Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nashville to Amarillo: We're Halfway There

I bring you: another day-by-day account! We've been on the road long enough that I do have some more general thoughts about the trip, and I would really like to write them down, but I doubt I'll have time for that until we get to Denver. Until then, let's get caught up, below:

Days 21-22 (6/26-6/27): Took the Natchez Trace Parkway, which we picked up just outside of Nashville, TN, and rode it all the way to Mississippi. The Trace was essentially a park - tree-lined, well-paved, low-traffic, not too hilly, and with bathrooms and campsites (some of which were free!) spaced fairly evenly along the way. That made for some easy riding and gave us the opportunity to think, but there were also long stretches where it felt like we were the only people in the world, and the trees disconnected us from any outside frame of reference to the extent that we couldn't even tell how steep an upcoming hill was going to be until we were upon it. On the second day, we unlocked the "Tristate" achievement by crossing two state boundaries in one evening.

Day 23 (6/28): Biked 98 miles to Steve's friend Lucie's house in Oxford, Mississippi. It was nearly all flat, but we got a late start and were facing what was probably the worst combination of heat and humidity we've seen all trip; so by the time we got to Tupelo, where we would leave the Trace and head west, the strong headwind that blew up just felt like icing on the cake. When we stopped at Subway-inside-WalMart (I didn't realize this was a thing), we were accosted by an old rancher who seemed really taken with the fact that we were biking across the country. After clearing up a misunderstanding ("I know what you are. You're Mormons!"), talking loudly about how riding horses gives you calluses in awkward places, shaking our hands about a dozen times each, and trying but failing to pay for our lunch, he ended up giving us $20.

Day 24 (6/29): Rest day at Lucie's home in Oxford! Lucie's entire family was really good to us, and we spent a lot of time hanging around the house (I'm still really bad at Brawl), hanging around the town (shoutouts to Ole Miss, William Falkner, and L.C.Q. Lamar), and eating really good food. 

Day 25 (6/30): Left Oxford to begin the 7-day journey to Dallas. We were finally wise enough to plan a shorter day after our inevitably late post-rest-day start, so despite a pretty tiring headwind, we rolled into the Grenada, MS area in time to get dinner at a bar/grill that just happened to be on our route and just a few miles from our campsite. The bartender and cook were both fun to talk to, but as we were finishing dinner, an even more interesting crowd arrived: three big, loud, aggressive rednecks. After stories involving women, roofer's knives, "redneck yacht parties," etc., and not a few warnings that they had better not see us around tomorrow, they actually turned out to be a pretty friendly crowd, in their own way. Seeing us drinking Coronas, they bought us Budweisers ("What are you drinking that Mexican shit for? Are you Mexican-lovers?"), gave us $10 ("to help get you the hell out of Mississippi"), provided some sage advice about the Delta (especially the mosquitoes and the black people. "That might sound racist to you... 'cause it IS racist."),  offered us a smoke "from the deer horn," and assured us that they were just messing with us. We parted on good terms, but I will always wonder what was in the deer horn.

Day 26 (7/1): More headwinds, a flat tire (or two?), an excursion onto a county road that turned into loose gravel, and a ~100-mile ride to Greenville, MS, on the edge of the Mississippi and the border of Arkansas. Both of our Couchsurfing requests (for Greenville and Indianola, about 25 miles to the east) went unanswered, and a lot of people had warned us about crime in the Delta, but we encountered a deus ex machina in the form of Steve's friend's sister's fiance's former roommates (no, actually.), whose house was conveniently located about ten miles east of Greenville. We arrived just as night fell, spent the night at their house alone (the former roommates were off vacationing), and availed ourselves of their showers and couches.

Day 27 (7/2): Another tri-state gold star! We crossed the Mississippi (which seemed far from mighty), stopped at a Subway in Arkansas, and rode to Chemin-a-Haut State Park in Louisiana -- which, at $26, clocks in as the most expensive park we've stayed at so far, and also the most luxurious (vending machines and a coin laundry?!). Quick aside, now that I'm thinking about it: we love Subway. One of the secrets to our success so far is their turkey bacon avocado on toasted Italian herbs and cheese bread, with mustard/mayo and as many veggies as possible so that we even get some vitamins thrown in the mix.

