Friday, July 15, 2016

You Idiot, You need a Horse

Berea, Kentucky to Murphysboro, Illinois (2,192-2,588 miles)

The couple on road bikes outside the convenience store ask what I'm doing, and I explain I'm on a 12,000 mile, two-year cycling ride. They tell me that they hear this part of the country is as tough as the mountains. It's not—my average has jumped to 70 miles a day—but I refrain from telling them this open land, though hilly, is not as difficult as the long steep climbs in the Appalachians. They ride off, and a man at a picnic table motions me over. I sit and sip my coke. He looks around 50, and he's got three kids with him, two boys and a girl. The first words out of his mouth are spoken with open derision.

"It's such a beautiful day," he says, "I'd think you'd be out doing something else besides riding a bike."

Wow.

What a way to greet a stranger.

I don't know why he's got the attitude, but I'm not about to let him get away with verbally slapping me in the face. The sky has that crystal-blue look after a front, and temps are in the mid-seventies. It's a beautiful day to cycle, and I tell him just that with a friendly smile.

"Need a horse," he says.

The kids watch us with curious eyes.

"I don't need a horse," I say.

"You need a horse."

I shake my head, still smiling. "I don't need a horse."

The man has sandy brown hair, narrow eyes, and his lips are pressed into tight lines. "If you had a horse—"

"Horse can't do what I'm doing a day," I say.

"How many miles?"

"Seventy."

The creases on his forehead deepen, and I can tell this information is particularly disturbing. Then he grins—his dim-witted light bulb turning on. "You're going too fast. You need to slow down and take your time."

This from a guy who arrived in a pickup that pulled off a high-speed artery. I ignore the irony of his statement, tell him I'm happy going the speed I'm going.

"I'm taking these kids on a trail ride tomorrow," he says, "and we prefer horses to bikes."

He stands and tells the oldest of his grand-kids to watch his phone, goes into the convenience store. Now, my dim-witted light bulb turns on. I've unwilling entered a competition between cycling and horseback riding. Grandpa was attempting to belittle me in front of his grand-kids, an effort to elevate his choice for their entertainment. I grin at a gap-toothed boy.

"So you like to ride?" I say.

He grins back at me. "I love to ride."

What was Grandpa worried about? This kid loves to ride horses.

"I built a BMX track behind my house," he says. "And I ride it every day!"

So that's why the man felt the need to denigrate cycling and pump up the beasts of burden.

Conversation takes off between me and the kids, them telling about their bikes, and I get a kick out of their bobbing heads, gesticulating arms, and lit-up eyes as they regale me with stories. They are the same stories as kids on bikes everywhere, all embedded with a love for the bike, and I study them with fondness in my heart.

Grandpa returns and cuts the conversation off mid-sentence, orders his troops to the truck. He spins away and leaves without saying another word. I can care less.

It's a beautiful day to ride a bike, and he's got three young ones with him who know it.


*

I'm surrounded by farmland—corn and beans, golden stubble of recently-cropped hay—and a car or truck comes past every 15 minutes or so. The drivers give me a wide berth, most often with a friendly wave. Middle and western Kentucky is low-stress riding, and the hills are too short to pose much of a problem. I camp in the forest for two nights running, then in an abandoned barn, then in the basement of a church in Sebree. Four eastbounders also stay the night, and I'm struck by how none of them try to bond with me, even though I put out the effort on my end. I'm up for telling and listening to stories, a natural extension of travelers meeting travelers, give up and stick to myself the rest of the evening. Touring on a bike certainly isn't the same as thru-hiking a long trail, where hikers seek each other out and strike immediate, long-lasting friendships.

I'm so slow the buzzards sit on branches instead of circle overhead.

*
Gack.

I was hoping southern Illinois would flatten out.

Wrong.

The terrain is steep, and I find myself pushing the bike instead of cycling. Two cyclists catch me on a brutal ascent and we stop and talk for a long time. Oak is 28, tall and thin, and he's been on the road for 12 months. He cycled east from Sacramento and met 24-year-old Leah a few days out of Key West. She had started her journey the day before! They are a fun couple, living on their bikes, headed for Alaska, and it doesn't take long to strike up a friendship. I mention the lack of story-telling by the cyclists I've met, and Oak says something I'll never forget.
Oak and Leah

"They don't tell stories, because they don't have any stories to tell."

I doubt a truer statement has ever been uttered. Many of the cyclists on the TransAm are so focused on their goals that they ignore the journey. They are horses galloping toward the opposite coast, blinders on, so intent on reaching their pre-ordained evening's destination that they can't take the time to stop on the side of the road and hold a conversation.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting goals are a bad thing. On the contrary, the goal—at least for me—is the catalyst for the journey. My trips, whether they are on foot or on a bike, are a compromise between goal-oriented thinking and living in the moment. The goal is always there, always in the back of my mind, but I do not allow it to take control and dominate my life. If I meet someone I'd like to travel with, Leah and Oak for example—who are doing less miles—without hesitation I'll slow down and ride with them for a few days.

When they suggest we leave the TransAm and head to the Katy Trail, a route with fewer hills, I tell them that sounds like a great idea.

Mean-looking storm

North we go—into the unknown—which is my favorite way to travel.

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