Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Denver Cruiser Ride! Best... time... EVER!

I was lucky to be tipped off to the Denver Cruiser ride last night. Best time ever. This ride happens every week, and it's huge. There are three starting points that all meet up during and after the ride. The estimate I heard was 600 people last week. It sounds big, but I cannot dispute the numbers. At the party afterward there was loud bumping music in the park, and it looked like 1,000 people at least.

I started squirreling my way over to the ride from Dan's house. My couch-host lives about 8 miles from downtown in the 'Glendale' area, and nearly the whole trip was on a bicycle path. The entire city is a bicycle path. I have been going everywhere, and it's all been on awesome paths. Here's what I do: I check my fancy-phone for Google directions, and invariably I am massaged right onto a beautiful path.

I got a six of talls on my way to the start of the ride.

I arrived at the same time as another girl. Early. Actually, I was exactly on time, but everyone knows to leave much later than that. We were both sort of looking around trying to make sure we were in the right place. There was a smattering of bicycles. Not in the hundreds. (An hour later, there would be no doubt... hundreds filtered in slowly. Every kind. Hundreds.)

"Buy you a beer?" Ashley asked this.

Well this keeps getting better, I thought. She's going to buy me a beer. That's a novel twist. Easy answer, too. We sat at a table and didn't have much to talk about. She works at a dispensery. Pot is legal here, and that's where you get it. She works at a high end joint, so to speak - not one of the many skeezy places with a pot leaf painted on the side. They cater to doctors and lawyers who want to be discreet.

She seemed composed and proper. I was surprised that she had "evil cunt" tattooed on her inner lip. She asked if I had any tattoos, and boy do I ever. I like that question.

We shared beers and mostly rode together. She just got a bicycle recently after a 9-year hiatus from riding. It's a cruiser. She's mostly slow and not traffic-savy, 'cause she's only been riding for a matter of days. I was drunk and I'm very traffic-savy. I wanted to start punching holes in shit. I wanted to ride aggressively, take lanes and ride at speed. I mostly (mostly) restrained myself because her beer was in my second waterbottle cage. My beer was in my main watterbottle cage right on my handlebars. Slick setup.

The police have a hands-off approach to all this. You can have open beers. You can dress like a jerk and smoke a joint. If you don't become a belligerent litterbug, you're in the clear.

I hung out with Ashley till late, and we found stuff to talk about. I'm sure there's much more to the story. I got on the verge of way too fucked up, and that's where bicycle paths really shine.

I wasn't the most goosed... I helped a drunk couple who couldn't hold their bicycles upright. The girl dropped one of the Denver bike-share bicycles twice while I stood there. I found their hotel on my fancy-phone, and handed it to the guy to make sure they could absolutely make it the two or three blocks.

I took the 8 mile cruise back to Glendale, convinced that I was moving to Denver. This is it! Every week! Dan and Nicole were still awake when I arrived. They are night owls and work closely with computers and the internet universe.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Denver is a place where you can be.

I woke up and sat with a coffee and bagel within the same five minutes. Ken's schedule required a couchsurfing host or some camping to be found. I checked my email, and had two options already. Great!

We went to the park to walk a dog and make a lunchtime visit to Jeanette who was teaching science at a summer camp. Then I was driven downtown to some outdoor gear stores to poke around and eventually make my way back by foot. My sleeping bag is not up for cold weather. Getting a better one might be a good idea. Good ones are expensive, but that's the kind that I want. I looked at options, and gained valuable insight.

Flying Tara in and dealing with hotels was a considerable financial setback. I'm not complaining; just calculating. A month more of bicycle riding, a plane ticket AND a sleeping bag might be too difficult. I'm not exactly living off of rice and beans at this point either. I'm not being fancy, but I don't want to spend my way out of staying relatively comfortable.


I walked the five miles back to Ken's and loaded up the Hoopty. I cruised three miles away to Dan's house.

Dan moved to Denver last week. Already he's hosting someone on Couchsurfing. He doesn't have furniture yet, but neither does the woods.

Denver has a robust couchsurfing community, and there are weekly gatherings at a bar. Dan and I went over to see what was what. I got a pint and a name tag, and eventually a couple tacos. Anyone related to the couchsurfing project is likely to be more interesting than the average person on the street. I met some vandwellers who just moved into a van three months ago. I tried to tell them nicely that they had to get rid of all the back seats, and find a twin mattress. Right away. We talked about resources and experiences. I was excited to meet them. As far as conversations at bars go, I'd say this was one of the better ones.

I was also clued in to possible exciting bicycle-slash-drinking activities for tomorrow night...

Monday, June 27, 2011

To Denver over dirt and pretty paths.

Denver. I rode my bicycle there today.

I woke up from my third night sleeping on the couch on Corona Street. I packed my bags quietly and filled every bottle with fresh water: three bicycle bottles, and two 32oz Gatorade bottles. Enough for 100 miles if I needed it to be. I hefted my loaded bicycle out the door and off the porch. I would txt msg my final thank yous later.

I rolled slowly and automatically along Corona Street and made the right on Bijou.

The suburbs and sprawl are vast in this area. I'm reminded of the Joanna Newsom song about the houses made of ticky-tacky. I rode through this area on wide streets - climbing, descending and undulating through the houses made of ticky-tacky, which all looked just the same. I wasn't sure how to feel about what I was seeing. This homogenized layout is designed by pressing a rubber stamp repeatedly along the gentle curves on a topographic map. Is this what people want, or is this just what we have and know? Identical homes; identical neighborhoods: the antithesis of expression. These homes exist to block the sun, and the wiring brings in many episodes of Law and Order. My hackles were raised, but maybe it's okay.

I spun pedals as my heavy bicycle crept along the streets, cutting a careful path through the earth-toned Domino Rally.

Mountains provided relief to the left as I headed north. 90 miles to Denver.

I planned secret camping and two easy 45 mile days. The camping part evaporated from the itinerary when strong tailwinds picked up. 20 miles outside of Colorado Springs, the closely situated homes ended abruptly. Desert, ranches, and pine-covered hills took over. I found myself on a series of arrow-straight dirt roads which pointed due north. Thirty seconds after turning onto the first packed-dirt road, I found myself cruising at 30mph. This theme continued. I was hitting the brakes to scrub off speed as I raced down a dirt road with no perceptible descent. To call these conditions favorable would be classic understatement. When I stopped to check directions, the wind blew at my back and flapped my disgusting salty shirt like a flag.

Oh, to ride the Hoopty! Touring bicycles typically have wider tires than other road bicycles. My Hoopty has wider tires still. I use wide tires for comfort and traction. I have wide tires because... why not? I have never desired a skinnier tire on tour, but often - and now - I would readily accept wider ones.

Riding these dirt roads would be a test in handling and comfort on most of the touring bicycles I've seen since leaving Philadelphia. Me and the Hoopty? We cruised. Fast.

Note to prospective bicycle travelers: when using Google's Bicycling directions, make sure you have wide tires, or be prepared to alter the route considerably. Since leaving on this trip, I've used Google's Bicycling directions to plan many miles of travel. A surprising percentage of those miles has been across dirt or gravel. For that terrain - the wider the tire the better. Skinny tires will dig in, slip and stop. Most of these roads would be all but impossible to traverse on a modern road bicycle. And you certainly couldn't cruise at 25-30mph for mile after mile carrying a heavy load.

The dirt roads gave way to a bicycle path. The bicycle path made many turns as it cut through beautiful unadulterated desert landscape. It looked like a sidewalk curving through gentle hills on the surface of Mars. Prairie dogs were present in abundance. Small towns appeared and disappeared. I rode on this thin strip of pavement for many miles. I rode past backyard patios and picnic pavilions. I fought with only one quarter mile of traffic until coming into a state park with the Denver skyline on the horizon.

The sun was finally casting real shadows again, and I knew it was past time to finalize a place to lay my head. I checked my phone hopefully, and saw a missed call from Ken. Shelly lived in Denver for a few months a few years ago - Ken was one of her roommates. I checked my notes and clicked some buttons. I was exactly ten miles from his front porch.

I rolled along more beautiful paths, amused that I had assumed the ride into an urban area might be a challenge to be alert for. Ha! I cussed as fat drops of rain fell on me while I checked my phone to follow a series of directions. Fat beautiful raindrops fell, and my reaction was to cuss. After today's beautiful ride? I should have taken it easy and looked for a rainbow, but I was more concerned about getting drops of water on my phone's expensive screen. Life.

Ken is nice, his girlfriend is nice, and his dog karate chopped me as I stepped inside. What a great young dog! Ken cooked dinner, and we all sat around talking and eating. Tucker is the dog. He ran around the backyard and examined everything possible. He tried to uproot a bush and make progress on a hole he had started. He ran around with his tongue flapping as the rest of us discussed trivialities and Denver activities.

I haven't washed my riding socks since Utica, Kentucky. Oops. I showered and slept as my considerably dirty clothing was tossed around in the dryer. Unbelievably clean.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Porch Party in Manitou Springs

Today was lazy as hell. I'm definitely losing track of remembering what a bicycle is or why I'd be going anywhere on one.

