The heat is jumping up to punch me in my face. It rolls and pushes, jabs and uppercuts. Every part of me is bruised by the violence of it. I dream of a giant watermelon in a chiller. I dream of removing it from its chilly tomb and smashing it to the ground. Of picking up a broken jagged chunk and burying my face into the reddish wet flesh.
I dream about this for miles as the sun hits a high note that pierces every nanometer of me. I still have twenty miles to go today. Twenty miles. Damn this heat.
It’s been building all day, right from that first spurt of dawn.
Right from the get go.
It’s 6am and I’m breaking down camp. The cool and fresh air is tinged with a waft of warmth at its edges. I am methodical, meticulous even, as I fold and organize and lay out things ready to be packed in military formation into Zimmerman. A woodpecker taps away somewhere above me and I look up but cannot see it. It’s still magical to me, the idea of a bird who pecks wood. Musical. Foreign.
Will I get this packed before the rent collector pops by? It is doubtful. Even though the signs look good, I will no doubt find something to dick around with and suddenly the time will ooze out of the morning like the oil from the fresh roadworks yesterday.
I see Jim and Kathy – the cyclists from last night – slowly ride up the long hill to the gate of the campground around 7am. They have made it and I’m still standing here sipping on water and wrapping cord into a neat roll.
Ah, I don’t care. I should pay for the site. I expected to, it is wrong not to. And so I take my time. No rush. No panic. My hip hurts a little from my embarrassing spill yesterday, but I’m lucky in that no-one has seen me fall yet. It’s just Precious. Giving me the eye.
As I approach the gatehouse, I see a light and the attendant in there. I wonder how much it will cost as I pull up and say ‘hey’. I tell him I want to pay. Reach for my wallet.
He doesn’t get up. Simply lifts himself a little in his seat and peers over the window sill of his little house. Sees the trailer. Looks at me.
“Eh, don’t worry about it,” he says, and waves me on. “Have a safe ride.”
Again, I am caught unawares by the heart of people. The warmth flows from theirs to mine and I am embiggened by it. I’m aware that’s not a real word, but feel it encompasses the feeling more fully.
Parking Precious behind Jim and Kathy’s bikes, I say hi. They’re planning an alternate route today and just working it out. It’s nice to once again get a chance to speak with them. Their optimism and positive aura is plain to see and it also piles on to the warmth in my heart.
Breakfast snuffs that out.
To be gouged by a bear. That’s a thought I’ve had. Perhaps even by a raccoon. But to be gouged by a breakfast? That sneaks up on me and catches me with my spandex down.
Eleven dollars for complete and utter pump bilge. The bacon tastes as though it’s been fried in the bitter oil of one thousand failed relationships. I push the plate away before even finishing, which I’m aware is a dangerous thing to do. To not eat enough before a seventy mile day. But what choice? I worry it will make me sicker to eat it.
As I wheel away from the Rough River Dam Lodge, I notice it’s 9:30am. This is getting to be a habit and one I need to break. I have 75 miles to cover and the day has already slid me into its warming tray.
On the third ring, a woman answers the phone at the Sebree First Baptist Church. I let them know I’m coming, that I have every intention of using the cyclist hostel I’ve heard so much about. She puts Pastor Bob on the phone.
“Where are you?”
“Oh, so you’ll be a while yet then. That’s 75 miles.”
To hear this, I shrink a little in physical stature. I know there is a long ride ahead of me, but I find that if I don’t think about it too much, just focus on the minute I’m in, I’m quite capable of just enduring and getting through. But to hear the distance come at me through the phone trips a little number 7 and a little number 5 in the theatre of my mind and they drift together, connect and flash.
Ugh. Time to push on.
Like most days, this day starts out ok. A few up and downs, but nothing too knee crunching. Up down. Up down. On a long up, I spy a tourer coming towards me but for once I am the one who doesn’t want to stop. He is flying, so he doesn’t either.
