Thursday, July 30, 2009

Phase 2, Days 1-4

Day 1 of Phase 2
July 26, 2009
Wichita to Toledo, KS
85 miles
Weather: Warm and Sunny, with a TAILWIND!!!
Where we stayed: Toronto Point Campsite, Cross Timbers State Park

The past two days were more emotional than I ever thought they would be. After spending 2 full weeks with the Grabers in St. Paul, it was pretty hard to leave. Our relationship has grown so much over the past few months. Before this trip, we had only really seen each other once or twice a year, in the parallel universe called Family Reunions, and so it wasn’t guaranteed that we would like one another all that much spending the whole summer side-by-side.

But it turns out, blood ties run deep, and our bond is tight. If crossing half the country by bicycle together weren’t enough to bring us close, the past two weeks of tears, laughter, and grief certainly sealed the deal.

So when it was time to go yesterday, I hugged Amelia and Rosalie (the youngest sister) tightly, and then went upstairs to wake up Rachel. We held each other for a good long while without speaking, said just a few parting words, and shed a few tears as I walked out to the car with Dale and Martha.

The 9 hour drive yesterday from St. Paul to Wichita is kind of a blur. I slept through a lot of it, having stayed up too late the night before working on YouTube videos for TUJ. We stopped at an Amish market for lunch, where my uncle Dale chatted in Dutch with a plump older lady who sold us a huge tin of sweet rolls for $3.75.

We stayed in donated hotel rooms in the Hotel at Old Town Wichita, where we met up with my Dad (who had driven all the way from DC!) and had some good eats and brews at the brewery across the street.

We went on a long walk after dinner, trying to wind our way down to the riverwalk through downtown Wichita. I sort of knew my way around, but ended up walking us down to the theatre where we had seen KISS ME, KATE instead. Their current show, MISS SAIGON, was just getting out, so I stuck my head back in the dressing rooms to hug some of my Michigan colleagues that I had seen two weeks prior.

Mark and Wayne had told them all what had happened, and I found myself more overwhelmed than I expected to be by all the, “I’m so sorry”s and “That’s so amazing you’re going on”s that I received.

We walked back to the hotel along the Arkansas River, glad that I had stopped to see those folks, but really surprised at how hard it had been.

This morning, we woke up to coffee and sweet rolls in the hotel room, and then headed over to a little café to have breakfast with Mark Madama, my professor who took us in two weeks ago when we got the news about Jay. It was really good to see him, and thank him for taking Greg in for a few days on such short notice.

After breakfast, we drove over to his house to load up our gear and collect the bikes. Again, I was caught off guard by my reaction to being at his house again. The last time we had been there, two weeks ago, we were all in such shock, we didn’t really know what to think or feel.

But today, it all came flooding back, with far more clarity and awareness than I had had before. I found myself choking up just separating out my gear from the girls’.

Dale and Martha had a long drive ahead of them, so we shed a few more tears and hugged for as long as we needed to.

After they left, it was another hour or so before I had my gear packed into Dad’s van and my bike in riding shape. It felt both foreign and familiar to put on my bike gear after so much time away, and try to resume something like a routine that I had left behind. It felt so wrong to be rolling out alone, and yet so right to be back on the bike.

Hugging Mark and Wayne one last time, I saddled up and hit the road. Without my gear, I felt light as a feather, and in no time I was back on the same highway we had been on when we got the phone call from home.

Dad was waiting for me up ahead, and so I was alone as I approached the spot where we had sat for an hour, dumbfounded. My chest kept tightening as I approached places that looked like our spot. Of course, just about every point on a Kansan highway looks the same as any other, and so I’m not really sure where the exact spot was. But eventually, when it felt right, I got off my bike, poured a little water out on the ground for my homies, as they say, and got back on the road.

After that, I turned off my little solar-powered radio, and rode for several miles in silence. I found myself weeping as I pedaled, feeling for the first time in months like I wasn’t responsible for anyone, like I didn’t have to stay strong for anyone but myself. I wept for my teammates who had planned to finish but had been cut so short. I wept for Jay who lived so long and so hard and died too soon. I wept for Rachel and her family and Jay’s family who are just beginning to navigate the depths of their grief.

But mostly, I gave myself permission to weep for myself. I didn’t know exactly what I was grieving, but I knew it was important to do so, and so I wept until I didn’t need to anymore. And then I turned the radio back on, and laughed that they were playing Like a Rolling Stone.

For the first time since I’ve been in Kansas, I had a tailwind. I couldn’t help but feel like someone upstairs was looking out for me, knowing how hard a day this was going to be. My dad and I set up a system where he would drive 10 miles ahead and wait for me, sporting the giant car magnets with our team logo that were donated by Allegra Imaging in Chantilly, VA. He brought along his scores and recordings to study for the coming school year (he’s the Director of Bands at the University of Maryland), and so has plenty to do while he waits. But with a tailwind like we had today, he said he barely had ten minutes to look things over before I came whizzing up to refill my water bottles and grab a snack. You sure can’t beat riding unloaded with a tailwind!

