Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

There is Good in People Everywhere You Go

In the last entry I had lunch with racists and a sleepless night of hypothermia. This time, even though the physical obstacles don’t get any easier, the attitudes of the people I meet start to change—which makes all the difference in the world. This will be a long entry, but it was also a turning point in my adventure.

Day 92 (Saturday, October 6, 2012)

I didn’t so much sleep as go through a staccato of naps. The morning light went from black to gray. For hours I’d prayed that the night would end, but when it did, the slght warmth of the morning sun coaxed me into real slumber.

But I couldn’t dally for long. Unless I wanted to spend another night exposed in the wind, I had to run toward a new town and new prospects—in this case Greenville, Mississippi. An hour later I got up once and for all.

The rain had stopped, and it was sunny but cold when my feet hit the ground. I packed up my hammock as efficiently as I could in the wind, putting it away wet, and looked over the Giant who seemed to have weathered the storm just fine. I waved to some of the families in their RV’s as I pedaled away from my temporary home.

The first thing I needed was breakfast. And coffee, a whole lot of coffee. Lack of sleep undermines all of your abilities on the road, and coffee doesn’t fix it but it does reduce the pain.

I biked along a highway at the edge of town, looking for the kind of place that would have big breakfasts at a reasonable price: a Denny’s or its Southern equivalent. But it was multiple fried chicken places and zero diner types. Reluctantly, I turned back into downtown: Yazoo Pass Cafe advertised a great breakfast, though it wasn’t exactly Denny’s prices.

Still, maybe I’d see Whitman there again. That would almost be rewarding, just to show him I’d been fine in that “dangerous” neighborhood.

The breakfast was worth the money, as was the stack of coffee mugs I went through. No sign of my racist friend, which was just as well. But the place was busy: it was Saturday morning and, I learned, there was a blues festival this weekend.

During all this I got a message from one of my readers named Jason. Jason is on a spiritual search of his own now, but he used to be a pastor at a church in Mississippi. He was still well connected to other pastors, and said that his friend Pastor Brian could put me up at his church tonight. The church was in Greenville, more than 70 miles away. After the previous night, I was determined to cover those miles in one day.

I had aired up my tires before breakfast, but already they felt soft. I wondered if it was my imagination or the cold air. As I loaded my computer into the saddlebags (I’m sure I spent some time online over coffee, which is my general self-remedy for feeling stressed and frayed), a friendly voice called out.

I turned. It was a woman sitting at an outdoor cafe table with a few friends. She was middle aged, with giant curly hair and a cane near her chair. Her body didn’t look athletic at all, but you never can judge. She asked me where I was going, and when I told her, she began to reminisce about her own thousands of miles of bicycle touring.

I really respect this woman. She had done it back in the 70s or 80s, for starters, and I’m always fascinated by analogue adventurers in a web-free world. She was a font of knowledge, as experienced cyclists are, and she was friendly. I remember worrying after we spoke that I might have come off rude, as tired and wired and worry-focused as I was. But if I did she didn’t let me know it. We had a great talk.

I told her about my worry about the tire, and she asked if I had a patch kit (I did). She gave me the tip that if you need to use a patch with adhesive, you need to let it sit “as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette.” Of course, I don’t smoke, and the patches I had were self-adhering, but this tip would eventually come in handy.

She also asked if I had a chain link tool. I had never even heard of that. She explained that if my chain broke roadside, it was game over unless I had that tool, and one spare chain link. I had neither.

“Here.” She dug around in her bag and produced a single bike chain link, still in its package. “This is yours. Get yourself a chain link tool and learn how to use it!”

(André’s note: I sheepishly have to admit I still haven’t done this, though I do have that chain link and I plan to get the tool before the Mexico leg.)

I thanked her. I had to get going, although I had one more stop to make first. I biked over to the Clarksdale Post Office to mail a letter to my dad. He’s a Vietnam vet and I remember that getting letters in the Marines was really important to him. When my sister went into a Buddhist monastery, he wrote her every week. I figured it would mean more to him if I sent him handwritten letters rather than just email. This was probably my fifth one.