I basically goofed around all day until it was time to go to the next town over for a party. Every Sunday a girl has a party at her nice house in Manitou Springs. The Spinto Band came on from the iPod in the middle of a beer pong game, and Blake was like "yo, Chris!" The people I'm staying with know more about Philly bands than I do. But I've met people who they would love to me. Philadelphia is a novelty, and there are chants of "flip! flip! flipadlephia!" They watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, too.

I had a great time. Once I finally had enough beer, that is. Upon arrival at the party I was distinctly less relaxed.

I decided I have a choice: Either ride to the summit of Pike's Peak, or ride toward Denver. It's time to move on.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lazy day in Colorado Springs

I had the day off in Colorado Springs. I did my usual day-off routine. I went to a coffee shop and turned it into my living room for a matter of hours. I ate a sandwich and laid down in the park.

I have less than $2000 left. It's time to slow down the money flowing out of my wallet. It takes discipline. I cooked up some spaghetti that I've been hauling around for over a week. For lack of any other available options, I sprayed PAM olive oil on the noodles and sprinkled on some salt. That worked fine.

Then I bought beer, and left a little bit later to get more beer.

The guys I'm staying with are young and laid back. They like music, and are familiar with an astonishing number of artists. We're listening to plenty of music and talking about it. I'm welcome to sit around and sleep here for another night. Seems likely to happen.

I have a few days to kill before Tara shows up in Denver. At that point I will try to sort out what the hell I'm doing. I'm putting that off for now. My stuff needs to be cleaned, and I need to remind myself that I'm trying to ride a bicycle somewhere. It's easy to lose sight of the reason I am in Colorado with a bicycle.

Colorado Springs seems like a good place to live in a van. I think Colorado is on the list of places where living in a van would be extra easy.

Nobody brought up that drinking contest again after last night. That definitely saved somebody from getting hurt.

Friday, June 24, 2011

To Colorado Springs; off the ACA route through the desert.

Before loading up and leaving this morning, I sent out some couchsurfing requests for Colorado Springs - a potential ending point if I could find a roof. I didn't provide much notice, but this seems to be working okay for me.

Today, I broke away from the Adventure Cycling route and began to point my bicycle toward Denver. I have a phone with Google Maps, and a GPS that I programmed a route on. The GPS route is really just a series of waypoints with an as-the-crow-flies line drawn between them to connect the dots. In this sparse area, it works fine. Programming a route with useful turn-by-turn bicycle directions still seems just outside the capabilities of the unit though.

I began to follow the directions, hoping that the Google Maps bicycle directions wouldn't let me down. I was pleased. I was put on a road that turned to dirt for well over ten miles. When the road turns to dirt and gravel, you will pray to be riding something like the Hoopty. The Hoop performed well as I cruised over this beautiful stretch of sparse road on my wide tires. I was surrounded by desert with a beautiful view of the mountains to my left. I gained altitude all day, but didn't have any challenging climbs. I'm getting closer to mountains, but I'm not in them yet.

In the afternoon, I pulled over in some shade to eat raisins and get a brief respite from the hot sun. I checked my phone, and saw that I would have a place to sleep in Colorado Springs if I wanted it. Two nights would be fine. I was about 20 miles from downtown when I accepted the offer and re-routed myself directly toward a coffee shop.

"How down are you with brass monkeys?" The first time we spoke on the phone, this is what my couchsurfing host asked me. Yup. This would work out just fine.

We each had a brass monkey, and we talked about music and played with iPods. These guys are real young - the guy who accepted my request is 19, and the singer in his band who was hanging out is 22. We walked around the downtown area at night, and it reminded me of Duval Street in Key West with the general misshapen rowdy behavior. These guys are awesome, and they're a ball to hang out with. This 22-year-old dude is entertaining as hell. He thinks he can beat me in a drinking contest. I'm hoping that he realizes it's a bad idea and backs out. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wasting a day in Pueblo Colorado

I got a new tire. I wore one out pretty good getting from Philly through Kansas. I swapped the good tire to the back, and now I have fresh rubber on the front too. I'm happy.

I spent all day screwing around in Pueblo. I was told that for lunch I needed to get a "green chili slopper," and that it would be a good idea to get a "schooner" of beer as well at a certain place. The slopper is a Pueblo special. It's basically a cheeseburger completely covered in a green chili sauce. I mean literally covered - it was served in a big bowl. It was great.

I'm couchsurfing for two nights. When I arrived, we barely spoke. I took a shower, and we watched two movies before speaking much more than a sentence. They're younger guys, about 21, and the guy who facilitated the couchsurfing request-acceptance is applying to medical school. He is working in the ER now, and he likes it. He's excited about the career path, and he's a smart dude.

I drank about 75 beers throughout the day, and I'm basically a bicycle bum with some really decent gear.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Easy ride to Pueblo

I went to the library in Ordway, Colorado to use the wifi connection to seek out couchsurfing hosts in Pueblo. I was happy to see that Nick and Stuart had signed the guestbook five days earlier.

The riding was pleasant. Another cyclist bought me lunch, and we split a fried Snickers bar and four fried Oreo cookies.

A pot-addled veteran flagged me down and spent a lot of my time in Boone. I couldn't figure out what of what he said was true. He did have a passport from Uganda, and he was probably in the army a long time ago. I extracted myself from that situation.

I found a nice Carhartt cap on the side of the road. I adopted my aerodynamic northroad position and cruised the remaining miles into Pueblo.

I checked my phone, and was elated to learn that one of my couchsurfing requests had been accepted. I have been moving quickly, and now I need to waste some time. Tara is flying into Denver on the 30th, and I need to drag my feet so I don't get there too fast. I will be spending a rest day in Pueblo. I will have a slew of rest days in Denver.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In like a lion, out like a lamb. A typical day of cycling.

Two young guys showed up at the church last night, and they were not with the ACA group. I decided to ride with them in the morning into a strong headwind. They set a terrible pace, and it was hard to keep up. The wind whipped into my face, and I hated every second of that ride. We covered 28 miles into Eads, Colorado where I decided to drink coffee and eat a sandwich instead of continuing with the pointless pace. Part of me expected to spend the entire day.

Eads didn't speak to me, and soon I knew that it was time to continue in spite of the headwind. I reminded myself that the pace doesn't matter, and I set off to cover some distance at an average speed well below 10mph. I was happy not to be in a hurry. I listened to music and spun the pedals gently and comfortably. 

I made it to Haswell, Colorado which is little more than a gas station. I'd caught one of the ACA riders, and I was happy to stop. I considered setting up a tent in the town park, but the day was still relatively young. I set out again, and was glad that I did.

The headwind disappeared, and the road turned. The effect was a slight tailwind and a long stretch of wonderful riding. The road was nearly traffic free, and I flew along the pavement. For an aerodynamic position, I can lean my forearms along my northroad handlebars, and lean forward. I can pedal hard and maintain 20+ miles per hour for a long fun stretch of highway. I did this, and in spite of leaving late in the morning and wasting plenty of time, I caught up to a couple more ACA riders.

I caught up to the ride leader, Sally, and slowed my pace to ride along. I sat up and held the northroad handlebars in the typical position. We chatted as the mountains appeared on the horizon. One moment, the only visible thing on the horizon was the grain tower of Sugar City, and in the next instant, a hazy outline of mountains framed the tower. 

A few of us stopped for a soda and ice cream in Sugar City. The ACA would be ending their day 5 miles to the west in Ordway, but I decided to stay here. There was a bar across the street, and free camping in the park. 

The bar was empty. I talked to the bartender for several hours about life and dogs while we watched reality television about people who buy the contents of disused storage lockers. Another show was about the workings of a pawn shop. I left when the sun began to set.

I put up my tent in the park, and the weather was perfect. My tent poles are a little bent up from the storm two nights ago, but nothing is broken.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Taking refuge in Sheridan Lake Colorado

The church where I spent the day mentally returning to normal was located in Sheridan Lake. From what I saw, most of the structures in this town lack windows or doors. It looks like a ghost town, but has a big immaculate church. Population 84.

I was the first one there, arriving by pickup truck about an hour after dawn. After sleeping face down on my sweatshirt for an hour, I got up and started to poke around. I ate a stale brownie from the fridge, and brewed some coffee for lack of anything better to do. I drank a couple Pepsi's and took some Oreo cookies. I sat in a huge recliner with a book and fell asleep for a couple hours before I heard the sound of a know-it-all cyclist arriving to seek refuge.

Other cyclists from the ACA group filtered in over the next several hours. A wifi connection and some electricity allowed me to spend time planning my off-route trip to Denver. I programmed some routes and put them on my GPS. I read books. I wasted the day while the winds whipped around outside and rain fell for most of the day.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

An actual storm is actually scary.

I woke up on a sunny day and rode an easy 47 miles to Tribune Kansas. I was there before noon, but this is where I planned to stay. A group of 15 from Adventure Cycling's organized ride were also ending here today. They pay for a group leader, and they rotate chores like cooking. They have expensive bicycles. Paying for a ride leader is expensive. There were a dozen tents dotting the town park, and I felt nothing but aloof.

