the summit. It was still hazy, and the view revealed layers of hills, smoking into the distance. It was beautiful, peaceful, until an eighteen-wheeler came blasting by.

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I flew through the downhill. Only one more nasty climb for that day, a three-miler on a narrow road that threaded it’s way up the ridge with the deliberate tracking of a nervous hiker. It was quiet, cool, beautiful, nice enough that I found my rhythm and simply enjoyed the slow climb. After so many miles, a long climb is actually enjoyable. The ones I find frustrating are the rolling hills that force me to stand up and struggle only to end, keeping me off beat for the day.

I rolled into Damascus, happy to not have been struck down by God and called on to preach the word, and headed straight for the bike shop, where I replaced my cable, picked up an extra one and a few spare spokes for good measure. It’s not a lack of faith in the bike, just an acknowledgment that it was time enough to start carrying backup parts for the vital things that might break. If my NYC deadline is November 5th, I can afford no more delays like the one I had.

I headed over to the hostel in town, a donation-based service generously provided by the Methodist church. A smell of dank body odor wafted out the front door.

The smell got heavier and nastier as I went further back, and upon entering the bunk room discovered the origin: Five Appalachian trail hikers three foul-smelling months into their journey.

They reeked to high heaven, their bodies, boots and breath all carrying a peculiar order of rotting synthetic fibers, if that was possible. Their saving grace is that they were nice folk.

We chatted about our various adventures, which inevitably turned into a not-so-subtle competition of anecdotes, the most amusing round of which was the “emergency poop anecdote” which one of the hikers (they all go by their stupid trail names: “desert lock,” “Patches,” “Testament”), won with a story about having to hang off the edge of a near-cliff with his pants around his ankles when the call of nature came furiously pounding on his backdoor.

Nice as they were, one nigiht of their company was enough, they carried with them the hippie clubbishness of the campus folk music society: Friendly, but also slightly superior. When a mosquito went to land on my face, I waved it away, and one sweetly said, “It’s just a bug.”

Indeed.

Most were as equally interested in my adventure as I was in theirs (and I was both interested and impressed), but two: “Patches” whose name came uninventively from the patches he’d sown on his jacket, and another were intent on making sure that I knew the Appalachian Trail was the more arduous and superior adventure.

I didn’t really care: They are two different types. The AT is one of pure introspection, spending months deep in the woods, often days and weeks at a time. My lonesomeness is similar, but it is the lonesomeness that comes on hard and fast when you’re at a party, suddenly feeling out of step with others who seem more in-touch, more involved with the moment as you stand watching from the side. Everyday I deal with strangers, hope they don’t hit me with their cars, or invite me to spend the night, and then, “invite me to spend the night.” I am much more at the mercy of America than I am at the mercy of nature.

There also was an implication that the AT was the purer sort of adventure: Only your body and it’s limitations against the hike (plus several hundred dollars of whatever gear your parents bought you from LL Bean). The bicycle, to them, was a gross spoiling of this. I had the easy way.

There is no arguing with that, I am reliant on a machine, and that machine is reliant on roads and paths, but in defense of the bicycle, I think it is a machine made elegant by the fact that it lies perfectly at the fulcrum in the mind-body balance. Trains, planes, cars, these were all invented by the mind to make an end-run around the body’s physical limitations, whereas the bicycle is an incredibly simple machine, utilitarian, that merely serves to amplify the body’s abilities while still remaining strapped to it’s limitations. It is both for the body and of the mind, and in my opinion, graceful in it’s simplicity and power.

Also, I just took two months to ride one of the fucking things across the country, so you’re goddam right I’m going to defend it.

Peace, muthafuckas!

The naked lady airstream trailer story

M– and I woke around 7. He had a tight deadline to be done within a week, so his plan was to get up and out early and put in some serious mileage. I figured I’d join him for awhile, and was focused on not holding him back.

We’d both been traveling from the west coast (he started in Seattle) by ourselves for weeks, and I think were both sensitive to the fact that we had our own set and delicate routines, and both of us were careful not to upset the other’s routine.

He wanted to be on the road by 7:30, but between talking to our host and alternately fussing with our gear, we weren’t on the road until 9:30. I overemphasized to M– that he shouldn’t slow down for me. He was carrying likely 20 pounds less gear than I, which meant the second the road went uphill, I was operating at a serious handicap.

With someone to talk to, the miles passed quickly. On the first hill, I kept pace with M–. On the second, he left me on the last stretch. I pushed to catch up with him on the downhill, but the Appalachian mountain roads are wickedly steeped and devlishly curved.

I’d talked to a gas station attendant as I came into the mountains, and he asked why everyone riding east to west always rolled into his town all beat to hell. I guessed it was the hills, and my experience was right. Coming down on a loaded bike was a challenge.

I pushed to catch up with M–, but around one hairpin, I found myself heading over the yellow line into the opposing lane, there was no traffic, but I decided as much as I wanted a conversation, it wasn’t worth flying off one of these roads or getting intimate with someone’s bumper.

At the bottom, M– was pedalling slowly. I urged him for the umpteenth time not to let me hold him back. I felt like the injured soldier in some cheap war movie in which all the soldiers inexplicably wear flourescent spandex–“go on without me” I begged, “I’ll be alright.”

