Monday, January 25, 2010


Saturday, January 23, 2010

They all said it would happen at some point. And I guess they were right.

For no particular reason, I found it damn near impossible to peel myself out of bed this morning. My eyelids were so heavy. The morning sun was too strong. The covers were pinning me down. I was trapped in my own inexplicable heaviness; too anxious about what the day would bring on the other side of the blankets to push them off.

There was no good reason for my state of mind. I hadn't partied the night before. No one had wronged me. I haven't even gained weight! In fact, I had every reason to be optimistic about certain new possibilities wiggling their way into my life.

It was my complaining bladder than forced me out of bed eventually. Like a newborn wailing to guarantee that first instinctual intake of air, my body took over, saving me from the smothering amniotic blankets.

I went through the motions of my Saturday morning routine. Coffee and NPR with a side of oatmeal. Shower, alternately ice cold and scalding hot without warning. Brush teeth. Jeans and a sweater. Make bed. Grab lesson plan. Out the door.

About to walk out of the building, I stopped short at the mailboxes, finding a pink slip of paper sitting inside. A package awaited at the post office.

Everyone loves a package, especially an unexpected one. Sunshine and speculation carried me the extra mile out of my way to the post office.

The package, which took the perplexed employees about 10 minutes to locate, was from my Aunt Gobie. She was thanking me for the time we spent together when she was in the hospital earlier this month. In the box was a beautiful sweater that hadn't fit my uncle, two bags of rice and beans mix, and six Reese's peanut butter hearts. And the sweetest card, with a neatly folded, crisp bill, which I knew was only a representative mite of what she wished she could give.

And so it began.

My heart ached. I'm sure that outcome was the very last thing Gobie had in mind when she put the package together. But I missed her. I missed Uncle Brad. I missed a hundred people at once; some scattered across the globe, and others in this very city.

It didn't help to hear the excitement in her voice when I called to thank her. The thoughtfulness with which she had assembled the simplest items ("Don't vegetarians eat a lot of rice and beans?") killed me. I sat on a bench at 46th and 6th while we talked, under the bland towers of midtown. The streets were emptier than they should have been, and all I wanted was to fill them with the faces of people I loved.

After talking with Gobie and Brad, I had to go teach my weekly Musical Theatre Workshop. I volunteer with a group called Artists Striving to End Poverty, and every Saturday, a few of us teach a class for the International Rescue Committee. I have about 15 high-schoolers in my class who love to sing and dance, even if they can't speak English well enough to really understand what they're singing.

Walking into the building, already dripping in my own melancholy, I was greeted by a group of student leaders trying to come up with ideas of how they could help in Haiti. Several of them wanted to go there immediately.

To put this in perspective, all of the students in my class are either refugees or political asylees: They all come from parts of the world rife with unrest. I have students from The Sudan, Guinea, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, and the list goes on. They know far more than their fair share of grief, and yet they wanted to go help out their Haitian brothers and sisters. I was speechless.

Throughout the rest of the day, I couldn't stop thinking about the collective sacrificing spirit of my students. Every week, I learn more of their personal stories (courage and fortitude are inadequate words by a long shot). Though the faces are different, these students remind me so much of the young people that I taught when I lived in Nicaragua. My soul got heavier as I ran through the names and faces of those students, wondering how they are doing. Some are still in prison. Others, the more transient ones, disappeared long ago, and I will likely never have contact with them again.

When I get an a mood like this, I can really start spiraling fast. Walking down the street after class, I started projecting faces of people I haven't heard from in ages onto strangers' bodies as they passed. It didn't take much: If I saw a curly head of hair, I was suddenly convinced that it was my dear friend Natali, the holistic healer and best barista in all of Nicaragua. A blonde jogger wearing a camelback zipped by, and I was sure it was my cousin Rachel, whose birthday was today, and with whom I had shared some of the most spectacular weeks of my life on the bike trip this summer. Walking by a cafe, I almost tripped over myself, convinced that I saw TK and Judy dining inside---an couple who had adopted our motley crew of cross country cyclists out in Colorado.

At first, I was somewhat aware that my mind was playing tricks on me. But after a while, my brain got out of the equation, and just let my heart wallow in its own puddle of self-pitying nostalgia. For several minutes, I associated every stranger's face with someone I loved.

Some people might call it homesickness, what I was experiencing all day. But that word doesn't fit right for me. The people I love are not all concentrated in the same little town, where I can hop on a bus home from the big city and see them all at once. I have made and loved many "homes" in the past few years, most of which have only lasted a few weeks or months at a time. For four months this year, I made my home in a new place every night, as I made my way across the continent by bicycle. And in each "home," there are people and places that I learned to love, fast and furiously, and then learned to leave, just as quickly.

And so a better word for my particular brand of melancholy today would be, "Roam-sick." I don't know what brought it on, but it hit me hard today, and I was rubbing it all over myself like a one-year-old playing in his own poo. I wanted to reek of roamsickness, so everyone would know just how blue I was. At one point, I'm almost too embarrassed to admit, the following thought ran through my head:

"It's like I feel all of the sadness of all the people missing in my life concentrated in a single point in the center of my chest. If I feel this way, how must God feel to have the weight of the entire world concentrated in God's chest?"

Okay Hamlet, calm yourself.

Again, it was my bladder that saved me from myself. Suddenly, I had to pee so badly that I ran through the first open door I saw, which was the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, just off Times Square. Once my bladder was empty, I realized that I had stumbled into a dress rehearsal of a Madrigal ensemble that would be performing in the church that evening.

The haunting chords of the ancient instruments and pure voices stilled my self-pitying heart. Something stopped me dead in my tracks, and plopped me down in the third pew from the back, just a few rows behind a homeless man curled up and snoring on the bench.

I sat for about an hour, not thinking of much. Sometimes, when you start to spiral into self-pity, not thinking of much is the best you can do. At least it puts on the brakes long enough to help you change directions.

As the ensemble played, I felt a growing need to pray, but I was still a little to smeared with roamsick-tastic baby poo to come up with the right words.

I remembered something my college chaplain used to say: "When you don't have the words, remember: Prayer is Breathing. Breathing is Prayer."

And so I just breathed. I breathed in openness, and I breathed out roamsickness. I breathed my prayer over and over, deeper and fuller, to the sounds of harpsichord and the theorbo, the lirone, the tiorbino and the arpa tripla.

And after several minutes, I mustered a smile. They had all told me this would happen. All of my friends who had moved to New York before me said that at some point in the first year, you hit a wall, when not much makes sense, and you don't really know why you're here, and you really just want to go home...or go roam, as the case may be.

Sometimes, when I pull myself out of one of these self-destructive wallowings, I can go too far in the other direction. I get mad at myself for wasting so much energy on a stupid problem. "How adolecent, to mope around like a child because you've had too many wonderful adventures and met too many wonderful people, and you miss them. How many people in this world would kill to have seen what you've seen? There are too many real problems in this world for you to spend energy on that! Look at HAITI!"

But this time, I was a little gentler with myself. I went to my favorite Chinese restaurant and got some Chow Fun. (Mostly, I ordered it because of the name.) And then I had a donut. A delicious, chocolated drenched, pink sprinkled donut.

And now, sitting in my bed with my geriatric laptop and a cup of tea, this morning's blankets don't feel nearly as heavy.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Moving forward...

