Tag Archives: Bicycle

Sandpoint, ID to Anacortes, WA – Decompressing at Sea Level

1 Aug
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It’s 2006, I’m 24 years old and nearing the end of a jog beside the arboretum in Seattle. A recent conversation with my father loops through my head, ending with a simple question: “Who do you want to be at 30?” 

Of course, the answer he’s looking for rhymes with “-octor” or “-awyer” but as I pass the newly completed Japanese Gardens and turn up the steep drive to Montlake Hill an image begins forming in my mind. When I peak the hill, lungs and legs burning, it’s clear: I see myself at 30, walking down the street, a self assured adult due to what I have accomplished in my 20s. More importantly, I know what I have to do to become that; I have to accomplish 7 goals. Sadly for my bank account, none rhyme with any profession.   

Leaving Sandpoint, ID on a clear day I’m positive the batshit weather is behind me. Through clear skies and flat ground I enter a Washington state that does not yet resemble home. My home is damp with grey sub-temperate skies feeding greedy green life consuming every surface. The Washington I enter is sandy and hot, sage brush, pines and fir trees struggling in the poverty of the desert. Cows and horses munch on irrigated grasses. Bulbous wrinkled mountains surround me as I pedal beside long wide rivers, knowing that soon I’m back to the ups. The old advice plays again in my head “There’s always another hill, except sometimes that hill is 5 mountain passes.” The climbs are steep, volcanic activity and sub-ocean plates squeezing the earth into 4-5,000 foot climbs. Glaciers carved the peaks around me into sharp angles, the rivers and glacial lakes below an impossible emerald. 4 days of climbs, the final one 80 miles without food leaving me unable to really take it what surrounded me, or the sense of relief as I pedaled down with gravity’s assist that I was nearly finished with this journey. By the end of the 4 days I’m spent. My knees hurt as bad as they did in the Appalachians, I can no longer tell the difference between the chirps and tweets of surrounding birds and my bike’s crank arm, I’m ready to be home.
My strongest memory of Washington is the swath of destruction as I approach Republic, WA, a small town in the middle of the Cascades. A tornado crashed through the town 3 days before I arrived. Hundreds of trees were uprooted or snapped. I pedaled past piles of fresh lumber beside the road, stacked neatly but too numerous yet to clear. Power poles were shattered, laying in pieces, the black lines on top spread on the ground tangled and limp like a corpse’ hair washed up on shore. Through what was left I can see the destructive energy of what passed through, as well as in the faces of the people in town when I asked what happened here. No one was injured, thankfully, but people knew that this is the beginning of something. The grasses here should be brown in the summer, they’re green the last two years. The formerly hot nights dip to near freezing. One thing that will stick with me most from this trip is weather. I notice wind more, when I’m out walking, or on a short bike ride. I feel the sun, focus more on my surroundings, and I see the climate is changing. Kansas is hotter earlier than it’s ever been before, but it’s been hot. The Wildfires in Colorado are worse than they’ve ever been before, but there have been wildfires. There’s never been a tornado in the middle of the Cascades, and I see in people’s faces the concern as they slowly come to realize this is the new normal. 
