43 – Assholes - Travels with Walter - CycleBlaze

July 11, 2015

43 – Assholes

It's another beautiful morning in Indiana. The air feels cool and heavy. Pale bands of fog hang above the fields and blur the outlines of the trees beyond. And as the first fishermen lower their boats into the lake and get ready for a long day of sitting around and casting and turning delirious from the sheen of bug spray that covers their skin, a little white dog squats next to a road and squeezes out a little wet poop with a noise loud enough to be heard twenty feet away.

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It's a big deal. The sickness that brought Walter down earlier in the week seems to have passed, but since then the guy's been all backed up inside. It's part of the reason he's still not eating or drinking as much as he should, and why the wonderful energy and curiosity that we love so much are far lower than they should be. Or at least we think that's the reason. There's a part of each of us that worries something more serious might be at work. We spend a lot of time debating whether or not it's time to head into a larger town and take Walter to a vet.

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It means that as I pedal down empty back roads I see the flooded fields, the idle planting and harvesting machines, and the ocean of corn. I notice the fighter jets running maneuvers out of the base in Fort Wayne. I get a little excited about the first hill we've seen in a long time looming in the distance, only to realize it's made from layer after layer of garbage covered over with dirt. But they're just distractions from thoughts more focused on the dog in the red trailer a quarter of a mile ahead of me than anything else.

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Yet while we sit on a bench in the shade next to the fire station in Buffalo, Walter sniffs around in the grass and plays with his chew toy and drinks a bunch of water. He seems more tired than normal but otherwise fine. We don't know what to think or what to do.

The woman behind the counter at the mini-mart says she'll be praying for our safety. When she passes us on the way out of town we get a few horn honks of support. After that we're all alone except for the tiny frogs that dart out into the path of our tires with jerky bursts of speed before shooting into the tall grass that lines the road. It's rural Indiana: the deep brown murk of drainage canals, roads that only a day or two ago were underwater, and unending flat all around. The closest thing to excitement or danger is riding over fat piles of cut grass that have fallen into the road and turned yellow. At first it's just a diversion. Then I realize that the crunching sound they make when I run over them and the moment of softness they bring to an otherwise rough road each give me these short little bursts of happiness and clear any bad thoughts from my head. All of the flatness out here might be eating away at my brain.

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For the second straight day the weather works neither for us or against us. We don't find much in the way of places to stop or people to talk with either. With few reasons to linger anywhere, we keep the handlebars aimed forward and pedal mile after mile, hour after hour. Half my attention focuses on the road in front of me. The other half travels the highways and side roads of my mind. I end up having furious debates with myself about love and geography and the American military-industrial complex, only to have forgotten most everything by the time the next ninety-degree turn arrives. My thoughts wander so much that the total lack of potholes are all that keep me from flying head first into a muddy ditch.

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Because the Adventure Cycling route works hard to send you around just about every possible place to get food or water in this part of Indiana, we divert into the ass-end of Rensselaer to stock up for the afternoon and evening ahead. On the way out of town a beat-up old Ford Thunderbird passes by in the opposite direction with the window down and a guy in his late twenties behind the wheel.

"Assholes," I hear him say in a flat tone as he draws even with us.

It takes a moment for it to register in my brain.

"Did that guy just call us assholes?" I ask Kristen.

"Um, yeah, I think so."

It happens while we're on an empty side street, with our bikes leaning on their kickstands in a parking strip, moments after Kristen rescued a turtle from the middle of the road that the guy would have otherwise run over. In a way it's kind of good; we haven't had enough of that general American anger on this trip. It isn't until half a mile down the road I realize why he said it: he was going to run the turtle over, for some kind of sick satisfaction or power trip or to make himself laugh for two seconds. But Kristen's kind soul and quick thinking kept him from doing that.

In the battle of good versus evil, add one hash mark in the Good column.

Not a dog food model.
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Our six tires create a complex array of waves behind us when we ride through what's left of the flood waters on closed country roads. Soon the threatening skies that both hang above us and loom in the distance turn to rain. Looking out at the fields and farmhouses and tractors I try to imagine the times of the Cold War, when the heartland was dotted with missile silos, all of which stood ready to kick start the end times of the world with the turn of a key and the press of a few buttons.

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We stop at the gas station in Brook to check the weather. It's bad news: a line of three or four thunderstorms all headed straight east toward Iroquois, the town where we plan to spend the night. It's fifteen miles to get there, and we know there isn't a single town anywhere in between. But if we wait we'll either have to hang where we are for the next three hours and ride into town in darkness or stay in Brook where there's no camping and no motel.

There isn't going to be another choice. We have to try to get there. We have to mash.

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We charge across the windless flats at thirteen or fourteen miles per hour. It's crazy speed for the pack mules we call bicycles. Five miles out of Brook, Kristen pulls alongside and turns to look at me.

"Remember back at lunch when I had that huge sandwich and that cookie and the iced tea?" she asks.

Pause.

"Yeah."

"Well, I was feeling some, um, indigestion. So I took some of the Milk of Magnesia that we got for Walter. And I didn't measure it or anything. I just took a swallow."

Now two-thirds of Team Hawthorne sits perched on the edge of explosive diarrhea. Like we didn't have enough incentive to pedal as hard as we can.

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Five miles from town the rain starts. Then a butterfly almost flies into my mouth. Then we cross into Illinois. And then, against what seemed like such horrible odds, we manage to reach Iroquois fifteen minutes before the real weather shows up. That gives us just enough time to find the town park, set up the tent inside a covered pavilion so big that it's more like an airplane hangar, and then buy a couple of tallboys from a mini-mart that smells of cigarette smoke and where a thirty-pack of Milwaukee's Best goes for twelve bucks.

The only kind of state line marker we're going to find out here.
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We sit cross-legged in the tent, drink our beers, and both agree that everything feels so good right now. Somehow we managed to cross Indiana in three days and we don't feel tired at all. We ended up in a town that welcomes cross-country cyclists to camp in their park. We're happy and healthy and in love with each other, and realize how lucky we are to be out here traveling in the way we do. And then it gets better still: Walter eats more for dinner than he has in days. When he squeezes out a little poop in the darkness just beyond the cover of the pavilion an hour later our hearts fill with joy.

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The night sky fills with split-second pops of white when the heart of the thunderstorms arrive. The rain starts out easy but grows and grows at a steady rate as if it's under the control of some kind of atmospheric throttle. Yet at the same time, the upper threshold of the storm's chaos seems like it's been set to Low. It feels intense but not dangerous. And then all of a sudden that's no longer true. One flash of lightning happens right above the town, revealing in an instant the dark outline of every tree in the park. As the clap of thunder follows half a second later, all of the lights around us in the pavilion and all of the lights in town go dark for the span of two heartbeats. The wooden floor beneath the tent rumbles and shakes. At the same time, the rain starts to pour down on the roof above our heads as if an army of firehoses have been unleashed upon it. As we unclench our buttholes, release the breaths we've been holding, and watch the lights of Iroquois come back on, all I can think about is how this is what it feels like to be alive.

Today's ride: 82 miles (132 km)
Total: 1,740 miles (2,800 km)

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