Mississippi Blues

Crossing the Mississippi at Chester, Illinois gave me a tremendous buzz – especially after the previous evening’s flat tire while riding a levee in a downpour. With my head down due to the strong headwind, I missed the Welcome to Missouri sign 😦

With its lush green, rolling landscape, Missouri reminded me of the south of England, but without the quaint villages and tearooms. After the Appalachians in Virginia and Kentucky, I thought I was done with strenuous climbs for a while, so the Ozark Mountains in Missouri came as a bit of a surprise. The climbs were shorter but steeper, and the descents very fast. I reached a record 42 mph in the Ozarks.

Mountains seem to trap bad weather. To get the most reliable forecast, I’ve taken to asking a local, but I guess wishful thinking is why I didn’t ask yesterday. Soon after I set out, the skies darkened, the rain started, and claps of thunder rolled in the distance. Flashes of lightning soon became unnervingly close. I spotted a gazebo near the roadside and rode to it. The three military guys were already sheltering there. We hung around for a bit, but with Pilots Knob just 4 miles away (yes, that really was the name of the town), I headed to it at warp speed

“Give it all you’ve got, Scotty”, I urged myself on. Decelerating at what looked like a cafe, I was initially thrown by the name “The Hustler”, especially given the name of the town. But perhaps it was “The Rustler”. Difficult to tell in the driving rain. Anyway, the military guys seemed to know what they were doing, so I followed them in, hoping that I wasn’t inadvertently entering a house of ill repute. A quick glance at the diners reassured me that it was a family establishment.

The forecast on the TV above the counter spelled more doom and gloom, so the military guys opted to stay in Pilots Knob. But I felt the Force was with me, and after double-checking with the platinum blonde behind the counter, I decided to go on. It turned out to be a good move, for as I was leaving the cafe, a customer pushed $20 into my hand. She had heard that I was cycling across America. I suspect she thought I was too poor to take the bus!

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Come In, The Water’s Lovely!

After Berea, Kentucky, things looked up markedly. The strenuous climbs of the Appalachian Mountains gave way to rolling green countryside with beef cattle munchin’ and mooin’. There were no more coal trucks and, best of all, there were far fewer loose dogs. Those dogs that did give chase stopped in their tracks when they saw the can of “Halt” pepper spray in my hand. I’ve not even had to use it yet.

I saw the Abbey of Gethsemani on the map and went to see it. The abbey is a community of Cistercian monks – often referred to as Trappists. To my shame, I always thought the name “Trappist” came about because the monks observe silence at various times of the day, i.e they keep their trap shut. Having been a Franciscan friar myself for four years, I should have known better. They’re called Trappist after La Trappe Abbey in France. It was the perfect place to sit and ponder.

It’s funny how tunes enter my head when I’m cycling along. Today’s “tune de jour” was “We Love Sprinkles” – probably induced by the damp weather. I’d heard this tune at the Sprinkles cupcake ATM in Los Angeles. You insert your credit card in the ATM, select your Sprinkles cupcake, and out it comes in a nice box, accompanied by a choir singing “We Love Sprinkles”. And so the gentleman whose Jeep Wrangler had broken down on a back country road in rural Kentucky will never forget the day when a vision in hi-vis green rounded the corner belting out “We Love Sprinkles”. Shirley Bassey would have been proud.

Despite the bad weather, I’ve been making some great headway. A couple of days ago, I crossed the time zone from Eastern to Central, i.e. the clock went back an hour. Yesterday evening, I crossed the 1,000 mile mark. And today, I crossed from Kentucky into Illinois – my third state.

God Bless America

Throughout Virginia and Kentucky, I’ve been puzzled by the strange panels adorning many barns. Dan told me that they identify an Amish barn. That got me thinking: Is Amish a religion or a way of life? I think the answer is probably both, but according to the World Wide Web, it’s a common misunderstanding that these symbols identify an Amish barn. While some of the designs are inspired by the Amish, they’re properly called barn quilts. They’ve been around for hundreds of years, but it was only in the early 2000s that they started showing up again.

There’s no escaping religion in America. So far on this trip, there seems to be at least one church in every community – usually Baptist, sometimes Methodist, and occasionally Presbyterian. No idea how they differ, but I’ve frequently been grateful to them, as they often have a gazebo where I can sit out a storm or take a break in the shade. Some churches even let cross-country cyclists stay overnight or camp in the grounds. I’ve been touched by their hospitality and warm welcome.

Out front, the churches often have a billboard with a message, like the one I saw today: “Be Ye Fishers Of Men. You Catch ‘Em. And He’ll Clean ‘Em.” (I added the apostrophes to save the pastor’s blushes. Probably just as well I don’t have a red marker pen with me.) Here’s another great one in view of the forthcoming elections in the US: “Donkey And Elephant Not Working For You? Try The Lamb!”