I drank weak beer out of a cup all day, and went off by myself to cook some food. I talked to a few people in the group, and a couple were nice. One guy thought he knew more about bicycles than me, and that kind of thing really drives me up the wall. Spending $3k and reading the manufacturer's website for your hub doesn't make you an expert. These contentious conversations can't be shut down fast enough.

By the time the sun was setting, I had decided that I could go further down the road. I made sure my lights were good and ready, and I cruised away from camp. The weather was supposed to be favorable, and headwinds were projected for the next day. I thought it would be smart to get going now.

It wasn't smart. The night ride wasn't as wonderful as I'd anticipated, and the moon was sadly non-existent. Thirty miles into my goal of sixty, I decided to set up a tent somewhere and wait for morning light. Lightning was visible on the horizon to the north, and I didn't know if that would be a problem. I found a high school that was out for the summer, and decided that was good enough. I'd just crossed the border into Colorado.

I set up my tent beside a line of trees and was ready to sleep. Five minutes later, it was apparent that I'd better stake everything down hard. The wind was picking up, and a storm was coming fast. If I'd waited another two minutes, getting stakes in the ground might have been impossible. I have good aftermarket stakes and I put a shoe back on to stomp them into the ground as far as I could make them go. Then I retreated inside the tent and got ready to weather the storm.

To say the winds picked up doesn't cover it. Within minutes, my tent was a sideways hammock clinging to my body. The fabric flapped loudly, and the poles bent to the side. I hoped this wouldn't last for too long, but the storm persisted.

I didn't sleep for a minute that night. The winds got stronger, and then abruptly changed directions by 180 degrees. In this moment, my tent flipped on its side and flattened on top of me. I was now in a sort of tarp setup; pressed to the ground. All I could hear was tornadoes. A low whumping sound convinced me that tornadoes were forming. Hail began to pelt me through the thin nylon of the rainfly. I was stung several times before managing to pull my air mattress over me. I laid face down on the ground with my air mattress on my back. I put my arms over my head, and laid in fear that the winds would pick me up tent and all, or a tree would fall on me and break my back. I laid face down shivering for hours; exhausted as I waited for the sun.

I was relieved when I felt able to crawl out of the nylon nest. A tree had been pulled up about a hundred yards away, and it leaned sideways on the school. Telephone poles had been snapped at the base a quarter mile down the road. I was experiencing a low grade of tired shock.

I prepared to continue, but one look at the horizon stopped me. The western horizon was black. The blackness was getting larger and blowing straight at me. I retreated to the weak cover of the entrance to the school, right next to the downed tree. Hundreds of tumbleweeds shot from behind the school, whipped by the high winds of yet another incoming storm. A pickup truck appeared in front of me. Within a half hour, I was in the refuge of a church nine miles down the road. I have seldom been so relieved to be inside of a building. I fell asleep on the floor almost immediately.

I woke up to a continuing storm, and decided right away that I wouldn't be leaving the church for at least 24 hours. The sound of the wind gave me chills as I remembered the previous night.

Some of the Adventure Cycling group made it to the church. By the end of the day, there were maybe ten or so people who had been able to make it by bicycle or motorized local citizen. The first person to show up was a guy who doesn't listen when you talk. He was amazing. He'd interrupt your sentence with a 'yup' every time. A poorly placed syllable that gave evidence to the suspicion that he couldn't hear a thing you were saying. This guy also doles out bossy instruction to others. Great guy, really.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

God, hell and Kansas angels.

Anna (Ahn-yuh) is another Kansas hero. I'm sure she didn't know that I was drinking tallboys out of a convenience store cup while she invited me into her home. She has three wonderful children, and she pulled them along the concrete path in a wagon through the park. That's where I was sitting; awash in drying gear and silliness.

I tend to decline offers with children on the periphery - but one to accept when sincerity is afoot. And I was just thinking how great a shower would be.

I must have looked awful. My shirt was disgusting by all measures. Stripes and bands of salt draw thick outlines. I've been sweating in the same shirt for a week. I was at a picnic table conducting business. I must not have looked threatening with my assemblage of electronic devices and my Hoopty bicycle with handlebars that smile.

"Do you need anything? A shower?"

An angel! And somehow a sweet Ukrainian accent had made it's way to Scott City Kansas. Culture, children and cleanliness were all added to my schedule. I promised to pack and catch up, and she promised to move slowly along the same straight street.

Her husband, Joel, was mowing a small lawn with a riding mower. He shook my hand like he meant it, and fumbled to find some appropriate soap for me to wash with. All-American, blue eyes, and a grin which matched his apparent zeal for existence. Anna and Joel are missionaries, and they met each other while spreading the word of God.

After my shower, I wanted to leave. There were children, and the park had a small shelter just for me. I was invited to stay. Twice. Before I could properly decline, clouds appeared. My fancy phone said that these clouds might start getting rude. I wasn't going anywhere. To decline this offer would be a classically poor decision.

Anna cooked dinner just for me. This was a special dinner, with a nod toward artful presentation. They didn't have many ingredients, but what she assembled had a resonant harmony.

I slept well on the couch. I slept through the storm, and woke up refreshed at a reasonable hour.

Father's Day! The kids had matching t-shirts, and everybody ate pancakes. It was an idyllic picture before the question dropped.

"Where do you think you will go when you die?" Anna asked. What a question. I assumed that my visit might get to this point. I had just recited their familiar grace, and I supposed that opened the door for pointed questions.

"In the ground." I delivered this bluntly with a smile; returning the same sincere look. "My body will go in the ground, and I will be dissolved back into the earth."

I called myself spiritual, and that's close enough. I pointed out that I have morals and ethics. But what about heaven and hell?

I explained myself in a calm humble manner. "If there is a heaven and hell... and I am saying these things... I am going to hell. I am a good person, and for me, that's a bad rap." I explained that I wouldn't change my views on religion out of a fear of what happens after I die. I won't spend time hedging my bets just in case. 

I told them that I had been alienated by organized religion. Joel remarked to Anna that this was a major problem of the church today. I didn't bother to explain that it wasn't the modern church that had alienated me as much as the long track record of gross actions too long to innumerate, but including lots of murder and serial closed-mindedness. You can translate the Bible into jive, but you can't take those facts away.

Anna told me one thing before I left. A quick sermon, which she all but apologized for. She doesn't usually invite cyclists, or anyone who she sees, into her home. God had told her to invite me over. She saw me, and she listened to the voice that was telling her what to do. I thanked her. I didn't say so, but I have the same inklings that she thinks are the voice of God. I've been calling that stuff "vibes."

All in all, I love Joel and Anna. They're good. They have three good children. If I prayed like a normal-praying dude, I'd do it. But I don't do that anymore. When I think positive thoughts about good people before I fall asleep, I wish they wouldn't worry about my soul's proximity to hell.

Kansas gets wide: A long straight ride.

It's just me and the road now. By and large, a singles event - hopeful and alone on the road. I am riding on one single road for days. No turns. My knifed-out guidebook pages have many miles with no landmarks. There are listings of towns with city parks where people typically camp. I am connecting the dots between these towns. I'm in no hurry, but I'm not going slow.

I asked a man if there was a market or a cafe in town. In 1996, there was. Now there is not. No store in town, but the man offered me two packaged sticky buns and a Pepsi. I always accept any sincere offering. To decline such and offer is to say I'm too good or proud for his packaged sweet-goods. I certainly am not. I never will be. I thanked him and moved on - determined to find a morning coffee if it had to sit on the burner until 3pm. A right; a ritual.

Last night was a storm. I jumped up and affixed the rainfly. I staked everything down forcefully, and returned to my mattress. Within minutes, lightning consumed. Thousands of flashbulbs illuminated. Ten flashes per second, sustained. This was a test of my tent stakes - aftermarket, light, and strong ones. The wind gusted my fabric structure until the poles bent sideways. If a stake came out of the ground, I would be exposed to the elements. Rain pelted hard enough to blast little splashes right through the nylon.

I woke up with a puddle of water sandwiched between the floor of the tent and the ground-sheet. Not bad! I was happy that the tent performed so well under pressure. Damp sleeping gear isn't a worry when 90 degree sun can dry it out in the afternoon.

I rode down the same road in the same direction. Route 96. I saw a few cyclists headed east. A couple chatted, one rolled past with just an acknowledgement. The winds favored me. They probably wanted to kill me. I couldn't blame them if they felt a homicidal jealousy as they forced each difficult pedal-stroke, and I cruised on as though I had a hidden sail. Kansas! Its winds and people have treated me well!

I ate lunch in Dighton, Kansas. I talked to an old man who drives a combine for fun. Combines are farm implements which cut wheat like a huge riding mower and toss it into the back of semi which rolls alongside it in the fields. Rain slows the harvest because the trucks can't get traction in the wet soil. The man claimed to do it for fun - he had other business on his plate as well. It was true. Nice guy. I got up to pay, and he said I was taken care of. This man wanted to demonstrate how friendly western Kansas could be. I told him further evidence was not needed to make his case! I thanked him, nodded appreciation, and I stepped out the door. I tossed myself lightly upon my bicycle; following sun and wind toward the horizon - a long straight line.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Larned Kansas glows with promised opportunity.

