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.

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.

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.

Flat and Windy. Who invented Kansas?

My day’s ride was supposed to be simple: Leave the motel, take a left on route 96. Head straight for the next 82 miles. Straight. No lefts, rights, detours, one little squiggle in Dighton, when the road jogged south, then back east.

So straight it was easy to zone out, to get lost staring at the white line in front of me. The road sometimes climbed so gradually that I wasn’t sure if I was going up at all–or down. It looked like it went up forever. I finally stopped and looked up the elevations for the towns I was going to. Somewhere I was going downhill, so slowly so imperceptibly that I couldn’t even tell.

To keep myself focused, I fixed on the furthest object I could see, out on the horizon, only looking at my odometer when I hit that point. Miles passed this way, but sometimes the object would disappear, or the rectangle I thought was a road sign turned out to be an ADM-controlled grain elevator, rising oz-like on the road.

The wind was brutal–a crosswind that blew constantly, up to 30 mph an hour. A headwind is tougher, but a crosswind can be tricky. You have to constantly adjust to it, leaning in when it gusts hard so as not to be blown off your bike, and correcting when it suddenly drops os you don’t flail into the lane.

Compounding this is traffic. When I truck pass you with a headwind, it’s wake pushes more wind against you, but that’s it. When it comes from behind, it gives a slight tailwind.

Riding with traffic in a heavy crosswind is like swimming in a heavy surf. Oncoming cars are like the little waves, a truck is the big wave that you dive under, slipping into as aero a tuck as possible to keep yourself moving through the gust. I had to remember to tuck my chin to my chest, too: some of these trucks were moving so hard the burst of air actually hurt, worse still when it was blowing sand and pebbles that came biting at me.

Traffic from behind is trickier. First there is the wall of air being displaced that pushes you out and off the shoulder, then as the truck passes, it sucks you in behind it, even more so since you’re leaning into that first breeze, then comes the wind-wake, pushing you forward, and again out towards the shoulder. Maintaing a straight line and staying out of traffic is a delicate bit of timing.

The crosswind was like god gently holding my front brake the whole day. The wind rushed in my ears so loud that it killed any thought that wasn’t about the wind and how much longer I had to be in it. Looking behind me made me turn my head into the wind–it shouted so loud in my ears it was disorienting.

At 25 miles I stopped in for coffee–all these towns look the same–and thought about stopping. At 49 miles, in another identical town with two main streets, a cluster of trees and a general store, I almost stopped. I pushed myself the last 30 to get to Ness City, Kansas, which, according to its wikipedia page, “gained international attention in March 2008 as the home of the woman whose buttocks grew attached to a toilet seat after refusing to move from it for two years.”

This stands as one of my favorite wikipedia fact

Talking to road signs. Welcome to Kansas

Well, it finally happened: A road sign that read, Welcome to Crowley

“Hey thanks. Appreciate it,” I said, as I rode past. I was talking to road signs.

People love to warn me about what’s coming up next–when I was in California, people warned me about Utah weather, when I was in Utah, people warned me about Colorado mountains. When I was about to leave Colorado, someone I met asked, “You got a gun?”

“No.”

“You got a knife?”

“Yeah, I got a knife”

“You should give it to me, ’cause when you get to the end of Kansas, you’re gonna want to use it on yourself, it’s that flat.”

The geography of Colorado itself seemed to want to join in on this game. Just past Pueblo it went flat and straight, as if to say, “you bitched about the Rockies, have a taste of this.”

I took four turns out of Pueblo, and that was it. The road meandered some, but for the next 80 miles, the road went flat and straight.

I stopped in Ordway, a town of less than 1,000, just long enough to get two weak cups of coffee and be laughed at by the locals. This was to be the biggest town I’d hit that day. After the mountains, my legs found the flats easy. Even with the wind, I was cruising, that is until about four o’clock, when the wind suddenly kicked up and into my face.

I was wobbling all over the road, my mouth hanging open–I rolled into Haswell, population 66, a collection of homes and a park, and a post office. The park was my option for camping for the night. Sandwiched between two open and abandoned homes and a ghostly gas station, this looked like the perfect place for a bunch of meth addicts to hang out. I looked around the park, skeptical, but my ability to spot signs of drug abuse was limited to seeing roach ends or needle caps in New York City parks. I figured, however, that meth paraphernalia was probably more than just crab grass and picnic tables. The only things in the park.

I settled down, keeping an eye on who was passing by. Suddenly, I needed to use the bathroom. The problem with having so much of your diet consist of electrolyte-enhanced crap is that your bowels make firm decisions about when you will and will not use the bathroom, and are bold enough not to accept any offers for compromise.

I headed for the concrete building, surrounded by a brown fence that served as the park bathroom. Blocking the men’s room door was a huge spider web featuring a thick brown spider with a body the size of a small rubber ball. Wasn’t going in there. The women’s room door was similarly covered by a spider web, but huge spider was nowhere to be seen. I ducked under the web. Stretched across the toilet bowl was another web, featuring another fat spider patiently waiting.

No way I was exposing my “dangling sinfuls” over that. I couldn’t just go in the park, my next option: I figured taking a dump in full view of the town was a really bad way to endear myself to the neighborhood.

But i was desparate–so I grabbed two plastic bags, and keeping an eye on the spider, took care of my business.

It’s not often you get to poop-scoop yourself, but I content it’s far more dignifying than picking up your dog’s shit.