Hey dear ones!

I know a lot of time has passed since the trip wrapped up this fall, and there are still stories yet to be told. Life has a way of speeding up so quickly in the "real world," and it was easy to let the trip become a thing of the past, instead of finishing all the blog entries.

But, Stephanie came to my parents' house for Thanksgiving this year, and the two of us were sitting around talking about the blog and all of the stories that still needed telling. There are so many happy memories, and the world should hear them.

So, Stephanie and I started work on assembling the stories into a more cohesive unit. I can't make any promises about timeline, but I can say that the stories will be told. Hang in there with me, and you'll hear about the last few weeks of the trip!

Much love to you and yours this holiday,

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Started to feel at home today...

A week into this adventure called living in New York, I've just started to feel like someday I might belong here. I figured out a way to make money (driving a pedicab around the city), found a place to sublet for the first month (friends of friends of friends, one of whom happens to have grown up near my parents' hometown in central Illinois), and got connected to volunteer projects with two different activist groups.

And then there was Richard Williams. After spending the whole day running cross-borough errands and chasing down old friends on either side of this big little island, I was sitting in the subway station waiting for the uptown 1 train at 14th street. I was holding a big stack of vinyl records I had just purchased at a flea market—old Original Broadway Cast albums—and was happy to find a place to rest my tired legs, sitting on one of the wooden benches by the turnstiles.

A second or two after I sat down, an elderly black man approached, with a recently-purchased six pack of Oreo Cookies tucked under one arm of his navy suit coat, and a can of Coca-cola under the other. He was holding a nearly-overflowing handful of coins in one hand, and awkwardly using both hands to try and stuff the coins into his pants pocket.

He settled into the last wooden seat on the row to my left, leaving two empty seats between us. Having successfully arranged his coins and Coke and cookies, he turned over to me and said, “What kind of tunes you got in your hands, son?”

“Old Broadway show tunes,” I replied, a little uneasy about being approached by this unkempt stranger.

“No opera, huh? Only show tunes?”

“Yep,” I replied. “Not many people use these LPs anymore. Not many people even have a record player anymore.”

“Well I do. I have Opera Saturdays,” he smiled wide—his face a well-loved guitar, missing the A, G, and B strings.

“Only Saturdays?”

“Only Saturdays! Laaaaaaaaaa!” he sang in his best soprano. “The neighbors always hear me singing along on the weekends. But Sundays are for Country Western and Rock.”

The conversation paused for a moment, and a sharply dressed brunette sat in one of the two seats between us, unaware that this guy and I were mid-conversation.

“Who's your favorite Country guy?” I asked, leaning out to speak around the curvy businesswoman.

“Excuse me?” she murmured, confused.

“Johnny Cash, no doubt,” the old man shot back, not missing a beat. The brunette went back to her book.

“Cash takes cool to a whole new level, doesn't he?”

“There's one more guy I can't think of, that I really really like. It's on the tip of my tongue...”

As he fought to remember, the train pulled into the station, and he leapt off the bench without a backward glance. I chased after him.

When I took a seat next to him on the train, he slowly turned to look at me and jumped, almost surprised to see me there. He took off his mesh baseball cap, wiped his wizened brow, and mopped a few beads of sweat off his beard. Half the scruffy hairs on his face were black, and the other half, snow white.

He brought an Oreo to his lips, and, lacking incisors, broke the cookie in half and stuck it in the back of his mouth.

I wanted to know more about this man, but was strangely intimidated by him. His soul was too old for me to understand. I felt the same kind of awe that I knew from my time living in Nicaragua, working with orphaned street kids; the kind of awe born from being in the presence of wisdom earned through tribulation.

I searched for a way to continue the conversation: “Do you ever go up to Lincoln Center to hear the live broadcast of the opera out on the plaza?”

“Lawd, yes!” he hollered, his voice spanning about two octaves in as many words, and causing our half of the car to look up. “I go up there all the time.”

“Well I haven't been yet, but I hear it's lovely. I just moved to the city a week ago.”

“Where'd you move from?” he asked.

“Born and raised in Washington, D.C.” I said, proudly.

With a fist clenched around his remaining Oreos, he socked me in the shoulder and said, “Brother, I spent my childhood in D.C., too! Northeast, on M St.”

“Well how about that!”

“Yeah, I've still got a brother down there, who sells real estate. Let me tell you, things is changin' down there. They didn't even have paved sidewalks when I was growing up down there. Only dirt roads everywhere. And prices ain't what they used to be. Things are startin' to get more expensive down there than they are up here! My brother pays over 50 grand a year just on property tax alone. He was tryin' to unload one of his commercial properties down there, and had a Korean fella come offer him $50 million, CASH MONEY, on the spot. But he knew something ain't right when a guy wants to pay you CASH MONEY like that. So he didn't do it. After that, market fell through. He's looking to buy more property now, cause the IRS is takin' everything he's got. Gotta get more property to help bring down the taxes. Plus, he's buying a new Benz every two years, for about $250,000 a piece. It's crazy, man. Crazy.”

“Well things aren't much better up here!” I said. “I'm looking at apartments the size of a closet that cost $1500 a month!”

“Yeah, I got me a one-room about like that. All I need, is that one room.”

We came to the 34th St. station, where I should have hopped off the local 1 train and waited for the express (2 or 3) to take me uptown. But something kept me in my seat.

“So was your whole family from D.C., too?”

“Nah, nah. My parents were teachers down in South Carolina. That's where I was born. My parents had about 450 acres of land they farmed, and they taught in the schools in the 40s and 50s. Built our house out of trees they chopped down on the land. They were too eager to get the house up, and didn't let the wood dry. Built the whole thing out of green wood. By the time it was done drying out, the house was tilted and twisted so bad, you had to cut the doors and windows off at an angle to get 'em to close. Dad left the house to my baby brother, and he wanted to tear the thing down and build fresh. I told him, 'Damn, you must be outta yo' FOOL HEAD, boy! Our mommy and daddy went through hell getting that house built, workin' on two-, maybe three-hundred dollars a month.'

“So me and my brother hired an engineer to come down there and save the house. And let me TELL you, he picked that house straight up in the air, put it on stilts, and left it there for about two weeks. It got all straightened out...they put a new foundation in, and set it back down. Now it's the prettiest damn house you ever did see.

“The state tried to build a penitentiary on our land...wanted to buy it from us. But that's good real estate. We're right on the highway to Myrtle Beach. So they went and built it right across the street from our house, anyway.”

I did a quick historic time line check in my head, and then asked, “So the schools your parents taught in...Those must have still been segregated schools, right?”

“Of course they were! Son you wouldn't believe what things was like back then. Hate everywhere. And let me tell you just how bad we had it: Our chief of police was also the head of the KKK! They used to march up and down the streets all the time, scaring people.”

I told him about a house I had passed in Kentucky that was flying the KKK flag off the front porch. “I can't believe that hate like that still exists in this country.”

“Are you kiddin' me? In some places down south, you got BLACK people who's in the KKK!”

I was skeptical. “That doesn't make any sense!”

“Some people just got a lot a hate built up inside...even for their own race. Your race has people that hate their own race, too!”

“I guess anything is possible,” I conceded. “But still, I think those folks need therapy.”

“Nah, nah, nah. You know what it really is? It's because they don't have GOD'S LOVE in their lives. They ain't got Jesus Christ to show 'em love.”