Coming out of the post office, there was no doubt my back tired was leaking. I was angry. It’d been only two biking days since I’d patched it last. And when you’re fatigued and already running late, you don’t want to do a bunch of repairs. Especially in front of a post office with non-cyclists staring at you.

But it was either that or go take a bus home and cry to mama.

The goo-filled tire tube had done its job, but at this point I stopped patching it. It looked like it had been through World War I. I put in a new tube and levered the tire back onto the wheel, which took forever because I was terrified I would rip up the tire like I had done in the past.

Mississippi makes for some stunning bicycling. Photo by Meg.

Mississippi makes for some stunning bicycling. Photo by Meg.

It was probably nearly noon when I threw the expended tube in a trash can and mounted a loaded, aired up, combat-ready bicycle. I made a navigational decision I’m still very happy with: instead of taking straight Highway 61, I would use the winding and scenic River Road. I still remembered the glorious ride into Memphis and, with another north wind behind me, figured I’d make record time.

It didn’t quite work out like that, but the following hours would be one of my favorite days. Ostensibly, everything was at least as hard as the day before: my first leg was westward, so that powerful wind wasn’t an ally at all, and when I did turn south it would quickly shift directions and leave me to my own muscle power. I was going to get dumped on by rain, too. But the woman with the chain link was only the first of several generous people I’d meet that day.

When I finally turned southward, I found myself in some of the most stunning terrain of the Adventure. So far, most of what I’ve described in Mississippi has been hardship, but that hardship was surrounded by an almost mystical beauty.

Because of the cool weather I’d worn long pants and a sweater. But the grey smudge behind my shoulder turned out to be a bank of storm clouds. I’ve biked through the rain a lot, and I’ve found it’s best not to try to waterproof yourself. The water will come from all directions, with tires kicking up plenty from below, and you’re just going to get soaked. So rather than ruin my warm clothing, I stopped and changed into shorts and t-shirt.

With nowhere private to change, I waited till I was at a rural cross-road. I hadn’t seen a vehicle in ten or twenty minutes. The crossroad had a small embankment that hid it from approaching traffic. I stood behind that embankment and changed.

(This included stripping all the way down, to replace my long underwear with boxers.)

Just as your Rogue Priest’s junk was completely divested of its trunk, a series of about four cars and trucks went by. One was an SUV with a family inside, which turned down the side road and went right past me. Children pointed out the window, and I wondered briefly about Mississippi’s laws on public exposure.

My next encounter with a car was more positive, however. At a later crossroad, I paused to put my phone in a plastic bag. The storm clouds loomed over me like a fortress, and the green Mississippi riverland looked emerald under the gray-black.

A pickup truck stopped next to me.

As the man rolled down the window, I figured he’d ask if I needed a ride and I already knew I’d say no. He asked me where I was going.

“South America,” I said.

His eyes widened. That’s one of my favorite questions to answer when I’m on a bike. And he was excited for me.

“You gonna be okay in this rain?”

“Yeah. It’s supposed to pass pretty quick. I just changed into this so my good clothes wouldn’t get wet.”

He nodded approvingly. He gave me his name and then his phone number. He introduced me to his wife in the seat next to him.

“We own a garage down in Gunnison,” he said. “You’re probably going to go right past it. If you need anything at all, you call us, okay?”

“That’s great! Thank you.”

“And here, I want you to take this.”

He held out money. I was humbled. At this point in my Adventure I knew that you don’t say not to this: this is a person’s way of being part of what you’re doing, of knowing they contributed. I worked the whole time I was on that bicycle, and while my budget was tight I paid my own way. I could’ve gone the whole length of the River without accepting a single ad hoc donation. But it wasn’t just about me, it was also about the person giving it. About their own hopes.

I gave him just the one, courtesy refusal. “Oh, you don’t have to. I work—”

“I know I don’t have to. But maybe you can get a couple of meals or a place to sleep some night. Think of it as my gift.”

I looked him in the eye, nodded, and said thank you. And I meant it.

The money he handed me a brand new $100 bill.

We shook hands, he reminded me to call him if I needed help, and they took off.

On the way into Greenville. Photo by Tom Hilton.