I love medium sized Kansas towns. Towns like this one seem highly conducive to drinking coffee and beer in alternate succession for many, many years. My country and this universe could be carried lightly over my shoulder. What I know loosely of the entirety of existence could pack down to the size of a head of lettuce. I could juggle it, toss it away, or put it in a bag for later.

There is a calm precision to Larned Kansas, but I think I could fit right up under the bricks. This is the season for me to stand still. The geometric corners of each architectural detail point into a flat immaculate sky. From the perspective of my foggy glasses perched over a coffee cup, it looks nearly fake. I see two postcard images tossed hastily in a stack. Kansas is busy at work with this. I am not accustomed.

I could find myself jealous of the innocence. I could set up a tent on the steps of city hall, and concerned citizens would know to cook for one more.

Kansas has become more beautiful as I've found myself further to the west. I'm riding through the prairies where grass and wheat make important declarations. I will go either with the wind or against, and my heart begs the thin grasses to point toward the west.

Larned whispers a subtle but steady promise of cheap coffee and beer. Larned Kansas has peaked my interests. I am looking at a three story building. A skyscraper with one lazy finger pointing at a lonely suspended manatee in the sky. Coors on tap, indeed. In my alternate reality, I don a burlap cloak and manage to walk the line between reality and being forced to move on.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Short sleep. The hospitality of Hudson Kansas beats all.

I was up and at 'em after a short fake sleep punctuated by many, many train whistles. I jumped up and packed quickly when I became aware of an incoming storm. Sleep was impossible for anything over twenty minutes or so - the busy train crossing was a few hundred yards from the park. Instead of putting up a rainfly, I decided to pack the whole operation and get into town. I was quick enough to miss the rain, but the shower didn't last for long anyway. My new phone told me where breakfast was lurking. I laid waste to a breakfast buffet that was better than you might think. I was impressed by the volume and quality.

I have a plan for Kansas, and it's now in full effect. When conditions are favorable: I go far. The weather is unpredictable, and I don't need to dilly dally and dig for difficulty. Today I planned to reach Hudson Kansas, a tiny town 86 miles from breakfast. Not a huge distance, but a good chunk considering that I'd just ridden forty miles the previous night and only got a short strange style of sleep. I set off.

It was a long hot day, but the winds were mostly in my favor. The winds were also 20+ mph and steady. Long sections were thankfully smooth sailing. Head winds and strong wind from the side made life interesting.

All day, I used Stuart's policy of asking people questions whenever I had the slightest hint of wonder - or just wanted confirmation. I flagged down a couple cars to confirm which road I was on, or confirm that a certain road was just ahead. People were invariably happy to help.

I was hot and exhausted when I reached the tiny town of Hudson. Upon arrival I asked a porch-sitting lady if there was a place to get food - a grocery or a cafe. The cafe was closed, and the store had shut down years ago. She invited me to sit and have an iced tea. I happily obliged. I asked where the park was, and she gave directions: two blocks further. She offered to bring some food later, after she picked up her husband from work and they grilled something. Her name was Cheryl. We finally introduced ourselves before I rode the two blocks to the hot and noisy park.

I spent a miserable hour or so in the park. The wind got stronger and the grain tower across the street was humming like a massacre. It's wheat harvest, the sun was beating down, and wheat-loaded semis scrambled everywhere like giant meandering ants. Also, a storm was brewing. My new fancy phone said so.

The clouds grew dark, and I decided I'd better get a tent up now. It looked more like I was flying a big kite on a short string. The moment I had it set up and staked down, a nice elderly lady named Sally pulled up in a minivan. She offered to open the community center directly across the street. I couldn't be more thankful. This is exactly what I was hoping for. I packed up and walked over. It was air conditioned - a luxury that hadn't even crossed my mind. Too good! And quiet!

Sally showed me around. Memorobelia from the now-closed high school is on display inside. The town of Hudson is shrinking, and soon the post office may close as well. There is a much-loved cafe run by Sally's son, but it was unfortunately closed today and has a sporadic schedule.

It's my understanding from what I've read that the school closes first. Then when the grain tower goes... that's it. I wondered if Hudson had a future, or whether it was only this calm dwindling present. Day by day, not counting hours. The photographs on the walls of the community center reminded me of the youthful photographs of a hospitalized cancer patient. I wasn't sure how to feel. I had the indifference of a passerby, but the interest of someone who has read a bit about the decline of small mid-western towns. I was now witnessing the precise play-by-play. It was by the book. Who will bring cookies and milk to the cyclists when all of these towns are erased from the maps? Like a diver exploring a coral reef, I was looking at scenery that might not exist in fifty years.

I was all set up inside the community hall. My situation had impoved markedly. Mercifully, Zumba class was cancelled due to a lack of attendance. Talk of Zumba quickly fizzled, and the couple people who had shown up were happy to get back home to beat the storm. Cheryl and her husband brought a plate of food - a steak hot off the grill and some sides. I was starving, and this was a major improvement over my Rice-A-Roni contingency plan. No sooner did I finish my dinner, then Sally showed up with homemade ice cream, cinnamon rolls, and a gallon of milk. It's a deal. I had two offers for a hot shower, and I went with Sally because she offered me a ride up the street and back. The weather was looking bleak to say the least.

I had food, I had a shower, and I had shelter. Everything was perfect. I sat around for awhile to chat with Sally, her husband and her son. We watched the storm warnings on the television, while they told me about other notable cyclists who had been passing through Hudson since 1976 when this route was established. Looking at the warnings of tornadoes and hail on television made me feel even luckier that I would be sleeping indoors. As soon as the rain began to fall, I was given a ride back to the community center, and a key to lock up when I was done.

I drank about half a gallon of milk and put a big dent in some cinnamon rolls and ice cream.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Alone and onward. Natty Light and ride at night.

I expected to wake up early, ride 25 miles to Eureka Kansas and say goodbye to the folks I've been riding with - then goof around till Lee showed up in a Jeep. But the Jeep was not to come. Between Army meetings, a pending divorce and moving, it's not a good time. He could have said so, but nobody is anxious to be a spoil-sport. It put the slightest hitch in my expectations, but realistically my life is still made out of cake.

I had a nice breakfast in town with Graham, Wendy and Matt. (The Eds disappeared and have not been seen.) We said our goodbyes and exchanged numbers. Then I went to the library for many hours. I was planning to seek beer when Lee gave me the news that a meetup was simply not possible.

I cut some pages out of my guidebook and hit the road. As I banged out some distance between myself and disappointment, a new plan formed in my head: just ride the fucking TransAm. No trains or buses or hitchhiking or shuttles. Just a long ride from Philadelphia to Astoria, and don't complicate it. I was looking at shuttles and options to go off-route to Denver to meet Tara in a couple weeks. Instead of paying for that and dealing with schedules, I'm just going to ride some longer days to give myself plenty of time to get to Denver first - on my handy dandy Hoopty. Like a real man.

Other than the heat, conditions were favorable. By that, I mean the wind wasn't against me. It was more or less behind me. Moments ago, I had been feeling a level of stress. (big surprise...ha.) It melted away.

I pedaled vigorously onward, and reflected on how ridiculous it was to feel stress! My worst day is another person's euphoria! People would beg for the chance to pedal over this vast expanse. I should feel nothing but exaltation. And with this thought, I began to.

I was pedaling alone, and I was happy. I dictated my own pace, and as usual, it was fairly fast. I exited a busier road, and took a right on a small farm road. Mi amor. Over the few hours since leaving Eureka, I cycled a vigorous 40 miles. I listened to music, and saw hundreds more cows than cars. At the tops of small inclines, I could see for miles.

I arrived in Cassoday - the next inhabited place. I saw Graham walking along the road to get a beer, and I pulled over to surprise him and compare notes. I was planning an additional 40 miles to take advantage of the favorable conditions, but when I saw the kiwis relaxing in camp, it was difficult to keep pedaling. The town park was shaded and pretty. I decided to stay.

I ate a pizza and drank a long row of 16oz beers. I went back for a sandwich and more beers. I leaned my back on the gazebo and satisfied all of my appetites. I think Graham was concerned about the number of cans lining up, but I didn't have much to explain. I set up camp, listened to music, and was unable to locate sleep. It was time to go.

I have a headlight; I have a tail light. The moon was a close approximation of full. I looked at the tiny sign next to the small farm road beside the park: Newton 38. Let's do this!

I packed quickly and filled my water bottles. Conditions could not be more perfect. I spun quickly and began burning off all of those cans of Natural Light. I kept a fast pace with a large moon rising over my left shoulder. The road was a straight line, and wide open fields assured full illumination. Corn to the left, wheat to the right. The wheat was practically glowing, and lightning bugs flashed toward me at the edges of the crops.