 

Come Get It Puddy Tat

Folks who’ve cycled across the country often say that Kentucky is challenging. They’re referring to things like loose dogs who love nothing more than to scare the bejesus out of a passing cyclist. Seems the dogs get more points the closer they get to the cyclist’s heels. I’ve confounded several of them by yelling “Treat” when they’re in full charge (bonus point to Leslie). But today, that failed miserably. Intercepted by two huge mutts, I slowed to a crawl to mitigate the chase instinct, but instead the ringleader sank his teeth into my rear pannier – my nice, new hi-vis panniers that had earned me the moniker “The Green Hornet” from the military guys. (I had been hoping for “The Flying Scotsman” or some such, but never mind.) Surveying the damage to my pannier, my blood boiled. No idea what I yelled at the dog, but I was in no mood to be messed with, and that mutt knew it. It slinked off, leaving me with an adrenaline rush that put a tiger in my tank. The other cyclists I’ve met swear by a pepper spray called “Halt”, which they aim at the dog’s face. I didn’t want to go that route, but the next mutt who messes with me is in for a big surprise.

Got to watch out for the coal trucks too. This is coal country, but it looks like it’s struggling – and has been for a while. A lot of folks live in mobile homes, often quite dilapidated, and they tell me that the coal industry is all they have. With mist hanging over the mountains and the omnipresent mining, it feels like I’ve passed from the Shire to Moria. Indeed, I even passed through a town called “Dwarf”!

Close Encounters

Who knew that tortoises were native to this part of the United States? The rural idyll of the Shire gave way to strenuous, steep climbs through lush, deciduous forests, followed by spectacular descents that have left me quite euphoric, especially if, as on this day, I hadn’t yet had breakfast. And so it was that I came upon my first tortoise. No bigger than the palm of my hand, he was crossing the road. I pulled up and carefully put him safely on the grassy verge. Spotting a mom and pop diner down the road, I pulled in and mentioned the tortoise to the lady behind the counter. “Oh, we have to dodge ’em all the time”, she commented, in a tone that suggested that she didn’t hold with being inconvenienced by a tortoise.

Wondering whether a tortoise crossing the road would bring good luck, I didn’t spot the 3ft long stalk in the road until my front bicycle wheel was on top of it. To my dismay, the head and tail of the “stalk” whipped up towards my bare ankles. Clipped into the pedals, I couldn’t release my feet in time, but my rear wheel did the rest anyway. Sadly, the snake was done for.

I’ve been cycling on and off with the retired military guys (Bill, Don, and Dan) in the last few days. They invited me to share their campsite in the National Forest last night. Having dodged thunderstorms for the past few days, it was my first night camping. Aware of the guys’ scrutinous gaze, I was glad that I had practiced pitching my tent at home before attempting it in public. Chuffed with myself for pitching it with aplomb, my self-congratulations quickly dissipated when Bill casually commented that I had the flysheet inside out. (Deduct butch points for that.)

Today, I crossed the state border into Kentucky. Camping again tonight – this time in the grounds of the historical society. Besides the usual raccoons, there are also four bears hanging around. Hopefully, it will be a quiet night…

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine

The flatlands of Virginia gave way to lush rolling countryside, with lots of upsies and downsies, as Bilbo Baggins might have said. I couldn’t decide whether I’d stepped into the Shire or a painting by John Constable, the 19th century English landscape painter. He would have had a field day here (sorry for the pun).

A few days ago, I fell in with some retired military guys, also cycling the TransAm. They were going to stay the night at another church that offers hospitality to cyclists passing through, and invited me to join them. The congregation even cooked us dinner – complete with vegan dishes. I felt humbled by their generosity and faith.

In anticipation of a climb of over 3000 ft over the Appalachian mountains, I had jettisoned my shoehorn a couple of days ago, but regretted it when I noticed that one of the guys was carrying two folding camp stools strapped to his panniers. Aware that my red blood cell count is lower due to the leukemia, I wasn’t sure whether I would have the oomph to climb to 3000+ ft on a heavily loaded bike, but I needn’t have worried. The day was cool and misty, and the climb seemed endless, but the scenery was spectacular. We were cycling a 27-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which threads its way along the backbone of the Appalachians through Virginia and North Carolina. The Virginia Dept. of Public Works must have read my previous post because the verges were pristine – not a can, bottle, or Trump sign in sight.

And There Was Much Rejoicing!

“Storm alert! You’ve got to find cover.” Shaken out of the reverie induced by the beautiful Virginia creeks, lush forests, and melodic birdsong, not to mention the humid heat, the pastor of the local church insisted that I take cover NOW. The storm would last all night, he said. He showed me into the church hall, where 7 other TransAm cyclists had already taken refuge. I was welcome to use the kitchen, shower, and lay out my sleeping bag wherever I wished. Right on cue, the storm broke, preceded by an abrupt drop in temperature and a rushing wind.

It had been a perfect first few days’ cycling. Flat for the most part with a warm breeze that often carried the heady fragrance of flowering foxglove trees and lupin trees. No idea of their real names, so I named them myself. And then a sudden flash of iridescent blue – a Virginia whoopee bird perhaps? No, the first of many discarded cans of Bud Light. Bud seems to be the beverage of choice in these parts. The verges are littered with cans, bottles, and bags of trash. At the thought of being taken out by a bottle of Miller Lite, I instinctively tightened my helmet.

History is everywhere in Virginia, with signs commemorating settlements and battles (civil war I think), signs to historic homes and plantations, and modern-day signs in front yards with the single word “Trump”. Guess they’ve not yet felt the “Bern” down here. I thought of gathering a beer bottle or three from the verge and taking a few pot shots at a Trump sign, but hastily changed my mind on sighting a local sitting on his verandah in his Y-fronts with his shotgun handy. I mustered a cheery wave and a “Go Trump” instead and cycled on.