On the way into Greenville. Photo by Tom Hilton.

The rain came, and boy did it come. Soon I was soaked through—and the warmth of the coffee was long gone. I listened for thunder, and the bit I heard was far off. But it came closer and closer, and I had to start counting the seconds between thunder claps and lightning. Biking in the rain is one thing, but biking in Zeus’ shooting range is another.

Eventually I entered an area with woods on both sides, which made me feel a lot less concerned about being the tallest thing around. But the cold was a much bigger factor than the voltage. What had looked on my weather app like a short storm went on for fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, and no sign of stopping. I ate up mile after mile at a snail’s pace, moving cautiously with the combination of slippery roads and slippery brakes. Soon I was shivering uncontrollably, losing feeling in my fingers.

I did have my rain jacket on over my t-shirt, more as a windbreaker than expecting to stay dry. I pulled the sleeves down over my fingers, and the hood over my head, frequently fixing it when the wind blew it down.

These measures didn’t help. Keeping the wind off my fingers was a small victory with my whole lower body bleeding heat.  I considered sheltering in the woods, even putting up the hammock, but the thought of one of those trees crashing down on me didn’t hold much appeal.

I held out for a house.

When I did see one, I couldn’t tell if anybody was home. As I’d done in Missouri, I figured I would just go take shelter on their porch if no one answered. I leaned my bike against a giant oak in their yard, where it was visible from their doorstep, and walked up. I knocked timidly.

A woman called out from inside. Soon her husband had come to the door, and hearing my story he invited me in right away.

“You’re soaked,” he observed.

“A little bit. And cold.”

Thank the blessed gods, they didn’t have air conditioning on. He brought me a towel which I wrapped around myself like a blanket, shivering underneath. He also asked if I was hungry.

“Well, I don’t want to impose,” I said.

“We have plenty of food! What do you want? Here, we have Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s, Snickers, Reese’s…”

He ticked off about a half dozen more sweets.

Funny, when he’d offered me food I somehow pictured a sandwich or something. I was stuffed right after the big breakfast but by now I could’ve eaten a whole pizza; road days do that to you. But even though I didn’t normally fuel on sweets, I didn’t say no either. It so happens I’m a big fan of peanut butter cups, and soon I had a giant bag of them in my lap.

I did manage to pass up soda, instead getting a bottle of water that was (wince) ice cold.

The two of them were very kind. The woman never got up from the sofa, where she was covered with a blanket. I got the sense that she couldn’t walk easily. The husband did all the running around for her. I didn’t ask what condition she had, and I won’t speculate.

They wanted to hear all about my Journey. As the rain lashed down outside, I told them the basics. They had questions—including whether I would spend the night!

My mouth dropped open. After all the closed hearts I’d run into lately, I hadn’t expected that. And I thought about it. Would it really be so bad to put off the church invitation by one night? Couldn’t I just call it quits here, less than a third of the way to Greenville, and take a hot shower?

It was tempting. But the road called to me. I like the challenge, and I had barely made any progress today. The tail wind, the invitation up ahead, the promise of hosts in Vicksburg and a plan to meet friends in New Orleans in less than two weeks… it all kind of combined with my normal stubbornness and galvanized me to keep going.

“Wow, that’s really kind of you,” I said. “But I should push on. Once it stops out there, I’m going to try to make Greenville.”

It did stop out there. They stuffed my pockets full of candy for the road. They gave me more water, and offered me a blanket to take with me. I considered it, but I had stopped shivering and had enough weight to carry already (including a blanket of my own). After more thank yous and encouragement, I got back on the bike and pushed on.

I cruised through the next town (Gunnison, I believe) and the shop owned by my high-dollar benefactor from earlier. His truck wasn’t out front and I had a long way to go, so I didn’t stop.

From what I could tell, Gunnison has a large white population; later I reached Beulah, a tiny town that’s almost exclusively black. I stopped there for water and a snack. Several locals were surprised to see a white cyclist but all were very warm and friendly. I’ve suggested before that the towns that are most suspicious of outsider are those with the most racial tension. Towns like Beulah tended to confirm that hunch. Beulah is definitely rural and definitely small, and as the only white person around I was doubly an “outsider,” yet the people treated me with courtesy and smiles. I suspect it’s because there was no day-to-day racial tension leading to violence, cliquishness and suspicion.