My final day of biking I see the Washington I know. Overhanging trees, the bark wet with dew and moss covered. Thick morning mists as I pedal by the Skagit river, an easy day of biking that ends with a grin stretching half my face open as the cool wind carries the scent of salt waves lapping against the sand and I step off my pedals onto the beach and dip my rear tire in the Pacific Ocean at an RV park in Anacortes, WA. A retired couple on a short vacation with friends snaps my final picture in the water, then applauds as I roll my bike back onto the grass and I accept some celebratory beers and these are enough celebration. I expected no parades or awards when I finished. What I’ve done others have done better, people I heard about on the trip or I met personally. Couples in graduate school, pedaling home towards careers and the beginnings of a family. Groups who actually set up charities with sponsors before leaving, rather than half-assing it while rushing to finish writing a book then asking for money in emails (SERIOUSLY, THOUGH. IF YOU HAVEN’T DONATED, ENGINEERS WITHOUT BORDERS IS A FANTASTIC ORGANIZATION. EVEN $5-10 CAN DO SO MUCH. PLEASE DONATE AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE). I heard of solo bicyclists finishing the trip on a unicycle, a Brit touring the world on a one speed Penny-Farthing, a triathlete who pedaled from NY to SF in 30 days. I meet Australians preparing to return home after years of world travel and Guatemalans midway through a 2 year excursion to Alaska. I’m none of these people and I don’t feel I have to be. I’m finished, with the bike trip, with my 7 goals, with my 20s. I set out to physically challenge myself, to learn more about America, and to grow as a person. I’ve done all that. If a few people remember me as that bald amateur comedian carrying the wooden club on his bike, awesome.        
So now begins the transition to home. Waking up in the same bed in the middle of the night, wonder what happened to my tent. Learning to eat again, rather than feed. Eating a normal breakfast instead of stuffing 2,000 calories into my gut and rushing off. The sore legs from jogging again and the incomplete feeling of bicycling only 40 miles a day rather than 90. After these journeys, the most difficult part is the internal adjustment. I feel different. A new perspective on the world, more confidence in what I’m capable of, a little lighter as the stresses of the trip disappear and the stresses of settled life have yet to come. But I’m returning to where nearly everything is the same which is a relief after 3 months, but still feels uncertain. I’ve changed, will I still belong here? And of course, there is the hanging question that I won’t be able to answer for months: What did this trip really mean? I’ll only figure this out as I tell the stories, as I move forward with my life, as experience is augmented with context.
When I was 24 I set out 7 goals for myself.
1. Write a book
2. Run a Marathon
3. Backpack Across Europe
4. Earn a Black Belt
5. Teach English in S. Korea
6. Shikoku Pilgrimage
7. Bicycle across the US
Along the way an inside joke began to circulate that upon completing the goals, a wizened Japanese man would appear from the forest, hand me a sword and say “You are ready!” and then tell me what to do next, like defending a village from an ogre or something. Last Christmas a girlfriend gave me a sword, and when I stepped off the pedals in the Pacific the Japanese man was no where to be found. Until he shows up with a concrete plan, I’m going to need to best guess my next goals, to look at who I want to be at 40. So far, the list I’ve come up with is modest:
1. Publish a book
2. Triathalon
3. Stand up comedy 1,000 times
4. Ride a horse across the Eurasian Steppe (This one is aspirational, but how awesome would this be?)
Somewhere along the way I’d like to start a family, find a career that I care about, and do all the normal things that people do. There were periods in my 20’s where my goal were set aside, where I considered abandoning them, but I stuck to them because somewhere in my mind, I knew they were important. Now that they are complete, I understand why. There’s a confidence that’s come with them, the knowledge that I can direct myself towards the unknown, with no wizened Japanese man to guide me or tell me I’m prepared, and say “Ready or not, here I come” 
Plus, I got a sword now in case of Ogre-Emergencies
Thanks for reading, everyone. Hope you enjoyed these and I’ll fill you in on the next journey.
Paul Barach

