Home!

On the last day of the bike trip, I woke up at 5:30 with a groggy head. I packed up my things, leaving behind all unnecessary items. I threw out about ten punctured tubes that had collected at the bottom of my bag and took out my tent and sleeping bag, which Jeff had offered to return when he came home for Christmas. As appreciation for Jeff’s hospitality, I also left behind a grocery bag full of ramen noodle reserves.

I took off from Jeff’s place at around 7:00 making my way through downtown Charlottesville and past the campus. I got back on 29 and settled into my day. I knew these last miles were going to be difficult ones. I didn’t feel great and had no room for error with 29’s steady traffic whispering into ear.  All thoughts focused on home. I imagined my street, the slow last pedals. My family, warmth, rest.

Rather than cheer me up, these thoughts depressed me. Just a day of biking felt too far from home. I wanted it now. With a hundred or so miles to go, I worried about not making it home before night and that my family would have to come pick me up.

At least once a day for the whole trip, I had pictured biking right up to my house. I had painted this scene so vividly and for so long that any deviation from my imagined homecoming would have crushed me. I could make it home in two days easy, but spending another night outside so close to the end seemed pointless. I decided I would go as far as I could and when it came time to make the call, I’d make the call.

Halfway through my day, I stopped for lunch in Culpeper. I ate three pizza slices at a gas station and after ten minutes of rest got back on the bike.

As I got closer to home, traffic worsened. In the rush hour swarm, I felt very out of place. I had spent most of the trip biking alongside gorgeous forests, beneath mountains and had considered myself a free and natural extension of the landscape. Now the scene had suddenly changed and I viewed myself from the perspective of commuting cars, a lone, mad biker. My anticipation for home and sweet motionlessness stirred up desperate feelings. I wanted it all to end so badly. I was not wistful during these last miles at all. The weather was overcast and windy; the roads congested and dangerous. I had pushed my season, I had pushed my route and I had pushed myself farther than I should have. It was time for the trip to end.

Outside of Warrenton, the Clark Brother’s Gun Store with the bear figurine mounted on the roof came into view. I knew I was close.

The map I carried was not detailed enough to trace a clear route home, so when I reached I-66, I turned onto it as my only known recourse.

I actually felt safer on 66 then on 29. There was a wide shoulder that let me bike a safe distance from traffic. I got a few miles down the road before I saw red lights flashing in my bike mirror. I explained my situation to the puzzled officer with whatever shred of sanity I had left. He seemed impressed but said four people had already called about me and he couldn’t let me continue on the interstate. I took the exit towards Manassas and stopped at a McDonald’s to wrestle with a brief moment of defeat. Sad as it is, I didn’t know how to get home from here. I could navigate my way across the country, but when it came to my own backyard, I was lost. I didn’t want to call home for directions because I knew my family would insist on coming to pick me up, so I walked across the street to a Holiday Inn.

The woman at the front desk was on a phone call. She kept talking without acknowledging me. Daylight was burning. I looked around the lobby for some pamphlet or map to show me the way and saw on the wall a big road map of Northern Virginia. With my finger, I traced my way back home following 29 past the Bull Run battle field. From there I could make a right onto 50 and pick up West Ox road which would take me all the way home.

The last miles were never ending. I raced with the light, putting more effort into these swan song miles than I had any other. Pulling onto West Ox road a feeling of great security greeted me. I was not home, but this was the last stretch. It was dark now. I road on a sidewalk past the Costco, the Silver Dinner, Fairfax Town Center- the old sights and landmarks nodding to me in recollection. I felt like Rip Van Winkle coming home after a 100 years nap.

On Bennett road, I took caution to look behind me every few seconds, checking for headlights. It was past five now. Totally dark. No cars came. I knew I was close, but did not rest easy until I turned onto a side street into my neighborhood.

Leading into my neighborhood, I did the trip’s last hill. At the top, I took off my biking shoes and changed into my sneakers. I rested for a moment. The houses were all holding their soft glow. How many houses on the trip had I passed and they would just be houses with strangers inside, impossible to enter? But now I would see my own home and walk right in.

I first saw my house, all done up in Christmas lights, through the woods of an adjacent street.

When I pulled into the court, I did not feel nervous or jubilant just a quite notion of having arrived. The last stop waiting here the whole time.

Strung across the awning above the front door was a banner:

Welcome home Richard

All the way from Omak to Oak Hill

I rode up the drive way and into the garage. The dogs greeted me silently as if I had never left or maybe they didn’t remember me. My family had not seen me riding up the driveway, so I walked into the house and turned into the kitchen like I’d just come home from the store. Mom was in the kitchen straining her eyes to look at a can. When she looked up and saw me, she almost jumped out of her skin. Patricia was closest and wrapped me in an immediate hug.

I hadn’t been home in a year. I hadn’t seen my family with the exception of my mom in just as long.

After I showered, we ate dinner of veal and eggplant parmesan. Mom beamed the whole meal. I must have seemed like a ghost to my family. They all knew what I was doing, but unless you’re out there and doing it with someone, it’s a hard thing to really picture. For them, I was gone and now I was home. Home. I let that thought curl around my tired head, and felt the part of me that had kept its view on the horizon, the next town, the further distance slowly close its eyes and go to sleep.

A rough map of the route. Blue lines indicate biked miles. Red lines stand for significant car rides.

Click here for bigger map

***

Epilogue

Six months ago, I turned the trip’s final pedal. That it’s taken me this long to get it all down is in large part sheer laziness. Another factor though, I like to think, owes itself to reluctance, a refusal to admit that it’s actually all over.

The first day back home I had to struggle with the four month strong reflex of getting back on the bike. For 4,000+ miles through 13 states, I rode in the current of constant motion. When all that came to a stop, my mind still had itself stuck in a dead sprint and I felt a little like Wild E. Coyote treading through thin air before realizing that he’d run himself right out of ground.

If the bike trip couldn’t last forever, I at least wanted its momentum to carry me right up to the next thing. I half expected one morning to wake up and find a ship docked in my front yard with the captain yelling All Aboard!

I entertained pipe dreams of hitch hiking back West or an Alaskan backwoods romp, but had to admit these thoughts as desperate and grasping. They all seemed to try and reclaim some of the trip’s freedom, but even in their imagining seemed hollow. I met many full-time travelers on the tour, and their lifestyle made road fatigue a very real thing. Too many experiences like the bike trip can make the doer dead to the experience and turn the exercise of total freedom into mere routine. I didn’t need another adventure, just time to rest and catch my breath. Adventures take a long time to build. The desire for a bike trip had taken a life time in the making, and though I don’t think it’s my last, I wanted to give the next adventure a moment to gain form and intention so that when it goes off it does so with the same spark and brilliance I felt when pedaling out of Omak.

These were not easy things to come to terms with, but two moments brought their truth into focus and gave me peace with staying put. The first was a dream I had on the trip.

In the dream, I am coming home from the bike tour. I ride slowly through the woods with my family walking alongside me. Between the trees, I can see a big home and come to understand that the home is mine. Inside there is a large group of family and friends. Everyone is crowding around me, giving me warm handshakes and pats on the back. I am overwhelmed by all the people and the new house. It is too big for me and I wonder if all these people expect to live here too. I don’t get any indication whether or not this is the case, but eventually stop worrying about it. I begin to realize that this is a very big house, larger than I had first thought, and that this room with the party is only one room. Beyond it are other rooms, secret rooms, that open only to my touch. I want to stay here a while and explore.

