Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure

So Then Racists Happened

Last time I got struck down by heat stroke, passing out in a small grove of trees with dwindling water. My troubles had only begun.

Day 91 (October 5, 2012) — Clarksdale

Waking up was a long voyage through the sea of fever dreams. I came to in my hammock, aware that it was now light out and that I could hear birds. I wasn’t as bad off as the night before, but even with 12+ hours of sleep I hadn’t regained my strength. I might have just stayed there a whole day and a second night, if I had water and food. But only a few swigs were left.

The work of taking down camp wore me out. I had to rest twice before everything was packed and I was ready to push the Giant back out on the road. I made offerings to the place, then set out.

My highest priority was water. I resolved to stop at the first house I could find, but there weren’t many to be found. Miles went by and I wondered if my heatstroke would relapse.

Eventually I saw a home tucked among trees. I crossed the highway and walked my cycle to the door. I was going to knock, and if no one was home just find the garden spigot and help myself. But their dog started barking before I even got close.

The door opened and a woman stared out at me suspiciously. “What do you want?” she asked.

My country never fails to boggle me. The crime rates in the rural areas are ridiculously low. The chance of the guy at the gate being a brigand is so laughable that you may as well invite them in before even asking their name. But my people are nothing if not paranoid. In a land where the national mythos is “make your own way” any stranger must be planning something at your expense.

I tried to look as non-threatening as I could, which wasn’t hard since I was on the verge of fainting. I explained I was cycling across the United States and that I’d run out of water. Could I fill up my bottle?

She hesitated.

She hesitated.

If she had said no, I’m not sure what I would have done. I might not have been polite. Perhaps lecturey. I may have drawn on the full depth of my priest powers to dress her down like a spoiled child, to explain to her exactly why her behavior was wrong. And then simply continue to the next house.

But she relented. “Faucet’s over there,” she said.

I filled up all three water bottles. She kept her eyes on me the whole time.  I drank two of the bottles dry and filled them again.

When I was done I said thank you. Fatigued but hydrated, I slowly made the rest of the twenty-odd miles to Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Clarksdale, Mississippi. Photo by Kimmy Emmerson.

Clarksdale, Mississippi. Photo by Kimmy Emmerson.

Welcome to Clarksdale

Clarksdale has a lot going for it. It’s big enough to have a cute downtown, old beautiful houses, and a lot of businesses. It’s small enough to still feel, well, small. But if I felt any relief as I wheeled in, it was misplaced: one of the worst days of my whole trip was just beginning.

My first welcome to Clarksdale was a pickup driver who swerved aggressively past me and screamed out the window. I lost my cool and screamed back.

I knew my health was still questionable and I didn’t expect to go farther today. My first plan was to look at motel prices. I couldn’t afford another $100 night but maybe I could find something cheaper.

The two cheap motels I stopped at made me rethink that.

At some point I called the local police to ask if there was somewhere I could camp. This time it worked. A friendly officer told me I could go to the County Fairgrounds at the edge of town. I’d see some RV’s and could set up near them.

Wow. I can’t believe that worked.

The plan had drawbacks. Thunderstorms were on the radar, along with some pretty low nighttime temps. I had enough hammock camping experience to know that anything less than 60°F is awful shivery. But it was a place to sleep, and I had all day to look for something better.

The next priority was food. I cruised around the downtown a bit looking at the various options. I settled on Yazoo Pass Cafe, partly because of the incredible name and partly because it looked really cozy. I thought I could meet some locals, make some friends and get some work done on my computer.

Yazoo Pass is kind of pricey, although the food is good. It also had ice cold air conditioning, which was nice for about a minute in my sweat-soaked clothes.

This blues club is actually owned by Morgan Freeman! Photo by Abby.

This blues club is actually owned by Morgan Freeman! Photo by Abby.

Whitman

Although I’d hoped to make friends in Yazoo Pass, the truth is I wasn’t in a real social mood. I sat with my meal, just happy to be at rest and stocking up on long overdue calories. But when you show up on a bike piled high with equipment, people are curious. A few families stared and one gent in his 50s came over to talk.

The man who approached me, who went by only the moniker Whitman, clearly had several things: a comfortable financial situation, a high opinion of himself, and a pretty low opinion of most other people.

He made me uncomfortable.

But he was also interested in my trip. I answered his questions and soon we sat together talking. He told me about Clarksdale (a terrible town, he said, which had been beautiful in his childhood but now had been ruined) and I told him why I was biking so far on my own (a spiritual quest).

“Religion is a bunch of lies to control people,” he told me.

I asked him what had ruined Clarksdale since he was a kid.

