27 Sep

DAY 65 — Haysi, VA (Hallway floor, First Church of Christ) to Damascus, VA (Bunk bed, “The Place” at the United Methodist Church).

Total mileage: 68.7
Total cycling time: 6:16
Average speed: 10.9
Maximum speed: 32.0

We are about to call it a night in Damascus, VA — just a few miles from the Tennessee border. Our bunk beds at “The Place,” a converted parsonage house behind the United Methodist Church, are creaky and musty and just right for a good night’s sleep.

This hostel is mostly occupied by Appalachian Trail hikers, who seem to emit a much wider spectrum of body odor than our fellow cyclists.

Today’s two big climbs and incredible forested scenery left us with little surplus energy. It is time to digest a large pizza and rest up for tomorrow’s elevation extravaganza.

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Entering Virginia with a Baptist Blessing

27 Sep

DAY 64 — Lookout, KY (Gymnasium floor, Freeda Harris Baptist Center) to Haysi, VA (Hallway floor, First Church of Christ).

Total mileage: 26.8
Total cycling time: 2:47
Average speed: 9.6
Maximum speed: 29.6

Our final state on the TransAmerica Trail greeted us with a steady drizzle and wet rain jacket contest. The Breaks Interstate Park, straddling the Kentucky-Virginia border, featured oak, hickory, and pine leaves just beginning to change hues in the foggy fall air.

Yesterday morning started with a biscuit, sausage, and gravy breakfast at the Hellier, KY Baptist Church. Elliot and I spent over an hour speaking with the pastor, Greg Whitetree, about the North American Mission Board that sent him and his wife to Hawaii and Iowa before anchoring them in Appalachia. He spoke about the Baptist emphasis on service work: providing clothing, home building, and food to the needy, as well as bible study to all. Greg is a member of the Hellier Volunteer Fire Department and, as pastor and precinct official, knows his neighbors quite well. Out of 200 voters in his precinct, only one voted for Barack Obama. He reminded us that Pike County is the number one coal producing county in America; nowadays, miners are receiving welfare checks due to the government ban on new mountain top mining projects.

After breakfast, the congregation prayed for our health and safety, and invited us to their Sunday morning worship service. It happened to be pouring rain, so we decided to sit out the bad weather in the sanctuary.

From song to prayer to spoken word, we had a great time. We especially enjoyed singing Amazing Grace from the Celebration Hymnal songbook and humming to the country karaoke-style tunes about Jesus Christ’s healing and light and praise.

When the offering plate made its way to the two Jewish guys in the back row, we seized at the opportunity to recycle some goodwill and pay the generosity we’ve received forward into an unknown community. Each of us contributed the same $20 we received “for personal expenses” from a volunteer at the Appalachian Service Project in Chavies, KY.

The sermon centered around chapter four of Ephesians. Greg spoke about building up the body of Christ by everyday saints and believers. His point was that the congregation, if it lives an active, aware, and sin-free life, can do just as much for the church as the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.

Finally, the entire church held hands in a circle and collectively blessed us for the days ahead.

A few hours later, Elliot crashed his bicycle. He was coming into a downhill curve when his bike slipped out from underneath him and toppled him into the road shoulder. The road was wet from the steady rain and oily from the slick residue falling off of coal trucks. Very fortunately, he only suffered a few scrapes and bruises from a situation that could have been much worse. His bike, though, needed some emergency treatment: the rear derailleur was smashed, so we spent a good hour bending it back into place in order to provide him with working access to all of his gears.

The two Baptist travelers blessings we received may not have prevented the accident, but they did provide us with a warm, dry place to stay for the evening. Just as a bible study group was locking up the First Church of Christ in Haysi, VA, we persuaded them to let us sleep on a hallway floor.

Lo and behold, everything worked out just fine.

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Hills, Coal, Dogs, and Free Food

26 Sep

DAY 63 — Chavies, KY (Bunk bed, Appalachia Service Project) to Lookout, KY (Gymnasium floor, Freeda Harris Baptist Center).

Total mileage: 82.0
(Approximation, due to bike computer memory loss after contending with a large pothole).