He rode with me awhile longer, but then the third climb hit–two miles up at 8-to-10 percent grade. Slowly he pulled away, until I finally lost him around a curve. It was a very zen way for our ride time together to end, almost as fluky as how we’d ended up riding together. That was my only thought, so little oxygen was going to my head.

The hill down that road was narrow, one and a half lanes at best, and so precariously placed it was like the asphalt itself was barely hanging on to the cliff face. I wasn’t catching him again and kept it slow.

I crossed the Virginia border, and though it was late in the day, and the climbs had left me somewhat draggy, I wanted to make up for the blown day yesterday and kept going. In Haysi, Virginia, just over the border, was the “Hill Top Inn.”

From the campsite I skipped on, three nasty climbs rose upp to whip whatever energy I had left. I road into Haysi exhausted, and stopped in at the convenience store to grab some food and get a recommendation for any other motels in town.

“Is there a motel other than the HIlltop in town?”

“Bless your heart. That’s it, though I wouldn’t stay there.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just…”

“Out of a horror movie?”

“Yeah–you should stay in the state park.”

“Oh, I just came from that way” I figured the teenage girl behind the counter was just exaggerating about the state of the motel. “How do I get to the Hilltop?”

“It’s far–15 minutes up the mountain…by car.”

The Hilltop Inn, was not, as my map promised, on route, nor was it, as the map described “on the big hill just outside of town.” It was three miles up the mountain. Not the hill. The mountain.

Finally it appeared, a squat, low building that was also a VFW post. The parking lot was near full. This was clearly the sort of motel that people lived in, or were placed in by their halfway program.

I walked over to the office and knocked on the door. A skinny veteran with no teeth and a staggering lurch kept starting to catch my attention and then nervously looking away when I made eye contact. Finally he worked up the courage, talking in a fast mumble:

“Idon’tthinkshe’sthererightnow,notthererightnow,justgointothebar,andsomeonecanhelpyouuntilshegetsbackbecauseshe’snotthererightnow,shejustleft.”

I thanked him, and steeling myself to at best get laughed at, at worst get kicked out, I walked in.

Through the smoke, several two tables of aging veterans and their wives looked up at me, guessing by my uniform that I probably wasn’t a soldier.

“You lookin’ for a room?”

“Yeah.

“She’ll be back in about 15 minutes,” said one guy with a scraggly beard, “where you coming from?”

“Well, I started over in Kentucky today, but I’m coming from LA overall.”

“LA? Holy hell. Judy? JUDY! Get this man a beer.”

“An old woman with short hair and one good eye got up, cigarrette dangling from her mouth and shuffled over to the bar.

I went to meet her, not wanting her to have to walk all over.

Cold beer in hand, I thanked the man, and sat down.

Two women came in, both in their fifties, one wearing no make-up, the other wearing enough for the two of them. They were followed by a burly man with a long pointed chin beard.

After making the rounds, the no-make-uped one noticed me sitting and came over.

“I’m Wrenda. Who are you?”

“I’m Adam–just biking through. Going to stay the night.”

“Ah, I passed you up the hill. Was wondering who that cute boy was.”

I laughed, changing the subject, “what do you do?”

“Do?””

“Yeah”

“Honey, no one around here has jobs.”

“Ah.”

“I used to work as as a water safety analsy at nuclear sites” this story led to a long rant that swung through nuclear sites, the FBI, and her fight with her brother over the family farm. I smiled, laughed.

“So you staying here tonight?”

“That’s the plan.”

“YOu shouldn’t stay here. Come stay with me, I’m a good judge of character. You seem sweet.”

I hestitated, but then the make-up lady, Nancy, came over and introduced me to her husband.

“Oh, you should! Y’all can come over to my house for dinner.”

The woman seemed nice enough, and the nice thing about being male, is that I feel safe enough to accept invitations from strange women without much fear.

“You can put your bike in my truck.”

At this point, Judy–JUDY!–came over, letting me know that I could go over to get my room now.

“C’mon,” said Wrenda, “save yourself some money. Stay with me.”

“Alright–thanks. That’s real nice of you.

We rode a few miles down the road, then turned down a dirt road to her home–an older airstream trailer in the middle of a field. It was awesome, and I’d never seen the inside of one of them. I changed quickly, and we headed over to Nancy and Louie’s.

Nancy was outside, a joint in her mouth, trying to get the fire started. Louie came out and gave me a tour of his vintage car collection. He started working in Detroit at 14, and got through eleventh grade before leaving to work fulltime at Chrysler, where he worked for 34 years. He was fascinating to listen to, had interesting and thoughtful politics, and a couple good stories, including the time he spent two weeks in a southern jail when he was 16.

When we came back out, Nancy had the fire going and was working on a fresh joint. “Y’all sit down–you can sit next to Wrenda, Adam. She’ll take good care of you.”

“Nancy!” Wrenda said, scandalized. I smiled uncomfortably.

The jokes didn’t stop there, nor did the joints, which I declined. Wrenda was getting friendlier and less scandalized with each reference to the fact that I was sleeping at her place that night, and I figured it would help to keep my wits about me.

