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.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Days 8 and 9

I hate to admit it, but I'm a little behind on my blogging. I have had a lot less time to type in the past few days, so I hope you'll bear with me as I get it all put into the computer.

Here are a few entries to keep you going until I can get more writing done.

My Aunt Shelley says that waiting for my blog posts to appear reminds her of waiting for J.K. Rowling to publish the next Harry Potter books. While I appreciate that compliment (she's a little biased, I think), I also know the feeling she's talking about, and will do my best to get this thing up to date in the next few days.

Day 8 of Phase 2
August 2, 2009
Jefferson City to Marthasville, MO
65.5 Miles
Weather: Bright and Sunny!
Where we slept: Relax Inn Motel, Warrenton, MO

In the comfort of my cousin Ryan’s house, we slept in far past our alarms, and woke up to the smell of coffee, pancakes, and eggs on the stove. It sure is nice to be with family!

We spent a good little while updating the blog, checking email, and doing the general putzing around that happens when we get too comfortable in our surroundings. But eventually, it was well past time to hit the trail, so we hugged Brian and loaded into the car at 11am.

When we reached the trailhead, we spent a few minutes debating which direction was East: Dad was just sure we had come from the one direction last night, and we were pretty darn sure that the same direction was where we were headed today. Ryan and I ended up being right (Dad was parked the opposite direction last night so I can see how he got confused.

There wasn’t a spigot anywhere to fill up our big five-gallon water cooler, but Ryan found a rouge drinking fountain that shot water in an impressive 5-foot arch—dangerous to the unsuspecting thirsty cyclist, but perfect for filling a cooler.

Way back in Yellowstone, my cousin Adam told me to look forward to the wineries along the Katy Trail. I had circled Hermann, MO on my map weeks ago, and today was the day that I would pass through.

With that in mind, Ryan and I high-tailed it down the path, discussing everything from James Earl Ray to the Great Divide Basin to the watershed of the Great Lakes. You’d be amazed the things that come up when you have that much time to chat with a person!

Around midday, we found ourselves at a little rest stop called Steamboat Junction; a campsite/refreshment stand/farm that wasn’t even on the Katy Trail map. Dan and Sandra Bends run the snack shop out of a little stand they had built right next to the trail, selling sodas and snacks and most importantly, snow cones, to the hungry trail-riders.

We chatted for a while before I noticed the sign on the refrigerator that said:

Since our concession stand is only open weekends, we have a few items for self-service in the old refrigerator. Please leave your money in, and take your change from the blue dish on the counter. Put bills in the campsite ‘check-in’ slot. If you need help, you can pick up the walkie-talkie and radio on over to the house.

Not many people run a business that way anymore, and I tell you what, it’s sure a breath of fresh air. Dan and Sandra’s house was called “Steamboat Junction” because it was built out of wood salvaged from the wreck of the steamboat Clara, which had sunk in the Missouri river nearby in 1870. It was a beautiful little corner of the world, and Ryan and I left sporting blue-raspberry smiles.

We rolled on, so eager to get to the Hermann wineries that we didn’t even notice the giant black snake laying across the path, which Ryan rolled over before he even knew what happened. I never saw the thing, but Ryan and I both turned around to see if the snake was okay (in hindsight, not the smartest thing to do, in case the snake was okay and just royally ticked off). We retraced our path for about 50 yards, but saw no snake or anything else. Hopefully, no serious damage was done.

It was nearly 5pm when we got to McKittrick, the town right across the Missouri River from Hermann. Standing at the trailhead, trying to navigate by a not-so-detailed map of the area, was a tall, bronzed brunette, with the muscular legs and lycra shorts of a true cycle-tourist. She was leaning on a fully loaded bike, so we obviously struck up a conversation.

Mary is from Southwestern Virginia, and has enough spitfire energy to win over any stranger she meets as she travels solo across the country. She is just this side of a few major life changes (a big breakup, a shake-up at work) and decided that this trip was just the thing she needed to get things sorted out in her life.

We were very much ready for dinner, and hoped to get into Hermann across the river before the wineries closed. Mary rode her bike over the bridge to meet us at a restaurant for dinner. She was spending the night at a church there in Hermann.

Ryan and I locked our bikes up at the trailhead, and Dad picked us up in the van, driving us to a restaurant that he had scouted out. It turns out, the wineries closed 5 minutes before we got into town. So we did the next best thing, and went to a little pub that served both local beer and wine.

