Day 33

I am in the library. I have been reading up on Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, minerals, Iceland spar, solenoids, the temperature in Nevada at night, an environmental consultancy I'm interested in working for, and home rule municipalities. I made to leave but turned around when I realized I could listen to an album that I must be the crowning musical achievement of the young 21st century. Ys, by Joanna Newsom. As she weaves her harp arpeggious and baroque, something quite American shines through: the rare (too rare) three-part female harmony, the banjos, the cowboy's harp, her hi-Appalachian twang. And the great orchestral swells in and out again. And it all blends together beautifully. And it sounds so old, like it's a miracle recording equipment existed that could catch this thing and put this it to (magnetic) tape.

It is the perfect soundtrack to Telluride because the place blends together beautifully too. As I listened, I stared out at a mountain that stitched red rock into evergreens and grass without any visible seams. Waterfalls pass through houses here. The sun seems to take some physical shape when it is long and passes down the box canyon onto Bear Pass. Earlier, I hiked up to the Bridal Falls and stared up at the house with the generator in it. This is the house of a mad American King. There is a rusty gondola to carry everyone up to court. There is a small widow's walk (or is it a window?) for the Queen to lie and wait for her millionaire miner to return from getting her gold and other heavy metals. All their power is AC from the waterfall. They are rich with gravity. Birds fly down the valley and bring them news and berries. The king heads down to the village for his weekly meeting at the Masonic lodge and to look up into the bordello windows. He walks the mile up past the power plant and its green ponds and then up to his wife with wildflowers by way of apology.

I woke up at 6:30 so I could be at Maggie's bakery by 7. A tremendously youthful German geophysicist was there with his son and grandson. The boy called him Opa. They lived in Boulder, which is where he taught. They kindly invited me to eat with them. The grandfather biked across country and got his family hooked. They liked to rotate riding in Europe and the States every summer. They were heading south. He talked about traveling Mexico by car and feeling that it seemed empty at speeds, but would reveal itself on the bike. We could all agree that the bike keeps you riding at the speed of older journeys. When you slowly travel Europe, the languages, food, architecture, and geography can change in a steep afternoon's climb.

I should like to be this man when I'm his age, intelligent, smiling, wildly curious at 7 in the morning.

I went to a coffee shop for a latte and was reminded of why I hate these places. Every barista (I prefer cashier) thinks he or she has the greatest, most diverse taste in music which shuffles around -- too early -- why? -- perhaps to win over the pale girl in Telluride -- the one in the corner -- perhaps to suggest that he is more than a barista (I prefer cashier) -- he was once in a band -- he's working on an album on afternoons off from mountainbiking -- ugh. I stayed there for 2 hours. The coffee was great. I have mapped out most of the rest of my trip.

I will be in San Francisco in two weeks and three days at the latest. I'll be riding short days in the desert because a lot of my options are either 68 miles or 148. I think we can all agree I've made the right choice. I hope to camp out on some vineyards in the Sierras and to put 20 on black in Carson City. If I win that, I'll put 20 on my birthday. If I win that, I'll invest the money in a really hi-quality Elvis costume.

I've yet to figure out how to get from the East Bay over to the North Bay and into San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge. I can hit Sonoma and Napa, but I can't seem to avoid San Quentin. Is San Quentin nice this time of year, or should I wait for the foliage?

Before all that, I plan on reading my Twain up the valley and by the river.

But that's all the future-flexible. We did a little bit of the past-todayish. Now let's do the present-now. I'm still in the library, but, don't worry, I'll be in Fat Albert's soon enough. A Mexican man seated to the left of me is updating his Match.com profile and furiously clicking on some girls who, from their photographs, have no need for online dating. Ys has run out. The mountains are still here.

I can imagine Tesla living on the top of the mountain, a mad-American King, thinking magnetism and inventing electricity. There is a bit of that here. The rocks on the way to the Bridal Falls were shiny and metallic. The box canyon seems to trap some energy in it -- no, not holistic energy, man -- but perhaps solar. Perhaps this could be rigged up like a large solenoid. Perhaps we could use this large solenoid to pull comets towards earth and bring back Mark Twain for a brief lecture tour and to collect some hard earned royalties from Hal Holbrook. Perhaps, sadly, it is time to leave Telluride. Tomorrow, I will be back on the road. I will be rested and I will be fed.


Day 32, I have arrived

I am in Telluride. Nothing -- not the sun, not the full day climb, not making the awful mistake of taking 5 electrolyte pills and swelling shut -- could keep me from her. I'm sipping a latte. I'm under an aspen tree and a banner of multi-colored Tibetan prayer napkins. They're made in China.

I'm reading the local paper, The Telluride Watch. Some guy named Art Goodtimes is kvetching about which burial service is best. The man hates paragraphs. The rest of the paper is all green building, green shopping, the Dalai Lama, some local bartender/dj getting stabbed in the neck, and real estate listings. Garrison Keillor is syndicated. He's in New York. The balls on this man. First, he claims that the whole place smells of pizza and fresh coffee (it doesn't). Then he compares getting on a train in Penn Station to getting the last one out of Warsaw in 37 (overstating it a bit). Then he goes on about beautiful New York women and terrorism (?). This is travel writing at its worst: unfocused, false, and unfocused.

Telluride is lovely and a little bit frightening. My campsite is infested with flies. Doug Silver behind me is shouting in my ear about an amazing piece of property he's trying to sell ("I'd just hate to see it go to waste"). A gaggle of five teenage girls teleported in from the Upper West Side to talk about calling Doug and seeing if he was interested in Ani (Doug Silver?). A man in his mid-forties with an impressive amount of hair is chatting up our barista and is all "cool" this and "awesome" that. He is going to go mountain biking with his kids. It's 3 on a weekday. When I grow up I want to be so busy I can't see my kids until at least 7 on weekdays and that's if they make an appointment. And I vow that they'll never see me in shorts.

I'm off to the Free Box. Apparently I can just drop off stuff I don't want (the scissors I cut my hair with) for stuff I do (a red union suit for my desert nights). We'll see.

I'm back from the Free Box with a free flannel. A gentleman with sunbleached hair and teeth chipped from mountain biking gifted it to me.

X: Keep the free box free!
G: Keep the free box free!?

He also recommended some mountain biking trails to me and the historical museum.

X: There's stuff in there that you'd never see anywhere. Mining gear. Photos of John Denver.

After he let go of my hand, I walked down Main Street. This is a national landmark. Where hokey art galleries, western wear stores, and lovely cafes are, there were once bordellos and banks. One bank was robbed by a young Butch Cassidy. An older Nikola Tesla built the world's first AC- generating hydroelectric damn here; it is now a house that I'll try to check out.

I can't find my union suit here. I did find a free gondola, which I rode to a free concert. Nobody knew who was playing. Scuttlebutt had it she was the daughter of an old folkie. The turnout was massive. You are allowed open containers here in Telluride and its sister village. Everyone was friendly and jolly on the sunny side of the mountain.

You are keeping me from my pulled pork sandwich. Here's something you should never say to the chef at a restaurant called Fat Albert's.

G: So are you Albert?


Day 31

I just made a horrible mistake. I'm sitting in the corner at a Pizza Hut all-you-can-eat buffet. I am that guy. I am determined to get my 6 dollars worth.

There is a strategy to overeating. I was discussing this with my waitress at the burrito joint I nearly snuffed it in. Do bread last. Avoid carbs. Avoid chewing. Don't taste anything. Don't get distracted. I might add to that list, never confuse Pizza Hut's strawberry and icing pizza with pepperoni. The shock would fell a less conditioned man.

Same old stuff today. Colorado gets prettier, rode with my wheel unscrewed for 36 miles, wobbled into Gunnison and had a man fix my bike in 7 seconds, ate eggs, went down to canyon country, ran along Blue Mesa Lake (which isn't really blue, but the mountains around it are), skirted Black Canyon of the Gunnison (one of the eight wonders of my world), stopped by the Black River to give myself a crap haircut and a rinse, got to Cimarron, waved to a statue I thought was alive, really, really wanted to quit for the day, carried on 5 miles straight up and 15 straight down into Montrose where they have Pizza Hut and a mini-golf course that doubles as a campsite. With luck, I'll get site 18.

So there you have it. I am a day's away from Telluride. I need it. My knees won't go anymore. I have been dreaming about this for a long, long time. I want to see Nikola Tesla's generator house. I want latte. I want mountain girl. I want long underwear. I want ride gondola. I want healthfood store to sell me pills that make my legs feel great, like when I was working in copyediting and they never touched the floor.

I think it's important to believe in something. I believe I'll have some more pizza.

Day 30, a quick correction

Salida is pronounced Sal-EYE-Duh.

I also forgot to note that I got three thumbs up from drivers on the way up, and a hi-five when I got to the top.


Day 30, part 2

If you are a fan of the posts where I go through extensive suffering -- versus talking about how nice everyone is -- please enjoy my afternoon.

I am in Sargents sitting in an genuine teepee, just like the Indians before me. There are traditional Indian paintings, there is the standard, miniature flap door, and there is the traditional propane-fueled fire ring. I couldn't have celebrated my anniversary any better.

Well. After I washed my clothes I got to talking to a beautiful and charming Salidan girl with dreadlocks (note: Sal-EE-Dan). She started telling me about all the neat things in town, was polite enough to laugh at my jokes (and not my unfortunate outfit) and wondered if I mightn't rest in Salida and hit up the hotsprings. The next lines of dialogue would have been the smart thing to say --

G: I wouldn't know where to find it.
X: I could show you.
G: I haven't got a bathing costume.
X: That won't be necessary.
G: I love you.

What I ended up saying was that I'd always have Monarch pass scaring me subconciously and that it would ruin the bathing experience. I made to pedal off, she wished me luck with my trip, I wished her luck finishing her laundry.

I then went to one of those combination maternity wear/gun shops, went into a darkened alley, and proceeded to strangle myself with a 7-month dress. Cheating death, I went into a coffee shop and had the first latte of the trip. Note this conversation starter:

G: Good morning.
Y: Good morning.

From here the whole places makes like I've returned home from war a hero. Everyone's talking, everybody knows your name. If you have the option to work from home, move to Salida.

I biked up towards Monarch pass (elev. 1,312 feet). With my height at 6 feet flat, that makes the highest I'll climb this trip. Things are going swimmingly until it starts to rain.

I have forgotten rain as I have forgotten hills. The last time I was rained on I spent the night in a men's room. This time, I spent it riding up a winding road into thunder-and-you-know, around landslides, and then high enough for rain to become glorious hail.

