It's official; the trip has become insane. It took three of the longest days in the history of my life, but I've finally made it to Kristin and Mike's house in Summerville, South Carolina.
Before I even reached the ticket booth window, I shouted, "Did I make it??". I slammed on my brakes to come to a skidding stop and the man behind the counter immediately answers, "Nope! Wave bye-bye to the ferry, there it goes! Haha!" I didn't even realize there was going to be a ferry on my route this day until I was two miles and six minutes from its departure point. The ferry was literally a foot off the dock and sailing away from me. I shook my fist in the air like an angry old-timer just for kicks but didn't really mind.. it's only an hour 'til the next ferry.. I guess I'll brush my teeth to pass the time.
Earlier in the day at a diner in Wilmington, the weather channel informed me that everyday for the next seven days was calling for thunder storms.. lovely. I took a seat near the dock, put on my headphones and began to brush my teeth. You know how sometimes when you brush and spit out the toothpaste at the end, the color of the spit can be white, red, blue or maybe even green? Well, this time it was a deep, chunky black. Mmm... 36 double-stuffed Oreos in one sitting.. I almost forgot. Perhaps a few more for lunch and I'd have had the required sugar blast to make it to the ferry on time. That afternoon, after swimming through some ungodly humidity, my customized hospitality t-shirt lost half its lettering when it became drenched in sweat. I stopped at the local Food Lion, bought a sharpie, a pack of Oreos and created the second prototype:
Anyway, as I finished cleansing my mouth of chocolate, the storm front decided to make its debut. The wind picked up as the skies grew dark and all the plants and flowers laid down low.. a cold chill was in the air and it wasn't long before the ocean became white with foam. It had become a beautifully stormy night. I sat there wondering if the next ferry was going to depart into the madness or not and I kind of hoped it would only to become lost at sea so I could adventure elsewhere. It didn't matter where I was going anymore or when I'd get there.. I just wanted to get lost. Just as I completed the thought, Zeppelin's Ten Years Gone streamed into my head.. and moments later, I found myself lost in a world where no boat could travel.
The ferry came, we crossed safely and I soon made camp in Southport. I slept well, maybe too well. Now a couple weeks into the trek, I've started to have extremely detailed dreams that last days and weeks all in a single night. It really throws a wrench in my ability to keep track of time and often I'll wakeup in the middle of the night very surprised to find myself in a tent.. in the middle of nowhere. "Oh right, I'm biking across the country.. and I have been for quite some time now." It already feels like I've been doing this for years though it's been about 19 days or so. The more I take in, the longer the journey is.
The next morning was the coldest yet, but regardless, Shadowfax and I started off south once again with complete ignorance to the insanity that would soon unfold. Not even a mile into the fog, a loud clicking and sometimes grinding noise started coming from the back wheel. I heard it yesterday and hoped it was just a rock hitting the spokes or something, but now it was quite obvious that my horse had become lame. I pulled into a bank, removed all the gear and flipped the bike upside-down. As I inspected every component of the back wheel, I heard the sound of a roaring engine approaching from the woods which was apparently heading in my direction though I could see nothing at all. I stood up to get a better look and suddenly a pickup truck screamed out of an empty lot and literally flew onto the road across from me! I caught a glimpse of the cowboy steering this brown beater on wheels just as the dust cloud engulfed both me and the bicycle. He kept on tearing down the road and then spontaneously shot off into the woods and disappeared like nothing had ever happened. I sat there in complete bewilderment, shook my head and then went back to my bike. Turns out, something is wrong with the internal components of the hub and the wheel is wobbling back and forth as I ride.. this isn't something I can fix on my own. I dialed the number for the nearest bike shop only to find out it closed down 9 months ago and that the next closest shop is 20 miles down the road. Did I mention the bike is now unable to be ridden? Great. Looks like I'm walking in the cold.
I pushed the bike a couple of miles and stopped at a Dollar General to ask if there was a bike shop nearby. A lady inside informed me that there was a brand new one down the road about 3 miles. Cool beans, I can handle that. The next customer in line got my attention and said "Having bike troubles? I used to be a bike mechanic." What are the odds? He looked at my bike and confirmed that it was probably a bearing inside the hub that was causing the problems. He pointed me towards the bike shop but couldn't take me there since he was short on time. So, I put on my walking shoes and was about to keep walking when...
