Day 47: Booneville, KY to Berea, KY - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 29, 2011

Day 47: Booneville, KY to Berea, KY

I wake up in the middle of the night and try to figure out how there can be so many semi trucks rolling past on the nearby highway at 3:30 on a Sunday morning. A few moments later I realize that I'm not hearing the clunking and rumbling of compression brakes—it's just someone else under the picnic shelter snoring very loudly.

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The fog lifts as I pedal up the hill out of Booneville and reveals another amazing morning of riding, even though a few dogs still bark and give chase when they aren't caged or tied to a chain in the front yard. In Seattle, almost every dog looks distinct—that's a Husky, that's a Golden Retriever, that's a Chow Chow. Not here. Thanks to decades of random roadside breeding, all of the breeds now run together into a medium-sized brownish sameness.

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I ignore the Road Closed warning signs and continue riding west. I've pedaled almost 2,400 miles without taking a detour and don't plan on starting now. Then I reach the bridge—or the place where the bridge used to be. Barricades block the way and a huge crane sits silent, holding a large section of concrete over the narrow, shallow river that runs quietly below.

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"I'm not doing the Oregon Trail thing," I think to myself. "It's not worth it."

Reluctantly I turn around and backtrack a quarter-mile to the last intersection. There aren't any detour signs. Of course there aren't.

My phone battery died an hour ago, and even if it hadn't there isn't a signal out here to let me make use of the GPS.

"Yew on yer own, bud," an imaginary Kentucky Department of Transportation worker tells me.

I stand over the bike in the middle of the road, looking at the road I came down, and then looking at the other strip of pavement that heads to the northeast when I want to go west. For all I know it'd take me over three mountains and leave me no closer to Berea.

"Screw it," I say out loud. "I'm not letting Kentucky win."

I ride back to the bridge and wheel the bike down through the grass and onto the concrete footing that used to hold up the bridge deck. I take off my shoes, grab the two front bags, and start to walk. The water rushes by quickly, first at my ankles and then up to my shins, feeling cool but not cold. It's easy to start with, stepping through a soft bed of mud and pebbles. But the river's far half is full of huge, flat slabs of rock covered in mud and slime with the same amount of grip as a patch of ice. I step carefully, slide and almost fall down sideways a few times, and then slog through the muck on the other side and toss my stuff into the grass.

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I slowly waddle back, grab the bike, leave the rear bags attached, and push everything else across. The tires wedge easily against the rocks, giving me something to lean on and making the second trip twice as easy as the first. I load the bags back onto the front rack, hoist it up over my shoulder, and hope like hell that I don't lose my balance on the climb up the short hill and send everything I own crashing down the slope in a mess of metal, plastic, and bright yellow panniers.

I don't. All I have to do is wipe the mud off my feet, put my shoes and socks on, and I'm back on the road.

The steep, rocky, coal-filled mountainsides give way to rolling hills covered in grass that glows a brilliant green in the early morning sun. I love the hills that sit close together, where I can fly down one side and let my speed carry me up the other. I curse the steep ones that rise from the flats and force me to inch my way up through the hot and sticky air. The farther I go, the more attractive the houses become and the less garbage I see along the side of the road. The cars are newer and in better condition. The people dress in higher quality clothes and look a little healthier. It's a stark contrast to the part of the state I rode into a few days ago. Gone are the scarred hilltops, the noisy trucks, the Confederate flags, most of the underfed and angry dogs, and the permanent layer of dust and dirt. It's a new Kentucky, one that didn't sell its soul to the devil in exchange for coal.

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Memories from a dirtier Kentucky.
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I push up one last big hill into the town of Big Hill. When I speed down the steep grade on the other side it's awesome, not for what I see, but for what I don't. For the first time in weeks I look to the north and the west and can't find a single mountain, just subtly rising and falling green hills that fade away into nothing at the edge of the horizon. I try to stay positive and picture easier riding ahead—my reward for week after week of hills, passes, gaps, grades, and granny gears—but standing in the way I find a tough push into Berea through scorching heat, a headwind, and drivers with Jesus fishes attached to the back of their cars who all seem to be headed somewhere very important. I know I have an off day coming and it feels like my body and mind both checked out at the last county line crossing. Even a short hill that runs less than two blocks forces me to stop for a minute, grab a drink of water, and carefully reevaluate my life.

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Berea's a college town. As soon as I find the coffee shop across the street from campus a wave of relief washes over me. I sit out front for ten minutes to let the rolling sweat slow down and help my body understand that everything's ok, that I won't be pushing it up over any more mountains for the next couple of days. I walk inside and find a tiny pocket of urban America dropped into the eastern half of Kentucky. Good-looking people work behind the counter, efficiently but not too quickly. The air blows cool out of the air conditioner. Songs from Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Dick Dale play from the speakers and a few of the regulars at the counter sing along. Coffee-making machines pop and swirl and clank. It's even more perfect than the scene I carefully put together in my mind on the 50-mile ride from Booneville. I stay for hours to read, to write, to talk, to do anything that keeps me from having to go outside where the temperature soon pushes into the 90s.

"Are you ridin' that bike outside?" a big young guy named Ben asks me in a slow, deep, Southern voice.

"Yeah, that's mine."

"Are you Chris?"

"No," I laugh, "But he's coming. He might have gotten lost somewhere, but he always finds his way to the coffee shop."

"Ok, cool. He's stayin' me with tonight, through CouchSurfing. Where are you stayin'?"

"I don't know. Camping a little out of town, maybe."

"Well, you can stay at my place if you want. It's got a huge a backyard. It's not far away. You could set up your tent or stay inside if you want."

Perfect. Berea, I love you. Marry me.

Chris pulls up a few hours later. His old guidebook offered him some shortcuts, which weren't explained well, and which he didn't follow exactly right. That sent him over three huge hills, added 16 awful miles to his ride, and pushed him into town at the time of the day when the sun and heat team up to brutally punish anyone dumb enough to step outside. He's soaked, he talks quickly, and his eyes bug out of his head a little. Even though he drank water all day he's totally fried. This Kentucky heat is no joke.

Ben and Chris head off to a party. I stay in the cool of the coffee shop until it closes, then walk exactly a hundred feet around the corner to an Italian restaurant, where I stuff my face with pasta and garlic bread as Elton John's 'Rocket Man' plays quietly in the background. I avoid the heat at any cost, but it seems like I'm the only one. I see Adam and Megan ride into town and pull onto the sidewalk across the street around 7:30 after starting late, taking their time and stopping regularly, and riding all day long in the sun and heat and hills. It's hard to believe people do that sort of stuff willingly.

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Bells echo throughout the Berea College campus, which stands silent and totally empty on a holiday weekend evening. I sit under a gazebo for the better part of an hour, without moving at all, and I still sweat. Ben and Chris don't answer when I call about the sleeping situation, and it's too dark to ride a mile out of town to the campground, so I shoot down a hill and pull off onto a grassy path along the edge of a field. A couple of greenhouses reflect a dull white on the far side. I tuck into a quiet corner next to a stream and jump inside the tent with mosquitoes attacking from all sides. Fireflies sparkle, I hear cars passing on the nearby road, and when I look to the right I see the top of the college's bell tower poking through the trees. I lay dripping on the air mattress, lost in thought, as the town of Berea winds down its day around me.

Today's ride: 53 miles (85 km)
Total: 2,422 miles (3,898 km)

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