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.”
“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.”
“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.