Dodging tree limbs, Hurricane aftermath

I sat it out for two days, though the worst of the storm and an extra day to allow for clean up and dodge the rain. From north of DC, I only have roughly 300 miles to New York, so I had some time to play with. I read a book. I napped. I shouted at the news with my uncle.

I left Wednesday. All I needed to ride was some 50 miles and change a day and I’d be back in NYC by Monday. I left a bit later in the day, figuring it would be worth it to dodge some of the DC traffic. Besides, I figured the first miles would be quick: It was all bike path until I got well north of the city.

Within half a mile of the bike trail, I realized riding was going to be slower than I thought: A tree three feet in diameter lay across the path. With some adult dressed in a lion costume and–disturbingly–walking alone watching, I lifted my bike over and picked my way through the branches. The next 15 miles were like a cyclocross race: deep mud, washed out paths, jogging through thorn bushes to get around fallen trees. I got to the end of the bike path muddy, wet and scratched up, but happy to be done with that section.

It was at this moment that I realized I’d dropped my map, “Fuck!” I shouted.

The guy blowing leaves shout me a wounded look.

“No, sorry, not you.”

He glared.

I went back up the trail in search of the map–I’d be out of luck for the next four days if I didn’t find it.

After two miles of riding, looking, asking people on the path if they’d seen it and enduring their advice on how I should find it, I got lucky enough to find it. By the time I got back to where I was it was 12:30 and I’d only ridden 20 miles.

I was still in the DC area, and the route took me sharply east into the exurbs of Baltimore. Those roads were busy, and people were driving like assholes. For the third time this trip, I was run off a two-lane road by an oncoming car passing traffic in my lane. By now I’ve had the practice, and was able to get off the road with more than enough time to proudly brandish my middle finger.

The rest of the ride was uneventful, though I did realize oncee serious problem with riding in one of the most populous regions of the U.S. For two months now I’ve been peeing with gleeful abandon, hell, on roads so quiet that I wouldn’t even pull of the road before letting lose. It’s been a glorious few weeks of shitting in the woods and answering even nature’s quietest whisper.

This is no longer possible, and the more people there are the less inclined I am to leave my bicycle outside while I run into to relieve myself. Twice on this ride I found myself making desperation pees on the sides of busy roads, hoping I wasn’t giving too many people a free show.

Although, to be fair, camping sites are also becoming scarcer and being arrested for public indecency might be a nice way to get a cheap place to stay for the night.

Racing the Hurricane

I hate to jinx myself, but for you, my dearest fans I will: I’ve made a habit this trip of racing in a storm, and have been mostly successful. I’ve tucked into shops ahead of brewing storms, just gotten lucky and taken a day off when it was racing, and even, as dark and angry storm clouds knotted themselves above monarch pass in Colorado, managed to outrace that booming front some twenty miles into a warm café.

Jurricane Sandy was a different story, and though I am, unlike my compatriot Mr. Armstrong, one who is dedicated to fair play, I didn’t mind giving myself a head start on Sunday..

The last weather report had left it moving North between 10 and 15 miles an hour and schedued to start hitting the DC area by the afternoon.

I rode out early, figuring that I could at least keep pace with the big bad lady, and thus stay a bit ahead of her.

I rode up route one, a nasty four-lane highway that was less trafficked early on a Sunday morning. One driver missed me by inches, rolling further on to the shoulder before swerving and heading back out to the center line. Not everyone was used to being up as early as I was.

The skies grew darker, and the winds picked up, and not in my favor. I was hoping that the one benefit of riding in pre-hurricane conditions was a nice tailwind. Instead the wind fought me. I may have played dirty by getting a head start in the Hurricane race, but the hurricane had it’s own tricks.

I turned east, towards the Atlantic. The wind was picking up. For the second time in two days, my directions tried to send me through a military base. I wanted ahead of the storm, and rolled up to the security guard. Suprisingly, he politely waved me through.

I put all thoughts of upgrading to a tank out of my mind, and headed for the Mt. Vernon bike path. The rest of the ride was easy, even as the wind picked up. Mostly bike trail, quiet and peaceful, except for one guy who insisted on trying to race me down the path. He passed me, laboring mightily on the pedals. I slowly caught him, passed him, and then he spent the next two miles drafting off of me, enjoying the considerable blocking my big-hipped bike did, and then, as the wind picked up again, passing me. I assumed he was a Republican.

