Day 72: Windsor, MO to Montrose, MO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 23, 2011

Day 72: Windsor, MO to Montrose, MO

Yesterday at 7:00 the wind already howled. Today I see the flags move only slightly and instantly feel better about the day ahead. The riding turns out to be amazing: patches of both sunshine and shade, mid-60s temperatures, and an empty country highway that passes by a stretch of farms where all I hear are crying crickets, screeching hawks, rustling rabbits, and the breeze rushing over my helmet. I ride with a smile on my face for the first time in longer than I can remember.

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Feeling like I'm back in Eastern Kentucky and badly wanting to take a detour.
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I pedal five miles without a single car passing me. I go much farther before I see even one church, which makes me realize that I'm finally beyond the Bible Belt. Throughout Georgia, the Carolinas, Western Virginia, and Kentucky it seemed like I could hardly go a mile without passing a small Baptist church, even out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Now it's all farmland and fence posts, horses and heathens.

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The wind picks up during the long, straight, wide-open stretch into Clinton. So does the swearing. The breeze isn't quite as bad as yesterday, and I try really hard not to let it get to me, but I'm barely successful.

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Clinton welcomes me with Wendy's, McDonalds, Hardees, Taco Bell, half a dozen gas stations, and several rows of strip malls that all look exactly the same. The entire scene could have been lifted from any other small city in America and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference. But I ride a bit farther, away from the highways, and then I find it: the busy, beautiful downtown, with four long rows of businesses arranged in a giant square around the white, stone-walled Henry County Courthouse. A veteran's memorial sits across from a century-old bank building. American flags fly everywhere. The streets run wide and each crosswalk is made of bricks. Buicks and Cadillacs roll past. Husbands and wives run errands but no one's in any great hurry. People I've never met say hello, and I can't go more than five minutes without hearing, "Beautiful day, isn't it?"

It matches the picture I have in my head of what small-town America used to be like everywhere, before the railroads consolidated, before fast food became the best food, before Dollar General and Walmart and Home Depot made high volume and low prices the most important things. It makes me feel nostalgic for a country I never saw first-hand. My mind wanders and I try to imagine how different this trip would have been 30 years ago. I also worry about how all of the small communities that are barely holding on right now will look 30 years from now. It makes me feel more thankful than ever that I have the chance to spend this summer on the road.

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I watch the town move past for hours from in front of a place that's half cafe and half antique shop, where most of the people who eat inside are older than the tables, chairs, lamps, and mirrors up for sale. I talk briefly to a woman who rolls up on a Harley-Davidson and learn, without asking any related questions, that it was legal to shoot Mormons in Missouri until as recently as 1973.

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I don't leave Clinton until early afternoon, by which time the wind blows strong again. It's a lot like yesterday, except that it comes from the northwest, not due west, so I'm able to change my route and head more toward the south. When I ride that direction the wind hits me on the side at worst, but most of the time it gives me a push. Soon the farmland gives way to prairie, where yellow-green grass grows chest-high behind fences with rusted strands of barbed wire that run between fence posts made from tree branches. The sun shines hot, but the wind helps keep it in check. The roads run very rough and uneven, with thousands of small holes and old patches that no longer cover up the cracks below, and a center line so faded that it's barely visible. I hear what sounds like a jet engine, but turns out to be the low moaning of the breeze as it rushes past. Soft white clouds fill the sky behind me, but there's nothing in front but an endless sea of bright blue. It's a vast, desolate corner of America and there's something incredibly endearing and romantic about all of it.

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I pass through La Due, population 39, where I see more badgers walking around than people. Then it's on to Montrose, which with 417 residents seems a relative metropolis. I plan to stop briefly and grab some food before pedaling on to Appleton City, but something catches my eye when I ride past the town's only public school. Behind the brick building, next to a playground and a basketball court, sits a well-groomed softball field, the home of the Lady Jays. I head over to the first base dugout, wheel the bike inside, and decide that it's one of the best campsites in the country. Chain-link fence faces the field, while metal siding covers the west and north sides and keeps anyone walking or driving by from seeing me. The roof over my head gives me shade and offers protection from the possible thunderstorms. Only the cows and horses in the pasture beyond the outfield fence know I'm here. I nap and write and relax for hours.