I had a few beers, and relaxed about drinking: Wrenda had the peculiar quality of getting less attractive the less sober I got, which sounds nasty of me, but it is really a good thing. Think about it, if someone was still drunk enough at the end of the night to put in the effort to go to bed with her, it certainly cut down on the awkward morning and meant that waking up next to her was a good, not unpleasant, surprise.

I drank my third slowly. If I needed to get back on the bike that night, I wanted to do it sober.

After eating, with Nancy and Louie insisting I eat more than my share, it was time to head back to the trailer. It was past midnight, and Nancy was getting drowsy from all the joints.

When we were back, Wrenda fixed herself a margarita.

“I’m a good bartender. Want one?”

“Sure,” I said. It was not good. It was premixed, so her bartending skills apparently were graded only on her ability to place liquid in a glass.

“You’re so pretty.”

“Ha, thanks.”

‘”You are, I bet you take advantage of women with it.”

“No, Thanks, but you’re overeestimating my powers.”

“No, I’m not, I bet you know how to play it.”

“SO when do you think your going to sue your brother for the farm?”

It went on like this, with me playing oblivious and changing the subject to the few things I knew about her. Finally we went to bed. Separately.

She disappeared into the end of the trailer, and I lay down on the couch.

“Adam?”

“Mm?”

“You do take advantage of girls, don’t you.”

“Ha, not usually.” This conversation was tedious. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Just as I was getting into a deep sleep, I heard her again, this time close buy, she was fixing the heat.

“You asleep?”

“Mmm? No.”

“Is it too warm?”

“No, it’s fine.” Something was odd about her silhouette in the dark, and I just turned my head and went back to sleep.

I woke around dawn, and started getting my stuff together, getting back on the road.

“You still here?”

I paused, debating about being able to sneak out.

“Hello?”

“Yep, just packing up, sorry to wake you.”

“It’s fine.”

Just as I was leaving, I went back to thank her, she was lying in bed, covered in her sheets, but clearly nude.

“Hey, Wrenda, I really appreciate the place to crash.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll send you a thank you post card when I get to New York, let you know how the trip’s going.”

“Sure.”
Gone was the friendly woman who’d invited me along.

I rode up to the main ridge road, mist still draining, it finally clicked in my head: If she was naked in bed, that meant she’d gone to bed naked. That’s what was off about her silhouette. She’d been standing buck naked a few feet from my the sofa, trying her best to raise my interest.

I shuddered, and not from the cold.

Bicycle malfunctions, road saviors, Kentucky moonshine skills.

There’s a cycling aphorism much like “when it rains, it pours,” which, if I may paraphrase it goes “When a shifter cable breaks, your day gets really fucked up and all sorts of annoying shit has to happen before you get it fixed.” That’s the short version.

After staying a night in the Daniel Boone Motor Inn in Hazard Kentucky, I was up and out early–earlier than I had been in days–and eager to get some mileage in. November 6th is looming and I still feel far from New York. I am far from New York.

I took a right out of the inn, right up the hill, went to downshift, and hear a metallic pop. I knew immediately what it was: I’d felt the cable start to fray the day before, and was hoping it would last me ’til I got to a bike shop, some 160 miles over the biggest climbs into Virginia.

No such luck. As far as cable breaks, I did about the worst that I could do: If you break a shifter cable, you first hope it is the front derailleur, where it defaults to the easiest chain ring. Mine was the rear, and it immediately popped into the hardest cog. If you do break the rear cable, you at least hope it’s somewhere towards the ends so you still have a lenth of cable that is usable. Mine snapped less than a half inch from the stopper.

I was, as my Dad bluntly put it when I called for suggestions, “screwed.” This wasn’t a suggestion. There was no bike shop in Hazard, and so I went for plan B: Walmart.

Walmart had cables but only for their crap mountain bikes, too big to thread into the housing, so I went for plan C: rethread my old cable backwards and somehow tie it.

After an hour of cursing and carefully easing the wounded cable back through all the housing without fraying it, it came up too short to do anything with.

Plan D involved me going to Walmart, then Lowe’s to find picture hanging wire of roughly the same gauge as a temporary fix. After another half hour of careful threading, I got everything attached correctly, anchored it, and went to try shifting. It snapped immediately.

I had no plan E, until I happened to glance over towards the entrance to Lowe’s and see another touring bicycle miraculously leaning up against the wall. Hoping he had a cable, I went in search.

M– did have a cable, and was more than happy to give it to me, excited that it was going to be put to some use. I’d really lucked out: I’d come across a total of four cyclists on my ride, and this late in the game, this far east, I didn’t expect to see anyone, let alone someone who just happened to stop into Lowe’s in Hazard, Kentucky right when I was having a really serious bike malfunction.

My luck only went as far as the new cable, though, which is to say, too short: An inch and a half too short. A miserable inch and a half.

M– had heard of a trick that involved tying a square knot between the old and the new cable, and after looking up square knot directions, we tried out this hail mary rig: It worked. Not perfect, but enough that I could get to my easy gears.

