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 Natalí (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!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Homeward Bound...

What a week! My last two days on the TransAm, I cycled over 100 miles each day to reach Yorktown by Saturday afternoon. I was greeted by friends and family at the Yorktown Victory Monument with bottles of champagne (NASCAR style), balloons, and lots and lots of pictures (coming soon!).

The past two days, I've been hauling tuckus (a technical term) in the direction of HOME...a lovely little corner of the world I haven't seen since May 15th. I can't even remember what my bed feels like...but I'm sure going to sleep well when I get into it again!

For those of you who live in the DC area and have flexible daytime commitments, I plan to cross the final "Finish Line" at 2pm today, Tuesday, Sept. 1st. That finish line will be in our neighborhood, Columbia Heights, at 13th and Park Rd. NW. I'm just about 50 miles away in Stafford, Virginia at the moment, and would absolutely love to see some friends and family there when I arrive.

Otherwise, plan on coming to our big "Welcome Home BBQ" on Sunday, Sept. 6th, starting at 3pm. We'll have live music starting at 5pm, lots of food and drink, pictures, stories, etc. The party will be located in the big yard on the SW corner of 13th and Park Rd, NW. I'll be posting more info here soon.

Thanks again for all your support. I will get those last two weeks of journal entries posted before the week is out. There's lots of excitement left to read about...AA meetings, Federal Agents, and surprise visits...and that's just in the last 4 days!

Hope to see you this afternoon at 2,

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Finish Line!

Today is a HUGE day for the Unforgettable Journey. After 3 months, more than 4,000 miles and countless memories, Kendal will be rolling across the finish line in Yorktown, VA today!!!

Congratulations Kendal, The Unforgettable Journey, and the countless people who supported this adventure. Kendal will certainly have more notes from the road to share with you all, but let me be the first to say what a pleasure it was to be apart of this amazing journey and how grateful we all are for your support and generosity!


Monday, August 24, 2009

Beautiful Radford, Virginia

We're getting so close to the finish line, we can taste it!

This past Saturday we landed in Radford, Virginia, and haven't left yet!

Here's why: On Saturday night, Dad arranged for Julia and I to have dinner at BT's Restaurant and Bar, where we enjoyed some spectacular food, football, and music. Halfway through the night, a guy came up to me and asked if that was my touring bike sitting outside (I had my helmet sitting on the bar). We got to talking, and pretty soon our new friend Stacey, a bike mechanic, had offered to host us at his house in town.

He took one look at Julia's bike, and saw just how worn out her chain and cassette were, and insisted on replacing it for her. (Her highest gears were so worn out, the chain just slipped right over the teeth on the gear.) They ordered the parts, but they won't arrive until tomorrow morning, so we've been "forced" into a two day vacation from the bikes.

Yesterday, Stacey took Julia kayaking on the New River (2nd oldest river in the world!), and then we went to an amazing concert Bluegrass last night in the Sunken Garden. ( We stayed afterwards to help the roadies clean up, and then joined the band for an afterparty at the Nesselrod on the New Bed and Breakfast, who hosted the concert. Before we knew what was what, we were invited by Mark and Rebecca (the owners) to spend the next two nights in their stunning guest house. (The shower has over 10 showerheads!) They've fed us, let us do laundry, and even provided an opportunity for me to go visit with some residents at the Radford Rehabilitation Center across the river.

Tomorrow morning Stacey will fix up Julia's bike, and we'll be on the road again. I expect it should only take about 7 days to get home to DC, via Yorktown. I'll be there just in time to finish plans for our BIG WELCOME HOME PARTY on SEPTEMBER 6th. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 12, 2009
Sebree to Fordsville, Kentucky
Weather: “Zis Vedda is fantastic, or?”
60 miles
Where we stayed: Fordsville First Baptist Church

Today was another day full of transitions. Feeling confident that Julia and I would stick together for a while, we decided that Dad was ready to go home. I was sure going to be sad to see him go, but I knew he couldn’t stick around forever, or my mom might disown the both of us.

It took all morning to take all the gear out of the car and repack the bike. It had been exactly a month to the day since we got the news about Jay. Likewise, it had been a month since I had ridden my bike fully loaded.

Anyone who has ever seen it knows how much I hate packing. I guess I’m pretty fastidious about certain things: Everything has to have a specific place, and I don’t like things to be out of order. When I pack to travel, it requires that everything becomes disorganized in order to become organized once again. I find this infinitely stressful. It’s sick, I know…but I’m working on it.

Dad knows how much I struggle through transitions like that, and so he did his very best to help me sort through all the junk in the van. About 3 hours later (I’m embarrassed to admit that it took that long) I finally had Blue Bear back to his old self--fully loaded and organized, and heavy as all get out.

After such a stressful morning, a good solid “last supper” at the local hole in the wall diner was necessary to ease the separation anxiety all three of us were feeling.

As we ate, CNN hummed in the background, and we tried to explain to Julia why people were shouting at each other in health care town hall meetings.