I paused before responding. “Well, lots of people call it by lots of different names, but you're right: It all comes down to having love in your life.”

“You cain't LIVE without that! You cain't just live for yourself. You gotta be givin' something back to someone. If you is just livin' for you, you ain't gonna be getting nothin' outta life. And most people are just livin' for themselves these days.”

I agreed with his philosophy of giving back, but told him I was more optimistic about people on the whole. I told him about my bike trip (“You did WHAT? From WHERE to WHERE? Oh, LAWD!”), and most importantly, how many people we met who were there to look out for us in our time of need. “People are willing to help others more often than not,” I argued. “But they need to be given an opportunity to do so. You have to put out the kind of positive energy that shows people opportunities to reflect that positive energy back to you.”

“Maybe so. Maybe so,” he repeated. “So what are you gonna do for a job up here in this city?”

I hesitated. I never know how to answer this kind of question. “Well, I'm a musician and a teacher of sorts.”

“REALLY!?!” He liked that. “What kind of instruments do you play?”

“I play piano, I sing, and I'm learning to play the banjo.”

He socked me in the arm again, kind of hard this time. “Chuck Berry plays the banjo,” he grinned, flashing his toothless smile with uninhibited joy. “I like the banjo. It's a good instrument. It makes you happy to hear it.”

By that time, we were just one stop away from where I had to get off. I seriously considered staying right where I was, and chatting with my new friend until he got off the train, and then riding back. But it was getting late, and I still had lots of work to do before falling asleep.

I dug around in my messenger bag, and pulled out one of the business cards I just recently had printed for theatre work. It has my contact info on one side, and a full-color, glossy print of my head shot on the other. “Here's my info,” I said.

“Well aren't you fancy, Mr. Sparks!” he teased.

I laughed back, “Well, at the moment I'm in the business of selling myself as a professional artist, so I have to look the part, right?”

I realized I had passed the whole train ride without knowing his name. I asked him.

“Richard Williams,” he glowed. The way his named rolled out of his mouth, I felt like he was giving me his most valued possession. He said it with such joy, it was as if he was offering me the last bite of his ice cream sundae.

“Richard Williams,” I repeated, receiving the gift he had given me. “Be in touch, will you?”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Update from New York City!

Hey Friends!

Wow, it's been a while since I've checked in. I don't know if anyone is still out there reading this...

(If you are, send me an email so I know to keep writing!

...but if you are still reading, I want to tell you what I've been up to for the past couple of weeks.

Our fundraiser party in DC was a smashing success. We raised over $1700 that day, bringing the grand total for the trip to around $12,000. Not bad for a small group of folks with a dream, huh?

After a few days of getting settled, I was asked to make a speech at an Alzheimer's Association fundraising event. It was an incredibly affirming experience, standing in front of a large group and talking about what we accomplished together. I realize that this trip might have to have a life after this summer, so the story can keep moving people to action.

On 9/16, I began moving up to New York City. Of course, after a summer of traveling by bike, I couldn't just jump in a moving van. The trip helped me realize how much STUFF we can accumulate over time, and how much of it is completely unnecessary. Plus, 80% of my clothes don't fit me anymore, since I slimmed down this summer. So I made a MASSIVE thrift store DUMP, sent a box of audition music/clothes/shoes up to a friend, and put the rest of it in my panniers, and moved on my bike!

I made it as far as Philadelphia, where on the 19th, my bike had a complete meltdown. After crossing the whole country without a single flat, I was attacked by a vicious mine-field of broken glass on the shoulder of US1. Then, the shifting on my front gears stopped working. And THEN...wait for it...the pedals FELL OFF. Literally, the whole arm of the left pedal fell off the axle completely. And when I pulled over to try and fix it, a state trooper pulled up behind me, sirens blaring, and told me I had to get off that road. GREAT.

And did I mention, it was my birthday? I was pretty spent, and it just so happens that I was about 6 miles from one of my best friend's parents' house. Tail-between-legs, I rolled over to their house, dumped all my stuff in their van, and hitched a ride up to NYC, where they were already headed for Rosh Hashanah services. I left my bike with them in Philadelphia, and plan on going back in a few days to fetch it, and ride back to NYC.

I've been in New York for about a week. At first I was completely overwhelmed. In a lot of ways, this city is the antithesis of the bike trip: Instead of the open space of back-country roads, I'm stuffed with hundreds of people in a tiny subway car. Instead of pitching my tent in a backyard, I'm looking at apartments that cost $1500/month for less than 100 square feet.

That being said, things took a major turn for the better today. A friend of a friend of a friend found me a sublet in Astoria that I can actually afford. I found a job driving a pedicab (rickshaw/cycle taxi) around the city. And, I've been reconnecting with old friends every day (sometimes on purpose, sometimes just by chance meeting on the street), and have found a few volunteer projects to get excited about. So things are looking up.

If people are still checking this blog, I'll keep working on the journal entries from the last few weeks of the trip. I have them written, I just haven't typed them up. (There's so much to do here in the city! It's hard to find time!)

If you're interested, I'll also point you over to my personal website,, where I'm going to start keeping a blog again. The last time I updated over there, it was right after my Nicaragua trip. But as new adventures unfold here in the city, that'll be the place to read about it.

Thanks for being so supportive in everything I do. I couldn't ask for a better group of cheerleaders. I know there are lots of you out there that have been in touch with me, and many others who have not. (So I'm told, anyway). I hope you'll keep in touch, and maybe start following my blog over at

Take care,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Days 19-22 of Phase 2

Hey everybody!

I know it's been forever...but I've been working hard to get these journal entries typed up for your perusal. I don't know if anyone is still out there reading these, but I've been writing these overly-verbose entries as much for my own benefit as anything else. I know that years from now, I'll probably look back at these and think, "Wow, I wrote way too much...but I'm sure glad I have this record."

There's more to come...Thanks for reading!

August 13, 2009
Day 19 of Phase 2
Fordsville to Mammoth Cave, KY
Weather: Mid-80's and BEAUTIFUL
Where we stayed: Mammoth Cave National Park Campground

After such an eventful day yesterday, we woke up eager to get on the road. We left the church before 7:30, and had no trouble getting out: The “break-away door” I had imagined was really just locked to the outside. We headed just a mile or two down the road to the little hole-in-the-wall diner that Joy had suggested the night before. We ran into a few men from the church in the diner, including WR, an older gentleman who sports the most fantastic, pencil-thin handlebar mustache I've ever seen.

Julia was thrilled to order pancakes (something my other German friends also get very excited about), which she smothered with jam and sugar instead of syrup. I ordered my personal favorite breakfast (biscuits and gravy) and we did our best to map out an alternate route down to Mammoth Cave National Park.

The park was a little off our route, and the spur option on the Adventure Cycling maps took us pretty far out of our way to get there. We consulted with the coffee-sippers around us, and after every person in the diner weighed in, we finally agreed upon an alternate route.

After our extremely satisfying breakfast, we were getting ready to get on our bikes when an older gentleman came out of the diner to chat with us for a second. After a few more questions about where we were headed, he turned to Julia and asked her where she was from.

“Germany, huh? I KNEW it!” In a grand gesture, he turned his head towards the diner window and nodded victoriously at his buddies, who were watching inside. “We had a bet going to see where you're from...and I won!”

Poor Julia.

