Friday, September 21, 2012

Here I Go Again

No, I'm not hopping back on Rusty for another big ride.  What I am getting back to is blogging.  It won't be here, though; I want to keep "Where's Rocco?" as a kind of capsule for my bike ride.  I wrote it in a very distinctive way:  I'd think about what to write all day while riding, and then I'd sit in strange places and tap the text into my tiny iPhone keyboard, revising on the fly.  I still remember writing one post from inside of a bug-infested concrete bunker of a park bathroom in Ash Grove, Missouri.  My one-person tent was waiting for me outside in the dark, humid night, but I had a blog post to write...

Anyway, those memories belong in their own time and space, on this blog.

My new blog is called "Queasy Writer" and it's about what I'm doing now.

Like finishing my book about the journey.  A lot of people--readers of this blog, mainly--have asked how the book is coming along, and I'm happy to announced that it's in its final revision and polishing stages. I'll use the new blog to provide updates and maybe even some excerpts from the book as I work on getting it published.  I'll also use the new blog to post random (and hopefully interesting or entertaining) thoughts about the things that obsess me:  teaching, parenting, comics, biking, fantasy football, University of Illinois basketball, television theme songs from the 1970s.  Stuff like that.

So please visit me at "Queasy Writer" and become a follower.  I promise not to burden you with junk.  Well, not too much anyway.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The End

Finales are tough.

I’ve come to the end of this biking odyssey, and the question that dominates my mind is How do I write about it?

Part of the problem is that I’m still sorting out all of my thoughts and feelings about this trip and its conclusion, and I imagine that I will be for some time.

So here goes: As I crested the sandhill yesterday with my bike and caught my first real glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean—

Nope. Can’t start there. I’m not ready yet.

Let me try another way. I’ll back up to Friday, when I left Concord, North Carolina.

Having gone over the map and having talked on the phone with my cousin Tom (whom I was meeting up with the next day), I knew that I had to put in a monster day if I was going to get to the ocean by Sunday—a deadline I had imposed on myself and a day that worked best for Tom. The weather reports for that morning were talking about a heat advisory. Stay inside if possible. Temperatures in the low 100s. A heat index that would make it seem even hotter.

I set out with the idea that I would make minimal stops, stay hydrated, and eat throughout the day. As I passed through downtown Concord, though, I had to check my Google Maps (following a twisty route through a little town can be difficult), and as I was trying to see through the fog on both my glasses and my iPhone screen, a pickup truck pulled to a stop in front of me.

A tall, lanky guy walked toward me. “Where you from?”

“San Diego,” I said.

“No shit.”

I learned that this response—“no shit”—was a favorite among North Carolinans. I heard it at least four times that day: from the guys at a garage in Mount Pleasant; from someone at a gas station along Highway 27; and from Chad and Rachel, a couple I met late in the day when I still had about 30 miles to go.

But this time it came from Chris Nielsen, who also was a biker. He had done the TransAmerica Trail some years ago, and we commiserated about the Ozarks for a few minutes. He was getting ready to do some more touring this summer, but an emergency house project cut that short.

“My bike’s in the garage. I got the fenders and panniers on it,” he told me, looking over my bike. Then he looked up at me, and there were tears in his eyes.

“You’ll never forget this ride,” he said.

No. I won’t.

I hopped back on my bike and took off through the North Carolina countryside. A little ways down the road I—

You know, this doesn’t feel quite right either. This is the finale, for God’s sake; it should be about more than the details about the roads and towns.

Let me try again. Let’s say that the real finale begins the next morning—Saturday—in Lillington. That was when my cousin Tom and his wife Ann met me to begin shepherding me through to the end.

The plan was that Tom and I were going to bike the 100 or so miles to their home in Greenville (again, through temperatures in the high-90s/low-100s), spend the night there, and then leave Sunday to bike another 80 miles to Swan Quarter, where a ferry would take us to Ocracoke, a tiny beach community in the Outer Banks and on the Atlantic Ocean.

As I’ve written before, the last time I saw Tom was in 1976. I was nine years old, and one of the things I remember about that visit was a trip to the store. My family and I arrived at my Aunt Angie’s house in Miami in the heatmobile (black vinyl interior and no AC), and soon after we got there, my brother Vince and I went to the food store with our older cousins, Tom and Linda. I looked on in awe as the two of them hopped in their car without putting any shoes on. Vince and I exchanged a quick, wordless glance at this. Not wear shoes to go somewhere? Wasn’t that some kind of rule or something? I like to think that what flashed through my mind was something like, When I get older, I’m going to do things like that. I’m going to break rules.