With a meatball sub in my belly, we finally said goodbye to Dad. I thought Julia might cry, she was so sad to see him go. I was a little sad, too, but was more focused on how glad I was to have had the opportunity to share this precious time with him, how lucky I am to have parents who support my every endeavor, and also how soon I plan to see him again.

On our own now, Julia and I hit the road out of Sebree at about noon. Our first major pit stop was at a little gas station that sold root beer floats as a fundraiser for Relay for Life. Julia had never tasted root beer, and certainly had never thought to pour soda over ice cream. I thoroughly enjoyed giving her a first taste of such a classic treat.

As the day rolled on, our first major conversation had to do with the American flag that I was flying off my bike once again. This was the first time she had seen it.

There is a really big culture gap on the flag issue: In Germany, it isn’t common at all to fly the German flag outside of even public buildings---and certainly not in front of one’s home. Julia is a political organizer at her university, hosting speakers who were a part of the anti-Nazi resistance movement during the Hitler era. In her words, “We are making anti-fascistic politics all the time. For me, it is not an option to have the German Flag. Never, ever, EVER!”

I understand where she’s coming from. When one doesn’t feel good about their national history, or their current leaders, it can be confusing to separate those negative feelings from a general love of country. During the last decade or so, I found it very difficult to be identified as an American abroad, because I was in such disagreement with what our government was doing.

But as I explained to Julia, this trip has awakened a patriotism in me that I didn’t even know I had. To paraphrase a famous American, we are so much more alike than our politics make it seem. I have found so much more in common than I ever thought possible with Bible-thumpin’ Southern Baptist preachers, with outdoor adventurers from the Pacific Northwest, and with teenage hobos hitch-hiking across the country.

So when I put an American flag on my bike, I realized that as a symbol ,it will mean a great many different things to each person that sees it. But to me, it carries a whole multitude of meanings: I am grateful for the opportunities that being an American has provided me. I feel a tremendous love for the people who inhabit our borders (be they immigrant, citizen, alien, or any other), and I feel a great responsibility to use the gifts I’ve been given for the greater good and betterment of our nation.

Just as I concluded delivering this lofty meditation to Julia, we happened to cycle past a little cottage with a bald man sitting on the front porch, petting his bull dog. Flying from either side of his porch steps were two flags: The stars and bars of the Confederacy, and a blood red flag with a white star and “KKK” in black block letters.

Lawn mowing was a major theme for the day. We must have passed nearly 50 people riding their John Deere tractors in their front yards. Must have been the first day of nice weather in a while.

We reached Whitesville, Kentucky around 4 pm, and sat in a gas station for about an hour, trying to decide where to end for the day. Dad was still driving home, so I had to play mission control for a little while, calling campsites and hotels looking for someone to host us.

During that hour of making phone calls, I learned a little more about Julia. She’s only budgeted $5 a day for this trip, and is morally opposed to the idea of paying to pitch her tent anywhere. I don’t have loads of money either, but I have had many a generous friend/donor/relative help me out with this trip financially, and I started out with a budget of $27 per day.

And when you’ve decided to travel with someone, you can’t just offer to pay for everything, no big deal. It makes for uncomfortable decision making when I would rather just pay a few bucks to be safe and relatively comfortable, and Julia would rather just find a hidden dark corner of the woods and hope no one finds us there.

I tend to be a little more cautious, maybe overly so, with our bear run in and all the beginning of the trip. Maybe I should have taken it as a clue when I met her sleeping on a city park bench!

All our calls to find free lodging were unsuccessful, so we decided just to ride on and figure it out later.

At about 5:30, we arrived in Fordsville, the last real town for a good long while. We first stopped at the firehouse, hoping to camp in their yard, but no one was there.

Just a block or two up the road, we saw cars gathering at the First Baptist Church. It seemed like the place to be at 6:00 on a Wednesday, and so we rolled on over.

We were greeted enthusiastically by several of the church leaders, who welcomed us inside without hesitation. They showed us the restrooms, giving us a chance to clean up a bit.

At about 6:05, we peeked our heads into the sanctuary, expecting to join the congregation in Wednesday evening worship.

Instead, we found ourselves sitting in on the last few minutes of a business meeting (ice cream social, special music, and a new rocking chair for the nursery), followed by a prayer meeting for the church community and ministries.

We followed along as they talked through the prayer list---both sides of a typed page---while the pastor asked the church leaders questions. “Does anybody know how so-and-so’s cancer treatments are going?” “Is so-and-so eating again in the rest home?”

After going through the whole list point by point, it was divided up into categories, and five or six people were asked to pray for a category.

We prayed for each church ministry, for individual soldiers in Iraq, for the US senators from Kentucky “and all our government leaders who have lost sight of You, Lord, and the values upon which this great nation was founded.” They even prayed for Julia and I:

“I don’t know who our two young guests are, Dear Heavenly Father, but bless them on their journey, Dear Heavenly Father. Keep them safe, Dear Heavenly Father, whatever their mission may be, I don’t know, Dear Heavenly Father. But guide them and let them feel your hand on their backs, Dear Heavenly Father, pushing them in the direction of service to you, Dear Heavenly Father.”

