Flicking from gear to gear I hear…nothing. Precious has a new chain and it’s flawless in its movement. Silent. Smooth. Unmolested. I wonder how long it will last, the easy amble from cog to cog. No hesitation, no grind. How long until I panic on a hill and realize too late the gear is too big, the climb too angry, and begin my mash. Mash on down lower and apologize, apologize, always apologize to the bike.
“Last time. Last time, I promise.”
I hum along. The morning air fills my lungs with hope. This is going to be a long day, but I have big plans and much determination. It is bubbling in the lower quadrant of my heart.
Racing. I am racing to Farmington. Racing to a potential beer paid for by a complete stranger, who for some reason has a desire to meet me. To subject his family to me. Six thirty, I say. I will be there by six thirty this afternoon.
It’s an ambitious goal. Ninety miles in hilly terrain. With me. Being me.
There is a vague sensation in my legs. An ache and a question. Why, my quads ask, why do we feel like that rest day was a bust?
It’s a valid question, but I’m too dumb to answer it. I took the day off, it’s not really my fault it wasn’t as restful as it should’ve been.
I mean, ok. So, I rode my bike on a rest day. Big deal. Hotels are always a long way out of town and in order to get Precious to the bike shop there was no option but to ride there. And if I’m to stick to my plan of getting him a new chain every 1,000 miles, I’m going to need to ride him to the store.
Strange feeling too, dropping him off at the Carbondale Bike Shop and seeing him wheeled away by Cho. Into the back room. I just leave him there. With a complete stranger. Trust issues. Yes, I have them.
But then off I went to slack off in a funky cafe and twitch while I waited many hours for him to be ready. Even sticking my face in a bucket-sized latte and enjoying a moment of quiet reflection over the yogurt covered crunch of granola didn’t calm me down. What if there was something else wrong with him? Did I wait too long with the chain? Technically, we are at 1,300 miles on that thing, and who knows if changing it this often will actually make the cassette last longer.
This whole thing is a gamble.
Back in the hotel room that afternoon, I park him against the air conditioner and notice his frame is dripped with streaks of ancient liquids. A mix of Gatorade and water and probably my sweat. Rag out, water warm, I clean his frame to match the glint of the chain. Stand back. Admire.
Next, a mad scramble to get laundry done and write up a blog entry and look at photos and call my Dad and my brother and get a dose of family support. I tend to sores and weeping insect bites. Wait, insect bites aren’t supposed to weep, are they? I inspect one, an angry welt across my ankle that looks more like an acid burn than a bite.
Thinking back, I realize its circumference has been slowly spreading. Like a front line advancing, its troops are on the move and trying to claim more territory. Tiny clear bubbles glisten on its surface.
Now I’m no doctor, and I’m not from a land where this exists, but I’m pretty sure these wicked bites are actually a poison ivy rash. I think back to falling in the ditch about oh, um, seven days ago and thinking ‘huh, that looks like poison ivy’ as I pulled myself out of the weeds and bracken and brambles.
But then nothing happened, so I figured I was mistaken. That it wasn’t poison ivy at all.
It’s not just my ankle either. My poor knees are dotted with it. Just below the knee actually. I tend to rest my pedal there as I stand and drink on a hill to stop the bike rolling back. So every time I do this, I must rub more of the urushiol on them.
Great work, dumbass. I google it and confirm my suspicions. Yup, and I’ve been scratching like crazy.
My body is falling apart. All over. My lips are cracked and dry and windburned from yesterday, which had made eating the hot wings the night before very interesting. My poor hands, tender and tight from riding in wet gloves are now cracked and peeling. Sunburn on my arms is rashy and I’m in denial about it blistering. I’m angered by the sunscreen not working, despite re-applying it during the day. Angry at myself for trying to ride for LIVESTRONG and setting a bad example with the sunburn thing. Australians are supposed to know better.
So the rest day was kind of a bust what with the riding and the body folding in on itself.
But today is a new day and off I ride. Legs dotted pink with thick cream and arms hidden beneath some SPF arm coolers I found tucked in the bottom of my bag.
I make my way out of Carbondale in ok time, marveling at the amount of travel for a Sunday and kinda creeped out by the drunk who says ‘nice bike’ to me at a traffic light.
Plod. Plod along. Quiet in my head. Not really thinking. Just moving and waiting for inspiration to strike.
Wrong turn. Or should I say, lack of turn as I realize that in my barely awake daze I have gone past the turn point. Only about a mile, so not too far. Turn around. Go back.
Back on track and I creep through pokey, shaded lanes and before I know it, I’ve missed another turn. This time due to distraction and a general inability to read maps correctly when too busy lalala-ing about the prettiness of the day and having ‘isn’t life great’ thoughts.
