Day 49: Berea, KY to Mackville, KY - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 31, 2011

Day 49: Berea, KY to Mackville, KY

I pedal up one side of a hill and then coast down the other. And then it's flat—beautifully, wonderfully, amazingly flat, for the first time in longer than I can remember. It's early enough that the birds are out while the crickets still chirp. I'm happy I'm awake to experience it, although I don't have much choice. It's 7:00 in the morning, it's 75 degrees, and the humidity already punishes me. But it's ok, because it's flat, it's awesome, I'm flying and—

Dammit, there's no more road. I'm going the wrong way. I'm upset with myself for exactly six seconds until I remember that I just traveled more than 2,400 miles without a wrong turn. And it's easy to backtrack because the road runs flat. It's flat!

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Not Eastern Kentucky.
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Several major landmarks define the TransAm riding experience: the Cookie Lady and Bike House, the sign that marks the Colorado state line, the first view of the Teton Range of the Rocky Mountains, the post office sign in the town of Bumpass, Virginia. Pull up any TransAm journal and it probably shows them all. This morning I push up a short hill, and as I coast down the other side I see another TransAmerica legend:

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A few barns like this one lie on the road about ten miles to the west of Berea, each standing dramatically on its own in a sea of yellow and green, backed by an endless expanse of blue. They're significant not only because they're strikingly beautiful, but because they mark the shift from the strange, backward, unnerving experience of Eastern Kentucky into to the more wide open spaces of state's western half.

I trade steep hills and thick trees for tiny rollers, cow pastures, and Kentucky Farm Bureau signs. County lines become defined by rivers rather than ridges. Fence posts with barbed wire line both sides of the road, always leaning just slightly to the left or the right of center. Grass grows all the way to the edge of the pavement and sometimes hangs over. Instead of riding in a tunnel of tree branches and leaves I can see for miles in several directions, where water towers dot the horizon and mark the location of each tiny town. Except for the school buses that barrel through the middle of the corners at high speed it's a completely different kind of place.

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My thighs burn as I shake off the rest day rust. It's a beautiful morning to ride, one made even better because I don't have to pedal knowing that a monster climb waits a few miles ahead, ready to turn my life into a sweaty, expletive-filled grind that slowly destroys my love for bike touring. Instead I'm mostly able to fly down one hill and let my momentum carry me two-thirds of the way up the next. After weeks of riding in the mountains it's a pattern that's good for my soul. Steep hills still pop up every few miles, but they're ridiculously short and my body and mind arrive ready to attack them. Kentucky and I started off on the wrong foot, but we're both trying our hardest to make up for it.

I reach the 30-mile mark at exactly 10:00. I can't believe what I see when I look down at the screen of the bike computer. There were so many times on the Blue Ridge Parkway when I would have happily traded a testicle for numbers like that.

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I ride past a tired, sagging yellow house where a shirtless old man and his tank top-wearing wife sit in chairs on a porch covered with cardboard boxes, milk cartons, and a couple of beat-up couches. Their tan-colored dog spots me immediately and flies toward to road, barking and angry. His owners stare for a few seconds as I slow down, stop, and let the dog vent all of his troubles and frustrations.

"Aww, he won't baht!" she finally yells as the dog bares his teeth and nips at the strap on my left-rear bag.

All morning my mind has been telling me that I'm in Illinois, because the landscape looks so dramatically different. Kentucky just tossed me a helpful reminder.

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By mid-day all shade is long gone. The sun roasts my scabbed left shoulder and the dead skunk that festers and funks, eyes wide open, just off to the side of the center line on State Road 152. Yet I'm so struck by the changing scenery and easier riding that even the long lines of identical corn fields and the suffocating smell of cow shit seem wonderful. A headwind slows me down, but also helps keep me cool. For the first time in my life I don't want it to stop.

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I pull into Burgin and ride up to the only restaurant and—

What the hell? I see another loaded bike out front. Somehow Chris pulled in before me. It doesn't seem possible. I know he's a fast rider, but I spent all morning on the TransAm route, rising and falling and rounding the corners and making the turns just like the map says. It takes me a moment to remember that I stopped at the Dollar General store back in Bryantsville about an hour before. I only rested for 15 minutes. That's all it took.

We eat completely unhealthy lunches. Chris pounds through a pitcher of Pepsi and I drink water like I've been told it's about to be taken away from me. The four guys at the next table smoke and stare, but I can't blame them. We look like hell.