As we sat down on the basketball court in the Freeda Harris Baptist Center for a dinner of spam sandwiches and potato chips, we realized how well we’ve been treated throughout Kentucky. Since we crossed the Ohio River, we haven’t used our cooking stove at all. Last night was no exception to this avalanche of hospitality: we happened to show up during Latisha and Shannon’s Household Shower, a party for two newlywed 18 year olds, and received encouraging prayers for safety and plates of free food.

Yesterday’s hills were off the charts. On one particularly steep grade, after standing up out of the saddle for at least ten minutes, I kicked it into granny gear and nearly popped a wheelie as the rear of my bike was dragging backwards along the incline. Somehow, Elliot cruised up the pass without the help of an ultra low gear — his road bike doesn’t have any. At the crest, as a reward for reaching the summit, all we wanted to do was let out the brakes and fly down at Rocky Mountain speeds. However, the curves and wide load trucks made this impossible, and we needed to apply our brake pads to avoid careening into the forest.

We also rode through the heart of coal country. We saw the remnants of mountain top mining projects, where the muffin top is harvested and the unappetizing leftovers are discarded. We also saw conveyor belts descending into deep pit mines, demonstrating that no depth is too great in our quest for fossil fuel.

In addition to dodging black lumps of coal on highways and near railroad tracks, we spent a large part of our day fending off dogs. They chased us, they snapped at our heels, they stopped traffic and made us walk our bikes, but we always managed to escape unscathed.

The dogs here may be the worst we’ve encountered throughout the country and the hills may be the steepest we’ve ever climbed, but one important part of the landscape sweetens the deal: these mountain folk are the most generous and hospitable population we’ve met on the road.

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Appalachia 101

25 Sep

DAY 62 — Berea, KY (Living room floor, Home of Dr. George Schloemer) to Chavies, KY (Bunk bed, Appalachia Service Project).

Total mileage: 74.5
Total cycling time: 6:21
Average speed: 11.7
Maximum speed: 37.3

Yesterday’s cool weather could not have come at a better time. The drop in temperature certainly wasn’t a cold front (sweaty sunblock was still streaming down our sunglasses, heat waves were still frying our arms and legs, and we still slept outside of our insulated sleeping bags), but we were at least able to cycle through the typically intolerable midday sun.

Our introduction to Appalachia came quickly: within just a few miles of the start line, we began tackling the steep and frequent hills along the Kentucky River. These were zippy country roads, tangled into a confusing mess through thick forest and layered rock. Unlike the western mountain passes we’ve seen, Appalachian roads lack expansive vista points and orienting landmarks. In every possible direction and at every possible angle, we tumbled our way through falling leaves and wooded switchbacks.

Dogs rule the roads in Appalachia. These canines are just as impulsive and territorial as the kind in a peaceful suburb, but they aren’t expected to be well behaved. Some leashed dogs launch towards us as if they had been shot out of a cannon, stopping dead in their tracks only when jerked back by an inelastic collar. Others are more fearless, barking as we ride by their property and running alongside our bikes until we yell “bad dog, go home!” Then there are the shrewd predators. We are most vigilant for these non-whimpering species, and always dismount and walk past their snarled looks and jagged jaws. These are expert terrorists who sprint in front of our path and charge at us head-on. Fortunately, most owners are at home all day (begging the question about the unemployment rate), so these beasts can be restrained if necessary.

Many of the animals we see are caged in a rusty, chain link dog dungeon. As soon as a local informed me that dogs are less like pets and more like protection for these mountain folk, I stopped wondering why these people bother keeping animals in this condition.

We’ve also gained a new appreciation for the term “trailer trash.” People in Appalachia accumulate a terrifying amount of stuff. And nearly all homeowners proudly display some sort of junkyard on their front lawn. From decaying cars to dismantled car parts to baby cribs to assorted childhood trinkets to sports equipment to heavy machinery, it is abundantly unclear if these hoarded items are for show or for sale. This phenomenon of garbage billowing beyond the confines of a home or garage must be Kentucky’s secret cultural tradition. Even refined Dr. Schloemer had his fair share, including an abandoned car stuffed with garbage that hadn’t moved in 15 years.

