Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Catching up on over a week of TransAm trail life...

So, when I woke up in the morning at the old Farmington jail (which is now a cyclists' hostel), I decided to have a lazy morning doing some laundry there and munching on some breakfast. I really was in no hurry to leave, a) because the place was so nice and b) because I had the entire hostel to myself with no one else in the building!! Therefore, I was surprised when, five feet from where I was standing, the door suddenly opened and this great big, hulking dude walked in. It was no big deal...he was just there to change the sheets on the beds, do the laundry, and clean the bathrooms, but he did scare the crap out of me. Here's the catch, though: he was a PRISONER from the REAL jail. It turns out that the old jail I was staying in really was in use just a few years ago and that once they built the new jail and turned the old one into a hostel, they decided to use currently incarcerated people to do the cleaning work at the hostel. Gerald was my prisoner's name, and he was actually a really nice guy. We chatted about sports, girls, family, bicycling, how he can't wait to get out of jail, how I can't wait to get back home...basically everything EXCEPT what he was in prison for. Even though I was dying to know, out of respect I chose not to ask him that question. He did tell me that he has 10 months left on a 5.5 year sentence and that he's just toeing the line as best he can so he can get out and get on with his life again. What really shocked me though wasn't that he was allowed Monday through Friday work duty cleaning the hostel, but that they just let him walk right out of the new jail to come clean the old one without any supervision. He really did just walk down the streets of Farmington unsupervised on his way to do the cleaning. Really, he must be a MODEL prisoner, or else they've just got really bad cops in Farmington. Here's the inside of the jail/hostel (unfortunately Gerald wouldn't let me take a photo of him):

Later that day, as I entered the Ozark mountain range and the hills started getting bigger and coming more rapidly, I began to really get hot. I had plenty of water, but the difficulty of the ride and the 90 degree humid weather was really making riding a bicycle difficult. I kept looking at the bottom of each descent for a potential reward: a creek or river with a great swimming hole. I was continually disappointed, passing muddy, gross creeks one after the other. Actually it'd been that way since Virginia; we are REALLY spoiled in the Pacific Northwest with all the clean water we've got. Then, there it was....finally! I rode across the bridge at the bottom of a big hill and at 25 mph I looked over the edge and saw a group of people enjoying a swim in a really nice river! We waved at each other and one of them yelled "hey, where you going?!" "Swimming", I screamed back, and then I heard "well turn around then!"

I did just that and ended up having about an hour and a half of the most blissful swim. The river was the perfect temperature, the current was not too weak or too strong, the people were really friendly, it was the perfect depth for either swimming or just standing around, and the both the water and the bottom of the river were ultra clean. I have no idea how this wonderful river planted itself in the middle of all the crappy muddy Midwest rivers, but I don't care. Jake, Barb, Drew, Tori, and Michael were on a week's vacation but lived abotu 60 miles away. They'd gone to a different place initially, but because it was so crowded they'd come down to this place where we were the only people around. They were so generous and when they offered me a beer from the cooler, I didn't care that it would be a Budweiser because an ice cold beer sounded amazing at that moment. I was shocked when they tossed me a GUINNESS!! Oh the irony, drinking a good beer and swimming in a clean river in Missouri. When they offered me a turkey sandwich with pepper jack cheese, I just about lost it.

When I hit the road, I had a couple of hours and a bunch of fairly big hills to climb before arriving in Ellington, MO, that night's destination. Right before I got there, there were three cars/trucks that passed way closer to me than necessary while the people inside yelled obscenities at me out the window. I kept my cool, though, and just either waved or ignored them. There's no point in making them any angrier at my existence than they already seem to be, and also I have a goal of riding the whole trip without flipping anybody off or cussing them out.

When I got into the tiny town of Ellington (just about EVERY town I get into is tiny on this journey), I pulled off the side of the road to study my map when I couldn't find the city park. As I was figuring everything out, a truck pulled up to me and a couple inside asked if I was looking for the park. I told them I was and they said they suspected as much because many cyclists camp there; they indicated it was just up the road another half mile or so, but that they lived just before the park and that I was welcome to stop and pitch my tent at their house if I liked. They continued on and told me to look for their truck, which I saw as I later rode up toward their house. They were standing outside waiting for me. I introduced myself and met Billy and his wife Barb, and their grandchildren Jesse (age 12) and Terry (age 6). They also had a little Daschund dog, whose name I cannot recall, but that they all called "Weiner" anyway.