I was amazed at how many people on the prayer list had “Cancer” listed next to their name. Later, a church member joked that Fordsville must sit on a Uranium mine or something.

Being that it was our first full day in Kentucky, it took me a while to adjust my ear to the southern twang, which started up immediately after we crossed the Ohio River.

After the service, person after person came up to make sure we knew just how welcome we were, and how happy they were that we had stopped by. Then, Wendell and Mary Ann Freer approached us with an invitation to dinner, and a chance to do laundry if we should need to. Our clothes were clean from the night before in Sebree, but we sure as heck wouldn’t turn down an invitation to a meal.

We thanked the pastor and then loaded up into the Freer’s car for the quick drive to the Diner. The ladies were both pleasantly surprised that I took the time to open the car doors for them. Chivalry ain’t dead, ya know!

When we sat down, the waitress squeaked with glee, “Oh my Goodness, STRANGERS! That’s so exciting!”

On Wendell’s recommendation, I ordered the spaghetti special. Julia asked if there was a vegetarian pasta option, but the waitress said there was far too much meat in the pasta sauce for her to pick each piece out by hand.

As an alternative, Wendell suggested that she dish up some plain pasta mixed with ranch dressing. His grandson really likes that. Julia opted for a Chef Salad with no bacon and no ham instead.

Wendell offered a blessing on our meal, and then while Julia and I ate, he and Mary Anne sipped Cokes and told us story after story about moving to Brazil to work for Firestone tires back in the 50’s, just a month after they were married. They had both been teachers later in life, and had both grown up there in Kentucky, though Mary Ann was really a city gal from Louisville.

Wendell said the biggest reason he wanted to take us out to dinner, other than Christian charity of course, was because the German people had been so good to him when he was stationed there after the war.

Halfway through our meal, a church member named Joy joined us for a minute or two of good conversation. Before he left, he told us about an organization he’s a part of called “Basterds for Christ” (Spelled with an “E”, a Basterd is a motorcyclist. I had to look it up, so don’t worry if you didn’t know.) He told us that his group would like to treat us to breakfast in the morning, and told us the best place to go for an AM bite.

After Joy left, and just after I had wiped my spaghetti plate clean with my garlic bread, a thud behind me sent a gasp through the diner. A middle-aged woman wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and slippers had stood up at a table behind us, and promptly collapsed face-first onto the floor.

I fumbled for my phone for just a minute before calling 911, as several other folks did the same.

A man in a red t-shirt seemed to take control of the situation right away. As I talked to the dispatcher, he gave instructions to a few folks and had the lady rolled onto her back. She was breathing, and mouthing a few words, and then began to sob.

The man in the red shirt took the woman’s hand and began to pray, asking God to heal her body, and give her strength to find God’s love. Several other diners in the immediate vicinity laid hands on the woman as the man prayed.

Wendell and Mary Anne wanted to be out of the way before the paramedics came, and so they settled the check and we left, just as flashing red lights came over the crest of the hill.

The Freers took us back to their home just outside of town. In their living room, Wendell was sorting through boxes of slides from his military tour of Europe. He offered to show Julia slides of Germany, but it was getting late.

They gave us their card, and two Gideon New Testaments for the road, before driving us back into town to the church. We said thank you and goodnight to our new friends, and then Wendell locked us into the church. He assured us that in case their was an emergency, the door would break away if we pushed hard. At least that’s what I thought he said. (Turns out, it was just a normal door.)

Julia hasn’t spent much time in churches, and found things like the immersion-style Baptismal to be quite strange, and possibly sinister. I did my best to explain things, but we grew too tired and fell asleep on our sleeping rolls in the church nursery, next to the new rocking chair.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

getting closer...

I'm writing from beautiful Buckhorn, Kentucky...just a day or so from the Virginia border. There hasn't been much time for sitting and typing up my journal (the Fraulein runs a tight ship!) but I just thought I should let you know that I'm okay. We're in the Appalachian Mountains now--super steep climbs all day long. I'm pretty sore at the end of each day, but the end is so near I can taste it!

I expect to reach Yorktown somewhere around August 27 or 28, and then plan on cycling back home to DC, which should take 3 days. I'm planning a wrap-up party of sorts in DC on Sept 6 (Sunday of Labor Day Weekend) and you're all invited! I'll post more info as the date approaches, but mark your calendars if you're in the area or would like to visit!

Must run...the mountains are waiting and the day is only getting hotter.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Days 10-17

Hey Everybody! I'm updating the blog from Bardstown, Kentucky (Bourbon Capital of the World!) on Saturday the 15th. The library is about to close, so I only had time to type this much of the journal...but there is more to come as soon as I get a chance.

Dad went home on Day 18 (the next blog entry), and is sorely missed. I'm doing really well, riding with a girl from Germany. I expect to be home before Labor Day weekend.

Stay tuned for more updates!


Days 10-14
August 4-8, 2009
Granite City and Arthur, IL
Family Visiting Time!!!
Where We Stayed: Aunt Shelley’s and Grandma’s

All summer, I’ve been looking forward to opportunities to visit with family. Before, when we were thinking about a deadline, I wasn’t sure how much time I would get to spend with family. But since things have changed so much, I decided to spend some real quality time with my Illinois family.

