Day 44: Elk Garden, VA to Lookout, KY - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 26, 2011

Day 44: Elk Garden, VA to Lookout, KY

Not many people have stood naked from the waist down at the front of a church sanctuary. Fewer still have done so willingly. I join the club as I change into my riding clothes next to the altar. I feel good after sleeping well and witnessing no flickering lights, no objects moving by themselves, and no hauntings.

"Yew got enough sugah theah hunny?" says the woman behind the counter at the convenience store a couple of miles up the road. I look down at the crackers and honey buns and Snickers bar laying on the counter and explain that I'm riding across the country on a bicycle, but in my head I feel a little embarrassed that my food choices have become so bad that even complete strangers living in one of the unhealthiest parts of America are concerned.

Morning rush hour in Honaker.
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Even though yesterday was mostly easy, my legs feel heavy and tight and struggle to find a rhythm. I stop in the gravel along the side of the road and close my eyes, resting, waiting, trying to draw down deep inside. The ability to climb is always there, it's just that some days it comes out easy and others it has to be beaten out.

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The complete inventory at Harold's Auto Sales.
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Another completely insane section of downhill drops me five miles to Council and then into a river valley that subtly rises and falls but generally trends down. I pull into a mini-mart a few miles up the road when I see a pair of recumbent touring bicycles resting against the front wall. Thanks to the bike rider log books that the parks and churches along the route ask travelers to sign, I already know it's the two women who sign their entries as "Those Girls." Their names are April and Christy. They're from Arkansas and they're spending the summer riding the TransAm to Oregon. They weren't riders before starting their trip, and their bikes aren't set up well for climbing steep hills, so they're taking it slow.

"We started this mornin' in Council," April tells me. "We rode about four miles, then we stopped, and we've been hangin' out here for the last hour and a half."

"Yesterday was tough," Christy adds. 'I think we musta pushed the bikes for about eight miles."

They're taking it very, very slow.

As we talk, Chris rolls by and stops in and it turns into a bike touring geek-out session, with everyone checking out the different seats and gear ratios and bag setups on the four bikes. I ride out 45 minutes later, certain I'll never see the girls again.

Those Girls and That Guy.
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I pass through a community called Bee as a Harley-Davidson motorcycle roars by, fiddle music blasting from its speakers. I round a couple more corners to find something I didn't expect to see for several more weeks: a loaded touring bike headed east. Kerry's from New Zealand, which I know the instant he speaks because I've watched every episode of Flight of the Conchords. He's in his 40s, very skinny, wears a salt-and-pepper mustache and beard, and rides an older Schwinn mountain bike with a suspension fork. He doesn't have the same touring exuberance of every other rider I've met so far. He seems tired, worn down by the road. I don't get the sense that he wishes his trip was over, but it seems like he'll be relieved once he hits the coast. As he tells me about his trip I start to understand why.

Kerry set out from Oregon all the way back in April, which sent him over the Cascade and Rocky Mountains ridiculously early in the season. He pounded out big miles early on because there wasn't another option.

"I hed no inceentive to stop," he says. "I couldn't stop ridin' for more than five meenutes, 'cause eevery time I deed I feckin' froze."

He has a picture of his drivetrain taken some time back in April. Icicles hang from his chain in the early morning cold.

He warmed up after dropping into the eastern part of Colorado and then pushing into the plains of Kansas, but even then he had a tough go of it. I ask him if he liked riding through Kansas.

"Nah, highted it." he says, with somewhat disgusted look on his face. "Feckin' borin', nothin' out theah. Just flat, nothin' took look at een any direection."

"Meessouray was alright, though," he admits. "And I liked Keentucky."

We wish each other safe travels. He continues east and I head west, hoping my love for biking stands the test of Kansas and the thousands of miles that follow. I'd hate to reach Washington State and have the end of the trip feel like a grind, like a job, like something I have to finish out of a sense of purpose and not because I really want to.

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Chris catches up to me as I talk to Kerry. We ride away together with me in front. Coming into Haysi I pull up a little hill because I'm looking for a restaurant and I think it might be up there. It isn't; it's just the local high school. Chris heads down the other side in the lead. It looks like he's about to blow through the stop sign at the bottom and continue up the road. I fly down 50 feet behind him and peek over my shoulder to check for oncoming traffic. Then I look up and—

"Oh shit!" I yell out in the split second that passes between the time I see him stopped ten feet in front of me and the moment the right-front bag catches his left-rear at 15 miles per hour. The impact shoves the handlebar to the left. In an instant my momentum stops and I see the pavement flying toward my face. My body knows what's coming and shoots adrenaline out so quickly that I already feel sick before the left side of my helmet, elbow, and shoulder all slam simultaneously into the ground with a sickening thud.