About halfway down the road on our alternate route, we stopped in a little cafe in Leitchfield to fill up our water bottles, and ask the locals what parts of Mammoth Cave were the most exciting to see, if we were short on time. They were a colorful bunch, and I really enjoyed talking to all of them.

A little farther down the road, we were forced off the highway by a caravan of oversized trucks pulling an entire house down the highway.

While we waited on the house to pass, we chatted for a minute with a UPS driver, who warned us against continuing south on Highway 259, because the traffic was going to get really bad. He drives those roads all the time, so we trusted him, deciding to turn left onto 728, north of the park, and then cut south after crossing over the dam.

For the first several miles, we were so pleased with our new alternate, alternate route. As we approached the Nolin River Lake Dam, there was a spectacular descent, as we dropped hundreds of feet down to the river level. Unfortunately, that meant that we had an equally spectacular ascent on the other side. It was one of the toughest climbs of the trip so far: I was in my lowest gear, and still had to use all of my might to keep the pedals moving.

At the top of the climb, we had a breathtaking view of the valleys and hills all around us. A light fog drifted in and out of the deep green hilltops on all sides.

The UPS man had told us to turn right at a grocery store, taking a winding road into the park, and crossing the Green River on a National Park Service ferry. We came to an intersection with a store, which looked like it could be a grocery store, but we weren't too sure, so we stopped for directions.

A feisty little dog named Ginger greeted us when we stopped, trying to act tough, but not so sure she really wanted to take us on. Her owners, David and Sherry, were some of the friendliest folks around. Every house in the intersection belonged to a family member. They refilled our water bottles, and then told us they were pretty sure that the NPS ferry into the park was shut down for the next two days.

They made a call down to the a store in the next town over, and confirmed that we were stuck on the north side of the river. To get to the Visitor's Center of the park, we would either have to turn back the way we came (down that massive hill to the dam, and up the other side again), or zig-zag back to Brownsville on the Houtchins Ferry and head east again on Route 70. Both options added lots of miles to our day.

Julia and I were pretty bummed. David (who had the most piercing blue eyes I think I've ever seen) offered to take us back to Route 259 in his pickup truck, but we kept saying, “If we were in a hurry, we wouldn't be on bikes!”

It was only midday, so we had plenty of time to get into the park. I couldn't bear the thought of climbing that dam steep hill again, so we opted for the zig-zag option. David gave me his card before I left, offering to help us out if we got into any (more) trouble.

Another five miles farther, we were now on our alternate³ route, and stopped outside a little cafe in Lincoln to fix ourselves PB&J sandwiches. As we pulled up in the parking lot, a diminutive little man wearing shorts and suspenders stuck his head out of the cafe to tell us they were closed. A few minutes later though, the old man had invited us in for cookies and Cokes.

He was chief of the volunteer fire department, and his wife ran the diner. They were joined by another waitress, and all three told us about Lincoln, KY—the TRUE birthplace, they believe, of Abraham Lincoln (we've been to at least two other towns that claim the same thing)--where all three had spent their entire lives.

By the end of our conversation, the fire chief was convinced that our NPS ferry would only be shut down until 4pm. He radioed down to confirm, and then told us that by the time we had biked there, the ferry would be open again.

This was the fourth redirection of the day, but were happy to save ourselves at least 20 miles by going back to Plan B.

We zipped down another amazing descent to the Green River, through dense woods and misty hills, arriving just as the rangers completed whatever work they were doing on the ferry boat. We waited just a few minutes, trying to make conversation with the ferry operator. He must have had a bad day...because he wasn't so friendly.

At the top of another wicked climb, we finally reached the Visitor's Center at about 4:30, just in time to see the final tour tickets of the day sell out.

The ranger who had greeted us at the gate, Jennifer, watched our bikes and tried to pick out the best combination of tickets to maximize our time in the park. Eventually, we decided to spend the better part of the next day doing two tours (the Frozen Niagra and the Historic), and have a more relaxed evening in the park.

The next task was to find a place to camp. The official campsites cost $17 per night, which was way more than Julia or I really wanted to spend. And did I mention, Julia is morally opposed to the idea of paying money to pitch her tent anywhere?

We went into the back country permit office to get permission to camp out in the woods, away from the organized campsite. In a national park, it's usually free to camp in the back country, but you have to have permission, and you have to do it in specific places...but without the luxury of bathrooms/water, and without the safety of having other campers around.

But we were on a budget, and so it seemed like back country was our best option. We knocked on the door of the office, just as the two friendly rangers inside were getting ready to head home. I explained to them that we wanted to camp in the free camping area, and that if possible, we'd also really like to attend the ranger fireside chat that evening.

After a few moments of wrapping their heads around the fact that we were actually crossing the ENTIRE country on bikes, the rangers explained that all of the back country sites were several miles away, and would require a good deal of hiking (even river-crossing) to get to, on paths that were unsuitable for cycling. Moreover, if we really wanted to attend the ranger talk, we'd have to get back to our campsite well after dark, which was definitely a safety concern.

We asked the ranger if there was any other option available, and she heartily recommended that we just pay the $17 to camp in the official campsite, where we'd have bathrooms, water, and other folks around. Especially since the park was full of dangerous snakes (copperheads and mountain rattlers), the ranger thought it was better to stick to the path-most-taken. I looked to the Fraulein for a non-verbal conference, and it was clear that she was adamant about not paying the $17 fee.

I sighed, looked at the ranger, and said, “Thanks for your help. We'll figure something out.” To be perfectly honest, after hearing about the snakes, I was pretty convinced that we should just bite the bullet and sleep where everyone else was. Julia thought it was all a bit sensationalist.

Before we could leave the Visitor's Center, the same park ranger from the back country office came and found Julia in the restroom. Of course I wasn't present for this exchange, but from what I gather, the ranger slipped Julia a twenty dollar bill, and suggested that I was probably being a stingy, stubborn man, and that she felt bad for Julia, and that we should just pay the camping fee on her dime tonight.

I was slightly embarrassed by this, being perfectly capable and willing to spend my own $17 for the campsite, but I've learned to be humble enough to accept help in whatever form it comes. Thinking we were all set to go, I headed in the direction of the group campground.

Julia followed me, but surprised me when she said, “We can use this money to buy something else...Let's just go into the woods a little ways so that no one sees us, and we can sleep there.”

Exasperated at this point, I explained that we were on federal land, and that any rule-breaking done in a National Park was actually considered a federal offense. Not to mention the fact that the woods were full of deer ticks, snakes, and who knows what else. Julia still wasn't convinced, but I insisted that we find a campsite in the main campground, and that I would go have a talk with the ranger on duty there to see if he wouldn't waive our fee.

We picked out a campsite right next to the bathroom, and I left Julia there to hold our spot while I went and chatted with the ranger. At this point, I was so ready to have a shower and a bite to eat, I didn't feel like negotiating with the ranger. I just paid the stupid $17 with my own money, got our permit, and rode back to the campsite. I told Julia that the ranger had taken care of everything (a white lie worth telling as dark approached), and she danced with giddy glee around the campsite.

Our neighbor campers, JP and Gonzalo, were cooking up a storm...the familiar smell of frying platanos maduros wafting over to our site. Julia and I went over to make friends, and found out that JP was born in raised in Laurel, MD—just a few miles from the town where I grew up. It's a small world, after all...

