Day 62: Augusta, MO to Bluffton, MO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 13, 2011

Day 62: Augusta, MO to Bluffton, MO

I pedal three miles into the town of Augusta, push up the steep hill to its only store, and give a little fist pump when I see that it's open. It's an old, musty place where the best food I can find comes wrapped in plastic and loaded with sugar. But having only eaten a cookie since lunch yesterday it seems like a feast. When I check the weather forecast I see a massive band of severe thunderstorms headed my way. It's an eight-mile ride to the next two and I think I have just enough time to beat the storms if I push it. I throw my junk food buffet in the bags and bolt, riding west toward a dark, grayish-blue horizon as quickly as I can.

Trail hazard.
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I'm flying along, four miles from Dutzow, when that familiar squishy feeling hits. I stop, give the back tire a pinch between my thumb and pointer finger, and find that the pressure's down.

"That's ok," I tell myself. "I just need four more miles. I'm sure it'll make it."

Half a mile on, the last bits of air leak their way out and I ride with the rim touching the inner part of the tire, causing the back half of the bike to constantly swing several inches from left to right and back again. When I find a sign to lean the bike against I stop, dive into the left-front bag, pull out the pump with a quick grab, and start furiously pumping air into the leaking tube.

"Just three and a half more miles," I beg the tire. "That's all I need."

Within another half mile the air is gone again, having leaked out of a new gash in the broken-down sidewall. Shit. I try to patch the hole, but it's close enough to the bead that it won't hold. I know it makes the most sense to swap in a new tube, but with dark clouds full of thunder and lightning and buckets of rain barreling toward me I can't bring myself to do it. I pump the tube up to 60 psi but I can hear the air coming out as I pedal away.

I start talking to the tire as an enemy instead of a friend. I curse the company where I ordered the tire from for delaying the shipping by a week. I curse the post office in Carbondale for sending the box containing the tire back to Wisconsin after it successfully arrived in their building. I curse myself for being such a stubborn son of a bitch and not replacing the tire with something else in the last week. All the while the rear tire wiggles and wobbles, further eating itself up. I try not to think about what this kind of riding is doing to the rim. And then I curse some more, because it's the only therapy I have.

Under a small pavilion in Dutzow I use the GPS on my phone to check for nearby bike shops. It turns out there's one just five miles away, across the Missouri River in Washington. That's good. I look at their website and see that they sell road bikes, which means they'll have some kind of 700cm tire. That's great. That's so, so great. As I change the tube and remount the tire, the dark clouds break and let through a slice of hazy sunshine. I check the weather again and see the huge groups of thunderstorms arranged in a horseshoe shape all around, in such a way that I have a clear shot to Washington.

"You lucky bastard," I say out loud as I ride out to the highway and head south.

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The relief lasts five minutes, replaced by the stress of a rough, busy, shoulderless highway that goes over a long, narrow bridge where traffic stacks up behind me. My rewards for reaching the other side are wide streets not meant for bike riding, strip malls, giant home improvement stores, and a dozen fast food places. I felt more at ease passing through East St. Louis. By the time I ride up to the shop I've gone 16 miles but feel like I've done three times that.

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The guys at the bike shop mount a tough-looking Continental touring tire, fix some lingering brake issues, true up the back wheel, attach some new reflectors, and refill my stock of spare tubes. We talk bikes and touring and traveling across America. I laugh and smile for the first time all day. Afterward I sit and write and refocus myself for a few hours in a nearby cafe. When I leave I feel ready to ride again.

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Or so I think.

When I get back to the point where I jumped off the Katy I don't turn to the west and pedal. Instead I pull into the diner that sits about a hundred feet away from the trail and grab lunch. Some days I start riding and feel locked in, ready to push strong and make miles. Others just don't click into place, and on those days even easy riding becomes a battle. Today falls into the second category. My head and body tell me to ease up, to slow down, to take my time. I listen.

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The day stays overcast. I look down and my arms and notice that the hairs that were once dark brown now grow in a sun-bleached blonde color. When I watch my calf muscles I see how they've turned lean and toned from nine weeks of riding almost every day. They hang loose on every upstroke and then snap long and tight when my knees force them back down. Cicadas continue to sing, not quite ready for their once-in-a-decade party to come to an end. I startle a rabbit, who darts out in front me in a panic, missing a smack from the front tire and wheel by no more than three feet.

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I'm still a little off, so I give myself a pep talk.

"Holy crap, man," I say. "You just rode halfway across the United States of America. Who does that? That's amazing. And now you're going to keep riding, all the way to Washington State. That's incredible. That's spectacular. Let's keep it going!"

I sing songs out loud. I ride over several beautiful, old, orange-brown metal railroad bridges and many boring bridges made of wood. Everyone's back at work today and the trail is all mine. When I stop along a part of the route that runs no more than 30 feet from the edge of the Missouri River, the world around me is so quiet that I can hear the water sliding by, even though no rocks, waterfalls, or other obstructions stand in the way. It's simply the subtle hiss of millions of gallons of murky, brown water passing by every second.

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After a couple of hours the trail and the passing scenery start to look the same.

"This is your future," I tell myself during one especially uninspiring stretch. "Because after Missouri comes Kansas."

Not long after I grab dinner at a grocery store in the town of McKittrick. When I look up from my box of fried chicken I see four guys with backpacks and hiking boots and hats with wide, floppy brims. They're walking the entire trail. I didn't even know that was a thing people did. And I can't imagine why they would. The thought of eight to ten days of flat, mostly unscenic walking among the hordes of mosquitoes that try to devour anything in their path makes rubbing poison ivy all over my crotch seem appealing in comparison.

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The evening gives me the gift of filthy tailwinds. I fly along the crunchy surface easily, dodging windblown bits of corn plants that I call Missouri tumbleweeds. After a day on the trail my legs look whitish-gray from the dust, and the spout of my water bottle leaves a grainy residue on my lips.

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The mosquitoes swarm with a taste for blood as I wind my way up the gravel driveway of the Steamboat Junction campground. I see no other tents, or any lights shining from the nearby houses and cabins. I'm alone with the bugs and they take full advantage. It's misery—and then I see my savior: a tiny turquoise and white building near the back corner of the property. I ride over, step onto the narrow covered porch, and turn the handle on the door. Angels sing when I look inside. There's a shower and a sink, it's warm and bug-free, and the floors and walls are spotlessly clean. With strong rain, high winds, and possible hail in the forecast, the chance of me setting up my tent in an empty, buggy field fall to zero. In less than 30 seconds I unhook all four bags, toss them inside, and then guide the bike through the narrow door and shut it behind me. I stand, look around, nod my head for a few seconds, and feel a profound sense of accomplishment. I always hoped this trip would lead me to sleep in weird places and it hasn't disappointed.

A few little bugs roam around inside, so after my first shower since Carbondale I tuck into the safety of my tent shell again. Train whistles blow in the distance and every ten minutes I hear the sound of an airliner headed to the south or the west from the airport in St. Louis. Moths slam into the window screens and animals I can't identify grunt and snuffle around the walls outside. I close my eyes and look forward to my last day of riding for the next week.

Today's ride: 65 miles (105 km)
Total: 3,209 miles (5,164 km)

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