Friday, November 4, 2016

Blazing Saddles Sores

"Well, I hope no one throws anything at you while you're in Virginia." I couldn't agree more with my well-wisher. In fact I extended my hopes to include North Carolina as well.

I started thinking about biking across the country a couple of years ago. Fly to Seattle, buy a bike, ride east and a month or two later throw the bicycle in the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way meet interesting people, eat local cuisine and develop Ferrignoesque quads.

But since I'd never ridden a bike more than thirty miles in a day (and the one time I rode that far, it was weeks before I got on a bicycle again) I thought a warm-up trip might be a good idea. And I didn't have it in me to spend a month and a half in the lower 48 during an election year.

My presence had been requested in New England and The South. Schedules left me with nine days to ride 700 miles. I didn't do any complex math but less than a hundred miles a day seemed obtainable.

I've done long trips with kayaks and motorcycles and backpacks and those first moments with a heavy load, you're convinced that the frame is bent or the fork is twisted or you're going to sink. Pedaling away was no different, the bike felt squirrely and unbalanced.

A group of people, I'd met the night before at a wedding near Hartford, who thought what I was doing was mildly insane watched me pedal away. Luckily a grove of thick trees lined the corner and I was hidden from view as soon as I completed my first turn.

I stopped the bike, dismounted, and reconfigured the load. Extra straps were accessible because I've had to reconfigure many times in the past. What looks right while holding still is much different once underway. And you'll keep tweaking until Day 4, the day when things fall into place and you've found your groove.

Forty miles was all I set out to accomplish the first day. I knew I wouldn't get an alpine start, I'd be readjusting my load, I had no idea what sort of caloric intake I'd need and so forth. Plus I'd had a mild infatuation with The Doors while in high school and I remembered that Mr. Morrison found a little trouble in New Haven.

It became readily apparent that momentum would be a key. Timing street lights so that I didn't have to put a foot down meant I could keep cruising and avoid the start from a stop which took lots of effort, static versus kinetic friction, the first law King Newton penned.

Traffic was only an issue for three miles or so, then I was on the Farmington Canal Trail. It's a paved pedestrian and bike route and it got me quite excited about how pleasant the trip would be. Coasting fresh pavement inside a green belt through densely populated countryside was a breeze and I'd gone forty miles before I knew it.

The fairy tale ended two days later when I woke to rain. A friendly New Yorker suggested I, "Get in the fucking bike lane." Bike lane, what bike lane? At the next red light instead of irritating all the motorists as I coasted by them on the way to the front of the line, I stopped at his car and looked in the window. He rolled it down and I asked him where the bike lane was. As soon as he realized I was ignorant and not endangering the commute on purpose, his tone softened. Transecting NYC instantly became more enjoyable.

New York to Philly to Baltimore to D.C. blended together in a mix of rain, commuters, and occasional respite on a bike trail. Bike routes guided me through the tired, worn out parts of cities, past abandoned warehouses from the days when Americans made more than they bought and rail yards operating far below capacity.

One feels every bump through the handlebars and it didn't take long before I knew by the vibrations in my wrists that I was in another neighborhood with offers to pay cash for houses Sharpied on cardboard decorating the street corners.

Not long after I left D.C. dogs quit barking and began braying. Hounds being the first sign that I'd reached The South. Menus had grits, restaurants had waitresses, and nearly everyone had thirty extra pounds in their overalls.

"Sit anywhere ya all like," called the man at the griddle. I selected a table, spread my gear so that by the time I was done ingesting the recommended weekly allowance of eggs, potatoes, and pork products my jacket would reach that delightfully tacky state that one only experiences by donning damp rain gear and sat down. "That there's a family table," he pointed a metal spatula at me, "You sit thar, you gonna hafta act like family."

I haven't decided if franchising is the worst part of the American Dream but it's right up there. Good luck finding a group of retired farmers solving all the country's problems from the corner booth at Micky Dee's every morning. But if you follow bike routes there's a good chance you'll walk into a diner and hear someone spouting about how that's the problem these days. Do yourself a favor and sit close. Eavesdropping will be a breeze cuz they're hard of hearing and speak plenty loud.

I didn't find many places that will have a Fieri-red Camaro parked out front. What I did find were lots of joints full of good people serving decent food at reasonable prices. And of course a couple of serious griddle masters ending with the pat of melted butter on my grits, the black dude with hands so big that he could crack two eggs, one at a time onto his griddle. He's flipping hot cakes just down from the bus station in Raleigh, NC.