I had this dream around the midpoint of my trip and it gave me some comfort as I got closer to home and the what-to-do-now question loomed larger. I was going home and the dream assured me of a place prepared. In a way, that dream pretty much came true. I was fortunate enough to get part time work almost as soon as I stepped off the bike which eventually developed into a full time job.

During the commuting hours of my first months though, I would remember the trip and how I had been removed from all this, blissfully out of pace with the world of traffic jams and stop lights. I wondered if this was the right place for me and if I should get back on the bike and find another highway. But a second thing happened around that time that put these thoughts to rest.

I work in Tysons, VA and my office has a balcony patio with a good view of the Beltway. During my lunch hour, I can sit out on the balcony and watch the traffic lurch on like a log-jammed river. One day I went out to the balcony to watch an event. The Discovery Space Shuttle was being flown from Florida to the Air and Space Museum out by Dulles Airport. Its route passed right over my office. I saw the space shuttle strapped atop a 747 while it made a slow circle around the Beltway. On other building tops, I could see crowds of people watching the shuttle with their arms raised and pointing.

This hunk of metal that had been to space and back now looked like a small child resting across its dad’s shoulders on their walk home from a long day in the park. After 39 successful trips and 149 million miles, the Discovery on its final flight home signaled the end of something.  The end of the shuttle program, the end of my trip. It felt like a right and fitting finale. I had a thought: When all the frontiers are reached, you can turn to other places and find other worlds, closer, terrestrial, but still as undiscovered and new as those you’ve come from.

So that’s where I’m at right now. Thanks to everyone who’s joined along for the ride. None of it could have happened without your support. The loaned gear, the couches, free food, rides from strangers and family all made it possible. Thanks for coming with and I promise to invite you on the next one!

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Virginia: Roanoke; Charlottesville; Midnight Run

My first day of biking in the Commonwealth I saw more of Southern Virginia than I ever had. I’d lived in Virginia all my life and was very familiar with about a hundred miles of it. The rest of Virginia, what Sarah Palin had called on the 2008 campaign trial “The real Virginia”, might as well have been a foreign country. In place of the shopping complexes and manicured lawns of its northern cousin, this part of Virginia still had tiny general stores, flag poles hoisting the stars and bars and a sense of heritage that is still apt to term that business back in the 1860’s as the War of Northern Aggression.

I kept biking that day up 221 with the hopes of making it past Floyd, a bucolic bohemian town that hosts a big blue grass jamboree every summer. At the end of my day, I was expecting a ride from a friend from school all the way to Roanoke. With these plans, I became keenly aware that I was in fact living actual lines from that Old Crow Medicine Show song.

Travel that day was windy and hilly. I made it past Floyd but not much further and ended the day in the one street town of Check. Pulling into town, a dog sleeping on a front porch woke up and gave chase. He darted towards my bike then back into the other lane of traffic where his chasing days were almost ended by a pickup truck.

I parked my bike in a vacant lot across from the Check Country store. It was five o’clock, quitting time, and the locals swarmed the store for their day’s end purchases. Every few minutes, a muddy pickup would growl into the store lot. The driver would step out, give a long stretch, adjust his suspenders and remove the empty packet of cigarettes folded into his shirt shoulder to toss in the garbage. A few minutes later, he’d come out of the store mumbling Good Day through a lit cigarette with a fresh thirty pack in hand. I think it was a Tuesday.

I changed my clothes and tried to make my bulging, dirty trailer look reputable and organized. I saw Amanda’s car coming over a hill leading into town and hailed her down. We had met during the last semester of school in a ballroom dance class and had stayed in touch since. She was in the rotation year of PA school in Roanoke and was dressed like a medical professional, black slacks and a blue blouse with ruffled front. We shared a long hug.

We got to Roanoke by dark. I’d never been to Roanoke and my first sight of the city came on the big downhill of a mountain pass. Tucked into the Blue Ridge foothills and surrounded by forests, I bet it looked beautiful in the fall.

Amanda’s place was designed exactly as I had imagined it. Cozy, tasteful, adult. She had a little Christmas village set up on a desk top, a fake Christmas tree assembled in the corner. On a wall hung a picture of a couple waltzing in an alleyway underneath a street lamp. After I took a shower, we sat on her couch swapping stories about the trip and PA school. For dinner, Amanda dimmed the lights and plugged in the Christmas tree. From the kitchen, she brought out two steaming bowls of venison stew. I felt like a crude creature of the woods, in from the cold at last.

The next day I hitched a ride with Amanda on her commute to Bedford. With some Google Map research, I discovered that if I started off in Bedford I could feasibly make it to Charlottesville in a day going straight up 29.

Before dropping me off at the highway, Amanda and I had breakfast at a bagel shop. The shop held a contest where contestants could win ownership of the place with an essay on how they would run the business. With my trip near end, I had started thinking about my next move. The serious consideration I gave to entering the contest demonstrated just how poorly these brainstorming sessions were going.

At the highway junction, I assembled the gear and said goodbye to Amanda. I got on the bike, she got back into her car and we set off to begin a day of work at our separate occupations.

With Charlottesville standing a hundred plus miles from my house, this ride had the potential for my penultimate day on the bike. I had a desperate eagerness to get to Charlottesville and then home and thought of little else while biking. But in the middle of these happy thoughts, I had to check myself. Once I got where I was going, I’d have nowhere else to go. I would stop moving and the trip would be over. I made a special effort that day to enjoy these last moments in the saddle.

My four months of biking allowed me to spend all but ten minutes on the bike that day. This was now my job and I felt very competent in the task at hand. 29 had no shoulder and I biked the entire day on the highway’s white line tightrope. It had the most traffic I had seen in a long time. The cars came so close that the normal Run Forest Run jeers were yelled right into my ear.

Eventually, I got used to the mayhem and entered into the private universe of thoughtless pedaling. I said lot of prayers. It would be a real shame to die so close to home, I thought.

The prayers were answered and I made it to downtown Charlottesville by 4:00 o’clock without incident. UVA’s campus, the bars on the Corner and the students wearing madras and bowties without apology were the first recognizable sights I had seen since Montana.

I’d spent enough weekends here visiting friends to earn an honorary degree and knew the streets well. I navigated my way downtown to a friend’s place, a small run down looking house off Roosevelt Brown St. I sat on his porch until he came home from work.

I hadn’t seen Jeff in a year in a half, the last time was at his graduation party here in Charlottesville. We’d known each other since kindergarten. Jeff had gotten me into running and we’d done our first marathon together in Charlottesville and then another one in Boston.

Jeff pulled up to his place near dark. Looking over my bike and trailer, he shook his head in the same way Matt, my friend in Tucson, and Amanda had. I’d come to appreciate that the setup invites all sorts of speculation on the rider’s mental well-being, and with what I’d gone through to get here, I couldn’t dismiss these conjectures as entirely unfounded.

We got dinner at the Virginian. Mike, a friend from high school studying at the med school, joined us for some study break pints. I shared some stories of life on the road, the Greyhound ordeal, hitchhiking, my four month use of nature as a public restroom. Mike had gone on a cross country trip the previous summer-in a car he admitted with some shame- and we compared notes on Yellowstone, Tetons and Zion.

