Fork lightning, jabbing at the earth. Thunder belly rumbles across the sky and all around me. Again, I am pushing Precious up a climb. I’ve given up. No, no. This is supposed to be an easier day than yesterday, and yet here I am on the tips of my toes and flat out pushing. The air crackles and one minute I’m dry and suffering in beat-down-upper-cut full sun and the next, I’m soaked to the bone. To the calcium and marrow.
I look up ahead to where the curve disappears around the bend and into the trees. There is a little wooden shack, probably built by a loving dad to shelter his kids while they wait for the school bus in weather just like this.
Sudden. Severe. Extroverted
I push up. Not rushing exactly, but if the rain gets any heavier, I’m going to lose a few inches in height.
Precious comes to rest across the front of the structure, and I step over him and through the doorway. Under the shelter. Into the dry. I look out. Frown.
This is not the way it’s supposed to be.
“Today will be easier than yesterday.”
That’s what David had said to me at breakfast. I’d walked up to give him some cash for the tent and the amazing food, and there was a spread of more food and treats. Coffee cake, fruit, cereal, fresh squeezed orange juice. Hot coffee. I stayed too long. Left too late. Listened too closely.
Later Linda, my host in Booneville, says:
“Well, he’s never ridden it. Hills all day, and this hill here right at the end is horrible. That’s why I offered to come pick you up.”
But you don’t know these things when you start out for the day. All you know is the forward direction. The arrow on the map. The feel of your legs when it’s time to change gear. The thirst. Where the next food stop is.
You don’t know the terrain of a state you’ve never been in. You also don’t know how your system of judgement differs from someone else’s.
What’s steep to me may be like sleep walking to you.
I burned through some easy miles early. Didn’t leave until 9:45, officially my latest start ever, but I wasn’t concerned. Not then.
Rivers fat with dirty water reminded me of the storm from the previous night. Occasional trails of gravel, leaves and twigs across the roadway. After a few miles, I slowed to talk to Matt, a cyclist from Colorado coming the other way. We spoke so long that another showed up. Johnny. He advised me not to follow the TransAmerica through Missouri. To go the Katy trail, like Matt had. That he’d been abused and almost run off the road several times by following the map. That he’d been waiting for a shotgun to appear out a car window.
The Katy Trail, according to Matt, had been pleasant. I filed away this information. To look into later.
We drifted away from each other, they towards their ultimate soon-to-be-completed goal. Me to the uncertainty of the day. The early miles drifted into a few climbs of varying difficulty.
The day got hotter and hotter. Yet another heat advisory day. The climbs got angrier. Shade cover was sporadic. Ridiculous oppressiveness. A regime of heat. A dictatorship of humidity. A red-faced bitch and moan day. I spend a mile and a half climbing a tough and steady grade on a major highway with no shade anywhere and the detritus and fragments of road life, flayed rubber and wire and coal, plus the chicachica of rumble strip to keep me alert.
Coal trucks flying by, throwing the dust of Kentucky onto the sheen of my skin where it got thicker with grit. I burned. I crested the climb to see the road stretch on out in a straight arm run of down and then straight back up.
Another horn droned by. Appreciation or degradation. Who knows? More honks on this road than anywhere so far.
A gas station between hills dragged me off the road and to a bench to suck down an ice cold coke and to buy several extra liters of water to strap on to Mr. Zimmerman. I don’t even drink soda, and yet. I can’t get enough Coke. Just. Can’t. Get. Enough.
Off the highway and we’re back on smaller, less car-laden roads. The hills are relentless, chipping away at my self-esteem. Precious remains ever silent. Just getting his job done.
I hit a particularly hard hill around 2.30pm and finally notice the sky has darkened. Wonder how long it’s been like that. In truth, I spend most of my day looking at the ground if I’m climbing. When I keep my head down and focused in front of me, I can’t see how far away the top of a climb is and for some reason, that keeps me going longer.
Must remember to look up. There is a flash of light and the grey clouds drop down a couple of shades for some flashing seconds. A dog barks as I walk past, pushing. They don’t bother chasing at this speed. I just look at it.
“Get back in your box,” I mutter.
Fork lightning, jabbing at the earth. Thunder belly rumbles across the sky and all around me.
