Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: Memphis Days

Last time I covered 100 miles in a single go, then coasted over a deadly freeway bridge to Memphis with a leaky tire. Exhausted, on a limping Giant, I almost fell into my hosts’ apartment.

Day 85 – 90 (September 29 – October 4, 2012) — Memphis Days

My Couchsurfing hosts are two guys about my age, Michael and John, who couldn’t be more different and yet seem to get along amazingly. Michael is a literature grad student with a love of sci-fi. He’s gay and he’s black. John is a white straight entrepreneur. Both have great personalities and are easy to get along with.

After the long ride from Hayti, I thought all I would want to do was fall into a pile and rest. But I perk up quickly when I’m told there will be a party. I take a shower and meet their other Couchsurfer, a girl from Switzerland who it turns out I’ll hardly ever see. One of us has the couch, the other has an air mattress, but it almost doesn’t matter because she’ll be out all night most nights at raves.

Then we head to a Couchsurfing party at another host’s house. It’s a beautiful apartment in a big building, and I meet lots of hosts and travelers, although I hover way too close around the food table after the long day on the road. Made an effort not to drink too fast, knowing how alcohol affects my body on a marathon day.

I hit it off in particular with the hostess of the party, Amy, and her guy Daniel. I’ll end up spending a fair amount of time with them during my stay.

Thankfully the party isn’t an all night affair, and eventually I drift into sweet sleep in Michael & John’s living room. In the morning, a first order of business is changing the now-flat tire on the Giant, from which I pull no fewer than three pieces of glass and metal. Seeing all the damage, and thinking about how I was able to keep riding on it with fair air pressure, I realize for the first time the value of the tire goo that Tony from Semo Cycle put in my tubes. Since I have no more goo, I actually patch all three holes and re-use the same goo-filled tube.

During my stay I explore mostly on foot, a nice change from all the biking. I discover a brilliant coffee house called Otherland, which becomes my temporary work headquarters for a few days. At one point I tweet this image from the Otherlands bathroom:

Queer art at Otherlands in Memphis

…which causes a serious stir with some readers. The sign strikes them as trans-phobic. If you’re in Otherland you can tell from the drag show posters and the clientele that the place is very queer friendly, the sign is tongue in cheek. But that isn’t obvious via Twitter.

Another day I work in a Starbuck’s, which is closer to Michael and John’s, but this only reinforces to me why I hate, hate, hate spending time in most chain coffee shops.

Sunday night John is determined to show us the Memphis night life and he sure delivers. I’ve been looking forward to seeing this city since I started out. It was a brief stop on my road trip to New Orleans last year, and I saw just enough of the historic downtown nightlife as I sped through to make an impression.

First John took us to a huge beer bar with hundreds of taps and bottles from around the world. It’s set up as a members-only club, and you can swipe your member card as you order to track which beers you’ve tried. There are awards and titles for those who try enough different varieties. John gets us in as his guests and in exchange we swipe our drinks on his card, giving him full credit.

After that it was off to Earnestine & Hazel’s Juke Joint, a Memphis institution and self-described dive bar. It’s two stories of a former 1930’s pharmacy building. Earnestine and Hazel were two hairstylists who cut hair upstairs, and got the downstairs from the pharmacist after he made it big. It became a cafe and then a stop on the blues circuit, which it remains to this day.

Earnestine & Hazel’s has everything a blues joint should have. Dim lighting. Old brickwork. A patina of cigarettes past. Strong drinks. Even ghosts. It’s considered the most haunted restaurant in Memphis.

Restaurant? Yes, in addition to serving drinks and broken hearts, E&H has amazing greasy dive bar burgers cooked behind the counter downstairs.

Upstairs is a piano, a second bar, and several private rooms guests can use. Ours has a giant Ouija board as a table. We were not able to get it to work with an ash tray instead of a pointer.