Just as we pulled up to the restaurant, a man of about 60 came running up to us out of nowhere. “Get off the streets!” he shouted. “That pretty young lady needs to end her bike trip right now! It isn’t safe! The riots start tomorrow night at 5!”

“Riots?” I said. “What riots are you talking about?”

“They found it! Obama’s REAL birth certificate! He’s a KENYAN. I knew it all along! He’s been faking this whole time. He’s from Mumbasi or whatever. He’s a MUMBASIAN! The real birth certificate is signed and sealed by the tribal chief and everything! No doubt about it, it’s the REAL THING!”

“Oh yeah, sure. You’re full of it,” said Mary, laughing unabashedly in this guy’s face.

“No really! Federal hearings being tomorrow in California to get him out of office! The riots start tomorrow! It’s all over Fox News! They can’t stop talking about it!”

At that point, we all laughed a little bit. “I’ll bet Fox News really is all over THAT news,” Ryan said.
“Do you know what this MEANS???? Everything he’s signed since he’s been in office is NULL and VOID! Can you believe it? The stimulus package, tax plan, and HEALTHCARE. ALL NULL AND VOID!!!”

Just then, I breathed a sigh of relief. For a minute or two, I actually entertained the idea that maybe someone had turned up a birth certificate somewhere. The guy was sane enough and believed what he was saying just enough to sound almost convincing. But unless I had missed some seriously major news in the past few weeks, I knew that Obama hadn’t signed any healthcare legislation, and this guy was probably just a little crazier than I initially thought.

We left the Birther out on the street, walking in and out of storefronts to announce the news about the upcoming spontaneous riot he was planning. Once inside, we asked the bartender to turn on the news for us, just to make sure that all was well in the universe. NBC nightly news was talking about missing Americans in Iran, and assuming that Obama’s birth certificate would be the lead news story, we all breathed a sigh of relief.

In an adventurous mood, we ordered crawdads and frog legs to start off the meal, which were new flavors for several of us around the table. We sipped local beer and swapped stories, Mary suggesting to Ryan that what he really ought to do is ride a horse, not a bike, up to Michigan to propose to his girlfriend. I guess riding 2000 miles on a bike isn’t quite epic enough.

An hour or two later, we said farewell to the lovely Mary, happy to have met yet another special soul out on the road. I was a little anxious about the time, knowing that dark would fall sooner than we were ready.

We rode another 20 or 30 miles after dinner, Ryan absolutely loving riding at dusk. The sun set gloriously behind us, the crickets and gnats came out to play, and we did our best to dodge the dozens of little frogs hopping out of our way on the trail. (The old video game FROGGER came to mind.)

When we arrived in Marthasville, it was completely dark. Thanks to the super-powered headlight Aunt Ellen bought me, we had been able to ride safely away from traffic on the bike trail.

In town, we were told by Ann the paramedic that we were free to camp in the park by the trail, but there was no running water at the trailhead, and she unfortunately couldn’t let us use the shower at the EMS station in case she was called out on an emergency. Instead, we parked our bikes in the EMS station behind the ambulances, saving ourselves the headache of unpacking and repacking the van—a big ordeal with two bikes to think about.

Dad had found us a discounted hotel room just north of Marthasville along the interstate in Warrenton, so we fired up the GPS, and were once again so grateful to have Dad and the van on hand. I certainly don’t take it for granted that he’s here…but I did have a moment when I realized just how spoiled I’ve become, choosing to drive to a hotel instead of just camping right at the trailhead. In fairness, I did have about 3000 gnats stuck in the sweat on my arms, legs, and face. A shower just sounded so nice!

Our room at the Relax Inn smelled of mold and curry (the latter slightly making up for the former), and the hot water suddenly shut off in the middle of each shower. But there were three big double beds in a row (something I’ve never seen before), and Shark Week kept us more than entertained.

One more day, one more adventure, and one more night of the deepest sleep.

Day 9 of Phase 2
August 3, 2009
Marthasville, MO to the St. Louis Arch
About 60 miles
Weather: Just another Sticky-Hot St. Louis Summer Day
Where we slept: Aunt Shelley’s House, Granite City, IL

This morning, our alarms tried to wake us up before 7:30, but our comfortable beds kept us snoring until just past 8:30. The great thing about having a support vehicle and a hotel room is that getting ready in the morning takes a LOT less time. We left just as the clock rolled over to 9.

Of course, we couldn’t hit the trail without a decent breakfast and coffee, so we pulled over at the Waffle House before leaving town.