Fine by me. I reach the top and see a woman pushing her bike up the hill. I stop and say hi. She is British and confirms she’s with the other bloke. We don’t talk long. I can feel the pull on her from the man in front. She is being left behind. I don’t envy having to keep up with someone.
The only thing I have to keep up with is Precious. And Zimmerman (and he can be quite pushy when he wants to be).
On I go. As I reach the bottom of a long and peaceful descent I am half scared to heaven by a wild turkey suddenly flying out of the tall grass and doing his best ‘I wanna hit Fabio in the face but you’ll do’ attempt.
It’s a close call as he doesn’t get much height, but he’s barely out of my path by the time I whistle by. Typical, I think. That’s just the kind of accident I would have. No, she wasn’t taken out by crashing her bike or lack of fitness or by the heat. She was taken out by a wild turkey.
I think about that for a mile. Have a laugh. Need to pay more attention.
The climbs are getting tougher, my enthusiasm wanes. The temperature rises and starts to roll in waves. Shade is getting harder to come by.
A couple of hills roll by in quick succession and I’m huffing and puffing. Sweat runs along my eyebrows and gathers by the corner of my eye. I wait for the sting as it runs in.
Hot. Hotter. Hottest.
I kill another hill and as I level out I spy a house with a large above ground pool. Suddenly I am watching that scene in The Three Amigos where they’re plodding through the desert. Lucky’s canteen is empty. Ned gets a mouthful of sand. And there’s Chevvy pouring a waterfall onto his face and throwing the half-full canteen to the sandy ground. The look on Ned and Lucky’s face.
That’s the look I have as I eye that pool.
If I could stop my legs turning over. If I were a braver and wired more sneakily. I could stop, creep over, jump in that pool fully clothed, and be out before anyone even noticed.
But I keep going.
Things get difficult. And it’s the sun’s fault. And the road’s. Rollers, steep and spiteful, but probably totally tackleable if it weren’t so damn hot.
A ritual begins. Throw Precious into top gear and hammer hammer hammer down the hill and an effort to get as far up the next one as possible. I do this once. Reach the top. Another waves hi. I do this again.
“You can do it. You can do it.” I chant as I fly down the hill. As I stand on the cranks to reach the top, each stroke contains a word. You. Can. Do. It.
A third set.
You. Can. Do. You can’t do it. I clip out quickly. Stand perched over the bike. So close to the damn top on this one but I just ran out of juice. Hot. My face is flushed red. My skin radiates its own atmosphere.
I hear the familiar growl of a pickup approaching, the suck of its tires on the hot road. And here I am almost at the crest of this hill. The most annoying place to be.
Stepping to the side, I watch as it goes past, then begin the short walk to the top.
Just outside of Whitesville and on the way to Utica the shade is completely gone and I am defenseless to the onslaught of the day’s anger. Baked by it. It crushes my soul in its fist. My bad sunburn from the day previous is rejecting the multiple layers of sunscreen I have lathered on top of it today and it simply burns. I cannot escape it.
Doubt arrives on a waft of it and it’s that time of the day which I have christened the Doubt Hour. The hour where my brain questions my sanity and tries to get me to admit I’m not cut out for this.
But it passes.
Finally, the hills seems slightly less aggressive and I find myself at an intersection looking at yet another shuttered store. I see many of these. Every day. Wonder about their past. How long have they been closed? Were they ever thriving? There is some charm in the decay. But also sadness.
Rusty colored grubs dart across the road, furry and frantic. I wonder about their fate. Moth or caterpillar? Live or die? Do caterpillars feel the heat? After taking a photo of one in the gravel, a small winged friend lands on my glove while I take a drink. We ride off together and he hangs on for many miles, flattened by the wind whipping over my gloves. I stop, he stands up straight. I ride off, back to flat bodied surfing.
On a long climb he suddenly decides that’s enough freeloading for one day and is gone.