I’d seen a stop sign ahead that didn’t seem to be on the map, so I’d followed my gut.
My gut is full of it. Doesn’t know anything. And it causes me to swing around the corner at a speed not correct for the number of corrugates on laying in wait there. Water bottles bounce out of Zimmerman, right out from under the mesh net, and for a moment I think something catastrophic has happened.
But no, it’s Zimmerman trying to tell me I’m going the wrong way. Trying to get my attention so that I LOOK UP and see the sign informing me that I should continue straight, and not follow this ‘gut turn’.
But I ignore Mr. Zimmerman’s warning and go right, as gut directed. This time, it takes much longer to realize my mistake.
“That’s not right,” I say to no-one in particular as I find myself stopped at the corner of old highway 13. I could just follow it straight to Murphysboro, but I’m too confused to realize that and decide to go back to where I made my mistake. More miles I will regret later in the afternoon when I’m trying to make it to Farmington by 6.30pm.
Such an ambitious time I’ve set myself. I have forgotten one thing: Ambition is the half-baked pie in the oven of potential disaster.
A few stiff climbs to wake up the legs and before long I’m in Murphysboro. Pausing, I look at the map and the stabbiness of the elevation chart. It is then I lock down the decision I’d half-made earlier: I’m taking the Mississippi Levee Alternate Route. It’s less hilly. There will be plenty of hills later in the day to depress me, so why dose up on them now?
Off we head, a girl and her bike and a wayward trailer. Off on this alternate route with dreams, and hopes, and joy. Off and running and completely failing to notice this route adds an extra six miles to the day.
Flood plains. Crops. Open and airy land. Big Muddy River. It’s the name, not just an observation. Water lies in sheets, crops spread their girth as far as they can. Grey birds, legs long and water proof, tiptoe through the mud.
I creep along the shoulder of the road, whistling in tuneless distraction.
Miles trip by and suddenly I’m attacked by hunger near Neunert just as I spy a welcome shady tree. Time for a pannier peach. It’s juicy and dribbles and quells the growl in my belly a little.
With regret, I leave the shade and the teasing tone of a Pabst sign.
Wrong turn. Again. Looking for a Levee Road and not Little Levee Road and ultimately trusting my gut too much again. Looking for the highest point, I figure that must be the Levee Road and head up there. This must be right, I think, then proceed cautiously. Water stares at me on my left and I wonder if it’s overflow or the actual Mississippi proper.
Cars. I haven’t seen any in forever. The breeze is wafty and hot, the grass dry, and silence is broken only by insects chatting and frogs clearing their throats in croaky tones.
Down the Little Levee Road, then back to the main one. Now THAT’s the Mississippi. It’s flowing fast and I come over all Huck Finn at the sight of it. Does it always flow that quickly? Huck must’ve been booking it down there.
A deer pops up the side of the levee in front of me and over the side towards the river, its white tail flapping and waving hello. I say something out loud and it stops to glare at me. Decides I look sketchy and tears off back from whence it came.
We are rolling freely along beside the river now and I see barges from time to time, signs of activity and commerce and coal. At a railway crossing, progress is halted for a never-ending train with carriage after carriage of mystery contents. Where have they been? What have they been doing? Does anyone ride the rails anymore?
The levee road spits me out onto a busier stretch of road with more traffic and barely any shoulder to speak of. It’s really steamy now. Just like every other day. I’m not in the mood for this but I have no say in the matter. Suck it up.
As I head towards Chester, the hills come back into my life. Like an ex you never want to see again, I run into them at every turn. Oh, hi hill. Yeah, how you going. Oh, I see you’re still as painful as before.
“Home of Popeye”
Chester has finally entered my world and bragging about its connection with a large forearmed sailor, and all I’m thinking of is lunch. Food. Cold drinks. Food. Lunch. Eat. Time.
There is a decision to be made. Yes, I would like to make it to Farmington to meet Patrick, the guy who’s kindly offered to buy me dinner, but I’m not sure I have it in me. If enthusiasm is a ballon, mine has a very slow leak. A slow, painful leak that might cut my day short here in Chester at a cool motel.
At an intersection, my gut directs me to turn right. That there will be food that way. You know what food is that way? McDonalds. But at this point, I don’t care. I pull into the parking lot, throw myself through the door and order the biggest, fruitiest, iciest drink I can find. And a chicken sandwich to wash it down.
The drink is inhaled at speed and I feel the ice right behind my eyes and hugging my brain. It is delightful. I seem to eat fast now. No time to enjoy. Just EAT and the sandwich is gone. The effect is pretty immediate.