That’s more or less come true with mixed results. But I think I’ll save most of that for the book…

Each time that someone has ridden with me on this trip has touched and lifted me in its own way, and biking with Tom was no exception. It was, in fact, the perfect way to end this adventure. We fell into an easy rhythm with each other, talking about biking, family, academia (Tom is the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at East Carolina University), politics, and whatnot. We also lapsed into comfortable silences as we pedaled alone with our thoughts. Of course, in my case, I was often conserving my energy so that I could finish the ride. But what a gift to reconnect with a family member—especially one that you didn’t realize you had so much in common with. I remember once—

But wait. I guess I’ve been here before, too. The personal reminiscences, the “deep” reflections.

Maybe the best way to approach the momentous end is through details:

Wringing out a disgusting brown liquid from my sweat-soaked riding gloves at each stop.

A gray egret lifting itself majestically from some weeds at the side of the road.

The red glow of the sun just over the horizon as we pedal out of the dark and into the day.

The diesel fumes and rumbling turbines of the ferry cutting through the Pamlico Sound.

Do these help to put you in the moment?

What’s the right tone to strike? Looking back over all of these posts, I can see how much the tones vary, and how sometimes within a single post I’ll whipsaw from serious and thoughtful to ironic or irreverent. In many ways that’s been the nature of the trip. But this variety—this restless style—has also been a motivating factor for taking the trip in the first place.

Back in Green Hill, when I met a guy named Gabe at a gas station, he asked, “So what in the world possesses a person to do something like this?”

“Oh, lots of things,” I answered lamely.

Dissatisfied with my response to this trenchant question, I tried to categorize the reasons in my journal that night. One that came up was restlessness. My desire to break away from a comfortable, familiar setting. My tendency to wonder what lies over that hill and my need to wander over there and see. My flashes of just wanting to leave where I am.

It’s been a pattern. Though I remember my hometown with affection, I couldn’t wait to leave; though I had lived in the Midwest most of my life, I longed to explore other parts; though my marriage was comfortable and safe and familiar, I couldn’t stay.

I feel like I’m straying a little bit off the path, here…maybe getting a little too restless. Or maybe I’m just trying to avoid the weight of actually writing about the end.

One more try, and that’s it.

So there I was on the ferry. It was a two-and-a-half hour ride, and as we pulled closer to the Outer Banks, I wandered away from Tom and Ann and looked ahead, alone with my thoughts. I tried to articulate in my mind what the moment of arrival would mean to me, and truth was, I couldn’t come up with anything substantive. So I thought about where I’d been.

I thought about the five people who rode with me during parts of this journey—Brian in El Centro, Dave in Prescott, Lance in Missouri and Illinois, Christine in Asheville, and Tom here in North Carolina.

I thought about the people who took me in—Brian & Angie, Melissa & Robert, the Travises, Dave & Pamela, Jake, Deven & Jason, Tom & Stanna, John & Sharlene, Bill, Herman, Jan & Bill, Lawson & Beth, Rachel & Jack, Christine, and Tom & Ann.

I thought about Chuck, who gave me a ride when I needed one; I thought about David & Erin, who invited me to their home for lunch; I thought about Lisa, who was full of questions about touring and information about weaving; I thought about the guy who pulled alongside me on Highway 160 in Arizona to see if I needed a drink; I thought about John and his Harley and the help he gave me in finding a new route; I thought about Sam, who bought me a cold bottle of water in North Carolina; I thought about Greg, who generously helped out with some transportation issues.

I thought about the other bikers I met along the way—Daniel from Chicago, Calvin from Topeka, Michael from Orlando, Alan from New Zealand, Amanda from Ohio, Mike from St. Louis, Dan & Jordan from Massachusetts, Kevin from Philadelphia, and even John from Portland.

I thought about the guy in Missouri who never heard of anyone biking across the country and who bought me a Vitamin Water. I thought about Chris, who gave me $20, and about Chad & Rachel, who offered to put me up for the night.

I thought about all of the Wal-Mart greeters I met and how kind and curious they were. Most of them, anyway.