They were all super friendly and in no time all, they had invited me to stay for dinner (homemade lasagna, garlic bread, sweet tea) as well as have a shower and sleep inside the house! In fact, Jesse offered me his bed and they changed the sheets for me too. It was awesome sleeping underneath SpongeBob, Scooby Doo, and SpiderMan for a night!!

We all hung around eating dinner, playing and cuddling with "Weiner", and watching Will Smith movies (Men In Black and Bad Boys). They brought my bike in the house so that it would be safe overnight and Billy even offered me two sets of bicycle brake pads he had in the garage because he knew I was going to be riding through some even hillier country soon (unfortunately the pads didn't fit my bike).

In the morning, with a bowl of raisin bran in my belly, I was off again, but not before I got a photograph of all of us in front of their home. Then, as I was about to leave, Jesse and Terry gave me presents! Jesse had made me a bracelet of hematite (silver stones) on an elastic string and he also gave me a handful of starlight mints (hs favorite) so I would have tasty energy on the road. Not to be outdone, the little 6-year old Terry ran out and gave me a lollipop and a bag of Pop Rocks. What an amazing group of people these folks turned out to be, opening their home to a complete (and dirty) stranger and sharing everything they had without reservation.

Heading out from Ellington, I ended up taking a lunch break after 28 really hilly miles in a nice little town called Eminence. While having a mediocre lunch at a little cafe, I met a group of four other cyclists and ate with them. While inside the cafe, I saw someone I recognized ride by and realized that I had once again caught up to the Adventure Cycling group (of 14 people) who had been staying at the same Carbondale, IL motel days earlier. I took off alone again, through more hot, hilly, and humid Ozark awesomeness and it wasn't long before I failed one of my trip goals. On the beginning of a long uphill with no shoulder for me to ride on, a big, yellow school-bus-cum-river-shuttle-bus carrying a bunch of inner tubes and other floaty thing for river trips almost ran me over, completely intentionally. There wasn't another car on the road and the bus had plenty of room to go around me, but instead, I could hear him accelerate behind me and then pass me with literally 2-3 inches to spare while shaking his fist out the window at me. Not only did it scare the shit out of me, but the wind almost pushed me off onto the gravel shoulder which certainly would have resulted in a crash. I was really pissed off and had a lot of adrenaline in me after such a close call, but I kept my cool and just ignored it. However, about 15 minutes later on the same road, I saw the same school bus up ahead turning from a dirt side road onto the highway I was riding on, this time coming towards me. Long before he reached me, he was shaking his fist out the window at me and this time I couldn't resist...I totally fell down to this kid's level and I flipped him off and yelled some very recognizeable obscenities at him right as he passed me by. I half expected him to turn the school bus around and confront me, but he didn't. I have avoided acting like an asshole for so long, but this time I couldn't stop myself.

Eventually I made Houston, MO, where I camped alone in the city park for the night without any incident. The next morning, after a quick breakfast of cereal, milk, and banana at a local convenience store, I was off. Unfortunately, about 20 minutes into my ride, I tweaked a muscle in the back of my knee (strangely enough, while going downhill, at only 6 mph, pedaling as hard as I could in my easiest gear, into about a 30 mph headwind that came out of nowhere). Throughout the morning, the muscle pain just kept getting worse and worse and I knew I had to take a break. I stopped in Marshfield, MO, the first town I came to, after only about 35 miles of riding that day. I knew I needed to take a rest day or two to see if my knee would stop hurting, and while I found a nice place to stay, it was a bummer getting stuck in a $90/night motel (that didn't even have a fridge!!) after having stayed in fairly nice motels for only $40-60/night previously. There were only 2 motels in Marshfield, and the other one was a real fleabag joint; in fact, when I called that one to talk rates and availability, the woman hung up on me and told me to go just go to the Holiday Inn after I asked if they had wireless internet available.

I spent the rest of that day and the entire next day at the Holiday Inn in Marshfield, religiously icing my knee, stretching a bit, walking around, and resting. I also found a health food store (wow, in Missouri?!) where I got some Arnica gel which is supposed to be somehow good for muscle strains (can't hurt, right?!). Then, while at the health food store, I saw a dentist's office right next door which was offering an examination along with a complete set of x-rays and a full cleaning for only $59! Who gets excited to go to the dentist? ME, that's who! It'd been too long, and since I no longer have dental insurance, I obviously have to pay cash. Before I left Portland, I'd been looking around and the cheapest I could find was $130 so I'd bagged it then. It was awesome at this dentist's office because the hygienist was really into cycling and was very supportive of me, asking all kinds of questions and telling me all about what it's like to live in her part of the world.