Riverside, WY to West Yellowstone, MT – Birthday Beneath the Sea and a Bison Infestation

14 Jul

On July 6th, my birthday, I wake at my campsite in the city park of Lander, WY still buzzing from the day before; a perfect day of biking. My first thought is “Paul, you’re living your dream, biking across the country and midway through the last of the 7 goals you set out for yourself at 24. Way to go” My second thought is “Paul, you’re homeless, jobless, and living in a tent somewhere at 30 years old. So many of your High School teachers were right”

The morning before I left my Warm Showers hosts dreading the ride ahead, but well rested since the Fourth of July in Rawlins was absent of fireworks, gunshots, BBQs, or sparks of any kind since we’re living in a tinderbox. Over breakfast my hosts prepare me mentally for the day ahead; Heat, Headwinds, and Open Praire. I pass deer munching on grass in the graveyard and my legs slowly loosen up passing beside mountains across the open prairie. I’d been told to expect nothing in between Rawlins and Lander, 130 miles away, but along with heat and wind, my threshold for “nothing” has been warped by Kansas. I descend a steep hill, roll across the flat bottom and keep speeding. Looking down at my odometer I realize that a miracle is happening. For the first time on this trip; tailwind. An early birthday present that propels me across this rippled landscape with the wind in my ears. I’m not fighting the wind with my head down, so I have the time to look around and what I see, the rolling crests of mountains, the curving ridges of land, looks strangely familiar. I’m still trying to place where I’ve seen it when I stop for water at the only bar for miles in Jeffery City, an old Uranium mining town that still has the infrastructure built for prosperity but not the people. I place my order for a bowl of chili, the bartender looks at me for another minute, then says “You want cheese on it?”
He stares for another minute, then heads off to get the chili, which takes ten minutes. I think he’s mentally off, possibly uranium poisoning, but turns out he’s just drunk all the time, which is understandable.
While I’m waiting for him to fill a bowl of chili I go outside and check my mileage. 70 miles in 4 hours. I can make it to Lander easily. 
Looking over Beaver Ridge it hits me, why my surroundings are so familiar. I’ve seen these valleys, the ridges, the irregular mounds of earth with channels in between when I’ve been snorkling and looking at the sandy bottom beneath the waves. From this height I see what I’m biking across, if I increase the scale a thousandfold. I tip my front wheel down and for 20 minutes know that I’m flying across the bottom of the ocean at the bottom of the sky. Everything becomes clear. My place in the world, in time, in geologic history. A blip enjoying a landscape that looks frozen in the scale of lifetimes but dynamic over the eons. I reach the end with my hands shaking and the wind knocked out of me, then fly the rest of the way to Lander past red and white striped mountains. To cap my evening, I get a sundae at a local ice cream shop and watch a father holding his gut in obvious pain, working to finish a ten scoop sundae monstrosity as his children cheer him on. Looking down at him from the wall above are pictures of those brave few, including his wife, who’ve kept the sundae down, victorious in their complimentary ice cream parlor shirts. She also stands there in person, arms folded and bemused at his struggle.  
The next day ends in Dubois and I have a birthday steak and some birthday drinks and the bartender gives me an awesome suggestion for the night’s activities. As I walk out a 55 year old Dutch woman rides up to the restaurant and I decide she’s coming too.
“Hi, guess what we’re doing tonight?”
“Hello?” Marlene replies “What?”
“We’re going to a rodeo, then we’re sleeping in that church over there”
“OK. Can I eat first?” 
So we drop our gear at the church, go back to the restaurant, Marlene buys me more birthday drinks and we learn about each other. Marlene is 55, a PR officer at an engineering firm, taking a sabbatical after the 101 year old Holocaust survivor she looked after finally succumed to Alzheimers. The local rodeo is a fun change of pace; children race their horses around the barrels and rope calves. Adults hold on as the bulls try to throw them off, usually quickly. I drink beers at the concessions, bull riders are amazed I’m bicycling across the country and we tell each other we’d never be crazy enough to do that. 

The next day I leave by the peppermint taffy cliffs through the mountains until I see the Tetons in the distance and turn toward Jackson Hole, and the home of some family friends where my parents are also waiting to wish me a happy birthday. Some BBQ, some beers, a bed and a shower and it feels almost normal again, like home. A hike up to Jackson peak the next day, looking out over the lumps of mountains on the flat land and the sharp blue granite blocks of the Tetons shoving through the earth, a branch of lightning arcing from the storm to the valley beyond, later a traffic jam of people snapping pictures of a moose and I’m no longer feeling like home, but this will do. 