I thought about the workers of USW Local 7-669 and their families, locked out of their jobs by Honeywell.

I thought about Gabrielle and her big blue Suburban of mercy.

I thought about friends and family in Chicago—Pat, Teresa & Zach; my brother and his family; my parents. I thought about Jerry & Karen, their wedding, the old friends I saw and the new friends I met there. I thought about Jerry’s dad, who liked to pretend to choke me when I was a kid and whom I saw—for the last time, as it turned out—at the wedding; Jerry called me just as I was about to turn onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to tell me that he had died.

I thought about Dennis Hopper and Harvey Pekar.

I thought about the places I’ve seen that in many ways defy description—the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the Rockies, the Great Plains, the Ozarks, the rivers, the Appalacians.

I thought about the people I love, waiting for me back home—Nick & Tony, Shannon, friends from work, students, coaching buddies.

And I thought about all the people who made this blog a part of their day, even if only once. I thought about all the people—some whom I’ve never met—who took the time and trouble to leave a comment. To all of you I want to say this: you have no idea what your comments meant to me or how much they lifted me on my loneliest and hardest days.

I wondered how all of these memories would play out on the shores of the Atlantic. I was having a hard time keeping a lid on my emotions as we pulled closer to Ocracoke. My throat was tightening and my eyes were tearing up. I envisioned breaking down into a blubbering mess, forcing Tom and Ann into the awkward and uncomfortable role of having to hold me together.

We got off the ferry. Ann was in the car and we decided that she would drive up and scout out a place for us to get to the beach. Tom and I would follow on bike.

We pedaled through the touristy downtown part of Ocracoke on Route 12. The buildings fell away and the road looked more or less open. Despite my stretching on the ferry, my legs had cramped up a little, so I had an excuse to hang back a little.

I wanted to savor the moment.

We rounded a bend and saw Ann up ahead. She had found a road leading down to the beach. Tom and I pulled in behind her, and while he stopped to talk, I kept pedaling.

As I crested the sandhill with my bike, I caught my first real glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. Tom and Ann pulled in behind me. Ann started to drive onto the sand closer to the shore.

This was it. The moment that I had been imagining ever since I first got this insane idea—the triumphant, emotional, spiritual arrival at the end of my journey. I took a deep breath…

And then the car got wedged in the sand about 50 yards from the water. Ann revved the motor, and I saw the front tire sink into the sugary sand. This might take a while, I thought.

Believe it or not, I was grateful. This little hiccup saved me from that flood of emotion that would be impossible to capture in language. Instead, I quickly became distracted with the very physical task of trying to unwedge the car: letting some air out of the front tires, pushing against the blazing hot hood as Ann tried to reverse, smelling the thick metallic scent of burning clutch (yes, it was a manual shift).

A guy in a tow truck rolled up and pulled the car back to safety. Ann and I waited while Tom parked it back by the entrance road, and while we waited I tried to knock some of the sand from my shoes and bike with little success. My legs and arms—sticky from sunscreen and sweat—were caked with so much grit that I looked like a Shake ‘n’ Bake chicken.

Tom rejoined us at the crest of the sandhill. I caught my second glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean…

And mother of God was that wind strong. I tried to negotiate my way through big sand drifts while holding my bike up (it was impossible to roll) while the wind hammered my side. A family of four walked in the front and to the side of us, and two of the kids held skimmer boards (they’re called boogie boards out West) by their leashes while the gusts held them aloft. One of the kids lost his grip, and the board went whizzing by like Oddjob’s hat.

“Careful, honey” his mother said. “You’ll hurt someone.”

Hurt someone? I thought. He’ll kill someone.

They continued to walk upwind of us, and I had one eye on the Atlantic and the other on their deadly boards. We were right in their path. Only an eleven year old’s grip stood between me and a new set of teeth.

And then we were at the ocean. Tom and Ann took pictures while I stood in the water. The kids could not hold those boards to save their lives, so Tom ended up taking one clean blow to the arm and a glancing shot to the head. I wasn’t sure why those kids were right next to us; we were the only people on that beach.

At some point the front tire went into the Atlantic and my trip was done.

Back on the ferry, it was clear that we were all pretty worn out. I watched Ocracoke recede in the distance and I tried to conjure up some appropriate phrase or image that would put a fitting capstone on my adventure.