After dinner, we parted ways with Mike and went to the Biltmore, a bar Jeff used to work at. We got a pitcher and played Buck Hunter into the night. On the walk home, Jeff proposed a midnight run. I was  kind of wobbly at that point and had 100 miles to do the next day but a run with old friend Jeff, sure. We laced up the shoes and hit the town.

When running, Jeff has a tendency to expend most of his energy within the first five minutes. In high school, this characteristic earned him the league wide nick name as the Rabbit. Coaches would caution their runners not to chase the Rabbit believing his sole goal as a runner was to wear out the competition early and sabotage their races.

After Jeff had gotten his yah-yahs out in the first mile, we settled into a nice pace and traced a path through the campus’ grounds. Seeing these familiar sights brought back the college nights spent running around this place. Popping up into this thought stream came nights from the trip, nights camped in the middle of nowhere beneath stars and black listening to coyotes while falling asleep. The intersection of these two periods brought a strange convergence of memory and I was surprised at how seamlessly they all flowed together not as separate compartments of my life but all just things I had done.

After a good five or six, I passed out on Jeff’s couch and woke up a few hours later to begin the last day.

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Nashville: Country Music; Smoky Mountains; Blue Ridge Parkway

After a few day’s rest in Nashville, I loaded the bike and trailer into Ron’s car and we hit the road headed east towards the Smoky Mountains. Ron planned on dropping me off at the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Cherokee, North Carolina where I had designs to bike the Parkway following the Blue Ridge mountain range up into Virginia.

As a geologist, Ron has a love of nature that runs deeper than my Oh-Wow appreciation for mountains and forests. His quiet appreciation for the outdoors made good company for a morning drive through the Smokey’s fog. He shared stories of back country trips he’d taken in the area as well as some geological tidbits on the mountain’s history and formation. Ron proved himself as good a guide in the country as in town. During my stay in Nashville, he had dropped me off in the downtown area giving me a thorough itinerary of sights to see.

I hadn’t been to Nashville since I was a youngun, the sole memory from that trip being me running naked through a sprinkler on my family’s front lawn. I was glad to reacquaint myself with the city under more mature circumstances and rediscovered Nashville as a pleasant place to get lost for an afternoon. In the same way Salt Lake’s identity links with Mormonism, Nashville’s character binds to religion as well with country music as its church.

Ryman Auditorium

Just wandering around downtown, my path followed an unplanned pilgrim’s trail of country music’s holy sites. I passed by the Ryman Auditorium once home to the Grand Ole Opry, and further on saw the purple front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where many stars had cut their teeth.

Venturing into Nashville’s Honky Tonk district, I ambled down Broadway’s bar lined sidewalks where each establishment had their mid-day band picking away on some country music classic. A good deal of this scene was lost on me. Even though America’s radio programming has been all but taken over by country, I don’t count myself among its millions of ever-growing fans.

One summer I really did try to give it an honest shot, but decided the genre had far too many songs about tractors, someone’s favorite bar and the liberating effects of tequila on the female libido for its own good. But since I now found myself in the capital, I decided to give country one more try and spent the rest of my afternoon in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Complete with listening stations, video clips, Elvis’ gold plated Rolls Royce, original Les Paul guitars and a number of Nudie Cohn’s suits from country music’s rhinestone golden era, the museum walked visitors through an interactive tour of country music’s storied history. Even with that thorough education though, I couldn’t quite muster the enthusiasm for country music’s recent output but did enjoy the style’s bluegrass, hillbilly roots as well as an exhibit on the meteoric and tragic life of country’s first star, Hank Williams.

That night, we all had dinner at the Listening Room Café, a venue that featured song writers performing their own songs. Nashville’s true unsung talent, these workers in song labor in complete obscurity for the unlikely chance that a star will record one of their tunes and make it a hit. The best they can hope for is a royalty check and a credit in the linear notes. It was cool to hear the song writers, some of them seeming just as talented as the artists they write for, performing their songs the way they had intended. A few of them had even penned some chart toppers. One woman had written “Shoes,” a Celine Dion song. And as luck would have it, the esteemed author of “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” was performing. He’d had a little too much to drink that night and forgot most of the words to all his songs and just kind of mumbled through his set.

After we’d made it to Cherokee, NC, Ron and I were busy assembling my gear at mile one of the Blue Ridge Parkway when we made a terrible discovery. The custom quick release for my back axle that fastened trailer to bike was missing. During my Nashville stay, Ron had generously taken my bike into the shop for a tune up. The shop, unknown to us, had replaced the special quick release with a standard one with no attachment capabilities. Without that little piece of integral metal, I couldn’t travel a single mile.

Frantically, we tracked down an REI in Ashville, NC that carried BOB trailer parts. Another hour on the road put us in Ashville where by the grace of God we secured a new quick release, the last one in stock. Ron left me at a frontage road that led to the Parkway. With the day nearly done, Ron had to hurry back to Nashville for a senior ceremony at my cousin’s school. We said a quick goodbye and Ron wished me luck on the road ahead.

I did fifty miles on the Parkway that day, my trailer packed down with food and warm clothes that Aunt Sharon had added to the dwindled stock. I made my way past the city of Ashville, up into the mountains on the Parkway’s thrilling rhythm of climbs and downhill. With the sun setting, I finished a long climb that brought into view a whole valley of contoured ridges and forest.

I found it kind of funny that I had gone on this bike trip to see America’s natural wonders and here in the Blue Ridge, in my own backyard, were some of the best I’d seen.

The sun set and a full moon started creeping up from behind the surrounding ridgeline. I continued biking in the dark having made it to a closed section of the Parkway that afforded me a safe stretch of untraveled road. The Parkway took me up a 5,000 ft climb. As I made my way higher, I could make out the light clusters of Ashville. Nestled into the crook of the Blue Ridge foothills, the city looked like reflected light coming from the bottom of a well.

Along the roadside, I passed icicle gardens clinging to rock walls. I went through a series of tunnels in complete black. Clear moonlight turned the snowy and iced roads into a highway of crystal. I biked through a dreamscape of shadow and shape; the only sound coming from my pedals and night’s still on the mountain. I would occasionally wake from these reveries whenever my bike lost its traction and keeled over. I fell many times during the night ride and eventually just ended up walking my bike for a mile or so. I set up camp on a grass patch two feet from the road.

Three days on the Parkway took everything I had. These were the last days of the trip and my body knew it. The stores of my second, third and fourth winds lay scattered all over America’s backroads and I biked on mere fumes. The Blue Ridge Parkway follows the mountain’s hilly ridgeline very faithfully and at the end of three days, I had gone no more than a hundred miles.

The day before, I had finished my ride in view of Mt. Pisgah. I had spent that whole day biking in its shadow watching its curved top get closer and closer but never actually reaching it. Setting up camp, I couldn’t help but look at the mountain and recall Moses’ Pisgah, the mountain Yahweh instructed Moses to climb after forty years of dessert wandering to view Canaan, the promised land. On account of some unforgivable transgression- I think he had hit a water-bearing rock twice instead of the instructed once or something like that-Moses was permitted to see the promised land but never enter.