There wasn’t much time to sit and journal during those five days. I was far too busy telling and hearing stories late into the evening. I’m not sure how interesting it would be to sit and read about every little thing I did with my family anyways, so here are the highlights:

On the 4th I slept in until almost noon—a true luxury and rarity out on the trail. I cleaned out the van, organized my gear, and then took Dad, Ryan and Shay to the MUNY to see HAIRSPRAY. We had a blast, and I got to catch up with even more old friends that I hadn’t seen in ages.

After the show, I said goodbye to Ryan, who would be on his way the next day. Then, I went out to a local bar for a drink, and got a ride home from Tim, one of my buddies from the MUNY several seasons ago.

On the 5th, I sat at the computer all day and sorted through hundreds of emails, not even attempting to answer them all, but just try to figure out if there was anything terribly important I was forgetting. Afterwards, we dropped my bike off at the local bike shop for a tune up, and then cooked a huge meal at the house. We had BBQ pork steaks and chicken and corn and green beans and asparagus and garlic bread and baked potatoes and salad and brownie sundaes. What a treat!

Mary (my cousin) invited over her girlfriends (Stacey, Katy, and Michelle, who I know from my time in St. Louis), and Uncle Bro’s mom, Nadine came over, too. We ate and laughed and played Cranium until after midnight. (Michelle and I won! Good game, everybody!)

On the 6th, we did our best to get out the door and on the road to Grandma’s before noon, but didn’t really get started until 3. It’s a quick 2.5 drive from Granite to Arthur, and we made it in plenty of time for supper.

On our way, we stopped in at Burger King (NOT the franchise…the ORIGINAL burger and shake joint in Mattoon, Illinois) to grab a LEMON ice cream cone—one of my dad’s favorite childhood treats. He grew up just down the street from Burger King, and saved up his paper route money to get lemon cones every now and then.

We got to Grandma’s at 5:30, and helped her clean off the deck for an outside dinner. My Uncle Brad showed up with a power washer, and we had a real good time scrubbing that thing clean!

We grilled burgers and had dinner with Uncle Brad, Aunt Lori, and Aunt Viola (my grandma’s sister, who is still Amish), and finished the night off right with Grandma’s peach-custard pies (my favorite!).

In an amazing coincidence, it just so happened that Dad was featured in his hometown newspaper that day—the Mattoon Journal-Gazette—in their “Glancing Back” section. Every day, the publish a column that says, “100 years ago today…50 years ago…etc.” Today’s column read, “25 years ago today, 29-year-old Mattoon native Richmond Sparks leads the 1984 Olympic Marching Band in Los Angeles.” Totally random, and totally cool.

Grandma and I stayed up late that night, talking about what it was like leaving the Amish church when she was 21, and what that meant for her siblings, parents, and friends. It was a wonderful conversation: I asked questions I should have asked years ago about her life and history. I guess those things become more important to you as you get older. I also insisted that she help me learn more Pennsylvania Dutch words. It isn’t the most useful language, but it somehow feels right to learn about your roots that way.

On the 7th, we drove back to Mattoon to visit Aunt Lori at work in Dr. Tomlin’s dentist office, and then headed back to Burger King again for more Lemon Cones and lunch with Dad’s two sisters (Susan and Shelley) and a few cousins. After lunch, we went down to Peterson Park for a while, visited the farmer’s market, and then had to say goodbye in order to make it home in time for dinner.

On our way, we stopped in to visit Ruth Isenogle—the wife of Dad’s middle school band director—who has been a big part of our lives over the years. She’s just the most glowing soul you’ve ever met, as quick-witted as they come, and just pleased as punch about every gosh darn thing.

She made us a pot of tea and told us about her family, and then demonstrated “When the Saints Go Marching In” on her Mountain Dulcimer that she’s been learning to play. I helped her figure out a program on her computer (a job I’ve had since I was 10), and then had to run.

Another one of Dad’s childhood friends, Chris Debow, just happened to be in town for his 40th high school reunion, and swung by Ruth’s house in his dad’s ’55 Buick Specialized, which has been all fixed up to sell. He let us take it around town for a bit (no power steering or power brakes! Not even seatbelts!) and I fell in love. I’m not so much of a car guy, but I loved the history of it…wondering who had driven it and when and what they were up to.

We made it back to Arthur in time for dinner at Yoder’s Country Kitchen, where we sat for a good long while filling ourselves with good country food and good country company with all of Grandma’s friends stopping to visit with us at the table.

After dinner, we stayed up late once again, talking about Jay’s death and memorial, and even watching some highlights from the memorial service on the DVD that was made. As we went to bed, we made plans to visit a senior center the next day before leaving town.

On the 8th, we spent the whole morning sitting on the porch sipping coffee and chatting with Lori, Brad, and Grandma. I had planned to start riding again from St. Louis that day, but it was clearly NOT going to happen.