Even though we can only understand every third heavily-accented word the natives say, we are committed to making sense of this place. As it turns out, so are the volunteers at the Appalachian Service Project branch in Chavies who invited us to spend the night.

This organization relies on visiting church groups and college students to eliminate domestic health and safety risks by renovating housing throughout Appalachia. Specifically, they repair roofs, floors, walls, and foundations upon receiving a request from a county resident.

After eating a taco dinner with the volunteer crew in a converted cafeteria, Caitlin, a young and passionate organizer, filled us in on the facts. Perry County is the 77th poorest county in America, with 27% of residents living below the poverty line (the U.S. average is around 13%). 42% of people in this part of Appalachia did not graduate from high school and 91% did not graduate from college. 30% are disabled. Interestingly, however unpopular mountain top mining is with environmentalists, the people of Appalachia think of the industry as their saving grace. The billboards here say it all: “Coal keeps the lights on,” and “Think coal is ugly? Wait till you see poverty.”

This segment of the TransAmerica Trail is exposing us to sides of our nation we’ve never seen before. Even in an age of high speed internet, electric vehicles, and genetically modified foods, there are Americans who live in squalor. There are countless fellow citizens who live in a forgotten shadow of our modern world. There are people with leaky septic tanks, without running water or electricity, barely making it in a dilapidated trailer. It is an embarrassing shame to witness people living in third world conditions in the same progressive and powerful nation we define as the leading force of the free world.

Most remarkably, though, there are dedicated people who are doing something real to solve these problems.

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T – 10 Days

24 Sep

DAY 61 — Harrodsburg, KY (Covered bleachers, Rodeo Pavilion) to Berea, KY (Living room floor, Home of Dr. George Schloemer)

Total mileage: 60.6
Total cycling time: 5:33
Average speed: 10.9
Maximum speed: 37.9

Let the countdown begin.

With only two maps remaining out of a series of twelve, our dream is nearly a full-fledged reality. Ten days from now, we’ll have bicycled across the United States of America.

Yesterday, despite two wrong turn detours that forced us to painfully backtrack over humongous hills, we made progress and pedaled into the quaint college town of Berea. We downed our bag of breakfast biscuit sandwiches, courtesy of a gas station attendant earlier in the morning, and decompressed in the public library.

By the late afternoon, the heat still hadn’t subsided, but we saddled up with the intention of biking another 20 miles. Just a few miles out of town, as we were slowly ascending a steep grade, a gentleman on the shoulder of the road pulled over and asked us if we had a place to stay for the evening. We took a good look at him to decipher a first impression and, after choosing to ditch our daily mileage quota, we promptly accepted the offer. We followed him to his home, just a mile off of our route.

Dr. George Schloemer is an adult internist, helping his patients survive various complications arising from diabetes and obesity. He told us that 30% of his patients are regular smokers, loyal to Kentucky’s tobacco heritage, and many patients who’ve undergone cardiac bypass surgery admit to maintaining an unhealthy lifestyle post-operation. He is intimately familiar with this region’s struggle for slim waistlines and low blood pressure.

He has a good, dry sense of humor and a developed taste for red wine. He is very well read and stands out in a demographic of undereducated and underemployed crowds.

Yet again, we were entrusted to a stranger’s whole house. We took over his living room for the night. George left early in the morning, so we enjoyed free reign over his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards.

George admitted that cross country cyclists are generally a respectful and well-behaved bunch. Self-selection, no doubt. Even so, it seems that “stranger” is a concept absent in the Kentucky mind — no matter how foreign we look or sound, people here are still taking very good care of us.

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Ode to Calories

23 Sep

DAY 60 — Sonora, KY (The Thurman-Phillips Historical Home, Bed and Breakfast) to Harrodsburg, KY (Covered bleachers, Rodeo Pavilion).

Total mileage: 95.3
Total cycling time: 7:38
Average speed: 12.5
Maximum speed: 37.6

Yesterday was another long, 90+ mile day of biking from sunrise to sunset. These days, because we are bracing ourselves for the tough topography ahead, we are rising early and cycling as much as we can to maintain a robust daily average.