I covered the distance, and found myself pedaling on the streets of Newton by 1am. I was in a cookie-cutter banality of hotels and gas stations. I continued to sneak through, seeing only one person. A man on a folding chair watched me pass from his perch beside the bricks of a gas station. I emerged from the fields to his left as he watched the blinking hotel advertisement to his right. I snaked my way into a residential district and arrived at Main Street. The actual Newton, not the newfangled homogeneous interstate version. Half a mile later, I found the town park and put up a tent.

I found a nest of van-supported cyclists, and set up quietly on the periphery.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ground down and northward bound.

I started the morning early, feeling apathetic with a twinge of melancholy. I decided after the first stretch of the day to ride along with the others once I caught up. I matched pace, turned off my brain, and ignored my directions. I went into auto-pilot follow-mode. I was happy to do this. The morning was full of winds gusting from the sides and a little from the front. It's a slugfest. There's not much to focus on, and more than ever you can just get wrapped up inside your own brain.

I haven't had a great shower and sleep in awhile. There is sun and wind to spare. The wind whips my shirt against my back, and it feels like I'm getting slapped with a cactus. The sunburn will remain for a few more days, I think. At night, my skin sticks to my mattress. When I turn over, I pull myself up carefully. The action of turning over feels like pulling the backing carefully from a bumper sticker so you don't rip it.

Like Jeff was saying back in Kentucky, whenever something feels worthy of complaint, he reminds himself that the trip is not a compulsory one. He chose to be here. That line of reasoning works. Each day has beautiful moments, and even though I'm tired and a little bit ground down, I recognize these moments as visions with value. I will some day be well rested, and the difficulties will be the first forgotten figments of my memories.

In Toronto Kansas there is a one-block business district. It's laid out like a picture of a town from an old western movie. The first business on the left is the "What-Ever Store." The second adjoining building has a crooked rainbow instead of a sign. I took this as a symbol of acceptance. There are two places to sit and get some food delivered to a table. One is closed on Tuesdays, and the other is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Unfortunately, this was a Tuesday.

There were two Kiwis, two Eds, one Matt and me. We would all have gotten food, but this was not enough to convince the Tuesday-closed cafe to open the door for a couple hours.

My friend, Lee, is stationed 160 miles north of here. I convinced him to come down and get me with his Jeep. I'll be leaving the trail for a few days, and hopefully getting a new lease on a different reality. I'll be in Denver by the 30th to hang out with Tara, and maybe I'll talk about that later. Respite will be nice, and I'll take it where I can.

I am almost to the half-way point on this trip.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Breakfast in Kansas, bitches!

The thing everyone seems to know about Kansas is that it's flat, windy and not very scenic. All true, as far as I've seen. I rode the first 35 miles into the state, and it only took me about three or four long yawns. The wind was behind me, and the creaking from my tainted bottom bracket was the only evidence that I was doing any actual work. "Keeeeeeeep going," I begged, "keeeeeep being a tailwind." Just another week of this, and I'll be in Colorado! But I doubt many people are that lucky.

I stopped for cheap breakfast, and got an out-of-body experience for free. The space was vast and dim. The tables mostly matched, but one of the large round tables in the middle was a considerably more regal yard sale find. A folding table fit for kings of the 1970s. The panels of the dropped ceiling were evenly water-stained and yellowed from decades of cigarette smoke. The walls were particle board, screwed into place with some nice pine strips nailed in to cover the seams. It was quiet when I entered, and the staff of three were made of smiles and stares as I entered the silence. Three ceiling fans looked like upside-down roulette wheels, hurtling and yanking at their motors like dogs on a leash. The fourth had evidently made a run for it, it's wire tethers hung limp and ashamed. My body took a seat at a booth, as the rest of me watched in awe.

The cook doesn't make a bad breakfast. He told me this himself after we had a discussion about how unable he would be to ride a bicycle any meaningful distance. I believed him. We compared tattoos: eggs n' bacon vs. a giant cartoon turtle.

The cook was friendly, and he reminded me of the comedian Doug Benson. They look identical, and this guy was a sort of comedian as well. And a singer. He popped a quarter in the Compact Disc jukebox, selected some 1989-era Cher, and belted it out. I sat sideways to watch him read his own menu and sing until he was admonished by the kind waitress who was smoking at the counter. Also: the coffee didn't taste like coffee.

Most of the day, I had winds blowing from the side. The rest was heads or tails.

Kansas, bitches!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Burnt backs and bottom brackets. Plus pie.

My morning started out lazy and hazy. I missed a morning rain storm by not waking up too quickly. By the time the rain had passed and I paid the bill for breakfast, it was mid-morning.

My shirt felt sweaty, disgusting and un-wearable. Knowing better, I took it off anyway and got a terrible sunburn. That's the level of smartness that I'm afraid to be riding with sometimes. Plus, my bottom bracket has been screeching and squealing for a week, and I'm a good enough mechanic to know that it'll be fine if I just keep being lazy until a bicycle shop appears out of the mist some morning. It only makes noise most of the time. I've seen enough bum bikes to know that it can technically go for another year or two. It's loud, but I've got time before it catches on fire while I'm riding.

I'm sticking with the Kiwis. Wendy and Graham don't try to push over long distances. And being sensible people, they usually have a good day's ride planned out. I'm continuing my policy of shadowing the ideas of others. For life. I still mostly ride alone, but I'm pretty sure that sharing camp is a mutual benefit for most everyone. In fact, at the day's end in Golden City we had quite the convergence of cyclists.

When I pulled into town, I caught up with the Kiwis right before rolling into camp at the city park. Already there were two other groups - Matt (another Matt, but he also rides a brand new Long Haul Trucker in blue) and the team of Ed and Ed on matching Bilenky touring bicycles with S&S couplers. Fancy stuff, gentlemen.

Ed and Ed are older guys who apparently roll around all over the place together carrying tons of gear and cooking five course meals. I assumed they were gay, but they claim to have families and kids.

Matt was a bicycle mechanic before he started flying planes for a regional airline. He seems to have brought most of the tools and spare parts with him from his bicycle shop days. He literally had a spare bottom bracket to sell me. I am literally not making this up. I gave him $5 for it. Then I ate pie. I am not joking that I ate rhubarb pie and bought a bottom bracket, and it cost me less than ten bucks. That also includes coffee.

This is how Golden City got its name.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Random Camping; Random Reggae.

A little bit of rain last night detracted nothing from a glorious styrofoam coffee cup this morning.

Let me bitch about Verizon. I want my contacts. I got a new phone, but the one employee couldn't transfer contacts. She suggested that the next store on route would definitely be able to, and I should have smelled the runaround. The next store was similarly understaffed. One employee, and it took 45 minutes of gawking and squawking before I started talking. He tried and he failed to get my contacts transferred. A strong percentage of my phone contacts are people whose numbers live in the phones of nobody else who I know. I have numbers of people who I've met while horsing around who I might not talk to for years, but I might want to call them again. The contacts are more important than the phone. Verizon sold me a phone that they can't put contacts on - this literally happened. Then the employees had the audacity to paint the situation as something other than it was. The guy at the second store tried to blame it on five things other than the simple truth. These guys are professionals.

After a boring stop at the town's boring pool with terrible communal shared showers, I was back on the road. The pool was a bust. I paid $1.75 for what I thought would be a much-needed hot shower with a private stall. No doin'. There was a dirty communal shower with cold water - not conducive to private washing, and unsatisfactory to the max. There was a press-and-hold button for a cold blast, and in that way it was actually a step down from a spray out of a garden hose. I declined to ask for my money back on these grounds. I "swam" for 10 minutes in a pool stocked with kids with squirt guns. Next...

I rode on - happy to just be making space between myself and Marshfield, Missouri. It looked like a long day, but by the grace of goodness, I saw Graham about twenty miles later. I shifted to a low gear, and bombed through a grassy ditch to arrive in a pavillion where he had set up camp. I only intended to say hello, but the fortitude to continue simply didn't exist.

Graham and Wendy are the Kiwis from yesterday and before. I was in Fair Grove, Missouri, and this was the surprise end to the day's ride. My days tend to end much better than they begin.

Graham and Wendy are middle-aged Kiwis with kids. Semi-retired. They've done some serious bicycle touring, but I have yet to hear more about it. They're riding an aluminum Giant Iguana and Rincon respectively. Those are a ubiquitous mountain bicycle and hybrid respectively. Good folks, and I'm more than happy to share a sleepy grassy area for our tents.

I took a walk around town and found two scoops of strawberry ice cream. In the same place later, there would be live reggae.

I drank two cans of Tilt, and that was an early mistake. The right plan would be to quit drinking and wake up at 5am - to ride before the sun murders me. I am far from disciplined, and the rash decision to buy two tall cans of idiot-booze proves that readily. No thanks on the intervention.

Reggae! In rurah Missourah! What a treat! I sat with Graham and Wendy, and we enjoyed it. Beers and wine. Many beers for me, and they had tall glasses of wine. I was feeling the music, and I got vocal with some 'hup!' and some bird calls. It was a fun show where I least expected it. What a great situation.

I walked back, made some calls (gotta stay connected), and fumbled with my tent. Once again, I rested my head with pride in the distraction of this bicycle trip.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Boasting of Secret Sodas.

