Friday, July 17, 2009

Cresting the Horizon

With pops that had once stopped my heart, but that I was getting used to, the rocks flew out from under my tires. As the roads all turned to gravel, I was going to learn to ignore it. After all, outside of my imagination, the sound and feeling were nothing like those of getting a flat. (My most disturbing dreams now were about flat tires.)

Just the day before, in the cozy Lampost (which, it turns out, is spelt with only one "p"), I had been Algernon Moncrieff (to whose personality, they say, mine bears a striking resemblance) in a pretty random reading of Oscar Wilde, and now I was back at this. It wasn't quite flat, but it was hard to tell out here, unless I looked at the horizon. As I rode towards it, it often wouldn't actually move away. I'd get closer and closer and realize I was approaching the crest of a very gentle-grade hill. And only once I'd reach that horizon would another suddenly appear in the distance.

Sometimes, by sheer luck, I chose the "right" gravel road, which apparently saw more traffic than most (though one wouldn't notice by observing cars, of which there were none). Like the time I rode down one that had a rest area.

Other times, I didn't choose a very good one. Riding down one of them, I heard, then saw, two dogs charging out at me, barking as if I were coming to kill them but they could take me on. It no longer even surprised me when dogs were suspicious of me on my bike. Native Americans had originally thought that a horse and a mounted man were one animal. How could I ever expect a dog to discern that I'm just a human on a bike? I jumped off my bike and tried to look aggressive. Then I saw two more dogs behind them. A big black one was within a few feet of me now, and still charging.

I spread my arms and puffed out my chest. I saw it flinch and slow down, but barely. I thrust a finger in its face and barked "NO!" My bark was significantly louder than that of any of the dogs. They all stopped. I kicked some gravel at the black one and took a step toward it. It took a step back but kept barking.

"Get back here, all of you!" It was a woman coming out toward the road. "I'm awfully sorry. None of them bite."

"Oh, really?" I dropped my hands and relaxed. The dogs all came within a foot of me and started jumping and barking threateningly, but indeed, if I walked in any direction, the dog that was in my way would flinch and jump aside. I pretty much knew the next thing was going to be a question: either where I'm headed (60% chance) or where I'm coming from (30% chance).

"Where are you headed?"

"Oregon." OK, if I got one of those, the next question was almost certainly going to be the other one.

"Get out of here! Where are you coming from?"


"God bless you! What in the world are you doing on this road?"

I shrugged. "Couldn't find a paved one."

"Well, I've got good news for you! In a mile and a half, you'll hit blacktop."

This did, in fact, make me pretty happy.

"Do you need your water bottles filled?"

"If you're offering, I'll take you up."

"Sure, come on over! Sorry about the dogs."

I grinned. "Oh, that's quite all right, I like dogs. Just never know about them when they're charging out at me. Much like people, you know?"

"You want some ice in your water?"

"Don't bother. In those bottles, any ice will be warm water in 15 minutes."

"Really? Then let me get you a glass of ice water now so you can enjoy it. Here, have a seat at the table on the porch. Let me move it over so it's in the shade. Get out of here, you stupid dog!"

I sat down, thinking—you guessed it—My kind of state, Iowa. "Thanks!"

"Actually, you want some iced tea?"


"Let me get you that. Oh, and check that box, I made some cookies, there should be some left. Feel free to finish them."

The box had no fewer than 30 cookies (probably more like 40). She came out with my iced tea and then sat down and asked all the usual questions. A man came out onto the porch and I stood up to shake his hand.

"I'm Greg."

He shook it. "Paul."

"And I'm Judy."

I had gotten so into the hospitality I'd forgotten to introduce myself previously. "Nice to meet you both."

"He's biking across the US," said Judy.

Paul raised an eyebrow. "You're insane."

I grinned. "You're probably right."

"How much did you pay for that bike?"

Back in Freeport, Jilly had been reading a book about how people don't talk about money. I admired the straightforwardness. Judy filled all my bottles from the hose.

"Well," I said, "all your cookies are gone."

"Good! How many calories do you think you got out of that?"

"I have no idea and it doesn't matter. They were delicious."

"You know, I bet you can do this more easily than other people. You're a pretty good-looking guy, I bet wherever you go women are all over you."

I wanted to say that's not fair and I've met all sorts of people who have helped me just because they were kind. But I figured at the moment there was no importance to being earnest, so I shrugged and said "Probably factors in."

"In fact—and I don't mean anything by this—but you know who you look like?"


"Like one of those terrorists. From one of those countries like....Israel. Or Egypt."

Dangerous political territory, of course. Again, the first response that formed in my head was to ask her when she had last heard of a terrorist from Israel, but I held my tongue (figuratively) and grinned. "Is that the definition of a good-looking guy for you?"