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"What the heck is that over there?" I hear a woman's voice call out around 8:30. She stopped by to check on the field, because the school has a pair of games taking place tomorrow night. She asks me if I'm camping here and I say yes, until 5:30 in the morning. She laughs and goes about her business and leaves five minutes later, not caring in the least that some weirdo in a tent is hanging out in the dugout. Like nearly everyone else I've met in the rural areas of this country, she knows that there's nothing to worry about.

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A car drives by every few minutes on the nearby highway, but mostly I'm treated to a perfect summer night in the country. Birds chirp all around, termites chew on the wooden boards of the bench, and a cow moos occasionally over near the barn, where the roof and adjacent grain silo glow orange in the setting sun. Later the wind stops completely and thin, dark lines of clouds form over the rolling hills in the distance. A skinny coyote runs across the entrance to the dugout before bolting over the dirt infield and disappearing into the pasture beyond the left field fence. I savor the moment as best I can, but sleepiness elbows its way in and soon my only choice is to lay my head down as the last bits of light leave the sky.

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But Montrose, Missouri has other ideas.

Two minutes before my head hits the pillow-towel I hear crunching gravel and the squealing brakes of a stopping car. A minute later footsteps fall outside the dugout. When I hear the crackling static of a radio I know exactly what's about to walk around the corner.

"Good evening," the Sheriff's deputy says. "What are ya doing out here?"

"Trying to cross the country on a bicycle," I tell him. "And hoping to head to sleep for the night."

"Well, I can't let ya do that, I'm afraid. You're on school property and the town has ordinances against camping."

It's not good news, but he's so nice and apologetic-sounding about it that it almost doesn't bother me.

"Can I see some ID?" he asks. "I just need to make sure ya don't have any outstandin' warrants or anythin'."

He takes my driver's license and walks back to his car to make sure I'm not a murderer on a very slow escape from the law. I sit in my tent and try to figure out the best way to ask for forgiveness and permission to stay put until I push out at 5:00 tomorrow morning. He seems like a reasonable guy and it's not as if I'm disturbing anyone or anything by sleeping in a softball field dugout for the next eight hours.

But he can't let me stay. Not because he's against it, but because the person who runs the school is waiting in an office inside the building and won't leave until I'm gone.

"They're here?" I ask. "Can I go talk to them, and explain what I'm doing and try to convince them to let me stay?"

"Sure, whatever you want. They're out around the front."

We walk along the west side of the brick-faced building, through damp grass and the cool air of a wonderful country night. I've never met a person who was anything but understanding and helpful after talking to me and hearing about how and why I travel by bike, so I'm sure I can convince this principal or superintendent that I won't be any trouble.

And then I see the woman in charge. As soon as I catch a good look at her wrinkled face, permanently fixed with an angry look across it, I know I'm engaged in a fight I can't win. She's a stone-cold, rock-hard, unflinching grump of a person with at least 50 years of experience in telling other people exactly what they cannot do.

"Hi there," I say. "I'm traveling across the country by bike and I was hoping to stay—"

"No."

"It's just for one night and I'll be gone—"

"I'm sorry."

"I won't be bothering anyone and—"

"Something might happen. You can't stay here. You need to leave."

I never get an answer as to what that something might be.

Still stunned, I walk back to the softball field with the deputy.

"I'll be honest," he says, "That's as nice as I've seen her, actually. Ya know, me personally, I could care less if ya stayed here. You're obviously not botherin' anybody. In fact, if you'd have picked almost any other place in this county, no one else would care either. Ya just picked about the worst place in the worst town. We have more problems with the people in this place than anywhere else around here."

I still don't feel too bad. My amazing luck had to run out eventually.

"What I can't figure out," he tells me, "Is how they even knew you were back here."

That's when I realize what just happened. The woman who saw me earlier couldn't bring herself to even talk to me face to face, so she had to call the principal instead. The principal was so scared of the unassuming stranger on the bike in the smelly tent that she couldn't walk over and ask me to leave either. She had to call the Sheriff's office and ask them to handle it for her. It's a degree of fear and distrust that would seem out of place even in Seattle. To experience it in a 417-person town in the middle of nothing in Western Missouri is completely astonishing. I stop several times as I pack up, staring across the field and shaking my head at the absurdity and sadness of it all.

But I'm not the only trespasser tonight. A 70-something woman in an old and dented Ford truck pulls into the parking lot behind the school and starts to go through the dumpsters, looking for scrap metal that she can sell to a recycler for a few dollars. The principal won't have any of that either, and tells the Sheriff's deputy to make the old woman leave the property as well. It's like I'm in the middle of the Henry County edition of the TV show Cops.

