Thursday, August 24, 2017

Muddy Cycling

Clinton, MO - South Royalton, VT (8,840-10,540)


The eastern terminus of the Katy Trail is so close I can feel it up there . . . somewhere . . . and now this, a sign telling me the trail is washed out. I'm in a forest and the Missouri River meanders a few yards to my right. Aptly nicknamed The Big Muddy, the water is as brown as chocolate. The river recently overflowed the bank in this low area, receding a few days ago, and the muddy land looks more than a little inhospitable.
Loaded down.

Do I backtrack, adding an hour or more to today's ride?

Or do I fight the mud for however long it lasts?

I dismount and resolutely drag my bike forward.

It doesn't take long, less than twenty yards, and I have to stop and dig out the mud accumulated around the brake pads. Perhaps I should turn around? Isn't discretion the better part of valor, or some such crap? I lift my bike so the wheels barely touch the mud, hope I find dry land around the corner. My neck hurts and assisting 100 pounds of bike over a muddy trail isn't helping matters. I lift and roll the bike forward a foot at a time, break into a salty sweat that stings my eyes. I'm pissed off at the person responsible for informing cyclists of trail closings, wish he or she would have jabbed a sign in the ground at a reasonable bailout point. But no, instead I discover this washout when I get to it . . . not six miles back, where I could have taken an alternative route over paved roads.

I drag my bike and curse, drag and laugh, drag and wonder when this fresh hell will end.

A man walks into view, coming my direction, rolling an unloaded bike lightly over the mud. He's got black hair and brown skin, wears faded sweats, and I peg him for a migrant farm worker.




We walk toward each other, him effortlessly coasting his bike, me lifting and hauling my load inch by inch, and we both nod when we draw abreast. A few minutes later, I stop and look over my shoulder, envious of how easy it is for him to make headway. He turns his head slightly and I see the edges of an amused smile. I guess I look pretty weird, an old man dragging a tank through the mud in the middle of nowhere.

I stagger forward, sandals slipping and sliding as they try to find purchase in the quagmire, eventually step onto dry trail. Feeling a little crazy, I do a happy dance, a slow motion twist that winds down like a rusty old clock. Then I mount up and ride a bit, sink back to the depths when the land dips and the mud returns. Dismounting, I ponder my predicament. Maybe I should pack off and carry my load piecemeal over the trail. I decide to keep on keeping on.

The mud has to end . . . eventually.

An hour later, I reach dry ground and sag against a tree. My biceps and triceps burn, along with my back and legs. I loll my head forward and backward, swallow four ibuprofen and wash them down with water. My neck pain is excruciating at times—an ice pick jabbing at my spine—and ibuprofen doesn't help. I don't know why I take it.

At least I'm out of the mud.


I leave Missouri and the waterlogged Katy Trail behind, take Route 66 north through Illinois, meet another cyclist in one of the small towns. Dave from New Zealand rides across the US after enduring a bout with cancer. We spend several days cycling together. He's a funny guy and I would like to journey with him for a while, but tourers are independent sorts and we go our separate ways.
Handy barn shelters me from the storm.
 A week later, after cycling through the cornfields and beanfields of Illinois and Indiana, I arrive in Ohio and angle toward Lake Erie. I stay a night with Doc Sam and his wife, wonderful Warmshowers' hosts in Loraine, and he prescribes prednisone for my neck. I forgo the meds and ride 80 pain-free miles the next day, through Cleveland and beyond, keep my neck loosened with head lolls, which no doubt prompts passing motorists to conclude I am mentally disabled—that or I'm so sleepy drunk I can't keep my head up.
Wet summer.
Lake Erie. 
The next morning I forgo the meds again. I hope for another pain-free day and I'm rewarded with an agony that makes me go to the drug store and cough up the bucks. Prednisone is a steroid that's supposed to shrink the pinched nerve that's causing the problem.

For the next couple of weeks, I take the drug and add a few yoga contortions to my loosen-up-my-neck-repertoire, draw so far inward the world grays and nothing but me, the bike, the pain exists. I talk to few people, take even fewer pictures. I am surviving and nothing more. This ride is no longer fun and I think about quitting.

But then I pedal onward.


I cycle out of the wet Midwest, arrive in Fulton, New York. I'm worried about black fly season in the Northeast, need to purchase long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, soon tire of riding around and searching for a thrift store. I spot a woman walking across a convenience store parking lot, roll her way. She's a blonde on the short side, overweight, wears a white blouse and plaid pajama bottoms. Her slippers slap across the pavement, stop when I draw near.

“Excuse me for a second,” I say. “Is there a thrift store in town?”

Her face reddens and her eyes squint. Vertical furrows build on her brow. Her hands clench and unclench and I swear she's about to take a swing at me. She screams her words, loud from beginning to end.

“Leave me alone!” she says.

My mouth opens but nothing comes out.

“I'm having a VERY BAD DAY!” she adds.

I roll the opposite direction and mutter “sheeze” to myself.

Later that morning, after buying pants and shirt at a Catholic charity, I roll up to a young man on the sidewalk. In his late teens, he has that vacant look that makes you wonder what's going on inside his brain. He wears a KILL BILL tee-shirt, wears floppy, unlaced sneakers.

“So,” I say, “is there a library around here?”

He jerks his head toward me, a glare in his eyes, snaps his answer. “What are you asking me for?”

Gritting my teeth, I cycle down the street. I don't get it, the abruptness of some of the people I've met in this state. What gives them the right to treat a stranger rudely? Is this the NYC attitude infecting small towns? I don't have the answers, only know I've traveled 10,000 miles on this trip and met more jerks in New York than in all the rest of the states combined.

I leave the town behind and cycle into the Adirondacks. It doesn't take long to discover the folks in these mountains are like most folks everywhere. They are respectful and polite, helpful and engaging, inquisitive and giving, and I wish their attitude permeated the state. Black fly season is past its peak, thank goodness, so I don't have to wear my long pants and long-sleeved shirt. The pain in my neck is tolerable and doesn't increase when my predinsone runs out. All in all, I think I might make it.

But first I plan on taking a break somewhere in the Northeast. If I make the turn at Portland, Maine too quickly, I'll arrive in the south during hurricane season. I hope the layover will cure my neck for good.