Crossing the Continental Divide: From the Monarch pass it’s all downhill from here (sort of)

I woke up tired, but in a good mood. The night before my neighbors–a herd of cows–had kept me up mooing all night. An assortment of small animals and at least one deer scratching and sniffing around my tent joined in on the fun.

That evening, I’d met a guy from Alabama who was finishing up a couple thousand mile dirt bike journey throughout the southwest.

I’ve found most motorcyclists to be friendly on this trip. Waving, giving a curious stare, and in some cases giving me the “rock on” symbol as they’ve roared past. The only unfriendly ones are the Dentists playing dress-up. These guys who decided to regain their masculinity and fix their unsatisfying marriage by buying a motorcycle so big and beefy they must be real men, and so friggin’ loud that they can’t even hear their wives even when they perch her on the back.

They pretend with all the seriousness of children playing house: Scowling at me, staring blankly, riding too close, and never, ever waving. During the week they may be Dr. P, mild-mannered proctologist, but during the weekend they are the baddest guys on two wheels.

Moody and I swapped stories about bad drivers, bad crashes, and equipment. He had that classic (to a New Yorker) southern ability to tell a good story and a feel for a good turn of phrase. When I mentioned that I wasn’t sure my sleeping bag was going to hold up in the cold, he immediately offered me an unused sleeping bag liner, and any food I could carry with me.

In the morning, I bought him a cheap cup of coffee at the diner/grocery store/campsite that served as the center of town.

I wanted to stay in chat, but I had Monarch pass to conquer. Moody gave me his business card and told me that he’d be heading east in a few days, and to call him if something happened or if I needed a ride. He was genuinely concerned, especially about me riding over Monarch pass, a road that often featured no shoulder and 1,000-foot drops.

I thanked him, pocketed the business card, and rode off, heading almost immediately into the climb. There was a short starter, and then a sign: 7 miles to the summit. The sign didn’t lie: It was a constant 6% grade that twisted slowly up the mountains, carefully choosing its steps amongst the cliffs. Traffic was light until the top, but by then it was late morning, and cars started flying past me, cutting close even though there was a whole passing lane. I tried to focus on keeping my rhythm, and, when the road permitted, looking out into the deep valleys, spotted with red and yellow aspen.

Finally, after an hour and thirty-two minutes, I was sitting atop the continental divide. I didn’t wait: The temperature had dropped to the forties, and I knew the next ten-mile descent was only going to make me colder.

I dropped for a quick mile, and then my master plan to stay warm was foiled by a construction site. I had to wait some ten minutes for them to allow traffic past. Meanwhile, a line of traffic queued up behind me. After all the close calls on the way up, I decided it would be worthwhile to let the impatient bastards go first.

One truck honked loudly, a broadly smiling face in the windshield: Moody. As I started rolling again, the flag man at the construction sight gave me a great tip: “After that truck over there, just ride on the other side of the cones. We have the whole lane blocked off, but there’s no construction.”

I cruised down that mountain, enjoying my whole lane, while I passed some of the jerks who were too lazy to give me an extra inch on the way up. I could barely suppress a smile going past, and besides, I was concentrating on the road and trying to force myself to stop shivering. I was freezing through my layers, shivering so bad that the bike was beginning to shimmy. That don’t make me above gloating.

Moody drove slow and careful, and I almost caught him, but the road opened up, and the retirees in their R.V.s got a bit bolder.

I looked back: A mean storm was brewing atop the mountain–hard, dark grey clouds massing over the peaks I’d just slipped down–and they were heading my way.

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Having been in the desert, I hadn’t bothered to purchase any rain gear. I’d been rained on once, coming out of Mesquite, Nevada, but it had been relatively short-lived and not terribly cold. Now that days were dipping into the 50s, I needed to get some rain gear.

I’d almost bought some in Montrose, but I’d balked at the price. I was going to regret that now. I raced that front some twenty miles, using the slight downhill to push it in the big chain ring, glancing back to watch those clouds inch closer and closer, until I could see the sheet of rain coming to soak me, make me pay for my hubris.

I skidded into the sports shop just five minutes before it started to pour. You never beat nature, but sometimes you can skip a bit ahead of it–but I’d pushed my luck as far as I was willing to go, and while trying to ignore the price tag, bought the most heavy-duty raincoat I could find (after my piece of shit tent experience, I wasn’t messing with any ultra-light crap).

The rain lightened some, and I got back on the road. At a stoplight heading out of Salida, a guy pulled up and asked if I needed a place to stay–I thanked him, but I had further to get that day.

After my experience in Gunnison, the folk I’d met in Sargents and Salida were about as friendly and out-going as I could have wanted, and despite the rain, I felt good. Also, the coffee helped.

Route 50 out of Salida was narrow, and took me through a narrow, twisting canyon road that left no room for error, or for bullshit passing maneuvers by impatient drivers. The rocks were so granulated and textured that they looked almost out-of-focus, a little flat, like an early 3-D video game.

I rolled into Cotopaxi around 4:30 and picked up some peanut butter and a quart of chocolate milk. Chocolate milk has become my go-to end-of-day treat. Filled with protein, calcium, it also is just enough milk to fuel me with some satisfying farts for the night.

One of the great benefits of a one-man tent is the ability to stink it up however much you want, and as a wise high school friend once said, “everyone likes the smell of their own brand.”

Everyone.