Lori is one of the primary caregivers of a little old lady named Esther, who has Alzheimer’s and lives alone, but has a steady stream of caregivers dropping in on her all day long. I threw Grandma’s electric keyboard into Lori’s car, and the two of us went over there around noon to hang out with Esther.

It was such a lovely visit. Esther is still able to have a totally normal conversation with you, but just can’t remember what you talked about 30 seconds later. She loves to sing “A Bushel and a Peck” from GUYS & DOLLS, and often recites “All the world’s a stage…”

I sang and played old standard show tunes and hymns for over an hour, and Esther sang along to nearly every song, amazing even herself that she knew all of the words. Without fail, at the end of each song, she asked, “Now, where did YOU grow up?”

After our visit, I asked Lori if Esther would have any recollection of my visit tomorrow. She wouldn’t. Alzheimer’s robs you of your past in a way that forces you to live in the present. As my Aunt Ellen reminded me, it doesn’t matter if they remember that you visited ten seconds after you leave, the point is that you make their lives happier for those moments that you are with them, and that’s worth something.

I came back to Grandma’s to find Dad and Brad sitting in the recliners watching NASCAR (a first for my dad, I’m pretty sure), and waited for Grandma to get home from driving Amish folks around before saying goodbye and heading back to Shelley’s.

I knew I couldn’t make it back to Granite in time to pick up my bike before the shop closed, so I called over there to see if my cousin Tommy could pick it up for me. The owner wasn’t there: His wife had just had a baby, and his dad was running the shop in his absence, and was happy to hand the bike over to Tommy.

We made it back to Granite in time for dinner, after which I went to the garage to see what kind of work the shop had done. I was shocked to find that the pedals on the bike had been replaced (they were only supposed to switch out the pedal arms), and my fancy clip-in pedals were now plain old non-clip-in pedals.

The shop had closed by then and wasn’t scheduled to re-open until Tuesday morning—two and a half days away!

We all sat around for a while trying to figure out what to do. We called the bike shop, (no answer of course), and then remembered that the owner’s wife had just had a baby. I felt horrible about it, but Shelley suggested that I call maternity wards at the local hospitals to see if I could track down the owner. It seemed like the only option available, so I spent the next hour calling every hospital in a 50-mile radius, with absolutely no luck whatsoever.

I went to bed thinking that I might just have to stay two more days in Granite waiting on the bike shop to re-open. I certainly wouldn’t mind the extra time with family…but that much time off the bike was making me a little bit nervous.

Day 15 of Phase 2
August 9, 2009
St. Louis Arch to Chester, IL
60 Miles
Weather: Schpek Brodie Hess! (Fat Fryin’ Hot! in Pennsylvania Dutch)
Where we stayed: Chester City Park, sleeping on Picnic tables

The day got off to a pretty anxious start, as I hadn’t a clue how I was going to get my pedals back for my bike. After taking a whole week off, the idea of spending two more days off the bike made me a little bit crazy, so after breakfast, Shelley and I put our brains together and got the bright idea of looking the owner up in the phone book. Wish I had thought of that BEFORE I called 10 maternity wards last night.

Our first call ended up being the owner’s dad, who helped out around the shop, and fifteen minutes later he met me at the shop to swap out the pedals. I’ve been told that the dad is an interesting guy—a Vietnam vet who talks about war with all his customers—and I wasn’t disappointed.

The dad was trying to keep things running smoothly while his son dealt with a sick newborn and his recovering wife, which put his dad at a serious disadvantage in the shop. The guy didn’t have a clue what I was talking about when I said I needed my clip-in pedals back, and suggested I just lean my bike against the counter and come into the back to help him look.

He held up about 10 different pedals (all non-clip-in types) before he found my old pedals in the bottom of a bucket in the corner. Breathing a sigh of relief, I helped him put them on, listened to a story or two about ‘Nam, and got the bike into the car.

It took a while to get everything into the car and say our goodbyes to Shelley’s family, but I was determined to find my way back to the TransAm before nightfall.

We drove back to the St. Louis Arch, right where we had left off, and hit the trail at around 3pm. It was hotter than all get out, but I was motivated to keep moving by the sketchiness of East St. Louis. I’ve seen a lot of things on this trip—a lot of poverty, a lot of wealth—but East St. Louis took it to a whole new level. It was like a ghost town. Not a soul walked the streets, and buildings were rotting and falling down all around me. Windows were boarded up, and hardly a car passed. I was really glad to get out of there.

The plan was to pick up the TransAm again in Chester (Home of Popeye the Sailor Man!), and we took back country roads the whole way. I felt like I had lead in my shorts all day, which is to be expected after taking that much time off the bike.

I did my very best to make it to the town park in Chester before the swimming pool closed at 8 (showers!), but missed it by 15 minutes. Dad had called the sheriff’s office, and was told that we could camp in the park under one of the gazebos. It was getting pretty dark by that time, and so with a flashlight in hand, I went looking around the park and quickly saw the reflectors on a loaded bike light up.