Day 28 (7/3): Attempted to ride to a campground in Minden, LA, but were foiled by what was probably our most disheartening day of the entire trip. We had planned to spend most of the day on Route 2, which runs E-W along northern Louisiana, but we quickly discovered that it has almost no shoulder and happens to be full of logging trucks. After multiple flat tires and the first (and hopefully last) "I'm about to die" moment of the trip - when, buffeted by the wind of a passing logging truck, I swerved left for a split second and came very close to riding into its rear wheel - we decided to take a detour, because we figured that staying alive was probably more important than making it to Minden by nightfall. Instead, a very strong finish brought us to Ruston, LA (despite 5 miles of unfinished pavement at the very end, during which I was sure that some important piece of my bike was about to fall off), where we decided to stay in a motel (which, at $31, was barely more expensive than Chemin-a-Haut) and prepare for our July 4th Challenge (see below).

Day 29 (7/4): The July 4th Challenge was to make it to Longview, Texas, where a Couchsurfer had agreed to host us that evening. We got up at 5:00 (our earliest ever), had bought food/Gatorade/water by 7:00, and spent the entire day riding, stopping only to refill, refuel, and refresh. 15 hours and 147 miles later, we arrived at our hosts' house, just after the last guest at their Fourth of July party had left. As we biked through the center of Longview, we passed hundreds of people lined up along the side of the road - they were of course waiting for the fireworks to start, but it felt almost like they were there for us, as if we were completing an Alpine stage of the Tour de France. We ended the day with delicious leftovers, warm showers, and a bed. I was, physically, the weariest I've ever been at the end of a day.

Day 30 (7/5): Rode to Lake Tawakani and stayed at a really fun, privately owned campground / RV park called Kenny's Landing. It was probably the most scenic place we've stayed all trip - we camped right next to the lake - and the convenience store had food and drinks at supermarket prices. The most shocking thing about our day  was that, even after those 147 miles, I still felt energetic. I think I may finally be at the point (at least, on reasonably flat terrain) that we read about in a cycling book that we found in Kentucky: "With enough fuel, the experienced endurance cyclist can ride forever."

Day 31 (7/6): Got out early and had a short, easy ride into Plano, Texas (a suburb just north of Dallas). We were joined halfway by Steve's girlfriend, Caitlin, and her family. Her father and brother had brought their bikes, so they rode with us for the final 20 miles, which was a nice change. For the first time all trip, we ended the day in a hotel - courtesy Caitlin's parents. The sense of luxury we felt was indescribable.

Day 32 (7/7): Spent a rest day in Plano/Dallas. Ate a lot of really good food (hot tip if you're ever in Plano: Besa's, on Jupiter Rd. Awesome Italian food, unlimited rolls, and BYOB.), spent a few quality hours learning about the JFK assassination on the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository ($13.50 but well worth it), and spent our second night enjoying the untold luxuries of the Comfort Suites.

Day 33 (7/8): Rode through McKinney, Texas (where my uncle used to live); had a great lunch there (and got free pie because they were closing!), discovered the glory that is Kroger's Signature Stores (we loved Kroger's already. But... a sushi bar?! You could live there and want for nothing.), met a guy who gives $2 bills to everyone he likes (and he liked us.), and spent the night with a very accommodating Couchsurfing host named Bobby in Denton, TX. Before we got to his house, we happened upon a great restaurant/bar called Rooster's, where we met Joe, a middle-aged cyclist whose dream is to do the trans-America trip when he retires. To our surprise, the waitress told us a few minutes later that our dinner bill had already been paid; and, when we tried to thank him, Joe wouldn't hear of it and gave each of us $20 on top of it all. Joe pretty much epitomizes the generosity and hospitality we've found throughout our travels; all we can do is put him on our list, send him a thank-you (/"we actually made it!") postcard from San Francisco, and try to pay it forward later in life.

Day 34 (7/9): We tried to ride the 100 miles to Wichita Falls, but were foiled by storms. Nothing serious ever came up - we saw no lightning - but the sky got very dark and the wind got strong enough that it threatened to knock me over, so we took shelter in a gas station while I fixed a developing flat tire. As often happens to us in these situations, there was a silver lining: we ran into Juanito, a DJ from Denver who was on his way back home after doing a wedding in Texas. He's been getting into cycling, and was really taken with our trip; he's also super friendly, and ended up promising us that, if we arrived in Denver on a Friday, he would dedicate his weekly salsa night (and the proceeds of the cover) to us and our trip. If that ends up happening, it may well be one of the best/funniest/most ridiculous and serendipitous things to happen to us this entire trip. We ended the day in an RV park, where the owner essentially let us stay for free (less than, really), and headed out early the next morning.