The two of them shared stories and food with our hobo selves, smothering crema y queso on top of the sweet fried plantains. It was one of my favorite treats when I lived in Nicaragua, and Gonzalo was happy to bring back such a fond memory for me.

After getting our tents pitched, a couple of vacationers from Tampa stopped by our site to check out our bikes. They too were cyclists, and offered Julia and I each the opportunity to ride their cruiser bikes around the campsite—both of which had AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSIONS. The mechanics of it all were very confusing, but I found it very curious and interesting to take their bikes for a ride.

A bit later, I went over to the shower house to get cleaned up. I didn't care that the shower cost $2, it was hot, and I was stinky. When I rolled up to the door of the shower house, three 19-year-old girls were sitting on the hand railing, swinging their legs and giggling. They stared at me with wide eyes as I got my clean clothes out of my panniers, and asked me what in the heck I was doing.

I told them about my trip, and about Julia, and they were just sure that the two of us were fated to fall in love on the trip and make loads of bicycling babies together. I tried not to laugh. They ended the conversation by saying coyly, “We're just from the other side of the mountain, and we came here looking for a good time...” That was my cue to leave.

By the time I finished in the shower, the girls were gone (phew), and the time was approaching for the fireside ranger talk. I went back to the campsite to ditch my bike and fetch Julia, and as the two of us walked over to the amphitheater, we met the Taylor family; Alissa, Jamie, Kathy, and Jim (or maybe Jeff? Sorry!). The four Philadelphians were on family vacation, and were happy to share fire-grilled hamburgers with us wayfaring strangers. (Julia, a vegetarian, had a bun with cheese and condiments.) Kathy, the mother of the crew, displayed a perpetual look of astonishment bordering on horror as we told them about our trip. Her motherly instincts must have been up in the arms about the two of us making such a precarious journey, and she seemed relieved to be able to feed us something, poor dears.

Bellies full, we approached the amphitheater just as the dark of night set in. About 10 yards from the benches, a man's voice called out to us, “Careful, there's a snake on the sidewalk!”

I hoped he was pulling my leg. “You're messing with us, right?”

“No really, there's a snake on the path. My son stepped on it just now as we walked down here.”

Sure enough, coiled up, poised to strike, a tiny little foot-long snake tried to look tough as we approached. Now, my momma didn't raise no I gave the little guy a very wide berth as I walked down. But I got close enough to see that he looked just like the picture on the bathroom door that said, “Warning: Copperheads in the area.” I was told later that venomous snakes like that are most dangerous when they're young like the one we saw: They aren't mature enough to control their venom, and often overdo it—more so than their adult counterparts.

Feeling lucky to have been warned ahead of time, I was now overly cautious, checking in and around my seat in the amphitheater for any reptilian movement.

As we waited for the talk to begin, the lady with the automatic bike from Tampa sat behind me and played haunting melodies on her Native American Flute. With a fire crackling just a few yards off, the mood was just right for a bit of storytelling.

Ranger Joe emerged from the darkness, standing underneath a slide projector which he used to tell the story of the ill-fated Floyd Collins. Ranger Joe had a deep, resonant baritone, and the tale he was about to tell was ever more mystifying because we couldn't see Joe's face in the low light.

Floyd Collins was the greatest cave explorer that ever was. In fact, many say that he was the reason why Mammoth Cave became a national park. In 1925, he was trapped in the Great Sand Cave, 55 feet below the surface. For two weeks, he was an international media sensation, as miners and rescue parties tried to dig him out. He died shortly before help arrived. However, his death and the surrounding media firestorm created so much attention for the cave systems, it set into the motion the creation of the National Park.

I sat, completely enthralled by Joe's fantastic storytelling abilities. I was particularly interested in every last detail, because the story of Floyd Collins was turned into a musical by one of my favorite composers, Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein). When I was in college, I got the opportunity to work on a couple of scenes from FLOYD COLLINS the musical, playing the part of Floyd in class.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be in the very place Floyd had once explored, and especially to meet Ranger Joe, who had spent so much of his life investigating every last detail of the story. I made a point of thanking him in person after the talk, and shared my personal connection to the story.

It was getting late, so Julia and I carefully walked back to our tents under a dazzling star-filled sky, making sure to pay as much attention to the potential serpents on our path below, as we did to the heavens above.

When we got back to camp, Kathy from Philadelphia stopped by our site one last time to share some fresh zucchini, hot off the grill. God love her.

After a quick tick-check in the bathroom (one of the rangers told me she had found 22 on her body the day before), I crawled into my tent, happy to be in a real campsite, and beyond excited to explore the caves in the morning.

August 14, 2009
Day 20 of Phase 2
Mammoth Cave to Legrande, KY
Weather: 54 degrees in the cave, all year round
Where we stayed: Immanuel Ministry Baptist Church

For the first time since I've known her, I woke up this morning before Julia did. The first thing I noticed was that my food pannier looked a little more, well, deflated than it did last night. I took a peek inside, and found that my loaf of bread was missing. On the table, tell-tale crumbs pointed in the direction of the woods nearby, and a quick investigation revealed that the plastic bag had been chewed open by a very small animal (the hole was only the size of a quarter or so), and every morsel of bread had been consumed.

The mechanics of this robbery were mind boggling. The animal in question had to have been large enough to open up my food pannier, lift out the bag of bread, (no damage had been done to the pannier itself), carry it over the picnic table, and then ten yards into the woods. And yet, the animal also had to be small enough to pull every bite of a full loaf of bread through a quarter-sized hole. I can just envision a raccoon and a mouse slapping each other a high five as they sat back and scratched bread-bloated bellies.

Since french toast was now out of the question, I made yet another pot of oatmeal for Julia and I, sweetening it with the only thing I had around—a packet of Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa. I woke Julia up so that we would have enough time to eat before our first tour.

While we waited for our tour to start, our friend Ranger Jennifer explained to guests that bats around the world were in grave danger due to a fungus that infects cave environments, and kills the bats inside with something called white-nose syndrome. She asked anyone who had been in any other caves in the past five years to soak the soles of their boots in a disinfectant solution.

Our tour guide, Ranger Tori, a spunky little thing around my age, loaded all 40 of us onto a school bus to begin our Frozen Niagra tour. The entrance to the cave was man-made: It was so strange to see a big steel door in the side of a hill like that. The Frozen Niagra tour is pretty short, but it features the most striking formations of the entire cave system. Stalactites and stalagmites form some of the most magnificent, eerie displays of liquid rock I've ever seen.

As Ranger Tori told us all about the delicate cave ecosystem, the tough little Fraulein seemed a little anxious, especially when Tori shined her flashlight on the massive cave crickets on the walls and ceilings of the cave. Towards the end of the tour, I looked over at Julia, only to see her waving her arms frantically and silently, saucer-eyed, pointing at my back. I laughed, asking Ranger Tori to brush what must have been a cave cricket off my back. (It's a new thing for me to be relatively un-phased by's one of the fringe benefits of living in the tropics for a while.)

In between our tours, Julia and I went to a little cafe in the visitor's center to pass the time. I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and a coffee, and Julia ordered a cappuccino. I did my best to catch up on the journal (it was easy to fall behind ever since I met Julia because she spent so much more time on the bike than I was used to) while Julia read her huge fat book on the evils of capitalism. I offered to order something for Julia, but she was content to sneak french fries off the abandoned plates of other patrons before the buss boy came around. Different strokes...