Enter Don (65'ish) and Dusty (9). This loud and broken pickup truck pulls up to the dollar store and the man comes out with his grandson. "You broke it didn't ya??" -- "Yup, it's busted alright." He knelt down to his grandson, Dusty, and said "Ya'll go cleanup the front seat would ya? We takin' this boy placers today!'" This is most excellent; it was way too cold to walk it anyway. I looked in the back of this guy's pickup truck and realized it might take as long to put my bike it in as it would to walk down there. He's got random tractor tires, broken tables, a chess set, rusted fishing gear, rope, an anchor, half a tricycle and loads of random shit in this thing.. all soaked from the rain. The front seat was even worse but thankfully less dangerous. I looked at all this crap and swallowed my pride.. Shadowfax is going to look like hell when this is over, but I don't have much option now.
The car ride was thankfully short and we arrived at the bike shop in a few minutes. I think another 15 minutes in the car and the fumes leaking from his carburetor might have taken me places not even Led Zeppelin would dare. The dude at the bike shop informed me that it was indeed a chewed-up bearing but he could not fix it because he was not a certified Cannondale dealer.. if I wanted it fixed under my warranty, I had to take it to the next town 20 miles south. I looked at Don and he said "I ain't gonna leave you high and dry, boy." Back in the truck we go. "As long as we got enough pushwater, we gonna get you rolling today." And of course I had to ask, "Pushwater?" -- "Yea, pushwater.. you know, gasoline." Oh, right... how silly of me.
Amidst the broken beebee guns, Easter eggs, magazines and cooking pots, Don, Dusty and I now had time to get to know one another. Don lit a cigarette (which I prayed was burning the CO) and began to tell me about his life and countless near-death experiences. Among the many, he told me of the two brain aneurysms he had in his 30s. I asked him what caused it and how it effects him, and he turned to me, looked over-top his grandson and mouthed the word, "Cocaine". I nodded as if to say, "well, that'll do it". I'd later find out that the aneurysms took a toll on his short-term memory after he asked me for a third time what I studied in school. Dusty was sitting next to me trying to sort through the candy bar wrappers and random tools on the floor. Don said, "You never know what you'll find in this thing" and Dusty turned to me for the first time, made eye-contact and said "NEVER!!". Whether it was the fumes from the truck or the ridiculousness of these two people, I laughed all the way to Shallotte and the next bike shop.
I'm sorry, I don't mean to bad-mouth people, but the owner of the only bike shop in Shallotte, NC, is a jackass. I told him my situation, exactly what was wrong with the bike, that I needed a new bearing or a replacement wheel, the bike was under warranty, Cannondale would make good on his services, but he was intent to find every dead-end possible. I knew it was unlikely he'd have the proper bearing or hub assembly I needed, but I figured he'd have an existing bike with which he could swap out my wheel. No dice, he says he has no similar wheel. He called his representative from Cannondale and told me that the necessary part is on back order for 2 weeks. Two weeks? I looked at Don and he did not have sympathetic eyes. They were hungry and I was eating up their afternoon. I decided we head for lunch while this bike shop tries to figure out a better means to get me rolling, and I also decided to call Genesis Bicycles in Easton, the shop where I purchased my bike.
I got a hold of Mary, the lady who actually sold me the bike not too long ago. I told her I was in a jam and had this guy patiently carting me around North Carolina but was having little fortune. She took the name and number of the bike shop and said she'd call me back. Ugh.. not what I wanted to hear. Little did I know, she was about to work some kind of magic. She called me back in 5 minutes and managed to get the local bike mechanic to take a wheel off one of his stock bikes and put it on mine. Done and done, absolutely no charge towards me. I was in awe; the guy told me he had no bikes with a similar wheel! Many thanks to Mary and the staff at Genesis.. this is the second time they've come to my rescue over telephone.