It was just the kind of smoke-filled dive diner we’ve learned to love on this trip: A juke box played truly terrible tween pop while the short-order cook-in-training did his best not to burn our waffles and keep up with the instructions of all four waitresses.

After several cups of coffee and greasy goodness we got on the road—making one quick stop at Radio Shack to buy new batteries for my SPOT personal tracker.

The night before, our friend Ann the Paramedic told us about a preserved slave cabin in the heart of town, which allowed visitors to see the actual shackles and whipping posts used during the antebellum period. We did our best to find them in town, but didn’t have much success before finding ourselves back at the EMS station. Taking it as a sign, we gave up our search for the slave cabin, and retrieved our bikes from Buddy, the other paramedic now on duty.

A few minutes later, we were back on the Katy Trail, but were soon detoured once again by a sign leading us to Daniel Boone’s original gravesite. To be perfectly honest, none of us could really explain exactly who Boone was or why he was famous, but we knew the name well enough to make a point of visiting his family cemetery.

The old brass memorial that had stood over Boone’s grave for almost 100 years was stolen this year by a methamphetamine addict looking to sell scrap metal for drugs. A new, polished granite marker took its place, having been dedicated just a week ago by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Supposedly, Boone and his wife had been moved at some point in the 20th century to a new gravesite in Kentucky, but local lore suggested that two slaves had been buried overtop of Boone and his wife, and that it was their remains that had been moved, not Mastuh and Missus B.

Several historical markers along the Katy Trail told us more about Boone’s life, and left me with the general impression that he was a man elevated to mythological status over the years, but whose real story was a lot more morally ambiguous. Such is history recorded by the victors of wars.

Ryan and I had reached the point at which we were comfortable enough with each other to just ride in silence, which we did for many of the miles today. As we approached St. Louis, just a few miles before it was time to leave the Katy Trail for good, something broke our silence:

Riding side by side, about a foot apart, Ryan and I were both startled by a squirrel darting across the path. It crossed Ryan’s path first, (he rode on my left), and being quite alarmed itself, tried to dash forward on the path to stay out of our way. The little guy was just fast enough to keep up with our bikes, but couldn’t outrun us, and so ran for about five seconds in between our two bikes, looking back and forth at the four massive whirring wheels on either side of him.

Looking for an out, the little guy took a very brave yet poorly judged kamikaze dive in between my wheels, and my heart leapt into my throat as I felt my rear wheel roll over his little body.


“DID THAT REALLY JUST HAPPEN???” I shouted at Ryan. “No way that just happened. Oh my GOODNESS is he OKAY???”

I was so horrified that I couldn’t turn around and look. Ryan assured me that he saw the squirrel get up and run off the path, sure that I hadn’t killed it. But then he saw just how horrified I was and couldn’t help twisting the knife just a little bit:

“I’m sure you didn’t kill it. You probably only broke it’s jaw. He’ll likely die a slow, excruciating death in the forest now, starving because he can’t chew.”

Attempting to look somewhat cool about it, I tried to laugh as he continued making me feel guilty. But secretly, I thought that if Ryan didn’t shut up about the squirrel, he was going to have his own broken jaw to worry about.

About three miles from the eastern terminus of the Katy Trail, we climbed up a couple of switchbacks to the main highway to cross the Missouri River on the 364 pedestrian bridge into Maryland Heights. Our bike path took us parallel to a major traffic artery of the city, and Dad had a hard time following us. Eventually, we came to a lakeside restaurant (closed on Mondays, of course) where Dad was able to find us in the parking lot and replenish our bottles and bellies.

From that point, we had to kind of wing it to find our way through the city. Ryan and I laughed as Dad tried to get directions from the only two people around—a pair of 14-year-old-girls on their bicycles. They, like, didn’t like know exactly where we should like, GO, but they thought like maybe Dad should just like, read the map.

The next lady we met was slightly more helpful, directing us into town via Olive Ave, which took us right downtown into Forest Park. However, she swore to us that the road wasn’t too busy, and most certainly had a shoulder the whole way, neither of which was even remotely true.

Ryan remarked that it was one of the more stressful cycling experiences he had ever had, not being particularly experienced in city cycling. But we made it though town safely, stopping just outside of Forest Park to meet up with Dad.

For those of you who don’t know, St. Louis is like a second home to me. For the past several summers, I have worked as an actor at the St. Louis MUNY in Forest Park. The MUNY is the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theatre, producing several musicals every summer for thousands and thousands of patrons every night. (The theatre holds over 10,000 people, and is a pretty impressive sight on Google Earth.)

