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.

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.

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.

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.