man on a journey
two wheels bear his spirit East
every day new
–Noah Cox, my homie in Portland.
I love Wisconsin; watershed or driftless, whitewashed or budding green; its landscapes have always felt like home. Its people – neighbors all, be they progressive and liberally raised, or traditionally bred in the red neck of the woods. Prime bicycling country. I’ve always lived in Wisconsin, and I’ve always really lived in Wisconsin. I hope to live there again some day.
But right now, I live on the road, in the woods wherever I’m found. And the states I live in – they sure aren’t Wisconsin. Not bad, just different. I’m actually glad to leave for a while; they say it’s good to see what other states have to offer. Get a new perspective.
Combines spread their chaff into the breeze; it drifts into my eyes, sticks to my sweat, and tastes like autumn harvest. Cropfields spread wide between copses of trees, bordered by signs proclaiming high-grossing yields. That smell from downwind must mean another roadside slaughter is near; left rotting in the sun, attracting buzzards, eyeballs first. They circle above me as I scan those rare woods, directing their wills against my very life. An ugly course of life, Indiana roadkill – I’m just glad I’ve got no predators: the through trucks are prohibited, if I’ve got the right map, though smaller risks abound.
In search of a campsite, I borrow what I can; a blighted dump where the vultures roost and squabble rowdily, on uneven ground, or a tranquil grove of oak and vines, hidden by a leafy ridge, where no one’s been, nor is allowed. At night, the sounds of peace are louder than you’d think; a distant dog or random car might interrupt the song of wild, but closer in, the creatures chorus among the wind and branches’ sighs. An omen calms my nerves, as I’m wondering if it’s safe – a flock of wild geese decide to stop here, and as my neighbors, spend the night. Their harsh cries of settling down to rest, organizing before they sleep, reach me from the nearby pond. Likewise, me, I set up camp: prepare my sticks for fire, a bed and bags, and my own ducks are in a line. The night falls deeper, as I finally relax, and the crickets take the stage, a chirping rhythm that never stops. Some cousin of theirs, an angry-sounding brute, begins a constant buzzing; and when he breaks for scant seconds, for reasons I can’t sense, it’s like a headache suddenly ceasing, before he barges on again. Behind this racket, there are frogs with monstrous lungs, vibrating out some mating call, or a warning to not come near. Some persistent beak keeps clacking in the top of that one tree, and once or twice a mammal screams in challenge, or in some dark anguish across the way. In silent rarity, when the cadences wane aligned, it’s just a single leaf I hear, rolling in delicate bounds along the desolate road.
In the darkest hours, a silence of a kind descends, and out come crawling bugs in green, like fallen lightning flies beneath the leaves of brown. The sentinels’ trunks and branches reach skywards, swaying toward the stars, a silhouetted beauty my camera simply can’t define. And then, the moon, much later when nature calls; she startles me, with her glowing crescent smile, the silver riches of nature, free for all who care to notice.
The sun is setting over my shoulder – not much time left now. It’s the end of a day of pedalling, I’m hungry and fatigued. An hour’s time, a little less, is all my window allows; any more and any site I pass will be invisible to my eyes. “Where will I rest my head?” I ask, without any vestige of a plan; just peel those peeps a little wider in this final dusky drive. There’s a likely candidate, that hill there, topped with trees… but wait, a driveway looms ahead, a house is back there, close. Too close. Around another bend then, another possible spot, off the highway’s bank; a dense-woods thicket, well concealed and never tread. But brambles yawn from everywhere, and how will I get down on in? I can’t, or if I can, I’m sure to fill my gear with holes, and those gray clouds don’t look too nice tonight. Keep searching then, let’s see what’s up this hill. Finally, I find a path that leads way back; no tires have marked its ruts in ages, though the rusty gate and sign proclaim my guilt. Whatever, fine, it’s too late to continue now; it’s this or ride in the dark, one lonely biker out alone; and at night I’d rather have concealment: its dangers are more predictable than a DUI or joyriding teen.
Yet still, I’m extra careful, in those high-risk slots of time – Is anyone watching me slip in here now, and are they making sinister plans for after dark? No, I’m just water-breaking, till the traffic’s out of sight, and until I hear no dogs that bark, nor their master’s eyebrow raised.
Okay, I go, and make it – now at least the road is blind; I search around at first, way deeper than I need, to catch a view from other sides: I’ll need a foot-tall fire. I’m kind of clean here, I say, not harming anything at all; but if the morning tractor route goes past my little hedge, or a consummate woodsman decides to take a midnight stroll, I’ll have to use my wits, and quick, and if it’s going to come to that, then….
Anxiety; it bubbles in my mind as I quietly clear a bed; I try to keep it calm, but visions of what might just happen keep popping in my head. The loudest noise I make is sticks, no more than I should need; I break them under my tarp or tent, imagining the directions soundwaves fly. A zipper here, or velcro there, I’ve learned it doesn’t travel, but still I stop and freeze to listen at frequent intervals, and learn what’s out there hearing. I’m on my toes like this until I’m all set up for food, and then a different sneak of sense begins – the fire. It’s pure stark light and smoke, and shines upon the trees quite high. It’s not as bright as LEDs but licks and flashes, catching eyes. I’ve got to eat tonight though, and man I love that blaze. I have to trust my positioning, and see from others’ sight – this far from where they’d be looking, it’s at most a random flash, and at this distance from that road or hilltop house, they’d really have to try. Tomorrow daylight may illuminate the smoke, but tonight I’m sick of worrying, and illogically over-wrought with fears.