Corn. It’s everywhere. I’ve been riding through it all day. Sometimes green, sometimes brown. But always majestically tall. Riding comfortably now, I admire the wooden silo of a farm. The classic silver dome. So American. Just like their red barns.
In Utica, I pull into a gas station and buy my chocky milk, a gatorade and two waters. I sit in the eating area and drink the gatorade and milk in quick succession, curious of the layering that must be occurring in my stomach right now.
Outside in the shade, I refill my water bottles, then go back in and buy a Snickers. When I come out, a man calls me over to his car and asks me where I’m riding to. I tell him and he is suitably impressed. I spy a suitcase in his back seat and he explains he’s from California. A comedian driving to a show. I wish him luck, and he me, and then I’m off.
Better. I feel much better. I wind on through corridors of tall corn that I can’t see over. It’s still up and down, but not as bad as before. Up a hill I go and the dry corn beside me is caught suddenly by a breeze. I smile as it claps its stalks and husks together. It is applauding my effort and I appreciate the sound. Clap clap clap clap. Stillness. Clap clap clap clap.
I stop and look back it it. Another breeze and this time I hear the comforting flap of my flag on the trailer. The doubt has finally passed along with the intense heat. I will make it easily.
Getting close now. I’m on a long stretch of straight road with a wide shoulder littered with rocks and rubber. I grind. I mash. I’m so excited about nearly being there I’m in a wince-grin mood.
And then suddenly I’m embraced by Sebree. I turn left. Then right. Then swing into Church street and see my goal. The First Baptist Church.
A boy named Blake walks up to me in the parking lot and asks if I’m one of those TransAmerica cyclists. Then Pastor Bob is right there beside me and walking me down to the back of the building. We enter the cool, cool air and I leave Precious in the foyer. It’s youth group night. A big room, couches, pool table. The excitable chatter of small-town teens.
Pastor Bob shows me the shower, the bike book, the world map, and offers me water. Gives me a Kentucky State pin. I am trying to be coherent in my conversation, but I’ve noticed (and this happens every day), I can barely string a sentence together. Whenever someone asks where I’ve ridden from that day, it takes me an age to remember. I think it’s a common trait of TransAm cyclists.
We drag a mattress to the room I’ll be sleeping in and Bob tells me supper is at seven. That another cyclist called after me and hasn’t arrived, but that I should wait until he gets here so we can come up to the house together.
Two hours pass. While sitting on the mattress on the floor looking at maps, Voilet, Bob’s wife, appears at the door. She introduces me to John, an eastbounder who looks like he’s been put through the wringer today judging by the dampness of every part of him. After his shower, we walk up to the house together. The long shadows of the evening are pushing the heat out of the frame.
At the dinner table, Violet apologizes for the supper of leftovers, but she really shouldn’t have. My eyes adore pretty much everything on the table. A chicken noodle casserole, corn, potatoes and more. And there, right at my left hand, watermelon. Red. Juicy. Cold. My face melts into mellowness. Happy. Content. My dream from earlier, realized.
Sweet iced tea. I’ve never liked it before but every chance I get I’m drinking it now. So good. John has an Arnold Palmer, which Violet explains is Bob’s favorite drink, and we begin stuffing out faces and getting second and third helpings. Telling Violet our little stories.
My heart fills. Ticks over and rejuvenates. New cells, new blood, new joy. I’ve spent most of my day talking to myself (or Precious), so I yabber on and try not to be rude or say offensive things and still be myself. I listen. I savor.
My skin is sleepy.
Pastor Bob comes in and we gorge on the most delicious icecream. After dinner, Violet asks if we mind if she says a prayer for us and we hold hands as she does. Our bikes get a shoutout, as do all cyclists out there on the road.
The general gist is to “Keep them safe.”
Yes please. And cool, if I’m allowed to tack on an addendum. This heat is really quite annoying.
Date: August 18, 2010
From: Falls of Rough, KY
To: Sebree, KY
Distance: 74.85 miles
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