I suck at this. I am the worst. Most people, the more they do something the better they get at it. Not me. I slowly slide down the slippery sinkhole of gutwrenching suckage until you can barely make out the top of my head in the goo. I make a slight gurgling wet-lung sound as I go. The surface of the suck swamp ‘plops’ from time to time as I expel air.
Yes, I believe it is official. I am the worst cyclist ever. Worse than that relative you know who can’t even ride a bike.
Today is proving it. Over and over and over and yes, I get the message. This was a dumb idea. But I’m committed now. There is no stopping. All I have to do is keep turning the cranks. Keep the miles ticking by. Face each hill one at a time. Drink. Die. Ride. Pretty much in that order.
And you can’t say I wasn’t given an out for today. Pastor Bob had patiently shown me a short cut from Sebree to Carbondale. One hundred miles compared to one hundred and thirty five.
“Oh. Hmm,” I said. “I was planning to stay at Cave in Rock.”
He, being polite and hospitable, had told me about great catfish at Cave in Rock, and beautiful scenery, and just how nice it was and how you could catch a water taxi to Elizabethtown. Just charming. Then once again, he pointed at the map he had printed out. I followed his finger as he traced the shortcut route.
“This way is faster and flatter. The other way, though beautiful, is very hilly,” he said, cocking his head and making eye contact.
There was a look in his eyes as they connected with mine. As if to say “I want to make sure you are hearing me.”
I heard him. But the next day I’d ridden to Cave in Rock anyway because I’m a dumbbum. And here I was, experiencing what ‘a little hilly’ actually meant.
It really isn’t painful being a stubborn moron until you learn the lesson of whatever it is you’re being moronic about.
The morning starts off well enough. In fact, there is a gorgeous sunrise over the Ohio River and I’m up early enough to go down below my cabin and take a photo. It’s a good omen, to have something so beautiful illuminate the day.
I need a good omen. The feeling I have inside the pit of my stomach is dread.
Feet dragging. Slow packing. Not sure how, but I manage to get out of the room and drop off the key by 7.30am.
It’s not long and it’s on. A narrow road with blind curves, deceptive slopes and grumpy surfaces. I’m left struggling on a few steep uphills and find myself angrily giving up and walking. Today. Today will be like this forever. Locals fly by. Dogs bark. Roosters crow.
It’s a short ride to Elizabethtown, but it’s already set the tone for the day. That tone is in the key of ‘slog’ and I will sing it like a canary. One of those coalmine ones who catches a whiff of gas and dies. My face is already a picture of sweat seepage. Need to do a top kill operation on that.
As I roll into Elizabethtown I realize that it’s really just that I’m tired. Sure, it’s hilly and hot, but I can normally tolerate a lot before my brain shuts down. It’s shut down already. Thinks the rest day has already started, and here am I with a whole day’s worth of riding to do.
Breakfast. I’m going to sit down and have a damn breakfast.
I see a sign for a restaurant and tacked above, another handwritten sign saying “Fuel for cyclists”. It is a false omen, for when I ride up the street to the front door, there’s a note saying the owners are away for two days. Just my luck.
Down on the main street, I look at the word Restaurant on an older building and decide to take my chances. The place is almost completely empty, save for an elderly gentleman and a woman cleaning the counter.
“Do you do breakfast?” I ask from the doorway.
“Yup, sit anywhere you like.”
I choose a booth, scan the menu and before long I’m looking at a cheese omelet, pancake, coffee and giant orange juice. Pick, pick. Eating is still a problem and I’m not sure why. Surely I should be packing food away like nobody’s business. Blue. I’m feeling a bit blue. About the day ahead of me and the fear the Pastor Bob’s words have injected into me. I realize in that instant that I have become hill shy. That knowing what’s in front of me is dangerous. That to not know and to be surprised actually helps me get through the day.
Elevation charts, which are always deceiving, are not helping my brain prepare for these things. But it’s too late now. I’ve looked.
The elderly gentleman walks by.
“You rode that thing all this way?”
“Through those hills?”
“Be careful. Snake’s liable to get hold of you,” he says, and we both laugh. The only snakes I’ve seen so far have been dead on the road. He shuffles out and I see him take a long look at Precious.
Suppose it is strange. Riding by myself. In this heat. With that rig.
On my way out, I ask the waitress if I can take some ice for my bottles and she tells me to take as much as I need. Some people want to charge for it, but she’s free and easy with her frozen water.
Sucking in lungfulls of courage and pushing back the dread and tiredness, I shove off. It’s not that bad. A few long climbs in the Shawnee Park. Coal trucks galore.
And there before me, a sign for the Trail of Tears. Now THAT’s an omen. Before the end of today, there will be tears alright. Fat, salty tears. Called sweat. It’s getting hotter and hotter and I feel a strange headache stab me in my right temple from time to time. Sure. That’s great. Give me something else to complain about.