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I spend hours at the library in Harrodsburg to dodge the heat. Chris works at the table nearby. Adam and Megan roll in a few hours later. As I try to figure out where to ride next, a strawberry-blonde woman with glasses looks over and walks up to me.

"Are you one of the touring bikers riding across the country?"

I think about simply pointing to my ridiculous helmet hair but say yes instead. Her name is Alicia, and she and her husband live directly on the TransAm west of town. They try to host traveling cyclists whenever they can. I tried to contact them last night over email through Warm Showers but we weren't able to connect.

"Chris and Adam and Megan are all staying with me in Mackville," she says. "You're welcome to join us if you want."

I want, although I'm intimated by the ride to get there.

"It's 15 miles away from here, right?"

"Yep! Just head west on 152!" she tells me.

Then she mentions something about dinner and walks away just as quickly as she arrived.

I stand in front of the library at 4:45 trying to mentally prepare myself for what's about to happen. The world around me slowly bakes at 96 degrees. I know that the fundamentals of solar heating mean it's not physically possible for the temperature to turn much hotter, but that doesn't change the fact that it's 96 degrees right now. I stare down at the sidewalk for a few moments, pull in a deep breath, click together the helmet latch below my unshaved chin, push out, and hope for mercy.

Maybe it's the giant heads slowing them down.
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Thoughts of a cool shower, an evening spent with five interesting people, and the rumor of pork chops push me. After a tough stretch out of town I'm completely shocked to find that the riding is bearable. It's sweaty and dripping and I feel impossibly dirty and disgusting, but it's bearable. No wind blows, but I pick up shade as the sun falls lower in the sky. All of the hills shown on the elevation profile of my map still exist, but they're reasonable. My legs pump strong after a day off. I think about how fortunate I am to be out here, about the amazing things I've done and seen, and about all that's still to come. And then I go back to thinking about pork chops.

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I can't believe what I see when I look down at the bathroom scale before I step in the shower. 164. I weigh 164 pounds. The word that most accurately describes my diet over the past seven weeks is atrocious. And I've still lost nine pounds since leaving Key West. Unbelieveable.

Adam and Megan tend to arrive late in the day, so Alicia and Chris and I start dinner without them. Sitting in the dining room of the attractive brick house we talk a lot about bike riding and eat delicious corned beef, sweet potato casserole, a crispy green salad, and fresh crunchy bread. She mentions that roughly ten people headed west on the TransAm stayed with her family last year, but that only a couple of eastbounders stopped in.

"There was this one husband and wife, though, on a tandem," she says. "They had their son with them."

"Actually, that was two years ago," I chime in.

The conversation falls quiet. I'm telling this wonderful, generous bike touring host that her memory of the people who stayed under the roof of her own home is wrong. Alicia and Chris both give me a strange look.

"It was 2009. I'm sure of it."

The psychic I met in Florida would be very impressed.

"I know it was 2009," I say, "Because I stayed with them at their house in Washington State on the night before they left. They're the Jacksons. Alan and Donna are the husband and wife and Lewis is their son. They're on Warm Showers and they hosted me for a night on my trip from Seattle down to Northern California."

We all laugh, because it's amazing.

But maybe it isn't. Bike touring has this incredible way of making a big world seem much smaller.

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Alicia's a teacher. With only two elementary schools in the county, she sees kids from all kinds of backgrounds and has a strong understanding of the types of households that exist in rural Kentucky.

"Some people around here farm even though they can't make any money at it," she explains. "They farm because their dad was a farmer, and their grandfather was a farmer, and that's the only way they know how to live. A life without land and animals and working with the ground is a life they don't understand."

She tells us that a non-trivial number of houses in the surrounding area don't have running water, and that some don't even have electricity. Attendance at her school drops by at least half on the opening day of hunting season. Community events include barbecue contests, beauty pageants, and tractor pulls. As we eat cookies, a young girl knocks on the door and hands out a flyer advertising a revival taking place next weekend.

This is a different America, but it's starting to capture my heart.

The four bike riders turn the living room into a collage of brightly colored sleeping pads, air mattresses, and sleeping bags. Laptop keys click in the background as I lay my head down on a buckwheat pillow and fall asleep immediately.

Today's ride: 67 miles (108 km)
Total: 2,492 miles (4,010 km)

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