It is the chicken sandwich of confidence. I can make it to Farmington, just a bit later than I had intended. Hills, shmills. No bother. Sure, there are a few jagged bits there that fill me with dread, but dread’s nothing but a feeling you have to choke out on the carpet so you can sneak out while it’s sleeping.
I’ve got to stop saying this, but how bad can it possibly be? I want to be in Missouri today. I want to get another state under my belt.
I’m going for it.
I text Patrick that I’m running late. That the time is probably going to be more like 7.30 or 8 o’clock and that I understand if he’s unable to make it. He replies that it’s not looking good, so that relieves some pressure.
Out of town, I zoom down a hill and suddenly throw out the anchors to take a photo of the Mississippi river sign and bridge. My grin is wide as I trundle over, though there is absolutely no shoulder so I’m hoping no cars get stuck behind me. Their impatience is aggravating when it comes.
Missouri. I am here. And I have a photo of your welcome sign to prove it.
The roads are immediately flatter and good. I’m strangely chuffed by it. Through crops and flatland I ride. And then it starts. Slow at first. A few little hills. I’m not quite in the Ozarks yet, but this is taster country. A prep day.
Between St. Mary and Ozora, I am punished for my foolhardiness most cruelly. The tiredness is a’creeping and a’sneaking, and I have to walk for the first time that day up a long slow hill in the afternoon heat.
I know I will make it to Farmington. I just don’t know when. At a gas station near Ozora, a man tells me I’m crazy for riding in this heat. I want to punch him in his chubby little air-conditioned face until his mouth comes out of the back of his head. But I just squint at him and chuckle as I suck down my gatorade.
No time to dawdle punching people in the face.
The afternoon is dying. Faster than I had anticipated. I can feel it. Shadows are stretching out and the heat is rising to the threshold of its power.
Push on. I am leg tired, and even though I struggle for as long as I can up some of these hills, I splutter out on more and more and just give up. Just walk in the afternoon sun.
The country has changed. Rolling hills but with wineries and a different spirit.
The cold coke can I had stashed in the back pocket of my jersey is no longer keeping my back cold, so I pop the ring pull and slam it down. The brown foam tickles as I stand and contemplate the afternoon ahead.
More signs for wineries. Cars give me a wide berth. I wonder what they think as they see me push this rig up hills. I can almost hear people saying “Wow, If she’s pushing now, she should see what’s ahead!”
I hope they’re not saying that.
A white pickup comes down a hill in front of me and goes by. I hear it slow down somewhere behind me, the growl of its engine as it maneuvers and turns around.
My cranks turn. My speed remains constant. I am in thought. Pedal.
Growl, I hear it rev and come back at me from behind this time. What to do? I try not to look as it pulls up and drives slowly beside me.
“Are you Janeen?”
Startled at this development, I turn towards the voice. Weird. In the middle of nowhere, in a state I don’t know, and here’s someone driving up beside me and asking me if I’m me.
And I am me.
“I’m Darrell,” he says through his open window. “I’m a friend of Patrick’s!”
We are awkwardly moving, and rather than continue driving on the wrong side of the road, he says he’ll meet me a bit further up the road. Off he goes.
Well, that was odd. I roll down a hill, then back up and grind slowly. He’s not at the top of that one. Where was he going to? I am puzzled by this encounter, but my main thought is just how awesome I’m going to look when I get to him. Climbing in heat makes my face un-naturally red. I look beat and sunburnt and my legs are still covered in pink patches of poison ivy cream. My lips are flaky. Ugh.
Perhaps he’ll offer me a ride into town? Will I take it? I’m at 98 miles, would I sacrifice my first 100 mile day for a lift? No, I think. If he asks, I will turn him down. I will say no.
I find him parked in the gravel parking lot on an uphill corner. Pull in. Say hi.
People are actually awesome. It turns out he’s come out to make sure I make it in to Farmington. He and Patrick have been talking on the phone and were worried that it would get dark before I got there. I feel funny in the tummy and for once it’s not hunger.
“Oh, I got you this,” he says, handing me a clear plastic zip lock bag filled with an assortment of energy bars and gels, then proceeds to tell me that this road is where a lot of cyclists do their hill training. I can see why.
“Just wanted to make sure you made it,” he says.
Grateful. It’s just a word people throw about, but when it has meaning behind it, it’s very powerful and I have to say I’m grateful. Grateful that someone has taken an interest and is looking out for me. That these little encounters happen.
Darrell takes my photo and gives me his phone number in case I decide to hang around. He’d like to buy me dinner and he’d like his family to meet me. At no point does he offer me a lift and I’m glad. Because I’m not sure I could’ve resisted.
“You’ve still got an hour-and-a-half of daylight,” he says. And only 12 or so miles to go, I think. Yeah, that’s doable. I tell him I better get at it, then pull away confidently.