I landed in a diner in Houston Missouri to hear a fat pasty kid whining. He was way too big for the high-chair, and he was America's great disgrace. I slept in the park across the street.

I cooked noodles and poured in a can of low-grade beans. In the midst of this success of self-sufficiency, a cyclist arrived by motor vehicle. He was riding west to east with his girlfriend driving a support car. I was camping here; he was camping here. I was talkative and bubbly, and he was sheepish and rushed. He wanted to be done, and he was whipping himself to do long days. Whatever floats your boat. There's a measure of self flagellation to be recognized in all of us on this trail - my goal is to bring away some beauty, enrichment and enlightenment. Choose all three. We'll soon see.

The guys called me at half-nine last night to check in. They were on speaker phone. We talked a bit and compared notes. They let me know that they missed me too. I let them know I was glad to hear from them. It will take the next couple of days to ease myself into a new reality.

I woke up to a goosed phone. White screen; killed by dew. It was on it's way out long before the trip. I called my parents, and tried not to cry about it. More accurately, I just had pent up general emotion, and it's probably not an unhealthy way to spend my summer. I love my family, and I take these small moments as an excuse to hear friendly voices who love me too. My mom used the internet to tell me where a Verizon store was - about nine feet to the south.

I got riding at the hottest part of the day. Twenty miles in, I bought refreshments at a feed store where cowboy hats converge. I rode some more and stopped in the quaint and lovely town of Hartville, Missouri. (Missouri, bitchezzzz!!! - I can hear Stuart exclaim this in a Scottish accent as we crossed the border on full steam. It brings me happiness.)

I ran into a couple touring cyclists from New Zealand who I passed several days ago. Every library is a slice of home where I don't pay rent. The New Zealanders had put up a tent out front - where you're allowed to do that - and the final 28 miles of my ride melted away from my careless itinerary. This looked good. Another short day, and I'm feeling great.

It's nine minutes until half-seven in the evening. I'm at the Casey's gas station and convenience store a short walk from downtown Hartville. I am confident on foot, knowing that I have a couple of kiwis stationed near my bicycle. On the counter, I've placed one Mickey's 24oz, One Clamato 24oz, and one empty 32oz cup that I am willing to pay up to 25 cents for. (Eight liquid ounces is just enough to account for head.) The point-of-sale system is down and I am waiting as the senior boss employee adds my total on one of those old calculators with the small solar panel. No charge for the cup.

I got groceries and secret sodas. I have a Clamato in a cup and a pot of Rice-A-Roni on simmer. I would literally rather be nowhere else.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Butterfly wings and a dead cyclist

I woke up in Emenence Missouri, and I ate breakfast with Matt and Stuart at the inn that we'd camped behind. It was a delicious breakfast prepared by the proprietor, and it felt like we were sitting in a home rather than a business. I sheepishly bummed a couple bucks off of Matt to pay, and noted that it was a shitty way to part ways. Contact information was thoroughly exchanged, and they were off. I stood alone in the grass with a head full of fuzz and apathy. I packed my tent away slowly, and planned my day: bathroom at the gas station; ride some miles after that. I began to pedal in the lethargic trance of a man without a motive.

Images passed through my head. A jar of deceased butterflies sitting sideways on a windowsill; found and collected carefully from where their fragile lives left them. A loose colorful bundle of delicate wings, maybe fifty or so, were framed like a ship in a bottle. The image was honest and heavy in the hot early sun. The dusty wings were beautiful in unison; a silent chorus.

It's a rare opportunity to see water this clear. Cold mountain springs run together to form rivers, and the rivers have calm pools where you can see crisp detail at the bottom. I've often seen water from the tap with more color. A few lucky times I've seen a body of water this pure. To be submerged here is a gift which we all deserve.

I contrast this with an image that Stuart experienced early in his trip. A dead cyclist burned an image stronger than those butterfly wings. For him it was difficult. I might have decided to go home. He traveled from Scotland three days after finishing university, and thank god he found Nick a few days later. I believe their meeting was one of life's humble apologies.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A long push to Eminence Missouri where I met some local folk.

We got going at around half-seven. That's how you say 7:30 in Scotland. We're all saying half-this, half-that. I never do anything, or talk about anything happening right on the hour. I don't want to miss my chance to say half-seven. Forever on bicycle camping trips I will be using this method of dictating time.

Today was like yesterday, but we're officially in the Ozarks now. The Ozarks are steep as hell, but when you start a climb you can usually see the top. If I can see the top, then it's more likely that I can stand up and stomp until I reach it. I've gotten stronger, but I'm still barely crawling on some of the steepest hills. They can be rough, and we're riding through the hottest hours of days with record-breaking heat.

It's amazing how much liquid I can consume. I can just chug and pretty much pour in an endless supply. My skin has been scorched many times over. I'm adapting to being outside. I know the difference between 95 and 100 degrees, and 89 is starting to feel reasonably cool.

We pushed to Eminence, Missouri. Mark that down as another loaded 90+ mile day. It was rewarding to arrive. Stuart and Nick secured us a place to set up tents behind an inn. We had dinner at Maggie's Place, and the beer was good. Then I bought more beer, and that was good too. Then I decided to stay up late and cruise around the "town." I made my decision to finally let the group move on without me. I'd figure out my plan tomorrow. No reason to hurry; no reason to plan. Back to basics. Back to riding alone.

I tried to get beer, but everywhere was closed. The gas station waved me away. I met a guy on the street who was headed there, and he assured me they'd let him in. They did. We split a twelve pack and talked about bullshit and nonsense. We walked down a dirt road, and I got to see some houses that sparked my interest. The homes were spaced evenly, and nothing was crowded. Each house had a driveway and mailbox. But the houses were small travel trailers on slabs. It was quaint and cheap. It didn't look like squalor, but it used many of the same ingredients.

Dude banged on his friend's house at half-past-ass o'clock, and let himself in. He introduced me as a guy from Philadelphia who was riding a bicycle across the country. Imagine that. His friend was in bed in the front of the trailer, and not too pissed about being woken up. He seemed amiable enough, but he had to get up at some ridiculous time. Something like 3:30 or 4am. I got going after all that. I figured that was enough for one night.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rebel yell over the mighty Mississippi. Long athletic push into Missouri.

These dudes like to ride long days. We rode what my guidebook was calling about 2.5 days of riding. We rode through the Illinois section and into Missouri. I've been telling these guys that they're covering too much distance too fast. I've also been telling them that I'm going to hang back and do shorter days. Last night at Joe's house I had a change of plans. Fuck it. I'm along for the ride. At least another day, anyway. The decision was made.

I'm split. Part of me loves the long distance fast-paced days. I like the exertion and the feeling of success when you accomplish the goal. I like beating 90+ degree days to go 90+ miles over steep hills. I like in the 80th mile when I can still stand and push fast off the front over steep climbs. I like feeling strong and building endurance. I also like having people to talk to and eat with. It makes the miles easier. It makes me happier.

... but the pace is too fast for my mission. My mission was to see the country spending a long time and going slow. A fast pace could also mean wearing myself out, but after these few days, I don't expect that would become a problem. Still, I want to slow down and meet people. Traveling few miles means having time to meet people, and riding alone helps with that as well. I've been having a ball, but I think my days with this group are numbered. They all want to get somewhere too fast - I just want to keep being somewhere, and anywhere is fine with me.

We stayed in Farmington, Missouri. We stayed at a cyclist hostel called "Al's Place" and it was amazing. I'll be perfectly honest. The suggested donation was $20, and I didn't pay. It's a donation, so that's technically ok. The place was incredibly spiffy. There were new couches and appliances, and it looked more like a nice hotel than a place for dirty travelers to crash. I don't know where the money came from. Maybe I didn't donate because it looked like it was being run by someone rich, and the money would just be a tiny drip in a vast invisible pool. I'd rather pay $20 to feed some people. But I don't usually do that either. I probably should have slept outside, but instead I used the whole array of services without paying anything back into the system. Just a thought. I don't think anyone is too broken up about it in either case.

I mentioned that I'd be parting ways. I at least made a casual mention that I was on the fence about continuing with the group. I was told to shut the fuck up, because it was obvious that I'd be riding with them the next day. It was pretty funny. I let that moment make the decision to continue. These guys are too fun to hang out with.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rest day at BMXJoe's house.

Yup - definitely needed a rest day. It was another hot bastard today, and I was up at 7am. Before breakfast was over, Matt had a call from a Warmshowers host called BMXJoe. We were welcome to stay, and I was happy we'd be doing that. Stuart and Nick and I chose to stay at Joe's place; Matt decided on a cheap hotel.

Joe's roommate is permanently stoned, but highly physically active and healthy. I've seen this type before. To Joe's embarrassment, the first question was "how's the weed in Philly?" I told him it's about the same as anywhere else that can get FedEx from California. Then he referred to me as "Philly" and said that he knew I wanted a hit. It was the middle of a hot day and I was planning to hang out with people who I barely knew. Weed was pretty far down on the list of stuff I felt like dealing with. I said maybe later.