I got in to my aunt’s house, my shelter from the storm. Soon it started raining. Like Jonah, I retreated to the basement and took a nap.

Staying ahead of the hurricane, riding onto military bases.

After eating near constantly the night before, having a few beers, and flirting mildly with a few girls (as I mentioned, by cousins were there), I woke feeling recharged.

Well, I felt like a cellphone after an hour on the wall: Not quite 100% but enough charge to get what I needed, which is to say, four instagram photos of my breakfast and a status update saying something snarky about the election.

Hurricane Sandy was becoming enough of a threat that I wanted to be inside for her, and I figured hunkering down in DC with my Aunt would be far preferable to lounging in some seedy motel for two days. I had two days to get there, but wanted to leave Sunday’s ride as short as possible as the storm was predicted to start making it’s entrance sometime Sunday afternoon.

I left a bit late, riding on mostly quiet roads. I felt good. I called my cousin’s fiancé and asked me to send me directions to Dumfries, about ten miles north of where I was planning on going.

The quiet roads abruptly ended and threw me into the roiling strip mall traffic surrounding Fredericksburg. It nasty riding, and I pulled off: My cellphone was dying and I needed a loop around this shit ride. This many miles in traffic and I figured I’d used up my nine lives. Most of them in LA.

Re-routing took forever and my phone died. I was losing time. I charged it outside a gas station, and then got on my loop.

As I cruised down one hill a car pulled up next to me, a fat woman with red hair sat in the passenger seat:

“Excuse me, you dropped a jacket back there.”

“Oh! Thank you!” I turned around. It wasn’t a jacket, it was my only other pair of bicycle shorts, drying after I washed them the night before.

“Just back up at that stop light.”

I turned around and rode quickly back up the hill, past the woman who’d given me a dirty look the time before. At the first stoplight, I looked around. No sight of my short. I rode up to the second light: No sign.

I was pissed. I was already frustrated with having to ride through all this traffic and now I was wasting more time, and my shorts might be gone. It sounds mild, but little things like that can be near devastating in the middle of a ride.

I started to backtrack up to the next stoplight, when the same car drove by, my shorts being brandished out the passenger side window. I laughed aloud. All across this country, people have lamented the end of society, how dangerous the world has become, but to them I say: There are still people in this world. Good people, honorable people, who will see a smelly man drop his tight-fitting shorts on the road, drive around the block, and pick them up off the street to give back to you. Without this, terrorists would win.

With my phone charged, I checked back in on my directions, and noticed something odd: A greyed-out area on the map. It was quantico military base, and my directions thought it would be a really good idea for me to cut straight across it.

This had happened before, when I wandered fuirther than I should have onto a military base in the Mojave desert, before being repelled by an agitated Military Policeman with braces.

I decided to skip this adventure, but this meant I wasn’t making it to Dumfries. WIth all the re-routing and chasing down escape-minded bicycle shorts I’d be lucky to make it to Stafford before nightfall.

I wasn’t lucky. With an overcast sky, night came dark and quick. After the attempt at the military base practical joke, my map tried again, this time sending me through a prison. The map was more successful in tricking me this time, and I didn’t figure it out until a scandalized security guard shooed me away like I was the biggest idiot he’d seen in awhile, which is a very low opinion to have of someone when you work at a prison.

I got in at dark, and after spending half an hour listening to the talkative motel attendant tell me all about her life as a med school student and her boyfriend, I happily crashed into bed, rising only to let a pizza in the door.

Falling apart on the Blue Ridge Parkway

I’ve been so exhausted that I’ve drooled on myself, pissed on my shoes, dozed off on the bicycle, napped heavily in the shade of a desert outhouse. I’ve mumbled at road signs, talked to myself, cursed my stove out.

I’ve never been so exhausted that I bonked getting out of my sleeping bag, not until Friday. The day before had ended with a cruel three-mile climb up to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway. It was getting dark and I was still way too far from where I wanted to land that night. Instead I rolled into a resort, paid way too much for a campsite, and slept on their stage–another step forward in my planned career re-invention in NYC as a bicycle-themed performance artist.

I was so exhausted that I didn’t bother to cook: I ate a pack of graham crackers, peanut butter, crawled into my sleeping bag and fell heavily asleep. I woke, twice, to my stomach rumbling, but the air was cold and I stayed in my bag, ignored my stomach’s pleading and went back to sleep.