The knee got completely better after that day and a half of rest, relaxation, ice, and stretching. What did not get better was an ulnar nerve compression (wrist/hand) injury that I was only beginning to realize I had. About the same time the knee pain started, I began getting some tingling in my right ring and pinky fingers and I noticed that my grip strength in my right hand was significantly weaker. I couldn't turn the key in my bike lock or clip the fingernails on my left hand....scary stuff. While trying to get my knee better, I also began icing my hand and even bought a wrist brace to see if a) sleeping with it on and b) riding with it on would relieve the nerve compression and allow the strength to return.

I rode to Golden City, MO (85 miles) the next day (yes, with wrist brace on) and rode straight into a tornado warning!! Not a tornado, mind you, just a warning. But, the whole town was talking about it and of course, the town had ZERO motels for me to find shelter in. My only option was camping in the city park; I don't know about you, but camping during a lightning storm that may be throwing out tornados doesn't sound like the smartest thing to me. I spoke to the sheriff in this little town of about 1,000 people and he said that what I should do when camping out was listen for the tornado sirens - that if they started sounding, to get on my bike and ride wherever all the other cars were going (because they were going to someone's house that had a basement) and just get off my bike and run straight down into the basement with them. That was my only option...until I ran into a dude named Paul at Cooky's Cafe while I was eating the most amazing blueberry crisp pie ever. (Cooky's is famous on the TransAm trail for its particularly delicious pies.)

Paul is a local guy who lives near the city park and said he has a neighbor with a storm shelter under his house that he opens up to anyone that needs it when the sirens go off. Later that evening, Paul and his friend Mark walked over to where I was camped in the park and invited me over to Mark's house to see where the shelter was, just in case I had to use it. I was relieved to see it was only about 200 feet from my tent. Mark also offered his garage for me to sleep in if the storm got a little too much for me in the tent. They said that even if there wasn't a tornado rolling through that the lightning and rainstorm would likely be quite violent. Later that night, when the lightning began cracking waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too close, I made a run for it and slept in relative comfort inside Mark's sweltering hot garage, thankful to not have become a lightning rod, and having timed it just perfectly as the rain started POUNDING down the second after I set foot in the garage.

 When I left the next morning, I had breakfast at Cooky's (all their food was great). This snapshot of an overcast Main Street of Golden City the morning after the storm does not reveal the viciousness of Mother Nature seen just hours earlier, when the driving rain and lightning strikes continued for hours on end.

Knowing Pittsburg, KS was only 36 miles away and that it was the biggest town (at 19,000) I'd seen since Charlottesville, VA (seriously, this was the largest town I'd seen in the last four states), I knew I'd stop there for both rest and because it had a bike shop. Even though my knee was now fine and my body otherwise was doing just fine, I knew I had to do something about this hand problem. As a Physical Therapist, I know that the numbness and tingling of a nerve problem, while of concern, are of much less concern than muscle weakness and atrophy. The longer a nerve compression problem remains, and the longer one goes with muscle weakness and atrophy, the less likely that strength is to ever come back once the nerve compression resolves. Given that I work with my hands, I don't want to mess with muscle atrophy/nerve compression in my hands. This presents a bit of a dilemma, given that I am in the middle of trip where I ride a bike for hours every day. I don't want to quit, but I do want to be smart.

I spent 3 nights in Pittsburg, which is loooooooong for a normal rest during a TransAm bike trip, but is a very short rest for a nerve compression syndrome. I did everything I could in Pittsburg to take care of my hand: I installed a shorter and more upright stem for my bike so that I sit more upright with more weight on my butt and less on my hands; I put some extra foam padding and handlebar tape on my handlebars with a bit of relief at the area where the ulnar nerve runs through the heel of the hand; I started taking 2400 mg of Ibuprofen daily as the doctor would suggest for anti-inflammatory purposes (I have no pain); I iced my hand/wrist 3-4 times/day; I avoided riding my bike almost entirely during those three days; I started doing some light hand/finger exercises at a level appropriate to my weakness/atrophy; oh, and I went to a Chinese restaurant where I got (and kept) the fortune that said "Serious trouble will bypass you".

The first night in Pittsburg, I found the "Tornado Lounge", a bar with some really crappy karaoke and really cheap beer. It was interesting people-watching to say the least; perhaps the most intriguing was some dude who was all "country'd up" with the hat, boots, belt buckle, Wranglers, and shirt with snaps and crazy pattern on it who was claiming to be a big star. He'd given the bar an autographed photo of himself, he gave me his card that said "singer/actor/model", and he told anyone who'd listen that he'd been invited to sing at the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame next month. He did look the part and, given my instinct to trust people until I get burned, I believed him. But then I heard him sing. There is no way that this guy would be invited to sing at the Texas Hall of Fame...I mean, he was not even good at karaoke! I think he may have been just using the whole facade to try to pick up chicks. Hey, wait a minute. I can buy a hat and sing like crap. Maybe I should do a little research project here...