Outside E&H, someone has turned the neighboring alley/tiny abandoned lot into a pleasant sitting spot with benches and a swing. A swing for drunks! This is the best idea ever. When I retire with a scar on my face and a nasty limp to open my own bar, I want there to be a swing next door. Also ghosts.

Amy on the swing.

Amy on the swing.

I was long overdue for a haircut so I sought out a barber. The elderly man at the Mid-City Barber Shop had shaky hands and couldn’t hear so good but he’s been doing this his whole life so I entrusted my hair to him. After cutting my ear, he manage to give me the perfect haircut… for the 1940s. I haven’t seen my hair this short since I was 17.

(André’s note: it’s shorter now, actually.)

Me looking less than thrilled with my new haircut.

Me looking less than thrilled with my new haircut.

Amy and Daniel wanted to make sure I tried Memphis barbeque, which is a “dry” barbeque—meaning it’s rubbed in spices and seasoning for flavor, not drizzled in sauce. That’s some foreign stuff up north, but it was as succulent as you could want. And of course, without sauce everywhere, you can taste the natural flavor of the meat much better. It’s delicious. I still put South Carolina’s barbeque at the top of my personal list, but Memphis is a close, close second.

I hit it off with both Amy and Daniel but in different ways. Daniel is an atheist and more to the point he’s the kind of atheists who eats, breathes and sleeps skepticism. I’m fine with that, but it provokes some difficult feelings for me. I’m too pious for atheists and too much of a doubter for my fellow religious folks. I’m quite sure we have no soul and I question very much whether the gods exist outside of human psychology. That doesn’t mean talking to them isn’t valuable, and I that value is much more than just the sense of “comfort” that atheists sometimes admit religion provides. But if I had to choose one camp or the other, I probably have more in common with most atheists than with most religious people.

That, unfortunately, makes little sense to a certain brand of atheist, who see religion as inherently violent and irrational. (Ironically, the scientific study of religion suggests they’re wrong about this, but this is one area where science is not their strong suit.) So, when someone starts speaking as a strong atheist or skeptic, I always have a tense moment where I’m not sure whether we’re about to become best buds, or if I’m about to go on trial.

This was only amplified when Daniel was uncomfortable with playfully messing around with the Ouija board table, since it’s superstitious.

But actually, we got along great. Daniel was very polite about my beliefs, and curious what it meant for me to be a priest. He was put at ease when I agreed with him about the downsides of faith and superstition, although it’s hard for me to say whether he absorbed what I said about how not all religions care about “faith” like Christianity does.

In any case, the intellectual conversation was great with both of them, and Amy is naturally warm and has a lot of shared interests with me. We got along so well that they invited me to come see the Memphis zoo.

It’s a great zoo. The front is designed like ruins from Memphis, Egypt and they carry that theme through much of the park. It’s the right size to see in one afternoon and the layout favors large, open air environments for most animals. All the residents looked clean and healthy. Amy is a huge panda fan, and we checked out their giant pandas. Personally I’m crazy about red pandas, which Amy had never heard of. But Memphis has red pandas! It took us forever to spot them way up in their trees.

Guys it’s a red panda!! Photo by Karen.

One of the highlights of Memphis was meeting up with one of my readers, Khalil. I’ve never met a reader before who I didn’t already know in real life. Several had offered to put me up if I ever traveled near them, but most lived far, far from my planned path. Khalil just so happens to live in Memphis and we were excited to meet.

I feel like I bungled it a little. I had spotted a moody cocktail bar called Alchemy so I suggested we meet there. Khalil doesn’t drink. Meanwhile, I also invited Michael, thinking it’d be more fun for us to all hang out together, but Michael could barely swoop in before rushing off for study time. I probably could’ve planned it better.

But meeting Khalil was great. He shared with me the details of his own winding spiritual quest, and how his relationships and work had helped him find his own role in life. I feel like I met someone with a great deal of wisdom gained through experience.

(André’s note: Khalil and I still keep in touch. We met up again in New Orleans and I made at least one other great friend through him.)

