Have you ever been lost, off-route and alone 3000 miles from home?
Have you ever adopted a black cat emerging from a graveyard?
Have you ever slept next to a cemetery at night during a thunderstorm... by yourself?
It probably seems a tad disturbing to those who haven't tried stealth-camping for months on end, but it wasn't entirely bizarre when all three events occurred in the same evening just a couple days ago. Picture a dark and cold night in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a single church in all directions. Add the sound of trees wrestling with the wind and taste an accumulating moisture in the air. Lightning strikes in the distance and from the empty, depthless blackness before you flashes a field of brittle, timeworn headstones amongst an overgrown marsh. The image escapes your senses as quickly as it came but fades ever so slowly in the mind's eye until there is nothing but an eerily silent black. The dead outnumber the living for a mile's radius and you stand alone. Time passes. Not a breathing soul in the world knows where you are. You look down to find a black cat parading around your ankles seemingly removed from the scene.
This kitten would not leave me alone and kept me up all night with the non-stop meows. After about a hundred attempts to grab him, I wrangled him into the tent and plopped him on the floor. At first, he tried to run and leaped headlong into the mesh (which was hilarious), but soon he warmed up in a mess of purrs and kept me company in the storm while staying high and dry through the night.
Mini-meow grows sleepy. The temperature dropped below freezing that night and in the morning the kitten wouldn't leave the inside of my sleeping bag. I kept taking him out and he would immediately turn around and crawl back inside. When I was packing up my gear, he sat on top of my panniers and gave the sad little kitten eyes so I wouldn't leave. A car pulled up into the empty parking lot and I soon met the pastor. Thankfully the cat belonged to the church and I didn't have to take on any guilt for leaving him to fend for himself.
I studied my maps for quite some time to figure out where I went wrong and how to get back on route without wasting too many miles. It's funny to think about how differently I would have reacted if the same night had happened on the maiden voyage from Maine. I would have definitely freaked out. Now when I miss turns, I just get out the compass and keep heading West until I run into a sign or a road on my maps. The maps are just a guide. They're the "what they say to do" when it comes to bicycle touring. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I've changed since mid-September and I'm always wondering if the changes will become permanent once the tour has concluded. Time will tell I guess.
A lonely road dissected the farmers' flooded fields through Western Louisiana and the sun would navigate its way off the water and under my glasses everwhere I turned.
It was yet a crisp Southern morning when I came into the small town of Mamou and into a hail of sirens just down the road. "What brings you to Mamou on the 11th of November?", the old man inquired. The entire community was on the streets to observe the annual Veteran's Day parade just as I was coming through. Every town-worker was on a float or in a fire truck and each time I picked up my head, someone was hurling candy at me. Once the kids saw I could catch, I became their prime target and old folk all around fled helplessly from the oncoming barrage of tootsie-pops.
Damn the horses. The picture I really wanted was of the cheerleaders that just passed by but some local started talking to me before I could get to my camera out.
It's not eye-candy, but it's just as sweet. Ha!
The 12th of November was a particularly nice day. "I should go outside today. Better yet, I should ride my bike. Yea, let's go on a bike ride." So, I got out of bed, brushed my teeth, strapped on the old boots and rode my bike to Texas.
I did a double-take when I biked by this road to my right. Is that what it looks like...? I came back to take this photo and can still semll the scent of rotting flesh as I write this. Don't mess with Texas?
Gene and Jess headed to St. Augustine, Florida.
The first touring cyclists I've seen since Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
More miles than I put on my car in an entire year.
Jodie and Shawne... also headed to St. Augustine, Florida.
We met as the day was drawing to an end and setup camp together just down the road. Jodie just hopped off her bike, went up to some folk sitting in their yard and a half hour later we were eating pork sausage by a bonfire while camping in their back yard.
