Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
I was thankfully leaving St. Louis early on a Saturday, when there wouldn't be much traffic. Even better, there was a road that made a straight shot out of town, due south along the Mississippi, and it had a shoulder or bike lane almost the whole way. Even then, it took almost half the day before I was out of the St. Louis area. None of it was unmanageably stressful, but it went on longer than expected.
Immediately after leaving the last town and turning onto a country road, silence. The road was thin, buried in the woods, with hidden pockets of farmland tucked between the trees. Traffic had vanished. The sun was shining. No wind. Some rolling hills just to make things interesting. This is the kind of riding that bike touring is all about.
Somewhere in the maze of country roads, pavement disappeared and I had to ride on a gravel road for a while. Not the best, but I've seen worse. Twice, the road turned into a pit of loose rocks with half a meter of water running through it. The first time, I tried riding through, but Valeria can't handle that surface. Both times, I wound up having to wade.
About 15 km out from town, I stopped to drink some water and two young men in a pickup pulled up alongside me. "You OK?"
"Yeah, just stopped for water."
When they found out I'd biked there from San Francisco, they couldn't believe it. They handed me a couple cold drinks and told me to meet them at the skate park in town, where I could ride their board if I wanted.
On the way into town, I spied at a bike shop, appropriately named "Trans Am Cycles," as I was once again on Adventure Cycling's Trans Am route. Wound up stopping in for no particular reason, and was given some red licorice and a pointer on where to stay in town. Turns out there's a free hostel for cyclists! I stopped at the skate park first, but didn't see the guys from earlier.
I eventually found the hostel, upstairs in what used to be the city jailhouse. When I stepped inside, I was astounded. This place was nicer than anywhere I've lived. Some other cyclist had left a bunch of microwaveable popcorn there, so I helped myself to two bags of it while I plopped down at the desktop computer and caught up on journals.
It looked like I had the place to myself until 7:30 Pm, when six people walked through the door. It took a while to figure out what exactly was going on, but one of them was on a supported coast-to-coast ride, headed westbound and was driving the vehicle today. The others were from St. Louis, knew one of the riders, and came out to make them dinner. The riders we're still out there, due to a 9:00 AM start, too many hills, and too much heat. It had stayed below 33 C (90 F) that day. They weren't going to like Utah when they got there...
Turns out they're from Boston. MIT, most of them, and one from Harvard. The ride is called Spokes, and their purpose is to travel the country giving teaching demonstrations about math and science on their days off. Three riders made it in before dark; the other three had to be picked up.
Their supporters had whipped up a large amount of salad, spaghetti and meatballs, left ice cream for dessert and quiche for the morning. I was invited to join in, after which we stayed up late talking about math and the American education system. I gave them a few brain teaser problems I use in class to see how they responded to them (if a Coke bottle has one bacterium in it at 11:00 and the population grows at a steady rate, doubling every minute until it's full at 12:00, what time is the bottle half full? And if you were a bacterium in that bottle, when would you realize you're running out of space?) They initially nailed the answers, then proceeded to overthink them for much longer than the discussion normally goes on. The point isn't supposed to be "but bacteria can't think," nor was the point of another question "but one divided by infinity isn't equal to zero; the limit is equal to zero." But maybe they grasped the point so quickly they moved on to something else. Or maybe they're used to harder problems.
Despite having a day off, half their team was awake by the time I left at 6:30 AM. Short day, mostly quiet, lots of short, steep hills. What cyclists often describe as a roller coaster. The kind of hills where you pedal down as hard as you can to try to get as much momentum as possible leading into the next hill, which like the one before, is brutally steep. Welcome to the Ozarks! It's kind of like Texas Hill Country, only more. And greener.
"Ozarks", as it turns out, is an Anglicized form of "Aux Arcs", itself short for "Aux Arkansas", meaning "At the Arkansas (River)".
I wound up arriving in town at 1:00 PM, the earliest finish outside of Kansas City, which was by far the shortest day. I had already heard of a cyclist hostel, so I headed over. Compared to Farmington, it didn't measure up. The place wasn't as nice as anywhere I've lived. But it was a floor and a ceiling, it had air conditioning and a hot shower. Certainly better than most arrangements you get on a bike tour! Spent the day taking a nap, watching a movie on my phone, and catching up in journals (completely!). Unfortunately, no reading; it would appear I'd lost my book. Which is just as well, because I'd read less than 50 pages this far.