I’ve done eight different shows with the MUNY, living for several weeks at a time with my Aunt Shelley in nearby Granite City, Illinois. This is the first summer in years that I haven’t done a show with them (I even took a break from my time in Nicaragua last summer to come perform in THE PRODUCERS), and so all summer I have been looking forward to riding my bike onto the lot and visiting with the cast and crew, and then visiting Shelley’s family in Granite City.

One of my favorite things about St. Louis is IMO’s Pizza—a very different kind of pizza made with a super-thin crust and provel cheese. I love it so much that my Mom has even considered mailing me a frozen IMO’s pizza on my birthday.

So just before we got to Forest Park (St. Louis’ version of Central Park, only 1.5 times the size), we took a quick pit stop in the parking lot of Taco Bell on Skinker and Olive to meet up with Dad. He had stopped at an IMO’s along the way and picked up a pizza for lunch. As soon as I saw the box, I said, “Oh no! Shelley always gets IMO’s on my first night in town! She’s not going to know what to do if I have IMO’s for lunch beforehand!”

Knowing that some people hate IMO’s as much as I love it, I prepped Ryan for the new culinary experience, and was relieved to find that he really quite liked it. Phew. Hope he doesn’t mind having it for dinner, too!

To make the most of my visit to the MUNY, I wanted to arrive just as rehearsal was getting out around six. Showman that I am, I shamelessly loaded all of my gear onto my bike: After months of imagining what it would be like to show up at the MUNY and say, “Oh, I just rode my bike here from Seattle…no biggie,” it seemed very anti-climatic to have all of my gear sitting in Dad’s minivan.

Ryan felt silly riding unloaded next to me, so he loaded up too. Guess my dramatic side is a little contagious.

Together we rode onto the lot, and I wasn’t disappointed by the surprised looks on everyone’s faces. It was so wonderful to reconnect with old friends, and even more so to see their reactions when I told them what I’ve been doing all summer.

I took Ryan out on the stage to show him just how big the MUNY really is. He had a hard time believing that I have performed in front of that many people before.

We spent about an hour and a half on the lot, but it was the busiest time of the week: HAIRSPRAY, their final show of the summer, was opening in just a few hours. So I hugged people as quickly as I could, and promised to be back the following night to see the show.

Ryan and I rode the rest of the afternoon with our gear on the bikes, remarking how many more opportunities we had to talk to folks about our trip when they saw our loaded bikes.

We cycled through downtown St. Louis, stopping on Market Street near the Old Court House to stop and take our photos with the Arch. (If you get too close, you can’t get the arch in the shot, because it is so big!)

Taking our sweet time to soak up the glory of it all, we each rolled underneath the arch—the gateway to the west (and I guess, the east, too!)—as the sun set through the windows of the court house behind us. It was pretty darn cool. Take THAT Lewis and Clark!

Ryan borrowed my phone to call his girlfriend for the first time in a few days, and I surveyed the Mississippi River and all of the excited faces around me. I looked over and saw Dad a hundred meters away, lying directly underneath the center of the arch, talking to Mom on the phone.

It was a perfect place to call it a day, and so we rolled our bikes down to the parking lot by the river, and started loading up into the van. It’s only a few short miles to Shelley’s house from the arch, but it isn’t a great idea to cycle through East St. Louis after sunset.

As we were loading up, we were horrified to witness a father screaming at his eight-year-old son in the parking lot. It isn’t worth going into the details now, but suffice it to say there was obvious abuse going on—mental, emotional, and even physical. It was bad enough that I had to physically restrain Dad from going over there and getting involved.

Sometimes you can doubt whether you are just witnessing horrible parenting, or true abuse. Our society teaches us not to meddle in our neighbor’s business, especially in family affairs. But other times, your gut tells you just how wrong the situation is, and so I wrote down the license plate number of the car he was driving, and made a point of calling family services. I don’t know if it will do any good at all, but as I reported the details to the person on the phone, they affirmed my decision to say something.

On a lighter note, it only took us about 15 minutes to drive to Aunt Shelley’s house, where Ryan’s friend Shay was waiting to pick him up and take him to her place nearby. They stayed for another round of IMO’s pizza (AMAZING!), and chatted with us well into the evening.

It was like coming home to arrive at Shelley’s: I have spent so much time there that I felt like I could really let my hair down. Everyone is just the same as last summer, except Tommy has grown another 4 or 5 inches (he’s over 6’8” now, I’d guess), and Mary has painted her bedroom blue. We didn’t stay up too late, as we are often wont to do, because the cycling really took it out of me today.

