While en route, on foot, to the library my stomach begins the sporadic fluttering I know so well to be nerves. I plant myself on the front steps and search for the small blue hatchback my partner has driven 12 hours from New Orleans for the sole purpose of fetching my bicycle and I. It is the first time I will meet the man who answered my ad under “Companions Wanted” on the ACA website, a shot in the dark as far as compatibility is concerned.
Drawing from a previously horrific partnership experience, my mental preparation for the worst possible mix of personalities between my still mysterious new partner and myself was well established. Regardless, my nerves persisted.
The fated vehicle pulls up and he gets out, half shakes my hand and half hugs me. I tell him it is nice to meet him as I walk around the front of the car to seat myself. I dictate directions that will take us to the interstate we need to begin traveling south. His car is impeccably clean and prior to the introduction of my things contained only a car jack and a large rack pack made for bicycle touring. He idly flips through radio stations as we make small talk and settles on a soft electronic sounding song with a dreamy female vocalist. My nerves begin to fade.
This was Josh. Josh who was born and raised in New Orleans, quiet and modest valedictorian of his high school, employee of the year at his workplace and the only one of four siblings to maintain healthy relationships with them all. Josh, whose grammar could knock a grammar enthusiast on her ass with the lick of a single sentence; who has an accent that even some fellow New Orleanders cannot place; one that I had slight trouble understanding in the beginning but came to adore by the end.
We arrive late at his apartment and he forfeits his bed to me. I wake to the smell of fresh coffee, a proposition for breakfast and the start of my tour of New Orleans. We begin by gathering some last minute supplies from various business establishments, consequently visiting every bike shop in the area over the course of a couple of days, some of them more than once. One hundred and forty dollars, an inner tube, a shattered pair of tire levers, and a barely avoided punctured cornea later, my bike is outfitted with virgin, jet black, bomb proof tires. This is not including the bag full of extra brake pads, chain links, spokes, bolts and tubes. We pack, repack, assess and analyze our clothing systems, cooking supplies, spare parts and tools for days in advance. On the final day we remove each stuffed set of panniers from our bikes and begin ferrying equipment and bikes down the flight of stairs to be reassembled and ridden off into the humid, cobbled streets of New Orleans, our first stop being a greasy diner famous for their endless cup of coffee.
The long, flat, utterly monotonous highway leading us to the eastern edge of Louisiana provides the perfect opportunity to settle ourselves into a matching pace. It is framed by short trees dissipating with each mile to reveal marshes to the south and a lake to the north, seemingly extending to meet the horizon. The clip-clop of my tires at the beginning and end of each cement panel, mirrored in a different key by Josh’s, becomes a metronome to our sporadic conversation. We ride into the night, crossing into Mississippi, flanked by sand giving way to salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico, to our first campsite. Hastily, and not so legally, we erect our sanctuary from hungry bugs and collapse onto our inflatable mattresses, a stout first day of 78 miles. (Kenner, LA to Buccaneer State Park, MS)
My eyelids flutter open to the soft blue that is so characteristic of a beach dawn. I pull an extra layer over my head to combat the chill of the gusty morning and begin to quickly break down camp. The moment I throw my leg over the top tube of my bike, I begin mentally preparing to combat the pain I feel as the hot spots on my rear contact my saddle. Josh is already at the end of the road waiting for me. We turn east and continue traveling where we left off, stopping at a beach side picnic shelter in search of some wind-shield to make breakfast. The majority of this day is passed with the Gulf as our shoulder, pushing through patches of windblown sand under a cloudless sky. We are passed by hundreds of old hot rods, model Ts and other assorted antique vehicles as a part of a weekend long car show. At my request, we lug our bikes through deep sand to a bench for one of our many midday breaks. I promptly discard a few layers and take off at sprint speed for the water, expecting the heron fishing for food to be terrified, or at least annoyed, by my rude introduction. It does nothing. It stands perfectly frozen as I splash about in knee-deep water attempting to find a depth suitable for swimming. I chase fish and wild stingrays along the sandy bottom while flopping about in the deepest area I can find. Josh watches from shore, unaffected by the nature of my childish euphoria. I finish laughing and stomping about and return to the bench where both my bike and Josh are parked. We are approached by a fellow load-carrying cyclist who introduces himself as Oris. He is 77 and has somewhere around 100,000 miles of touring under his belt. He is riding the Gulf coast and stopped to ask how the water is. Beautiful, I tell him.