I walked down to the gazebo, not wanting to startle whoever was there, and found a young woman laying on top of a picnic table, already tucked into her sleeping bag. I apologetically called out to her, saying I was also a cyclist, and quickly struck up a conversation:

Julia is a German girl around my age, traveling for the first time in the US alone on her bike. She was as friendly as the day is long, and we asked her if she felt like going to get something to eat with us. She hopped off her picnic table and jumped in the van, in search of ice cream.

We got in our pizza order at the local Radio Shack/Video Rental/Pizza/Ice Cream shop (all one building!) right as they were closing, and so we got to sit and chat for a few minutes and read all about Popeye. The artist lived in Chester, and the town is more than proud of their most famous cartoon son. Statues and murals and signs line every street, and loads of tourists seemed to be stopping for pictures. Wild.

Before too long, we went back to the park and followed Julia’s lead, rolling out or sleeping pads on the tops of picnic tables. Dad tried to plug in his CPAP anti-snoring machine, but the outlets weren’t working. It was quite a sight. Julia was so shocked that Dad would consider sleeping on a picnic table in the park, and wondered if her dad would do the same with her. I guess it is pretty remarkable.

As I fell asleep, I dreamt about how happy I was to be back on the TransAm with other cyclists, wondering if I just might be able to buddy-up with someone after all…

Day 16 of Phase 2
August 10, 2009
Chester to Goreville, IL
84 Miles
Weather: Drippingly Humid with heat index around 102
Where we stayed: Goreville United Methodist Church

It turns out that sleeping on picnic tables is not very restful. The mosquitoes visited us in shifts all night, and a raccoon tried to climb all the way over Dad’s body, before realizing his mistake and darting away. I kept waking up, about to fall off the edge of the too-narrow tabletop. And did I mention the humidity?

Despite such challenges, we still managed to wake up at 6am, have some coffee and snacks (Thanks Dad!), and get on the bikes before 7. Greg would have been so proud to see the day I got on the road before 7!

I was a little worried that I would have a hard time keeping up with Julia: She told me that she likes to leave by 7 in the morning and ride between 80 and 100 miles every day. (I’ve already nicknamed her Fraulein Blitz—Lady Lightening—because she’s that hardcore.)

Turns out, we kept pace with each other pretty darn well, though she kept her gear on her bike, and I was riding unloaded.

Instead of taking the main TransAm route out of Chester, we followed the Mississippi Levee Alternative, which took us on a flatter road alongside the river. As a tradeoff, we had to battle a steady stream of coal trucks on a narrow road without shoulders, so I was pretty glad when we left Route 3 and hopped on the teensy little one-lane back-country roads.

Julia and I had a lovely time chatting, teaching each other words in each other’s languages, laughing about cultural differences, and hearing about each other’s trips so far.

She’s a brave soul: This is her first visit to North America, and she flew to Vancouver with a friend from home. The two of them did some looping around in British Columbia before crossing into Montana near Eureka. He stayed with her until Missoula, MT, at which point he was summoned home by some drama with an ex-girlfriend.

Not to be discouraged, Julia stayed the course without him. Before, she had been keen to let the other fellow do all the talking in English. But now, as she travels alone, her confidence has skyrocketed and she’s getting so much more comfortable speaking and meeting new folks.

She gets so excited about just about everything, smiling and saying. “Something like this is so nice!” She was thrilled to take a stack of the business cards for our website that I hand out, and even more excited when I gave her a patch to put on her shirt. It wasn’t long before we decided that traveling together is so much better than traveling alone, and so we’ll stick together for most of the rest of the trip. (Her final destination is New York City, and mine Yorktown, VA.)

It has been a while since I’ve had steep hills to climb. Western Colorado and all of Kansas was like being on a treadmill, and the Katy Trail in Missouri was super flat, too. So when the ups and downs of southern Illinois greeted me today, I struggled a little bit. My bike is super-light compared to Julia’s, so I was pretty fast climbing the hills. But when I got to the top of several, the heat and humidity got to me enough that I felt a little dizzy and had to stop and rest. Hopefully, we’ll have some cooler weather in the next few days.

Julia and I arrived in Carbondale around noon. We hadn’t seen my Dad for a while, as he was busy scouting out places for us to eat dinner with one of my good friends, Nancy Moreton. To complicate things a bit, Dad had my cell phone in the van, as I had been worried that we would get rained on all morning.

We stopped at Epiphany Lutheran Church on the south side of town, and knocked on about 5 of their doors before finding the one that was open. The chilly AC was a huge respite from the stickiness outside, and the church secretary looked at me like I was nuts as I stood dripping sweat in her foyer.

I explained to her that I had lost Dad and had no way of reconnecting with him, and asked if I could borrow her phone for a second, even though it was long distance. She seemed to be on the shier side, (or maybe I just made her nervous), and said barely a word until I explained to her that our trip was for the Alzheimer’s Association. She had lost both of her parents to Alzheimer’s, and opened up to me a lot more after she heard why we were riding.

I got a hold of Dad and he told me an intersection where we could meet up with Nancy at Panera Bread Co., and then the secretary and I spent the next 10 minutes trying to find said intersection on the map. We could only find one of the streets, so Julia and I headed north to find that road, and then stopped at a firehouse to figure the rest of it out.