I like to think God had softened a bit since his Old Testament days, but even still, I’d been a stiff-necked people myself during the trip and had more than once abandoned the notion of a fair and just divinity while repairing many a flat tire. I hoped that the Pisgah I now stared at did not signal the end of my own trip, a last glimpse at the promised open road, but if I continued on the Parkway I knew it might well be.

I had wanted the Blue Ridge’s scenic lengths as backdrop for the trip’s last stretch, but decided if I ever wanted to finish this damn trip by Christmas and sane, I had to seek other avenues. My last morning on the Parkway, I glided down twenty miles of road that hugged the side of the mountain, a whole valley of mist in front of me. In the early light, the mountains really did look blue, ancient and faded, half-material like a cloud mass.

At mile 280 of the Parkway, I turned onto 221. The road was more reasonable, but still winding and hilly. My goal that day, Virginia’s state line. I passed Christmas tree farms and thought of home. I also remembered a late summer afternoon in Omak where I had gone into the town bike shop to get some parts for my trip. I noticed asleep in the corner a scraggly haired kid. The shop owner said the kid was on a bike tour and had stopped into the shop to pick up a new bike. I struck up conversation with the biker.

He told me he had started in North Carolina and had been pedaling for four months and was sleeping in the town park while waiting for his new bike. My housemates had all left Omak by that point, so I invited him back to the double wide to spend the night. When I asked him if he was hungry, he said he had eaten a power bar that day but could probably make room for some more food. I was living the bachelor life then and only had enough in the cupboard for a grilled cheese. I’d never seen anyone enjoy a grilled cheese so much in my life.

He told me about his tour. After he reached Seattle, he would bike down the California coast and then head east again back to North Carolina. He thought the whole thing would take him about two years. When I expressed some concerns about my own trip, my biking abilities and general lack of trip planning, he dismissed them. All you have to do, he said, is just get started. Just keep moving and everything else works out.

I had lived by that credo for four months and it had taken me from Washington all the way here to Virginia’s state line.

In the day’s closing minutes, I passed the welcome to VA sign with the red cardinal perched on a dogwood branch. Right at the state line, there was a closed campground that seemed a good place to spend the night. I set up my tent under a covered stage and went to sleep with the New River flowing cold and icy just beyond my view. Welcome home.

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Natchez Trace: Broken Seat; Busted Tire; Meriwether Lewis’ Grave

At mile marker one of the Natchez Trace, I put my feet on the pedals with 455 miles to Nashville, Tenn. It felt like an early fall day with plenty of sunshine and a light breeze blowing. After spending the last few days trapped in the belly of the Grey Hound Bus Service, I was again a traveler of my own means. With new life, rested muscles began their familiar rotations, the miles started falling away and I was back on the road.

The Natchez Trace is an old road. Traders from Nashville would walk the Trace after boating down the Mississippi and selling their goods and boats in Natchez. Andrew Jackson had marched down the Trace with his troops to the battle of New Orleans. Meriwether Lewis had hiked the Trace on his way to Washington, DC to publish his journals.

I had settled on biking the Trace after seeing its long green line on my map leading straight up to through the South. Its history, scenery and low traffic promised good biking. Also, the Trace’s end point gave me an excuse to visit family in Nashville.

During the Trace’s opening miles, I passed earth mounds, rounded grassy hills used by Native tribes for burial purposes. The trees on the roadside wore gauzy scarves of Spanish moss. At certain points, you could see remnants of the Old Trace, a faded path sunken deep into the ground from years of walking. Every few miles, I would stop at a historical marker to read up on the Trace’s past. For early travelers, the Trace wasn’t always a sunny pleasure cruise. Bandits targeted the road and theft was an accepted occurrence.

I had no reason to believe that my trip would encounter such hardships. With nothing but open, straight road in front of me, I expected to speed through the Trace completing in a week what would have taken original travelers three months. These expectations modified slightly when my bike seat broke off at mile twenty.

I had just finished cresting a fair sized hill, pedaling in a standing position for the added purchase. When I sat back down, I felt my seat buckle and then fly off its post. The screw connecting the seat to the bike had severed. When I’d had my bike reassembled in Natchez, the seat apparently hadn’t been fastened properly. I tried bungee cording the seat in place, but this remedy didn’t fully disguise the fact that my ass rested on a metal pole.

For the next day and a half, I biked on a Stair Master. Simple straightaways felt like monstrous hills, and my leg muscles strained from the enforced climb. In Jackson, MS, I fixed the seat at a hardware store. With that hiccup behind me, I kept biking and spent the night at a vacant campground.

The next day looked like rain. I did a quick forty miles before lunch under a heavy sky. The day’s dark colors made the turning trees look ancient and petrified. I would look ahead at a bend in the rising road with a stormy breeze upturning the trees’ leaves so that the whole roadside turned into a flash of white. Perfect weather for traveling alone on an empty road.

I ate my lunch at a historical site called Witch Dance. I read on the site’s sign that this place was once thought to have been used by the local coven for their weekly orgies with the devil. Legend has it that the ground a witch dances on becomes barren, and the sandy ground around the sight looked like it had been fallow for years. Creepy.

The rain started after lunch. Thankfully, Jeana had given me her rain pants before leaving, which kept me dry during these miles. When I started making my way through the early 200 mile makers, I played a little game to pass the time. For each mile marker I passed, I added a zero to the number turning the mile into a year. With every mile, I tried to remember that year’s New Year’s celebration, where I was and what had happened that year.

At the 200 marker, I remembered going into a bathroom before midnight of the new millennium to say an act of contrition, hedging my bets for a Y2K apocalypse. At mile 212, I imagined the coming New Year, surrounded by family, telling stories about the bike trip.

From there, the years and miles rolled on and I wandered into far off lands of speculation. 2020, 2030, 2040- I wondered where those years would have me, with the bike trip just a memory, a strange, half-believed dream. I had always wanted to do something like this bike trip, a rambling sort of jaunt, and in a way it felt like the culmination and close of those desires. But there were miles to come after and who knew where those would take me.

At mile marker 250, my back tire blew out. I heard a loud pop then all the air hissed out. In the context of my game, this could have read as an early premonition of death, but I did the math and decided I’d had a pretty decent run. I replaced the tube with the same outcome only a few minutes later. My back tire was shredded. I would have to get a new one.

I walked my bike a few miles in the rain to a historical turnoff.  I knocked on the door of a parked RV and asked the people inside if I could take shelter for a few minutes to call for a park ranger.

The Canadian couple welcomed me in and gave me some fruit and chocolate. I made the call and a ranger came by to pick me up. Together, we disassembled my bike and packed it into the back of his squad car. Ranger Jeff was a friendly guy with a well-kept mustache and a soft spoken drawl. He drove me ten miles to a bike shop in Tupelo where I got a new tire and some tubes. Then he took me to Gloster Street where I got a room at the Scottish Inn, a reputable establishment by Jeff’s estimation.

I lay in bed that night slightly depressed, listening to the rain. The recent rash of calamities made it feel like the wheels of my trip were literally falling off. With the changing weather, I seriously doubted the possibility of making it home by Christmas on my own two legs. For the moment, I put off thoughts of home and set my sights on Nashville. If I kept up my pace and the weather cooperated, I could make it in two days and then figure out the next step.