“All these—”

Well, he used a racial term I won’t repeat. He used it several times, casually, in a loud voice in the quiet cafe, while sitting there with me like we were buddies. He used it in front of the dark-skinned cafe staff as if he were showing off.

“I’m a racist,” he explained. He used those words: I’m a racist. That was his intro to his views on racial differences, which I also won’t repeat.

Now, I have no common sense. I should have made clear that I was uncomfortable and excused myself, but I decided to see if I couldn’t point out the error of his ways. Maybe bring him around. Maybe he’d see the light. I talked about some potential causes for the increase in crime he was talking about, some of the factors go deeper than the color of someone’s skin. I can’t say I made a real big impression.

Whitman loved bicycling though. That was why he came to talk to me, because he’s a fellow cyclist. Well, he used to be. He felt it had gotten so dangerous (because of people of other races) that first he started carrying a gun with him. If anyone tried to rob him they’d find out it wasn’t so easy. He would bike 20 miles a day to enjoy the countryside with a gun on him. But now, racial diversity was so bad he couldn’t go even with the gun.

“It was so beautiful,” he said. “The only thing I really loved doing. And they ruined it.”

At one point a friend of Whitman’s joined us, a woman a bit younger than him. She was nicer in every way. Clearly she saw his opinions as merely “eccentric”—she scolded him and joked about “how he is,” but ultimately she let it slide. The fact that he was capable of being friends with normal people was somewhat reassuring. He may be deeply unhappy with life, but perhaps not a shooting spree waiting to happen.

Conversation turned, as it eventually does, to where I was staying in town. This is a great opportunity to see if any locals might have a spot for me, but I didn’t really want to stay with Whitman. I told him about the plan to camp at the County Fairgrounds. He shook his head in horror.

“That’s dangerous,” he said. “You couldn’t pay me to camp there.”

I was skeptical, but bear in mind I hadn’t seen the grounds yet. And while his racist assessment of the town’s decline was obviously half-baked, for all I knew he was right about high crime rates.

It didn’t help that his level-headed friend also seemed worried.

“What exactly is so dangerous about it?” I asked.

“Every week someone gets knifed down there. They won’t even ask for your wallet, they’ll just kill you and take it.”

Would the police really have told me to go somewhere that dangerous? It was hard to say. On the one hand, that didn’t sound very police-like; on the other, I was discovering that plenty of people think of a touring bicyclist as little more than a no-good bum.

“Well, do you know of anywhere else I could spend the night?”

They didn’t.

“Do you think someone around here might let me camp in their yard?”

The implied question was pretty clear. Whitman’s friend very sweetly and kindly explained that she couldn’t think of anyone at all.

Eventually, she had to go. And I was starting to think I should, too. I needed to check out these fair grounds while I still had plenty of daylight, so I could make a backup plan if they seemed skeazy. But where else could I go?

It was just Whitman and me again. I didn’t really want to spend more time with him, but he at least wouldn’t stab me for my wallet. I leveled.

“Whitman, I don’t normally ask this, but I didn’t expect it to be so dangerous here. Would you allow me to spend one night in your backyard?”

I have to hand it to him. He came up with the queen mother of all excuses, the kind of excuse that raises little excuses to be rule over excusedom someday.

“Well, I’d like to help you out. But I have dogs, and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

I could have laughed in his face.

To be clear, no one has an obligation to help me. No one, white or black, racist or reasonable, wealthy or poor, should feel any pressure to give me a place to camp if they don’t want to. I came on this trip expecting some rough nights, and if I wasn’t prepared to camp out in difficult conditions I should’ve saved up a lot more money before I started.

But when someone asks you a major favor, and you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you can just say “You know, I’m not really comfortable with that.” Say what you will about get off my porch guy, at least he gave me a straight no.

When you give someone a polite excuse, it usually sounds like a lie. “Want to come out this Friday?” “I can’t, I’m washing my dog.” When I was younger I took these statements at face value, and tried to help the person troubleshoot. “I can come over and help you with the dog! We’ll finish in no time and then we can go out.” Obviously, that led to a lot of awkward exchanges.

The reason these excuses sound like flimsy lies is because they are. They aren’t the real reason we don’t want to do something, and when our minds race for an excuse we invariably grab one that doesn’t even make sense. “How about Saturday?” “Well, I’ll be busy.” “How about next weekend?” “I’m actually pretty busy for a while.” No one is busy forever. It doesn’t even sound like you’re trying.