Wyoming ends with 2 nights in Yellowstone. Whether because of the burn-out that’s been dogging me the last couple days, or maybe my expectations were too high, I couldn’t dig Yellowstone. It’s an endless procession of cars and people, multi-cultural families snapping pictures across an active supervolcano as sulphorous water bubbles from the ground and the winds carry the smells through the park. I saw many amazing things there and don’t regret going. Mammoth Hot Springs lives up to the name, climbing on a calcified mass, stained yellow and red from the minerals seeping out, that towers out of the mountain like a weeping sore. Obsidian cliffs and the black and red glassy stones that tumbled down. Fields of wildflowers, waterfalls, the short green lodgepole pines surrounding the tall bleached spears of their parents, burnt in the fires of ’88. Maybe my expectations of wildlife were too high. In over 100 miles of bicycling I saw one coyote, one badger, one black bear, one grizzly, and a dissapointingly large number of bear shaped rocks. Yellowstone I count 25 cars and 37 people all gathered on a hillside, snapping pictures of the furry ears of a bear visible behind a bush. When I do see bears, they’re doing what they normally do, digging in the ground, or wandering, not doing what I want them to do, like snatching fish from a stream, or fighting former president Teddy Roosevelt. The bison are another matter. I’m lucky enough to see a massive herd grazing on Gibbon Flat. I snap pictures of the largest bull I’ve ever seen until it growls at me and I agree that yes, I am too close to him. After an Italian couple interviews me for their documentary I race to the campsite and in the driveway I stop 10 feet from another bison sitting in the dust. We stare at each other for a few minutes, then he rolls over onto his back and rises concealed in a cloud of dust like a multi-ton furry Ninja. I spend the night sharing a campsite and food with an awesome family and share a laugh with them the next morning as a bison wanders through the campsite, keeping the terrified in their tents.  
My final night in Yellowstone and in Wyoming I’m 10 miles from my campsite when I see to my right in the far distance another lightning storm, the third that day. The storm, however, is a decoy to allow another storm to swoop in right on top of me (Clever Girl). Suddenly I’m racing through driving rain as electric bolts turn the ground below me purple. Normally I love lighting storms, but it’s dark, windy, and there are many cars passing me. After 40 terrifying minutes I make it to the campsite drenched and set up my tent on the soaking ground. Then my tent pole snaps. Enraged, I throw the tent against a tree, then a thought hits me and I start chuckling, and keep laughing as I climb inside shivering, and fall asleep damp in a half-collapsed tent as water seeps through the bottom. As I fall asleep on the damp soil of a buffalo infested super-volcano I’m still laughing at the thought “You’re homeless, jobless, and living in a tent somewhere at 30. Take a moment to appreciate your success”  

Girard, Kansas to Ordway, Colorado – Headwind and the Angry Inches

29 Jun


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And now, Kansas:

Despite all evidence that it remains connected to the contiguous United States, I held the firm belief this past week that Kansas is falling into the sun. 

It’s been a week of exhaustion, frustration, disappointment and sullen acceptance that’s required me to amend my customary advice of “There’s always one more hill” with “and sometimes that hill is an entire state.” To give you a quick news update: this week Kansas had the hottest location in the world. At 115f, it’s hotter than the Sahara Desert, Death Valley, and Molten Lava city (Come see the Lava!). In the rest of Southern Kansas it’s been triple digit temperatures since Sunday with winds gusting constantly from the South or West up to 30 mph, meaning that if I’m really pedaling hard, I can sometimes make 8mph, about half my normal crusing speed for the past month. When I’m 15 miles from my destination, straining against the wind and heat, and know it’s going to be like this for the next two hours, it’s awful. Except it’s more than two hours, because 2 1/2 miles from town, I still need to rest in the shade of a stranger’s yard before the final push. He wanders out for a chore and waves. I raise my hand weakly in reply. No words need exchanging, we both know why I’m there.   

My first few days in Kansas were idyllic. A summer evening swimming in a local public pool, doing flips off the diving board, laughing as I try to remember how many years it’s been. I chat with high schoolers about the bicycle trip and their plans for the future, sports scholarships and military branch fall backs, smiling as I realize that as I near 30 I’ll never again speak with such confidence about my future, knowing how much was in store for me between high school and now. Their teacher supervises the pool and I chat with him about travel and his SE Kansas origins as his children mill about. The next day when a closed highway forces me to detour along an upaved road and my tire blows out an oil well capper drives me back to the highway in his pick up. Asking how he finds the extinct oil wells, he points to a rolled up blueprint on the dashboard. Unrolling it, I’m looking at a map of Fort Scott from the 1888s, copied from a cloth and papyrus original. The days are pleasantly hot and pleasantly flat. In between towns I’m hitting 20 mph speeds regularly and when I enter these small towns they’re straight out of Frank Capra, American Rennaisance architecture, unlike the previous states the homes are still occupied, the businesses not boarded up. With days like these, I expect to fly out of Kansas like Superman. 
Then the winds begin, and the heat. After a hellish day of 9 hours and 110 miles, I change routine and shrink my distances. I rise at 5am, leave at 6, and am finished by noon in whatever town I can escape the 107 degree heat. The temperatures rise quickly with the sun. One day, from the time I left my seat at a diner to when I walked outside to my bike, the bank thermometer has jumped 3 degrees. Worse is the wind. Blowing hot and constant from the side it robs me of momentum, I strain to earn every pedal stroke just to keep going slowly nowhere. The gusts steal the moisture from my mouth and whip it towards Nebraska. I always need more water than I have, no matter how many extra bottles I carry, and my lips chap about an hour in. The days end with me exhausted, muscles drained, voice hoarse and knowing there’s more of this waiting tomorrow, and the day after, and after. 