But it’s beautiful. I stop from time to time to snap a photo that is probably only interesting to me. Want to remind myself later of how the landscape changed. How the trees turned from one tribe to another. What the grass was like from one day to the next.
Rollers. Rollers. Long, long rollers fill my morning with pain and joy in equal measure. The thrilling downhill to get momentum, the sharp uphill where it all runs out. Many times I don’t make it to the top and there’s a scramble of gears as I try not to hurt Precious. Sometimes the gear selection is just plain wrong and I find myself standing and groaning as I Try. To. Turn. That. Crank. Over. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t and I grind to a slow, uphill halt. Quickly clip out before I fall. Walk it. Push. Argh.
The day soldiers on with me in it. Face flushed red and radiating the heat of a nuclear bomb, I am dragged along by it. Up down. Up down. Up.
The sign has a picture of a truck and 9% above it. I fly down the hill. Fly. Really fly. Navigate over the rough, narrow bridge at the bottom before seeing how far I can get up the other side.
Dog. Then there’s a dog beside me. A great lumbering beast of a bloodhound. He makes no sound, save for the click of his nails on the road and the heave of his breathing. His jowls flap and his tongue is flying like a flag.
I stop, mid-hill, not sure if this beast is about to eat me whole.
“Go HOME!” I say in my big girl voice and he slopes off to the bushes. Sniffing around. I see bushes move, hear twigs snap under his weight, then he pops out and looks at me.
I watch as he lopes over the road to the other side and into the bushes there, his giant head glued to the ground one minute and flinging saliva around the next.
It’s steep where I’ve stopped, so I push the bike a little further up to where it’s not so steep. Push off again.
He disappears. And then he’s beside me and running. Then down in the ditch and running. Then crossing the road, still running.
And then he’s gone.
I pull up at the top of the hill to catch my breath, suck down some water, and look back. Nowhere to be seen. A car passes.
Clipping in, I wobble off.
All slobber and languid lope and he’s right back with me, looking at me from time-to-time as if to ask “Where are we going?”
Each driveway we pass has me hoping it’s his. That he’ll give me one last look and go home. Because it’s hot out here for a human on a bike. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a running dog. Worry. That dog is gonna stroke out. Worry. Why won’t he go home?
Finally, a long downhill where I figure I can lose him. I hammer down and he’s gone. Safe. Free. Cruising along and argh! there’s this heaving form of fur and sweat and flapping tongue right beside me again.
When I have to walk up a hill, he wanders around patiently biding time until I get to the top. Then he runs with me again. His movements are relaxed, but I can tell he’s hot.
A crossroads ahead. A gas station. I’ve pulled away from him again so I don’t know where he is, but after I park the bike I see him jog in through the pump area towards me. His mouth is white with foam, his coat glistening with sweat.
“I’m getting you some water, dog,” I say.
In the cool air of the store, I explain the situation. A girl looks out the door.
“Aw, Winston,” she says in a tone part love and part ‘aw, grandpa’. “He likes to follow the bikers in.”
“He’s been with me for 3 or 4 miles,” I say after we get outside, then watch as he inserts his massive head into a bucket of water. It’s a load off my mind. He will live. He is loved.
It’s sad to leave Winston behind, but also a relief to have someone to hold him while I ride away.
Goodbye, sir. Ours was a brief relationship. A beautiful distraction that got me through a tough part of the day. But now, I must away. I must make it through this entire day.
Now it’s a real slog, but I just keep on going, mentally checking off miles and calculating arrival times. Drinking. Turning pedals. Counting down.
It starts to cloud over and it’s sort of cooler. But it doesn’t get really cool until I turn into the Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge. It’s pretty and shady and the hills seem to have abated. I begin to enjoy it again. About 10 miles to go, which is a signal to me that I can actually start getting really greedy with the water. I’ll make it to Carbondale ok. I’ll make it on what I’ve got.
Like most things I’m close to getting, time stretches out until its almost unbearable. An idyllic scene. Seen it. beautiful lake. Yeah, yeah. Where’s the town.
A few climbs are thrown in to make me really work for it. The light is sinking, but it’s still not headlight time. As a precaution, I flip on my rear lights. Not much further, right?
In town, I take the main drag to go find some hotels. What’s a few more miles between friends? I end up in a Quality Inn with a funky smell, but I don’t care. It’s next door to a wings joint. My goal is clear.
Later, one beer in my belly and quite drunk from it, I feel pride in having stuck it out. Even with the doubt. Even with the pain and the heat and the general lethargy, I made it through and tomorrow I can sleep in and not do anything I don’t feel like doing. It will bring me back so that I can do another brick of days.
I just wish I didn’t suck so much at the whole bike riding thing.
Date: August 20, 2010
From: Cave in Rock, IL
To: Carbondale, IL
Distance: 89.45 miles
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