I slept so soundly in my usual summer bed, I hardly even noticed Dad’s snoring.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Problem Solved!

I was able to find the number of the bike shop owner in the phone book, and he met me at the shop to help me find my pedals and get them switched out.

Now I'm just planning my route down to Chester, IL...should be back on the TransAm route by the evening!

Talk to you soon!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A slight Delay...

Hi Folks!

Just wanted to give you a quick update, since it has been a while since I've posted anything out of the journal.

I arrived in St. Louis on Monday afternoon (almost a week ago), and spent the following two days visiting my Aunt Shelley and her family in Granite City, IL.

From there, I drove up to my Grandma's house in Arthur, Illinois, and spent Thursday-Saturday there.

I planned to get back on the road tomorrow morning (Sunday), but have run into a minor problem: Before I left for Arthur, I took my bike into the shop in Granite City to figure out the source of a mysterious creaking noise.

The shop figured out that the crank arm of my pedal had come undone from the axle, and needed to be replaced. The part was under warranty, so he would just charge me for labor.

Long story short, I couldn't make it back to Granite City today in time to pick up the bike before they closed, so I asked my cousin Tommy to pick it up for me. He did, and brought it home. But unfortunately, when they replaced the crank arm of the pedal, they replaced the pedals too...swapping out my really expensive Shimano clip-in pedals, for the cheap non-clip-in pedals that came standard with the new pedal crank arms. Tommy would never have known to look for that, since he wasn't familiar with my bike.

To make matters worse, the shop owner's wife had a baby today, and so the shop won't be open until Tuesday morning at 10am. I don't have any way to get in touch with the shop owners until then.

So I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet. Shelley thinks she knows where the owners live, but I feel pretty bad showing up at his house the day after his wife had a baby and asking him to give me my pedals back. On the other hand, the shop's mistake could cost me two whole days of riding--no small thing when I'm trying to get my dad home in time for school to start.

So we'll see how things pan out tomorrow. The other option would be for me to ride the bike with the cheap pedals and have Shelley pick up and mail me the good pedals on Tuesday. None of the options are perfect...and after several days of visiting family and not riding my bike, I'm feeling pretty restless and ready to roll.

That's all for now. Tonight, I'll keep working on the journal in hopes to get a few more days posted here before I leave.

Take care,

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Phase 2 Day 5-7

Day 5 of Phase 2
July 30, 2009
Rest Day in Gravois Mills, MO
Weather: Overcast and warm
Where we slept: Aunt Ellen’s lake house

After a late night of reminiscing, engaging in deep theological banter and wine, we woke up this morning a little groggy, wishing for a few more hours in the sack. But we had promised Amy at the Westside Star Newspaper that we would show up at the office around 10am to take a photo.

So we did our best to pull ourselves together over coffee and LIFE cereal, and made it down to the newspaper office just after 10. We had done most of the interview yesterday, so we only spent about 5 minutes with Amy at the newspaper. I asked her to make sure to mention World of Wheels bike shop in her article, since they had taken such good care of me the day before.

On our way home, we stopped in at the Central Bank where my Uncle Rob works to say hello. He was having a rough day, dealing with more than a few impatient customers, so we did our best to offer him a little comic relief before heading out.

After running an errand or two, we drove to the Kidwell Care Center in Versailles, where a couple of Ellen’s church members lived. Being a minister in the community, Ellen was a familiar face around the center, and so we walked right on in to the assisted living wing of the building. Halfway down the hall, a woman in a motor scooter exclaimed, “Shoot! I’m out of batteries! Good GOSH, when this thing gets low, it sure runs out fast!”

We stopped in to visit Eileen McKinley, a 95-year-young firecracker of a lady that had belonged to Ellen’s church for ages. Eileen’s son and his wife were visiting, and gave us a tour of Eileen’s artwork that decorated the walls of the room. She is a remarkable painter—cats being her favorite subject. She had painted ceramic plates and remarkable oil portraits. Quite the perfectionist, Eileen could hardly stand to look at one of her current projects—a portrait of a little Andean girl with a small puppy by her side. The painting was being taken from a photo, and the likeness was museum quality. But Eileen was frustrated as all get out by the little puppy peeking out from behind the girl. Dad suggested that she get out her eraser and paint a cat there instead. Eileen liked that idea a lot.

Eileen is a musician, and loves to play country music on the organ she keeps in her room. Unfortunately, she suffered from a stroke three or four years ago, and only had the use of her right hand anymore, so playing the organ was less-than-satisfying for her. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind collaborating with me to play a duet then—with her playing the right hand part and I the left. It took a little bit of convincing, but once we were got ourselves parked at the piano, we went to town.