Much to my dismay, we must continue our journey traveling north of the beach. I say silent farewells over my shoulder. The next few days we spend riding deserted picturesque roads through pine forests in sunny 60 degree weather, enjoying soft and springy campsites. We breakfast on oatmeal, lunch on peanut butter sandwiches.
We cross into Alabama after four days of riding, noting that the majority of road signs are peppered with bullet holes and the miniscule amount of traffic is comprised of logging trucks. We emerge from the woods in a place called McIntosh. The entire town is a gas station and post office. Josh makes conversation with a man who grunts words instead of pronouncing them as I send off letters and postcards.
It takes us a week to ride through Alabama, eating breakfast at the kind of restaurants that serve everything on compartmentalized Styrofoam plates with prepackaged plastic utensils and include a fried meat with every meal. We travel through places where it seems all it takes to be recognized as a town is a gas station, typically serving fried chicken from a hot bar and selling live bait to fishermen; meeting plenty of curious and friendly characters who wish us safety and promise to dedicate some time to prayer in our honor. At this point, we are adjusted to the routine of inquiries; where are you going, where did you come from, where are you sleeping, why are you doing this, etcetera. We have learned how to properly rank a town’s size and legitimacy based on one factor: the presence of a Dollar General, deciding to disregard any dot on the map uninhabited by the shining golden, rectangular sign that advertises all the sugar you can eat, for one dollar only.
We bathe using inconspicuous water spigots attached to buildings. Our tent becomes our home, decorated by smears of dried bug blood and our bikes our most intimate companions. Our butts no longer shrink at the idea of sitting on a hard seat the majority of the day and our leg muscles no longer whine. Our tan lines are sharp and contrast perfectly to our white parts. We guzzle coffee and eat large breakfasts. If we lunch at a restaurant, we order dessert. We have achieved a groove, a kind of symbiosis. (Waveland, MS to Anniston, AL: 422 miles)
Day eleven, we wake to a chilled morning at yet another poached campsite; our first full day on the Chief Ladiga Rail-to-Trail, an incredibly beautiful, paved bike path through a tunnel of early autumn foliage with a grade not exceeding 3%, plenty of wooden bridges straddling little creeks and absolutely no motorized vehicles. Around noon, we pass through the Eubanks Welcome Center of the Chief Ladiga Trail and meet Les, retired military law man with his name, faded and blurry, tattooed on his forearm. He delivers a map to each of us and tells us a story about a dog he once shot from his bicycle with the ‘little .22 magnum’ he always carries. He wishes us safe travels and tells us goodbye with kind eyes. By the end of the day, we have crossed into hilly Georgia, the Ladiga trail giving way to the Silver Comet Trail, dining at a restaurant made famous by its ‘southern flavor’. We lament that our path now must diverge from such a tranquil setting. We head north to a dinner of hot Mexican food and two fat margaritas. (Chief Ladiga, AL/Silver Comet Trail, GA to Rockmart, GA: 136 miles)
We readjust to shoulder-riding and the noise of motorized vehicles and ride into a town proudly declaring itself ‘the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains’. We have begun encountering some climbs, having gained about a thousand feet since leaving New Orleans. The roads are more frequently and sharply curved, the inclines are steeper, longer. There is rain in the forecast and we sleep in with the rain fly installed, our tent transformed into a dark and cozy womb. We ride a hilly and wet road to the ‘apple capital of Georgia’ for a lunch of freshly fried apple pies and hot coffee, spending our last night in the state in a motel to the sound of fat raindrops slamming the pavement. (Rockmart, GA to Cherokee, NC: 84 miles)
North Carolina provides thrilling descents, sustained climbs, and brilliantly colored foliage. The Smoky Mountains loom into our view, we both express mild anxiety for the anticipated climbs as we are beginning to feel the constant physical work we are subjecting our bodies to. We have now completely abandoned the flatlands for a quite undulating topography. On day sixteen, we climb the Smokys. Seventeen slow but gorgeous miles up, we cross the NC/TN state line at the highest point of our entire trip at 5,046 feet above sea level and proceed to the thirteen miles of eye-watering, grin-inducing descent. Josh checks us into a hotel for the night and after showering, we ride our stripped bikes to a nearby bar, marveling at the weightlessness of our 30 and 40 lb machines. (Cherokee, NC to Gatlinburg, TN: 30 miles)
The two days spent within eastern Tennessee afford us the best scenery the entire trip. Rolling, rich green farmland backed by the colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Also, it is here that we shatter our daily roadkill count with fifty-two unfortunate souls. We begin noticing that the number of characters we are meeting and questions we are answering has greatly depreciated as we have traveled farther north.