The next day was overcast. I didn’t see the sun the entire time, but the rain held off. My feet were cold, otherwise I felt alright. The clouds overhead made everything still and whispering. I passed over bridges, and watched the Tennessee River flow in turbid, swollen currents. I biked alongside a train track and when the tracks veered off from the Trace, I followed them down their line until they bent and disappeared into the woods. All of this seemed like a private world for me to enjoy.

I had gotten a late start that day and had to do the last few miles to a biker’s campground in the dark. The red back light on my bike had gone out, and I was nervous about my visibility to passing cars. Every few seconds, I glanced over my shoulder to look for headlights. When I saw a car coming, I pulled over and biked on the grass. I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter when I made it to the campground just as long as I made it.

At the campground, which was technically closed for the season, I saw a soft light coming for inside a tent. I scanned the area with my flashlight and the light caught on a pair of animal eyes. The crystal gleam came from a stray beagle wandering around. When he came close enough to my bike, I could see he was starving.  It was dark and I was far from any living soul. I thought the dog might belong to the tent’s inhabitant, a Trace hobo with God knows what up his sleeve.

The person in the tent had obviously heard me approaching and after a while I shouted Hey. After a long pause, a voice asked who was there with a noticeable quiver. The guy turned out to be a fellow biker. He had started on the Trace yesterday from the Meriwether Lewis campground heading south. This was his first bike tour, his first night in the elements and I had scared him half to death.

After I’d set up camp, we talked for a while behind our closed tent flaps. He had wanted to go on a bike tour for a while and once his Ameri Corps stint in Cleveland had ended decided to do a week’s trial run down the Trace. I felt bad that he’d had such poor weather for his maiden voyage, but it was nice to know I wasn’t the only fool on the road.

I woke up to a light rain bouncing off my tent. I decided to sleep a little while longer until the rain stopped. When the rain sounded like it had let up a little, I peeked my head outside the tent. The rain had turned to snow.

My fellow biker and I debated for a while about biking that day. He seemed inclined to have a rest day, but with Nashville so close, I couldn’t justify an idle minute. I packed up my stuff and wrapped my extremities in plastic bags. I only did twenty miles that day, but they stand alone as the most miserable of the trip.

Within minutes, my feet went numb. I turned off all feeling and thought and kept pedaling with the desperate resolve of someone stranded in an Arctic snow storm. By the time I crossed into Tennessee, my body had turned into a slab of frozen meat. My legs kept moving only as a reflex. Stopping seemed as undesirable as continuing. If I stopped, I didn’t think my fingers would work well enough to set up a tent. If I somehow managed this, my sleeping bag, tent and every article of clothing I owned were all drenched and would provide no warmth. I thought about the lonely, shivering beagle at the campground that morning and felt a moment of sorry kinship.

I shudder to think what would have happened I hadn’t made it to the town of Collinwood when I did. I walked into the visitor center on ice blocks that made me feel completely disconnected from the ground. The woman behind the desk gave me cookies and led me to the fire place. Letting my body thaw by the fire, I acknowledged for the first time a thought that had been slowly building since I started the Trace, Is this still fun?

I decided I would go no further that day. I booked a room at the town’s sole lodging,  a big room attached to the back of a hardware store, and went to sleep in the early afternoon.

The next day I got up with the intention of being in Nashville when the sun went down. There was a good hundred miles between myself and the city limits. I would bike as far as I could go and if I didn’t make it, I’d call my Uncle Ron to come pick me up. Another night outdoors was out of the question. The morning was bright and clear but cold. My bike tires cut a line through a thin layer of frost on the road.

Forty miles in, I visited the gravesite of Meriwether Lewis. He had been traveling on the Trace up from Louisiana on his way to Washington, DC to publish his journals from the Pacific expedition. Biking up to Lewis’ grave, I passed a small cabin where he had spent his last night. There was a historical sign that made vague mention of Lewis’ end. He had died of “mysterious” gunshot wounds.

The first book I read when returning from my trip was Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose upheld the scholarly consensus that Lewis, a believed manic depressive, had shot himself on the Trace, in debt and a probable alcoholic from his years as Louisiana governor. Following Ambrose’s account of Lewis’ route to the Pacific, I learned that I had actually crossed paths with the man many times during my own trip. In Montana, I had gone up Chief Joseph Pass close to where the Pacific Expedition had crossed the Continental Divide. Further along, I had biked by Beaver Head, a rock formation that Sacagawea had used as a pivotal marker to guide the party.

Beaver Head

And now here I was meeting Lewis again for the last time at his final resting place.

His monument was a small ziggurat of stones, supporting at its top level a broken column. Reading the grave marker, I couldn’t believe what an incredible person lay here. In his short life, Lewis had served as personal aide to President Jefferson, explored the Louisiana Purchase and was the first governor of the Louisiana territory. When his trail ended, he was thirty-five.

After my lunch, I called my Uncle Ron to let him know I was about 20 miles from the Trace’s end. An avid biker and a big supporter of my trip, Ron had wanted to bike a few miles with me into Nashville. I got his voicemail and let him know that it was a good day for a ride if he bundled up.

Going up a big hill, I spotted a guy seated at the top of the hill on the roadside. As I got closer, I could tell he was watching me intently, even taking pictures. A balaclava disguised his face, but I sure hoped he was Ron. In my paranoid exhaustion, I recalled the old tales of Trace bandits and decided if he tried to rob me, I would gladly let him take everything I owned, even insist on it, the trailer, too.

Fortunately, it was Ron. I could not have been happier. He was the first family member I’d seen in months and while we exchanged hugs and hellos, I already felt home. I could tell he was glad to see me, too. I can’t imagine what he thought seeing me pedal up that hill in a worn jacket, towing a dirt caked trailer with plastic bags wrapped around my feet, but I’m sure the picture wasn’t too far a cry from a guy pushing a dingy shopping cart filled with cans.

Ron biked with me until we got to where he’d parked his car. He offered to drive me home, but for the first time, I refused a ride. Instead, he took my trailer relieving me of my burden and allowing me to finish up the Trace with a few weightless miles. Biking without the trailer was like leaving the kids at home with the babysitter. Just me and my bike like when we first met, careless and free.

I passed mile marker 445 and put the Trace behind me. In the last half-hour of daylight, I biked through the Nashville suburban rush hour to my family’s front door. The Natchez Trace had made me work for every mile. Finding shelter at its end gave me an incredible feeling of safety and comfort. I couldn’t help but wonder what that feeling would be like when I finally pedaled down my own street to my own house.

Inside, I got immediate hugs from Aunt Sharon and cousin Lucy. In an effort to recall my long disused house manners, I took off my shoes. It was a good while before I remembered I had plastic bags on my feet. My family was polite enough not to mention this. I stuffed myself at dinner on the best lasagna I’d ever tasted, shared a few stories then called it a day. Just before collapsing into a dreamless sleep, I said farewell to the Trace.

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Greyhound Bus Trip: Worst Experience of My Life

It was close to 2:00 am when the Greyhound bus pulled into the Abilene depot. I had been asleep on a bench in the depot since 12:00,  the bus’ scheduled arrival. Jeana and I had parted ways earlier that morning. We ate a complimentary motel breakfast of passable eggs, hashbrowns, etc, talking normally and making no mention of our roads’ impending fork. When a goodbye is coming, it’s no use acting any differently than how you have been and wasting the time you’ve got left.

