Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Life Lesson Relearned

Troutville, Virginia to Macon, Georgia, Virginia (11,620 - 12,170 miles)

A car door slams and my eyelids jerk open. Dark, very dark. I reach for my fillet knife. The handle is wooden, the sheath is leather, the blade is six inches long and sharp enough to cut paper. I fumble around, drag my fingers across the tent floor. In my sleepy haze I've forgotten I lost my favorite weapon a week earlier. I come to my senses and remember a backup pocketknife in my handlebar bag . . . where is that thing? The knife is three inches long—half the size of the one I lost—but it's sharp and some protection is better than none at all. I root through the bag. Finger a flashlight, a camera, tent stakes, a gooey Snickers' wrapper, three quarters and two pennies.

No knife.

Wait a sec. . . . I claw up the backup to my backup, a miniature Swiss Army knife, fish it upward from the depths of the bag. I flick the blade and one inch of dull steel whips into the open. This is insane. What am I supposed to do with a blade barely long enough to scalp a cockroach?

I inch the tent zipper downward. Nothing has moved outside, no words spoken, and the zipper sounds as loud as a semi motor. Screw this. I rip the zipper downward and leap into the open, a charge that looks less like a mad dog and more like a one-legged bunny hop because one of my feet is entangled in a pannier strap. I hop forward, drag the pannier out of the tent, extend the knife through the darkness, a posture that might have been threatening if my blade was longer than a hangnail.

I'm in the shadows, well away from the bunkhouse, under a solitary pavilion on the hill. The bunkhouse, pavilion, and hill belong to the Troutdale Baptist Church AT Hostel. Because the hostel sits close to both the Appalachian Trail and a cross-country bike route, cyclists are also welcome to stay the night.

I squint, try to make out the car, and two doors swing open. The dome light comes on and illuminates sheriffs unfolding from opposite ends of the front seat. Cops? Here in the middle of the night? They haven't come to talk to me. I've broken no laws. A cop opens a rear door and another man exits the vehicle. I flip on the pavilion light and three heads turn toward me. The third man wears floppy boots and bulky overalls, stands several inches short of five feet tall. He drags out a pack from the rear seat, then drags out a cart. I close the knife and tuck it into my pocket.

“You take care of this place?” the cop says, badge gleaming under the light. “You run it?”

“I'll be right back.” I jog through the night to a shed Rising Sun turned into a home, rap on his door, tell him the cops brought a homeless person to the hostel. Rising Sun grumbles behind the door. This hostel provides a place for hikers and cyclists to relax; it's not a shelter for bums living on the street. Nobody wants the homeless here, including me. I don't want to deal with substance abuse or theft, or drama in general, and I certainly don't want one of these guys sleeping near me.

Rising Sun looks at me with sleepy eyes. He's wearing jeans and a shirt, blue lint in his hair. I scrunch my voice to a whisper. “You're the caretaker, put your foot down and tell them to take him somewhere else.”

He shakes his head. “This is a church hostel and all are welcome.”

I know him well, and he prefers to have ATers and TransAmers in the hostel. He's repeating the words of the founder, Pastor Ken, who gave the directive to never turn anyone away.

Rising Sun and I walk up to the pavilion and the cops tell him they found the guy sleeping under a porch overhang in front of a local business, said they had a choice of bringing him to the hostel or arresting him for trespassing.

Why not just tell him to go elsewhere? Dude's got legs.

“He doesn't have a tent.” The head cop has a benevolent voice, as though he's trying to do good. Rising Sun and I know better. The cop's dumping a problem on someone else, trying to avoid the paperwork if he takes this guy to jail.

“It's going to rain,” says the cop.

He's right, the wind is picking up and thunderstorms are building, storm on the way. I give into the idea of the newcomer staying at the hostel, make a not so subtle suggestion that the bunkhouse is right down the hill.

Rising Sun nods. “The bunkhouse is empty. Go on down there and make yourself at home.”