By 12:30 or so we rolled into the parking lot, where Nancy and Dad were getting to know one another at a break-neck pace. Nancy’s daughter Catherine worked with me at the MUNY several summers ago, and the three of us became close as Nancy and Catherine tried to navigate the college admissions process at Michigan where I went to school.

Nancy is one of the most joyful people I know: Her fire-red hair is the first clue to just how high-energy she is. One of the biggest supporters of our trip from the get-go, I’ve been really excited to meet up with her and thank her in person for all the love she’s sent our way. I gave her a big, stinky, sweaty squeeze in the parking lot, donned my safety shorts, and we went inside to eat.

I’m a big fan of Panera, and tried not to wolf down my panini and salad too quickly. We spent a good 2.5 hours yakking away about the trip, what Catherine was up to, etc. Nancy insisted on treating us to lunch, as she had really hoped to host us at their house. We couldn’t make it quite that far off route on the bikes, so she was kind enough to meet us out on the road.

Julia took advantage of the internet at the café to email her family and tell them she was okay and had met some crazy American guy that she’d be riding with for a while.

We left Panera around 3, taking lots of pictures and waving goodbye to Nancy and Dad as we returned to the TransAm route.

Dad took my phone into the Verizon store to see why my battery wouldn’t charge, and ended up buying me a new charger. I can’t understand how they justify charging a customer over $30 for a new charger, when their own equipment fails. Fascists.

The next 20 miles or so were pretty difficult. I ran out of water, and my blood sugar dipped way too low as we climbed all of those steep hills. When we finally regrouped with Dad, I gulped down 3 bottles of ice-cold Gatorade, 2 Snickers bars, and some fruit. Feeling much better, we listened to Dad talk about how much the Verizon guys had hassled him, how he had to call Dale (Rachel and Amelia’s Dad) to find out where we were on the SPOT tracker page, and how he had very nearly run out of gas completely.

A storm was gathering on the horizon, threatening us with distant rumbling thunder, so we high-tailed it into Goreville to find something to eat before the sky opened up on us.

We stopped at a little restaurant called Delaney’s, right on Broadway through the heart of town. Immediately, I knew why I had been missing the TransAm so much for the past 4 weeks: Every table had Polaroid pictures of cyclists underneath the glass tabletops. The waitress brought over the cyclist guest book for us to sign, and told us that dessert for cyclists was always on the house.

As we sat there pondering the menu, the sky started dumping rain in buckets, and we smiled to know how close a call it had been. Next to us, a table of 8 older ladies were having dinner together, just having volunteered all day at the Red Cross Blood Drive at the United Methodist Church down the street.

Two ladies in particular, June and Cora, were just pleased as punch to chat with us. They were members of Goreville UMC, and said that the church was happy to host cyclists when the opportunity arose. They debated a minute or two about what the phone number for the church was, and then I made the call.

Bob the youth minister answered the phone, and chuckled when I told him I had met June and Cora. The board was meeting at the church tonight, and they would be more than happy to host us in the fellowship hall downstairs.

We enjoyed the rest of our delicious meal even more, knowing that we had a dry, raccoon-and-skeeter-free place to sleep. We also had a heck of a conversation with Chastidy, our server, a northern gal who had found herself in a small town because of her husband’s job, and was hoping to establish Goreville’s first public library. She told us all kinds of stories about the towns in which she has lived in Missouri and Illinois, and then brought us fresh green apples to take with us on the road.

We took our picture in front of the restaurant so we could take our own place under the tabletop, and I stuck business cards under all the tabletops in the whole place!

The church was only a half a block away, just past the gas station that had been set on fire 3 days ago in an act of theft and arson.

When we arrived at the church, the whole board was laughing in the meeting room, and we were welcomed with gusto by Bob and Scott, the two youth leaders. The church seemed so pleased to have us, and gave us a little tour of the fellowship hall downstairs, which had more than enough sofas for us each to have two. (I think the Barney-colored sofa was the most comfortable.)

The best news of the evening was that there’s a state park just a mile down the road, where we could take free, HOT showers (it had been a few days for all of us), before coming back to the church to sleep.

We felt like new human beings again, post-showers. Ever an optimist, Julia had said earlier in the day, “It’s okay if we don’t have showers tonight, because we will appreciate them so much more when we finally do have them!” That may be true, Fraulein, but after 3 solid days of grime and sweat build-up, I appreciated that shower PLENTY.

When we got back to the church, someone had lined up three Capri Sun pouches on the counter, with a bag of microwave popcorn and three peppermint candies, all in a row. It was so gosh-darn cute! The church is working on building a cyclist hostel like the one we visited in Hutchinson, and hopes to have it up by next year.

We said goodnight to the leaders of the church as they went home, and did some blogging before drifting off into dreamland.