I believe the bike helmet is nearly useless. You'd have to be pretty naïve to think a plastic hat would save you from a jackknifing manure spitter. If you've ever seen a smushed armadillo then you know how worthless a hard exoskeleton can be against a harder Mack truck.

That said, my helmet came in handy twice today. A bird made a nest in it yesterday night, and it made for a great hail shield. Hail is hard. Getting caught in it is like being stoned to death by Lilliputians. Death will happen, just be patient.

I climb, I freeze, I near the top, I near the lightning, trucks spray me half to death, I use what little ESP I have to do the same to them. I make it to the top. Bless Colorado, there's a gift shop.

I order a large hot cocoa and 10 dollars worth of fudge. I couldn't stop shivering. I had my arms wrapped around my chest and slowly tried to raise my body temperature. I wrote some texts. I stared blankly and talked to some (motor)bikers from Missouri ("God the water managed to get through my rain pants." Eat shit. I'm dying here. And I'm in shorts). The proprietor says another front's coming. Now is my chance.

I make for the bike, fumble with my gloves, put on my golf-inspired windbreaker, bite down on my teeth to stop them chattering, and point us downhill. Two massive trucks with massive fans are lumbering down the hill. I pass one to get down faster. The storm is on me. I'm blowing downhill at 40 miles an hour, everything is freezing, my eyes can't squint any smaller and still hail hits my precious eyeballs, and I can't move my hands. Sections of the road have become rivers. The whole thing was terrifying, zero fun (well...), and even when the air got warmer I refused to. I could not move my legs. Things began to flatten out and then the truck I passed took his sweet revenge by passing me with a millimeter to spare. I loudly wished him well.

I saw a small cafe. I couldn't move my knees so I rolled up to the wooden front and keeled over. I clicked out from the ground. I swung the saloon doors open and made straight for the hot coffee. I had four cups. I spilled half of the first one on the floor I was shaking so hard. The waitress took pity on me and brought me some chili. Another woman gave me a towel she'd warmed up. Some (motor)bikers told me to go into the gift shop, try on a fleece for an hour, and then return it. I passed on the latter.

I was in the Pacific half of the country. I had crossed the Continental Divide in a month. I was also, unknowingly, in the campground I planned on staying at.

G: I called earlier about pitching a tent.
Z: Oh you're the guy. That'll be blah blah blah.
G: Where is the lot?
Z: Over there by the teepees.
G: Teepees?
Z: Yes.
G: Sign me up for that chief.

I showered. For an hour. I got ready. I went back for more food. I met a nice man from Kansas City (Go Broncos!) who was there dirt bike riding. Last year, he rode his (motor)bike to the see the ocean for the very first time. Riding south on 1 on the California coast, if you look down you see the ocean. He was pleased. He dreamed of a trip to Alaska, but the guy he was planning it with hurt his shoulder skydiving. I do hope he makes it work somehow.

Minor annoyance. Bill O'Reilly was on the TV. Dan, the man from the paragraph above (Go Broncos!), likes him. He says it like it is apparently. I don't want to debate that here or ever. (Sometimes, SF, there isn't enough vomit in the world.) I did have the privilege of meeting Bill O'Reilly at an amazing concert and can say this empirically: he's boring. And sometimes that's worse than being wrong.

This fire is amazing.

Day 30, part 1, how to celebrate a month

I am in Salida, unrested from sleeping on a bench by the highway. But the sun, the sun woke me up by turning every red rock on at 530 in the morning. I made Salida by 8, finally picked up the maps, ate a cream cheese pumpkin muffin, a chocolate croissant, and a scramby eggs on a fresh ciabatta. I rode up the Arkansas and couldn't see the thing -- it was one long, blinding gold mirror.

I am washing my clothes with some hip 60-year-olds and listening to the radio. The first 15 seconds of Annie Lennox's "Walking on Broken Glass" are nearly perfect. Seeing an old cowboy tap his boots to it is completely perfect.

I got the next series of maps from Boris, who you may remember from my first hard day in Kentucky. Back then, as I remember it, this blog was a daily log of human and geographical failure. I barely wrote about people, so let's do Boris some justice as he is greatly responsible for the shift to the better.

The first day in Kentucky was the hardest day of riding. It also had the most pleasant surprise at the end of it. David, proprietor of the Historical Society, was waiting for me with a perfectly cool glass of sweet tea that helped me forget the cruelly steep hills I'd had to pass since the breaks. Boris had gotten there at noon and found it so nice he just stayed.

Boris was the first other cyclist I'd gotten a chance to sit and talk with. He was all advice: who to stop and say hello to; where to eat the best pie; where to camp with swimming pools and waterslides; and, most importantly, how to take your time and make this a trip about the country and people.

You can track cyclists traveling in the opposite direction by the many bike books in restaurants, inns, bathrooms, gas stations, and RV parks across the country. And so I could see Boris (San Fran --> Yorktown) at many of the spots I hit: "Tremendous pie, I'm waiting for one more slice"; "Thank you so much B---- and V----- for taking me into your home and your kindness..."; etc, etc, etc. He played frisbee golf with cacti in the desert. He took a day off to watch little league in Kansas.

I emailed him after he finished his goodwill tour in Yorktown. The mapmakers (who I am not tremendously fond of) ran out maps. I would have been stuck in Pueblo. Boris spent part of his first day back home express mailing me the maps and then emailing me the directions to Salida. Then he wrote a massive email listing more great things to see (abandoned motels in the desert), and where to get fresh water.

So, unsuccinctly, thank you. He lives in San Francisco and should pop up in this narrative when I get to the sweet, sweet Pacific.


Now, it's been a month. My clothes are in the dryer. I have 6 minutes to decide if I celebrate this anniversary by crossing the highest pass on my trip or by getting as close to the top as I can and taking it easy. I do need a shower quite badly. I guess we'll see.

Day 29, a day of changes

Many eventful days begin with slow mornings. Today was one of those. We set no alarms. We planned on sleeping in. We were up at half past seven.

You have not known pain if you have not shaved off a months face bristle with hotel soap and a single blade razor.

We went and ate breakfast at the diner across the parking lot. I looked twelve. There were a lot of Sunday regulars. Our waitress and a large man were huddled around the TV watching a local boy compete in the Tour de France. So did I. I even ordered 8 slices of French toast in honor of the last day of the tournament.

These men are small monsters. It takes a particular kind of strength to compete in any athletic event that lasts a month, and so my hat's off to the hopped up jockeys in leotards. Now, if they really wanted to impress me, have them carry all their gear and keep the bikes in one speed -- like in the Tour's early days.

The Tour did nothing for motivation. We waddled back to the room and put off everything. Today was the last day Connor and I would be riding together, and so there was a bit of sadness on top of altitude sickness and fatigue that made leaving Pueblo a challenge.

The massive storm drains along the Arkansas are covered with large colorful portraits. Downtown Pueblo has some striking buildings and I felt some regret that I did not do a bit more exploration. We rode through the park and onto the winner of best street name on the trip so far -- Goodnight Boulevard.

The Pueblo lake area looks like a miniature grand canyon. Actually, I can't do any of today's sights -- my most beautiful day -- justice. You'll have to wait for my photos or someone else's. These might be lacking also.

Eventually, we hit the town of Wetmore. This is where I go straight west and Connor goes north. We looked for water, found none, and settled for shade. Connor was a tremendous person to ride with: I met a thousand more people because of his easy affability; we were equal in speed, films watched, books read, our understandings of what the value and purpose of slow travel is; he always ate a full 3-course meal and convinced you to do the same; he hated bike talk; he fundamentally understood this isn't an athletic event and convinced me of the same; he was just great company. I owe him a malted mikshake (it turns out one cannot eat 3 pieces of bread in a minute). I hope he comes to New York to collect.

One last note on the subject and then on to the afternoon. If you're traveling across country, you want a Sal Paradise not a Dr. Gonzo by your side: somebody good and somebody interested in everything and somebody who rarely sleeps.

So west led me straight over my first pass. I climbed 4000 ft. I sweated, I got nauseous, I was lightheaded, and I loved. Colorado has had a tremendous amount of snow and everything is green and rocky. The hills are not as steep as the Appalachians and there are no trees looming over you. When you get up top of the pass, you are free to look around you at cloud height, down to the light green cattlefields at the base of the real Rockies, and straight up at the jagged mountains you've yet to hit.

I met a cyclist who'd just come across the desert. He'd invented a kind of mask made out of cloth with hundreds of little American flags printed on it. He drank water right through the thing. He showed me right there on the side of the road. He recommended the opera in Telluride.

I got to Westcliffe and stopped dead. I went to a Mexican restaurant, chatted with the chef, had three flautas, and chatted with two young Britons I'd met earlier on at the Colorado border. I could not move. I went to the dingiest motel, asked what the dingiest room might cost, told them to go stuff themselves, and asked the directions to Cotopaxi. It was 26 miles away.

26 miles yes, but 26 miles down a rolling hill, into the sunset, narrowly beating storm clouds, past a beautiful pasture, into a ravine, down it at 40 miles an hour as the green makes way for orange and red rock, and right to the Cotopaxi store.

I am sleeping at the store. The man with the mask told me it was OK. I'll be up by 6, but I might just stick around for breakfast. I'm only a few miles from Salida, where my maps await, and then only a few miles from where I plan on stopping. I will wait at the base of Monarch pass. American Flag Man alleged that Monarch is the tallest in the nation. If so, I'll want a days rest and clean clothes.


Day 29, a small landmark

I watched my first movie since starting this trip. It was the new Batman. It was brilliant. I find movies to be one of the most moving, total entertainments. And this particular time I found it much more satisfying for numerous reasons, chiefly: I haven't seen images fly that quickly past my eyes; I haven't felt speed and kinetics like in the batmobile chases since my descent down Vesuvius; and come on, it's Batman.

I woke up with all my blood in my groin. I was sleeping like a banana on an imitation leather couch. It was donated. About three month's back, Gillian's home and ranch burned down in a fire that devastated much of Southeastern Colorado. The winds pushed the blaze at 60 miles an hour. It took Gillian a week to put out the fires in horse manure and on the railroad ties.

Gillian lost everything. She was stoic about the deal -- in the way you'd fully expect a Kiwi prison warden to be -- but she was upset about losing her photos. She also lost 10 years worth of logs and diaries she kept when sailing the world. So, miles from home, miles from the sea, in a donated house in a drought ridden town, wearing a donated highschool basketball jersey, Gillian helped us to goose eggs. Alicia, the fragile young girl helping around the property, mended a gosling's wing.

We rode out at 730 and made it to Pueblo by noon, despite stopping to chat with a nice bunch of cyclists from Portland with an ambitious travelplan. We had to make the post office before closing. We missed Crowley County Days, but we did see a fifty-odd classic cars drive past us on the way to the parade. Every single one waved.

