Day 46: Bonnyman, KY to Booneville, KY - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 28, 2011

Day 46: Bonnyman, KY to Booneville, KY

"Are yew one a them bike ridahs?" asks the woman behind the kitchen counter at the mini-mart that doubles as a restaurant.

I'm definitely not from here. Maybe the accent gave it away. Maybe it's the helmet hair. Or maybe it's because I'm the only person out of the 15 inside the place that isn't overweight. I load up on a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast of pancakes, biscuits, and bacon as the good old boys in mesh hats and beat-up blue jeans talk about fixing cars, hauling dirt, and who just bought a new pickup truck.

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Not long afterward I pass through Chavies, which sounds less like a town name and more like something heard in the context of, "Man, I hooked up with Kristina last week and I think she gave me the Chavies." The early morning gives me cool riding in another wonderfully flat valley. I head west surrounded by hills covered in thick green trees, the tops of which disappear into the thin layer of fog that hangs above.

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Truck engines work hard pulling fishing boats up the steep hills that lead to Lake Buckhorn. I climb in the shade and avoid the sun, which seems to be the only way to beat the Appalachians without killing myself. I round the corner at the top of long climb and bust out laughing when I see the sign announcing the town of Gays Creek. My inner 14-year-old is still alive and well.

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I cool off at the H.C. Sparks Kentucky Food Store in Buckhorn. The inside's dark and musty and the back half overflows with random, dust-covered junk that may or may not be for sale. Old women sit on faded metal chairs near the door and cash register. I think they talk about people who died recently, but it's hard to know for sure because I only understand about a third of the words covered in thick Kentucky drawl that echo through the front of the store. A heavy-set teenager with a bad haircut and giant brown boots pumps gas for old men when they roll up slowly in dirty old Buick sedans. Signs along the front wall of the store read "Live Bait Sold Here," "Inside Yard Sale," and "Warning: This Store is Protected by an Attack Rabbit." A sweet, old, smelly, shaggy dog sits out front with its paws crossed, patiently roasting in the direct sunlight. It's exactly how I imagined Saturday morning in small-town Eastern Kentucky.

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The hills give me plenty of time to invent new curse words. They also let me look up and around and imagine what kinds of people and things kick around there. A few months ago I read that Kentucky produces more marijuana than any other state in American except for California, and that more than 75 percent of that crop comes from counties located within the Appalachians. The area's soil and climate provide ideal growing conditions. The further fact that so many people in this region live in poverty makes the lure of easy money too difficult to pass up. Growers try to keep thieves and law enforcement agents away by booby trapping their plots with nails, razor blades, fish hooks, pipe bombs, and even venomous snakes tied to trees or hidden within pits. A shotgun blast to the head works, too. I have many great reasons to stick to my planned route.

I'm breathing heavily all the time thanks to these huge hills.
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I see more clean, good-looking houses today, but still pass a significant number of truly awful shacks and mobile homes. The places look so awful that it's hard to believe a person, a couple, or in many cases an entire family can physically exist and carry on a life inside.

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So, so wrong given the problems with weight and overall health in this part of the country.
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The better half of the day's last hill drops me into Booneville and the welcoming arms of its First Presbyterian Church, a place with a long history of hosting touring cyclists. They offer a pair of covered pavilions—the original very small, the newer one much larger—set among well-trimmed lawns and a field of light-yellow, knee-high grass. Chris rolls in a few hours later, followed a couple of hours after that by Kenny and Wayne. They're from Pennsylvania and have been on the TransAm about a week and a half as they make their way from Virginia to Oregon on mountain bikes with heavily loaded trailers that they have to push up every steep hill.

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In the evening I walk up to town and through the front door of Dooley's Diner, the more exciting of Booneville's two restaurants. It's the kind of place that serves liver and onions, any type of deep-fried animal imaginable, and something mysteriously called the Chef and Two Meat. Wood paneling runs in vertical strips along the wall and three old, black ceiling fans spin wildly overhead. An eight-year-old stares at me in open-mouthed amazement for the better part of five minutes after I sit down. Kenny and Wayne stop in a few minutes later, and then Chris shortly after that. The four of us share a table, which helps out the locals by allowing them to focus all of their strange looks in only one direction.

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The Otter Creek Bluegrass Band plays in the next room, helping to fill it with the clicking and clacking of dancing feet and the claps and cheers of the 20 people who sit and stand around its edges. It's very likely the most exciting thing happening anywhere on this Saturday night, because we're in Owsley County, Kentucky, another dry county that doesn't allow the sale of booze. It blows my mind that such a thing still exists in the United States in the year 2011. Then again, there's a lot about Dooley's that's a step back in time. Washington State outlawed smoking in restaurants years ago, but here in Booneville at least five older people and the 18-year-old in the booth behind us eat and chain smoke at the same time. So does the young waitress, who manages to tend to a cigarette in between taking orders, serving food, texting on her cell phone, and flirting with the dirty old men who hang out near the front counter.

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Chris and Adam.
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I return to the church and find Adam and Megan setting up camp. They're from New York and are also westbound to Oregon on the TransAm. With six bike tourists under one metal picnic shelter roof, the air fills with the sound of mechanical talk, plans for the upcoming days, and stories from the road. The beautiful spring evening turns toward darkness, the heat of the day slowly leaks away, and fireflies flicker high and low around the adjacent field. It's a wonderful scene.

Today's ride: 42 miles (68 km)
Total: 2,369 miles (3,813 km)

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