We cross into Virginia at Bristol at the end of a sixty-three mile day and sleep like stones regardless of the unrelenting noise of the nearby interstate. At breakfast the next day, Josh yet again demonstrates his impeccable morals by rescuing an obese woman from a fall. She calms herself before approaching our table to formally thank him and graciously accompanies her toothless appreciation with a flurry of personal stories. This is also where we meet kind old Jim who wishes only to provide positive verbal support mixed with a bit of awe and envy.
This woman became a shining example of the sort of people we were yet to meet. From Bristol, VA to Bluefield, the heart of Appalachia, the Crooked Road, we encounter a consistently haggard looking populace. A blue collar, hard working class of people, most sport soiled clothing and calloused hands. Very few speak or even make eye contact with us, the obvious outsiders. Billboards sign for different drug prevention groups and programs. The cashier at a gas station wears broken, plastic rimmed glasses. Josh rescues another toothless damsel from a flat tire disaster.
Southern West Virginia proves to be no different, except that the roads grow steeper and more curved. Our view is frequently crossed by coal trains and entire towns made up of single-wide trailers. We spend the night in a motel that, upon arriving, I am unsure it is even open for business due to the plywood covered window and total lack of cars in the parking lot. We receive a room key and enter a room sweltering from the south-facing, open curtain, no air conditioning combination. Halloween is quickly approaching and made apparent to us by the amount of themed movies on television. I select a movie featuring a suave looking thief character that quickly turns into a vampire slaying bloodbath. (Gatlinburg, TN to Bluefield, WV: 155 miles)
At breakfast the next morning, we are entertained by a parade of festooned kindergarteners, trick-or-treat receptacles in tow. We are a mere seventy miles from our final destination and are dealing with a couple of slight physical ailments. After selecting one route from three, we embark on the steepest day yet. We follow a paved pig path that curls itself up, down, and around the sides of mountains, walking and pushing quite a bit of the day. Late in the day and so close to our terminal point, we take a short break so that I may accidentally destroy the bolt that holds my saddle in place. The only bolt we have that is remotely similar in size is the one that currently serves the same purpose for Josh’s saddle. Resourceful Josh whips out a vice grip and attaches it where my bolt used to be just in time to quell the onset of panic inside of my brain. I am initially leery of this temporary fix, gingerly transferring weight into my saddle. After twenty more miles and a stop for ice cream, we arrive in Beckley, WV, just outside of our Fayetteville destination. The vice grip contraption has won not only my trust but also my undying appreciation. (Bluefield, WV to Beckley, WV: 48 miles)
In Beckley, we sleep in our fourth and final hotel. Josh turns the doorknob of our room and we are immediately transported to the 1950s. Everything is blue and everything is retro. There is wallpaper and a comforter on the bed so used it is no longer even reminiscent of the stiff coverings placed on most hotel beds. We eat Chinese delivery in bed while watching the dated television set.
I wake before seven and Josh is up and moving. The weather forecast is grim and motivates us to ride the last twenty miles swiftly. We inhale our breakfasts and swing ourselves into our familiar saddles and pedal and pedal. The ride is filled with ascents and descents beneath an impending thick grey layer of storm cloud doom. The last miles drag on as the surroundings become more familiar to me and the anticipation grows. We are racing the storm; we get closer to Fayetteville and the sky grows darker, the air more frigid.
The stoplight that denotes the intersection that is Fayetteville climbs into view, and with it, for me, a plastered, ear-to-ear grin, an increased heart rate. We stop at my favorite sandwich shop for lunch and as we pull into my driveway, the rainy prelude to snow begins. (Beckley, WV to Fayetteville, WV: 22 miles)
A few hours later, after the sun drops and with it, the temperature, the snow starts to stick. Two days of incessant snow and over a foot of accumulation later, power lines are damaged. We are four days with no power, no heat, no lights; snowed in, and all Josh and I can think how we could not have demonstrated better timing.
Miles traveled: 1050
Days spent traveling: 22
Average miles per day: 48
Longest/shortest day: 78 miles (Day 1) / 22 miles (Day 22)
Nights slept inside/outside: 4 / 17
Days of inclement weather: 2
Number of showers: 5
Flat tires/ Other mechanical issues: 0 / 2
Roadkill count record: 52