Just then I heard someone cackling—a caustic laugh that sounded like it came from some cartoon villain. I looked around to see who it was.

A guy next to me pointed to the sky. I looked up and saw a gull riding the wind current above the ferry. His wings were still and he appeared to be hovering in midair. As he floated there, the wind holding him in place, he let forth another mocking howl.

“He’s laughing at us,” the guy said.

He sure was.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My Hometown

Yesterday, as I was biking through Cherryville, I went past the high school and spotted a bunch of girls--probably from the softball or volleyball team--doing exercise runs up, down, and across the football bleachers. I steered my bike to the side of the road and watched their clockwork pattern. Then I looked across the street and saw a guy with a big straw hat mowing a church lawn on a rider mower. Off to the right, in the parking lot, were two ladies chatting--one of them with a bag of groceries that she kept shifting around. I continued on my way but kept thinking about what I saw.

I'm not sure why these images struck me the way they did. It probably had something to do with seeing people go about their lives. The vast majority of this trip has been on two-lane roads, and I've had the pleasure of passing through hundreds and hundreds of hometowns where I've been able to catch glimpses of how life is lived.

As I write this, it's Friday night in Lillington (where I'm staying). It's pretty quiet in this room, but as I pedalled through town, I could see people heading to a local eatery, where the smells of roasting meat nearly pulled me off the road and into a booth.

And round about this time in Tuba City, Arizona, teens are gathering at the Sonic on Highway 160.

Just like in Monterey, Tennessee, they're coming together at the Phillips 66 at Exit 301.

In Deerfield, Kansas, people are gathering for the free outdoor movie at the park. On July 4th it was "Sergeant York"; no telling what tonight's fare is.

Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, is showing "Up" tonight, but judging by the time, the movie's probably over and parents are now home, trying to wrestle their kids into bed.

But it's more than bearing witness to everyday life. I'm so far removed from the routines and rituals of my own life, that seeing others makes me long for home. And it makes me remember.

Even though I haven't lived there for over 20 years, I'll always consider Downers Grove, Illinois, my hometown. A lot has changed since I lived there; the Just Games on Ogden Avenue is history, as is the Venture on 75th Street and the Dynamic Video off of Fairview Avenue. Even my elementary school is gone, converted into offices for the park district.

But some things remain. Two important places of my youth--the Tivoli Theater and Anderson's Bookshop--are still around. Someday, probably, they'll vanish, but for now they provide continuity with my past.

The same goes for Omega, a restaurant where my friends and I spent most weekend nights after playing D&D at Paul's house or after seeing something like "Ghostbusters" (for the fifth or sixth time) at the Tivoli. We'd get wired on coffee, flirt ineffectively with our waitress, then go to our respective homes, watch SCTV, and recite all the best bits the following night, when we'd get together again.

Seeing people in their hometowns has brought all of this back for me. Those times are physically lost, sure, but they live on vividly in my memories.

I wonder if the kids gathering in all these places will someday look back fondly on the time spent there. In Ash Grove, Missouri, I met some local kids at the city park where I camped one night. They would drive down from nearby Walnut Grove and hang out every night during the summer, chatting at the picnic tables or flitting from car to car. They liked to talk with bikers; it was a common stop for riders on the Trans-Am Trail. I wonder if years from now, Gordon and Turner--two of the teens I talked with--will remember those nights as a treasured part of their pasts. Maybe years from now, the two of them will run into each other and play "remember when...?"

And maybe I'll get to play a supporting role.

Gordon might look at Turner and say, "Remember that one biker from California?"

And Turner might laugh and respond, "That old guy? Oh yeah! I wonder whatever happened to him..."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Knock Three Times

I was supposed to make it to Lincolton last night, where the Matthews family was waiting to put me up. Because that didn't work out (and because I was going to be their first Warmshowers guest), Lisa Matthews and I got together this morning to say hello and have some sweet tea (a southern delight).

We talked about biking, weaving, medieval fighting, and Lisa's various injuries (she is definitely not someone to be messed with). As I was getting ready to leave, she took a look at the route I had marked on my map.

"Be careful on Highway 73," she said. "There's lots of traffic, and at least one biker gets hit there a month."

Yeah, yeah, I thought. I've ridden through traffic that would make your hair curl. I was in the Ozarks, man! What could be worse than that?