She apologized several times for her poor eyesight, claiming that she couldn’t read the music that well, while playing a note-perfect rendition of “America the Beautiful” together with me. Our first verse ended on a sour note (I called it the Blues version) so we went one more round, singing as we played. In the end I think we were both pretty proud of our musical collaboration.

Lunch was getting started, so we let Eileen and her family get down to the dining room. Ellen, Dad and I left the nursing home feeling pretty uplifted by our visit. Musical collaboration has a bonding effect unlike any other activity I’ve known.

We were getting pretty hungry ourselves, so we drove about an hour to Osage Beach, where my friend Jessi is working for the summer. She was volunteering in Nicaragua at the same time that I was, and I hadn’t seen her in a year. It’s always a strange experience seeing someone in such a wildly different context than the last time that you were together.

Jessi juggled all ten tables, including our own, and still found enough time to stop by and chat with me from time to time. Still, we had so much catching up to do, I insisted that she come by Ellen’s house after work to just sit on the dock and chat.

We drove back to Gravois Mills, and I immediately passed out on the futon. I was so tired, I didn’t even know how much time had passed before I woke up to the sound of Uncle Rob and Dad carrying furniture into the garage. Rob and Ellen were buying a new bed, and to my wonderment, had taken the pontoon boat across the river to pick it up! I hopped out of bed, and lent a hand unloading the boat and carrying the mattress up to the garage.

After a hearty steak dinner at the house, we went out for one last boat ride as the day slipped away into night. The lake is so calm in the late evening hours: It feels like you’re the only people out there. We watched the sun slip away and the stars emerge, waving to families sitting in their backyards and laughing around campfires.

We got back to the house around 10pm, and got out Rob’s telescope to peek at the clear night sky. Rob showed us the craters of the moon, and even found Jupiter shining brightly in the east. Through the telescope, you could even see four of Jupiter’s moons orbiting the massive planet.

Jessi arrived after work at about 10:30, and we stayed up well past 2 am. We sat on the dock watching a meteor shower, huddled under a big towel on the porch swing, drinking beer. It was so wonderful to see her, having shared so many ups and downs together during our time in Nicaragua. Sometimes, the best friends are those to whom you have no need to explain things, and Jessi is one of those friends.

We knew it was time for bed when we heard Dad’s snores drifting all the way down to the lake. We tip-toed back to the house, and crawled into the two futons that Ellen and Dad had gotten ready for each of us.

Day 6 of Phase 2
July 31, 2009
Montrose to Sedalia, MO on the Katy Trail
60 miles
Weather: 82 and blue skies for ages
Where we slept: Missouri State Fairgrounds, Sedalia, MO

Today, it was time to say goodbye to Ellen and Rob, who had been so very good to us during our time in Lake of the Ozarks. Jessi stayed for breakfast this morning, Rob already having left for work early in the morning. We had bacon and eggs and sweet rolls and coffee—all of the essential ingredients to woo me out of bed after another night short on sleep.

Jessi left for work around 9:30, and then I spent the next hour or so packing up all my odds and ends into the van. As we said goodbye to Ellen, we commented once again how refreshing it is to spend time with extended family one-on-one, outside the typical stress of the family reunion environment.

We drove the hour and a half back to Montrose while trying in vain to have a phone conversation with my mom. We kept going in and out of service, but for some reason we kept on trying.

A few miles from Montrose, a little town called Tightwad, Missouri popped up on our GPS system, so a detour was clearly in order. We stopped in at the tourist center (a gas station) and took pictures at the Tightwad Bank. It’s pretty impressive for a town of 63 to have their own bank.

We got to Montrose around noon, and went right back to the bar where I had called it quits on Tuesday afternoon. It took slightly longer than normal to get all my gear in place and get on the road, since the two days off had resulted in a less-than-organized support van.

I drew more than a few funny glances from the old-timers who were getting an early start on their weekend at the bar. They stepped out of their red pickup trucks in their denim overalls and muttered, “What in God’s name?” under their breath.

By 12:30, I was on the road, with a little lead in my shorts after too much time off and too little sleep. I got to Clinton, MO, where the Katy Trail starts, around 3:30.

One of my dear Nicaraguan friends just so happens to be working in Warrensburg, Missouri this summer, a short drive from Clinton. So we took yet another break, tossing the bike in the van and driving about 30 miles for dinner.