I’ve also been planning the next bicycling leg. It’s going to be three days (André’s note: so I thought) to Vicksburg, where another set of hosts awaits me.

Next time we’ll see that rushing to reach those hosts has its down side… and that my problems with ornery white people are far from over. Until then, you can check out all my road logs.

Please share this post if you like it!

L Days cover_front only_half size

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

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: Deadly Bridge to Memphis

Last time I walked the Giant five miles to get him repaired, then found myself caught in the tense atmosphere of Hayti, Missouri.

Day 85 (September 29, 2012)

The Drury Inn’s breakfast setup wasn’t quite on a par with their dinner buffet, but I filled up and got ready. I had a long way to go to Memphis—nearly 100 miles—and I was determined to make it in one day. If I did, I had a place to stay with a Couchsurfing host named Michael and his roommate. Plus, tonight was Saturday night, the perfect time to meet a new city.

The wind demons were with me. As I biked down the entrance ramp to I-55 a strong north breeze grabbed me like a sail. Gods, I love a good tailwind.

I regret that I didn’t detour to Caruthersville the day before. It’s right on the river (unlike Hayti) and looks like a bigger town, and if I hand’t had such a late start with bike repairs it might have been my stopping point for the night. Perhaps it would have been a more welcoming place. But now it was out of my way, and with fond memories of my Couchsurfing stint in St. Louis the week before I was eager to be among friends again.

Day 85 was one of my finest bicycle rides. I chose the Interstate because it was flat, smooth pavement with a wide shoulder, and in rural areas a freeway is quite pleasant. With few bends and no trees, the wind howled down behind me and kept me going like a speedboat. I was amazed at the time I made—and how little effort it took. I decided to lean into my pedaling and add manpower to windpower, and found myself cruising at a good 17 miles per hour for much of the trip. At one point I stopped for ice cream at a gas station; I almost felt guilty taking a break and “wasting” the free windpower.

But the wind didn’t let up. I entered Arkansas earlier than expected (there was one little corner of it before crossing the river to Memphis, Tennessee). I habitually calculate my mileage, speed and ETA in my head, so that I always know roughly when I’ll arrive at a given town. By the time I passed Blytheville my math said I’d be grossly early (which was fine by me). But 100 miles is a long way to go and, remembering my ridiculous delays into St. Louis, I decided not to adjust my ETA with Michael.

It was a good call. In the afternoon the wind did eventually weaken, but that wasn’t the problem. I was already 70 miles in by then. The real problem was the change in highway conditions.

As you  near a big city, the interstates become unrideable. It’s not just the heavier, more aggressive traffic, though that’s not fun. It’s not even the more frequent (and busier) entrances and exits you have to cross. It’s the road itself. Heavy traffic, pavement torn to hell and the debris on the shoulder is a minefield. You can’t go a single meter without dodging a sparkplug, a nail, a busted tire, a busted bottle.

That’s why I normally exit interstates before approaching a city, but here I had no choice. I had to pass through West Memphis (a separate town on the Arkansas side of the river), and West Memphis only has two bridges to the big city. That means all roads converge onto one of the two, both of which are freeway.

As I swerved through detritus and put a nervous eye on my rear view mirror, it occurred to me (for the first time) that I had no idea if either bridge had a pedestrian walkway or even  shoulder. As eager as I was to cross, I decided to pull off in West Memphis and do some research. I had planned to use the I-55 “Memphis & Arkansas Bridge” but if the other one (the I-40 “Harrahan Bridge”) had a better lane for me, I’d gladly add the extra miles.

A little googling showed that neither was promising. On satellite view, it looked like the I-55 Bridge might actually have a shoulder the whole way across. But I was really hoping that one or the other had a real pedestrian/bike path.

Wikipedia answered my question, but not optimistically. Of the two, Harrahan has no pedestrian path at all, and I-55 had one, but it had been closed off—one of the worst urban planning decisions I’ve heard of.