As we moved East from Wichita, we left behind the flat boringness of Agro-mania flat cornfields and instead enjoyed the beautiful pastures of the Flint Hills. Dad was just in awe of the scenery, and I would smile and say, “If you think this is amazing, I just wish you could have seen the first half of the trip.”

We stopped for dinner at the Pizza Hut in Eureka, where the waitress had a really hard time wrapping her head around my final destination. “Virginia?” she said, “But this is KANSAS! That’s like, 17 states away!” She said it with such sincerity, I have to assume she wasn’t being hyperbolic.

After letting dinner digest for a few minutes, we hit the road one last time to try and reach Toledo before dark. Riding in the early evening provides such a welcome relief from the heat of midday, the only tradeoff being the swarms of gnats and mosquitoes that you end up picking out of your teeth and arm hair when you arrive.

Added to the unloaded tailwind, these last 21 miles were mostly downhill. In less than an hour, I was in downtown Toledo (don’t blink, or you’ll miss the lovely little place!), rolling down Main Street, when three slightly intoxicated men shouted at me from the darkened stoop of a café. “Are you from DC? Get over here and have a hot link. Your old man will be back soon.” Dad had been chatting with them, apparently, and was following a camping lead they had given him while waiting on me to catch up.

They fed me hot links marinated in 28 different spices, which had been an anniversary gift for Brian from his wife. Today was their 24th, and she was nowhere in sight. It was just Brian, and his two cousins Randy and Charlie. Charlie was sporting large, 70’s style eyeglasses, and what he lacked in teeth he made up for with comedy. He was sporting a sign taped to his chest that said, “I’m at the Deli, Come and Get Me!,” which apparently was meant to help him find his way home if he couldn’t get there on his own.

Night fell on us fast, and so Dad and I rolled out to the campsite in Cross Timbers State Park, just a few miles down the road. It was strange setting up camp out of a car: I couldn’t find any of my gear, being so accustomed to everything having a very specific place and function on the bike. I’ll have to do some serious reorganizing in the morning.

But for now, I’m going to enjoy the fact that I have my dad by my side, snores and all, to see this journey through to the finish. I know how lucky I am to have friends and especially family so unconditionally supportive of my every step. I don’t take it for granted, and hope that I’m able to pass along all of the love and positive energy they send my way to the folks I meet out on the road.

Day 2 of Phase 2
July 27, 2009
Toledo, KS to Nevada, MO
97 Miles
Weather: 92 and clear, winds from the SW
Where we stayed: America’s Best Value Inn & Suites, Nevada, MO

Dad started stirring in the tent this morning two minutes before my alarm went off. We discovered together just how much faster it is to pack up in the morning when there are only two people and one tent involved.

By 8:30 am we were walking into the Toledo Café, where the older gentleman smoking outside affirmed my trip by proclaiming, “Well, you can’t sit on your ass, can you?” The café had just reopened in a new location, and the owner had been working her tail off to get the place ready for the health inspector’s visit today. On top of it all, she had hired a new cook to help her handle the load, and the guy didn’t show up on the café’s big re-opening day!

Yet with all the stress on the staff, we still got the best darn service around, and the food was excellent, to boot! (Try throwing a little cinnamon and vanilla in your pancake batter next time, and thank the Toledo Café later!) We were happy to hear that our waitress was going back to work at her factory job, from which she had been laid off several months ago. Looks like there might be an upswing in the economy after all.

We drained several cups of coffee as we poured over our maps, trying to decide how to make the most of the next week or so. A while back, our team decided to leave the TransAmerica trail in the state of Missouri, switching over to the Katy State Trail---an old railroad that has been converted into a bike trail. It crosses almost the whole state of Missouri, from Clinton to St. Louis. In order to get up to the Katy trail without adding on a bunch of extra miles to the trip, we left the TransAm today, heading straight east on Highway 54. It was a beautiful ride—eastern Kansas being far more scenic than the flat west.

One of the things that changed with the addition of Dad’s support vehicle to the trip is that I no longer have to stop in every town to refill my water and get snacks. But it was in those stops that I got to meet all of the interesting townspeople everyday, talking about our adventures, and why we were riding.

Today, even though I didn’t really need to, I stopped in all of the small towns anyway, hoping to meet a few interesting folks to spice up my day. It was on just one such stop that I met Cindy, her son Preston, and their dog Shadow. Cindy and Preston were really excited about the trip, and shared that Cindy’s had lost her grandmother to Alzheimer’s.