Leaving Ellington meant more of the same roller coaster landscape. Up, down, up, up, down. Sometimes exciting, other times grueling, never a flat spot, never a chance to get into a rhythm. It'd be miserable if it weren't also fun, and at least a little pretty.
There was light rain for four hours straight, but I hardly minded. It almost felt good, and at least it wasn't hot out. The worst part about it was the added noise from the cars. They're already plenty loud enough, but when roads are wet, you can add an obnoxious "WHRSHHHHKSHHHH!!" to their din.
In only the last two days, there are suddenly a lot of Confederate flags. By comparison, central Missouri had a handful of "Black lives matter" yard signs. Missouri wasn't even a fully Confederate state, so it's confusing. Are they saying they wish their home state had committed high treason? Or something else? Funny thing is these are probably the same people that would get offended by burning an American flag, but publicly siding with America's most notorious traitors is OK.
Yeah, I know that's not entirely why people fly it. Like it or not, it's a well-designed flag that's the most recognizable symbol of The South, even if it was never the official flag of the Confederacy. People fly it out of Southern pride, not necessarily in support of slavery or treason. But they must be aware of what else it represents to some people, and they've decided not to care.
Luckily, I'm from Texas, home of the best got-dang state flag there is, and Texas is big enough to fill you with all the pride you need.
But if you think about it, the American flag represents treason against the United Kingdom. The Texas flag represents treason against Mexico. The Mexican flag represents treason against Spain. In the end, the only reasons any land belongs to any country are conquest, appeasement, and on rare occasion, purchase. It has nothing to do with who was in the right or had the better claim and everything to do with who won. And as they say, the winners get to write the history books.
I met three more Trans-Am riders today, none of them doing the route in its entirety. One was using large sections of it for his ride from Seattle to Atlanta, and the other two were using it to cross Missouri. The two of them were from Columbia, so they must be aware of the Katy Trail. My guess is they've already done that and we're looking for another adventure, which is always a good attitude to have.
Shortly after splitting off from the Trans-Am, I realized I'd be going it alone for the rest of the ride. While this is, as usual, a solo tour, I've spent most of the time either in an area popular for cycling or on an established route. The Pacific Coast Highway, Wine Country, Davis CA, Lake Tahoe, the Western Express Route, the Trans-Am Route, the Katy Trail. Never was I away from one of these for more than a day at a time. That didn't mean I saw other cyclists every day; in some areas (like Nevada), it was rare. But it was always a reasonable possibility. From here on out, it would be highly unlikely.
I made excellent time in the later half of the day, as the road flattened and dried out. By the time I reached West Plains, the sun was shining. Shame I was done riding. In the end, the day turned out to have among the most climbing of any day of the ride, despite having essentially no climbs that lasted more than a mile.
Finding a place to stay was a game of cat-and-mouse, as everywhere I tried recommended asking someone else. Finally found a church that lent a nice comfy floor. Only the second time that had happened on the entire ride. Strange, because for the longest time, that was my bread and butter. Maybe times are changing. Either way, I'm starting to dread the process. It's so much nicer when you head into town already knowing you have a place to stay, rather than having to pedal all over town asking if someone will help. Thank goodness for WarmShowers.
Got one of my earliest starts on my shortest day yet, finished by noon. Which was a happy coincidence, considering it rained all day, harder as the day went on. And nice that I had a short day on a day where I had a great host, and on the 4th of July!
Don was an avid touring cyclist in his day, having ridden the Bike-centennial, only he found it too crowded with newbies, so he frequently diverted course onto parallel roads. Sounds a lot like the Appalachian Trail from his description, people with no experience trying to do the biggest thing they've heard of.
Don owns a cabin resort and lets cyclists stay for free in whatever capacity isn't taken up by paying customers. I wound up in a bunk house, a step up from the camping I expected to do. Don kept downplaying its quality, but anything with a floor and a ceiling is luxury. This place had a shower and a kitchen!
Don wound up taking me in for breakfast after I arrived, making me three waffles. Then he did my laundry. Then after I spent the afternoon reading and watching old movies, he invited me to dinner. What a guy!
Only a week of riding remained, and only two days in the hills. Miraculously, it still hasn't been hot!...only because of all the rain. I can't decide if I want that to change or not.
from Western States