I apologized probably too many times for delaying him (he had a relatively tight deadline to be in Raleigh, NC in a week), and since we were going the same direction, we road off. It was past 2:30 by the time we’d gotten some food, so there wasn’t much riding time left in the day (a day I’d “started” before 8 that morning).

We got another 25 miles that day, and called over to the town church, which was listed as taking in cyclists for the night. They no longer did, but directed us to a man in town who charged $25 a night for a place in a tent. M– said he couldn’t quite afford it that week, but having ridden alone for so long, and having thus far gotten along with the man, I wasn’t eager to lose a traveling companion so soon, so despite the relatively high price, I offered to cover his stay and he could mail me a check. It seemed he felt the same way, and though at first hesitant, accept the offer.

We rolled through town, up behind the courthouse, and up one hell of a steep drive to a little stone house built steep into a “horseshoe hollow,” essentially a deep, treed canyon.

We were met at the top by the owner, Don, who greeted us with tea flavored overpoweringly like sweetener, apologizing that the ice had already melted.

Don talked to us a bit about the property: it was an amphitheater/aboretum/not for profit society/cat sanctuary. When he said “cat santuary”, I finally looked around and noticed his cats. Dozens of them, all rolling around.

“Oh, look my cats have come out to greet you. They do that. They’re my guard ca–LOUISE!!!” He was shouting at one of the cats, something he would do throughout the night both frequently and abruptly for whatever crime the cats were committing, though it wasn’t often clear that the cats were doing anything at all.

I hate cats, and here we were deep in the woods with a man who described about a dozen different things about his house and was shouting at his small army of cats. I was a little bit skeptical if the $25 was going to be worth it.

He gestured over to the tent, “well, I’ll go get some snacks ready, and y’all can go over–MISTER! MISTER!!!!–and get set up in that tent, it’s where our wedding garden used to be, it’s got three rooms and air mattresses. Get your dirty clothes, and you can come back and shower and I’ll wash ’em–CIRCLES! STOP THAT!–for ya.”

The tent was disgusting. Smelled filthy, one of the air mattresses was deflated, and when M– went to move it discovered a layer of rotting vegetation on the bottom.

“I’m not sleeping on that fucking thing,” he muttered, setting up his tent footprint in a relatively clean section of the main room.

We quickly open the windows and got the hell out of there. This was the beginnings of a bizarre, feline-dominated remake of “Deliverance.”

I hadn’t planned on doing laundry, but since the accommodations were clearly such a rip off, I pettily decided that laundry was in order.

We wandered back over to the main house with our laundry. Don took ’em–I’d thought he’d just show us where the machine was–and introduced us to Elisa, who I assumed, after the mention of the wedding garden was his wife.

Her accent was thick and fast: “Niceta meet ya, I’m Elisa.”

“Nice to meet you, Elisa, I’m Adam.”

“E-lisa. EE-lisa.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“So who’s up for first shower?” Don interjected.

I drew that lottery. The inside of the house was a mess. Don mentioned something about his mother living there as he led me back to the bathroom.

It was disgusting. Filthy, cramped. It reeked of the rotten egg stink of sulphur. The toilet seat was filthy and up on risers, a car air freshener was hanging from a toilet handle.

The shower was an old standalone tub and clearly where the sulphur smell was coming from. The pipes were rusted out, and the stub was stained a hideous orange color. Two moldy bathmats lay abandoned on the floor, a daddy long legs spider with two legs missing was crawling horribly up the side of the tent, trying to get out of the water.

I stood in the bathroom a full five minutes wondering what excuse I could come up with to get out of showering. I thought about wetting my hair in the sink, but one look at that told me I didn’t want to be putting my head anywhere near it.

I spent the next five minutes wondering if we were about to reenact a scene from “Psycho.”

I showered quick, coming out feeling just as dirty.

I came back out and subtly warned M– about the state of the shower. E-Lisa introduced me to her husband Jeff. So she wasn’t married to Don. As the three of them kept on sneaking off using not-so-subtle code to go smoke a joint, M– and I tried to piece Don’s story together: The best we came up with was that he ran this house as not-for-profit in exchange for room and board (land was owned by his father.) His mother had lived there, but had only been visiting that day.

I started to relax after we were served dinner and a few cold beers. Afterwards we went and sat up at the fire with the host and his two friends, joints were passed around, though I stuck to beer, protective of my lungs and having to get up and bicycle the next day.

As the sobriety decreased the size of the stories got bigger. E-Lisa was in fine form, pounding back beers and joints with professional efficiency:

“One tahm we had hurr a cyclist from Australia and he done peed hisself. Right thurr over by the air condishner. Big storm came through and he never seen a storm like that and it pulled up that tree lying thurr and he done peed and thurr was a big puddle on the floor next to the air conditioner and I said Don is that water? and he said, no. That’s a trew story.”

On account of the accent and the fact that she was definitely on the line of drunk to inappropriately shit-faced, I couldn’t quite follow a lot of her stories.

Don chimed in, “If she says it’s a true story–MAGGIE! STOP!–don’t believe her.”

“But that one’s true.”

Another story, some beers later, begun by Don.

“Apparently there is a big problem with gray wolves–CLAIRE!!! KITTEN!!–coming into populated areas–”

“Thass trew. I hurd of one just done the hill hurr at McDonald’s, that wolf came right in the front door and you know what he went straight for? A happy meal.”