In the motel room, I reassembled my life. Jean held my bike steady while I attached the trailer to my rear spoke for the thousandth time of the trip. We walked outside to a bright, clear middle-of-America day. We’d already said our goodbyes, and as seasoned bikers hated covering old ground, so instead just shared a warm hug. I swung my leg over the saddle and gave a slow, grave salute.

–Travel well, Jeana Greco.

I put my feet on the pedals and took off.

In the hours leading up to the depot bench, I busied about town running errands. At the town bike shop, I got my bike boxed for the bus trip. A guy at the shop gave me a lift to the bus depot. After I’d checked my things, I walked around town.

Abilene brought to close another chapter of the trip. For every mile I biked, I kept in mind a goal, some National Park or a town with a couch to sleep on. Now my sites turned to my parent’s driveway. I felt a little weary and past my prime. I’d pushed the season far enough and knew I was biking on borrowed time, but I’d come this far and owed it to the trip to keep going.

At night, Abilene turns into a ghost town. The shops close at 10 and the few people on the streets during the day disappear. On my way back to the bus depot, I passed a woman walking at a distressed pace. Every few steps, she stopped and shouted Gaby, Gaby! When we crossed paths, I ask her if she needed some help.

–I’m not crazy, she said.

–Oh no. I just-

–I feed cats.

–Oh.

–Gabby is a cat. Gabby!

I wished her luck and kept walking.

When the bus finally pulled in, the depot manager woke me up. I loaded my bike and trailer into the bus undercarriage then found a seat on the crowded bus. The driver came over the speaker in a loud, charismatic voice not entirely in difference to the hour. After he explained the bus rules, he asked riders for permission to begin the drive as he does every drive, with prayer. Before the bus could assemble a group opinion, he raised his voice to the heavens.

–I thank the Lord for another day of life! And ask his blessings for a safe and holy ride, not only to Dallas but to our various destinations in this world and beyond. Can I get an Amen?

His mobile congregation gave an Amen.

–Allright.  Now sit back, relax and enjoy your ride on big daddy’s caddy. Everybody ready go to Dallas, say yeaah!

The bus gave their Yeah with a little more umph than their Amen.

–Okay, okay. We’ll get to Dalles sure enough. But first we’re gonna make a stop a Whataburger. Say yeah if you want to go to Whataburger!

We were two hours behind schedule, must of us had a transfer that we seemed dangerously close to missing, but Whataburger? Yeah!

I missed my transfer in Dallas by a full hour and had to sleep in the depot. While I was nodding off on my sleeping pad, a guy plopped down next to me. He started in on the normal traveler’s conversation: where you going? where you been? After answering, I asked the same.

–Me? Oh, I’m not going nowhere.

–Oh.

–I just sleep here.

–Oh.

–Yah. Well… g’night.

The guy turned over on the depot floor, propped his head up against a wall and went to sleep. A few minutes later, a security guard walked over to the guy and kicked his shoe.

–What did I tell you? You come back here again you’re spending the night in jail.

The guy shrugged then got up. He put his hands behind his back like he knew the drill. The guard cuffed him and escorted him out.

I watched the security guard do this many more times during the night. His job seemed to be to sift through the depot crowd culling the transients from the riders. It was a tough job that required a trained eye. Everyone in the depot was sprawled out on the ground, sleeping on garbage bags full of clothes, tranced and strung out with nothing but a ticket in their hand separating them from the streets.

The next bus came at 8:00 in the morning. The  Greyhound bus service operates on a first-come, first-serve basis and a ticket provides no guarantee of a seat. I hurried the best I could into line, limping along backwards with my absurd burden, pushing the boxed bike with my back and pulling the trailer, which every few steps keeled over just for fun.

After loading my things, I got onto a full bus with no seats. There were in fact four empty seats but they hadn’t been pulled out yet. Demonstrating the level of dysfunction Greyhound operates under, myself and a few other displaced passengers, one of whom may have been eighty years old, figured out how to unfold the seats while a security guard on the bus sat idly by, making passes at a group of tittering middle-aged women.

I tried sleeping a little during our ride, but the guy next to me had a tale of woe. He told me he had been visiting his estranged daughter in Dallas whose mother had kept his parentage a secret for eighteen years. His daughter knew him only as a mere “uncle.”

The remorse and pathos of his story would occasionally verge on the explicit, as his narrative fell into the vividly detailed assignations leading up to his daughter’s conception.

–I been a bad father. But that minyx of a mother she’s got, whew. When I say if I could only do it all over again, I mean I’d do it all-over-again.

In no way did I encourage this reminiscing, but the guy plowed on undeterred clear across the state. The bus was full of lost people, including the driver. We got turned around half a dozen times and when we finally made it to Shreveport, Louisiana, I’d missed my transfer. The next bus left at 8 am the next day.

In a gesture of good will, I’d thought I’d give the Greyhound Bus Service one last chance to prove itself as a customer-based company and asked the woman at the counter if I could get comped a motel room. She gave me a free meal voucher that covered a quarter of the cost of a half-cooked burger at the depot grill.

For the night, I nested in a corner of the depot falling asleep on my pad while a marathon of the southern cop drama “Heat of the Night” played on the TV.

Through the night, my sleep cycles became timed to the bus schedule. Like the tides of a strange dream, I’d fall asleep when the station was empty then wake up again when the next bus arrived and the station full of people. I started recognizing people I had seen in Dallas and on other buses. Black women wearing shower cap head coverings, a lost white youth wondering around in a pink beanie- all of us stuck in a kind of purgatorial transport moving from depot to depot but never going anywhere.

The next day I made it to my last transfer in Baton Rouge, LA. When I’d bought my bus ticket, I knew this leg of the bike venture wouldn’t mark as a high point, but what was supposed to have been a day sojourn into the lowest form of human travel had turned into a two day disaster. I became convinced that at the end of the world Greyhound would charter the damned to hell.

At the Baton Rouge depot, I personally loaded my effects onto the next bus refusing anyone remotely associated with Greyhound to touch my things. I looked at my bus ticket for Natchez, MS and decided I had enough time for a nap. After what seemed like only a few minutes, I woke up to an empty depot and my bus gone. I ran to the counter.

–What happened to the bus!?

–That bus?

–Yes, that bus!

— It’s gone.

–Well, when does the next one come?

–Once a day. Next one leaves tomorrow.

–All my stuff is on it! What do I do?

Sir, I suggest you get a cab.

I raced out of the depot and jumped into a cab, practically throwing my wallet at the driver.

–Catch that bus!

The driver coolly put down his paper.

–Get up front, he said.

He handed me a binocular case.

–You glass the road for fuzz.

We sped down the interstate, keeping a keen eye out for the fuzz and the bus, spotting neither. The driver, rightfully so, asked me how I could possibly miss a bus that held all of my earthly possessions. I explained my ordeal, the bike trip, and how a total three months of exhaustion had hit me in the span of fifteen minutes.

–You said you biking across the country?

–Yes, sir.

–Boy, you are stupid.

–Yes, sir.

We just missed the bus at the next depot and sped on. I split my view between the road and the taxi meter, the bus and my money escaping by the minute. For a frantic moment, I thought my trip had ended. If the bus made it to Natchez without me and the Greyhound people did their job, they would remove my things and store them until my arrival. In no way did I expect this to happen. Instead, I imagined my bike and trailer rolling on from one depot to the next on an eternal cross country trip while I languished in some scuzzy depot for the rest of my life, penniless and forsaken.