These things combine to justify some calm, and as I sit and heat my food I relax a bit, and let my thoughts unwind. I get used to the sounds around me, and the distances of each, and soon I only flinch at falling flukes, a walnut or dead branch. In the dark of these woods, it’s hard to tell a critter from a sneaky man, but as I worry which it is out there, I know it goes both ways. Perceptions and the sense of such, each play half in this tricky game. A game I’m good at, I remind myself, and all that effort I made tonight will keep me safe from harm. A sleepy yawn and thoughts of rest come on, and the coals have all burned low. Eventually it’s late enough that no locals will be up, it’s time to fall to dreams; of course rest lightly just in case – oh wait, what’s that, I bolt upright; oh shit, it’s Saturday, that’s a drag-racing pickup truck I hear, just over that next hill!
If a dog didn’t chase me, if I didn’t have to shout and bark back and glare intimidatingly to keep at least a dog or two at bay, it was a weird day in the state of Ohio. Big dogs, little dogs, mean junkyard dogs, laughable yippie dogs, whole packs of dogs. Rarely controlled dogs. Some dogs were just doing it because they didn’t know what else to do – they seemed almost like they wanted to play, and stopped chasing in disappointment when I passed beyond their property. Other dogs, though – killers, I could tell. They don’t bark, they try and sneak up on me, and they don’t stop at the property line. There’s nothing like turning your head to see a ragged and determined backwoods coyote-fightin’ cross-breed silently accelerating to an intercept course with blood in his eyes. It’s become a good thing when they actually bark to warn me. At least I’ve got my rabies shots. But bites aren’t the only risk – they’ve snagged my panniers when I break from my intimidating stare for a split second, they’ve jumped in front of me suddenly when I’m barreling down a hill at 40 mph. Not to mention dealing with an owner if I happen to get bit or end up having to kill one. Or if their energetic bloodlust causes a car accident….
I saw a cat in Ohio once; a little tawny kitten, scraggly and emaciated, moving apathetically and obviously starving; he didn’t even have enough energy to purr. That was the day I resolved to carry cat treats with me.
Rolling south down East Shelby Road one day, enjoying the flat farmland and relative peace of rural Ohio, I passed a bike shop. “What?!” Yeah yeah, an actual bike shop, in the middle of nowhere, with a handmade sign and a pile of bikes in the driveway. I, of course, had to stop, and while I was waiting for the owner to come outside, I started getting a little worried – all the bikes were Walmart specials or department store deathtraps, rusty and broken. What goes on out here on Shelby Road?
Mike “The Bushman” Bushman’s yellow shirt was streaked with bike grease. He was a real nice guy with jittery eyes behind his glasses, and it turns out the pile in his driveway was a junkpile (whew!) that was only meant to let passersby know that ‘Yes, indeed, there is a bike shop here.’ He showed me inside, where he had parts & accessories hanging on the wall (Roger, you’re not the only one with new old stock) and a few old Schwinns hanging from the ceiling. His shop area had some custom repair stands (made from welded iron pipe and cement bases), every freewheel removal tool in existence, and a mix of bike and car repair tools. We chatted; it’s always nice to talk to another mechanic. I took some photos, and he recommended the Bicycle Museum of America just 3 miles away in New Bremen. “Annette Thompson should probably be down there.” Thanks Mike!
At the museum, Annette was immediately very welcoming. I showed her my rig, and she started me off with a video about old-time bikes, from which I learned quite a bit. Ever wonder where the word “header” comes from? I spent a decent while wandering around the three floors of history, snapping photos and reading captions. They have the authentic Schwinn family collection there, auctioned a piece at a time, the biggest and most expensive collection of bicycles in the world. There were even some interesting displays about bike tourists. Afterwards, I chatted with Annette for a while(she was of course aquainted with The Bushman), and she eventually asked if I needed anything. Ah, wicked inquiry of politeness. I prefer the question “What can I give you?” I am of course well prepared with everything I need, so I mention how I am stricken with an unending hunger, and instantly she’s onthephonetotherestaurantnextdoor:”Are you open for dinner yet?” “We’ll buy you a meal.” She walked me over to The Grill, which used to be The Hotel, told the bartendress “Give him whatever he wants and I’ll sign for it,” and rushed back to her post at the museum. The bartender and I looked at each other and smiled. I was hungry enough to clean-plate a huge appetizer platter and a buffalo chicken sandwich with chips, with three Coronas and some Koolaid from my bike. Nothing like free food to put a smile on your face.
I returned to thank Annette, who was happy to have helped. She said, “Oh, I read all about you,” from the website apparently; she had me sign the guestbook, and asked me if I would be able to accept a t-shirt from the museum. Of course! I declined a map of the Buckeye Trail, since it was on the map I already had, filled up on water, and said goodbye.
Wandering in a food-coma, and trying to find the trail(apparently my map was a bit out-of-date) I finally got directions from an old guy named Dicke. Somehow I still found myself at an unmarked dead-end, but when I turned around to wander back, there was Mr. Dicke, following me on his bright red cruiser bicycle to ride me out of town!
We rode along at his pace, and he told me about the town and his own history there. I cringed every time we went over the slightest bump, for of course his tires were dangerously low on air. When we got to the trail, I forced him to let me pressurize them properly for him with my Planet Bike pump, and went into mechanic mode, blabbing to him about old-style rims without hooks, strange Schwinn sized tires, and pinch flats. He also mentioned that he had a mechanic out in the sticks who always fixed his bike – guess who? The Bushman!
New Bremen, Ohio, and the Bicycle Museum of America. I recommend it.
“Man, I could use a weekend,” I found myself saying. I know, I’m sort of on vacation all the time, but I hadn’t stopped biking since I left Michigan City. I decided to make my slow way south to the village of Harveysburg and spend a day at the Ohio Rennaissance Festival. I am a fantasy addict and one of the truest hardcore geeks you’ll ever mistake for a normal person, so I disregarded my first idea, an indoor waterpark, and went for the Elizabethan attraction.
It’s not the easiest thing to do on a bike tour – take a weekend. I can lock my bike up nice and secure wherever I find myself, but if the bags and gear are merely strapped onto the racks, eventually they’ll get stolen. Unless they’re well-hidden…
I would need a base camp to operate from. I would need provisions for the weekend, enough water for two nights and mornings. And I’d need a costume.