“Sure, sure E-Lisa, MISTER!!!”

“That’s a true story.”

Marshmallows were eaten, beers were drunk. M– wandered deep into the woods in search of more wood to put on the fire.

“Watch out fer the ghosts of them Confederates in the graveyard.”

“That’s true–hey! HEY! NO FIGHTING!–there is a Confederate graveyard up there.”

As I helped E-Lisa’s husband, who only perked up to talk about music and the fact that lots of people must get murdered in New York, placed the wood M– gathered around the fire, we heard E-Lisa shout, “watch yer heads,” as she came lurching forward with a can of lighter fluid.

We leaped back as the fire burst upwards, quickly consuming the fuel and dying back down. E-Lisa needed to be cut off.

“Now, usually–Hey! HEY!!–we have some brandy as a nightcap for the cyclists, but since you all were on short notice, all we have is some black berry moonshine,” Don said, pulling out shot glasses and a plastic waterbottle.

“Now, when you take it, you want to breath out yer nose.”

“No, E-Lisa, that’ll really burn.”

“No, you trust me, that’s how, that’s how you know it’s good.”

“Cheers.”

“A toast to the host.”

I down mine in a gulp, it burned, but after years of drinking horrid vodka through college, it wasn’t so bad. I felt it sitting heavy in my body almost immediately.

“Boy, you took that good.”

“Ah, it’s that Irish in me,” I said, pleased that these Kentuckians were impressed by my ability to drink moonshine.

“Ya ahrish? Ya look it. I got some ahrish in me too on ma daddy’s side.”

I looked over. M–, respecting how stoned he was was still holding his shot. E-Lisa was getting worked up over it, I offered to take it for him, happy to have the opportunity to have moonshine and yeah, to show off a bit more.

After that second one I could feel the drunk coming on, and it was late anyway: We wanted to get up and be out on the road by 7:30. As I wondered back to the hellhole of a moldy tent, I reflected that at least the moonshine would make sleeping on that hideous air mattress palatable.

I woke once, to pee, and as I stood on the edge of the cliff, still feeling the effects of the moonshine, my eyes dimmed and the sound cut off in my ears, I stumbled back unsteadily towards the tent, trying not to pee on myself. Finished, nearly fainting, and sat down until I regained enough balance to get back in my sleeping bag.

I was happy nobody saw the moonshine get the better of me.

Stephen Foster state park and the man with too many toys

Trucks pulling into the store woke me: It was late, the time change also meant that it was dark until 7:30 or so, a change I didn’t account for.

I packed up quick, and then sat inside with a cup of coffee, as four or five older men, each more stereotypically country than the last, chatted about what they needed to get done in their yards, who was fixing their car. One man in his eighties was carrying an old spark plug that he was showing around. The burbling Kentucky accent made it hard for me to folllow what was so funny about the spark plug or the rest of the conversation, and after talking a minute with them, I got on my way.

I was tired. The rolling hills continued and as I come up on the 3,000-mile mark my body is aching. My legs have been sore for weeks, sore enough that it hurts to flex them, lactic acid build up from yesterday kept them aching and dragged me down on these hills. My left knee was still a bit tender from however I injured it before St. >ouis. Other reptitive use injuries were starting to crop up: The middle and ring fingers on my right hand were stiff and sore from shifting so much on these rolling hills. I couldn’t find a comfortable a comfortable gear and I couldn’t find a rhythm.

It was an uneventful day, but one that left me longing to be out of this rolling territory. I find I have a three day attention span with a given countryside, getting sick of deserts, alpine forests, rolling hills.

I camped out for the night in Bardstown next to a guy who rolled up with a jeep with a kayak on top, and a trailer that held a big kawasaki scooter and a bicycle. A man with toys, traveling around with nothing better to do. I hoped I didn’t turn into that.

Now that I’m reaching the end of my trip, I’ve started to wonder what readjustment will be like. The rhythm of this life is simple, uncomplicated, which doesn’t mean it should be idealized. It’s just very straight forward, and every day brings new experiences new people, you don’t feel like you’re missing anything, don’t feel panicked by the possible loss of a moment.

My trip-long fight with the stove continued. A few days ago, I ran out of white gas, so I filled it with gasoline. When I rolled into Ferne Clyffe it was dark and I was so tired and hungry that I failed to check if it was on the on or off side of the bottle. The stove wouldn’t stop sputtering, so I kept pumping it up, cooked my dinner, put out the flame. As I was eating dinner, it smelled of gasoline, and I realized that I’d pumped it out that the pressure had forced the rest of my gas sputtering out into a puddle on the ground.

Needing more fuel in Bardstown, I rode into town, and went to add fuel to the bottle. The nozzle sputtered in the bottle, splashing me with gasoline. Cursing, I went to fill the bottle, going past the fill line. I reeked of gasoline. I went to put the rest in the reserve bottle, and as I pulled it out of my bag, it sloshed: I still had white gas.