(I know maintaining sidewalks costs money, and big bridges may not get a lot of foot/bike traffic. But it’s important to realize that a major bridge often represents the only crossing for miles, and pedestrians and cyclists typically can’t go around. That means that closing off, or not adding, a pedestrian path doesn’t discourage hikers and cyclists from crossing. It just guarantees they’ll be forced to do it in the most dangerous conditions possible.)

My bad hunch was right. Hoping to ascertain if I could still access the “closed off” walkway, or if there might be a shoulder to bike on, I found a horrifying news story. On August 12, just six weeks before me, a cyclist using my same route was struck by a truck and killed on the I-55 bridge.

This created strong emotions for me. I felt an immediate kinship with that man, for one thing. How could I not see myself in his shoes? And I felt a powerful anger at the truck driver, at city or state officials who closed of the sidewalk, at anyone who could have prevented his death. The normal reaction to a news story like this is that people call the cyclist “stupid” for being out there in the first place. But when you understand how inevitable using the bridge is—how there are no other options for a cyclist to take—that insulting reaction feels like poison in your heart.

I considered if I should abort the crossing. There was another river crossing all the way back at, you guessed it, Caruthersville. A hundred miles back against the wind to practically where I’d started this morning. And I had no idea if that bridge had a shoulder, either.

No, I was going to cross. I studied the satellite imagery carefully. It looked like (looked like) the pedestrian walkway was still there, and opened onto a grassy slope before the bridge. I could ride my bike on the shoulder to that point, and if the grassy slope wasn’t too steep I could cross it to get to the walkway.

If it was too steep, well, then I’d figure that out when I got there.

Looking at the satellite imagery I saw something sinister. I could see where the walkway started at the beginning of the bridge, and I could see the concrete barrier that prevents access from the highway. But the shoulder narrows before that point. In other words, if you plan on cycling up to the bridge and then climbing over the barrier to the walkway, you’re forced out into traffic before you get there.

Only by looking at satellite imagery would you know that you need to abandon the highway long before the bridge and walk on the grass to survive.

Rest In Peace, Pierre McReynolds. You were trying to come home from work by the only route available to you. Your work is over now. I wish we could’ve crossed the bridge together.

Cycling Hazard Memphis & Arkansas Bridge

Cycling hazard on I-55 Memphis & Arkansas Bridge

I made up my mind and off I went. Complicating matters, all the shrapnel on the highway through West Memphis got to the Giant—I could tell he was slowly losing air from one tire. Thanks to the tire goo I didn’t need to immediately stop and change it, but if I didn’t hurry up I might end up with a flat at sunset on the wrong side of the river.

I began the long, ominous climb up the freeway section toward the bridge. I’ve never felt so somber. If the grassy slope was too steep I’d have to either give up or bike out in traffic.

Eventually I reached the beginning of the fence. Even though I was nowhere near the bridge yet, thanks to my sleuth work I knew I had to exit. I walked the Giant off the freeway onto the grass. It was steep but not too steep. I made my way toward the bridge.

Eventually, I reached the point where—on the other side of the barrier from myself—the shoulder disappears. I could easily have been out there, wondering what the heck I was supposed to do. Instead 200 feet ahead of me was a nice open walkway to use. I made offerings in memory of Pierre and left that awful place behind.

The walkway itself was no joy to use, being neglected and covered in debris, but I was grateful for it. Sometimes you cold see the river below you through holes covered with boards. I walked the Giant. It was about sunset, and the River looked majestic beneath me, but I had a hard time feeling spiritual. I made offerings in greeting and continued across.

The far end wasn’t closed off at all. It gave way to a crumbly old cement staircase that leads to a park and a side street. I checked directions on my phone and navigated back to main roads, then to Michael’s apartment, which I reached just at dusk. The Giant’s front tire drooped, and so did your Rogue Priest. 98.1 miles.

Map 1Map 2

Total traveled this leg: 98.1

Total traveled since Day 1: 1355.3

Next time Memphis is my oyster! Until then, enjoy other road logs.

L Days cover_front only_half size

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

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.