Finding a suitable camp worked out superbly; there was a county culvert maintenance chest just off the road where the trees grew together overhead – a landmark to find my camp again; it would be nighttime when I returned after the fair, I assumed, and no telling how clear-headed I’d be. Deep inside the woods, deeper than my usual sites, I found a concealed clearing where thick vines hung down like curtains. I took some extra time flattening out the tent bed, and scouted a large fallen tree under which I could stash my gear.
I had plenty of water, even an extra can of peaches in pear juice. I packed a day-bag including some CLIF bars and lemonade, bike lights for the ride home, my journal, binoculars, and the Planet Bike headlamp.
The next morning I was almost giddy – plenty of sugar in my coffee, meticulous preparations for all the fun I was expecting, the exciting extra risk, and my 17th century costume: the wandering vagabond, complete with a “bindlestiff” to carry on my shoulder, with an apple, my titanium spoon, and some insect repellant tied in a grip of cloth to the end. (I didn’t have much to work with, and anyway I figured I was type-cast to play a penniless traveler.)
The seven miles the rest of the way, through Harveysburg to the Fair, were fast without all the panniers – I had left them wrapped in tarps and covered in leafy branches at base camp. I rode right past the huge line of cars waiting to park(“Wow – this place is popular!”) to the motorcycle parking right next to the main gates. Actually, to the sign that said motorcycle parking. As a finishing touch to my outfit, I couched the bindle at the end of the stick in my helmet, to let everyone know just what type of vagabond I really was.
Inside, it was a real Olde English village; the privvys with warnings not to drink the water, the ale pubs and beer wenches, the wandering minstrels and dandy poets, the authentic garb and armed & armored warriors. There was a Wash Show featuring dirty, scandolous wash-women with bad teeth, and there was a dramatic Mud Show where the first few rows came away splattered and caked. There were duellists and jousters(I kept yelling “Blood!!”); quick-witted quipping squires and garrulous stumbling sailors; even the Queen, prim and proper and threatening beheadings. There were dozens of shops, selling clothing and jewelry, weapons and armor, pottery and baskets. The blacksmith and paper-maker were giving workshops for any who walked by, and the glassblower risked his ancient beard before the crowd’s very eyes between sweaty mugs of coffee. I took several breaks in the shade, as a vagabond should; I had a huge leg of turkey for lunch, and had to shave my own toothpick off the bindlestick with my knife; and I bantered with a beautiful elf-maiden about the meaning of the word “fair.” At the games of chance & skill, I was attracted by the curvy wench at the darts to “try my hand” – she even offered me her favor, if only I had some pounds to pay for the toss. She didn’t get my money: “Can’t you see I’m a homeless drifter?” but I did show her a trick from the Orient before I wandered on. The huge guy running the axe-throwing was being rude to everyone, including small children – quite in-character for a brute with an axe. Throwing sharpened axes – now this I had to try. Scored five out of five, killing end first. When I got to the shuriken targets, the scraggly bearded fellow there noticed my helmet hanging from my hobo-stick, and asked where I’d come from. “Just from Wisconsin so far,” I say. Then he had to drop his accent, and, shaking my hand, says, “Y’know, once this is all over, you should come back to that campground entrance right over there. You’re out here doing this, you’re looking for cool local flavor; well – this is it.” His name was Johnny, and I of course agreed wholeheartedly and said I’d be back later.
After a hot day in the sun under the glorious Ohio cumulous, five or six beers deep, and quite enough money spent, I retired to the picnic tables near the goofy acrobat show. I wrote in my journal for an hour or so, and just before the Fair was closing, I returned to the games of skill to wait for shuriken clean-up. At the ticket booth a bright-faced fairy-girl caught my attention with, “Where’d you ride your bike from?” I sidled up to chat for a spell, since all these games closed at the same time anyway, and she smiled a smile that warmed my lonely vagabond heart. Her name was Liz (!) and she was very cute in her backless shirt. I watched her run up and down picking arrows from the archery range, leaned on the side counter while talking with her, and respectfully shut my non-employee mouth when she switched back into Elizebethan accent to sell tickets to other patrons. She played soothing melodies on a flute, offered me venison, beer, and “freegan” muffins, and kept smiling her spirit at me, her courage, her confident blue eyes… it was surreal. And just before the boss came by to tell me, “Anyone who doesn’t work for me has to leave – this is private,” she emerged from the back room with an official Certificate of Skill, stamped by the queen herself, with name, email, and phone number. Hot damn!
But boss-lady was there. Other patrons had all already cleared out. Contracted merchants were already packing up their wares all around. “Hey Johnny man, boss-lady’s kicking me out.” Boss-lady’s little son was there, impudently throwing shuriken over the wall, so I had to be subtle. He told me to just chill out “right over there,” which I had to agree to. Near the campground entrance I discovered an author husband and wife who were having a final discussion with their biggest fans, and I sparked a small conversation about third edition Dungeons and Dragons, which provided an excuse to be there for a few minutes, but then they were gone and I was left alone, trespassing after hours next to the private campground gate. No big deal… I actually am a rogue wanderer, I wasn’t just pretending all day, so I picked a spot and sat.
Employees filtered through. “Hey, it’s the guy with the stick!” “Hey it’s the biker guy!” Yes, yes, hello. Don’t mind me. Before long, I started to get a little sketched out – what if boss-lady passes through here? What if Johnny took a different way out? What will I say to the cops?!? And then, relief came around the corner – at about dandelion-height and groomed like a woodsman, the cutest little camp kitty I never expected to see comes trotting on up and rubs against my knee. I knew I’d be okay after that – this had to be a sign from the Universe not to worry, a guardian angel sent to protect me from boss-lady, or at the very least a cute little shield I could use to melt the hearts of mean old authority figures.