An hour and a half later, I pulled into a Wal-Mart to grab some lunch. The greeter was a retired guy named Floyd, and he happily watched my bike while I shopped and ate.

He asked where I was headed, and I told him.

"The traffic's not too bad now," he said. "But once 73 crosses the interstate, it gets bad."

Okay. So here was warning number two. But still, all due respect to Floyd, he wasn't a biker, and he hasn't seen what I've been through. Right?

I continued down 73, and sure enough, the traffic picked up. With no shoulder to work with, I kept as far to the right as I could as trucks, SUVs, and other seemingly-oversized vehicles whizzed by.

As I approached a turn-in to some subdivision, I saw a woman standing in front of a blue Suburban. She was waving her arms at me, so I slowed to a stop in front of her.

"This is a very dangerous road," she said.

All right. Even my (over)confidence has its limits. I wasn't about to ignore three separate warnings.

The woman's name was Gabrielle, and she told me that she was a cyclist. A friend of hers had been hit on 73 on July 4th, and when she saw me, she turned back around to warn me.

We moved into the shade and she showed me another route that was 6-8 miles out of the way. And hillier. She made me promise to go that way, so I did.

As she pulled away, she told me--for the fourth time--to be careful on my journey.

"I made it this far," I said. "I'm pretty hard to kill."

I continued on for a few miles until I came to the turnoff Gabrielle said to take. There was a McDonald's on the other side of the intersection, and I was going to get something to drink and consider whether the detour was really worth it.

I looked behind me and saw a familiar blue Suburban pull off the road and stop behind my bike. Gabrielle hopped out and handed me a couple of Clif Bars, some energy chews, and a frozen fruit pop.

"I thought you might want these. And this is where you want to turn."

At that point, the detour could have been 50 miles out of the way, and I would have taken it. The kindness of strangers is not to be trifled with.

Did I avert disaster? I'll never know. What I do know is that I'm safe and sound tonight with another story to tell. Thanks Lisa, Floyd, and Gabrielle.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Way

After resting up with the Moores following my punishing first day in the Appalacians, I felt ready to move on.

I headed out from Bryson City and into Cherokee, which is on the Cherokee Reservation. This was the second reservation I've been on this trip (the first was the Navajo Reservation in AZ/UT), and the contrast was striking.

Where the Navajo area was, too often, a beer can- and liquor-bottle strewn desert with dilapidated, bone-jarring roads, Cherokee was in the midst of a boom.

A giant Harrah's Casino was the focal point of my path through Highway 19, and a thriving tourist industry had grown up around it. Unlike the monoliths that command attention on Navajo land--the ancient formations in Monument Valley--the forces at work in Cherokee are far less spiritual than economic. Judging by the quality of life on display in both places, it's clear which force carries more weight in this modern world.

After moving through Cherokee, I hit Soco Gap, which formed the second big day of climbing through the Appalacians. While it didn't match the six hours I spent on the Cherohala Skyway, Soco still kept me occupied for almost two draining hours.

After coming off the mountain, I hit the flats for a while until Asheville, where I stopped for the night at yet another Warmshowers host, Christine North.

Christine is a proponent of simple living, meditation & yoga, and healthy eating. She's also a very sweet person, but a tad scary to drive with in a car. I know this because after dinner she took me out to show me how I should bike out in the morning. We got so turned around (as she managed to look around at everything except the road) that I wasn't sure I was going to see the morning. We finally made it to downtown Asheville, where she decided that she'd just ride out with me. "I know where I'm going better on a bike," she told me.

She wasn't kidding. We headed straight out the next morning, and I struggled to keep up as she took us--with nary a wrong turn--through the posh neighborhood of Biltmore Forest and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we said goodbye.

And so began my third and final day of climbing through the Appalacians.

About 12 miles out of town I hit the switchbacks that wound higher and higher through the countryside. Cars would cautiously pass me, and at one point I heard some vehicle laboring behind me like a dying elephant. I pulled off to the side as three giant orange trucks--each marked "slow moving vehicle"--sped past me.

At the crest was a sign marked "Eastern Continental Divide," and past this point I gripped my bars in fright as I sped down through a few miles of turns equal in curviness to the ones I just climbed.

The road eventually shifted into rollers, which for me are the most energy-sapping of terrains.