I stand in the little shelter for almost 45 minutes. It’s a hard rain. Angry. Trees shake, water rushes over the road creating a muddy river. How long will it last?
Cars splash by. Rain ebbs and roars. I count the time between lightning and thunder. One onethousand. Just a mile away. A bit later, it’s out to three and the rain is getting bored of itself. It’s not so heavy. Rideable. I put on my Shower’s Pass jacket and step out. Turn on some lights on the trailer and the back of Precious.
A Rottweiler appears in the scrub above me. Growls and barks and growls again. Tone low and threatening. I am a little frozen with uncertainty until from off to the side I hear a woman with a Kentucky drawl shout from the shelter of her porch.
“It’s okaay. He won’t bite.”
I wave to her, squint at the dog, then push off into the rain. I am climbing immediately, but the break has put a spring back in my legs.
Before long I am on the descent. The rain is managable. Until it’s not. Until once again it is sudden and the storm has turned back on itself. One onethousand two onethou… I stop under a bit of a rocky overhang as the rain pounds. What to do? Nowhere to hide. Is it ebbing? I fly down the road a bit further and see a shuttered building. Pull over through a giant puddle and stand on the step.
There is no shelter here, but better to be standing next to a building than out in the open.
What a miserable predicament. Pouring here, yet when I look behind me and back up the mountain I see a clear patch of blue sky.
Finally, it subsides and I decide to continue on. Ten minutes later, the sun has joined me and steam is rising off the road and making a spookfest of it all.
Nearing the top of what I’m hoping is the final arsehole climb of the day and BAM, a second thunderstorm hits. My jacket is still out, so I put it on, but I notice my feet are squelching in my shoes from the last downpour and my fingers are getting extremely wrinkly.
It’s a sun shower. Severe but cheery in a way. It stops as I crest the hill, just in time for me to see a rider coming the other way. He tells me his wife and kids are driving a support vehicle, which explains why he has no gear. I ask about climbs and he says there’s still some to come. I audibly groan, even though I would have preferred to keep my discouragement to myself. We exchange cards and I wish him well.
Miserable is a just a word. I know that. And it’s fleeting. I know that too. But I feel kind of low. I’d tried to call the lodging in Booneville earlier that day, but the connection had been incredibly bad, so I’m just hoping Linda was aware I was coming.
Things flatten out. I roll down into the valley and farmland opens up. The light is strange as the storm coexists with the afternoon sun, but I start to get back in the groove and feel like I’m actually going to make it in a reasonable time.
10 miles out. 7 miles out. 5 miles out and there before me, a slow steady climb. Any other day it would have been reasonable, but I felt like that hill was wearing on my last nerve. Made me angry. Helpful actually, as it made me grit my way up in.
And then I’m in Booneville. I pull up in front of a diner and call Linda.
“I’ll come and get you. I’m up a steep hill and I figure the last thing you want to do is climb!”
“No, no. I’m soaked and I’m sure I can make it.”
I set off. Make it half way up the hill out towards her place and look to my right. Oh, crap. Here comes another storm. I pull into the parking lot of the Post Office and call her.
“I’ve changed my mind. Can you come and get me? I think it’s going to rain!”
She arrives pretty quickly in her pickup and wow, it was actually a long way to her place. But what a place. Although it no longer operates as a B&B, she rents it out to cyclists. Four were there the night before, but tonight just me. Just little old me in a five bedroom, cute as a button cottage on the side of a mountain.
“Sleep in whatever room you want. There’s a little food there and you’re welcome to eat it.”
Peeling off my socks later, I allow myself to accept the agony. My feet are the most pruny things I have ever seen. Alien to look at. I can barely walk on them either. And the palms of my hands are just as bad from being stuck in the wet gloves for so long.
After my shower (just what my feet needed, more water!), I sit on the couch and periodically raise a peanut butter sandwich to my mouth to take another sapped-energy bite. I swear it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. My eyes droop, but still I eat. Three sandwiches and a bowl of cereal later, I do a Goldilocks and try out all the beds before settling on a soft single bed with a comfy pillow.
The sound of rain on the roof, flashes of light far away breaking through the darkness in the room, I give in and drift off towards a much deserved sleep. Content and snug. Strangely happy despite it all.
Date: August 12, 2010
From: Hindman, KY
To: Booneville, KY
Distance: 64.33 miles
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