Our second tour was very different than the first. There were three times as many people, the large majority of whom were tourons (tourist-morons). It was amazed to see families being so ugly towards one another in such a public way. Teenage kids were cussing at their parents, pushing their siblings around and hitting each other, and doing everything Ranger Taylor asked them NOT to do.

I'll admit it, I've been a teacher's pet, over-achiever my whole life. So it only makes sense that I'd want to stand right next to the ranger in this crowd of 120 folks, asking only the most intelligent questions and scoffing at the irreverence of the masses. It peeved me that we were exploring one of the most magnificent natural wonders of the world, and half the folks down here felt the need to shriek and holler and cuss and push and shove.

Nonetheless, the caves were astonishing, and Ranger Taylor knew his stuff regarding the history of the cave system. Every inch of those caverns is so dramatic—the way the light plays with the rock formations and creates shadows and crevices everywhere. I kept imagining what it would be like to create a special theatrical presentation down there...

We left the cave by way of Sparks Alley (named for one of the early explorers who charted it...and maybe an ancestor?), and gathered our things to leave the park. Before we left, our friend Ranger Jennifer at the information desk asked us if she could host us for dinner. By the time we reached her neighborhood, she would have just gotten off of work, and Friday was their family's night to go out to dinner.

Grateful for yet another display of hospitality, we hopped on our bikes and headed out. Before I could reach the gate, an older man stopped me, and inquiring about our trip, handed me $20 bucks and said, “Please, take that girl out for a decent meal.”

As if she'd let me.

It wasn't long before we were out of the beautiful park, and completely swamped by the tourist traps of kitschy Cave City. (It seems that every National Park is flanked by cities like this.) We met a lovely lady named Carol from Carroll County, MD, who would have been more than happy to let us use the internet in the tourist welcome center, except that she had to get home to milk forty cows.

Julia went crazy over the thought of milking cows. She's never done it before, and thinks it would be quite possibly the coolest thing on the face of the earth. Carol wasn't exactly extending an invitation for a milking lesson, sweet though she was, and I told Julia it would be best if we kept moving.

I could tell the Fraulein was a little disappointed, so I took her to Dairy Queen to cheer her up. Over Blizzards, Julia told me all about her dream of creating a network of cycle touring routes across Europe, written with American tourists in mind. It was fascinating to see how her perception of Americans had been shaped over her time in the country. It's always a good thing to see yourself through another person's eyes every now and then.

At 5:30, we met Jennifer at her house, along with her husband Charlie, and kids Gaby and Isaac. They took us to the Mexican restaurant in town, where we talked about everything from school to community events.

When our meal came, I noticed that Isaac and Charlie were both sitting with their hands folded, as if getting ready to say a blessing. Having just eaten dinner with the Freers two nights before, who asked to say a prayer before dinner, I followed suit, taking the host's lead. Turns out, they weren't actually preparing to say a blessing, but thought that I was, and said that if I'd like to, I was more than welcome to say something. Well played, Kendal. Caught a little off-guard, I tried not to stutter as I said grace.

Towards the end of dinner, one of Jennifer's friends from work walked in, toting a large denim purse that hung loosely at her side. Jennifer whispered into my ear with excitement, “The kangaroo is here!”

The WHAT? Turns out, Jennifer's friend also works at an Australian adventure park, and had been asked to hand-raise this little joey, so it would be comfortable around visitors to the park. Julia and I each got the chance to pet the sweet little thing, and it showered kisses on Isaac.

Before we left Jennifer and Charlie's, Jennifer's parents came over to meet us. Their family had been hit hard by Alzheimer's, and Jennifer's mom in particular was really moved by our mission.

It was lovely to meet them all, but Julia and I were getting antsy to get a few miles in before dark. Dad had arranged for us to stay at Immanuel Ministry Baptist Church in Horse Cave...just a few miles farther up the road.

It was pretty close to dark when we reached Horse Cave proper...and after stopping to ask directions from two missionaries who only spoke Spanish, we took a wrong turn that led us quite a ways down a country road to a church that wasn't where we were supposed to stay. It was completely dark by now, and we had to turn back and go into town, where we met two middle-aged ladies wearing matching outfits and haircuts, who told us that we were now headed in the right direction, but had another six or seven miles to go before getting to the church.

For whatever reason, Julia and I decided to try and make it there instead of finding a place in town, and so we made the dangerous trek through the dark night on back country roads. We made it there in one piece, thanks to our super bright head- and tail-lights, but not without sweating a few bullets as cars zipped past us. To make matters worse, we kept hearing dogs barking at us, mere meters away, and sometimes even the panting of a chasing dog...but in the darkness we couldn't see where any of the dogs were.

When we got to the church, we found the back door of the massive building left unlocked for us. There were towels laid out next to the bathroom, and a message that we could indulge in anything we could find in the kitchen.

It turns out that the showers in the church bathroom weren't used that often, because one of them didn't turn on at all, and the other only emitted a tiny little trickle of cold water. But it was enough to get wet, so I took something like a shower, while Julia ran around the church's indoor basketball court like a crazy person, screaming victoriously (Mia Hamm style) every time she made a basket, which was often.

Before going to bed, I talked to my parents for a while, who told me that the most recent issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine had come to the house, which happened to feature an article about The Unforgettable Journey on the last page. It turns out, Sarah and Greg, our friends from the ACA office in Missoula, had been so charmed by our group, that they had used the pictures they had taken of us to write up a little something for the magazine. I was pretty moved by that, and had Dad send a picture message of the article to each member of the TUJ team.

As I drifted off to sleep, I awoke with a start, feeling a creepy-crawly feeling on my belly. I thought it must just be my subconscious recalling the cave cricket incident from earlier in the day, but it turns out, it was actually a very large beetle scurrying across my stomach.

Sweet dreams...

August 15, 2009
Day 21 of Phase 2
Legrande to Bardstown, KY
69 miles
Weather: Muggy but not too hot, with ominous black clouds and evening showers
Where we stayed: The Old Bardstown Inn

Last night, as we fell asleep in the basement of the church, Julia asked me not to set my alarm as I had done the previous few nights. She hates waking up to an alarm, she said. I tried to warn her that I would sleep until noon without an alarm, but she insisted on waking up naturally.

Well, darn it all if this morning, Julia wasn't up long before I ever thought about opening my eyes. Sometime around 7:30 or so, I heard her come into the room where we had slept, and say, “Why are you still SLEEPING?”

I'm pretty much allergic to mornings, so that wasn't exactly the best way to get a start on the day for me.

When I woke up, I was in a pretty melancholy mood, due to a series of very strange dreams I had, all related to Nicaragua. My subconscious was processing the fact that Stephanie had been visiting Nicaragua all week, and I was pretty bummed that I couldn't be there with her and our other friend Sarah.

The two dreams I remember most vividly were salsa dancing with my friend NatalĂ­ (not that strange), and then a dream in which I met the newborn infant of my boss from Nicaragua (she's actually due in a few weeks). The baby in the dream was break-dancing and beat-boxing while his parents rapped. If you know his parents, the whole image is pretty hilarious.

When I finally had my wits about me, and we got back on the bikes, it took some time to get back on the TransAm. We had gotten off course the day before in our Mammoth Cave adventure, and we wound our way through back country roads (570/31E/470) to get back on route at Buffalo via Hardysville and Magnolia.