This was a mistake. I awoke starving, a bit wobbly. I ate all the oatmeal I could, drank a full bottle of water, and got on the bike. It was going to be a short day: My cousins were in Charlottesville for a wedding, and their offer of the spare bed in their hotel room was too tempting.

The short day turned out to be a necessity, not a luxury.

My legs started burning immediately, aching. It felt like I’d been riding for 70 miles. The road didn’t help me. The ride was covered in deep fog, and as it went steadily, slowly up, the fog got deeper, visibility dropping from 100 to 50 to 20 feet.

A long hill is a mental game, and I lacked the patience I needed to sit back and just pedal. I ached. “Go the fuck down!” I finally shouted in frustration.

The hill eventually obliged, and I coasted heavily, wobbling along at only a few miles an hour, glad only that I didn’t have to pedal. The fog deepened, and I got little notice that after only a few hundred feet I was going back up again. I cursed again, but tried to accept it. My eyes felt heavy. I wished I’d slept longer.

Eventually I turned off of the ridge, a coiled hill of switchbacks kept me from letting go of my brakes. That was fine, the downhill could have lasted the rest of the day for all I cared.

It didn’t, but it remained flat, mercifully. I’d only gone 15 miles, and I’d been on the road close to two hours. The other great mercy was an apple orchard that was selling cider donuts. Still warm, I ate 12 in the presence of 2 screaming classrooms of pre-school children.

One child came up to me, followed by his beaming mother, proud that the child could talk.

“Those donuts are delicious!”

I eyed him warily, trying to think of what I was going to say if he asked for one.

“They are.”

“They’re sooo good.”

Child, I’m not falling for your hints. My donuts.

“They are. What did you like best about them?” His mom was so proud, and the kid was admittedly cute.

“The sugar!”

“That IS good.”

“I ate like four.”

I became less concerned that the creature was trying to steal my donuts. We went on in this vein for awhile, with the child telling a rambling anecdote that centered around the already established fact that he’d eaten four donuts with lots of sugar and enjoyed them immensely.

The mom, too, got bored, and called him along. I was left to my donuts.

Another mom came up, younger, with a voice that had a heaviness to it, like she was talking from deep inside a clothes closet.

“Look like you’re on a long trip.”

“LA to NY,” I said, smiling. She wasn’t going to steal my donuts.

“Wow! That’s amazing! That’s really cool!” She had the enthusiasm of someone who spends part of her day being amazed at poorly conceptualized finger paintings.

“Thanks.”

“Well, good luck. Be safe.”

“‘Ppreciate it.”

Later she came up to me again as I sat, avoiding looking at my bicycle and the miles still left in it for the day.

“Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m great, thank you,” I said, wiping donut sugar from my mouth. There was a lot of sugar on it.

Feeling bolstered by her kindness, and more to the point, driven out by the shrieks of children, I got back on the bike.

I chose a busier road over the roundabout backroads route and cut my ride even shorter, wobbling in, happy to see cousins, family, people I didn’t have to explain my trip to and from whom I could accept a meal. And a beer. And a warm bed. And cider donuts if they had any.

What not to say to cyclists.

Listen. I know I look weird, and I know my bike looks like a big-hipped alien, and the two of us together makes us really noticeable and interesting, and I know that means that I’m going to get unwanted attention, but there are rules.

To be honest, I need a rest day. I haven’t had one since St. Louis, and I’ve put some serious hills behind me, but DC is in theory within reach in three days, and there’s word of a huge storm that could put me out of riding for a few days. I need to make that my rest day or I won’t be back by the fifth. And I want to be back by the fifth.

The thing about not having a rest day is it probably makes me a little bit crankier, or at least in a more delicate mood, so when you walk into a café, and you see me engaged in conversation with someone, don’t come up, stand between the two of us and interrupt, “Asking, where are you coming from?”

This is in it of itself a fine question, though a reeptitive one, and I don’t mind answering. I DO get annoyed when you interrupt to ask it, and when you so clearly just asked so you could talk about yourself that you don’t even wait for me to answer to tell me about how you bicycled across country with your wife.

This is a fine fact, and one that could be nicely worked into a conversation between the two of us, appropriately begun when I finished my other conversation, but don’t just throw it out there. THat goes for the people who call me over to tell me long-winded stories about their own bicycling adventures, how their son-in-law likes bicycling, or the fact that you once slept outside or in a van when you were 25.

Again, fine information if you take the time to steer the conversation that way, but don’t assume I’m interested in your poorly remembered adventures.