The second night in Pittsburg was like a big party - the Adventure Cycling group had made it to town (I've started to see them more and more so I know most of them now) and Nick and his group of four 20-year olds were also around. There was a lot of resting and socializing going on during those two days, and it couldn't have come at a better time as I was getting pretty depressed about my hand problem and struggling with the injury, the lack of healing, and the possibility of cancelling my trip because of it. Will, the tall kid in the red shirt who is riding with Nick now had had a particularly long, difficult day at the bike shop and was planning to camp, so I let him take a shower in my room and sleep that night on the extra bed so he didn't have to set up a tent.

After Nick and the Adventure Cycling (ACA) group left, I stayed an extra day by myself and rested. I had thought I may stay up to a week and really give my hand a break, but it seemed I may be getting a bit of strength back. I also decided that I needed to try the new bicycle setup to see if it really made a difference in my symptoms. The next morning, therefore, I packed up and left, heading 60 miles for Chanute, KS.

Chanute was uneventful, except for the dinner I had at the sports bar in town where I sat outside on the patio with a local kid named Mike, a kid who was playing guitar and singing while hanging out having a few beers. He was a talented guy and interesting to talk to, having pretty much lived in every town in Kansas without ever having left. He could play any style of music and even wrote a few songs of his own. He let me play his guitar and sing a couple songs too...I was unimpressive on the guitar because of the fact that a) I haven't played in the last 6 months so my finger calluses are gone, and b) my right hand weakness limited my ability to pick and strum the strings either accurately or for any length of time. Or maybe I just suck. That could be part of it. :)

I camped in the Chanute city park for free (which was fine except the bathrooms were gross because a baseball tournament had just concluded and there was urine everywhere and no TP...but it DID have a shower!!) and ran into Tom and Alice, a couple of other cyclists who are touring with friends who follow them in an RV, carry their gear, and give them a place to sleep every night).

After leaving Chanute, it was 68 miles to Eureka, KS. Again, the city park beckoned, but when a flash flood warning was issued for the town, I hightailed it to a motel because the park is by the river. Before I left the park, I picked up Shay, a cyclist who is traveling EASTbound on the TransAm trail to share the motel room. He was a cool guy, from Flagstaff AZ, and was interesting to talk to. We cyclists are all about sharing the cost of a motel room so it was great timing for both of us to end up at the park at the same time. The lightning storm that night was once again vicious and incredible, and looked even more fantastic because of our safe and sheltered location in a room at the Blue Stem Motel. Shay travels with a bike trailer instead of panniers (the bags that hang from bike racks, as you can see on my bike in the photo background) but he says that, having used both, he still doesn't know which he prefers. I know I like having my panniers, but I've never ridden with a trailer...

I rode into Kansas' hills the next morning - the Flint Hills. They were entirely different from any other hills we've seen on this trip. They had very long but not steep grades and there are no trees anywhere! It's a good thing the day was shaded for the first few hours because it could've been miserable out there. The weather actually was really interesting....varying from super, super dark black skies with threats of rain/hail/lightning to beautiful blue cloudy temperate skies to unrelentingly clear and hot skies. There were cows everywhere; apparently the Flint Hills have millions of cattle trucked in every spring to get fattened up before they are taken back to wherever they came from and slaughtered to feed America.

I ended up in Newton, KS that night, after a very remote day with no services whatsoever for 38 straight miles. Loading up on water and food is imperative out here because there's often nothing to eat or drink for long stretches of road. I caught up with the ACA group again and they were staying at the Days' Inn. I've made friends with most of the group, and actually have spent a fair amount of time now with Joe (Pennsylvania), Bryn (NYC), Amber (Richmond, VA), Will (Eugene, OR), and Paul (Washington DC). That night, Joe, Bryn, and Amber told me how to get to a good Mexican restaurant so I went for a big burrito; then when I returned, Bryn and Amber offered to let me sleep on their hotel floor so I didn't have to set up my tent. What goes around comes give to others on the road and it comes back to you eventually for sure. We had a great time hanging out watching random TV, talking cycling, and being totally lazy.