Day 35 (7/10): Rode the remaining 60 miles to Wichita Falls, where we arrived earlier (by far) than ever before: 3 PM, even after sushi for lunch and a visit to WalMart. We turned out to have picked the worst possible day to arrive early: our CouchSurfing host, a 40-year-old man with a unique name and an equally unique worldview, talked to (read: "at") us for over six hours. (This is not an exaggeration. Ask Steve, who tapped out even later than I did.) I was just starting to add a head cold to the allergies that had been building since Nashville, so I spent a pretty miserable evening suffering through theories about everything from what made a meaningful African-American model for young people ("You can't argue with peanut butter!") to why the Jewish people are so successful (chutzpah, baby. chutzpah.), and I went to bed exhausted. To be fair, I should mention that our host treated us to a shower, a bed, and a delicious homemade pasta dinner. We've been lucky with our silver linings.

Day 36 (7/11): Things get worse. The section of Route 287 between Wichita Falls and Amarillo has a great shoulder, but it's also full of pieces of blown-out tires. And as it turns out, car tires have wire beading - so each piece, no matter how small, is basically like an armor-piercing round where our own tires/inner tubes are concerned. We literally had six flats between the two of us throughout the day - most of them concentrated within a 20-mile distance - and after changing them in the heat and worrying about running out of tubes before reaching Amarillo, morale hit a low not seen since the Logging Truck Incident (TM). But we pushed hard after the last flat, averaging over 15mph for the final 36 miles, and made it to our destination (an RV park) as night fell. Silver lining: delicious $1 complimentary breakfast the next morning! Everybody wins!

Day 37 (7/12): Things get a little better. Steve got four more flats (he's now at around 3x my own flat count), but at some point during the day we confirmed our suspicion about the wire beading and the danger of running over seemingly innocuous pieces of rubber on the shoulder. (My own bike tires have wire beading. So why didn't we figure this out earlier? I don't know. Maybe we're just dumb.) We didn't get into the town near the park we planned to stay in until pretty late, but we ended the day with a Subway sandwich and a fortunate encounter with the manager of a very small RV park, who let us stay for free and use the shower in his own RV.

Day 38 (7/13): No flats! We were extraextraextra careful, and the shoulder got much cleaner as we approached Amarillo (which we could see from something like 15 miles out. talk about flat.), so we managed to arrive without incident. We hit up a bike shop, where Steve essentially bought armor (tire inserts) and insurance ("slimed" tubes) for his tires; it's basically the armored-Humvee version of flat prevention, so Steve is expecting exactly 0 more flats between here and San Francisco. I figure I'll get a half-dozen more in that time, but we have so many spare tubes at this point that it shouldn't be an issue. We then headed to the home of Steven, our excellent Couchsurfing host (and our first young host; he's 19), and had a fantastic dinner on a really cool strip of restaurants, bars and (yep) antique shops on a section of what used to be Route 66.

Day 39 (7/14): Today we spent a rest day at Steven's house, dealing with some bike- and computer-related stuff and eating good food on the old Route 66 strip. We're starting the Amarillo-->Denver leg of our trip tomorrow, and expecting to get it done in 6 days. We need to get it done in that amount of time, or less... because Juanito and salsa night are waiting for us.


  1. Day 25: horribly hilarious
    Day 33: amazing! How do you meet so many random cycling-lovers/wannabes who are so generous?! Absolutely loved this story

    And about the salsa night ( did you arrive on a Friday?), you'll have to celebrate by going salsa dancing :)

    Also, glad you are safe.

  2. I just read your experience in Colorado on a new site. I think that this whole trip and that experience would warrant a book. I know that it would make a memorable movie. All of the lovely people who helped you on the long journey, and then the tragedy of what happened in Colorado.

    I hope that you finish your ride, and that the experiences are positive. Please do write a book as it would be multi-packed full of unique experiences.

    Be safe. Keep riding.

  3. I've been following Stephen on Twitter since the shooting in Aurora and I'm glad for the work he has done with the Demand a Plan movement. You guys both inspire me.

    Finish your ride when you can. Your readers will be waiting.