We played for another ten minutes before Johnny showed up. The cat dashed off ahead, I raised up, and with a nod I followed wordlessly through to the campground…
…into the hidden world of the Southern Ohio Scum Folk. Just beyond the fairground wall lay a beautiful sloping grove of walnuts and oaks, lined with semi-permanent tents and campers. I was offered a seat, a bowl, and a cold beer almost immediately. It turned out Johnny and his other beer-loving friends, Randy, Miles, and Sherwin, up at the chill-spot on the top of the hill, were the hardcore scumfolk; those that actually lived there, in the woods like me, through the week when the Fair doesn’t open, and even during some of the off-season. I counted myself lucky, to have fallen in with these dirtball folk; so much my style I felt right at home, right away.
A guy named Hammer was passing out cold Busch Lites: “This beer’s from the bottom shelf. That’s the coldest place in the fridge.” Someone found a random cache of white pills wrapped in cellophane in the grass – they eventually made it back to the right person. A “six-shooter” bowl one way and glass the other way. A multitude of different folk rotated through the camp circle. Johnny was there – the wiry long-haired metal-head with a little bit of a redneck accent, who loves Sparks(the black ones) and had a screaming pissed-off drum & pipes band with Randy and Miles called Ahb Irato (www.myspace.com/ahbirato). Randy was there, rotund in tie-dye and hemp, and generous in green. Sherwin was there, a cool cat with city eyes, the most resourceful one of the bunch. There was the guy who had let me heft the sixteen-pound claymore earlier that day, having lost his Scottish accent after the fair closed. There was the doped-up scrapper, boasting of various stabbing scars, who had finally gone to the ER for his broken leg – he had slipped on a rotten walnut fifteen days earlier and was only now listening to his girlfriend’s advice to get it looked at. There was the gay guy with dollar bills pinned to his shirt for his birthday, looking over his shoulder for the “pie assassins.” There was the giant from the axe-toss game; actual name Matstunoki, “Pine Tree,” born and raised in Japan, a really nice, peaceful guy who’d lived the past ten years in either a tent or a van, a total transient wearing a “Turtle World Tour” t-shirt. And there were cats – “The Year of the Cat,” someone said once; a whole litter of backwoods Kentucky runts scampering about, with “Hops,” the one who had kept me company earlier outside the gate, as their obvious leader. I felt meant to have found this place, these people. But where was fairy Liz? No one knew.
It was Saturday night, and the fairgrounds became our playground. We recovered my bike from the front entrance, and wandered back, past the shops and fields I had spent the day in as a paying customer. Some intrepid video productionist was filming a zombie movie that night, and ghostly pale undead extras could be seen stumbling around drunkenly under the moonlight. We stopped in a corralled-off area that I had been ejected from earlier – the private party lunch shelter – to set up a video projector (I think Sherwin had to ninja his way in somewhere with an extension cord to get power) and watch Tenacious D and Texas Chainsaw Massacre while eating pizza, smoking, and drinking much beer.
By the time we returned to the chill-spot, some teenage girl had lost her virginity “in that van right over there,” Hops was sleeping soundly on my lap, and we were all nice and lit up. It was then, in that hazy time just before the moon sets, while finishing somebody’s 32oz Schmirnoff Ice, that I heard the story of the scumfolk cheer:
Aways off up on the hill outside Fair property, Ahb Irato would go and practice wailing on their drums and beating on their lungs. The usual screaming band practice, with lots of dedication to alcohol tolerance as well. One night, Miles apparently became so wasted that he was actually swimming in the two-foot tall grass that grows up there. “Ever seen a man drown in a field of grass?” Johnny asks me as he tells the story. Out of the nonsense that Miles was spewing along with his 140-proof saliva, one word kept recurring: “Hoogazoo!” No one knew what he was trying to communicate, or what it could possibly mean; even Miles couldn’t explain once he woke up. This mysterious word has since become legend, and is uttered with reverence and shouted in anger, both. “It means nothing, and yet it means everything.”
I was enchanted by the word and its history. My kinda story. I swore to shout it from mountaintops in foreign countries and teach it to non-English speakers, and Johnny presented me with the honor of a Southern Ohio Scum Folk patch. We said goodnight with cheers of “Hoogazoo!” and “Scumfolk!” and I crashed, dead drunk, in Sherwin’s extra tent.
In the morning I awoke to the sounds of another Fair day starting. Sherwin offered to feed me after the fair started, but I didn’t want to be around when it opened for a second day in a row, so I declined. From inside his camper, his girlfriend Shannon told him to offer me a muffin, which I gladly accepted, and he came out with a V-8 and a huge banana nut. I thanked him(again), and saluted her and her behind-the-scenes generosity with my veggie juice. I finally met Miles that morning, who must’ve been sleeping off a rough Friday or something. And Liz emerged from somewhere, bearing spiralling green streamer-sticks and floating into my crude bloodshot view. She gave me a nice long hug, a hippie hug of loving touch and freedom. So sweet. I found a strand of her hair on my shoulder a few hours later.
On my way out some authority figure yelled at me to “get all modern things outta here!” I was headed for the exit anyway, and it was ninja Sherwin himself, working the gate, who let me out. “Hoogazoo!” I cheered as I passed under the arch, and I was gone.
Yes, this is a beer tour. I love beer, and always will. My boys at Machinery Row put the words “Find Beer” right under my nose, engraved into the topcap of my headset. Out here, dowsing for beer, I let the vibrations of the road point me the way. I’ve found beer at breweries, for delectably free taste tests that amount to a decent buzz. I’ve ordered free beer with free meals. I’ve resorted to whiskey from the flask at chilly wind-blown campsites, when there was no beer, and dreamt of the Irish Pub. I’ve accepted rural hospitality in the form of numerous beers. I’ve found beer at the store – dozens of 24oz tallboys in Pabst Blue Ribbon, Miller Lite, Bud Lite, Coors Lite, Olde English 800, Icehouse, and something they sell out here called Steel Reserve 211 High Gravity Lager. Not expensive either; around $0.50 a beer and these days I don’t need more than one or two to take with me to the campsite. Once I even scored a smoke doggie and five in beer duckets from the five highschool fellas I met outside the Chevron late one afternoon. I had to do the buying of course, but the sentiment was the same – free beer. Nothin’ like it.