Pretty soon we parted amicably. I really needed to get some distance in that day.

"Safe travels!" yelled Judy as I rolled away. "Don't hijack any planes!" But not before she packed me some meatloaf sandwiches and chips for the road.


Dozens of miles west of there, my back started to hurt, to the point where I couldn't take it anymore. Hundreds of miles back now, Kenbob had told me the one thing I do that he couldn't is carry a backpack. He said he would much rather have had a trailer. I was feeling it now. Anytime I changed posture, it would move up or down and chafe against the skin of my back. I couldn't understand why, for well over 1,000 miles, this didn't bother me at all, and suddenly it was so painful.

A common method of torture is to administer the same pain over and over again at regular intervals. This is precisely what cracked pavement did to me (for some reason, I noticed cracks in fact tend to come at regular intervals), and within a few miles of me first noticing it, it was driving me insane. I was ready to do almost anything to stop it. I got off the bike.

I immediately thought of putting the backpack on the rack on the back of the bike. I attached it with the bungee cords that were already there and started riding. It was OK until stuff started falling off. Too much tension on the cords from the pack, it was pulling them off of the other stuff. I took a spare cord out of my pocket and secured it with that. After some experimentation, I found what I thought was the best setup, though it still fishtailed horribly and made it much harder to stay balanced on the bike. It put more strain on everything and was in general a horrible idea, but my back just couldn't take it anymore that day.


I pushed onward and onward, trying to get as much distance behind me as I could, but when the sun turned red and its bottom dipped below the horizon, I knew it was time to stop. I pitched my tent in the tall grass and put on another layer of clothing to block out the mosquitoes, which were just insane. I ate all of Judy's chips. I wolfed down all of her meatloaf sandwiches. I went through more or the enormous loaf of bread Emily had given me to take with me. I dove into the tent and watched with satisfaction as the mosquitoes, detecting the heat and CO2, tried their hardest to get in and failed. As I went to sleep, I remembered saying good-bye to Emily.

"Would you mind if I pray that you be safe?" she had asked.

I had smiled and rolled my eyes. "Because I might be insulted that someone wants me to be well?"

She had smiled, almost sheepishly but not quite. "Well, you know, some people can be weird about that stuff..."


It rained overnight. I had no time to dry stuff off, so I packed the wet tent and raced off down the road. Another ominous cloud appeared in the west. It rained. Then it hailed. Within 15 minutes the sky was blue again, but the winds remained storm-quality for the rest of the day. I only stopped once in the morning, to eat some of Jilly's granola.

(How's that for a miracle? I was given a small, roughly half-cup plastic zip-loc baggie of Jilly's granola in western Illinois. I have used it as my breakfast every single day on the road, eating and eating until I felt full. I'm now poised to enter Nebraska, and there is still plenty left.)

On a dirt road, I saw what in the distance looked like a strange piece of a tree. It moved a bit, and it struck me that the motion wasn't consistent with that of bark in the wind. I rode toward it, but by the time I realized it was a hawk, it had taken off, it had taken off, yielding its prey to me, ever the large and dominant animal. I rode off without touching it, hoping the hawk will come back and finish it rather than leaving it to rot. I was more interested in the deer that had stood in the field and watched it all go down.

Within 20 miles my back was killing me again. I couldn't take it anymore. I entered Fort Dodge and found a bike shop (after a bit of circling due to the fact that 27th St. had been renamed to Martin Luther King, Jr., St.). I found it and went in.

"How can I help you?"

I explained the situation.

"Get this BOB trailer, all good cyclists use those." He said it and walked away.

I chased him down. "Got anything for under $350?"

"No." He walked away again.

Suddenly I really didn't want to give him my business. Out of curiosity, I went to Google Products on my phone and checked out trailers. The same trailer could be had for $120. I walked out. The total market will decide whether he stays in business, but my vote had been cast.

The good news is that bad service can inspire one in ways good service can't. Now that I wanted to avoid the trailer solution, I tried rearranging the stuff in my pack until what was against my back was all of the same consistency, not too soft and not too firm. Then I tried molding it to my back. That didn't work so well, but what did work was finding where my back was hurting, taking off the pack, and punching it repeatedly in that spot. With the new consistency, that would make a dent that would remain for a while, leaving that section of my back alone.

So far, no real back problems since. For less money than I'd have spent if I'd gotten good service.


It emptied out again pretty quickly after Fort Dodge. I was back in the sea of green, and would now get excited every time I'd see a farmhouse in the distance. (Spotting this one, as the textbook proverbially says, has been left as an exercise.)

I followed one street alone (called 190th St) for about 65 miles, over both pavement and gravel, passing on rare occasion through one-intersection towns that that had flashy signs, but where I wouldn't see a single person.