Along the way, we passed by the National Park commemorating Lincoln's birthplace, as well as the abbey where the famous theologian Thomas Merton lived and wrote. Both were places I would have like to visit, but I felt Julia's urgency to keep moving, having spent most of the day yesterday sight-seeing.

The two of us rode a few hundred yards apart for most of the day, and for whatever reason, I allowed my grumpy mood from the morning spill over into the rest of my day. In my head, I kept running through all of the ways in which Julia and I had contrasting styles and goals for the trip. I was frustrated with feeling guilty for every dollar I spent on food...and feeling like I was sacrificing some of my independence for the safety and company of traveling with someone else.

In the end, I realized that I needed to get over myself and focus on having a good time, because it wasn't constructive or helpful to devote energy to the things that separated Julia and me.

As we approached Bardstown, we climbed a huge hill with enormous white warehouses on either side of the road. There must have been over a dozen of them...10 stories tall, with black mildew growing on the outside of each building.

When we got to the top of the hill, a big sign told us that we were on the property of Heaven Hill bourbon distillery. An even bigger sign pointed us to the Bourbon Heritage Center—a museum-like visitor's center which explained the process of making Bourbon (Bardstown being the Bourbon Capital of the World!). It didn't take much convincing to get Julia to take a pit-stop with me.

The Heritage Center gives free tours of the warehouses where they age the bourbon, which smell so darn good you could almost sit in there all day. The tour lasted about an hour, and ended just as you might hope—with a tasting of Heaven Hill's two top bourbons.

All of the twenty people on our tour sat around a big circular bar, where our tour guide talked us through all of the different tastes we should look for in the bourbon. Then, after we swirled it, sniffed it, looked at it, and all that, he had us take a sip, swirling it around in our mouths for several seconds before swallowing. Several of the non-bourbon drinkers in the crowd coughed and gagged at this point. Not me...I was relishing that Listerine-burn-type feeling. Then, after we swallowed, we were instructed to inhale through our mouths, really slowly.

Now, if you've never done this, you should try it, at least once. It's true, the flavors of the bourbon come out so much more when you inhale. It lets the scent hit your nasal passages, enhancing the flavor. However, it also makes you feel like your whole torso and neck are on fire.

I enjoy bourbon quite a bit, and have never had any trouble drinking it. Yet, when I inhaled like that, my eyes watered, and I started coughing like a teenager taking his first sip of alcohol. Apparently, it was funny to watch, because several people, including the bartender, laughed heartily at me. I tried not to blush to hard.

After our tasting, Julia and I left the Bourbon Heritage Center in search of the town library, where we could check our email, update the blog, etc. We made it there with only a half an hour until closing, so we were seriously limited in what we were able to accomplish. But at the very least, we let everyone know we were still alive.

Bardstown was hopping, because it was the last night of the Stephen Foster Music Festival. Motorcycles roared down the streets every few seconds, and just about every campsite/hotel was full. Yet somehow, Dad was able to find us a place at the Old Bardstown Inn.

Julia was thrilled beyond belief to have a hotel room: She actually jumped up and down on the bed when we got inside. It is refreshing to see such unabated joy in a person, no matter how over the top it seems. I let her take the first shower, and I settled in to watch Obama field questions in a health care town hall meeting.

I've done a pretty good job of avoiding media outlets all summer, choosing to focus my energies on the people and places I was visiting. When I watched the town hall, I didn't have any of the media fatigue that I'm sure lots of people are experiencing on this issue. About halfway through, I realized that I was completely caught up in the pathos of Obama's argument. As someone who has been un-/under-insured for the last two years, I feel so strongly that things have to change. I know that I personally can't afford to keep paying high insurance premiums like I am currently.

After the town hall was over, I jumped into the shower, and then the two of us left the room in search of the free pizza that Dad had arranged for us. We were delayed slightly by a sudden, but short-lived downpour. As it slowed to a drizzle, we wandered out from under the hotel's awning into the steamy evening.

It was a few miles from our hotel to Domino's, but the pizza was darn good, and worth every step. On the way back, we stopped in for a treat at an ice cream stand, where as usual, I tried three or four different flavors and then ordered something entirely different.

With the taste of bourbon fresh on my lips, I asked Julia if she wanted to stop in at one of the old taverns that lined the streets in Bardstown's historic district. On the way there, I got a call from my sister, who is a nurse in a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. She's been on the job less than a year, but is already dealing with some of the most mind-bogglingly intense situations I can imagine, nearly 48 hours a week.

For the first time since she's been on the job, she had a patient pass away on her shift. She described to me the process of washing the little girl's body, cleaning her hair, helping the girl's mother rub lotion on her skin, braid her hair, and rock her one last time.

My heart broke as she told me the story, knowing that my sister is one of the most empathetic people on the face of the earth. But as I told her, that family was so blessed to have my sister as their caregiver, in their time of most intense need.

It certainly put into perspective the petty frustrations on which I had been focused all morning.

By the time we got to the old tavern we had in mind, Julia and I were losing steam. The tavern was charging a $5 cover, because there was live music, and so we opted to just walk home instead.

A block down the road, we walked passed a beautiful historic home, with two kind-looking folks sitting on the front patio eating a large pork chop dinner. The sign out front said “Chapeze House – Bourbon Tastings and Events.” I paused long enough to read the sign, prompting the gentleman sitting out front to ask me, “Would you like to taste some Bourbon?”

You don't have to ask me that twice! Julia and I were invited in by Colonel Michael Masters and his wife Margaret Sue. The house was built around 1787, and now hosts weddings and other events. The Masters are the caretakers of the property, and have more than enough hospitality to go around.

I asked Colonel Masters if he was retired from the military, and he told me that he was actually a Kentucky Colonel...which is an honorable title given to charitable members of the community by the Governor of Kentucky.

Colonel Masters explained the whole history of the Kentucky Colonels to Julia and me, as he mixed us a bourbon cocktail (bourbon and ice). He listened earnestly as we told him a little bit about our trip, and then gave us our drinks for about a quarter of the price on the menu.
He invited us to sit on the front patio where he and his wife had been eating dinner, enjoying what turned out to be a beautiful evening. While we sipped our drinks, the Colonel reemerged from the house, carrying an enormous plate of Kentucky Cornbread and butter—a first for Julia.

It was heaven. Halfway through our cornbread, the Colonel reappeared with his bottle of bourbon, topping off our glasses with “something to wash the cornbread down with.”

Julia and I felt like the luckiest, happiest people in the world.

Back at the hotel, I studied the maps for a while to see just how far I had come: Over the past three months, I had traveled approximately 3,500 miles to go—and was just 1000 miles from home.

With Kentucky Hospitality warming my belly, it wasn't hard to fall asleep.

August 16, 2009
Day 22 of Phase 2
Bardstown to Berea, KY
93 miles
Weather: So hot, I nearly passed out!
Where we stayed: Abby and Jacob's place

Before leaving the Old Bardstown Inn, Julia and I stopped in the hotel office for a modest continental breakfast of Eggo toaster waffles and peanut butter. The owner of the hotel, a naturalized US citizen born in India, stared stone-faced at the television as it replayed sound bites from the previous night's town hall meeting on health care reform.