But this was not my fate. After fifty some miles and a taxi ride that equaled my bus ticket, we caught the bus. The Bouten Rouge depot had gotten in touch with the driver and asked them to pull over on the side of the road to wait for me.

I walked onto that bus a shamed and foolish white boy expecting the worst. Instead, I got a standing ovation. I made my way down the bus aisle in a bewildered fog and found a seat next an old lady. When the bus started moving again, the woman turned to me.

–Well, where is she?

–Who?

–The girl you was trying to catch and going to marry?

I explained my situation. No, mam, I’m just on a cross country bike trip. She let out a long sigh. I had disappointed her.

For the last miles into Natchez, I leaned my head against the window watching the pavement speed below. In my reflection, I saw a small smile steal across my face. Though I wasn’t ready to admit it yet, a quiet thought entered my head, I couldn’t be having more fun.

I would make it to Natchez with my stuff and the road would keep opening up for me all the way home. In the trip’s sum, my time with Greyhound would make for an entertaining experience, a funny story to tell, which, after all, is the whole point of traveling anyways.

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Abiline, Texas: Jeana Leaves the Bike Trip

On Black Friday, Jean and I biked a sluggish 42 miles to La Mesa and ate a lunch of Thanksgiving day leftovers on a library picnic table. The day before, we had been unable to find pumpkin pie, so I bought one at a grocery store for our dessert.

Thirty miles later we found ourselves camping at a picnic rest area just outside of Gail, TX. We sat on a grassy mound and watched a perfect sunset. It had been raining for most of the day and the sun appeared for the first time just long enough to set in raw and honest light.

Jeana had four more days till her flight from Abilene. Our season was closing. I couldn’t help but feel like the trip would lose some direction when she left. I had planned on doing this whole thing solo, even excited about the romantic notion of biking off alone into a continuous sunset, but that trip would have been such a half-experience without company, and Jeana had been the very best.

The next morning we woke up in the dark to a heavy wind beating our tent.  Massive gusts sent shivering ripples up and down the canvas walls and the tent floor occasionally lifted, giving the cozy impression of sleeping inside a kite.

We pulled our sleeping bags over our heads and stayed in the tent till late morning. The winds continued, and we gradually faced the hard fact that that we couldn’t sleep our way out of this one. But we certainly weren’t going to bike out, either. After a comical half-hour of trying to pack up, chasing our wind-errant belongings all over the rest area, we posted up by the road with our thumbs out.

Hitch hiking with bikes always requires a truck which can lessen the likelihood of getting picked up, unless you’re hitch hiking in West Texas.

Soon enough, we got a good ol’ boy, who was doing some holiday boar hunting with his wife and son, to pull over. Between the guy’s draw and the tobacco plug in his mouth, we hardly understood a word he said, but the general tone of his mumble seemed kind and sympathetic. We loaded our bikes and gear into the truck bed, rearranging a small armory and several thirty packs of Busch Light.

Our ride had only planned on going as far as Gail, but instead drove us one town further to Snyder.

The wind whipped just as hard in Snyder. We decided our rough morning warranted a treat. Passing a pizza place with a sign out front that read “buffet your day away”, we could hardly think of a better use of our time.  We gorged for a good two hours. The restaurant patrons looked like extras from “Friday Night Lights.” Everyone, even grown adults, wore lettermen jackets studded with football pins.

We tried biking a little out of town but quickly understood the road held nothing but misery if we continued.

At a gas station by a highway junction, we loitered about asking people if they were headed anywhere east of here. We considered ourselves season hitch hikers at this point, but I still had some trepidation about asking strangers for a ride. When you think about a situation, though, in terms of the spot you’re in and what needs to happen to get you out, shyness and caution diminish and creativity blooms.

We weren’t having any luck at the gas station, so I dumpster dived for some cardboard and wrote Abilene? in a black marker. With the sign, I walked to a stop light a little further down the road where I’d seen a number of cars turning onto the highway.

The wind blew so hard I didn’t even need to hold my sign. I just faced upwind and let the gusts pin the sign against my chest, hoping that would signal a desperate enough situation to passing drivers.

After a while, a guy in a black truck rolled down his window and said he could take us all the way to Abilene. He was a soft spoken man, a little strange but nice enough. He lived in Long View, drove a school bus, found Jesus eleven years ago. During the ride, we had to suffer through some evangelical fanfare, but his religion wasn’t all talk. He told us about some of the ministry he’d done in prisons, even going down to Mexico to proselytize on skid row for a few months.

–Woke up today and God was telling me I was going to pick somebody up today. Just didn’t know who.

We were sure glad he answered the call.

He dropped us off in a parking lot in Abilene. Jeana and I biked through the streets trying to find a reputable motel, feeling a little strange about finally being in Abilene, Jeana’s terminus. Way back in Flagstaff, AZ, Jeana had picked out a random place in Texas with an airport to leave the trip, and Abiline just so happened to be were her finger rested.

If Jeana and I had reached the endpoint of our partnership, we took some relief in the few days of rest we had before having to go our separate ways. We spent the remaining days before Jeana’s flight traipsing around town. There wasn’t much to see. We saw kids walking around with shirts that read, Keep Abilene Boring, a sendup of the Keep Austin Weird campaign.

One day we biked fourteen miles south to Buffalo Gap. Our boar hunter friend had recommend a famous steak house, Perini’s, that reportedly served some of the best cuts of meat in Texas.

The restaurant had a dim-lit hunting lodge interior, animals on the walls and a warm fire place. As a last hurrah, we spared no expense and ate some of the best steaks of our lives. We weren’t the most well-dressed people in the place and our presentation raised a few eyebrows. The manager even asked us some questions, but after we’d told our tale, he gave us a free round of Texas brewed Shiner Bock and let us camp the night on the restaurant’s ranch. Jeana did not express much sorrow over her last night in a tent.

We rode back to Abilene in the morning and began making plans for our respective departures. We stopped off at a bike shop where Jeana tried to sell the Flair.

The gearheads at the shop were in disbelief that Jeana had ridden something like that all the way to the shop, let alone over a thousand miles. Unfortunately, the market wasn’t hot for a twenty year old bike that looked and weighed like an elephant. We went to a pawn shop afterwards, same story.

I went to the post office to mail home some unessential items that I’d carried with me since Omak. Dog-eared books I hadn’t cracked, an extra stove, leisure wear. With Jeana leaving, my trip now became a mission; I was going home. The next night I would board a Greyhound bus to Natchez, MS and then bike like mad for a month up the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi, Tennessee, then east to North Carolina and finally north to the old familiar commonwealth, my home state Virginia.

For our last night, we fried up some hamburgers and drank Flat Tire Ale in a motel room.  During the meal, we reconstructed each day of the trip. Since Salt Lake, we’d been on the road six weeks, four states, and who knew how many miles. We remembered people, places, mountain passes vividly.

Jeana brought up the time I sprayed Pam cooking spray all over our tent. I had been packing away my things one morning when I heard a low hissing. I checked each of my tires for a leaking flat and then Jeana’s, but the hissing persisted. We discovered a little too late that I’d placed the tent right on top of a canister of Pam the contents of which had emptied in wet, sticky splotches all over the tent canvas. We’d spent every night since in a tent that looked like an oil stained driveway. That we’d made it this far alive was nothing short of a miracle.

