Day 70: Columbia, MO to Franklin, MO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 21, 2011

Day 70: Columbia, MO to Franklin, MO

Desiree and I grab lunch at a Mexican restaurant located in a strip mall out near the airport. It's a place where sombreros hang on walls painted to look like adobe, balloons shaped like bottles of Corona drop down from the ceiling, fifty different kinds of tequila line the back of the bar, and a neon Open sign flashes in the front window. It turns out to be a terrible eating choice. Not because of the food—which is delicious and sends us both away stuffed—but because it reminds us of what's coming.

Ever since we started dating almost four years ago we've eaten regularly together at American-style Mexican restaurants, because the food's almost always decent and the menu works both for a carnivore like me and a vegetarian like her. Today it's hard to enjoy our meals. We don't talk much, because we're both thinking about how we won't get to do this again for two months. And that leads us to think about all of the other things we'll miss out on experiencing together this summer. The restaurant is mostly quiet after the lunch crowd clears out, but the clock that counts down our time in St. Louis ticks loudly in each of our heads.

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The airport isn't busy on this Monday afternoon. I park quickly and Desiree doesn't have to wait in line to check in and print her boarding pass. Everything is easy until we reach the newsstand that sits just before the security screening checkpoint for Concourse A. We both knew from the moment I picked her up three days ago that this time was coming, but that doesn't ease the pain. It doesn't make it any easier for me to tell the person who loves me more than anyone else in the world that I'm leaving her behind for two months, by choice. It can't change the fact that I'm the reason she stands in front of me sad and crying and hurting inside. As I hold her and kiss her on the forehead, I think about how our short vacation together managed to make us feel both so much better and so much worse.

I hold my jaw tight and breathe very deeply as I watch her go. I have to keep doing both all of the way out of the terminal, down the stairs, and across the dark lower level of the parking garage. I sit in the rented Toyota Camry for five minutes with my right hand across the top of my head, rubbing the temples. I close my eyes and concentrate very intently. I exhale loudly. I keep it together, but barely.

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Classic rock radio provides the soundtrack for a 90-minute drive back to Columbia on Interstate 70, past towns that all look the same from the freeway. The uninteresting scenery and terrible drivers create a strong desire to get back to bike riding.

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I load up the bike just before 5:00, exchange hugs and shake hands with Betty and Ed, and then return to the road for the first time in almost a week. I'm showered and shaved and rested. My clothes are clean and fresh-smelling. My stomach's full of food, I'm hydrated, and my skin is free of sunburns or bug bites. I'm like the Six Million Dollar Man, better than I was before—better, stronger, faster. And then I turn the first corner. A huge headwind punches me in the face and my confidence goes away completely. It doesn't blow exactly straight-on, so the bike jerks from side to side and I ride embarrassingly slow. The songs Desiree and I listened to in St. Louis run through my head, which makes it even harder to snap my brain back into touring mode and focus on the promise and excitement of what's to come as I work my way toward the West.

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Blocks of closely spaced houses give way to homes set on a few acres, and then eventually to rolling countryside. The rural highway drops me down into Huntsdale, where a mosquito flies straight into my right nostril. It can only mean one thing: the Katy Trail is close by. Even though I swore it off a week ago, it turns out there's no other practical way for a bike to reach the other side of the Missouri River from Columbia, so our relationship continues begrudgingly for one more day. Immediately I'm back to the familiar flatness, the noisy cicadas, the fine white dust, and the ripples of current on the surface of the muddy brown river. Within two miles I'm completely lost in thought and entirely oblivious to the world around me.

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It's the most pleasant evening for riding in weeks, so I just keep going as the sun inches its way farther and farther down. It doesn't even seem possible, but the flats get flatter and the straights turn straighter as the miles pile up. Some corn plants grow taller than others, but that's the only difference in a landscape that's otherwise unchanging. I feel like I'm riding an exercise bike at the gym instead of crossing one of the largest countries on Earth.

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The sun is gone and the sky fades from blue at its peak to light orange at the horizon as I reach Franklin and pedal off the trail and back into a quiet grove of trees at the Katy Roundhouse Campground. The wind blows constantly but not too hard, and half a dozen fireflies float around and blip a greenish-yellow every few seconds. Bikes lean on picnic tables outside a couple of nearby tents, but it's 9:00 and their riders seem to be already asleep.

I sit inside my tent, quietly watching it all with my knees tucked up near my chest and my arms wrapped around them, the left hand grabbing the right wrist to hold the position together. I have to remind myself that I'm back out on the road, because it doesn't yet feel that way. I also tell myself that it's ok to be out here, that I worked hard and waited a long time for the chance to fulfill my dream of riding across America. But all I think about is how, seven hours ago, I sent my best friend home all by herself. I can handle anything the road, the weather, or the bike can throw at me, but guilt turns out to be something else entirely.

Today's ride: 34 miles (55 km)
Total: 3,328 miles (5,356 km)

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