Back at the campsite, I had to track down the camp attendant and pour the extra guess into a bottle. Finally ready for dinner, I went to go light the stove, pumping it up. Gasoline came pouring out the side, again dripping all over me. After calling the stove owner, a man previously mentioned for his unfinished tattoo, I was missing an O-ring.

Put on the replacement, got it working, and went to bed full, but reeking of gasoline. The stove is idiot-proof, I’m just operating in a zone beyond.

After racist Tuesday, the nicer folk of Kentucky

I awoke early that night–though I was sleeping in an empty firestation, I still needed to pack up my stuff. The night before, I again raced a storm front in to Utica, Kentucky. I’d arrived at the firestation just as it started to pour. I knocked. No one answered. I peered in the windows, saw no one.

I pulled out my map to see if I could find a phone number, and found that they marked the firestation as a half mile up the road I’d just passed. I hopped back on my bike, and in the driving rain struggled that half mile. Nothing was there. I went three quarters of a mile, one mile. Nothing. The rain was being whipped so hard that the large pellets stung. Using my raincoat as a canopy, I called over to the firehouse, asking where I should go. They assured me that it was the one at the intersection, and while no one was there, I should go right in.

Furious and cursing my map to the hells of all religions, I rode back in the rain. My stuff was soaked, and while I slept on the coach in a damp sleeping bag, my tent and sleeping pad dried.

The rain had brought a beautiful, warm morning, though and I rode with pleasure on the windy roads. ABout 20 miles in I stopped for coffee at an old grocery store. It was one of thos e anachronistic places still limping buy in the era of chain stores and mega marts. Outside an older black man with the cloudy blue eyes of cataracts and white stubble on his face greeted me with a nod as he sipped his coffee.

The inside smelled of cat litter and wet basement. The elderly woman at the counter seemed annoyed that I was interrupting her conversation to purchase coffee from her. It was hideous tasting.

I went back outside and sat on the bench next to the man.

“Where you coming from?”

“Los Angeles, sir.”

“That’s a long way.”

“It is.”

“Where you from?”

“New York City.”

“I don’t like big cities. I’da loved to do somethin’ like that when I was young. Too old now.”

We sat in silence.

“You from around here?” I asked, my go-to question for getting people to tell me a bit about themselves.

“Sure, been here all my life. My momma lived over in Owensboro, my Daddy ’round here after they separated. I went and lived with my Daddy and he said, ‘if you gonna eat my food, you’re gonna work. I been working ever since. My Daddy put discipline into me. He’d whoop me, see that’s the problem today. They took Jesus out of the schools and nobody got no respect because they got these laws about whoopin’ your kids. I go over to somebody’s house, and the kid’s go ‘Hi, Sam!’ ‘Hi, Sam!’ No ‘sir,’ no ‘mister.’ No respect.”

“They need to bring Jesus back into schools. There are still some good folk out there, but it’s not like it used to be, used be respect for old folk used to be you just got a car, now there’s all sorts of laws, you just got a car, gas was 25 cents, and nowadays you need inshore-ance. They’re even trying to bring in a law that says old folk can’t drive.”

He paused, and I started to reflect on this being the third person in three days to discuss the end of society, and the second to tie it to cars, but about halfway through that thought he jumped subjects again. I’d gotten more than I bargained for when I decided to ask him about his life.

“In my day, I was a bull, you see. Let me tell you a story. I went one day to Ms. Tammy’s house. She had one of those old stoves. You know, those big iron coal stoves. I was so big I picked it up myself, and put it on the truck. Ms. Tammy was sitting out on her porch, rocking, and she was watching me, and she said:

‘Sam?’

‘Yes Ma’am Ms. Tammy.’

‘You big and strong. But you keep doing that, you going to hurt yourself.’

“See it pays to listen to old folk. I didn’t listen, no I got arthritis, a hernia, never damage, can’t sleep at night. You smoke dope?

“No, sir.” I was making sure to use sir.

“Good. That’ll ruin your life.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You ever here black people sing in church?”

“Yes, sir.”

“They can tear you down, the way they sing. Used to be a woman lived up on the ridge, Mrs. Carson. Mrs. Carson washed for white folk. Had lines all across her yard, and she had a big chair in her living room, and when she used to do her ironing, she used to sing. You could all over the ridge she sang so clear. Her son was a lazy boy. I used to go up and pack the stove for her. One day her son was there, she asked him to pack the stove, he wouldn’t do it, lazy boy. She started to sing. He had to leave. She could tear you down with her singing.”

He paused again, briefly, before veering into how dogs aren’t trained well and how he didn’t like the way he smelled and one memorable incident when a dog poked him in the butt with his nose. He didn’t like cats either, and was thinking about visiting the church down the road, see if the minister their could preach.

Nice man, had a good way of talking, but I needed to ride, so taking advantage of a paused. I thank him for chatting with me, and got on my way.

“Be safe now. There are some idiots out on the road.”

I thanked him again, minding my “sir.”

The rolling hills were relentless, and I found myself exhausted, beat by the repetitiveness of trying to gain as much momentum on the downhill, struggling into the uphill, and then pedaling sloppily until the next downhill.

This slog was interrupted only by chasing dogs, an increasingly common happening. The shouting and the spraying of the waterbottle, which had worked well in Missouri, seemed to have less effect on Kentucky dogs, so it was back to sprinting and if need be, swiping at them with a bottle.