I felt really heavy about Jeana leaving, but our stories made me hopeful for our eventual reunion. The store of shared experiences we’d accumulated in Omak and on the trip were more than enough to safeguard a friendship against the natural thinning of years. Whenever we met up, no matter how far down the road, we’d have these stories to tell, a wealth of memories to reenter and relive.

Jeana got a call during dinner from a guy at the bike shop. He still didn’t want the bike, but thought a homeless shelter could put it to good use. He would meet Jeana at the airport the next day to pick it up. For Jeana, the road had ended, but the Flair would ride on.

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Carlsbad Caverns: Area 51; Cool Caves; West Texas Thanksgiving

In the morning, Jean and I hiked with Ben and Alex on a four mile trial up Guadalope Peak, Texas’ highest point at 8,749 ft. I walked with Ben, an Eagle Scout who took hiking as serious business, and Jean paired off with Alex, a talkative, limber-limbed dancer who didn’t so much hike as sashay up the mountain.

The climb brought amazing views, a brown sweep of land covered in morning fog. The ridgelines and hills shaped the fog’s sheet into rounded shapes like a body in bed. We passed a herd of desert mountain sheep scrambling up shear rock.

At the top, Ben scaled a commemorative, metal pyramid, stretching one hand into the air, making him, for a moment, the highest person in Texas.

When we got back down, we fried up some leftover venison then packed up our things and parted ways heading for our respective roads with the minstrels journeying south to Marfa, TX and Jeana and I going east to White’s City, NM and Carlsbad Caverns.

The road blessed us with a downhill.  For the last few miles into White’s City, I could see a black cloud mass gathering behind us. We managed to keep pace with the storm, biking just on the edge of the advancing rain. By the time we made it to White’s City, though, the storm had caught us. Huge gusts of wind tore through the tiny town, putting the trees on a slant and making biking impossible.

Jeana and I had wanted to camp at Carlsbad for the night but instead decided to get a room at the Roadway Inn and eat at a restaurant. During the opening weeks of the trip, I would have considered such  profligate behavior inexcusable, but this far down the road, all frugality had gone out the window. The occasional creature comfort improves a bike tour tenfold, and I’d come to appreciate any excuse for an indulgence, even rain.

Jeana and I were the only two people in the restaurant that afternoon. Over chicken fried steaks, we talked about childhood. Imaging Jeana as a kid, this grinning whirl of energy and affection, brought me endless amusement.

She talked about one Christmas were she had wanted a Hurly bike more than anything. When the day arrived, though, she didn’t see any bike-shaped package under the tree. After sulking her way through each gift until none were left, Jeana went off by herself to pout some more only to discover the bike of her dreams in the garage.

–I was such a brat!

All the childhood reminiscing put us in a playful mood. The restaurant lobby had an arcade with one of my old favorites, Area 51. We put five dollars in quarters into the machine and spent the whole afternoon killing aliens and saving the world. We beat the game, a first for me, and even got to put down our initials on the high score list.

Before calling it a day, we watched Their Will Be Blood on the motel room TV. The movie had been shot on location in Western Texas and featured the same landscape of mesquite and sage brush plains that we now biked through.

The next day, we got a ride from White’s City to the Carlsbad vistor center with a young family, sitting in the backseat with their months old baby. Jeana and I entered the caverns through the natural entrance on a steep trail.

As we dropped further into the cavern’s maw, the light dimmed, the temperature dropped and the air became earthy and heavy with moisture.

Caves are so cool! We’d seen a fair cross-section of above-ground natural wonders, but found the caverns a completely different experience. Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon all impress with their jaw-dropping scale, whereas the caverns’ awe comes from its intricacy and detail.

The cavern’s wide, ornate rooms looked like a subterranean Versailles complete with mineral installations, stalactite draperies, and reflecting pools that turned the cavern floor into a mirror world.

We saw many stalactites, stalagmites. Even though there is a whole subclass of pneumonic devices for remembering which ones grow from the ceiling and which ones originate from the floor, I will never be able to keep them straight. One thing’s for sure, though, they all take a long, long time to form. A ranger showed us a stalactite 65 years in the making; it was the size of his fingernail.

This slow growth makes the height and size of the big ones really impressive. We spent the morning walking around the Big Room, Carlsbad’s centerpiece attraction, taking in all of the columns and wedding cake features. One stalagmite looked like a cavemen, another a watchtower.

On our walk, we took note of how quiet the visitors were. Other natural parks make patrons loud and gushing as if they’re trying to match the grandeur of what they see with the volume of their voice. Carlsbad, though, made people very still, almost reverent, like they didn’t want to disturb the secrets of this Stygian palace. Such a complete silence allowed the senses to heighten to a degree that made every detail of the caverns a wonder. All around us, we could hear the trickling resonance of water, see the shadow play of dim light hitting the mineral towers- the whole time amazed at the artwork time and earth form in the dark.

After our morning stroll through the underworld, we got another ride back into town then resumed the occupation a good 40 miles into the town of Carlsbad. We thought about camping by a river but thought better of it and instead settled for the safety and luxury of another motel room.

Over the next week or so, Jeana and I marched on through West Texas. Not much to report from that time, just uneventful days with unremarkable scenery. The whole landscape was one flat pan of squat shrubs and nothing.

We passed fields of land oil rigs bobbing up and down in a sleepy nod and evangelical billboards with fire and brimstone warnings.

On the 24th in the one street town of Seminole, TX,  Jeana and I celebrated Thanksgiving. Because of Seminole’s remoteness, our meal preparations required some forethought. That morning in the town of Hobbs, we’d done some shopping at the regional Walmart superstore, picking up add-water versions of all the holiday staples: stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and of course, the centerpiece of every Turkey Day cornucopia, a rotisserie baked chicken. We loaded the victuals into our packs and then biked 30 miles to Seminole where we found lodging at the Raymond Inn.

Along the way, we stopped at St. James Catholic Church to mark the day with a prayer. After living a hectic and heathen lifestyle, I was glad for the opportunity to express some gratitude for the bike trip.

Though I’d had my share of low, faithless moments, I biked most days in blissed appreciation for this opportunity to travel and see. A few days before, my Grandpa had told me over the phone that he thought this bike trip was exactly what I needed to be doing. Sitting in the still, empty church with a patina of stain glass light resting on the pew rows, I knew he was right. I had never before felt such an alignment of desire and action as I had on this trip, a continuous feeling of movement and worthy progress, and for this I was very grateful.

In the motel, we spruced up and changed into whatever clean, presentable clothes we still owned. On a writing desk, we set up a makeshift kitchen and prepared the food with portable stoves and a microwave. After cooking, we put a spare bed sheet over the writing desk and set the table with plastic utensils and paper plates. We pushed the cork in on a bottle of value wine and feasted.

Once we’d stuffed ourselves beyond reason, we changed into loose fitting clothes and watched A Very Gaga Thanksgiving, possibly the weirdest holiday special ever aired.

I called my grandparent’s house back in Virginia, where the whole family had gathered. Because of my traveling ways, I’d missed a fair amount of the high American holidays and caught some expected grief for my third straight Thanksgiving away. For this one, I was missing out on two deep fried turkeys, a culinary wonder I had never dreamed possible. I promised to be home for Christmas.

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