The road to Pueblo was flat and uneventful. Well, I did run over a rattlesnake. Oh, and far away, blue with distance, the Rockies pricked up in the sky until they surrounded us. I am leaving flatness behind.

Pueblo is nice enough. A lot of cyclists found it a little dicey and unfriendly, but bear this in mind: any city of size is going to look bad next to the small mountain town; any city is going to seem spooky if you have to ride through the whole thing; and come on, they have a movie theater.

They also have good Mexican. We went to a nice restaurant next to a bike shop. I tried to eat a 9 pound burrito in a competition with the chef. It was called El Burrito Loco. Once I was served, I was not allowed to leave my seat until I cleaned my plate or quit. I left a loser. I don't care to see the man who can eat a 9 pound burrito.

A nap was in good order. I've been feeling lousy from the fast cycling, the long days, and the altitude. I'm feeling a bit of burnout, but I should make it to Telluride before I crash. The 5 pounds of burrito I ate did not help one iota.

I slept until 6 and then it was off to the health food store on my way to the cinema. The walls were lined with vitamins, granola bars, gluten-free shoes, head massagers, and kombucha. The women who worked there were beautiful, smiling sextagenarians who darted back and forth to help me get one of everything and anything that would make me feel better. They all had long, flowing hair that was lined with grey. They were healthy colored. It was like being helped by Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, and Joni Mitchell if they all happened to be your mother and were wildly concerned with your health. Note: Not a bad idea for a tremendously unpopular sitcom.

I'm in my motel room. As I click, I am fighting the burrito with wonderful health food. I am sleeping in. I am navigating without maps until Salida, but I'm not worried. I'll just point my bike towards those big green mountains.


Day 28, Welcome to Colorful Colorado, please enjoy the rodeo

Here is a slight disclaimer: I already love Colorado. I have loved it since I was a boy. I love the Rockies. I love the people and their athletic friendliness. I love the air. I love the Broncos. I love the milk. I love everything you can do here. I love that I have already met someone who has made the long flight to my hometown. I even loved John Denver when he guested on The Muppet Show.

I love it and I've looked forward to it and I got into it at about 8 this morning.

Our last night in Kansas was quite eventful. I had two bean burritos and mushrooms at a restaurant that also sold videos and bric-a-brac. Get Disney's First Kid starring Sinbad and a Hommel figurine for 5 bucks with a free side of curly fries. We ate with efficient joy, set up tent, and brushed teeth so that we could pass out by 8. We did this because we planned on waking up at 3 and making the long trip to Ordway without wind or sun.

Five minutes into sleep and a blinding light shines right into my face. I'm convinced it's either a group of people come to kill me or the sheriff come to write me a ticket for failing to yield fully at the 4-way. It is neither. It is the lights to the tennis court and, while I closed my eyes as tightly as I could, I did manage to make out that it was a very important match between two teenage girls who were both terrified of the ball. I have never heard such screaming.

I woke up again to my tent slowly suffocating me. The wind had picked up so fiercely that the side wall had wrapped itself around my face and blown up my nostrils. This was followed by a loud crash. Connor's bike had been blown into the air and onto the ground. He rushed to right it while I held his tent down.

My alarm went off just as I got to sleep. I had stayed up praying we wouldn't be struck by lightning. The storm worsened. The heat lightning had gone, but the wind picked up and was blowing against us. Connor's tent was completely smushed in on him. If we were to head out, we'd have to bike as hard as we could just to be blown backwards into Missouri. We made a tough executive decision: we went back to sleep.

We were back up at 530 and got ready to go. The wind might be up, but the storm had put hundreds of wonderful clouds in the air. I was even a little bit cold. We pushed on.

Then the best thing happened. We couldn't feel the wind. It was behind us and it stayed behind us as it pushed us across the rest of Kansas and 100 miles into Colorado. As I said in the first paragraph, I just love Colorado.

We ate lunch in Eads and were joined by a couple of Dubliners. These two got together over a couple of beers and drew up a map of places they wanted to see in the states using Google maps. Then they bought a road atlas and set about biking -- up to Yellowstone from San Francisco, back down to Vegas, over to the Rockies via Arizona, the desert at its hottest, and an Indian reservation.

They rode until they were tired and then they slept on the shoulder. They ate with real hunger at lunch. They survived the desert and coming upon town after town that existed on the maps but had either burned down or been abandoned. They had managed to see most of what they'd wanted to and they were only halfways.

I was very impressed. They weren't even sunburnt.

We arrived in Ordway at 6, had a decent meal, I lost a challenge to see if I could eat 3 pieces of bread in a minute (impossible), and we had a strange conversation with a curved-over man in camouflage about rattlesnakes. We went to Gillian's house and then the county rodeo.

Gillian is a woman from New Zealand who is kind enough to let cyclists into her home despite her being at work all day in the penitentiary. She has a hurt baby goose in her bathtub. She also has Alicia, who is working around the place in the mornings so she can live in sleepy, lovely Ordway. I have yet to meet Gillian, but I have spoken to her on the telephone.

The rodeo was tremendous. We walked from the dirt field in back of Gillian's to the floodlights and the music. We got there in time for the pairs cow lasso thingy, which was giving every rider trouble, and we stayed as the sun and lightning disappeared and the bull riding began.

One bull (KO) was not having it. He kicked and kicked in the stocks. Oddly, he was riden the longest. Heat -- what you could describe as a stretch-bull -- seemed friendly enough until he bucked his rider into the ground and stood on the boy's ribs. The boy, who had prayed to Jesus just moments before, was not that phased by being trampled. He was much more upset at going out so early. He had a nice pink shirt, sequined chaps, a new haircut (his neck tan gave him away), and he walked with all the unearned confidence young men often pretend to. He kept himself twice as busy after his loss, which helped keep his eyes down and away from the crowd.


Day 27, a small fragment

I ended up getting the necessary courage and heatstroke to get in the pool.

Lying face down on the poolside was a plump blond woman with skin the color of beef jerky. She had a special harness for her face so that she could tan her broad shoulders without crushing her nose. She had a tremendous laugh.

In the deep-end were two elderly ladies doing aquarobics and me. They had polystyrene harnesses and weights and they managed to keep their permanented hair dry. One of the two women had a terrible bruise across her face.

I eavesdropped while resting on the pool's gutter.

"It's interesting that you say that because when we did it he took our hands like so [folded over each other] and then pronounced us."

"See we had our hands by our sides and only when we were husband and wife could we grab each others palms."

"But the prayer was the same."

"Oh yes. The prayer was."

Day 27, we're almost not in Kansas anymore Toto

Forgive me the obvious subtitle, but I think I've either earned it or Kansas and the heat have melted any archness from my brain.

It's 105 degrees here. I'm at the pool in Tribune. I'm sweating in the shade. I'm in Mountain Time. I was reading my Twain book.

Woke up early today so that we could wake up early tomorrow. We rode for about 50 miles today (perhaps my shortest day yet) in anticipation of 120 miles tomorrow (perhaps my longest). We got into town early and had an early lunch at the Chatterbox Cafe.

Sometimes places live up to their names. Everyone was talking at the Cafe. People were shouting to us from across the room. "Where you from?" "Hot enough for you?" "Where you heading?"

A gentleman with a respirator wished us well. His wife offered us the local newspaper, The Hutchinson Post. A sweet, round couple who wore their pants very high told me about their daughter's trip to my hometown. She worked as a nanny for the man who built our soccer stadium. She flew in first. Apparently, she drinks scotch as a habit; on the flight, she had two 20 year old glasses of Chivas.

"That's not even a single malt," he said.

I told him I've never understood why those are so expensive.

"Because somebody's willing to pay for it!"

Quite wise. I went to the library, sat in a BarcaLounger, cracked open a copy of Adventure Kansas, rested it across my face and went to sleep. I woke up at closing, we to City Hall, looked at some neat old photos and a barbed wire collection, and then I hit the pool.

That brings us to now with one big omission. I no longer eat beef. There are hundreds of reasons to avoid eating another animal. I have three of the least noble: I'm sick of looking at them, or them looking at me; I hate the machines they use to move them around; and I have driven by a feedlot.

Now I think it is completely fine to remain willfully naive about some things. You can't feel bad about every decision. If you love the taste of a good hamburger -- as I do -- ignore my last paragraph and head to Shake Shack.

When the prairie cow turns 3 he is fattened up before death (humans follow this arc somewhat). What does a 3-year-old grass fed cow eat? Cow! Not, perhaps, what you and I might recognize as cow unless you are particularly fond of hoof, horn, bone, anus, and intestine. This swollen cow is then killed, subdivided, and sometimes sold to you as grass-fed wondercow.

I just don't think this sounds healthy. And the bloody trucks they use.

Day 26

Kansas is subtly different today. Imagine her from yesterday, but less rain and flatter land has made her paler and short. I'll be honest, some of her beauty might be fading away too.

The grass is shorter in this part of the High Plains. Well I'll take it. The grass keeps everything down. Remember, this was once the Dustbowl. Best not to rip up the topsoil to grow potatoes here.

I had a minor depression today. The wind just would not get off my case. When it wasn't directly in my face, it decided to blow hard into the left side of my bike and body. To keep from riding into the shoulder (and up to Nebraska), I had to lean my entire body's weight on the right side on my handlebars. Fine. Then, settled, a Mack truck filled with cattle would come flying down the opposite lane and send a horrible gust of wind into your chest. It was like leaning into a punch or being sprayed by shrapnel made of cowshit.

This began to wear thin. I should never have drank a gallon of soy milk at breakfast. Elaine made the best granola and, after giving me a CD ROM of some kind of rapture inspired videogame, Dan played us one last song. "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" is the perfect song for a Kansas sunrise and sweet goodbyes.

We walked outside and briefly met the 80-year-old man who farmed last night's sweet corn. As a teenager, he and his Sunday school class built a large sign outside of town that is visible from an airplane. It says: Jesus Pilot Me. Is it asking or saying in broken English? The man is a spry 80, and he says this is because he never drank or smoke or did anything but love the Lord. We took photos of him holding a rock with the sign carved into it. He sells them for 30 bucks.

But back to me being in a bad mood. Good feelings wear with the wind, and after three hours of cowshit shrapnel punches, I was about ready to stop my bike, run into a cornfield, grab an ear and shout a violent obscenity in one of the few parts of the country where that might still matter. It made me mad.

Compounding this all, the electric motor I've been using to power my bike died. It's Korean. It uses 37 hearing aid batteries every 70 miles. I hate buying new batteries because some teenagers slip them behind their eyelids to get high. You should see the dirty looks I get at the pharmacy. I broke a sweat just worrying about it.