The scent of Kentucky bourbon distilleries and drying tobacco leaves taunted us all day, masquerading as a whiff of the finish line. We can almost taste the champagne and cigars waiting for us at the Atlantic.

Two months into our travels, we’ve managed to eat well and stay within our budget. We prefer to make our own meals, do our best to source fresh produce whenever we can, and avoid greasy menu items.

Yesterday, though, when we finally finished riding for the day, we were completely drained and had no interest in firing up the camping stove. We needed to replenish the fat deposits in our arteries, so we had a fast food pig-out session of epic proportions.

As we owe our progress to the calories we consume, I dedicate this post to all of the food I digested yesterday. Note that most of the following items also entered Elliot’s stomach:

Breakfast — The Thurman-Phillips Historical Home, Bed and Breakfast

(2) Large bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios
(1) Banana
(2) Handfuls of almonds
(1) Mug of coffee

Lunch — Save A Lot Supermarket

(1) Big box of Cheez-Its, polished off before we even reached the cash register
(2) Large sardine sandwiches (Whole wheat bread, one can of sardines in mustard sauce, avocado, tomato, cheese, onion, horseradish mustard)

Dinner — McDonald’s

(1) Large Mocha Frappe
(1) 10-piece Chicken McNuggets, extra barbecue sauce
(1) Vanilla ice cream cone
(1) Cheeseburger
(1) Double quarter pounder with cheese
(1) Large french fries

Drinks — At least (10) full servings of Gatorade throughout the day.

To illustrate the force of our appetites, we did the math on that McDonald’s dinner. The feast totaled 2,830 calories. Given our hunger for mileage, it’s no surprise that we can ingest more than the USDA’s recommended daily value in one sitting!

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Three Flats and a Mansion

22 Sep

DAY 59 — Utica, KY (Volunteer Fire Station) to Sonora, KY (The Thurman-Phillips Historical Home, Bed and Breakfast).

Total mileage: 91.2
Total cycling time: 7:16
Average speed: 12.5
Maximum speed: 36.4

It’s official: we’ve entered the home stretch. Eastern Standard Time announced itself at the Hardin County line.

Yesterday, we learned that the short term friendships we’ve forged on the road need not expire after a single day. Larry, the Ohio Valley Velo cycling coach who fed us chicken enchiladas two nights ago, made the extra effort to find us a home in Sonora, our next stop on the route. He thought it was imperative to make the most of his Kentucky connections and locate a comfortable spot where we could “bed down” for the night.

But first, we had to deal with three flat tires. In an intense test of our understanding of the term “self-supported,” we stopped three separate times to address Elliot’s rear tire trouble. Fortunately, thanks to our emergency overnight delivery in Carbondale, IL, we were armed with several new cartons of black rubber tubes. After a few rounds of guess and check, we fixed the problem and moved ahead.

We enjoyed a late sandwich lunch at the Double L Grocery in Big Clifty, and actually had to turn down a generous sleepover offer in order to make it to Sonora. Arnold Lucas insisted we try his sizzling steaks anyway, so we also sunk our teeth into two complimentary slabs of beef smothered in barbecue sauce. This protein propelled us through the remaining 20 miles to our destination, past the charging pit bulls and the judge/jailer/magistrate campaign posters.

We arrived to the Thurman-Phillips Historical Home just after sundown. Charlie, Larry’s step-father, immediately greeted us with a tremendously topped pizza and several cold beers.

The stately brick mansion has been in Charlie’s family since it was built in 1897. After accumulating an oil and gas fortune from his geological exploration business in New Orleans, Charlie parlayed the earnings into an all-out restoration of the home to its original magnificence. The seven bedrooms showcase a full inventory of turn of the century furnishings and southern cultural artifacts. The ten foot ceilings make this building stand out in a town of 350 people.

As Charlie said during a tour of the grounds, “you never know what tomorrow will bring.” That’s precisely why we took full advantage of the hospitality bestowed upon us: we showered, we shaved, and we had a midnight roast beef and ice cream snack.

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