But Whitman here really hit the bottom. What he was saying to me was that he owns dogs (believable) but that his dogs attack anyone except for him, even guests of his (not believable) and that he has no way to restrain or confine them (impossible). His statement was: I, Whitman, would like to help and would like for you to spend the night in my yard, but my dogs would kill you with their teeth and I have no way to stop this from happening.

Few things are more insulting than lying to someone’s face, and smiling like a friend while you do it.

But Whitman did want to help in one way. Since he no longer uses his bicycle, he said he’d like to give me his extra tire tubes. That’s actually rather kind, and in a way I wonder if that was a big step for him. I can’t say. The only snag was it sounded to me like his bike had a different wheel size and the tubes wouldn’t work for me.

“No, no, they’re the same!” he insisted. He told me to swing by his house a little later and he’d give them to me.

That was fine. He headed off and I did a quick bit of work on my computer. I also checked out the downtown more, and cruised past the Blues Museum.

Whitman lived on the nicest street in town. I crossed the little river and followed a lane of picturesque Southern houses with beautiful gardens and mature trees. Whitman’s home was no exception, a very large place for one man living alone. The fenced front yard was dog free.

He met me at the end of the driveway, eyeing me nervously like I might force my way into his yard and set up my tent in the name of God, blacks and Spain. He handed me three or four brand new tubes in their never-opened boxes. The dimensions on the box were different than my wheels, but he said they’d work fine.

“Alright. Thank you, Whitman. That’s kind of you.”

I made a mental note to check online to see if by chance he was right, and otherwise just give them away. As I pedaled off, he wore a look I couldn’t decipher. Perhaps a little wistful about my journey; perhaps a little smug that he hadn’t been conned into letting me camp; perhaps a little uncertain whether he’d done the right thing. Or maybe none of those. I can’t say.

A shack in Clarksdale, photo taken by Megg. You should read her Pop Artichoke blog.

A shack in Clarksdale, photo taken by Megg. You should read her Pop Artichoke blog.

Off to the Fair

I enjoyed the ride to the edge of town. It was one of the few moments that day, along with my first bite of food, that were genuinely sensually nice. The shady street, the front porches, the slow gentle pace. Of course, I didn’t know what to expect once I got there.

The County Fairgrounds are a sprawling green space. I entered by one of two gates and followed a winding road to a parking lot, some buildings and eventually the prophesied line of RVs.

The first thing I noticed is that the RV area was set up for permanent encampment. This wasn’t a place to corral a few wayfarers but a real neighborhood of Clarksdale, more or less.

As I biked along looking at the camp spots, something else occurred to me. Everyone—everyone—in the RVs was black.

Suddenly I knew why my new racist acquaintance wasn’t a fan.

I found a pad that had two twiggish trees reasonably close together. It was a bit of a stretch, but I got the hammock set up.

By now it was late afternoon. A group of black youths gathered in the park for a dance class. Families started cooking dinner. Some of them waved to me and said hi. Obviously, I was in danger for my life.

The park had a public bathroom/shower house. There was nothing glamorous about it, but after two days of road sweat the hot water was a godsend. I emerged clean, refreshed, and thankfully without athlete’s foot.

I spent the evening chatting on the phone and reading. The wind picked up and I battened down the hammock as best I could. But there was no helping it: several times that night the rain fly broke free, pulling one of its stakes completely out of the ground—at least once mid-downpour. Even when it held, the flapping noise was relentless.

(André’s note: Normally I could have prevented this by orienting the hammock differently, but I had very few trees to work with.)

The wind had swung round to the north in the afternoon. The temperature plummeted. In a hammock the wind is on all sides of you, stealing away your body heat as fast as you can make it. That’s why they’re so comfortable in hot weather but in the cold they become hypothermic fast.

I had little choice. I donned every layer of clothing I had, including my long underwear. I put as much padding between me and the hammock as possible—anything to make a barrier against the cold. I had been through some chilly nights in that nest, but I knew tonight would be worse.

Restful sleep became a pipe dream. I spent most of the night curled into a ball just trying to avoid body-wracking shivers. Sometimes I’d drop off into a short, blank sleep. I’d wake up hoping it was almost morning, only to find that 15 or 20 minutes had gone by.

According to the weather app on my phone the temperature dropped down to the low 30’s. That means it was literally freezing outside. I didn’t have the equipment for that, and when I set off in July I never expected to see winter temperatures.

It was my lowest point so far. 22.5 miles. 

Map.

Total traveled since Day 1: 1435.1

Next time a few acts of kindness help turn everything around. Until then, you can check out all my road logs.

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

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

Road Log: Race, Threats & Tension in South Missouri

Last time I repaired my wounded bicyle and set off with new tires. But the day was far from over.