I was happy to have a low key day. Joe took me and Stuart out to an old 1930's lodge for endless plates of fried chicken and fixin's. It started to get funny to see how many times Stuart got the waiter to return with more chicken.

On the way home we got 40s, and back at home I had the opportunity to get ridiculous with Joe's roommate's vaporizer. I'd call the entire day a win.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Morning hell becomes a day spent well.

This morning was a challenge, to put it mildly. It was me against my brain. I wasn't riding well, and I wasn't enjoying myself. I cussed at the hills, and I had a poor attitude. There was too much heat, and I felt weak and stressed.

I reached a gas station with a convenience store. I drank a quart of orange juice in a few gulps, and fell asleep on a picnic table.

Nick and Stuart rolled up after I'd been asleep for about 20 minutes. They barged in and managed to improve my attitude. They marched onto the scene, and I could tell that their morning was in no way a disaster. I realized that mine shouldn't have been either.

I need to learn that mornings are just tough sometimes. It was about 100 degrees, so sweating and feeling a bit uncomfortable are par for the course. Shut up and take it like a man, Chris. I'm getting there.

Those dudes were thinking about going to Carbondale. I thought to myself "have fun with that..." It was a long ride that they proposed - nearly 100 miles for them, and it would be double what I'd planned personally. Matt showed up about ten minutes later, and I learned that he was planning to do a long push as well. Strangely, his morning was great. He claimed he felt good, and that reaffirmed that I needed to slap a grin onto my face and stop the whining voice in my head.

So all those dudes are riding to Carbondale, Illinois. Fuck it. I have legs, and I know how to use them.

Done and done... Carbondale it is. Stuart is awesome to ride with. We keep a good pace and attack a fair number of hills. But more importantly, he will ask people directions at a moment's notice. He's flagged down cars to confirm what road we're on, and he's flagged down people to ask where to get a good sandwich. His Scottish accent keeps everyone extra interested and friendly. It's a major boon. Riding along with a question-asker is useful in many ways.

The first thing we did in Carbondale is go to the police station and the fire station, where Stuart asked for a place for us to set up our tents. The fire station obliged, and offered us showers, too. Free camping was secured, and we were off to get food and drinks.

We got food and drinks, and then went to a bar to get more drinks for $1 each. I had several.

Back at the tent, I couldn't sleep. I got up and walked back to the bar. We had a planned rest day, so I planned to give myself something to rest about. I got dollar drafts, and put a couple bucks in the juke box. The juke box was rough... I won a small battle using TLC and RJD2, but I definitely lost the war. I talked to a cute married girl with kids - fun talking; no pressure. Great. We tried to help a girl who was passing out and peeing herself in the parking lot. It was pretty eventful, so I called my cool cousin Bethany at an obscene hour to talk about it. Gotta stay in touch, and it seems like this is how we do it.

I got to the tent around 3:30am. Once again, the day ended loads better than it began. This is becoming a trend that I'm happy with.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Disliked dogma. Met some fast cats.

I woke up in an air conditioned firehouse. I made oats in my small camp pot, and used the station's coffee maker to make coffee. I shared with Matt, and we set out at different paces. Matt and I decided that Cave-In-Rock was a good destination. It was a reasonable distance, and it was in Illinois. Crossing a river on a ferry and getting to a new state would be a proud goal; a morale boost.

You can kill a man with this heat. This is something notable. Don't forget that nature can grind a human down like a bowl of grits. We humans have gotten weak in our evolution.

I got to Clay, Kentucky - a pitiable distance from where I began. I sat in a white gazebo, and consigned myself to books and sleep. The sun was beating on the borders of this timid edifice, and under the small roof I found respite that was merely adequate. Matt rolled up about ten minutes later. I had my shirt off, shoes off, socks drying, shirt drying. Clothes and I were all soaked in sweat. The humidity was turned on high, and I had my legs spread out all over the place. My bicycle was propped outside, and rays of sun were bringing my water bottles close to a boil. We got food at a cafe next door, and I ate stuff I barely enjoyed so that I could sit in the AC and drink Coke after Coke after Coke.

I wanted to spend more time. Matt and I stayed in the gazebo as I read many pages of a book, and slept just a little bit. Matt slept for a few winks, and decided to hit the road. Convinced I'd catch up soon enough, I continued to attempt sleep and hide from the sun.

I was done with sleep; done with books. I picked up the phone and called Dreamane; picked up the phone and called Kat. Two other cyclists pulled up, and it turned out to be a game changer. I was on the phone, and in my own world. Two young cats rolled up in go-mode. They hit the cafe, got water, and we talked a little bit. We exchanged abbreviated notes. I still wanted to lay around, but realized I was done. Five minutes after they left, I set out myself - following the same guidebook pages cut from my book.

I caught up about ten minutes later. I was rested, full, hydrated, and I felt better. The sun was a bastard, but I was alive. I caught up, and we rode together to the town of Marion about 20 miles down the road. There were hills and flats, and our paces were well matched. It felt great to ride with people to talk to, and it was great to climb hills with someone else who's good at it.

Stuart is from Scotland. He races some kind of bicycles over there. I don't race, and I was happy that my Hoopty found its way up the hills while we talked about some shit. Nick is from Connecticut. They're riding together for now, but they both started this trip alone. It's a good pairing - two solo cyclists who like to ride long miles. I think they were both happy to cross paths. After hearing what was up - and knowing from personal experience - I can say that I'd be happy with the same random pairing as well.

We parted ways in Marion, Kentucky - they stayed at a great church. I cruised to town and got slimy food and dessert. I rode to Cave-In-Rock, as planned to meet up with Matt at an official campground.

I drank a proffered beer on the ferry (thanks, Crazy Mitch), and I dealt with mosquitoes in the park. Matt was there when I arrived, and we made plans to cruise into "town." Before leaving the campsite, we learned that - even in Illinois - we were in a dry town. Fuck these assholes. (I'm sorry, but pleeeeeease). The town is dry, and their dry dogma decimated my demeanor. Fortunately, we acquired some windfall beers-in-a-bag. That's karma. (I've bought people beer-wine-liquor so much, and now I'm being paid back in kindness. The world is great, and life is in my favor.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Utica Kentucky. Hospitality continues to abound.

Matt and I agreed that Utica, Kentucky seemed like a good goal. It was about 75 miles of rolling hills punctuated by flatter sections, and there was free camping available in a school yard at the end of the day. I breakfasted on a sausage biscuit with gravy at the shop. I put a box of spaghetti and a honey bun on the counter. I paid a paltry sum, and got on my bicycle.

My iPod on shuffle mode is the best radio station in America. I spun over hills, and raced down descents that were long and slight. I powered over short steep hills, standing up on the pedals and keeping momentum. I felt good, life was an oyster, and I was loving oysters all day.

I'm still not a fan of pace-matching. When you're riding together for a long distance, then somebody probably wants to go faster or slower, and maybe they don't want to announce it. I rolled ahead early, rode for a good distance, and stopped for food. Before entering the humble restaurant with frog legs on the special board, I talked to some locals. I love it. They were two old guys. Good folk. The guy in the fishing cap was punctuating his statements with a stream of tobacco spit that was shot and dribbled close to the wheels of the 70-something man's full Dura Ace antique Trek OCLV bicycle. There was a banter and a back-and-forth. Predictions and assumptions were tossed on the table like playing cards. I took leave to get some eggs, bacon, toast and three hot coffees.

On the third mug-fill, Matt walked in. Great! I watched as he ordered my identical breakfast (right down to "over medium"), and I sat there and watched him eat it. We talked shop and compared notes. I enjoyed the surreal surroundings a far cry from any place I might call home.

I set out first and punched into some hills. 95 degrees was predicted, but it was still early. It was muggy, and you could feel the heat coming. I knew if I punched hard enough - which my brain and body instructed me to - then I might miss most of the blast furnace of the early afternoon.

We were in dry fucking counties all day except for one brief corner of sanity. In the corner of one wet county that I passed through, there was a store called "Black Cat." I marched in with a grin to see a man about a beer.

"Do you carry the Blast cans?" I asked. He wasn't sure what I meant by that. As I said Blast I held my hands the exact distance apart that would be taken up by an standard-issue 24oz can. (Pull out the micrometer - my gesture was pointless, but the measurement nearly exact.) "They're made by Colt 45," I explained "There's a bunch of'em now. They come in different flavors..."

He stopped me there. "I don't carry the flavored stuff." (We were getting closer though...) "I have a 32oz Bud Light" he offered.

"Do you carry 40's?" I asked. I was ready to give a long list of potential candidates, but he told me that he only had up to 32oz bottles, and my options were Bud or Bud Light. We discussed the 24oz can options, but that was another dead-end. Not even a goofy Clamato. "How about a six'a Bud?"

A crossroads. We had a winner. What beer place in 'Merca can't provide a simple six of the (formerly) 'Mercan beer? It was a deal. As he rung it up, I added a "cheap small whiskey" to the bill. Like a librarian locating some James Patterson, he tossed in a bottle of Kentucky Tavern.

"Be safe," he advised as I made a satisfied exit. I don't know what the fuck he was talking about. Don't I look safe?