Back on the road, I crossed the border into South Carolina still amazed that I got out of the mess earlier without having to burn days if not weeks going nowhere. Night came and I was once again in the middle of nowhere. I turned into a newly built housing complex and went all the way to the back where it wasn't yet developed. 50ft into the woods, I navigated my bike through the brambles and made a successful camp site. I didn't sleep well this night.. in fact, I barely slept at all. There were constant sounds of birds, leaves falling on my tent (it scares the crap out of you), and the wind howling in the treetops. Around 2am, another sound is heard outside my tent.. and it's no leaf. It's the sound of a branch breaking, maybe from the wind, maybe not. Now it's another branch breaking.. again, and again.. and again.. and it's getting louder. Something in the distance is nearing my tent. What could it be? No person is going to wander the woods at 2am, and no raccoon is going to break branches as it walks. This is bad.. real bad. It's then that I realized I invited whatever this thing is into my camp site when I opened a can of pineapples hours ago.. horribly stupid of me.
I wait for a little while longer in my sleeping bag hoping the sounds cease to increase in volume but they do not. After a few minutes of this sound getting louder, I pick up my headlamp (essentially a 'miner's light') and strap it to my head. Half panicked, I point it towards the noise through my tent but I can't see a thing because the light is reflecting off the mesh. Something big is still moving towards me, and I'm not going to be able to do shit if I'm inside my tent when it finds me. I have to get out. Unsure how close this thing now is, I put on my sandals, make a death-grip on my 8" hunting knife and step out of the tent with nothing but my tighty-whities and headlamp. Immediately I turn my head towards the sound of the footsteps to see two green eyes about 15ft away staring straight at me. It stops moving. For the longest moment of my life there is only the sound of the wind and these two completely motionless green eyes. Every inch of my body is shaking with the exception of my right arm which is spring-loaded, ready to be released upon the slightest motion. I have never felt such intense focus before.. it was as though I could sense the blood flowing in its veins and knew the intent of every muscle movement.. but it was also fear. My best guess at this point is that it's a bear. Whether or not it's a bear I don't know... for all I know it could be someone's lost dog.
The first bolt of lightning flashes. Instantly my confidence with the knife goes straight to hell. It's a bear, and it's certainly no Care Bear.. more like an I'm-gonna-eat-you-bear. Suddenly the staring contest ends and it looks in a direction that I cannot perceive. Without the light reflecting from its eyes, I have no idea where it is. Branches are breaking once again and it sounds as though it's moving away from my tent. I keep shining the light towards the fading sound but never find its eyes ever again. Should I leave? No way, I can't let this thing maul my bike. Maybe. In an instant I undo the lock on my bike and make for the neighborhood street. I managed my way out but still have to get all my gear and the tent out of there.. and now I have no clue where the bear is. I convince myself that I can handle this and move back into the woods one step at a time. I take a step, stop, look around and listen for sounds, then take another step. It takes me a while to return to the tent, but I'm happy to see that there is no sign of a bear. Then I hear a loud, low "huff" sound in the distance. It's still out there, and I need to leave before it changes its mind. I slowly undo my tent so I can hear my surroundings and then drag it and all its contents out of the woods and onto the barren road. I'm out, but this story isn't over.
The storm is here in full force and it's begun to downpour. I shove my gear together and start to ride off with intentions to bike 120 miles straight to Kristin's. Something is wrong with my rear wheel suddenly. I tell myself this isn't happening as I'm standing there soaked at 3am, but it is. Somehow my brakes are making heavy contact with the back wheel, so I decided to screw the rear brakes altogether and disconnected the cable. Now I'm riding.. now I'm going to bike all the way to Summerville. Nope, wrong. The rain is too cold, the wind is too strong and you're running on zero sleep. I stopped a mile later under the Bethlehem Baptist Church overhang happy to be out of the rain and to be sharing their light. The storm is in full effect and thunder rolls in precise tandem with the sight of lightning while the church yard turns from grass to mud. I will seek refuge here until the storm passes.. Sunday morning in front of a church. Just then, the power goes out.