When I was near exhaustion, I pulled into a little gas station at Green Hill, and as I leaned my bike against the side of the building, an older gentleman walked out.

"I passed you a little ways back," he said. "I was hoping you'd stop here."

He held out an ice-cold bottle of water.

"I got this for you."

It was the latest in a string of remarkable acts of kindness that I've been lucky enough to receive since being on the road. It's impossible to overstate how quickly these acts can make exhaustion dissipate.

The man's name was Sam, and he hailed from Forest City, a few miles down the road. He told me that he wanted to take a trip like this after he retired, but because of foot problems, he'd probably do it by motorcycle. He also told me about his favorite book--Peter Jenkins's "A Walk across America."

"Have you read it?" he asked.

I told him I had, in college, when the idea of an epic journey first took hold of my imagination.

"Let me ask you something," he said. "Walking, bicycle, motorcycle...what advice would you give someone who was going to do this?"

Well, I can only speak from my own experience, but here goes:

Take chances--on people, on routes, on weird little roadside shops and diners.

Record everything you can with a camera and in a journal. If you don't like to write, use a digital recorder. You probably won't pass this way again, so pay attention.

Embrace setbacks. Bum knee, sore ass, flat tire, shorter day than expected, getting lost, rabid dogs--they're all part of the experience.

Always remember that this is your journey; don't measure it against or compare it to others'.

Enjoy the moment. It's not about destination (well, not completely); it's about finding meaning at this particular time and in this particular place, whether we're rooted by tire or shoe tread.

And finally, don't bring a hatchet.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Road to Nowhere

I rolled into Bryson City at about noon on Sunday, still a little shaken from the beating that I had taken on the Cherohala Skyway the day before.  My hosts for the evening, Jack and Raquel Moore, were happy to have me for as long as I wanted to stay, so I decided to take a rest day and spend two nights with them.

So today I tooled around by car with Raquel, and she gave me a tour of Bryson City--the downtown, her friends' bike shop, the used book store where she volunteers, Anthony's Pizza (where her foster son Jacob and I inhaled an 18" pie), and the train depot.  We also managed to squeeze in a hike to the top of Waterrock Bald (at 6280') and a stroll through the creepy tunnel at the end of the Road to Nowhere.

The Road to Nowhere is located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Back in the 1940s, the government flooded a big chunk of land in Swain County in order to build a dam.  The problem was that the flooding eliminated a road that led to some cemeteries in the county.  They promised to build a road that would go around the new lake and provide access for the residents to visit their deceased family members' resting places, but after completing part of the road and a tunnel, the money ran out and the road was never completed.  Hence, the Road to Nowhere.

Raquel told me the story of the bitter legacy left behind by this incident, which was only recently "resolved" by a settlement to the surviving families.  As we walked through the 1200' pitch black tunnel, I couldn't help but think about the stranded graves and what great ghost stories could be written about their wrath, the dark forests, and the even darker tunnel...

But what I was also thinking about was how Raquel's tour of her town was only the latest in a series of tours I've been lucky enough to receive by the many people who have housed me during this trip.

In El Centro, California, Brian McNeece rode out with me the morning I left his house, and as we rode, he gave me an insider's tour of the city and the surrounding area--a tour that included stories about its history, agricultural roots, and recent earthquake damage.

In Wickenburg, Arizona, the Travis family took  me through the downtown so that I could see the talking statues and the fake rattlesnake that made a guy jump out into the street (he wasn't hurt--just mad).

In Prescott, Arizona, Dave Craig took me around the downtown, gave me a rundown of the city's interesting demographic makeup, and showed me the newest, most innovative building at Prescott College, where he teaches.

In Wichita, Kansas, John and Sharlene Sampson took me downtown to witness the "Ring of Fire" ceremony at the Keeper of the Plains, a magnificent structure at the junction of two rivers that commemorates the area's native American roots.

In Girard, Kansas, Bill Haddan took me up in a two-seater plane to show me the land in a way that most people never get to experience.

In Strafford, Missouri, Jan and Bill Montgomery took me on a "scandal tour" of the county, which included a stop along the road where the local veterinarian had an afternoon tryst with a married woman.

And in Clarksville, Tennessee, Lawson Mabry--whose family settled in Clarksville in the late 1700s--gave me a one-of-a-kind historical tour of the city and showed me some incredible historical documents from his own family record.