He was so happy to be living there, and it was a beautiful thing to see such a dear friend from Nicaragua on the same day I got to see Jessi. It’s making me itch to go back for a reunion visit.

We got back to Clinton around 5:30, and took a few pictures at the trailhead of Katy Trail State Park. The trail is a converted railroad line (the Missouri-Kansas-Texas line), and will carry me traffic-free all the way to St. Louis. Way cool.

The ride was beautiful for the 35 miles into Sedalia. All around the trail, trees arch overhead, offering a welcome relief to the sun’s blazing heat.

I saw hardly a soul on the trail the whole evening, save one Amish man working in his fields. I shouted to him the only phrase I know in Pennsylvania Dutch: “Bie vist du?” – “How ya doin’?” –and relished the surprised and pleased look on his face that an obviously not-Amish kid wearing lycra on a bike had greeted him thusly.

I crossed paths with loads of wildlife. I wish I were more adept at identifying bird species, because today the trail was just vibrating with color and life. However I can pretty confidently identify the family of wild turkeys I saw running down the path away from me: The mama, papa, and seven baby turkeys couldn’t figure out how to escape the tunnel of trees, and so just continued to fly straight on ahead of me for several hundred yards.

By the time I reached Sedalia, it was quite dark. Thankfully, the new headlight that Aunt Ellen bought me illuminated the whole trail. Unfortunately, that meant I could see all of the giant black flies, gnats, and spider webs flying at me, like some twisted version of Guitar Hero.

I decided that riding my bike in the woods alone after dark was neither fun, nor a good idea, even though there was no traffic to consider.

I found Dad in Sedalia at the Missouri State Fairgrounds, which was packed with 4-H and Future Farmers of America folks, getting ready for a big equestrian event tomorrow. It took us a while, but eventually we found a corner of the lot that seemed appropriate for tent camping.

There was already another cycle tourist there—the first we’ve seen since getting back on the road Sunday. I was so excited to swap stories and see where he was going, but he was sitting zipped up in his tent, reading with a flashlight. (I knew he was a cycle-tourist by the loaded bike leaning on the tree next to his tent.)

I didn’t feel right walking up to a guy camping alone in his tent and probably scaring him out of his mind, so I just set up my tent near his and stretched, hoping he would come out on his own before too long. In hindsight, that sounds just as creepy.

Regardless, it wasn’t long before I met Ryan, who was cycling from his home near Austin, TX, to Kalamazoo, MI, to visit “a very special girl.” He just graduated medical school, and instead of starting his residency right away, decided to take a year off and do adventurous stuff like a cycle tour.

Being that he was the first cyclist we’ve met, and we’re carrying a car full of snacks and treats for just such an occasion, we may have gotten a little over excited and shoved too many candy bars at Ryan. But I think he understood, and graciously accepted our gifts.

I cleaned up in the semi-sketchy locker-room showers at the fairgrounds, and headed to bed to write this journal. Before hitting the sack, Ryan and I decided to ride together for a bit tomorrow, to add a little camaraderie to our very solitary days on the bike.

Day 7 of Phase 2
August 1, 2009
Sedalia to Jefferson City, MO on the Katy Trail
86 miles
Weather: Chilly, Rainy morning, sunny cool afternoon
Where we slept: Cousin Brian’s House, Fulton, MO

I woke up just before my alarm this morning at 6:58, to the sound of a few raindrops falling on my tent. It’s always the hardest to get yourself out of bed when you know that a rainy sky awaits you on the other side of the tent flap.

Nonetheless, I was eager to get on the trail and enjoy riding another day traffic-free. Dad packed up our tent, while I fired up the ol’ camp stove and cooked a big pot full of grits and oatmeal. It would have been a lot tastier if I could have found the honey, but Dad and Ryan didn’t complain too much.

An old man in a pickup with a cigarette hangin’ off his lips drove up around 7:05, eager to collect the $10 camping fee from both Ryan and us. Ryan was in the shower at the moment, so the old geezer told Dad, “You tell that young man I’ll be back to see him.”

Ryan got settled up and we were on the road just before 8am. It was raining pretty steadily, but a pretty solid canopy of trees covered the trail. We made darn good time for the first couple of hours, as the trail was pretty empty and we didn’t have to worry about carrying our gear or avoiding traffic.