We all got up and left together the next day and it was nice to ride with a group for a while. After about 12 miles, Joe and I went ahead of the girls and we stopped for lunch in a town called Buhler about 33 miles into the ride. Buhler was just like many other Kansas towns: small, friendly, with blue skies and with a huge grain silo looming over the town. As I snapped a photo of the silo looming large above us, seconds later a farmer drove by on a big bulldozer and I couldn't resist snapping a shot of him too.

It was there that I had the VERY BEST cookie I have ever eaten in my entire life. They called it a "turtle" cookie at the restaurant, which I did not catch the name of. It was a wonderfully moist, perfectly soft yet hard, perfectly sugary yet salty chocolate chip coookie, with pecans and a caramel drizzle on top. It was truly heavenly. I have a photo but on my phone and can't post it here now, but you have to see this cookie so I'll show it in a later post.

I left Buhler alone and Joe stayed with the ACA group when they arrived a while after us. All these rain and lightning storms have produced quite a bit of flooding around the area, none of which have really affected us until the road out of Buhler. There was water across the road out of Buhler and I wasn't sure how deep it was or if I could ride or walk through it safely. As I was nearing the flooded area, a school bus driver yelled out at me that she'd take me across; she helped pull the front end of my bike up into the bus, but it was too big to fit and close the door. So, as she drove me across, I stood on the lowest step and held the rear end of my bike so it didn't fall out of the bus into the water. I think the water ended up only being a foot deep and I later heard that all the ACA folks rode through it with no problem, but I think getting chauferred across by a friendly Kansas school bus driver is a much better (and drier) story. (Yes, it is a short bus, people. Insert joke here.)

 Kansas has flattened out nearly completely now, and the days are getting easier. There does seem to be a frequent wind in the face, though fortunately it's more often than not a bit of a crosswind as well and not a pure headwind. Last night brought me to Sterling, KS where I once again met up with the ACA group; this time we all camped together and Joe, Bryn, Amber, and I all went swimming at the public pool in the park. They even had a diving board! The campground was in an area completely unshaded, though, so we couldn't lounge around our tents until after dark because the sun was scorching. That was kind of annoying, but hey, you can't beat being allowed to camp and swim for free either.

Today was a relatively easy 52 mile ride to Larned, KS and actually I had a tailwind for part of the way. I got thoroughly soaked during a really heavy, but brief, rainstorm in the a.m. which actually served to cool me down nicely for the hotter afternoon. I was able to make the 52 mile ride in about 4.5 hours, which is pretty dang fast for a really heavy and loaded touring bike. Because I left early, I was able to get into the library to make this loooooooooooong blog post, which I haven't been able to do recently because of being in towns without libraries, not wanting to type because of my hand problem, not getting to town until after the library has closed, and not having a consistent data connection on my phone. I will try to get to a computer more consistently if possible so I don't keep making such annoyingly long blog posts in the future for y'all.

I am off now to go grab some dinner. It seems I'm getting some of the strength back in my hand and that the handlebar/bike setup is helping so my spirits are lifting as a result. I will be camping in the Larned, KS city park with the ACA group again tonight, and from what I hear, tomorrow we enter the REALLY remote territory. Wow, I can hardly imagine this, given how remote the country I have been rolling through has seemed recently...


The G Family said...

What?!?! that's it? I was just getting into it:) Glad your doing well, check you email when you get a chance. Thought of you today, saw 4 touring cyclists here at Pacific city. One guy had a full size air floor pump strapped on the back! What an idiot!

Stay safe brother

Andrea said...

I'm loving the posts, D. What an adventure. Stay safe and keep up the great updates!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great update Dennis, it sounds like you are having a blast, your posts are restoring my faith in human kindness. What a wonderful adventure you are on! Karen

Anonymous said...

Been watching for an update. Glad your hand is doing better. I love hearing about all the generous strangers who open up their homes and ice chests for you! Stay safe, and have fun.


jackie said...

Dennis, Dennis, Dennis! Who needs a vacation when we can just read your blog?! (Cheaper, too!) We, too, like the kindness that everyone is showing you... that's awesome! You're a really nice guy and I'm sure they can sense that. Let us know where we're going next... we'll bring the beer!

Jack and Frank

Brain Clots said...

I was going to post that you are NOT a sucky guitar player (or weren't last time we played together), but since the captcha I have to type in in order to post this comment is, I kid you not, "bensucki", I guess I'll just say, we'll work on it when you get home. ;-)

Anonymous said...


Just got caught up after my return from France. The hip really didn't bother me much and now it's much better. Thanks so much. I love your blog. Karen G.