Scott City couldn't have come fast enough. Towns pop up from about 10 miles out here. You can see a town's grain elevator take over the sky like the Emerald City itself. We made our battered way to a Mexican restaurant, ate modestly, and then hit the Athleticlub.

The Athleticlub let's cyclists sleep on the floor, use the showers, and, most importantly, use their jacuzzi. They also have a diving board. The room I am lying in now has little girl's gymnastics lockers, a series of trophies, a large fan, and a couple of framed photographs of George Bush and Regan on a white horse. Oddly (or not), this is the exact same trope used on my rapture CD-ROM.

And that is a full day. We have an easy one tomorrow to Tribune (named for the New York Tribune) and we're going to try and wake up at 5 and bang it out. I'll be in bed soon, but I want to leave the day with breakfast because what we were talking about (and that we were talking about it) was all quite interesting.

We talked about organic food, mad cow's disease, other wasting diseases, agribusinesses that don't allow you to keep last year's seeds, and agricultural talk radio. Dan is a sometimes phone in caller. One farmer called in and wanted to know why hormone free organic milk lasts longer. The host had no answer.

An angry farmer called in to say that all this organic talk is rubbish and we should just go back to doing it like we used to, like our grandparents did. He meant using pesticides and hormones like our grandparents did. Even if his family were prodigious breeders, I should have liked to have had the chance to correct him. Dan was in his harvester at the time, but he wanted to give the man hell.


Day 25, late evening

Elaine's was a treat.

While her Easy Veronica with meatballs cooked, Elaine took us to Mitch's to see his miniature artwork.

Mitch makes small scenes and people out of sculpey and in eggs, gourds, or plain old dioramas. Some of his scenes included a saloon, an artist at work in his studio ("If you look you'll see the plugs all plug in," noted Elaine), a lighthouse off of Cape Cod, Eskimos on ice, and a Scotland scene. The last one was going to go inside an emu's egg.

"I was looking at the egg and it wasn't quite right. Then it tipped over onto its side and I thought [*snap*] sideways!"

Mitch paints some and he also makes statuettes. He's got a Valkyrie, a gypsy girl, a barbarian with sword, and a female preacher with Tibetan lambswool for hair.

His house smells of old cigarette smoke. Everything was low down so he could reach it from his wheelchair. Once, when he was at a fair, a heavy wind started to blow his tarp away. He grabbed his tarp to stop it from going, it kited up and started to roll him down the street. He stopped it in time, but he couldn't feel his feet drag a harbor scene gourd crashing to the ground. He was alone at the time.

Each scene takes him about 10 months to make. I mentioned that I loved the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History in New York and he told me that that's where he wanted to get his stuff. He asked me to flag down the curator if I ever see him, and, if I ever do, I will. Perhaps for someone in Bazine (pop. 435), meeting one person in New York (pop. 9 million?) might seem easy.

Dinner was fantastic. Elaine told us that if we're short of water we can cool off by jumping into cowbaths at the base of windmills. Dan, her husband, told me a little bit about his many jobs rolling hay or alfalfa, raising cattle for feed, raising feed for cattle, his positive thoughts on organic produce, his negative thoughts on Barack Obama (it was my fault for bringing it up, and my fault for lingering on it). His ears really pricked up when we talked music.

In 1964, Dan and his family were on vacation in Colorado. He and his brother were listening to the AM when they heard that there were tickets still available for the Beatles concert at Red Rocks Natural Amphitheater. With luck and $6.60, Dan saw the Beatles at their loudest.

Dan has seen all kinds of bands over the years. My ears pricked up when he said he broke through the ropes to see The Band play at Harvard. When I told him that I'd been recreating The Band by The Band all throughout Virginia and Kentucky, Dan returned with a copy of that LP and Music from the Big Pink.

We put it on the machine, I sat back and listened to the first scrap of music I've actively listened to in months. Dan apologized profusely for the fact that only one speaker worked and then he took the dogs out for a run alongside his pickup.

One speaker is fine and plenty. A parting lyric from Rocking Chair that I remember misremembering in the Appalachians:

"Oh to be home again,
Down in old Virginie,
With my very best friend,
They call him Ragtime Willy...
This hill's too steep to climb,
And the days that remain ain't worth a dime..."

I am halfway across the country.


Day 25

I have everything I need, here, in Bazine, Kansas.

I have my feet elevated in a hammock. I have my book and my notepad. I have a sharpened pencil. I have some almonds within reach. I have showered. I have no more riding to do.

It's 100 out, but I am in the shade. We woke up early, checked for dead ducks (there were none; or do duck eat duck?), grabbed a quick chocolate milk, and were heading west by 8. After a little while we made a right turn and headed north for 19 miles.

What's this? I can hear? I'm not bleeding out of my eardrums? Pedaling is easy again? I'm riding uphill at 20 miles an hour?

Finally, after a long four days journey into wind, a little bit of it at our backs. I apologize if the ratio of chat about how hard cycling is vs how joyful it can be is 87 to 13. In the interest of fixing my numbers, imagine this: you're spinning your feet through air while America at her most dramatic (yet) passes you by. The prairie is green in parts, golden in parts; the sky is whiteblue near the horizon and thick blue right above you. Most farm equipment is primary colored -- red, yellow, blue. The sun washes everything so that it blends nicely. The road remains black and yellow. There are a couple of clouds to keep things interesting.

I guess everything was so pleasant because I knew I'd be at Elaine's Bicycle Oasis by 1. This is where I am now.

Elaine is a lovely, softspoken woman whose idea of tourism is traveling to El Salvador for church volunteer work and getting guns pulled on her. She and her husband raise cattle but she has clearly driven miles out of her way to find soy milk for vegan cyclists. She likes us, despite whispers in the small town, because we are the kind of people who spend our holidays fighting our way across the country, people in transition, from college to retirement. Most of all, we are an appreciative lot. I thanked her three times for letting me use her shower.

We are driving in her truck to her friend Mich's house. Mick is disabled and paints miniatures and then glues them inside egg shells.

Day 24

I left the bike store at 3. The gentleman who fixed my spokes offered to sell me a wheel that -- his words -- was just as bad as mine. I told him I'd have to pass. Two spokes and a wheel true came to 22 dollars (2 little ducks -- quack quack). The gentleman threw in bending my fender for free. Baruch Spinoza managed to remain composed in the hardest of situations. Must remain Spinozalike.

I flew up northwards. The wind was at my back and I was at Nickerson in short time. Good. I was in a hurry. I wanted to get off the road before the sun was at face level and the Larned public pool closed. At the expense of much suspense, I will tell you flat out that this did not happen.

Between Nickerson and Larend is 58 miles of prairie, my first sunflower field, a waterfowl preserve, and no drinkable water. Naturally, I stocked up.

About 10 miles down the road I managed to pour the contents of one of my precious waterbottles on my legs (it did feel good) and I discovered that the gentleman at the bike shop had kindly emptied my other one for me. I would have to breathe through my nose.

In the distance, large rolling sprinklers sprayed gallons of water on the grassfields. I closed my eyes. Spinoza's philosophy is quite interesting (and awfully boring to read) because it makes philosophical arguments as geological proofs.

Allow me to attempt a geographical argument using geometry. Kansas' flatland cannot stop the wind from moving across it. The wind cools. Ergo, the people have to remain warm to each other. Otherwise, they would just blow away.

Breakfast at Joey's Diner was a lovely experience. Old men is various plaids and ladies in two pieces all approached us and asked us where we were going. They demanded we have a bigger table for all the food we were eating. They wished us well.

Larned has the only hill in the area. While writing to you from my tent, a group of teenagers stoned a duck to death in the pond next to my campsite. 20 minutes on and the ducks are still crying.

Larned reminds me a bit of the town in The Magnificent Ambersons. At the top of the hill is a mansion that predates the rest of the homes. It is a bit Georgian and seems to have been built with the idea that the hill around it would remain sparsely populated. This was not to be. You can see other large homes from the following decades -- none as nice -- and as times grew tougher, lots were divided and divided and flimsier homes were jammed in the cracks.

At the end of the estate is a nice Mexican restaurant. I had a Jarritos mandarin, ice-cream and churros, a quesadilla, a burrito, chimmichangas, chips and salsa. I had everything at the same time. In the background, a waitress tried to explain to a farmer why Mexican Coke is better than American Coke.

"Well, for starters, they don't use corn."


Day 24, a quick correction

They actually have shark in Kansas! This used to be a vast ocean and in Oakley you can see fossils of horrifyingly large shark. Fortunately, I'm past it.

Day 24, Stuck in Hutch

I am in Hutchinson. My faithful bicycle is being repaired and I will have to wait. So I went to the space museum.

The Hutchinson Cosmosphere was voted one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. I wonder why anyone would pay money to see a simulacra of the sky when any Kansan can get the real deal for free (good and clear and with a thick orange harvest moon). I didn't feel like paying for it either, so I stuck to the gift shop, bought some astronaut ice-cream to see if it was as disgusting as I remembered it (it was) and defaced some currency. For 51 cents, I smushed a spaceshuttle clean across Abraham Lincoln's proud, copper face.

And now I'm in the library. Hutchinson has a museum of Hollywood kitsch 650 feet underground in an abandoned mine, but sadly it's too far away to walk to. I will make do with the Wichita Business Journal, the tourist bureau's 'Kansas: as big as you think', and 'The Philosophy of Spinoza' by Spinoza.

I have 75 miles to go today and it looks like I'll be starting at 3. With luck, I'll be done at 11PM. I very well might have to ride by the stars.

Day 23, 100 degrees in the wind

Today was another slog through the winds of Kansas. It was horribly hot. But, for a good five hours, the corn gave way to grass.

West of Eureka are the flinthills of Kansas -- the largest natural grassland in the world. It stretches up to the tippy top of Nebraska and down as far as Oklahoma. Much of it, I'm told, is open range. Cattle (It's what's for dinner) get to wonder the wide strip until cowboys on ATVs round 'em up. Cows aside, they also farm oil and wind. The flinthills are hilly by Kansan standards and -- of this I am dead certain -- the winds always bluster westsouthwest.

We got an early start to try and beat the wind. Sadly, the wind got up even earlier. Consider the syllogism: the earl bird catches the worm; the early worm gets eaten and then vomited up and re-eaten; earliness is not all that jazz.

So we pushed on. We pushed on as Kansas went to church and then stayed home. We pushed on through ghost towns, down long straightaways, and right into Jim Davis. Jim had pulled his pickup onto the side of the road because he saw us and wanted to offer us a soda. We talked bikes, ranching, and all sorts of things because the longer we talked the longer we didn't have to bike, and because the longer he talked he didn't have to fix his sister's porch. It was lovely.