On our way out of Sedalia, we biked past a house whose backyard butted right up to the trail. The owners must have been a witty, whimsical crew, as they had a display of punny things displayed on the trail. A tiny chair and a rocking horse were each mounted on a 12-foot tall pole, with signs reading, “High Horse” and “High Chair.” We chuckled as we rode by, until we saw a big wooden box labeled “Baby Rattlers.” Our curiosity got the better of us (at this moment I took the opportunity to explain to Ryan what a “Mary Moment” is) and we turned around to investigate. You had to get really close to see through the wire mesh into the box…which contained several toy rattles that babies play with. It was enough to keep me smiling for several more miles.

Just outside of Sedalia, the Katy trail got a little confusing. A sign directed us off the old railroad path, and had us follow a painted trail on the road through the neighborhoods, where it eventually dead-ended at a “T” in the road. We stopped, confused, and waited for a car to pass so that we could ask for directions. A pickup truck approached with an old man wearing a ball cap and smoking a cigarette (not the tax collector from the fairground, but probably his brother) and I tried to flag him down, sort of standing in his way in the road.

“Can we ask you a question?” I asked.

“I need to turn there,” he replied.

“Right. Well we’re lost. Can you tell us where the Katy Trail picks up?”

“Down a mile, left a mile, right a mile. Now I need to turn there,” he grunted, without skipping a beat.
His directions were a lot better than his demeanor, and we got back on track before too long.

A few miles up the trail, we met another cycle tourist, riding from New York to the West Coast. Michael was a researcher for IBM originally from Switzerland. It was really nice to have someone coming from the other direction that could tell us about trail conditions up ahead. We talked for a solid 45 minutes or so before parting ways.

Ryan and I both thoroughly enjoyed having someone to talk while riding for the first time in a while. It’s amazing the topics you can cover when you’re riding side-by-side for nearly 12 hours. You would never sit with a near stranger in a café or a bar for 12 hours, learning each other’s life story, but cycle touring is a whole different world.

I learned that Ryan was headed to Michigan for a bigger reason than to just visit his girlfriend: He was on his way there to propose to her. (I suspected as much, but waited until he spilled the beans.) We talked all about his plan for the proposal, and I even referred him to a jeweler friend of ours to help him design a special something for his gal.

We had heard all about the old Katy Bridge over the Missouri that we were going to cross, and when we got to Boonesville, we marveled at the giant Iron truss bridge across the river. But unfortunately the drawbridge portion of the bridge was in the up position, and we had to cross on the very boring highway bridge upriver.

On the other side, we met up with my dad, and a 68-year-old cyclist who announced that he had just ridden 60 miles, and had 38 more to go, with all the gusto and authority of an army colonel.

We rode past foxes, indigo buntings, hawks, and deer. The Katy Trail runs alongside a beautiful bluff on the east, and wetlands and cornfields on the right. At one point, we heard music drifting over the cliffs from an ambiguous direction…just enough to add an air of mystery to the place.

Ryan and I took another Mary Moment to follow a trailhead up to the Eagle Bluff Overlook—a .75 mile hike straight uphill to a little wooden platform that showed us the giant Missouri valley below. It was worth the hike, but my legs are sure gonna feel those stairs tomorrow.

We stopped for lunch at a trailside café in Rocheport, which was both café and bikeshop, run entirely by middle-aged flamboyant gay men. Certainly not something I was expecting in Central Missouri. The food was excellent, and the service more than entertaining. As we were leaving, Ryan noticed that his front tire was low, and what better place to have that happen than in front of a bike shop! We borrowed their tools and discovered that Ryan had run over a thorn. A few minutes later, we were all patched up and ready to roll again.

Just a few miles from the end of our day, we stopped for a good break at a little campsite and store called Cooper’s Landing. Cooper ran the place with the help of Ginger, who had 7 kids with her late husband, and 3 grandkids, and was pretty feisty for a self-proclaimed “old hippie.” There in the middle of nowhere, situated on the most beautiful curve of the Missouri River, they ran both a Thai restaurant and a BBQ joint, and had live music 5 nights a week. It was certainly an unexpected surprise, and Ryan and I were only able to pry ourselves away knowing that my cousin Brian was expecting us in Jefferson City later that night.

In total, we rode about 86 miles that day—more than Ryan had ever done in a single day. I was pretty proud of the both of us, as we made it in before dark, just in time to enjoy a glorious sunset over the cornfields.

We threw everything in the back of the van, and drove about 20 miles to Brian’s place in Fulton. (Fulton is infamous for housing the state penitentiary and mental hospital…neither of which are Brian’s home, just for clarification.)

Over pizza, beer, and M&M’s, we got cleaned up, ran some laundry, and enjoyed good conversation late into the night.