Day 17 of Phase 2
August 11, 2009
Goreville, IL to Sebree, KY
121 Miles!!!!! We gained 5501 Feet of Elevation!!!! Go Team!!!
Weather: Schwül (Humid) as all get out.
Where we stayed: Sebree First Baptist Church Cyclist Hostel

What an epic day! After cutting our day a little short yesterday due to the rain, we had a few miles to make up if we had any hope of getting to Sebree before dark. Sebree is one of those famous stops along the TransAmerica route: Cyclists as far back as Colorado told us about the Cyclist Hostel in the First Baptist Church. When the pastor’s wife is around, she cooks huge meals for all the folks who come through, and they offer showers, laundry, and even BEDS to anyone who comes by.

We had our sights set on Sebree two days ago, and the Fraulein was sure we could make it in two days. It was about 200 miles all together—far more than I would ever hope to do in two days—but I’ve thrown my lot in with this lady so I was going to do the best I could to stick with her.

I was the last to wake up, as per usual, but Julia seems to be a good influence on me: We were out the door by 7:45am. It’s a good thing, too, because we beat a few rainstorms by starting that early.

The early morning miles were calm and peaceful. Julia rescued a few turtles that were beginning to wander out onto the highway, each time squealing with glee and talking about how cute they were.

We put in about 50 miles before noon, stopping in Elizabethtown for lunch on the Ohio River. We watched the barges go by, snacking on homemade peach jam, while Dad took a look around inside the oldest hotel in the whole state of Illinois.

The Fraulein was particularly enthusiastic about crossing the Ohio River on the ferry boat, taking loads and loads of pictures as we looked out over the water to Cave in Rock, IL. A lady on the ferry told us that pirates used to rob people and throw them into the cave—a story that remains to be confirmed.

The first thing we saw on the Kentucky side of the river was fields and fields of blue-green soy plants. I know that Kentucky Bluegrass refers to something else, but those foggy blue-green hills sure took my breath away.

The Fraulein and I spent the afternoon teaching each other grammar. She really enjoys learning whatever help I give her, and I’m doing my best to pick up some simple conversational phrases. One of Julia’s most charming language quirks is that she adds the word “or” to the end of sentences, in much the same way a Canadian might use “eh.” I think she means, “You know?” or “Right?” But I haven’t corrected her yet because it’s just so darn cute, and always makes me smile!

She’s also a big fan of, “On zie one hand…and on zie oder hand…” and “Oh, zis is so fine!”

When dogs chase us, I always whip out my water bottle, ready to squirt them (and sometimes even my pepper spray for the really scary dogs), but Julia always says, “Oh zis is fine, Kendal. He is a NICE dog.” However, one dog this afternoon meant serious business, and got a little too close for comfort. Out of NOWHERE, little miss German Sunshine stood up on her bike and shouted some crazy mix of German/English in the dog’s face, with such ferocity and gusto that the poor little guy went scrambling back to the porch, whimpering, tail between his legs.

After I recovered from the shock of it, I laughed myself silly for the next five minutes.

The terrain was pretty rough, with super-steep rolling hills all day long. We were so grateful for the cooler temperatures that the thunderstorm brought in last night, because we were climbing hills all day. Over the course of the whole day, we ended up climbing a grand total of 5,501 feet—more than we ever climbed in one day back in the Rockies.

When we got into Kentucky, we realized pretty quickly that we were in Amish country. I stopped for a bathroom break in Yoder’s Country Store a few miles in, and found the owner completely unimpressed by my attempts to speak Pennsylvania Dutch with him. I guess I need a little more practice.

As we approached the 100 mile mark on the day, a little old lady found Dad in the parking lot of the only café in Clay, KY, and talked his poor ear off for at least an hour. By the end of the conversation, Dad had been asked out on a square-dancing date, which he gracefully declined.

The Fraulein and I basked in the glory of the last 20 miles of the trip, knowing that with every hill we were going just a little further than we had ever gone before. We stopped at the crest of a particularly steep hill to appreciate the sunset, smoky hills, and taxidermy shop.

When we finally reached Sebree, Bob the Preacher was waiting to greet us in the parking lot. He was picking fresh tomatoes from his garden to give to the seven people staying in the church that night; Dad, Kendal, Julia, Clay, Gabe, Allison, and Frank. Bob showed us around the hostel, inviting to place a push pin on the map for our hometowns, giving us a little Kentucky-shaped button and a copy of the Gospel of John, and inviting us to dessert up at the house.

We took quick showers and headed over to the parsonage for angel food cake, ice cream, and strawberries. Pastor Bob was called out on a pastoral care mission of sorts, so we just helped ourselves, and shared story after story from the road. All 7 of us are headed east on the TransAm, so we had a lot of notes to compare.

When Pastor Bob got back, he told us all about the crazy cyclists that have come through over the years; story after story about people doing crazy mileage in a single day and traveling the whole world by bike. There was something so soothing about his voice (he was channeling Barney from the Andy Griffith Show) and the 15 gallons of pickles waiting to be canned on the counter.

As the clock struck 10, we headed back to the church basement to get ready for bed. Team TUJ still hadn’t eaten a real meal yet, so Dad went out to get gas station pizza while the rest of us did laundry and continued chatting well into the early morning hours.