It was Kansas. The people are few and far between, but when you see them they're lovely. The ladies at Braum's ice cream were wonderful ("she has boys about your age you know; bless you; good luck"); the boy who turned 14 today and entourage were all sweet as could be when he invited us over for lemonade ("well, you know I'll be driving soon, so cyclists watch out").

I love it here. The sky is so clear it's like a planetarium. There are no sharks. Overcrowding isn't an issue. I've begun putting myself in a trance state so I can sleep through much of the riding. I keep my eyes open just thin enough to keep the yellow dashing by on my left and the gutter on my right. I think about how little time 6 hours ride is, say, to a prairie. I think about how I would have improved The Munsters (improvement number 23: add a living hand).

Oh: I called Pastor John to thank him for everything and to subtly apologize for calling him by the wrong name. He told me,

"Don't worry about it Jack. I've been called worse things."



Day 22, yet more Kansas

This was a day of ups and downs on flat land. I had a wonderful breakfast with Pastor John, who I called Bob through the entire meal, after he gave me his card (all I saw was a 16 letter surname), and when we said goodbye. I would hate myself for this for hours, but Johnbob did say that Christ was put here to save us from our sins and to remind us that we were fallible. I'll tell you what is infallible: Johnbob's fresh and strong coffee and his tremendous homemade biscuits with pumpkin jam. Plus, real butter in margarine country.

I left and biked west into the wind. I almost never stopped biking west. The wind almost never stopped blowing at me.

The land here drives you mad. A good working definition of infinity: think of the largest number you can and add 1 to it. And so it goes with Kansas. Think of all the corn you can and add ten miles to that. Ditto hay, yellow dashes in the middle of roads, telephone poles, and grass. There is no stillness in this. You move down a straight road with the worst feeling that you're going in circles.

But, with nothing in between, I made it to Eureka. I paused for milkbreaks and to tape down another popped spoke. I could have gone on for another 100 miles, but the bike shop in Hutchinson is closed on Sundays so I will have to wait them out and only go 77 miles tomorrow.

I am at the new pool. I went swimming earlier. My new friends and I -- Cody, Earl, and Cody's sister, all 11 -- had a couple of handstand contests, underwater races, and biggest splash conversation.

"So you're a biker huh?"
"That's right."
"I have a bike. It's one of those bikes from Wisconsin --"
"I farted, haHa."
"I ride it a lot now. But I crashed once. Schwin, it's a Schwin, but my Uncle Eric has another kind and he's a real biker."
"I can make my stomach fat."
"That's nothing," I said, "I saw a woman in Kentucky who couldn't fit in this entire pool."

Closing time at the swimming pool is one of young life's great sadnesses. It can't be explained. The other is dropped ice-cream cones.

I am cooking for myself for the first time in a small while. It's rice fro WalMart. The instructions ask for margarine. I'll try and find some when I hit up the bowling alley.


Pool closing


Day 21, my third week begins

Tonight I sleep like a king on the floor of Lutheran Pastor Bob's office. Bob welcomed us with fresh vegetables from his garden. After hellos, we walked back into it to grab some fresh sweet cream corn. We ate it, made a puttanesca with the veggies, and ate chocolate cake in a Sunday School classroom. We are in Kansas.

The United States is the Saudi Arabia of food and here are our oilfields. The plains unfold in four directions like an awful perspective drawing of corn, highway, sky, corn, hay, corn, and telephone poles. What you can't quite capture on the canvas is the wind.

I do not believe having enemies is petty. Multiculturalism does not exist if you are so polite as to allow everything to happen (the cannibal's right to dinner does not eclipse my belief in the rights of all mankind). Of course it is a sad day when one makes a new enemy: so welcome headwinds, meet totalitarianism, anti-individualism, fluorescent lights, U2.

The ex-marine I spoke to a while back told me this bit of pseudoshakespeare: every state takes its pound of flesh. I left Missouri five pounds heavier (I had pie for breakfast), potbellied, and in tremendous spirits. Five miles of biking against a 10 mile an hour wind left me miserable in Kansas. My poor bike registered its dissatisfaction by blowing a spoke a little ways down highway 7 our of Pittsburg, KS.

Pittsburg is a neat little town. There is one block of turn-of-the-last-century American vertical architecture and then it quickly descends into two story houses, ranch homes, trailers, plains. The post office is spectacular. I went into a pawn shop and found myself torn between a poster of Buzz Aldrin, a handgun, or a Dolly Parton album. I left with nothing.

A while up the street I stopped a man to ask directions. He knew nothing. He was probably my age but his cheeks were hollowed out and he wore his t-shirt around his shoulders like it was designed to improve his posture. His empty, sunbleached blue eyes could have been ripped from a Walker Evans photo or, as Connor correctly noted, Larry Clark.

And that brings us to now. Or then. Since starting this post I have taken a shower and I have helped Pastor Bob trap a small cat in a cobwebby basement. He returned to his crime procedural and I to you, but not without walking through a field of 100,000 fireflies.

Tomorrow, I am having breakfast with Bob and then hitting the flat road. I hope to ask Bob what, exactly, is Garrison Keillor's role in the Lutheran Church. I have 200 miles to the next bike shop. With luck, Rocinante should hold up until we can get him seen to.

Some parting advice: drink milk.

Day 20, entering the plains

I've injured myself eating. Forgive me if this post is short, but I can't get into my favorite writing position (sun salutation) on account of a distended tummy.

No matter how professionally or hard you exercise*, you cannot eat a beef brisket sandwich, a country ham, a chocolate milk, fried chicken livers, and three pieces of blueberry pie a la mode. You will feel bad in the best possible way. Now, complaints out of the way, I have found America's best restaurant.

Cooky's in Golden City, Missouri has everything. It's a family business. I had a granddaughter serve me her grandfather's cow. There is a warmth and friendliness to everyone and communal conversation that you would never find at a Per Se, per se. You can stay as long as you need or nap in the back. They allow kids. They have sundaes. And nearly every scrap of food is grown on the farm out back. A water sommelier will not stab you with a fork until you relent Pellegrino; you, normal eater, will spend 10 dollars.

The kicker: they actually want you to get full here. There are restaurants in New York City where, say, a lima bean salad is made from just a lima bean. At Cooky's, everything is plural.

A man cycling across country stopped into the restaurant and had a slice of pie. He stayed for 4 days and ate there for breakfast, lunch, and dinner until he had eaten every single freshly made pie. I only had Dutch blueberry because I struck gold the first time. And because I knew I was going there for breakfast.

Earlier, a man woke me from my 35th failed attempt at a nap and told me he was the warm showers man. That's a bit fresh! Warm showers, it turns out, is a collection of people who board cyclists out of no greater utility but pure selflessness and a love of conversation. As we talked, it turns out he was stationed in my home town, worked at the hospital my brother was delivered at, and bought custom made NoSqueak shoes at the military mall I used to buy my comics at.

He met us at the Golden City Idol competition in the park. We just missed a young -- really young -- country singer whose parents farm and take highschool photographs. Do you know how much a Missouran spends on a senior portrait? 1500 dollars for the full treatment, blemishes photoshopped and a gaussian halo added to your pickup.

Like I said, we missed her act but were given a CD. The dad took the photos and made the album art. On the verso, a listing of songs including Stand By Your Man. Her father made her up, stuck her in a windblown canyon and photographed her from a distance. On the front, he stuck his daughter in some black chamber and blurred her hair into infinity. I don't feel good having this thing so I have given it to Connor (who probably doesn't feel good having it either).

Interesting fact of the day: country music was invented the very year the urban population overtook the rural.

*This depends on whether you believe competitive eating is a sport.


Day 19, a feast and the promise of seconds

Diane, remind me to buy a drop tarp from a hardware store so that I don't have to lie on wet nylon without due cause.

Refreshed from my first night's sleep in a real bed, I was not. I stayed awake till something-past-midnight and then made the mistake of thinking 6 was 7 when I set my alarm. Fortunately, I was riding with Connor and we had both agreed the night before that the ride was going to be easy.

Connor is an artist out of Baltimore. He is traveling across the country for research (in part). He takes photographs of dense, dense woods and then painstakingly draws every knobling of bark with a very fine brush. The result is really quite impressive, both technically (think Durer etchings if that helps you) and in the harder, vaguer area of being neat to look at. His book asks you to 'Read Slowly', and I did. Perhaps I am starved for faces, but I saw people in the woods.

The panels (24?) move chronologically through a woods and so do we. The tall, thick trees of Virginia make way for the shorter, denser eastern redwoods of Kentucky, which in turn give way to broad farmland, fertile Mississippi flatlands, rolling, reddish Ozarks, and now the trees of Central Missouri, which have green leaves, trunks, and roots. As a matter of fact, I have a root wedged in my spine as I write these very words.

These trees are plugged right into the ground here, which, blessedly, is nearly flat. Connor and I trudged it today, a cool 80 miles with time for a library break, a failed nap on the skinniest bench I have ever seen, my best biscuit sandwich yet, yet more chocolate milk, and 5 of those magical cups of coffee that leave you more tired than you were before you committed to caffeine. I have little else to report except for that I think I had the best bagel of my life in Fair Grove, Missouri (hint: sourdough).

Can I tell you what I'm excited about? We are headed to Golden City tomorrow to a restaurant called Cookie's that just might give us 6 pies. If nothing else, inching one step nearer to pie has made the day a definite victory. Expect a long rant about the many pleasures of eating across this country.

Day 18

Please, let me gloat just this once. I beat the mighty Ozarks in a day, which, biblical scholars that you are, is about how long He took to put them up.

It wasn't particularly pleasant, and there were far too many logging trucks for my liking, but I had time for a nap at Alley Springs, I found myself a sarsaparilla in Summersville when I needed it most, and I had the large carrot of free soda and a hot tub dangling right in front of me. Tomorrow, I've been promised a brief trip to Dog's Bluff and a cliff jump into a creek (I'm told) to set my day off right.

This is going to get boring for you. I haven't had anything horrible happen to me for a little while. Missouri is pleasant enough. It's nice. So the week's challenge just might be narrative.

I walked into a greasy spoon to get change for my laundry. I noticed the woman running it because she was wearing lipstick just under her mustache. Everyone was smoking and staring at me.

"How do you all do?"
All together now: "Muh."

To the left of the boss was a strange taxidermied animal. It had the head of a rabbit, horns, a pheasant's body, and a fish's tail.

"Say, what do you call one of those?"
"I've yet to see one of those on my trip."
"You can't see them you Mo-ron. It's made up."

