Day 56: Marion, KY to Eddyville, IL - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 7, 2011

Day 56: Marion, KY to Eddyville, IL

I step outside at 7:30 and into a sauna. I close my eyes and hang my head for a few seconds. Here we go.

Standing in line at the mini-mart around the corner I stare at iPhone covers decorated with phrases like "Cougar in Training" and "Future Trophy Wife." The tanned older woman next to me asks where I'm from and where I'm headed. She tells me that she used to work for the town's Chamber of Commerce and that she met hundreds of bike riders as they passed through Marion over the years.

"I'll get those," she tells the cashier as I reach the front of the line. And then she pays for my honey buns.

It's a simple gesture of kindness, and it only costs her a couple of dollars, but it brightens my morning and puts me in a better state of mind for attacking the road ahead.

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I fly down the hill out of Marion and through a giant cloud of mosquitoes, an absolutely disgusting experience that leaves every exposed part of my body dotted with black spots. Half of them try to bite me and the other half try to wiggle away. In the sunlight I can see the buzzing halos clearly enough to ride around them. But in the shade they win, and when they win it's fucking awful. A couple of miles up the road I pass a field of goats who alternately cry, sneeze, eat grass, and get their pointy heads stuck in the wire fence. I bust out laughing and in an instant the world is good again.

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At the top of a rise I see a dog take a crap in a huge, green, perfectly trimmed yard. I look over at him a few times and hope he'll start running and chase me up the road, because I want my last mile in this state to end in the same way it started. Instead I ride by completely ignored.

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I drop down to a valley where I run into the Ohio River and out of miles to ride in Kentucky. I think back on the week and a half of my life I spent there during the free ferry ride to the other side. With a first afternoon full of coal trucks, hillbillies, beat-up trailers, and garbage-filled roads I expected the worst. Plenty of times I found it. But the fact that Eastern Kentucky exists as its own little world makes it interesting. It also makes the transition to the beautiful town of Berea and the central part of the state all the more dramatic. The rolling hills of Kentucky's western half seemed especially wonderful following weeks of ass-kicking mountains in the Blue Ridge and Appalachians, although the riding was consistently great enough to be enjoyable on its own.

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What I'll remember most about the state are the feelings of trust and support. Every person I talked to had only kind things to say and wished me good luck and safe travels for the rest of my trip. All of the towns I stayed in turned out to be places where I could leave my bike and gear unattended for hours or overnight, without worrying about them not being there when I returned. The hospitality offered in the churches and community centers and volunteer fire stations along the TransAm always amazed me. Kentucky is in many ways a deeply flawed state, with problems of poverty, health care, education, and racial tolerance that make it a challenging place to live, especially in its rural areas. But looking back over my shoulder across the Ohio River all of that sits far in the back of my mind. I leave thinking of it only as a place rich with character and diversity, with soul and feeling. There isn't another state in America quite like it.

Illinois: the state with no Welcome sign. We're off to a bad start.
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I roll off the boat, down the red metal dock, and back onto land. I'm in Illinois and the town of Cave-in-Rock, which seems like it could lose the in-Rock part and keep the same meaning. I push west after a small breakfast and bog down immediately. I didn't eat a lot yesterday or sleep much last night and I just don't have the legs today—and it's a bad day for that. I slog through oppressive heat and humidity and respond to the hills with language that would have gotten me kicked out of the church last night. I yawn every few miles. The odometer reads 2,829 but I feel like a bike touring rookie.

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As soon as I stop worrying about the sun and my sluggishness I feel better and the day brightens. It's not the time to push, so I don't. I expected to see mile after mile of farmland, but instead I mostly ride past forests, where trees with narrow trunks rise 50 to 100 feet with leaves that all move slightly in a breeze that barely blows. But even at a slower pace the heat wears me down.

"Just give me five flat miles," I say to no one in particular. "That's all I need."

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By the time I pedal into Golconda at 1:00 the temperature sits at 94 degrees. The heat index, which factors in humidity, hits an even 100. In front of the library I see a pair of loaded Surly Long Haul Truckers—one blue, one black, outfitted with the same times, wheels, fenders, seats, and bags. Inside I meet Andrew and Matt, a couple of college-aged guys from Tampa with subtle Southern accents headed to Oregon.

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"We're doin' like 75 to 80 miles a day," Andrew says. "We're from the east, so we're hittin' it hard to make it out west and see the Rockies and Yellowstone, stuff like that."

75 to 80 miles a day through the Appalachians on fully loaded bikes. My legs ache and my ass hurts just thinking about it.

Matt's resting a sore calf muscle, so the guys have been in the library all day. I can tell. Andrew flips through a stack of bright yellow National Geographic magazines, which is the kind of thing that only happens after a long, boring day stuck in a place like the Golconda Public Library. The three of us sit in the back at a table that seats ten, next to paintings of paddle-wheeled boats on the Ohio River and a magazine rack loaded with popular publications like The Rotarian, The Planetary Report, and Braille Book Review.

We hang out in front of the library after it closes and talk about what we've seen so far: the dirt and despair of Eastern Kentucky, the sad eating choices in Booneville, the dying small towns, the beauty of Western Virginia, and how the Hunt Brothers pizza chain attached to what seems like every gas station along the TransAm ends up being the best dinner choice in most places.

"Some of these towns are just terrible," Matt says. "Like Fordsville. We stayed in Fordsville in this ugly field with broken down stuff all around."

"Was that the one with the grandstands that are falling down?" I ask. "And the shitty little go-kart pit area in the back with all the garbage and grass growing up everywhere?"

"Yeah, that's the one! We stayed there. That place was terrible, man, like somethin' outta The Book of Eli."

We all crack up immediately, because each one of us flashes back to the pictures in our mind that correspond to the sad town he's talking about. One of the greatest things about traveling on an established route is that every westbound other bike rider I meet along the way has passed through the same places. There's an immediate connection, an instant understanding, a feeling of community that even the people who live in this part of the country will never understand. As much as I love blazing my own trail and riding through obscure parts of America where most bikers never go, the shared experience of the TransAmerica Trail that shows itself in moments like these gives me a unique sense of satisfaction.

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We talk for more than an hour. Part of me wants to stay, because these are awesome guys and I know that between our different routes and paces I'll never see them again after I leave. But the heat nags at me. The evening means cooler riding, and I desperately want cooler riding. Reluctantly I say goodbye, load up on water at a nearby gas station, and return to the road. I leave town late enough that the climbs come in the shade, but that doesn't seem to make any difference. The heat cooks. The sweat pours uncontrollably, mostly in huge drops but sometimes in an actual stream. It's unlike anything I've ever experienced. It takes several shouts of "Fuck you Southern Illinois!" to push through it all. I don't look up very often, but when I do I see a beautiful world full of trees and fields that glow in hundreds of shades of green and a few yellows, all sharply defined by the shadows of the mid-evening light. Birds chirp all around, mosquitoes buzz, and the cicadas still scream.

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I rehydrate over a dinner of hamburger buns, because they're the only high-carb, low-sugar food I can find at the mini-mart. I set up the tent under the community picnic pavilion in the 150-person town of Eddyville. For an hour I lay inside, perfectly still, listening to Sufjan Stevens' "Come on Feel the Illinoise!" and still the sweat drips off of me and down onto the smelly, stained, brownish-orange disaster I call an air mattress. And yet I feel good. I survived the heat, I'm relaxed and happy, and I feel ready to conquer anything Illinois can throw my way.

I might be losing my mind.

Today's ride: 51 miles (82 km)
Total: 2,863 miles (4,608 km)

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