Of greater importance is the questions you ask. Before you ask me something, think, “Is this something that he’s probably answered before?” Challenge yourself, be creative. Come up with something I’ve heard.

NEVER. And I mean NEVER ask:
How many flats I’ve had. If I’ve had any close calls/accidents. If I’ve had any mechanical issues.

No matter how I answer this immediately curses me in the eyes of the cycling gods. If you do ask, the touring cyclist will be compelled to enter into a horrible ritual that involves marking the forehead with bicycle grease, throwing gatorade powder over the shoulder, and drinking a concoction made from the sweat of wrung-out bicycling gloves. Do not jinx us. I don’t want to answer these questions.

Finally, unless there is a dire warning, don’t tell me that the next part is going to suck. This is a favorite thing. people love to deliver bad news, it feeds some dark feeling of power and superior knowledge. In California people warned me about the desert heat. In the desert about the mountains, in the mountains about how boring the flats were, and when all else fails, the weather.

I am inspired to say all this because of one such encounter with a man today, who had the silvery fox look of Virginia blue blood. You could just tell that at least one of his ancestors owned slaves or at least dabbled in indentured servitude.

After interrupting me, dominating a conversation, and telling me all about his trip with his wife, he then proceeded to warn me about an upcoming climb.

“It’ll be the worst on your whole trip.”

I’d been polite, but I allowed myself to be a bit snotty: “I sincerely doubt that.”

“Trust me.”

“I road through Colorado.”

“So did we. It’s five miles long, really steep.”

“Thanks.”

I suppose I should thank him. While the hill was three miles long instead of five miles, it was vindictively steep, twisting, and banked. But I was so focused on hating this guy that I spent the entire time convincing myself that the hill wasn’t that bad, and certainly wasn’t the worst climb I’d experienced. It was certainly in the top ten, and by the time I got to the part, I was blown apart, but not the worst, the jerk.

It did mean that I had to cut my day short, and instead of camping out in Greenwood, Virginia, I’m sleeping on a holiday resort’s stage on the Blue Ridge, hoping the higher elevation doesn’t mean it’ll get too freezing.

Nobody warned me about the weather tonight.

The sheriff doesn’t answer.

I ate my three breakfast donuts, munched on what other things I had, and headed out. I needed to hit Radford Virginia and get to me to a bike shop, not for repairs, but to see if they had an elusive Virginia bicycling map. I was going based off of photos of a map, which was a less than ideal situation.

FIrst bike shop was closed, and I consoled myself with a “buy five get one free” deal at the local cookie shop. On the way out of town, saw a little shop and rolled in.

I asked the counter guy for the map in question and he said he’d never heard of it. We pulled it up online, and the PDF was so big it froze out his computer. I thanked him, and was about to get back on the road, but he took me next door to a print shop. The file was so big that to get it to print right took a number of steps. I was stuck: They were helping me out, so I couldn’t impatiently bail on them, as much as I wanted to be back on the road. They were nice guys, anyway, so I didn’t mind sitting through the fussing.

By the time I was back on the road it was past one, and I’d only ridden 30 or so miles. With the days so short, this could really screw me over. I rode quick, though I tried to pass myself over the rolling hills, which had cruelly taken their sneaky toll last week.

I paused to check my new map, already folded wrong and stained with sweat, and heard an “on your left” shout from behind.

Two women rolled past. An older woman, and a tanned and toned younger woman. I wasn’t sure if she was attractive, but after my experience with the naked Airstream trailer lady, she was close enough. I pedaled after them, caught them quickly, found them to be rather boring conversationalist, and rolled on. I’ll admit it feels good to be passing people easily with this much gear on my bike. Given that a touring cyclist’s days are filled with smelly encounters, peeing on the side of busy roads, and dribbling gatorade as you gasp up a hill, the odd ego boost is a nice touch.

I planned to camp in the Town of Troutville, but when I stopped to call over to the town office (my picture of a map informed be that one had to do so), I discovered I didn’t have service.

I kept riding, but by the time I got service, the offices were closed. I called the sheriff’s office, which, while I suppose I should have been worried instead of amused, just rang and rang and rang.

I camped out anyway, and did my best to present myself as a friendly harmless individual as I set up camp in the midst of children in the playground.

I slept heavily, despite the freight trains rolling by so close that the ground vibrated, and was up feeling more rested than I had in days.

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.

20121024-201529.jpg

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.