Preston shared with me that he was living with Cerebral Palsy, having been born nearly 4 months premature. He was so proud to share this news about his life’s challenges, and I was truly inspired to jump back on my bike with renewed vigor.

I rode about 70 miles into Fort Scott, Kansas, the last big town before crossing into Missouri. I stopped for a dip in the town pool to cool off a little bit before continuing on, and had a little bit of dinner at the Nu-Grille Café. Our waitress, Jessica, was probably one of the most charismatic people I’ve met in a long time. When my dad asked her where she went to college, she laughed and told us she wasn’t even 16 yet!

With food in my belly, I headed out for the state line in much cooler weather than I had earlier today. Just before I got to the state line, I passed a farm with a herd of eight giant elk by the side of the road. Several of the bucks had huge racks of antlers, and there was one little calf with completely snowy fur. That, paired with all of the road-kill-armadillos, made for very interesting sightseeing on the side of the road.

By the time we got into Nevada, MO (pronounced Nuh-VAY-duh), it was getting close to dark. We rode past Cottey College, an all-girls school that my childhood piano teacher had attended. We had a hotel room donated by America’s Best Value, for which I was really grateful after such a long day (97 miles)!

Day 3 of Phase 2
July 27, 2009
Nevada, MO to Montrose, MO (to Gravois Mills, MO)
55 miles
Weather: Stormy!
Where we stayed: Aunt Ellen’s Lake house!

Last night, I stayed up way to late, trying to write in the journal while Dad watched V for Vendetta. Looking back, the journal entry is pretty incoherent, and will need a little reworking. I gave up around 2am and fell asleep.

This morning, we slept in well past the 6am wake-up call we had asked for, and once we did actually get up, spent a couple of hours organizing all our gear, which had been thrown haphazardly into the van at Mark’s house a few days back.

Relatively satisfied that everything had a place and I could find my clothes when I needed them, we left the hotel around 10:30. I stopped in at the bank on my way out of town, and Dad programmed his Garmin to take him south to Golden City, to retrieve the bike parts that had been shipped there when we were in Wichita two weeks ago.

We were only separated for a few hours, but I put a pannier back on my bike to carry extra food and water, just for old times sake.

Today, I was navigating by the seat of my pants, not having an Adventure Cycling map or a Katy Trail map to go by for this stretch. I followed Highway 54 east all the way to El Dorado Springs, where I stopped for directions at a service station.

The cheery looking grandmother in the window grinned like the Cheshire Cat when I walked in, and asked her which country road I should take to get over to Clinton, where the Katy trail starts. She wasn’t too sure, but just kept grinning the whole time like she had a really good secret she was holding onto.

She took me to the garage, where her son had a car up on a jack and was doing some work on a wheel. She opened the door and shouted his name, to which he responded in a frustrated voice,
”What NOW, ma?” He had his back to me.

“Now I’m not bothering you, son, but this guy needs directions on his bike,” she said. Together, the three of us stewed over a map for a good while, and decided that taking Highway 82 east, to Country road H North was the best way to go. There wouldn’t be a shoulder and there were a lot of hills, “But I guess if you’re doing this thing for EXERCISE you don’t mind hills too much, do you?”

I left the service station with water bottles filled, and got a call from Dad that he was almost back from Golden City, bike-part-retrieval-mission accomplished. It hadn’t been easy: The lady I had spoken too at Cooky’s Café wasn’t working today, and apparently was the only one who knew why these cyclist kids had sent a box of bike parts to the café.

Dad had sat down at a table to eat before inquiring about the box, coconut cream pie being an essential part of his mission. (After all, the reason I sent the box to Cooky’s was because Will and Trevor told us that they had the very best pies in all of Missouri.)

While he savored his pie, Dad asked about the box. I had called just a few days before to confirm that it had arrived, and was told that it had. So we were both surprised to hear that no one at the diner had any clue what Dad was talking about, and couldn’t find such a box anywhere. After calling me to make sure he was at the right place, Dad found a friendly looking lady that seemed to know her way around the place, and a few minutes later, she had found the box stashed in a hallway by the Men’s Room. Phew!

By the time Dad caught up with me, I was enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire trip. I had been riding north on Highway H for several miles, gliding up and down the pastoral foothills of the Ozark Mountains. After all the monotony of Kansas, those hills were such a welcome change of pace, especially since I wasn’t hauling all my gear up the steep grades.

Through small little forests, over rivers, and past hundreds of haystacks, I rode for about 55 miles to Montrose, stopping once to get directions from an older guy wearing overalls and driving a giant John Deere. For a few miles outside of Montrose, Dad rode right behind me, since there wasn’t a shoulder and traffic started picking up…which for this part of the country, means 4 or 5 cars every 10 minutes.