Utica, Kentucky was the destination, and the school yard looked less like a cyclist's oasis, and more like a bunch of hot shit. It would be campable after a guy finished with endless rounds of seated mowing - but it wasn't exactly Dorney Park. I went to the gas station to esacpe the sun's hottest hours, and mentally regroup.

A touring cyclist was talking a lot and beating at flies with a battered rolled-up newspaper. I'm usually the talker, but this guy stole my seat. He talked quickly and a lot. He was 52, had an incredibly-loaded old Fuji, was in AA, and had a pack of Mediums resting on the table. His plans seemed haphazard, and his demeanor and financial status were incredibly confusing. I tried to put the pieces together, but was left with questions that I didn't feel like asking. Eventually, I looked down at listings of local trucks for sale, and only looked up for short calculated responses to sporadic random input. I left just in time to see Matt arriving on the scene.

"School yard looks like shit," I offered. He had just been there, and agreed. He mentioned that the local volunteer firehouse is listed on the official maps. He made a call, and within ten minutes we were sitting in airconditioning in a place that offers showers and the use of laundry facilities to traveling cyclists.

It's just the two of us here. I'm drinking secret beers from a cup (gotta be respectful), and I'm about to cook up some dinner. I'm clean, and so are 100% of my clothes. It's nice and cool in here. Like I said yesterday, it's a joke. I'm almost chuckling that anything could be this good. I'll run into adversity in good time - the earth has its balance issues - but I will never forget the fire station in Utica, Kentucky.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Perfect situations materialize. You can count on it.

Touring on the ACA route is approaching a level of comedy. Perfect situations routinely materialize from nowhere. When I expect the least, I get handed the most. Sometimes I step right into a pile of the best.

I broke camp and rolled out solo. As I spun slowly through the lazy morning miles, I decided to change my approach. I'm going to wait for Oregon to come to me. All this thinking, riding, cruising, mashing, loafing... it's unnecessary. If I just keep existing, then Oregon will eventually make its way over to me. No use working too hard. I'll just ride a bicycle sometimes, and try not to blow $3,328 on scratch-off lottery tickets.

I rode solo, and expected it to stay that way. Some people in the camp last night seemed to think that going off-route to save a few miles was a good idea. I'm not interested. The route is nice and pretty and there's not much traffic. If I wanted to shave off miles, I'd hitchhike - or better yet, find an air-conditioned place to watch Law & Order. So it was unclear if or when I'd be seeing any other riders.

I stopped in Hodgenville, Kentucky where my guidebook listed some free camping. It was about 40 miles down the road, and that seemed like a nice lazy distance. I got there by 11am - a little early to end the day, but I was still considering it. But the hills are getting easier, and the temperature was comfortable.

I sat outside a store with shade and rocking chairs. I ate a bland turkey sandwich that looked like a box of meat. I fed some turkey to a small cat, and I pet the kitty's head. I considered taking her along in my pannier, but dismissed the idea as impractical. I drank an orange drink, read a book for hours and started to wear down the rails on the rocking chair. 2pm rolled around. It was time to hit the road.

I rode 25 more miles before I got an appetite for questionable fried chicken. Fifteen minutes down the road, the question was answered: get to a bathroom, or find some trees before something bad happens. I checked my notes and saw that a store was maybe ten minutes down the road. I would make it if I was careful.

I rode up to the store and saw a blue Long Haul Trucker. It was Matt from the day before! I thought he'd be staying in Hodgenville after his previous 95-mile day, but instead he was here. I was thinking about finding a stealth camp, and my plan was to put in some more distance before sneaking into some trees.

I asked Matt where he was planning to stay, and he said "here." I thought he meant at a spot nearby, but then realized that he meant "here" in the most literal sense. The store is listed on the official ACA map as a place that hosts touring cyclists! Matt said Hodgenville was too easy a destination for him also, so he pushed on as well. He told me that the owner of the store was a great guy, and they'd already been talking. I went in and introduced myself. I talked for about a minute, asked for the bathroom, went inside, sat down, and went crosseyed. I emerged ten minutes later with a whole new identity.

Showers were to be had! Dinner was to be prepared! I went from thinking about upset stomaches and hiding in trees to a comfortable luxury. This kind of change in fortune is almost becoming familiar. It's amazing. I had a big smile.

The store is owned by Arnold and his family. Arnold was the only one there when I arrived, and he had a practiced and dry sort of canned humor. Super friendly guy. He told me his wife was the meanest woman he ever married. He imparted this with a grin which assured me that after many years of marriage he was happy and in love. Very funny stuff, indeed. I don't usually know how to respond to this brand of humor, but damned if I don't give it a shot. I hit close enough to the target, and I'm given a pass.

"Do you cook?" he asked. Clearly he was going to joke about having me cook dinner.
"Noodles" was my response. "I can make pasta." I offered this knowing it would disqualify me from actually doing anything. One awkward round handled.

Arnold is one of the top genuinely good-hearted people I've met in Kentucky. Clearly. He's on the Adventure Cycling maps (which I now wish I owned), and you need to ask to be put on there. He and his family are going out of their way to provide free showers and dinner for random cyclists. I was reaping the benefits of this in the form of cheeseburgers, fries, corn on the cob, green beans, and pickled beets.

Arnold, his wife Lucy, his daughter, Matt and I held hands in a circle around the food sitting at a table in the store as customers still filtered in at intervals. Lucy said a prayer over the food, and we all started to fill out plates. Our actions were slow with a measure of reserve and deference. The daughter was great. "Don't be shy!" she urged. They were all great. It wasn't a Norman Rockwell painting, but it was a picture of an honest American reality that I don't see often. It was a privilege and an honor to be a part of this painting.

I set my tent up behind the store, and I slept well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jeff leaves the route; Touring cyclists abound.

I wanted to sleep until at least 10:00am. I could use it. The air conditioning and quiet inside of Alicia's house made me want to hover around for a long, long time. As it turned out, I was up at 7am, the first to rise. I borrowed a beard trimmer for some grooming, making sure to clean up afterward - no little hairs left in the sink. I'm a good guy, in that regard. I stayed for long enough to eat cereal and click around on a computer for a little bit. This was truly a full service stop. I got my clothes out of the laundry, packed, and prepared to go. I couldn't stay forever. So I went.

Today's destination was Bardstown, and the sun was nasty. I made it, surely, but it wasn't without effort. Upon arrival, I chugged a bottle of Gatorade and went directly for food and air conditioning. After cooling off with some food, I pushed my loaded Hoopty up the street wondering if I would find the library or need to ask. First I found a loaded bicycle with yellow panniers, and went in to see what Jeff was up to. Apparently eating Mexican food. I ate half of his free chips and salsa and watched him eat a big flat piece of meat. He has a smart phone, and I knew from experience that he would be headed to the library. Smart move. I aimed to follow.

Mission accomplished. I sat at the library charging stuff and typing. The heat was brutal, and I didn't mind giving the sun some time to disappear.

Jeff is outta here. He needs to take a flight to Seattle for a surprise meeting of some sort. He's got a job. We said our goodbye-maybe-forever, and he rolled out. Jeff has been fairly instrumental in helping me find some wonderful locations for sleep and hospitality. He made a challenging section of this trip appreciably easier. My guidebook and the command center on my bicycle are capable and useful, but sometimes my head is still too far in the clouds to get down to the business of planning or forethought.

"So where do you think you're heading tomorrow?" I would typically ask, playing casual, but taking detailed mental notes. He'd tell me, and I'd sort of pretend to consider, while knowing full well I'd be there reading a book when he arrived. He usually knew of something good, and often it was the first I'd ever heard about it.

I'm perfectly ready to ride and camp alone, but Jeff will be missed. I'm certainly unsure to what degree the feeling is mutual. I hope he enjoyed my company, but I might be like the dog that followed those hikers back in Damascus. (It was a truly awesome dog - one of the best I've seen - but they couldn't care for it. She was adopted by one of the town's police officers.)

Adam and Megan arrived in the library. Of course, I asked where they were staying. They mentioned the park. I looked it up, and there was legitimate camping - for $20. I offered to split a site, and that seemed agreeable. We went out to get some food and talk before rolling out to the campground. They're both going to go to med school, and it's unclear how far they'll be going on this trip. Maybe not all the way to Oregon.

The campground had many touring bicycles! There were eight of us in total, and most of us knew each other, or knew of each other. Everyone traveling within a few days of each other is familiar with all of the others on the same approximate schedule, so we had greetings and note comparison. There's the group of four 60-somethings from Erie, PA. (Wayne and Ken who I met before Booneville, and their two other companions, Leo and Sandy, who somehow caught up). There was Adam and Megan as another group. There was me. Then there was another lone cowboy, Matt, who rode a 95-mile day from Berea. I took all of the bags off my Hoopty, and sprinted back the store for 40oz of beer.

I came back with a forty and a Coke for Ken. He tried to pay me in a convoluted manner, but we settled on the concept that he would just owe me a Coke. I talked to the folks who I hadn't talked to yet, and soon went to bed feeling happy to be part of the goofy little tent village.