Just before the longest, steepest climb I’ve had so far on this tour, Bolt Mountain, I stopped in a “town” called Bim, where a home-grown West Virginian in a sleeveless highschool football tee and well-worn baseball cap named Brent Vance couldn’t refuse my request for beer, after hearing a story or two and reading the topcap mission statement. “The boss can kiss my ass on this one,” he said as he handed me a cold Bud Lite. In under ten seconds I had the beer drained without a breath and the can crushed for recycling; a nice pre-lunch snack. Thanks Brent!
At the top of Bolt Mountain, fourty minutes later, I creaked to a blissful stop at the scenic view, just as another beer-drinking West Virginian named Bucky pulled in for his after-work smoke break. “I’d offer you a beer, but you don’t look like the type that drinks,” he said. I shot him a sidelong glance, eyebrow cocked, conveying my surprise at his error, and he ended up giving me three more Bud Lites while we talked and I rested my aching body. He was a knife-dealer who had recently had knee surgery, and gifted me with a butterfly knife and an extra-strength painkiller for the agony that the mountain had put in my lower back. “I’d offer to smoke wit ya, but you don’t look like the type…” I shot him another sidelong glance; we shared a smoke and I was on my way, for a gleeful switch-back descent down the other side of the mountain. Like the bicycle booze cruises of Madison, Wisconsin, only different.
All the cats in Kentucky that I saw were skittish. I understand it – they have to live in constant fear of all the dogs. Kentucky ain’t cat country, it’s dawg country. Sometimes, when the dogs are chasing me, I can’t tell whether their owners are yelling “Get back here!” or “Get him!” I’d like to think they would rather their dogs stayed out of the road. Still no fences or leashes.
…crushing my soul till tears roll down my face; I beseech anything that listens take pity on my poor state.
Uggh… Why am I going so slow? Are my tires low on air? Today’s like an influenza turtle’s pace; I’m weaving back and forth, near delerious; and all I can think about is coach Shuckman from cross country, shaving distance, running A to B – I’m haunted by geometry. How many extra miles am I putting myself through?
Uhnnn… Perspiration leaks down my vision – just to be able to see, I wipe between my helmet and salt-encrusted shades with a sopping wet wristband, succeeding only in smearing new sweat with old. One twitch of my head, and my depth perception’s off; I’m sent careening toward that drop-off on the highway’s edge – Ahh! Agh! I’m able to stop, just barely, but halting the momentum of this burdensome rig rocks my weak muscles and shocks my worn heart. An unasked-for little break, teetering here on this ledge, but it won’t really help; it just means an uphill start. And lo! I’m in the wrong gear now, and my toes are too clunky to fit in the clips. If I can just – no I can’t, my foot slips off the pedal, and an unhappy noise wreaks out, as my chain tries to grip.
Fwoo! Finally, okay, we’re back on the way, but the numbness I’ve been riding with has warmed up, and I can feel my aching joints again. Relax, just live in the moment now, you’ll be fine; just take in the scenery, how beautif– HOOOONK AAAAH! Jesus, that was close; that guy must hate me, his bad will strikes me deeper than it should. But the shoulder disappeared; I have to ride here.
I’m one or two wrong turns deep, I think – I can’t really tell, I just know I’m going away from the western sun. I’m getting to the point where I just don’t care; all I want to do is make camp and crash out, deal with it all tomorrow, but I ran out of water an hour ago – I’ll die if I stop. And I just can’t turn around; negative progress feels like suicide, every time. No choice but to push on – isn’t that what I prefer? I signed up for this, yeah, but if I could I would quit. Why am I doing this? The reasons have all escaped me, nobody cares, I just want to cry.
Arg! Come on! Give me a sign, an oasis must be near; some town with a store, or a Chinese buffet. But no, there is nothing but this hill warring against me, and these chuckling trees. I’ve deprived myself of almost everything, pinched pennies and completely abandoned luxury, but now, when my soul finally hurts bad enough to be willing to pay for some comforts, I’m stuck out here struggling till I find a spigot or sink. Damn, damn, damn; I should’ve stopped for water several hours ago in that town – you idiot! Oh sure, lesson learned, that’ll help me next week. But it’s right now that I’m dying, my mind, body, and soul filling with grief.
And if I’m finally able to rest, and blindly set up camp in a daze, it’ll be an hour shivering before my shirt dries to merely moist. I’ll set up a fire with some rice in the pot, and in my delerium I’ll knock it over, losing the water, the fire, and oh precious comfort, the food. At least I’m so tired I won’t be able to feel the rocks under my back…
“Plenty of hospitality, not too much tolerance.” The people of West Virginia were great – very generous and kind, open and interesting. Except when they were in their trucks and cars, coveting their precious highways’ shoulders and trying to enjoy their middle-of-the-road median leeway. There was more angry honking and dangerous impatience here than any other place I’ve been to. It doesn’t help that I also discovered a lack of connecting back roads to travel, and was forced to navigate most of the state on larger, numbered higways. I don’t think too many road planners in West Virginia ever imagined a bicyclist would ride on the higway, either… I got used to riding in the lane, with not even an inch of shoulder. Cars: share the road with bicycles! And bikes: grab a piece of the road and hold on to it! You’ve got that right, and if you constantly live in fear, jittering on the edgiest edge of the broken asphalt, they’ll run you right off.