Hayti, Mo. Photo via St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Day 84 (September 28, 2012) continued

It was 45 more miles to Hayti, and I didn’t start till after noon—already hungry again, a I recall, but unwilling to delay to eat a meal. I sure wished I had the other half of that wasted salad from Lambert’s.

The ride itself was pleasant, except for the “phantom flats” I kept imagining. After you have a series of flat tires, every bump or weird section of pavement makes you think you’ve got another one. Or at least, that’s what happens to me.

Hayti was a trip. I kept wondering if it was named after Haiti, which Wikipedia says it was. Like their namesake they’ve even had earthquake problems, but the Missouri one only broke windows. I found out from locals that the town’s name is pronounced differently, too: Hay-tie.

As the name implies, Hayti is a predominantly black town. According to the Census it’s 50% white and 40% black, but I think if you counted the surrounding rural area you’d find those numbers reversed. In parts of the South there are white towns and there are black towns, and this is something I didn’t know before I rolled in on the Giant. The white people in town seemed (generally speaking) cliquish and wary, whereas the black people were friendly and open to me although totally incredulous about what I was doing.

First thing when I coasted in off the freeway I saw a giant Drury Inn & Suites hotel, a chain I’d never seen up north but would discover is ubiquitous in the South. It was late afternoon with plenty of time before sunset, but thunderstorms were forecast for tonight. I really didn’t want to camp out, and if I had to I wanted to at least be somewhere safe.

I decided to cruise through town and check it out. My goal was to identify a good dinner spot as well as somewhere to sleep. This is often the most stressful part of my day. I don’t like imposing on people and I’m not a natural at just strolling up to folks and making friends. But I knew I had to start canvassing the area.

One road took me through the center of town and out into some suburban African American neighborhoods. This seemed promising. I felt really awkward as the only white face I’d seen yet, but I reminded myself that that had little to do with whether people would be hospitable. I biked through a few neighborhoods and spoke with a family that was outside. They didn’t offer their backyard for camping, but they did want to help. But the whole idea really puzzled them. Why was I doing this?

This is something I’d see over and over on my trip. White people might be incredulous about my Journey, but they’re generally supportive or even wowed by it. They share my thrill of adventure. I’ve gotten mixed reactions from black people, but it’s much more common to just shake their heads in total disbelief. But this sort of adventure seldom ends well for black people in the United States: I don’t think it would be safe for a black person to do what I’m doing. Not without sponsors and planned stopping points. They wouldn’t receive any of the popular support that I’ve received, and given recent events I’m not sure they could expect good results from knocking on doors or sitting on someone’s porch in a rainstorm.

(That’s my own limited view as a white person trying to make sense of the different reactions I got. I’d welcome insight, especially from readers of color.)

(And if any of said readers of color <cough ahem Fly Brother cough> want to join up for a leg and challenge that status quo together, I would love that.)

For a place to spend the night, the family recommended I go a couple miles back up the freeway to a rest area I’d seen, which has a 24/7 McDonald’s. They suggested I could hang out there all night as long as I bought something.

I continued my search. Going around some more neighborhoods closer to town, I thought of trying what a friend had recommended: just call the police and ask them where you can camp out. The police were closed, at least via their non-emergency line, and a trip to their office by the town’s central square showed it was locked.

Next I focused on churches. Several were closed, but some local families directed me to one in particular with a pastor they knew would help. The church door was open, and it looked like they were getting ready for choir practice. The people gathered in the entrance looked at me like I was from Mars. I could easily believe that this was the only time in their church history that a white person walked in.

Timidly I asked for the pastor, and they sent someone upstairs to get him. He came down, looking every inch the Southern preacher in his immaculate suit, complete with a carnation on his breast. He was very friendly and asked me with true concern how he could help me. He looked totally comfortable talking to a person of another race, and that made me feel more comfortable too.

I explained what I was doing and, like the families I had met, he was incredulous. But he didn’t question it or make jokes. Unfortunately, for a place I could camp, he drew a blank.

“If we had known you were coming we could’ve talked to some of the families,” he said. “With so little notice I don’t feel there’s much I can do for you.”

That was fair. I tried to explain that I wasn’t looking to be taken into someone’s home, that even just permission to put my hammock next to the church for the night would do. (The church had no trees, so how I’d rig it up to sleep through a thunderstorm I can’t say, but I figured I’d leave that problem for later.) The idea of me camping there seemed to make him uncomfortable. I’m not qualified to say why: it may have been concern for my own safety, or it may have been the possibility of my hammock raising awkward questions with the police, which the church would have to answer.