Kansas becomes a mental game that I sometimes win. When I accept the situation and look past the wind blasting in my ears and pushing me off the shoulder, the passing trucks that yank my bike back and forth in the pressure drop, the sun’s constant stinging rays, I see the piece of America I wanted to experience. The boundless landscape of green, gold, and brown patchwork that dwarfs the gargantuan machinery needed to harvest it. 70 foot grain elevators that stand stark white against the sky, the bright red, blue, and green tractors, backhoes, harvesters that group beside homes or roam the praire in halos of dust. The birdlike irrigation pumps forever pecking at the soil. And once, on one of many necessary breaks, I stand at a wildlife refuge beside the road and stare out into the preserved grasslands, wind making the blades slash at each other, hissing through the expanse. Birds chatter and crickets chirp and for a moment I see how it used to be, imagining some of the 150 million buffalo wandering the plains, the 40 foot long grass huts of the natives, an ecosystem long since plowed and planted over. And above it all, a clear blue domed sky and angry, angry sun.

But usually, I lose. Another cattle semi passes, getting thwapped twice in the face with the scent of cow shit, then the wind is back to howling ceaselessly in my ears. I’m working my ass off, going as slow as the steepest climbs in the Appalacians or the Ozarks, but there’s no peak to reach, no downslope, no coasting, just a thankless, draining slog for hours that used to result in distances. Ahead the concrete is a mirror that occasionally produces cars but rarely towns and surrounding me is a flat empty landscape of few surprises. What is 10 miles behind me will be 10 miles ahead. Pedaling my ass off against an invisible obstacle, so tired it’s hard to keep my head up, and when it drops all I see is how slow I’m going, the 10ths of a mile I’ve gained since I last looked, and I crack. I swear in rage at the wind at the top of my lungs, but the breezes and gusts remain indifferent, as to reach the Wind Spirit Tate I’d need a fire and dance steps I’m unfamiliar with. Except the wind isn’t indifferent, it’s fucking with me. I know it. No matter which direction I turn one day, there’s headwind. Just when I’m in sight of a town, when my legs get that extra burst of energy to the finish line, the oven-hot wind gusts to blow me off the road and I glare daggers at the South, expecting to see cause on the horizon. A jet engine, a Monty Python head holding a giant blowdryer, but nothing new. Just land stretching to Oklahoma, no sign of my invisible tormentor.  
I remind myself constantly that though this experience will remain in memory, the hours spent at it will slip away. Finally I reach Colorado, and am surprised at how quickly the landscape changes from agricultural expanse to Ansel Adams photo. More importantly, the forecast is improving. As I checked the weather for Ordway, CO, my final destination for the night, 103 degrees and winds gusting at 5-10 mph, enough headwind to make it a fight, but not be helpless in it. For the first time in a week my odometer hits 15 mph and I pump my fist and laugh, happy to be free again. Then, of course, with 20 miles to go, a freak storm appears on the horizon and winds howl in my face. I’m back to fighting just for 6mph, and sometimes, just for a forward direction. I flag down a pick up, toss my bike in the back, and ride the rest of the way. There’s always one more hill, but sometimes, fuck wind. 

Chester, IL to Pittsburg, KS – Missouri Doesn’t Want Me to Miss It

21 Jun


I’m in a laundromat in Pittsburg, KS just over the Missouri border washing the salt stain rorshach tests off my shirts. I woke to an intense rainstorm that fish could have travelled through overland. After 4 days in Missouri and 21 days total I’m finally on flat land.