The dialect of West Virginia is addictive. I like to try and fit in, wherever I am, but the transformation of my own accent was something that just happened. I guess when most folks you talk to speak a certain way, it can’t be avoided. I did make the effort to prevent assimilation of certain terms, however, such as “knowed” (“If I’da knowed that…”) and “unbore” (“…a scavenger hunt, somethin’ ta unbore the kids.”).
I’ve found that a gazeteer of the state is the best resource for detailed maps, as long as it is a relatively modern edition; photocopies can be made at the “libary” for cheaper than a less-detailed road map at the Shell. Finding the library, though… many people obviously had never even been, or believe there’s an entrance fee(“I don’t got no money to go to the libary.”). And unfortunately the majority of the libraries I visited were not the recipients of too much state funded support – slow computers in small number, pitiful selection of books, and maps so old, some didn’t even have copyright dates. Still, they have drinking fountains for water, and most services are still free, even for transients. Love libraries.
The dogs in West Virginia were better and worse than other states: they kept ’em tied up or fenced in, so they don’t run off and get into the garbage, gobble up the free-ranging chickens that wander around the rural areas, or jump into traffic trying to chase random bike tourists. From what I saw, these dogs were meaner than most; I’d ride by and even before they started barking, I’d hear the chain snap taught as they lunged at me from their yards, oblivious to a choke collar, instantly frenzied at the mere sight of me. Thankfully they were almost all restrained, and I actually had less dog problems in West Virginia than anywhere else.
Making my slow way up a hill on Hwy 37 one day, I chanced to look over and see a young boy standing in a yard, just staring at me silently. Kinda creepy, but up ahead I saw a crowd gathered in one of the backwoods property yards. Lo and behold, a destruction project was underway, in which a bunch of good ol’ boys were dismantling a house that had burned, using a chainsaw and their pickup trucks. The neighbors had all turned out to watch and help; a real community event, with a big bonfire for all the debris. When I saw what they were doing, I had to catch the spectacle: “Y’all mind if I take a break here?” I laid down the rig, got out my camera, and was immediately offered pizza and soda; yes! One of them was a carpenter, trying to yell advice to the guys in their trucks – “Gotta cut them tresses boys!” But they weren’t listening, only pressing the gas pedal down harder. It was like a truck pull but more exciting, with splintering sections of wall and support beams cracking free at the end of a chain hooked to the hitch. Ford and Chevy even had a competition, head-to-head on the biggest wall that remained. The S-10 won the day, though both trucks were tearing up the grass real good.
While I watched and chatted, a stray dog slunk around, scavenging pizza. The young boys wondered, “How’d he get out again?” and mom replies, “We’re not keeping that dog, are you crazy?” But the boys weren’t planning on keeping the dog, not really – “We were just gonna lock it up until it died.” Overhearing this, I was appalled, but mom seemed only to care about not keeping the poor mutt. Thankfully, they let it trot off down the road… I hope he runs fast and far from the cruelty that awaited him in those backwater boys’ kennel.
Searching for a place to stay one night, I followed a sign for a “Boy Scout Camp” until I reached Camp Chief Logan, a thousand-acre plot dedicated to the Boy Scouts of America. I had hoped it would be deserted, but it was Friday and I discovered a small troop of scouts and their white-haired scout leaders, splitting wood outside one of the cabins. “Just gettin’ ready to camp out here,” they told me. “Hey, me too!” I said, and gave ’em my pitch. It took a minute to sink in, but when they took a good look at my bike and all its gear, the scout leader couldn’t turn me away. He told me it shouldn’t be a problem for me to stay there, but I’d have to wait for the ranger to get back from Kentucky.
So I waited, and waited… I didn’t want to make camp, in case the ranger kicked me out, but eventually, about two hours after dark, I pitched my tent and prepared to stay whether he liked it or not. Turns out he was totally cool with it – he was a great guy. He was a West Virginia native named Burl who’d been shot in the ass by his brother with a 0.22, had his jaw crushed in a bar fight and was missing his front four teeth, and had started going to church again when he got his dream-job at the boyscout camp. He invited me into his house for coffee and sandwiches, let me use his laundry facilities and the employee shower in the mess hall, and even opened a cabin for me to sleep in. In the morning I had breakfast with Troop 1075, and was on my way after convincing Burl that he didn’t need to give me anything else. Hooray for hopsitality! Thanks guys!
I talked with some extreme guys on crotch rockets one afternoon, “come to raise hell in these hills.” One of them had an orange mowhawk on his helmet, and apparently they were going to tear up and down the hills doing wheelies. When their leader showed up, he described every little up and down I would be encountering – “I run hot and cold on them up there” – he really knew these roads. One of the others asked him “Where’s a good place for him to camp up here?” to which he responded, “I wouldn’t camp in these mountains if you paid me a hundred dollars. There’s burs up here.” They told me how this week alone there had already been thirteen blackbears shot and killed. The drought had the bears coming down and bothering people, and the hunters had been trying to clear them out. Hmm… not a good thing to hear, especially since I sorta kinda didn’t have a choice but to camp up there. And no one was paying me a hundred bucks, either.
Scouting for campsites that day, I found more evidence of bears: at the first potential site, there was a dead adolescent black bear, a bloody corpse with guts hanging out, no more than a day old. At the second, I heard what could only have been a bear, crashing loudly in the woods nearby – I left that one quick.
I settled on a spot finally, and before anything else I armed up for the possibility of a bear fight. I’d really like to avoid encounters with desparate animals, and the lethal danger they pose, but I didn’t have a lot of choice, and at the same time, it’s definitely an experience I’ve never had, so I was more intrigued than afraid. But still very careful. My headlamp and maglite were at the ready, and the blowgun was close, with darts in one pocket and pepper spray in the other. I fashioned an eight-foot spear for poking at eyes and snout, and piled rocks next to my tarp. I scouted a battle-route, up a little cliff to another stash of rocks, then to an easily-climbable slanted tree from which I could at least increase my chances by facing only one bear at a time. I also left my bike unlocked, ready to flee down the hill, and consolidated my food and separated it from the rest of my gear.