While I will sleep easier knowing there aren't flying, swimming rabbits, I am a bit concerned that a man decided to glue the ass of one animal to another -- and that another man or woman paid him for it.

Earlier that morning, at a hardware store in Ellington:

The nicest, nicest man charges up to me, all smiles at seven AM. He's in his fifties and has a bluetooth headset. I'm there for tape, but we get to talking.

"Well now where are you from?"
"Why gang, get a load of this. This nice young man biked all the way over the ocean from XX."
"I'm just joshing you. Hey, speak of it, here's Josh!"
"Oh hiyo. Everyone's always saying you're joshing me -- but I'm just Josh."
"There you go now."

I used all the tape I could, kept some, but returned the bulky roll. They could use it for something.

"Well I can't take this. Let me give you back some money. No? Well you have just made my day."

Well ditto.


Day 17, a musical addend

Cows masticate for no reason. They can have empty mouths and just keep on moving their teeth clockwise against each other.

My mind masticates bovine. I want to share one thing it's been doing lately.

It's making a megamix. It is horrible. It begins with a church hymn, then British military songs, then English vaudeville as I misremember them. Listen:

...power, power, wondermaking power of the lord...

...In th Quartermaster's store -- behind the door -- My eyes are dim I can not see, I have not brought my specs with me, I have no brought my specs with me...me...MEeeeee'll...

...Drink a drink a drink, to Lily the Pink the Pink the Pink, the savior of the human ra-hay-ace, for she invented, a medicinal compound and now we're learning how to fly...

My, that's precocious, even though the sound of it is something quite...

Ixbyalydocious, supercalifragilisticixbyalidocious!

Thank you.

Day 17, the kind of perfect day that will go unremembered

I am in Centerville at the local malt shop/diner. It is opposite the Sheriff's office and the town hall. I will sleep between these two buildings as the people of Centerville have kindly invited me to. Now, how to shower using the Sheriff's sink. I am trying to get as much of my naked body into the shallow bowl. It's not working.

I am in Missouri, the show-me-state.

Missouri completes my brief spell with Mississippi flat land. Fun fact: Mark Twain was born in Hannibal, Missouri. Fun fact: the human head weighs eight pounds.

This was originally a French colony. There are historic French colonial homes and a couple of wineries that probably have very little to do with the early French traders.

I left Chester, hung a right by the statue of Olive Oil, breezed past Bluto or whatever his name was, and took a left past the Popeye statue to get over the river. Once in Missouri I noticed the birds were happier and that everyone drives Mack trucks. It's just the thing to do.

Less than fun event: a young Missouran deliberately veered from his lane to see if he could get as close as possible to me. What the French! I hope his date was impressed and that he gets the handjob of his short life in that little car, before a vehicle larger than his decides to run him over so that its driver can impress its date.

A bit of statistics here. I have seen close to a hundred thousand cars pass my by. Not even factoring in waves, smiles, and warm nods, a hundred-thousand-to-one are strong odds to suggest that we are good to each other here in America. That this event -- because it was an event or anomaly -- is more memorable does not mean it is equal. I believe you can learn more from an individual case any day and, yes, 90% of figures can be made to say whatever you want; but I want to stress the numbers just this once. After all, they say what I want them to.

I have a hard day ahead of me and then it's nearly flat tills the Rockies. As a reward, I have the Horse Creek Inn. I have already been given two wooden pogs redeemable for free beer; sadly, I'm not drinking, but I am buying!

Some words to live by from FBI agent Dale Cooper:

"Every day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it, just let it happen. It could be tickets to a game [?] or two hot cups of coffee."


Day 16

Here's something to add to the old resume: capable of conversing while complete stranger enters bedroom and defecates in corner.

I actually spent a lovely night in the men's room. I used a 3 foot bench and a shower stall to hang myself on like a suspension bridge. My legs were elevated and pressed against the wall and this could be why I felt so great.

After a couple of conversations with cowboys about the rain and cycling and whether the horses got spooked, I packed up and hit the mess hall. Martha runs the place, makes tremendous biscuits and coffee, and did a great job decorating. They've got IQ tests on the table and I scored 110. I talked with the cowboys, listened to good, classic country, and talked across the room to a woman who was itching to ride the River to River trail, but couldn't tell if it was going to be too muddy. I complemented Martha on her restroom and then moseyed on out.

I moseyed into Scoth. I was glad to see him as I was convinced he'd drowned. Obviously he hadn't, but he was really tired. We rode to Goreville together, I got him an introduction to a cute vegetarian waitress --

G: He's a great guy, but he's a vegetarian. Isn't that weird?
A: Why would that be weird. I'm a vegetarian.
G: You'll love him. I'll go find him

-- and then I biked out. I biked to my heart's content, met up with an elder gentleman from Cali on his way East, and then made it to the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

I will allow you your opinions on anything, but you are wrong if say you don't like Wal-Mart. You're not comparing it to the right thing. Think of how much choice and value it offers the country resident whose other alternatives are General Dollar or the canned foods at the gas station. I bought 25 Cliff Bars, organic rice-a-roni, Gatorade powder, too much junk, and a two foot long turkey sandwich for 4 bucks. Think of the time and carbon saved in being able to buy a Hannah Montana lunchbox, worms, your medicine, and watermelons at the same place.

I weighed twice as much heading out to Chester. I couldn't sit upright because the foot long would poke me in the adam's apple. I got lost in the Mississippi levee and saw nothing but one aeroplane for miles

A note on terror. Hitchcock was onto something in North by Northwest. Terror isn't shadows and darkened alleys. You can hide in those. Terror is blinding sunlight in a field so big you can't orient yourself. Now add the whirring sound of a vicious river.

The old Miss is brown and smells brown. It moves at a million miles an hour and would drag you under and eat you without thinking twice. Sometimes it floods.

Not today, which is why I am in friendly Chester -- Home of Popeye. More on that to come tomorrow I'm sure.

Day 15

Charming update. I am sleeping on the floor of the men's room.

Day 15

I know where they've hid the children. VBS -- Vacation Bible School.

Whether you believe the words 'Vacation' and 'School' should be part of the same compound or not, I have discovered why things seem oddly Pied Pipery.

I'm not going to linger on religion, so here's one last bit of strict reportage taken from the whiteboard in the classroom I slept in:

VBS -- Vacation Bible School July 12th-18
[3 feet over]
Characteristics You Want
Giving person

Moving on, no wait, one more thing: You should see the size of their coffee machine. They buy coffee in crates, boil one thousand cups in a minute, and everyone must have a cup in hand.

Now, moving on. Lunch left me a little full and swollen. I ended up ordering a stack of 3 pancakes, screwing the florspar museum, drinking 6-or-so cups of sweat tea and getting into jittery conversations with the unfortunate people in my radius.

The fact that people talk to me is a testament to Mid-Western niceness. Here's a description of my appearance at the halfway mark. My face has Frenched up around the middle and I have the kind of suntan that looks more dirt than bronze. I am hopelessly unshaven. My hair is lightly-salted, blown dry, and made by the same person who does Pacino's wigs. My body ate my chest for lunch one day, but to compensate for this I've developed very wide shoulders and a tight face. My little upper body sits on ox legs that don't really work. Topping things off, I smell like Chinatown after an August trash collector's strike.

And still they say hello.

I rolled myself to the ferry and even managed to take a nap while I waited. I crossed the mighty Ohio and have ended up in Illinois.

Illinois, that pointy state of ad men with broad shoulders who come in on little cat feet. "Imagineer ad men, a new way to sell travelers on a barely complete gravel road and they will come." I took that 'scenic byway' from Cave In Rock to Elizabethtown and nearly collapsed from shaking. I went to the nearest liquor store and bought myself a gallon jug of water.

Elizabethtown is not the charming backroad Orlando Bloom charmed in the charmless, eponymous film. I saw a man in that store who extinguished a lit cigarette in his eyelid. I went out, sat on the curb, pounded my gallon jug, felt my stomach give way, and then laid prostrate on the dirty cement for a good hour's nap. I blended right in.

I called around to the nearest B&B to see if I could sleep off my waterover. I decided otherwise.

I would regret this decision with every inch of my shaking body when, after climbing 750 feet to my first plateau I got caught in the mother of all storms. I tried to out race it, but it caught up to me fast. I ran into the woods, found the lowest point, and then sat in the lightning position -- like you're sitting on a Chinese toilet with a tremendous headache. I tried to sit it out, but my small gully became a large river.

In a very Rambo move, I sprinted across the road, down a hill, and straight to someone's front door. I was scared. I kept my helmet on in the hopes of looking like less of a serial killer. Cue man and wife staring at wet man, lightening flashing, in bike gear. After the initial fear, we chatted, yada yada, I biked another 9 miles to a horse riding campground in Edenville, got dry, dried clothes, crap, I've got to go the storm has started again. I am safe, spent a long time getting my gear dry, and it might be getting wet all over again.


Day 15, a quick note

I am eating my first real breakfast of the trip here in Marion, KY (not to be confused with Marion, Il). To come: three pieces of French toast with pecans, two sunny eggs, biscuits and gravy, bacon, and some sweet tea to wash it all down.

I am making such great time that I might go check out the Clement Mineral Museum. "It's so good it should be in Chicago," says our hostess. A gentleman has informed me that Marion was once the florspar capital of the world. In the 50s there were 3 car dealerships in town and they had everything imaginable. Now, it is small but still pleasant.

Anyhow, here's why I've called this meeting. It's to talk about bike talk. I mentioned that I was sick of hearing about it yesterday, but it has occurred to me that I haven't done a good deal of describing it. To aid me in this end, let's use the power of cowboy metaphor.

"That is an amazing horse."

"Thank you. It's a brown one with handprints. Yours is equally amazing too."

"Thank you. Mine's a black beauty that was once wild, but I've tamed her and added some things like lights."

"Clever. I am in love with your horse."

"I love your horse's ass."

"See I prefer your horses ass. Hey now, your horse has a penis."

"You noticed. I find it convenient."

"You weren't concerned with weight? I had my horse's penis removed at a horse shop earlier. We were dragging along."

"What a novel idea. Maybe I'll get mine fixed in Carbondale..."

And on and on. Yes, we are all on bikes; but can we please talk about something else. Sports? Did you ever see the ass on Lance Armstrong? Me, I prefer Tara Lipinski...


Day 14, Have I miscounted?

Today a new tack: a kvetch-less post. Well, somewhat.

I woke up bright and early to the sound of someone waking me up. It would seem that I overslept the first day of the rest of my life, and so I would be riding with Scoth (rhymes with goth). We headed to the much-talked about Baptist church in Seebree. I rewarded myself with coffee.