The woman waits in her truck at the end of the parking lot, next to the highway, when I ride past 20 minutes later after loading up the bike. She yells something I can't understand, so I slow down and then ride over toward the truck.

"Are ya ridin' that bike 'cross the curntry?" she asks.

I tell her that I am.

"I can't b'lieve they made ya leave. I hate the people in this town. Ya can camp in my yard if ya want. Do ya need a place to camp?"

She looks a bit disheveled and sounds a little crazy but, hey, that keeps things interesting.

"Yeah. If I could set up my tent in your yard that'd be great. I just need a place to stay for the night and then I'll be gone early tomorrow."

But we aren't going there any time soon. She gets out of the truck.

"Who was it made ya leave?" she asks.

I tell her it was the principal.

"Ohhhhhh," she grumbles. "That's Patty. Patty and her husband Tony. She's a furckin' bertch. Pardon my French, I do that when I been drinkin'. But she's a furckin' bertch."

The words slide out in a drunken jumble. That's when I smell the alcohol, notice the bloodshot eyes, and realize that the unstable woman in front of me is absolutely shitfaced drunk.

"Patty," she says again with disgust. "A furckin' bertch, with a pers'nal'ty like a boa constructor."

It's a strangely lucid observation.

"Yeah, she kicked me outta here too, damn bertch. I bern curmin' here ever' weekend for years, lookin' fer metal so's I can sell it. Know how much I made last time?"

I don't answer.

"Thirty-figh dollers!" she yells out, and then pokes me hard in the chest with the index and middle fingers of her right hand.

It goes on like this for 20 minutes, a mostly one-sided conversation punctuated with slurred words and drunken stumbles. The right shoulder of her shirt and her bra strap both inch farther and farther down toward her elbow and I'm terrified that I'm about to get an eyeful of saggy old woman boob.

I follow her weaving truck two blocks back to her house and immediately set to work on assembling the tent. I have to get up in six hours and I need rest. But I won't get to sleep quite that easily. She turns on the front porch light and rambles on about Patty and Tony and a long line of local drama for ten solid minutes, without me saying much of anything. After her fourth request I give in and sit next to her on the top step and drink a lukewarm can of Busch Light as a breeze rustles the branches and leaves of the nearby trees.

"This is a furckin' inbred town," she says as she waves her finger around in a big circle. "Ya point to any car drivin' by 'n I can tell ya if they ever driven past the edge a town 'r not. Inbreds, all of 'em."

"So you're not from here?"

"Hell no I'm not from here. Came down her in 1995, after I went on dis'bility. Had mah ex follow me down a coupla times. Kept on comin' round, sometimes bringin' 'long his girlfriend ... that whore. Had to get a 'strainin' order 'gainst 'em."

As we talk more I learn that her name is Ella, that she has 11 grandchildren, and that she's a huge supporter of the town's state champion basketball team. It's hard for me to imagine the drunk, cursing woman sitting to my left in the context of an eight-year-old's birthday party or cheering on a high school sports team, but take away the Busch and clean her up and that's exactly who she is. She tells me to come inside, I reluctantly follow, and she shows me the scrapbooks and photo albums and state basketball tournament programs that prove it.

She says that I can sleep inside if I want, in the upstairs bedroom. I decline, partly because I'm thoroughly creeped out, but also because I'm worried for my health. The living room and kitchen on the ground level are filled with four foot high stacks of papers and magazines and garbage, to the point where walking is almost impossible. The only light comes from a single bulb that turns on with the pull of a metal string.

"I'm not gonna rape ya," she says with a laugh, trying to make things better but actually making them so much worse.

"Ya can stay if ya want," she reiterates. "I just hope ya don't kill me in my sleep."

And with that I thank her for her hospitality, wish her a good night, and then walk back outside and climb into my tent—my safe, wonderful, rape-free tent.

It's been three hours since I first met the Sheriff's deputy. I'm exhausted.

"There's more beer in the truck!" she yells at me from the porch. "It's on the driver's side, next to the seat!"

For the next half hour I lay perfectly still, faking sleep as she talks to a stray cat who's probably as unnerved by her drunken monologues as I am. White light flashes in the sky to the south and the wind picks up speed, but I decide that I'd rather experience death by lightning than step foot in her scary house ever again.

Today's ride: 50 miles (80 km)
Total: 3,449 miles (5,551 km)

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