I didn't sleep at all. The storm, the cold and the encounter with this bear is making it impossible to sleep though I struggle to open my eyes. I put on all my clothes as well as my black neck gator and black ski hat. I started to think about what I'd be doing at this moment had I not decided to quit my job and not go on this bike trip. Odds are, I'd still be in Princeton and I'd be sleeping in a nice, warm and comfortable bed completely out of the rain and having no sign of fear. For a moment I felt regret that maybe I should have stayed there, but I quickly realized that this was just a brief negative on a largely positive tour. It occurred to me that this is exactly the opposite of how it was as part of the 'rat race'. Work sucked, it always sucked. But on rare occasion, there would be times when it was enjoyable and I was happy to be there. Those times didn't last very long, unfortunately, and I know now that I'd rather persevere through these kinds of nights than take on the lifestyle I almost fell into.
Around 6am, a man walks around the corner to find me sitting in front of the church doorway. I could tell by the sudden stop of his feet, he was scared. Good, that means I don't have to be. It was the pastor and I explained to him that I just needed to get out of the rain. "Ok, stay for as long as you want. I'm just going to go inside and lock the door behind me." He scurried into the church as I sat there laughing. I put on my headphones and fell asleep on the concrete.
I awoke two hours later when the first churchgoer pulled up.. in his pickup truck of course. I packed my gear and headed out into a drizzle. I made my way to the nearest food store, still exhausted, bought a 99 cent loaf of bread and ate it while half asleep on the sidewalk. Needless to say, I got in a few conversations over my appearance and diet. I continued riding through back country roads, the sound of Sunday morning skeet shootings, cricket-infested gas stations and soon found myself caught in another downpour. I sought shelter at some kind of temporary tent outside a mini mart and decided to figure out what was wrong with my rear wheel. The bastard at the bike shop put on a wheel that was far from true. I gave myself a crash-course in how to true a wheel and was pretty surprised at how successful I was at it. Turns out, the trick is to use your brakes as indicators. Neato.
I ate another loaf of bread while waiting for the rain to stop and fell asleep several times at the mini mart. Eventually I got back on my horse and kept riding though it was still pouring. I stopped at another gas station around 3pm only to find that it was no longer a gas station but now a buffet. This particular buffet is only open every other Sunday from 11am-2pm. I stood outside just to rest and that's when Susan Port came out and asked if I wanted some food.
"Would you like to come in for something to eat?"
"Oh no, that's alright, I just ate."
"Are you sure?"
"Yea I'm okay... I'm just here to rest and get out of the rain."
"Why don't you come in, we'll fix you up something free."
Buffet? Free? Jackpot. I took off my poncho and came inside. The three old-timers sitting inside stopped their conversation and stared at me. I looked at them and wasn't sure what to say.. "It's wet out there". They just kept staring at me, never said a word.. whatever. I ate nearly everything they had and thanked Susan several times. She sent me back on the road with 4 Ziploc bags full of rice, chicken, pork and bread. Delicious.
I gave up trying to reach Summerville with 50 miles to go and decided to camp in Andrews, SC. I was practically falling asleep on my bike from the lack of sleep and now oncoming food coma. I biked around a nice neighborhood with intent to ask the first person I met if I could camp in their backyard, but I didn't come upon any friendly-looking folk. It's still storming and I am not sleeping in the woods again. There's supposedly a motel nearby, but before I could ever find it, I happened upon the abandoned Andrews High School. I found my way inside and immediately pitched my tent inside room 103 after pushing aside the broken glass. This place had been closed for years and nearly everything was vandalized.. but it had no rain and more importantly, it had no bears.
A Spanish accordion woke me up the next morning from just next door and I consumed the contents of the leftover buffet. Today I'd reach Summerville, but of course, it would not be that simple.
On the way here, a lady with her kids stopped me on the road and offered for me to follow her home for a free dinner. Any other day, any other time and I'd have agreed but this time I was due elsewhere. I thanked her anyway and kept pedaling.
Finally, I made it here, dirt and all.. tired as hell. Many thanks to Kristin and Mike for their much-needed hospitality during a long couple of days. Good meals, a shower, clean laundry and the ability to regroup while on tour can go a long way.
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