I don't actually like riding with other people and Scoth is definitely other people. Now, instead of worrying about other cars you have to worry about another bike. Now, instead of replaying Alanis Morisette's Ironic over-and-over again in your brain, you have to talk. Well, we did.

Scoth is actually quite interesting. Quite interesting fact: corn and soy are rotated every year, so the cornfield to my left is next year's soyfield (soyfield? Yes!). Scoth (born Scott I am sure) is a rapid fire drummer from out of Indianapolis. He is vegan -- except for twice a year -- and knows a heck of a lot about golden era punk. Scoth is 37 and so he had to live through Motley Crüe. We can agree that Tommy Lee is a class-A git and a terrible drummer to boot. It is refreshing to talk to somebody from the middle of the country, as some of the types I meet -- yesterday's San Franciscan Free Tibet Atheist being a prime example -- are a bit, erm, coastal.

We made tremendous time as we rolled through the Kentucky bumps. Like the Eskimo before me, I have developed 37 different word for your word hill: dumps, bumps, dulldrumps, rollies, ekg-ers, John Goodman ekg-ers, hilldogs (hills with dogs), coasters, rollers, toupees (hills without concrete on tops), falsies (hills with extra tops), Jayne Mansfields, purples, gummy-dummy-wumdops (try asking an Appalachian thoroughbred about that), moustachios, crumbumplers, and treadhills (hills where the asphalt slowly rolls down against you).

And so dinner at church. I showered, did my laundry, and volunteered to help weed the front lawn. I quickly unvolunteered when I found out that it was nearly 100 out. I had just showered!

So I read the Gospel of John in a hammock with some cats. John is the catchy one that begins, 'In the Beginning there was the word, and, given the letters R S T L N and E, can you guess what that word was for a chance at a set of jetskis and eternal life?'

My favorite line so far goes thusly:

Jesus is at a party and his mom, the virgin, makes this major party foul and blurts that they're out of wine. "4 [son of God] saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come, 5 His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it."

Not very polite, eh? Verily, verily, verily.

I was saddened to find out I missed the monastery that Thomas Merton stayed at. The atheist told me this. I have never taken a vow of silence, but there are moments on this trip when I remember his words on contemplation and on being Christian to others with some fondness.

I was reminded of that today at dinner. The pastor and his wife and their neighbors took four other cyclists and me into their home and fed us aplenty. Chicken wrapped in bacon in cream (!), ice-cream and cake left over from Florence's 92nd birthday, fresh greens with six different kinds of ranch dressing (!!). Heaven is Cool Cucumber. Whatsoever I could have wanted I had.

We prayed before we ate and I am now convinced prayer aids the digestion. Think about what you're eating, the logistical juggle that gets cucumbers and bacon bits and iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes together in a rude mouthful. Enzymes will flow. Thank every miracle.

We talked bike stuff -- I don't know about you but I am sick to death of bike stuff -- and we talked trains. I tried to get Pastor Bob to bite on a question of theology ("Who are these Old Regular Baptist lot anyways?") but he did not take. He was more interested in people which is probably why his church is such a hit. They have ping pong!

We prayed at the end. We joined hands, Violet wished us safety, that God would be with us, that more Americans would travel their country (amen), and that we would have good winds. Since half of us were going different directions, I will assume she meant my half. When we finished praying, she hugged me. That was the first hug I've had in a while and it was lovely.

Say what you will about the Bible, the people who try to live by it in these parts understand charity, kindness, and warmth. So thank you Kentucky on my last day.

Disregard this side note. I have it in here because I thought it...

Something I really wanted to say at dinner because it would have made me look really, really smart: "So the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all four versions of the same story, huh? That's a bit like Kurosawa's Rashomon."

Something Bob should have said but would be too polite to: "No you pretentious sinner. Rashomon is like the Bible. But goodness you must be really, really smart."



Day 13

What a lovely day. How effortlessly central Kentucky rolls by. I left My Old Kentucky Home State Park (phew!) and went on an early morning bourbon tour.

Heavenly Hash Bourbon is mashed and then stacked in new barrels in what look to be abandoned army barracks. I biked by the distillery at sunrise. My eyes are bloodshot from staring at the sun.

Flawed thesis: even ignoring sun worshipers, organized religion is sold easiest in areas with broad, beautiful skies. Consider rates of attendance in KY vs. Swansea. Consider horrible watercolors of sunsets (or firemen at sunset (or firemen with American flags at sunset)) popular with the evangelical crowd. Reconsider Frederick Church.

I talked to everyone today. I talked to a 6 year old who swore that his brother once caught 16 fireflies with one hand. I talked to an atheist from San Francisco about whether religion is just a word and about his odd dinner with the pastor's wife I plan on eating with tomorrow. I talked to an old woman about why the roads are the way they are -- they just are (although some flooding accounts for why roads are split across rivers. I talked to two fisherman about many raccoons that they named Roger. I talked to a turtle I saved from crushing because, if you whisper a secret into a turtle's ear you won't have to carry it anymore. Alright, alright I confess -- I ate catfood once.

Have you ever had an Ale-8-One? If not, can I recommend a trip to central Kentucky for the only ginger ale/fruit drink worth traveling for.

I am camped out at the base of a damn. I bumped into two girls going Eastbound and was joined by a man in an Iroc-Z.

"Any you girls wanna git round real fas? I show you dun dere."

His kids were quite embarrassed. Nobody was wearing. I mention this because, in a day when I have been stopped by or stopped 30 people to talk, this was the only cretin and yet this is what I felt like sharing with you. I am not doing these people justice. Central and Western Kentucky people are great people, gentlemen farmers with polite dogs, lovely fruit stand vendors with fresh peaches, kindly sheriffs who will track you down 2 miles down the road with different, better directions.

I gained an hour today. Tomorrow I will spend it on a ride at sunset. Tomorrow will be 2 weeks and a thousand miles. I am excited to spend it at the Baptist Church in Seebree, KY. Scuttlebut has it, these are special people.


Day 12

Well the straight line worked. It wasn't pretty and it involved hobbling into a repair shop in Danville for the first tuneup my poor bike has gotten in years. It worked.

I woke up early and biked for an hour looking backwards at the rising sun.

Danville is lovely. Small Episcopalian church, small espresso joint, small courthouse where I waited for my bike to be fixed. It would appear that I had been riding with the brake on for the past couple of days, that my chain was past kaput, that my earlier repair was worthless, and that an extra gear ring would have to be added before my knees spring open leaving ligaments and rubberbands all over the asphalt. It was done, reasonably, quickly, friendlily, by a man who has ridden the country on a tandem with son and a musician who plays Appalachian music.

So I feel better. I pedaled into the wind for four more hours, but it was not hard -- just trying on my patience. I am in Bardstown, where Steven Foster wrote My Old Kentucky Home. There's a musical going on. I, for the most part, chatted with two kids touring the Bourbon Belt, and with two fellow Westbound cyclists. Then I showered, got some disease from the tile (I am convinced), and fell asleep.


Day 11

I am in Berea, KY home of Berea, College.

Berea is kind of a neat school: students have to work for their (free) tuition and they do so either in maintenance or by making arts and crafts. It all looks a bit like Pottery Barn. People come from all around the country to buy their handiwork, but I have faith that some enterprising university in Bangladesh could make a run on this market with low-cost alternatives and a couple of years.

I think I only did 50 miles today. My body is in a minor revolt and I suspect my Bolshy mind is behind this. That and the warm Kentucky sun. My mood will go through manic swings depending on the type of terrain; and, while this was officially the end of the Appalachians, I expect other mountain ranges to take their miserable place. I do not feel particularly great today.

Today was a favorite day for natural beauty, however. The area just east of the city is stunning, a hollow valley surrounded by densely veggified cliffs. The sky was so wide that I could see sunlight and rain -- rain like a cow pissing on a flat rock. In time, that cow was standing squarely above me. (Get your hands on a Frederick Church painting for a near approximation.)

At 5 in the morning it began to pour. The next hour of my sleep was ruined by doubts that my limping tent had sprung a leak. My whole day has been plagued with doubts. Did I take a wrong turn? Why is this hill so steep? How am I getting worse at this?

I have decided to take the afternoon off -- it's 91 degrees F out (F!) -- and to seek shelter in the crafts store, Blondie's icecream parlor, and at the Dinner Bell. It is amazing that, after a promising start, I have to baby myself along. My body just won't go sometimes.

I hope to be asleep by 530 and up earlier tomorrow because tomorrow I cheat.

Tomorrow I will ride in a straight flat line from where I am leaving to where I am going. I am not going to ride up a hill just so I can ride down it; I am not going to see the Shaker museum in Harrodsburg (which I'm a little saddened by); I am going to go the logical route for a change. My trip isn't about a trail, distance or speed, it's about seeing as much as I can and getting to that far coast.

Oh. I would have gotten you all gifts here but nothing weighed less than 10 pounds. You'll have to improvise on paperweights and rattan brooms for a little longer.


Day 10

I will pass through Berea at 8:30 in the morning tomorrow and, with that, leave the Appalachians.

An aphorism I heard from Steve, a former soldier, metal worker, Oregonian, and a man who genuinely has a list of things he wants to see and do:

"It was raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock."

Today, alas, was dry. I will be up early to avoid the sleep. I am sorry for the brevity but I have spent most of my evenings chatting to real-live-people. Please take this as an apology and a promise that, when I am undoubtedly abandoned to myself, I will be full of stories.

Also, I will settle the debate over precisely which valley has the prettiest accent (hint: it's not the valley between Forest Hills, Queens and Flushing.


Day 9, I was lifted up the hills

Because this was a long day, this will be a short post.

Kentucky is not flat as I misread it.

The Appalachians are not over.

The heat would not go away but come back with humidity.

It was Sunday and a church I passed -- now almost exclusively Baptist of cosmetic difference -- had this sign: "Heaven is a cool place." If heaven is the free of suffering, then that must be so. Central air, all downhill.

But, following a similar trope of forlornness and redemption, I happened upon the Historical & Genealogical Society Bed and Breakfast in Hindman, KY. After having to push my bike up its mossy entrance, I was greeted by David, proprietor, with a glass of sweet tea a southern vegetarian meal, and four deserts to choose from. On top of that, I have finally gotten to sit down and talk with someone heading east -- Boris.

And so, around a bonfire, it seems somewhat obvious that kindness and other people are what gets you across your country wherever that may be. That and being so far into Kentucky that you could never find your way out.


Day 8, the Breaks

I think I'm hitting my stride. It's easy to feel that way when you are standing at the mouth of the Cumberland Gap. Virginia is to my back and underneath me; downhill is Kentucky.