No bears found me that night, nor any of the nights I stayed in bear country – the entire Appalachian region was swarming with them, apparently, and that first bear-spear wasn’t the last that I sharpened with my knife. “Be prepared,” like the good little boy scout that I am. I wonder how similair the risk is with African lions? Maybe I should carry a pistol…
My route through West Virginia happened to bring me to a town called Madison one afternoon; a hilly town where my directions to the library included a kid throwing ice from his drink at me out his car window at a stoplight(I must’ve looked overheated), a gas station employee that assumed I was from there, and two trips up and down the wrong hills. Eventually I found it, and despite an undersized copy machine and a lack of gazeteer, I was very happy to check my email, and the ladies there were very nice. Outside, I met a guy named Eddy who said “Nice bike,” and “I have a Schwinn.” I asked him how it was running, and he said he needed a tube. “Bring that bike to me and I’ll fix it for you.” He brought the wheel down to the library, and right there on the sidewalk I booted his tire with duct tape, repaired his rim strip with duct tape, installed a presta-valve tube(all I had in his size), and gave him a valve adapter. After learning how to air the french valve he was on his way, and later I saw him riding happily up and down the street. Yay bikes!
Back in the Madison library for water a few minutes later, the librarian asked me if I was riding my bike around the world. “Uhh… yeah – how did you know?” Apparently she had googled my name from the sign-in sheet while I was outside and read all about it. Then, to my surprise, the other librarian said her brother worked for the county paper, and would I be willing to wait for him so he could interview me? Woah, no kidding? Another article in a town called Madison. His name was Jesse Collins, too; same name as a guy I went to high school with. Surreal.
Standing in front of the beer cooler at a gas station late that afternoon outside of town, I was approached by a bubbly woman with bad teeth and a cute sun hat named Emilia. “Are you the guy on the bike?” she asked, and proceeded to become very excited to be talking to me. I was pleased as well; not too many West Virginians had a lot of respect for what I was doing. She told me her and her family were going up into the mountains to sleep in the truck, and there was an abandoned coal mining road where nobody would bother me; she even offered to wait at the turn-off to show me the way. It was less than a mile away, and after following their SUV past all the houses that weren’t abandoned, she and her husband Charles-Jason got out for a bit to talk.
During our conversation, a scrubby little kitten emerged from the brush nearby and started rubbing on ankles. How cute! I knew this was the place for me to camp, and I knew this little guy would keep me company. I said goodbye to Emilia and Jason, and sat on a log to play with the kitten. He didn’t seem too starving, though he did enjoy some cat treats. Right after I said, “We’re gonna teach you to purr tonight,” he lit up his motor and crawled into my lap. And what do you know, momma kitty must’ve heard his purring, and decided I was cool, because out of the brush she crept, with careful golden eyes and a skittish stray-cat manner. She took her time getting anywhere near me, but her kitten was obviously having a fine time, so eventually she approached for some lovin’. She had a gnurl on the end of her tail and was as starved for attention as I was. We had a lot in common; homeless, wary, attention-deprived but loving.
The little cat family disappeared while I set up camp, but returned after I lit my fire. Again, kitten was happily jumping all over me and my stuff, but mom took her cautious time making sure there were no threats. Eventually I had them both competing for my touch. More evidence that they were as stray as stray can get – momma kitty didn’t even know about fire; I had to pull her tail out of the fire twice, saving the tail but not the hair. Sheesh kitty, look out!
Again they disappeared when I stashed my bags under the vestibule and went to bed, but before I could start a journal entry, they returned, inquisitively exploring the edges of my tent. Mom even tried to jump on top of it – duh! I hadn’t noticed too much scratching or evidence of fleas, and they didn’t seem to have the desire to knead their claws through my waterproof tent, so I opened the mesh door and taught them where to come on in. Of course kitten was all about it, and as soon as he discovered the warm spot under my arm inside my sleeping bag, he stayed right there, purring up a storm. Mom again took her time getting comfortable, but when I woke up in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call, I found her asleep on the warm spot between my feet.
They were there in the morning, and we hung out till I left. It was so cosmically wonderful to protect and be protected by these cats, and to provide them a warm place to sleep for possibly the first time ever. I think I needed it as much as they did. Meow!
Ah, cute kitties, you are so full of innocent love, your vibrations are pure and wholesome, despite your stray lifestyle of hardships. Ah, sweet piercing sunrise, so beautiful, you make my soul sing! Ah, horizon-reaching landscapes, though my breath is short and my body wracked with effort, it’s all turned to glee here at the very top of this mountain; my struggles converted to joy. Happiness floats around me as I stretch my feet toward the fire, with a full belly and full heart; glorious sustenance for body and soul. A “yee-hah!” as I speed down a hill; I rescind every curse I’ve said about my cyclometer as I score that maximum speed. I repair a hole in a piece of gear, or fix my bike – self-sufficiency’s rewards look small but feel huge. I write a letter, no I craft it, with care; I imagine my loved ones’ faces as they get word from the road, and smile for the giving. Cosmic happenstance lends me conviction in my goals; the sun comes out from behind the clouds to dry off my dewy tent, so I can continue on my path, or a wrong turn turns out to be faster in some foreign land. Secret spots in the woods light up a soggy day; rain sluices off my smile as I discover something new. A surprise from a stranger when he or she sees my bike outside; I don’t even ask but people just want to gift. A free meal always heals my frown, the words “Whatever you want” as I look at a menu and delightfully accept. And the children, who only kind of get what I’m about, I fix their handlebar or put air in their tires, and they zoom off happy as can be, in a way only bikes can achieve. Yes, sometimes the world looks bleak, but time and time again, I see reasons for the darkness, and learn more every time. It’s made up for by the joy I sense, and put forth; this world really is a wonderful place to live, and more wonderful the more you really live.