One way or another, with a look of pain at having to turn me away, the answer was no. I thanked him for considering it and apologized for interrupting their rehearsal. I got on my bike and pedaled away.

I still had a couple hours before true sunset, but the thunderheads were on the horizon. I explored more areas off the town center and found a white neighborhood. I figured I may as well try my luck with them, too.

No one was outside so I knocked on a door. They had a large fenced yard and a front porch. I left the bike by the street where it was clearly visible. When a 50ish white man answered, I motioned to the bike and explained what I was doing.

He wore a deep frown at the sight of me, and nothing I said changed it. I asked if he knew of anyone in the area who might let me camp out for the night.

There was a long silence. When he spoke his voice was ice cold. “You’re on my porch,” he said.

My heart sank. I heard the threat in his tone loud and clear. I have no doubt he was a proud gun owner and for all I knew he was fingering one on his waist even as we spoke through the screen door. I raised my hands apologetically.

“I’m very sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to bother you.”

I took a step away from the door but he wasn’t done.

“Son this town isn’t safe. You camp out here someone’s liable to shoot you. And if they don’t you’ll get arrested. You better move on.”

Right. I better move on, on a bicycle, in a thunderstorm at night when the next town is 20 miles away and likely just as rude as your insufferable ass.

My mouth opened and every fiber of my soul strained to unload a, “That’s mighty Christian of you, sir.” Instead I said: “I understand sir. Thank you sir.” I got out of there.

Hopping on the bike, I considered then (as I still do now) that he may have just been the bad apple in a barrel of friendly neighbors. And maybe he was. But there was nothing about the white neighborhood that spoke of hospitality or even friendliness. Unlike the black streets, every door was closed, every yard had a fence and the few people I saw stared more with suspicion than curiosity.

Hayti is a pretty little town. But, like many towns I visited in the South, racial tension colored everything—and ultimately makes it unwelcoming to strangers. The black community was friendly but couldn’t help even though they wanted to, because we had no shared cultural understanding and everything I was doing was completely alien. I got the sense they wondered why I was there and not looking for help in a white town. Meanwhile the white people could have easily helped and didn’t because they’re irrationally paranoid. They cower behind fences and think they have to defend what’s theirs because the Revolution could come take it at any moment. The result is strangers, of any race, are threats to be neutralized.

At least, that’s my conclusion. I only had one day there, and admittedly I’m an unusual visitor. But I have to make sense of my experiences in that one day and to me, it shook out along racial lines. Throughout the South, any town I found with high racial tensions ended up being unfriendly toward me—from both sides of the race line but especially the whites. I felt much more welcome in single-race villages (white or black) or large cities.

I biked back to the freeway, headed not toward the McDonald’s but to the Drury Inn. I worried about the cost but I felt too defeated to stealth-camp in a thunderstorm. At the Drury, something good finally happened.

At the counter I found a straight-laced woman who could have been a school marm straight out of the 1800s.

She told me a room would be over $100.

“I hate to ask this,” I said. And that was certainly true. “I’m a minister and I’m bicycling to South America. I don’t have a big budget. Most nights I camp out, but you can see there are thunderstorms on the way—” Actually she couldn’t, in the Drury’s windowless lobby. “—Is there any chance you can offer a discount?”

She stared at me a long moment, not returning my smile. Then she pushed one key on her keyboard and said, “That’ll be $70, sir.”

I could have kissed her, although I suspect that’s against her religion. Instead I thanked her. I know that request only worked because she assumed I was a minister of the Christian variety, and probably that my South America plan was a mission. But after all the costs and setbacks of the last 24 hours, I didn’t care.

“May you be blessed,” I told her, a phrase I’ve found works very well in the South.

She also told me that if I hurried, I was just minutes away from the 9 pm closing of the Drury’s dinner buffet, free for guests. I couldn’t believe it. I had spotted a little black-owned restaurant in town that offered grilled sausages and barbeque, and I had planned to go back there for dinner. But I wasn’t about to argue. I stowed the Giant in a hurry and got in line for the buffet.

Happy Hour was also happening, but I didn’t feel like a drink that night. Besides, what kind of minister throws back two-for-one cocktails? Well, my kind, I suppose.

Sober, stuffed and exhausted, I found my way back to my room. Hopefully tomorrow would be a better day.

Effective miles 45.7 miles.

(As noted last time there was also 5+ miles of walking, 11 miles of biking around Sikeston, plus lots of biking around Hayti, not included.)

Map. (Shows only effective miles.)

Total traveled this leg: 45.7

Total traveled since Day 1: 1257.2

Next time I take my shot at Memphis—and a gamble on a bridge. Till then, here are all my road logs.

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

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

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