Whew. At least I won't have to sleep with one eye open. I study the guy, trying to discern what turned him homeless. He's too heavy for a meth-head, probably loves his opiates.

The guy ignores Rising Sun's offer, drags his pack and cart under the pavilion, unrolls his sleeping bag next to my tent. He doesn't look at me, talk to me, or even fart at me. Rising Sun whispers that he's sorry about all this, goes back to his shed. The cops leave and I turn off the lights and crawl into my tent.

I scrounge around trying to find my pocketknife with the three inch blade, give up and tuck my miniature knife under my pillow. My neighbor starts snoring, and his rumbles blend with the rain patter against the metal roof. Every thirty minutes he wakes and smokes a cigarette. My lungs recoil from second-hand smoke and I heartily cough into my hand. Having no idea what might send him into a rage, I don't ask him to stop. Maybe he's ex-military—PTSD or something—totes a bucket of grenades under the overalls.

I stay awake the entire night, yank my sleeping bag over my head when more cigarettes light up. Finally, the rain stops and dawn breaks over the mountains. He sits up in his sleeping bag and stares straight ahead, reminds me of a mushroom that grew out of the forest floor. I wish he'd pack up and go. Maybe I'd get a few hours of sleep this morning. His head swivels. Crap. He wants something, maybe he's run out of cigarettes or needs a light. Go away, man. Leave me alone. Pack up and get out of here.

His voice trembles across the distance between us. His words come thick and slow.

“Do you. . . know how to get . . . to Route 11?” he says. “I . . . I . . . need to get to Route . . . 11. It's very important.”

I tell him to walk down to the road in front of the hostel, then turn left. “Keep going for about sixteen miles and you'll run into it.”

In the next five minutes, he asks me the same question three more times, and I give him the same answer. I feel like a heel for judging him based on his gear and clothes. This meek little man would never hurt anyone, and I feel even worse when he tells me he's walking around the country on a religious mission.

“That's . . . why I have to go . . . to Route 11,” he says. “I have to check in . . . with my sponsors. I have to get to . . . Damascus.”

I describe a more direct route, but he's got Route 11 stuck in his head. He shrugs into his pack and drags his cart down the hill. I jog up behind him, tuck a bag of rice into his hand. This journey retaught me a lesson I've learned many times. The scariest thing about the unknown is . . . well . . . the unknown. I didn't know anything about this guy and assumed he was dangerous simply because he didn't permanently reside in a box with doors and windows. He deserved better than he got from this cyclist/writer, and that's something I hope I don't forget anytime soon.

Natural bridge south of Damascus, VA

A sign at a biker bar.

I fell 20 miles after I saw this sign. 

I leave the Appalachians and pedal through Georgia, where I'm faced with a decision I've put off since Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida. I intended to ride south from here, to Key West, ending my ride at its point of origin. Easy peasy. Zip down through Florida, take US 1 through the Keys, get off my bike at the buoy where all this began, take a few pics, move to the next phase of my life.

Georgia red clay.

Fortunately I've visited hurricane-damaged regions and have an idea of what to expect in the Keys. I have a filter so tainted water supplies aren't an issue. Neither are unstocked grocery shelves. I can carry enough food to ride back to the mainland without going hungry. No, what weighs on my mind are washouts. Highway repair tends to force cyclists into the roadway, off the shoulder, which means I'll have to share the road with drivers frustrated at their inability to get anywhere fast. Many of these drivers will be construction workers who down six packs on their lunch hours or on their way home from work. These workers will also max out the campgrounds and motels, and the overflow will occupy every mangrove hidey hole in the islands.

Dangerous riding and lack of stealth campsites are enough to turn me away from the Keys, but they aren't the only factors influencing my decision. After 18 months and 12,000 miles of riding across America, I'm not ready to quit. My work is undone; there is more to accomplish with Ride between the Stars, more people to tell about the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I turn my bike toward the southwest, sense the length of open road between here and the opposite coast. I cycle onward, to destinations unknown.