My first day in Virginia, I asked someone on the outskirts of town where to find the library. I was told that it might be kind of tough to get to, on account of all the hubbub. Hubbub? Apparently there was an Autumn Harvest Festival going on, and I had happened to stumble into it! And on a bike, hubbub is no problem to negotiate. I had a good old time watching the old-timers play their fiddles, and browsing the wares. I bought a redneck hat and a little rebel flag for my bike, talked to many folks, and there were a few kids whose eyes I definitely opened to new possibilities. I asked a random guy under a little pavilion the best way to leave town, and he turned out to be sheriff Dale Metersbaugh himself, re-election signs for whom I had been passing since I entered the state. He gave me great directions(probably been giving directions since he was a deputy) including some warnings about the mountain coming up (“… and it’s a goody!”) and, even more valuable, promised I’d have no problems out there, at least until I left his county. Nice.
At the post office in some small town or another, I started noticing the slight differences between West Virginia and Virginia dialects: the lady working there did call it a “libary,” but unlike West Virginia, she realized she was missing a consonant, and corrected herself. Otherwise the accents are pretty similair.
Coming down out of the mountains was a great feeling… when it’s an overall loss in elevation you can really churn out a nice average speed. I ran into a roadie out on the highway who told me that they get a decent amount of loaded tourists come through here. It’s good to know I won’t be looked at like an alien from outer space, but at the same time I was kind of disappointed that he wasn’t shocked by my adventuresome spirit. I guess it’s good to be reminded I’m not the only crazy guy on a bike out there.
There is a lot of history here in Virginia as well; I’ve gone through dozens of towns and each one has some plaque or another(or whole historic buildings or even districts) detailing their own involvement in Colonial, Revolutionary, or Civil War eras. It’s been made more interesting because I am reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which goes into quite a bit of detail about the way things really were back then… “Who do you count as your ancestors?” “What really went on in that courthouse?” “How many slaves were kept at that mansion?” Perspectives, hmm.
Someone said it hasn’t been this dry since 1932. The creekbeds are all bone dry, and farmers are plagued by dying crops and overextended deer populations. It’s been okay for a bike tourist; no dew in the mornings, no rain to complicate my life. That is, until the day I rode into Richmond. It started to rain about noon and didn’t stop for five days. I rode around in the deluge, perfectly happy(I was almost to my destination!) even though it was a good twelve miles out of my way just to get a map from a library. I yelled “yee-hah!” again when I saw the sign for Ziontown Road, and some guy on his porch, nice and dry, laughed at me. I didn’t care, I was here! And whatever, the rain proved to be an excellent test of how waterproof my set-up is. As it turns out, I have some improvements to make before I encounter monsoon season in Thailand, but nothing was actually damaged – just dampened.
I’ve been here for a while now, staying in my uncle Dave and aunt Maura’s eight-person tent, which is actually a very comfortable living space now that the rain has stopped and I don’t have to mop out puddles! I found a bike shop where I could tune up my bike, Richmond Re-Cycles. Evan there was kind enough to say, “Make yourself at home.” Nice. Wonderful thrifty shop downtown on Carey Street, with a real community-oriented responsibly sustainable feeling. And they’re a Planet Bike dealer. Thanks Evan!
I’ve been writing and reading, relaxing and socializing with Dave, Maura, and their kids Roseanna (7) and Mary Grace (3). And eating a ton, of course, with a few beers and a few dozen pots of coffee. Now I’m reaching the end of this latest travelogue, and begin to look forward to the next challenges ahead…
What lies down that road? You know as much as I do, if you’ve read this far. The uncertainty excites me, though at times, when I step out of myself and look at things, I start to think about how crazy I really am. I know I will continue heading East. I’ll get across the Atlantic Ocean, one way or another. And then… then, my dear friends, the World part of this World Bicycle Tour will truly begin. Foreign lands, foreign laws, foreign languages. I can’t wait.
I’ve recieved mail from a lot of you, and for that you have my heartfelt thanks! Truly, letters and packages and personal touches go a long way toward making my sometimes-selfconscious soul feel confident when I need it most. The emails awaiting me at libraries along the way have been a godsend, and comments in the guestbook are immensely appreciated. Thank you all, and keep ’em coming!
This is not a joke, I need your contact. YES YOU! I can’t wait to hear from you!
And of course if you write me a letter or email, I promise to respond. Postage is one thing I will never skimp on.
I’ll end with this poem I wrote for you:
I carry you with me wherever I go.
I take you out sometimes, from this bag or that.
I drink you down and am refreshed.
I devour you ravenously; you’re a comfort that I need.
I burn you up, and you warm my toes.
I breathe you in, as tendrils of smoke or fresh air
I breathe you out, in a whistle or to kindle my fire.
You keep me dry when it rains, and only moist when it pours.
I’ll notice you on my wrist or the back of my hand, and you’ll wink when I see you; I wink back.
You bleed from my pen, in a rush or composed swell.
You carry words from my mouth to the World.
It’s your hand that waves when I meet someone new,
It’s your breath that is stolen at mountaintop views.
I step out on cold nights, and smile when I see you hanging silver before the stars.
In my dreams you’re a freak, a figment of the cosmos I’m happy to save;
When I wake, you’re there snuggling, in the coze of my lair.
The blackbirds bring me messages from you, and describe your patterns in the sky.
The leaves gently brush your tears from my face.
Your wind at my back, and every fortune in my hand,
A rescued bit of home driven through at your command.
We stare at each other, in the center of my desire,
And think of why I left, and what we’ll have when I return.
And I’ll always have you with me, wherever I go.
Love and Joy to you all,
Charles Ilsley Brigham IV
black_leopardstealth at yahoo dot com