In the light of the fire, the three of us talked endlessly of our touring thus far. One of them would start telling a story about their ride and the other would continually comment, laugh and fill in on the tale as they relived the time in their own memory. With each story they told, I began to understand my own bittersweet journey of solitude and withdrew from telling of my experiences. I enjoy riding on my own, but I know that when it's over, I will have nobody to share it with; whatever I write here and whatever I have on my voice recorder will unfortunately come to define the journey in the days that follow. It's as though the memories I don't record, the deep breaths of a chill morning air, the visible exhale coming from an elongated shadow, the feeling you get while crossing a wide bridge completely void of any cars and the hours upon hours reflecting into a setting sun will come to fade and only reappear in the context of a deja vu that I can't quite place into my own existing reality. Do you know what I'm trying to say here? I can live these scatters moments in my mind but it's somewhat tragic that they'll never get farther than that. Though, on the same token, I find a kind of value in knowing that these are the memories that keep my individuality and am almost happy to lack the ability to express every last ounce within.
"Ya'll trying to ride a bike in the middle of a hurricane!" Not quite, it's just a little windy, I think to myself. Ok, so maybe it was more than a little windy... whatever. Looking up towards the sky it was the a most peaceful shade of blue, but back on the ground it was chaos. I rode out of Navasota intent on making it just 40 or 50 miles because I knew the wind was going to be a problem, but after a couple of birds managed mach2 across the pasture, 40 miles was out of the question. I didn't know cows could sit down and still eat the grass, but none of them were brave enough to stand up and risk tipping I guess. For a long while I'd hold the bicycle at a 20 degree tilt to the right in order to keep a straight line while pushing as hard as I could to proceed downhill. My mirror was useless. The wind was deafening. I stopped 23 miles later at a town named Independence and found a relieving end to the day just before noon.
The only store in town happened to be run by two bicycle enthusiasts who kept a guest house out back for those passing through. Once they realized I came in their store to escape the wind, they offered for me to stay the night. Most excellent.
Do these people look familiar, Michael?
Does this look familiar?
The store owners kept a record book of all the cyclists coming through. I signed my name on the very last page and wrote "Windiest day in 3800 miles" right underneath. The woman behind the counter was surprised to hear when I said I came from Maine, and I told her that my cousin once did a very similar trip nearly a year ago. Again a light sparked above my head -- maybe he's in this book! Sure enough, five or six pages back there he is.
My home on November 15th, 2006. All night the wind sounded like it was going to rip the roof clear off this barn-turned-guest-house. The next day I'd find out that the winds were in excess of 60mph and cancelled 150 flights out of Houston. Just a little windy...
The faster I go, the less I get to see. The faster I go, the less people I meet. The faster I go, the more it burns, the less I learn about the culture, the less food I get to try, the colder it will be in Oregon and the sooner I'll have to return to a 'real life'. So why is it that I often feel rushed to get places? When you have this much time to yourself, these are the things you spend weeks pondering over. It's so easy to overlook the fact that the months I am spending on tour are a chunk in my life and not merely an escape from the 'real life'. "This is my life", I say to myself -- I'm not waiting on the edge of its conclusion to return back to 'normal'. What's the value in normal, anyway? I remember having a conversation with a coworker back in Princeton and he said something along the lines of, "I can't wait for the weekend so I can get back to my life". I responded, "This is your life... right now." He disagreed. How many heart beats did you use in the ride to work? How many did you use in order to 'decompress' afterwards? How many did you spend on your hair? How many waking heart beats did you have in your entire life and what percentage was spent in the company of loved ones? This is your life. Right now.
I try not to end journals on these sorts of notions, but it's zesty food for thought and I spend a lot of time chewing 'em up :-)
Rockin' hard in Austin 'til Monday,
"The Tower" on the campus of UT. The photo is actually a reflection from the window of a restaurant.
BJ, the dude who is putting me up right now in Austin.
His dog, Homer, eating a monstrous pair of underwear.
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Forget packing my panniers with plastic bags, these babies are waterproof! German engineering scores another victory.