(André’s note: Around Beulah I almost got hit by a truck, too. He was merging onto the road at a Y-intersection with only a yield sign. Seeing no cars, he just barreled through—and would’ve wiped me off the highway if I hadn’t swerved way out in the oncoming lane. I gave a yell as I swerved, and I could see the startled look on the driver’s face. He was a middle aged African American in overalls, driving the most hillbilly old pickup truck you can imagine. He promptly pulled over to the side of the road and apologized. Contrast that with the aggressive white driver who almost killed me in Clarksdale.)

I raced on. With the sun out, the wind wasn’t so bad on my soaking wet clothes, and I still had a little tailwind helping me along. But I already knew I wasn’t going to make Greenville before sunset. In the somewhat larger town of Benoit 11 miles later, I paused to call Pastor Brian with an update.

“I’m going to be a little late,” I said.

“That’s not problem on our end, Drew,” (this is when I still went by Drew) “But how late do you mean? Is it safe to bike after dark?”

“Well I try to avoid it but I have front and back lights to use. I’ll be careful. I expect to arrive a little after sunset—are you sure that’s okay?”

Brian said it would be just fine, and if I called him when I reached the church he’d drive right over to meet me.

From there onward the sun was setting. Earlier in my trip I had many grinning conversations with the Sun Goddess as she slipped below the horizon, my last lamp for the evening. By now it was just a joke to her—always late, Rogue Priest.

I kind of enjoyed the lengthening shadows, the golden light, the dramatic colors on the autumn greenery of the lonely Mississippi roads. A little mist crept from the woods.

The tailwind had shifted, and I had to pedal harder. At some point I put on my warm, dry clothing (behind a garage in Benoit, as I recall). But as the sun went down and with the northeast wind cutting across my bow, the dark got colder and colder.

The final run to Greenville was long, slow and unsettling. In the open country there are no street lights, so I only had the little pool of illumination from my headlamp to warn me of potholes. And I was nervous about speeding or drunk drivers behind me, even with my tail light. I kept a flashlight in one hand, signaling my presence as vehicles approached. My hands cramped up and went numb from holding it against the handlebars.

At last came a winding trip through the neighborhoods of Greenville, some of which looked like an even prettier version of Clarksdale while others looked pretty rough. I reached the church, texted Brian and waited beside a giant glowing crucifix for him to arrive.

Brian came quickly, along with one of the other church members. I suspect they came as a pair just in case I didn’t seem trustworthy. But they greeted me warmly and waved off my thank-yous. The nighttime temperature was already plummeting, and I thought of last night with a renewed sense of gratitude not to be left outside.

They took me around to the back where the church had a large youth center. It was basically a gymnasium/basketball court with a stage set up on it, plus bathrooms, a small kitchen and a few side rooms for smaller activities. Brian told me I was welcome to set up my sleeping bag anywhere.

Once he made sure I had everything I needed he and his friend left me alone with the whole place to myself. My first order of business was a hot shower, like medicine to my shivering body. Back in dry clothes again, I turned to my stomach’s priorities: I hadn’t had more than a bite or two of trail mix since the candy family.

Fortunately the church was located near a main street with several restaurants. Making sure not to lock myself outside, I walked about a block to check one out. The cold windy night didn’t seem so intimidating anymore.

My long, eventful day ended with one more act of kindness: as I finished my meal, the waitress asked me where I was from. I told her about my trip and that I was spending the night in the nearby church. This, along with the fact that I’d biked “all the way from Clarksdale” in one day, was enough to put me on her good list. She brought me a free dessert, bless her.

This day, and the hardships of the few days before it, taught me a lot about what it means to be a good person and change other people’s lives. But this log entry has gone on long enough, and I’ll save the philosophy for another time. 80.4 miles.

Map.

Total traveled since Day 1: 1515.5

Next time I make my final bid for Vicksburg, Mississippi—a long road day with the promise of rum at the other end. What do you think of the road logs so far? Too much detail, or just enough?

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Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

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