“It's wrong, you know,” he surprised us by breaking the silence. “It's wrong how much we're expected to pay for healthcare in this country. I needed surgery on my knee last year, and my doctor here in the US told me the procedure would cost me tens of thousands of dollars. For a tenth of that cost, I flew back to India, stayed with family, had the procedure, recovered, and flew home. The whole system here is absurd.”

It was looking like it would be a hot morning, so Julia and I tried to get on the road pretty early. We thanked the hotel owner for his hospitality, and got on our way.

The only noteworthy moment on the trail all morning was that we passed one more place claiming a piece of the Abraham Lincoln tradition: Somewhere west of Fenwick, KY, we rode through a cluster of log cabins called “Lincoln Homestead State Park.”

We reached Harrodsburg in time for lunch. As we pulled into town, I saw a sign that said, “Lee's Famous Chicken—All you can eat buffet, $4.95.” When you're traveling on a budget, buffets are kind of like hitting the lottery.

As a vegetarian, Julia struggled at the buffet a little more than I did. She ordered a “vegetarian” meal from the main menu, which turned out to be all side dishes, some of which contained meat. She kept going up to the counter and switching out food, until eventually she basically had a plateful of corn on the cob.

During our meal, an old lady walked over to our table, stared us down, and started asking questions:

“Where are you kids headed?” “Where did you come from?” “What are you doing it for?”

But the best question of all (intended, I think, to avoid rudely pointing out that we were obviously not from around those parts) was her final question, directed at Julia: “Where are your FOLKS from?”

Our maps showed gas stations every ten miles or so along the trail, so I didn't take the time to fill up my reserve water containers. This would prove to be a mistake.

A few miles up the road, we met another eastbound cyclist, Melanie, who was originally from Florida, but now lives in Amsterdam. A computer scientist, she was making the cross-country trek solo at her own self-described slow and steady pace. The three of us rode together for a few miles, until eventually, Melanie told Julia and I that she was more comfortable at a slower pace, and would rather hang back a little bit.

It didn't take long to discover that almost every gas station on the route between Harrodsburg and Berea had been closed. No water refills ANYWHERE. It was quite a hot day, and we were in pretty rural territory. There weren't any businesses around to help out.

At one point, late in the afternoon, I told Julia that I needed to stop and ask at someone's house for water. As a general rule, I try to avoid knocking on someone's door. I think it makes them uncomfortable and it could invite all kinds of unfortunate circumstances. Instead, I opt for the person on the front porch, or the person watering the lawn, etc., when I need to ask for help or directions.

Almost as soon as I had said to Julia that I needed to stop, we passed several houses with people in front. But for some reason, I didn't stop. I thought to myself, “Gosh, that house looks so run-down. How do I know if their water is safe to drink if they don't take care of the house the live in?”

In retrospect, I'm embarrassed to admit that I was making value judgments on people based on the appearance of their homes. In some ways, I was grouping people into social classes, and placing myself above them. In essence, I was saying that I would only ask help of a certain class of people...that there was no way that person of lesser means could be able to help me.

I held out for a “clean-enough” looking house, and got more and more dehydrated over the course of several more miles, until finally coming across a little old lady tending her neat little garden out front, while her yippy little terrier strained on his leash, trying to act tough for Julia and me.

The lady was kind, filling our bottles with ice water and wishing us well. But still, I had waited to long to stay properly hydrated, and just a few more miles down the road, I reached the top of a particularly steep, long hill, and got so dizzy, I had to step off my bike for a second.

As I paused, I looked around me, and saw that I was right in front of a tiny little white church sitting up on a hill, and it just so happened that the pastor and his wife were opening up the church to prepare for evening services. They took one look at me and insisted that I come inside for a minute or two to recover in the air conditioning.

It turned out to be a lovely visit that lasted almost an hour. Over a bag of animal crackers and a Diet Mountain Dew, I heard all about the pastor's call to ministry (he had been serving as a lay minister with the Gideons in Botswana), how hard they were working to build this church, and also, just how many folks with the last name “Sparks” lived in the area (a lot more than I would have thought!).

Church members started arriving, and were more than excited to have Julia and I as visitors. If we hadn't already made arrangements to stay in Berea that night, we would have been more than pleased to stay with our new friends.

Just as we were leaving, Melanie caught up to us, toting a gallon jug of the sweetest southern sweet tea I have ever tasted. I don't know how those folks stomach it. I drank mine diluted with equal parts water and tea, and could barely finish it.

Back when we were all together in St. Paul for Jay's memorial service, I met a guy named Jack Marrie, who had lived on a sailboat with Jay, Pavel, and Arthur earlier last year. Jack had cycled the TransAm last year, and was eager to host me when I got out to Berea, where he lived. I was excited to see a familiar face, even if Jack and I had only met briefly. I invited Melanie to ride the last several miles into Berea with us, and stay the evening with us.

As we approached the outskirts of town, I stopped to ask directions from a friendly looking older gentleman standing near his car in the parking lot of a nursing home.

His name was Jack Strauss, and he, like the rest of us, was obviously not from around here. He had that thick, delightful New York accent that charm a lady in white gloves into buying a ketchup Popsicle. Jack had recently relocated to Berea to have his son, a doctor, provide primary care for his wife, whose health was declining.

Jack was a lawyer in New York, and worked primarily with entertainers who needed a hand with divorces, lawsuits, and all that other messy business. His client list was impressive, and he was thrilled to hear that I was going to pursue a career in the arts. He had lived much of his professional life mixing with some of the greatest theatrical performers of all time, though he admitted, most of his big connections were dead now.

Often, when I tell folks that I'm an actor, I get one of two responses: Either people smile, tilt their head to one side, and say, “Oh that's sweet. And what will you do after you get tired of being a starving artist?” Or, people's eyes light up and they say, “My sister's hairdresser's son is a big-time actor in New York. He was in that show...Oh WHAT'S it called? Well anyways, I'll give you his number so he can be a connection for you!”

Jack was different. He was excited for me, and had been close to the business long enough to offer me some practical, and profoundly true advice: “Son, everyone you meet is a connection. It's all about networking...and that really comes down to how you make people feel. If you ever find yourself in some legal trouble, look me up, and I'll do the best I can to help you out.”

Smiling now, we rolled into the college square in Berea at sunset, meeting up with Jack Marrie at Papa Leno's Italian Restaurant for some delicious donated grub, good conversation, and much needed air conditioning. Jack's friends, Jacob and Abby, met us at the restaurant. The two of them were students at Berea College—a very non-traditional school with a history of progressive thinking.

Jack Marrie wasn't able to host us at his house that night, so Abby gave us directions to her place, and we cycled less than half a mile to her college pad in the dark. Somewhere along the way, someone leaned out of a packed SUV and shouted at us, “GET A CAR!”

I laughed pretty hard at that.

Abby's house brought back lots of memories of college: There was minimal furniture, posters and tapestries hung on the walls, and a very small refrigerator filled with beer. They were cool folks, those two.

We set up our tents in the back yard, as three cats and five tiny kittens tried to get in on the action, climbing up on our half-pitched tents as we worked.

The whole lot of us shared bike tour stories (Jacob had done his own tour), beer, and general college nostalgia into the wee hours.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

WUSA Channel 9's Coverage

For anyone who missed it or doesn't live in the area, here's the clip that aired on the 11 o'clock news last night!