The title of this post is certainly intended to be ironic; if nothing else, this trip has shown me that the road always leads somewhere.  Along the way, I've been lucky enough to stay with able tour guides who have a deep and abiding love for the places where they live.  People for whom the word "home" carries real weight.  People who cared enough about their communities that they wanted to make sure I took part of them with me.

All of these individuals have made me think more deeply about my home.  If a traveller came to stay with me, what would I show him?  What part of where I live would I want him to carry out into the world as he continued on his way?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's a Long Way to the Top

I stopped at an overlook today on my way across the Smoky Mountains, and a group of people wandered over to see what I was all about (nothing invites conversation like a loaded bike).

The onlookers turned out to be a couple of families that were camping together for the weekend, and they were very interested in my journey--especially when they found out how far I'd come.

In between their questions, one of the women brought me water and Powerade and was even ready to make me some sandwiches. Another asked me if I'd ever felt like giving up.

"All the time," I half-joked.

Little did I know that about two hours later I would be as close to completely losing it as I have ever been.

I left that morning from Sweetwater in an increasingly sluggish fashion. For while I'm in much better shape than when I began the ride, I've also reached a level of bone-deep exhaustion that I've never felt before. This isn't the typical tired-from-a-day-at-work fatigue; I'm so exhausted that I sleep fitfully, have to force myself to move in the morning, and feel the sand in my legs from the very first pedals of the day. This exhaustion doesn't go away so much as it gets supressed, and not very well at that; it's always lurking just below the surface of my riding.

Today was not a good day for keeping that exhaustion suppressed: I would be facing the last major physical challenge of the trip. The Appalacians.

I decided to cross them through Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains on the Cherohala Skyway, a 50-mile road that connects Tellico Plains (in the west) with Robbinsville (in the east).

The Skyway started out pleasantly enough, running alongside the Tellico River. The hills were gentle, allowing me to steal glances at the river, which flowed like liquid glass over the large, flat stones on the riverbed.

That changed soon enough as the road began to climb and wind. Early on, I understood that more climb lay beyond the curves, and I put my head down and ground out the miles. When I finally arrived at the overlook and talked with the campers, I had been climbing for so long that I was confident both the North Carolina state line and the peak were just up around the bend.

I was wrong on both counts.

When I got back on my bike, I worked my way through one false peak after another. There were easily over a hundred of them, so twisty was the road.

It was another hour and a half before I hit the Carolina line, and by then I was soaked with sweat and getting chilled (it was late in the afternoon by this point).

I figured--and in retrospect, I have no idea why--that the peak would not be far behind.

But no, it was another seven miles of climbing, and by climbing, I mean approaching one false peak after another and swearing my head off, the expletives echoing on the mountains. I shouted with all the rage I could muster. How dare the mountain do this to me! Didn't it know what I've been through to get here?

When I finally got to the top, I was done. I had been climbing for about six hours. From the start of the Skyway to the peak turned out to be a hair over thirty miles. I resigned myself to camping behind a picnic table at one of the rest spots. I changed my shirt and gobbled down half of what little food I had--half a bag of pretzels and a banana.

But I didn't have cell phone reception (thanks, AT&T!), I didn't want anyone to worry, and I felt a second wind coming on. So I decided to go for it.

As I started down, I ran into some paramedics, and they told me that Robbinsville was nineteen miles yet, but most of it was downhill. They also told me that four motorcycles had collided (I must have seen about 200 motorcyclists today), and one of the riders was killed.

That gave me pause. As I had been climbing and growing increasingly frustrated, I had developed an unfair animosity to the motorcyclists who relied on their engines to effortlessly pass me (apologies to my cousin Bill, a loyal blog reader and die-hard Harley man). The severity of the accident was yet another reminder about the fragility of life.

It wasn't really a reminder I needed as I got ready to head down a series of 9% grades.

The descent was every bit as terrifying as the climb was exhausting. And because it was "mostly" downhill, I got to feel extra sluggish on rises that earlier in the day would have been no (or little) problem.

But I finally made it, and I'm too worn down to take much satisfaction on the fact that I rode 78 hard miles and finally arrived in North Carolina.

I was hoping to end with some important lesson about persistence and perseverence, but the embarassing display of self-pity that I put on while searching for the top of the damned mountain kind of undermines my authority.