Bathed by the glow of the golden hour, I push on. I am suddenly alive, though very tired. My legs are solid blocks of blech, but the road is now flowy. I am flying. I am hammering. I will beat the night. I will win!
Slog it out. Slog slog. I turn a corner and am riding into the low light of a sun keen to get off the stage. If I can barely see the road, I think, chances are someone driving from behind won’t see me. I pull off to the side when I hear cars coming. This bad light section doesn’t last long and I’m really going for it now. Feeling good. I’m going to make it.
In a shady straight, I am passed by a large pickup. A young man standing in the back turns and salutes.
“White power!” he whoops.
Did I just see that? I think it might’ve just pushed me back three feet. I think it might’ve just pushed evolution back three feet, actually.
But I go on.
Rising up on a long corner, the sun is orange with impatience and tapping its foot on the horizon. The hues of the earth have changed. Greens are warm and soft. Yellows are rolling in lazy, effortless sexiness.
On a straight, a red SUV pulls up to crawl beside me and the driver begins to speak out his window.
“I just wanted to check on you,” he says. “My wife saw you ride past a while back.”
He drives ahead and pulls into a driveway.
“My wife saw you and when I got home, she said she didn’t think you’d make it to Farmington so I had to come and check.”
He’s Australian and we chat for a bit. From a winery down the road. I’m aware, always aware of the time slipping under the door and the darkness falling, but I don’t want to be rude.
“I better keep going,” I finally say, and he wishes me well. Gives me directions to Al’s Place, the bike hostel in town, and I am emboldened by the encounter. Encounters like this wipe out the “white powers” and remind me of the general goodness of human beings.
I’m going to make it. I will make it.
I stop to attach my headlight and turn it on. It’s really coming fast now, the blackness creeping, and the light gives me confidence of being seen and seeing potholes in the road.
The last wink of the sun and it sinks. It’s gone. Goodbye. Just me now. Me and the road and the occasional flash of head or taillights.
I turn onto the 00 and it’s the town home stretch. Little white arrows appear from time-to-time on the shoulder of the road. Al’s Place. This way. I feel the heart of the town open up, the embrace of its good intent drawing me in.
And yet I get lost in the town. I’ve made it but I haven’t made it. The arrows disappear in the skirt of some roadworks and I try remember the directions given to me. Past the police station. Something about a court house.
I stop in the darkness and get out the phone, pray for a signal. A google search reveals two addresses for the bike hostel and I ride by each one. Nothing. Round the town grid I go, in the darkness and feeling beat up and bone tired. Searching. Searching.
I decide to go one block higher and there it is, recognized not by its address but by the front of the building which I’ve seen in a photograph just once.
The old county jail. Here is my home. Here is my salvation.
Glancing at the Garmin, I sigh. 114 miles. Those wrong turns have taken their revenge. As I call the number to get the door code, I find it has somehow crept up to 9 o’clock. I can’t even fathom how that happened. Door flung open, lights flipped on, room gasped at. This is better than a hotel. Comfortable furniture, soda in the fridge.
A decision is made.
I will stay here a day.
Freshly showered and sinking onto the cool leather of the sofa, I upload a photo and lie down with the laptop on my stomach. Just for a minute, I think. Just while the photo uploads. Forty-five minutes later I wake with a harsh twitch and the laptop burning my belly, the fingers of my left hand numbly hovering over the keyboard.
Pack up. Bed. My sleep is long and dead.
The next day, I walk around the corner to the Bauhaus Kaffee and drink and eat and sit and write and soak up the sense of being with people but not. I know this is a wasted day, but I need it.
I want to live at Al’s Place and spend every day here. For a second, I dream and plan what I would do and how I could craft a life around sitting in this cafe every day and living above the county jail.
But I’m just passing through.
Darrell arrives at 6.30pm with his son, Ian, and they take me to dinner. I eat a massively bloody and awesomely flavored steak and when the bill comes, I feel great discomfort at not being allowed to contribute to the cost. But am also incredibly humbled by the gesture. We chat about the trip and how they’ve been following, and about Patrick who was the one who told Darrell about me and I’m bummed to have not met him.
Later, sitting on the couch and working out the plan for the next day, I read some blog comments and emails from complete strangers. I wonder if people out there know how much their spirit and good energy is transferred through the ether and into me? If they know that sometimes a well-timed comment will lift me out of a dark place? It helps, knowing people are there. I’m not doing anything new or original – I meet people every couple of days who are doing the exact same thing – but each person’s journey is their own.
And this is mine.
Date: August 22, 2010
From: Carbondale, IL
To: Farmington, MO
Distance: 110.47 miles (114)
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