But mostly it was just fields. Fields, fields, fields to every horizon and beyond. I passed many, many horizons that day, but the corn didn't end. The one thing that broke the monotony was something I started thinking about when I noticed that the composition of the "road kill" I was avoiding had changed to largely birds. I quickly linked it to the fact that I was passing a wind farm. Those tall, majestic windmills, ever the symbol of eco-friendliness when looking up at the sky, were the source of the chopped birds on the road.

By the time it was getting dark, with all the detours I'd taken, I estimated that I'd gone right about 100 miles. Yeah, baby, I caught myself thinking, the words directed to cyclists who ride west to east. Century! You always brag about them. Now try one into an unrelenting headwind! Then I wondered what had happened to me telling myself this trip isn't about athletics.

I was on a gravel road again. There were strips and grooves where car wheels had removed the gravel, exposing the dirt underneath, and it was safer and faster to ride on them, but they appeared and disappeared randomly, so I would have to "jump" from one to the other through piles of loose gravel—no easy task on a road bike. I found myself using an arsenal of advanced mountain biking techniques, normally used in steep mud or clay, mini-avalanche sites, etc. It actually took a surprising amount of work to keep moving and not fall, and to use the fact that the wheels kept slipping and skidding sideways to my advantage.

Just as the sun went down, I hit pavement again and followed it into Galva.

The sign was similar to that for Nemaha, but larger and more austere, and the additional note on it was "A FRIENDLY TOWN." I liked the sound of that. As soon as I rode in, I saw a couple in their yard, pulled over, and asked if there was a place where I could get food. They pointed me to the Lumber Inn (as I soon realized, a cousin of that worn cliche, the Dew Drop Inn). The Lumber Inn was a bar that didn't let rooms at all, and one of thing I didn't figure out during my stay in Galva was why it was called an inn.

I entered and everyone turned to stare. I smiled and nodded to nobody in particular and sat down at the bar. The woman behind it came over.

"What can I get for you?"

"Do you guys serve food?"


"Could I see a menu?"

"Pizza and burgers."

"Cool, how much is a large pizza?"


"Awesome, that's what I'll get."

"What kind?"

"What kinds of toppings do you have?"

"Right now I've got a combo, a beef, a beef and pepper and a pepperoni."

"That's cool, I'll just have a plain cheese then."

"I ain't got plain cheese right now."

I grinned. "I'm not very good at listening to my choices, huh?"

She smiled. "But I've got pepperoni."

I shook my head. "I can't have pepperoni. What's in the combo?"

"Peppers, olives, little bit of everything."

"Beef too, I suppose?"

"I think so, yeah."

"Blast. How much is a burger?"

"With chips or without?"

"How much is it with?"


"Hmm, how about without?"


"Cool, I'll have three of those."

She nodded and turned away, then abruptly turned back. "....three?"


"I'll have to wait until the range is clear, it might take a while."

"That's cool, I'm in no hurry."

"So what brings you to Galva?"

I told her.

" want some water?"


She poured me a glass ice water, which I downed in one gulp. "You want cheese on your burgers?"

"Actually, could I have the cheese on the side?"


I grinned. "I know I'm weird."

"Anyone who is from Massachusetts and passing through Galva is probably weird."

"Well, then," I said. "What brings you to Galva?"

"I was born in Schaller, seven miles east of here. My husband is from Galva, so I moved here."

I smiled again. "That'll do it."

"I work as the city clerk," she quickly added. "This is my night gig."

I couldn't hide my surprise. " clerk?"

"City clerk, yeah."

"What city?"

"According to the last census, our population is 350."

I let it rest at that. It really was more than I would have expected. "Could you possibly bring me that cheese on the side right now? I'm starving."

She nodded and went for the cheese. Another woman came to the bar to get watermelon schnapps.

"I'm Greg," I said.

"I'm Amy."

"You look like you're a regular here."

"We all are."

I grinned. "I hope you're including me in that. I've been a regular here for almost ten minutes."

She laughed. "How did you find this place?"

"I was biking along and saw a sign saying that Galva is a friendly town."

That one drew looks and laughter from the several other people at the bar.

Amy turned around. "Hey, Gina! Gina! Is Galva a friendly town?"

A girl in a blue tanktop turned around. "No!"

"You don't count," said the bartender, coming out with my cheese. "You don't live here anymore."

A guy came up and ordered two Buds and an Amstel. "Hey, so that bike out there....?"

"Yep, that's me!"

Another girl walked up. "Wait, so where are you from?"


"And you're in Galva, Iowa?"

It was already dark, so, needless to say, I hung out at the bar until it closed and spent the night in Galva.

1 comment:

  1. Would you please snap a picture of a fallen bird under a wind turbine when you see it next time?