I'm done. This amazing trip that I love so much is over, right here at this intersection in Haysi-fucking-Virginia.

That's what runs through my head before I'm even up off the ground. But as soon as I push myself upright I realize I'm ok. My left side burns and zaps with pain and hurts like a bastard, but my elbows, wrists, ankles, and knees all work fine. The helmet saved me from a concussion and probably much, much worse. The bike survives, too. The handlebars are knocked out of alignment, the left-rear pannier has two gashes along its side, and the shifter hoods have some new scrapes, but I can deal with all of that.

If I'd been riding another foot to the right things could have turned out much differently. Chris and I are both very lucky.

I manage to wheel the bike across the street and lean it on the door of the volunteer fire station before mild shock kicks in and I stumble drunkenly into the adjacent wall and come within half a second of passing out. My head hums and what feels like raw energy pumps wildly through my veins. I wobble over to a nearby car, lean on it for a few seconds, and then drop to the ground and lay flat on my back. I look at my left side and notice that most of the skin on my shoulder blade is gone, replaced by a large spot of red. It oozes blood and glistens in the late morning sun. My tricep's scuffed up, but not nearly as badly. A hole on the side of my elbow bubbles up a darker shade of red. My hip aches.

I stand up a few minutes later and walk to the road to find the piece of mirror that the ground knocked loose in the crash. Within 15 seconds I feel woozy and again ready to pass out. Sitting on a concrete block I notice a rock embedded into the cut on my elbow. I grab my multi-tool, flip out the tiniest Allen wrench, and go to work digging around, poking and prodding, squeezing and pinching, until the tiny pebble inside pops out, falls the ground, and leaves a tiny red mark in the dirt. I'm sidelined long enough that Those Girls manage to close the gap and pass me.

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A quarter-mile up the road I round a corner and see the restaurant I wanted all along. Dammit.

I push on over several steep hills before dropping into Breaks. I stop at a barbecue place with kitschy signs on the wall that read "Middle age is when a broad mind and a narrow waist change places," "Smile—it confuses people," and "You have a right to your opinions, I just don't want to hear them." A Creedence Clearwater album plays in the background. The two girls behind the counter freak out when they learn how far I'm riding. They ask a long line of questions about where I sleep, how much I ride, doesn't your butt get sore, and don't you get lonely out there by yourself? They're sweet, genuine people, just like nearly everyone I met during my 11-day wander through Virginia. Georgia still holds the most tender place in my heart, but Virginia comes a close second, even after all those damned hills.

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Five minutes later I cross into Kentucky. It's a different world entirely. I ride with nearly vertical walls of rock off to my right, past sections where boulders have fallen, crushed the road, and smashed through the guard rail on the other side. At the library in Elkhorn City, most of the kids are overweight and speak with thick Southern accents. I hear rumbling outside and think it's thunder, but it's only a coal truck rolling through town. Farther on the road requires great concentration because gaps in the shoulder stand ready to grab the front tire and send me to the ground again.

Five states down, nine to go.
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The enemy at rest.
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Everything negative I've read about Eastern Kentucky reveals itself in the first 20 miles. Unfenced dogs chase me, and they're very angry. The ones that sit chained or in cages bark loudly instead, which causes the nearby roosters to crow, creating a symphony of screeching and crying wherever I go. Confederate flags fly from awful-looking, beat-up old trailer homes. Garbage is everywhere—on the side of the road, stacked in yards, and dropped in streams. Kids not old enough to drive fly by on ATVs or dirt bikes at 50 miles per hour on roads barely wider than a lane. I pass a trailer with an open front door and see NASCAR on the TV inside. At the next house, two elementary school-aged kids chase each other around the dirty, rocky driveway wearing only their tighty-whitey underwear. I can't believe I'm still in America.

I pull into the Freeda Harris Baptist Center in the early evening and find Chris already set up inside the gym. That's how it works: he mashes during the day while I stop and take 50 pictures of cows and mountains and signs, and then our paths cross again at the end of the day. Kerry told me that last night six riders stayed here, but tonight it's just Chris and me. A few generous church members bring by a dinner of cornbread and beans, I shower for the first time in several days, and then Chris and I spend the next few hours writing, reading, and talking under the buzz of the nine fluorescent lights that hang from the ceiling.

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I could have let the crash ruin my day. Instead it passed as a painful blip in an otherwise wonderful time filled with great people, beautiful riding, and the first strange taste of Eastern Kentucky. I go to bed sore and bruised and leaking a bit, but otherwise completely happy.

Today's ride: 63 miles (101 km)
Total: 2,249 miles (3,619 km)

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