I biked 80-odd miles today but I don't feel worse for the wear. I've learned to love the long hill because it let's you get into a rhythm and you can always go down its back at top speed. I've learned to love the rain because it really does a good job of cooling you and kicking up the drama (note: rain while hiking is different). And I've even learned to love the constant feeling of swollen my legs are in. It's a bit like the getting out of a jacuzzi feeling.

So, no more whingeing. I am past a physical hump and nearly past a geographical one. With my wet ride up and down the Smokeys and tomorrow's descent, I will say so long to the Appalachians and (soon) hello blue grass and the Knobs of Kentucky. And, sadly, I will say goodbye to Virginia.

Here is the oldest settlement in the country, a founding state, an early frontier, home to many (how many?) Presidents, where a good bulk of the Civil War was fought, and where a great deal of the punishment was dealt. I have never seen so many historical plaques, some of them hidden down roads you'd have to be mad (or from Virginia) to drive down.

The future seems a little less rich. Small town life is hard, and in some of these places it seems doubly so. Further west, many towns were almost completely shuttered. The No Trespassing sign business booms: not much else. The population tends towards the 60s.

Here are some good signs: often, there are five co-operating fraternal organizations in towns of less than a thousand people. Volunteer rescue and fire squads; Freemasons, Rotarians, and Ruritan-dys (though rarely Rosicrucians); historical societies; Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Cub Scouts; and then the church groups. Virginians love to do good, especially if its catered. Perhaps do good by one another? The locally grown cigarettes, the farmer's co-op: I'm not a communist drug pusher, but I see these as two ways around a problem that belies the exact opposite of the clannishness the area is famous for.

Speaking of stereotypes: sometimes I feel people must try to live up to them. The park ranger I spoke to was buck-toothed, unintelligible, and had stickyouty ears. The gentleman with the ATV I met upon entering the forest had a bandanna, no sleeves on a VT t-shirt, and was talking about farting. And then there is this stereotype: everyone I have met has been tremendously friendly. I feel like the Queen my wrist hurts so much from waving hello. Cars honk to say keep going, people say hi from their porches, and the surliest seeming guys all wave with this kind of pointing gesture. I have met many, many more of the latter in my week here.

A final anecdote.

I was dangling my legs over a rock ledge in the Blue Ridge mountains. A lady came over to me and we got to talking. She pointed to the valley below.

"That's the Shenandoah Valley right there."

"Is that so. Well I can't wait to get down there. I've always heard that the way they talk is the most beautiful accent in the country."

"Oh I don't know."

"No it's true. News anchors make an especially big effort to get it right."

"Why well I'm from down there."

"Well you've proved my point right there. You have a beautiful way of speaking."

Her husband and son, who was my age, returned with some blueberries they'd found. I said goodbye and went back uphill. Behind me, I might have made out.

"That young man just said that I have the most beautiful way of talking."

"Well I've always said that."


Day 7, A week and an apology

I am writing to you from a hostel in Damascus, VA. Today is a day of landmarks: the near-anniversary of the nation's independence, my first week, my first day of rain, my first step into (and quickly out of) Tennessee, and a rare apology.

I believe I was a little unfair to Wytheville yesterday. Today is the 4th and things were probably a little desolate on account of Wytheville's shimmering patriotism. Everyone at the motel was lovely, as was my waitress. It is the center of the Bluegrass Belt.

No, it was probably I who brought that feeling of defeat to the city. Indeed, the worst people at dinner were clearly outsiders, crystal examples of the subpar in moments where they feel the need to talk. An example:

"So I've got this friend with, uh, cancer of something and he died," said the one gentleman from New Jersey.

"Oh I love the way you tell that story," says the wife.

"Not now honey. Any you guys tried a Kobe beef hotdog?"

The 4th of July was a new day. I was rested, up and at 'em at 8ish, and I made a decent bowl of oatmeal in the Mr. Coffee machine. The hills were either straight up or straight down and I loved them all.

When the rains came, as I knew they would, I hid out in an abandoned stretch limo. They cleared up and I cleared out. I was in Damascus by 3.

Damascus is an oasis in the Appalachians. Both my trail and the Appalachian trail meet here and that is why I am sitting here with Blake, a 58-year-old man from Alabama, hiking north and feeling pretty beat up about this whole Virginia/hill thing. I feel deep, deep sympathy. More on Blake later.

My bike and I came into town in some pain. The spindle, the spinning thingybobby that the pedals are attached to, came loose on the bus ride down. It had gotten so wonky that I had to do the breaststroke to get it to cooperate. My right thigh was pretty wonky itself. It has a 2-inch cut along what we can politely call the 'Speedo line'.

So here I am, rolling down the mountain, right foot jiggling the pedals around while left buttock fights with seat to keep right buttock in the air. I see a van pulling what looks like a coat rack. Wait a minute. It's not a coat rack at all. It's a bike rack. Somebody has stolen my idea and is shuttling people to the top of these mountains so they can ride down them.

I stroll into town, litigious. This fades away. What I find is a store that brought health back to both my bicycle and person. Bless you. The hostel I planned on staying at is closed but, no problem, I will bike to Tennessee and stay in a certified United Forest Services campground.

I close my eyes as I cross the state line. Nothing changes. These are the Smokey Mountains and biking through them is like biking through cotton balls.

I pull past Crazy Harry's Fireworks and Manuel's Fireworks (really!) and into the state park. Through the fog I see oil drum fires and RVs being used to broil gibbons, baboons, or some other odd meats. A girl my age walks up to me with a tattoo of what looks like Curly from the Three Stooges.

"Who's that?" I ask.

"That's my child."

I pour myself some water from the tap. It's grey. Curly is throwing fireworks at me, only they're not fireworks and he's not Curly: they're grenades and he's Colonel Kurtz, bald and seven.

Bless my spindle, I bike out of there fast. And back into Damascus, which is even lovelier than I remembered it. I took a room at a hostel and that brings us back to Blake.

We are sitting outside and talking, the sound of rain and a country auction in the background. Somebody just won a mop. Blake is taking a break. He has a hernia. He has been to San Antonio, New Orleans, Wisconsin, everywhere and Marfa, where they filmed Giant.

When he was 13, Blake took a plank down the Alabama river from his home to Mobile; that is, before they put in the flood damns. He had a .22, drank from springs and caught everything he ate. It took him 6 weeks.

Now, significantly older, he wants to trace some of his great-grandfather's journey back South from prison. His great-grandfather was held as a POW in the Brother's War. He was imprisoned on an island in the middle of a river in Maine (?). When the war finished, he had to walk down to Alabama with no gun or map. It's a bit like Cold Mountain, Blake reckons, although I've not seen the film. It took him 6 months.

Blake and I are both of Anglo-French-German ancestry (borders were confusing then; family trees will always be). I am also tracing my ancestors across this country. I told him how a family rumor (since debunked) was that we were descended from Daniel Boone, the frontiersman who paved the trail I crossed earlier this week. He said this makes sense. He guessed my father was his age and that he was victim of the havoc Buddy Ebsen brought to the young boys of '57 in his twin roles as both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. He was right. My father made us watch those shows and made sure we enjoyed them. I remember his disappointment when we told him we didn't like them: It was like we said we hated music.

The sounds of the country auction and fireworks are all that's left.

"And a rambl-amba-dambl-un-dollar-one-dollar-boom firework-one dollar fifty..."

I was honestly ready to pack it in yesterday. I even came up with a creative scheme to go out with dignity, like getting gently hit by a Mack truck. Now, a week in, I am more and more in love with this country and this trip. Every setback yields a pleasant surprise and I inch along the map. I have no more call to complain.


Day 6

That was a thoroughly demoralizing day.

At 3 in the morning I came to realize that I had violently poisoned myself with greed in the form of a jalapeno olive cheddar pizza ("Really?" said the man at the counter. "Just do it Mack!")

I was also violently ill at 7 in the morning and at 9 on this my day of rest. I was shivering and cold when I got up at 1030. I opened the front door and noticed everyone -- the bikers, the teens I was convinced were going to jump me -- all gone. And so I lumbered, lumbered to the laundry mat [sic] and washed my tiny load of clothes.

By the time I started, the sun was right above me and the wind was in my face. And it never stopped. I got lost and accidentally biked east -- the wind changed directions! When I turned back on route it changed back, like all it wanted to do today was punch me in the face.

I finally made it to Wytheville, half past dead. So was the town. The plan was to camp out on the community gardens opposite the sheriff's office. I made it to the Sheriff and he didn't know nuthin'. I leave the office and the biggest man I've ever seen is being brought in in cuffs by two police. He's frothing from the mouth. Then I look around: two newly released prisoners are waiting about on the lawns. Up the street are two competing advanced drug testing stores, a twice-used furniture store, a gun shop, and a Long John Silver's. And that's just the historic district.

I made my way to the nearest motel. It is also run by a very nice Indian lady. I don't know if it was a look on my face but she made a point of telling me, unsolicited, that there is no crime whatsoever in Wytheville. Maybe so, but I'm inclined to believe that if people insist something is really, really safe -- without your asking -- it's not really, really safe.

There are, by my count, 8 different churches in this town, and every Protestant denomination seems accounted for. Presbyterian -- check. Baptist -- check check. Holy Church of the Power of the God in The Passion of Mel Gibson -- let's be fair. So how could a town with so much in the way of God seem so down in the mouth? Perhaps there's a war going on, between the churches, for souls and the rights to use "God is Love" in all advertising?

So I took myself out to dinner. Food will keep me company, food and maps and the long stares of everyone around me at the historic Log restaurant. I had my first cheeseball and my first real lemonade of the trip.

The table behind me was two couples RVing together, and with little else in common.

"Let me ask you something," says the man from New Jersey. "You like wine? 'Cause I like wine."

"Yeah I like wine. You like beer? Me not so much."

"Me neither." Smiles all around. The women never talked. Later they bonded over their concern for spinal spinulacra, a disease I swear they made up on the spot, that and high speed internet.

The table directly in front of mine was all seniors and two very un-appreciative grandchildren. You've got cheeseballs for Pete's sake! You have your hair! The family was remembering the film The Bucket List as they saw it -- starring Clint Eastwood. Then the paterfamilias went on a tear through the rest of film history as he saw it -- The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Shampoo -- all starring Clint Eastwood.

"He is the greatest actor to have walked."

And that is how I will choose to remember today. Falsely and with joy. I woke up early in good health, my clothes were washed by a service, the wind blew me to Wytheville with one gentle pedal, a ticker tape parade was there for my arrival, and two of the area's blondest, chestiest farmgirls spoonfed me cheeseballs on the park lawn where I slept, gratis.