It’s a strange mental space to put myself in. The Ozarks differed little from the Appalacians in the routine; 1-2 steep hills every mile all day, up and down and up.  In Missouri it’s: Climb, Peak, Dive, Creek. In Kentucky it’s: Climb, Peak, Dive, Poverty. To keep my morale up through the hills and the exhaustion I’ve had to put myself into the mental space for the last 3 weeks of “There’s always one more hill.” No matter how many climbs I get through in a day, no matter how hot, there’s always one final climb between me and wherever I’m trying to get to, so never think you’re done. Today I saw Pittsburg’s water tower from two miles away, not one more hill in between. 

“There’s always one more hill” is the advice I give to everyone I meet bicycling because it’s the most useful advice I know. The most useless advice is “Be safe,” which everyone tells me, but no one tells me how. A road worker points to the Semis constantly passing and says “Those’ll run you over” and I reply “Yes, I too understand physics.” My biggest fear on this trip is cars and I worry every day. I know I’ll end this trip in shape, but how do I make sure that shape isn’t a 2 dimensional one? Do I ride closer to the median, to make myself more visible but present more of a target, or closer to the shoulder, less visible but more avoidable? Apparently, closer to the shoulder doesn’t work because 2 days ago an air conditioner repair man blinded by the sun sideswiped me into a ditch with his van’s mirror. 

107 miles in, any fatigue I was feeling is gone as I’m back up in an instant, memorizing the van’s description for the police or to hunt him down myself. The van continues for a moment to a driveway, then turns around and parks across from me. The driver gets out apologizing & dialing 911, keeps apologizing as I decline paramedics, as we call the police for an accident report, as we wait 45 minutes for the police to actually show up. Two members of his family died in car wrecks recently so he feels sick about this. I’m feeling better as we wait. My shoulder is barely bruised and this is one of the nicer drivers I’ve met today. This stretch of Missouri Highway has been a day of too close semis, barking dogs and asshole hillbillies. After the cop leaves I tell the driver he owes me a beer and a ride to my campsite and we’re square. We head to that Midwestern convenience staple, the Kum n Go, and I get my PBRs and a couple Kum n Go lighters as gifts for back home. The clerk looks to be in High School, wearing a button up shirt and a bow tie, remarks “I’ve never tried PBR. Any good?” 
His friend hanging by the counter, equally young, says “Yeah man, it’s way to classy to use for beer pong”

I get to my campsite, shake hands with the driver, who apologizes again, set up my tent and reflect that my “Days Without A Car Accident” board just dropped from 37 to 00. Osha’s gonna have my ass.   

Despite Missouri’s best efforts, I’d come to like it. I really enjoy the 5 foot tall rolls of hay in the fields, watching farmers pick them up with forklifts, moving them ant-like into long rows or scattered across the rolling hills of grassland. The stampede of cows through creeks as they spook when I pass and I race beside them. I visit Alley Springs, an old grist mill. I stand at the sandstone hills above, watching some of the 81 million gallons of aqua blue water pass through the mill’s fall, dark green sea grass waving beneath the current and look back to a time when a blacksmiths, general store, and school house surrounded this shady brook. When farmers brougth their grain to be ground between the stone wheels. Getting the latest word from their neighbors as they waited their turn, stocking up on supplies, shoeing horses or repairing equipment. 

I continue to meet interesting people. A grad student couple from UMASS, the girl who worked at the Baltimore Sun telling me about having to vacate rooms so they could shoot scenes for “The Wire.” The Mayor of Ash Grove, who sits at my table, fills me in on Nathan Boone’s history here and how the Phenix mine provided the marble for an SF Museum in the 20’s, then picks up my tab for lunch. The customers in a convenience store in Houston, MO that look straight out of a David Lynch casting call. 2 Brits, a Web developer and lawyer, who’ve given their notice and biked all through Australia, NZ, Tasmania and America. Chatting with members of the Baltic Cyclist association with Brits, Poles and Lithuanians, going from Beijing to London as we stay in a Farmington bike hostel converted from a jail cell. 

Yesterday evening I’m approaching Golden City. I’ve climbed the last of the Ozark hills and am now in flat, easy pastureland. The muscles built from three weeks of climbs power me along, the wind roaring by my ears. I’ve reached the cool part of the day and I’m flying, ready for sleep and waking to the easy stretches of Kentucky ahead. Then the stench invades my nostrils and for the next 15 minutes I pedal through what smells like a particularly strong fart. Missouri really doesn’t want me to miss it.     