To the west, the sky turned a very ominous shade of almost-black, as a thunderstorm mounted in the distance. I made it to the Short Street Tavern just as the sky opened up, and stayed warm and dry in the pub, listening to the raindrops thunder down on the tin roof.
We watched the news as we waited for the storm to pass, and saw on the weather radar that there would be storms in the area all evening. Feeling pretty proud of the nearly 250 miles I had covered in three days, I decided that there was no need to be a hero and keep going through the storm. I called it quits for the day, tossing my bike in the back of the van and driving with Dad to his sister Ellen’s house in Gravois Mills, MO.

We had planned to take this detour to her house to rest up for a few days and play on the Lake of the Ozarks. I had just hoped to get a little further before doing so. On Friday, we plan on driving back to Montrose to resume cycling from the same place I left off.

We made it to Ellen’s in time to see her and my Uncle Rob play in their community orchestra concert in Versailles, MO. The two of them have been tooting their horns with this community group every Tuesday night for two years, playing a series of ten concerts through the summer months. I felt a swell of pride when they were each prominently featured as soloists in several different numbers!

After the concert, we drove to Rob and Ellen’s beautiful lake house, right on the water at the Lake of the Ozarks, and talked late into the night over summer sausage, cheese, and brews. I was so happy to be there, instead of soaking wet in my tent!

Day 4 of Phase 2
July 29, 2009
Rest Day in Gravois Mills, MO
Weather: 81 and Sunny, with a balmy breeze
Where we stayed: Ellen’s Lake House

I just love rest days, especially with family! This morning we slept in a little bit, enjoying the warm breeze off the lake blowing over us in the sleeping porch. Uncle Rob had set the coffee pot to start perkin’ at 7:30, (doesn’t he know I’m on vacation!?!?) so I was wooed out of bed by the promise of sweet rolls and coffee.

Dad and Ellen sat down on the dock in the cove, swinging on the porch swing and draining several cups of coffee, while I sat at the computer and wrote in the journal. A little while later, Rob called from his office at the bank to tell me that a reporter from one of the local papers was interested in talking to me. We had a conference call for about twenty minutes, in which I found myself repeatedly saying, “We do this, and we ride that…” I sure miss the team.

After the interview, Ellen took me to a Mennonite bike shop around the lake called World of Wheels, where the owner, Mark, helped me get my bike tuned up. (My grandfather, after leaving the Amish church, was an old-order Mennonite pastor for 29 years.) It was a surprisingly large store for the area—one of the biggest and best-equipped bike shops I’ve seen on the whole trip. And Mark lives with his family on the same property, just across the driveway. He came out of the house and greeted us at the car when we drove off the country road to come find him, and was eager to talk about my trip.

Mark had done a little bit of cycle-touring around Kansas and Missouri himself, and dreamed of doing a cross-country tour one day. I asked him what his plans were for the next week or so, but he had a precious little one-year-old and a wife and a business to think about.

He replaced my chain rings, cassette, and chain, using the parts that my buddy Joe had sent from College Park Bicycle Shop back home. We put on new handlebar tape, and installed a super-bright front headlight. He worked on the bike for about an hour, talking about taking over this business from his father, and his passion for cycling.

When it was all said and done, he told me that the labor was on the house. Ellen bought the headlight and bar tape. Again, I’m so deeply moved by people’s generosity and kindness. I hope that Mark has the chance to do his own cross-country tour someday soon, so he can experience the same kind of hospitality that he gave me.

After getting the bike all ready to go, we headed home to the lake house, where Uncle Rob had come home early from work to take us out boating on the lake. It was more than relaxing—it was a little piece of heaven. We sat on the boat for a couple of hours, rocking gently in the waves and looking at all the different shapes and sizes of the houses on the shoreline. I fell asleep on the bow of the boat, working on my ghastly cyclist tan lines.

By the time we docked back at the house, we had just a little bit of time left to get ready for the church fellowship dinner that night. Brian, my other cousin (Ellen and Rob’s son, and Adam’s older brother) came down from Fulton Missouri for the dinner, and we all rode over to the church around 5:30.

It was a lovely evening, seeing Ellen in her element with her congregation that loves her so much. I got to visit with the United Methodist Women, who had given a very large donation from their Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner to support my trip to Nicaragua two years ago. And Ellen invited me to tell the congregation a little bit about my bike trip. I was really moved by the outpouring of support from the congregation, who took up an offering to send in to the Alzheimer’s Association.

I don’t think there’s anything quite like the hospitality and fellowship of good old Midwestern folks. I was sorry to leave when the time came, and hope to be back again soon.

We went back to the lake with an hour or two left of sunlight, so we dragged a cooler down to the boat and rode out to the middle of the lake to watch the sunset, and drink a toast to family. We came back just as it was getting dark, and sat on the dock chatting and fishing long after midnight.

1 comment:

Greg said...

A TAILWIND! You Got a TAILWIND! I'm sooo jealous. Godspeed and stay safe bro!