Finally, a long downhill and a long climb, and I rolled into the parking lot of double L grocery, a general store located in the middle of nowhere, where I’d heard there was camping.

I was greeted by the family that owned the place, a couple in their fifties and a teenage daughter. They were extremely friendly, told me to pitch my tent anywhere, and invited me to dinner in such a genuine way that I couldn’t say no.

While the husband and daughter ran an errand, I tried to help the mother prepare dinner in the kitchen (I hate to freeload), but mostly succeeded in just getting in her way and chatting with her.

The conversation steered gently towards politics, and she mentioned her support for Romney, quickly adding that she didn’t want to offend anybody. I assured her that, while likely voting for the other guy, a difference of opinion wasn’t offensive to me. Funny, how are politics and political coverage hinge so much on the insult/take offense/demand apology cycle that even those of us who still want to have a civil political conversation have to spend the first ten minutes making all sorts of qualifiers about how they’re not looking to offend, debase, or insult the other.

One of her points was that Obama was a puppet, not in control, to which I elaborated that Citizens United was a terrible step, but refrained from asking that if Obama was a puppet, how many marionette strings would be attached to Romney in this age of super PACs?

Her most interesting point was that, she was “a christian and that she needed to vote along certain ethical and moral lines.” I took this to mean a position on abortion and possibly same sex marriage, though I can’t be sure. It’s an interesting intersection in our democracy: We live by freedom of religion and for the most part that means not imposing our religious beliefs on others. Yet, none of us would say that we shouldn’t vote for the guy who is most in line with our moral and ethical principles, but, in a deeply religious country, our moral and ethical principles are deeply informed by our religious beliefs. It’s an overlap that I think explains a lot about some of the problems at root in our politics and culture: It allows a two-faced discussion in which we demand and expect freedom of religion, but are also able to advocate for positions and principles entirely informed by our religious beliefs. This isn’t an attack on the religious vote, merely a thorny impasse.

The husband and daughter returned, and after we held hands and grace was said, a hearty dinner. The daughter was smart and funny and clearly someone who was at a maturity level that college would tango nicely with. The family was extremely kind, funny and generous. Worth the stay.

I went to bed early-ish: After looking at the clock in the store, I realized I’d crossed into the eastern time zone. My time zone. I was so happy that I barely cared that this also meant losing an hour of sleep.

I slept well, interrupted only by the manic howling of coyotes, and an owl hooting on the edge of the yard. At one point, I would have happily listened to the sound of an owl, but after a month and a half of camping, it was just another damned animal making spooky sounds and keeping me up at night.

Cowardice and racism in Dixon, Kentucky

The wind was blowing fierce from the south when I left the cabin–it was threatening to rain, and the radar showed a tentacle of storm stretching out east, so I bundled up into my rain gear. Rain gear on a bicycle is an exercise in futility. Even thought it attempts to be “breathable” the fact of the matter is that if you don’t get wet from the rain, you’re going to get soaked in your own sweat eventually, but I guess those minutes in between are worth it, and it at least keeps a cold rain and lashing wind at bay. Those are the real killers.

In my expensive garbage bag suit I headed off to the ferry. As I crested a big hill, a huge black dog with reddish eyes came glaring out at me, trotting my way. I didn’t see him soon enough and it was too late to try and squeeze past him. I slowed down and grabbed my water bottle in case he decided at the last minute he was interested in biting me.

“Don’t worry, he’s real friendly” a woman drawled from the porch in a thick Kentucky accent smoked thick from cigarettes. As she said this another dog, a golden retriever, came walking off the porch.

“Hey, pooch,” I said, unconcerned. The dog came up close enough to sniff my panniers as I soft-pedalled.

Lazily, the woman called from the porch, “That dog, though, she’ll bite your legs.”

“Oh!” I said, instinctively accelerating, though this is the worst thing you can do. The dog didn’t bite, but I had to laugh at her timing.

The wind sprayed river water as I took the ferry over into Kentucky. On the other side, I saw a sign with a horse and buggy on it: Amish country.

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It was a sunday morning, and blustery, so nobody was out. I saw one man jogging up the road towards me.

As I got closer he stopped and picked up a huge stick. What the hell? I thought, I was about to get some weird Kentucky welcome.

He saw me veer out to the middle of the road, and helpfully explain, “This here’s my dawg stick…”

I laughed, happy that this was the first thing I’d ever heard uttered in Kentucky.

By the time I got to Marion, stopping in for some demonically horrible coffee, I was sweating and the sun was out. I took off my rain gear, hoping that nobody got to freaked out by the appearance of a man stripping down to spandex in the middle of town on a Sunday morning. Apparently used to such things, or just not caring, nobody bothered me.

The wind was fierce, but kind enough to blow as a tailwind when it deigned to. I made good time over to Dixon, county sweat for Webster county where I sat on a bench near the courthouse, under a sign commemorating Daniel Webster for being the great statesman who worked with Calhoun and Clay to stave off Civil War.