Troutdale, VA to Berea, KY

10 Jun


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MILES: 740

6 days ago I’m in a log house built in the 1850s drinking wine and watching hockey with Brian and Rebecca, an awesome couple living in Troutdale, VA. It’s raining so they’ve invited me inside to sleep on their couch. As I run my fingers over the rough splinters and axe marks on the original hand-hewn boards in the wall, they tell me about when a 90 year old woman stopped by one morning with her 70 year old son. She grew up in this house that her father converted from a barn, the baby of 9 children sleeping upstairs, and now asks to explore her childhood home. One of the first things she notices: “Oh, you have toilets now!”

I’ve lucked out finding this house. When I knock on the door, hoping to camp in their yard I hear the Rottweiler barking and see the rifle over the mantle and think “This ain’t good.” When Brian opens the door, wearing flip flops and a Bruins hockey shirt with a friendly “What’s up man?” I think “This is good”

As I leave the next day they tell me I’m heading towards the more economically depressed area of VA and KY, poorer, steeper, meth-ier, and uglier. They are right on all counts.

When I was in Japan there was a problem of “Monotonous Beauty” where my surroundings were so idyllic all the time they became unnoticeable. Eastern Virginia is the same. The first time you see the rolling hills, the green mountains, the pastureland of monochrome cows and prancing horses, the barns old and new you want to stop and paint a picture. After 10 more miles of it all I can think about is “My ass is fucking killing me, is this bike seat made of rebar?”

I get a few breaks from the pasturelands. Long climbs into the forests of Mt. Rogers, of Breaks Interstate park where I reach Kentucky. I stand on overlooks and see “The Grand Canyon of the South” where the New River has carved through sheer sandstone cliffs and deep into the more yielding shale beneath to create a steep valley running through the forested mountains. It’s all I can do not to build my own cabin and live there.

But then there’s Western VA and Eastern KY, which is not beautiful, just monotonous. Green hills and mountains loom across the valley, or in front to remind me of the climbs ahead, which are hard; I breath hard, my legs pump hard, my heart pounds hard. I never think I’m going to quit but it’s never enough to be a rewarding challenge. Countless steep hills drain my legs and yield no views at the top, just a sign announcing a new county. I coast on the descents at 35 mph, insects that would spatter on a windshield bounce off my face with a sharp thwack.

The valleys below are full of trailer homes and poverty. People sit on the porches staring at nothing. Confederate flags flap outside homes, sometimes alongside the “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, which is confusing because one represents freedom and independence, while the other represents enslavement and subjugation. Wide yards contain 7 cars with 9 tires between them. Dogs run barking to the end of their tethers or burst from their yards chasing me. I bark back at them till they stop their pursuit, as even dogs know to avoid the mentally ill.

Clothes and toys fill tables and blankets along the roadside. Either everyone is having a yard sale all the time or homes here are built without closets. I even see a sign advertising a yard sale held inside a general store. Most shops are closed and buildings shuttered in the downtowns. Churches, Pawn Shops, Gun shops, and Cash 4 Gold shops remain open. A grocery store I pass by advertises 3 foods on their billboard “Spam. Parkay. Kraft Cheese.” The same orange and black “For Sale” signs adorn empty trucks, ATVs, and homes along the roadside.

The only bicyclist I’ve met so far is Lucas from Denmark. I could immediately tell he was Danish because of the “sh” he adds to the end of every sentence and his indecisiveness about killing his fratricidal uncle. Otherwise, the roads are empty of bikes, just coal trucks, regular trucks, cars, motorcycles and ATVs, all of whom give me plenty of room as they pass and I wave in thanks.

Yesterday I’d had enough of Eastern KY and my 2nd map, so I decided to bicycle the 123 miles from Hindman to Berea (actually 113, but hooray not-admitting-I-made-a-wrong-turn-for-5-miles). For the last few days I’d been trying to remove myself from the equation here, to tell myself these hills don’t have it in for me personally, but in the end I wanted out and it was worth the exhaustion. I know I’m on the trip of a lifetime, and that I need to appreciate this now because it will be over sooner than I think. However, some days all I take as comfort is the flip side of that mindset: “Well Paul, you won’t be in Eastern Kentucky forever”

Onward from Berea.