As I ate, two vans with teenagers passed by from the “Faith Teen Challenge”, an organization devoted to a faith-based solution to the drug epidemic. Across the street was an abandoned gas station and a closed hardware store, a sign for a “no meth” hotline taped to a sign post. A red pick-up pulled up in front of me, idling it’s engine for awhile before the driver cut it. He was an older man, obviously watching me.

I ate my sandwich. No need to get up and pack up just yet.

Finally he got out of his truck.

“Where ya goin?”

“New York”

“Well, shit. That’s a long ride.”

“Sure is,” I said, annoyingly adjusting my speech to his.

“Good goddam way.”

He came and sat down on the bench.

“Son, I wish I was young again, sure. I’m an old man now, close to dyin’. I’d love to be young again. Did a lot of things I regret in ma life”

“What’s one thing you’re proud of?” I asked, not trusting strangers who immediately come up to me to tell me their problems.

“Well, I raised two good boys. I’m proud of that. Wish I’d quit drinkin’, though. Son, stay away from that shit. Hell, I was married 22 years, and she asked me to stop, and I didn’t listen, and she left me. Then I stopped. Wished I’da stopped earlier.”

He paused to spit chewing tobacco with a thick sounding puh, look over to me to see if I was listening.

“Son, it pays to listen to old folk. You listenin’?”

“Yes sir.”

“Stay away from that fuckin’ liquour shit. I used to have one and I’d drink a case. Once in awhile don’t hurt, but it’ll fuck up your life. Stay away from it.”

I nodded. We sat in silence for a minute.

“Societies all gone to hell now. Used to be some nice folk.”

This was the second person in a day that had mentioned the demise of society.

“You know how you can tell somethin’s wrong? I got to wear a sweatbelt, but you gotta school bus full of damned kids and I got to wear one? That’s fucked up.”

“It is.”

“Who gives a shit if I die, I’m an old fuckin’ man, but kids? Hell, thats how you know things ain’t right.

I nodded, though I wasn’t sure this was the ultimate example of the moral and societal imperfections of today’s world.

We sat in silence. I’d finished my sandwich and was folding up my map.

“Stay away from that liqour,” he said again. “Fucked a nigger once…I think.”

He said it clear. I needed to leave. I bridled at this, but didn’t react, unsure of what to say. Thoughts of my ex-girlfriend flashed through my head.What would have happened if we’d been dating and come down here?

Part of my brain laughed joylessly at the idiocy of his statement, a man whose wife divorced him for drinking was so deeply racist that decades on he was ashamed that he’d once slept with a black woman (maybe) that he was confessing it to strangers on a park bench. Some confessional, high-priest in padded shorts.

I needed to leave. That was my primary thought. I held out my hand. “Been good talkin’ to you. I have to go.”

“Alright now, son, you take care.”

I got on my bike, clipped in. Was I going to do it? Was I going to say it?
“SIr, my last girlfriend was black, and I’ll count myself both honored and proud if I marry a black woman who I love.”

I didn’t. I nodded as he waved and rolled around the corner.

“Fuuuuck,” I whispered to myself, glad to have escaped. But anger came to me. I should have said something. I should have told him to fuck off. Or just calmly walked away, given him the cold shoulder. I should have said I’d be proud to marry a black woman. But I didn’t, I’d just brain-stemmed my reaction and gotten away fast.

The rationalization came just as quickly: You’re out of your zone. You don’t know who you were talking to, he could have had a gun, he was trying to pick a fight, you wouldn’t have changed his mind anyway.

I rolled past a fox’s head, roadkill, the head separated and flattened down to a profile, but remarkably intact.

True, I wouldn’t have changed his mind, but I missed an opportunity to let him know that that backwards thinking was in the past that people–or at least people like me–weren’t going to stand for it. Instead I’d put myself with a much bigger group of people who denounce racism, sexism, bigotry when it’s safe and to people they know agree with them. If I didn’t speak up, who would? The buck had just gone further done the line, and it wasn’t the first time: I was left standing awkwardly with a free cinnamon roll after a cafĂ© owner in Colorado had given it to me, saying she didn’t like to “jew” people over day-olds. I said nothing. In New York, a potential landlord had casually let slip, “You know those Jews, how they like their money,” while showing me the living room. That time, like so many other times, I’d heard it clear, acknowledged it, ended the conversation politely and shuffled out, and I’d done it again.

My brother would’ve fought back, instinctively, and I couldn’t do it. My instinct was to run away. I’d even shook his hand–and that was the thing that haunted me, as a familiar desire to reach out and protect my ex came flooding back, the terror that I hadn’t done it, that sinking feeling that I’d failed in some big, irrevocable way to protect a loved one.

I didn’t have to shake his goddamned hand. “It was nice talking to you.”

I rode angrily, hoping that would calm me. I thought about lying to my parents when I told them the story, claiming that I had delivered that parting shot. Instead I told them the truth, and gritted my teeth as I listened to them repeat the rationalizations for why I’d done the right thing.

It’s easy to be moral and ethical when it’s safe. In fact, I don’t call myself moral because it’s never really been tested: I’ve never been hungry, I’ve never had to risk my life to protect the innocent. True morality lies when it is tested, and I’d failed.

I vowed next time would be different, like I had vowed so many times before.