Bicycle continued...  

tall50swm 63M
117 posts
1/2/2006 1:50 am

Last Read:
3/5/2006 9:27 pm

Bicycle continued...

People bicycling cross-country have many choices but the TransAmerica Trail is the mother road. It dates to 1976, when a group called BikeCentennial, now the Adventure Cycling Association, celebrated the nation's 200th birthday by laying out the 4,248-mile route between Astoria, Oregon, and Yorktown, Virginia.

I began in Washington, negotiating the heavy traffic of northern Virginia and joining the TransAm in Charlottesville.

Virginia is some 400 miles long when riding diagonally to its southwest corner, with much climbing. Adventure Cycling says the Appalachians, although dwarfed by the Rockies, are harder to cross because of day upon day of steep grades. Fields of wildflowers are one reward for the work.

* * * * *

In Marion, Virginia, Mark Prater works from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day on his dream -- an Exxon station and convenience store he built on the site of a razed gas station run by his late grandfather for 45 years. Every item is in place. The lighting is warm. A hand-painted mural testifying to the area's railroad roots spreads across the back wall.

Prater shows his visitor how to ring beer. He breaks open cases of 24 and divides them into six packs or 12 packs. He stretches the rings on plastic sleeves over the cans, one at a time, making sure every label faces out. He's fast.

For all that work, he makes an extra 24 cents on six cans of beer by breaking down the cases into smaller units. He figured he'd made $400 by ringing beer since opening his station six months earlier. Every quarter helps. He competes with the Citgo station across the street.

His secret weapon: cheap gasoline that was still in the tanks from his grandfather's operation six months earlier. He survived an opening-round price war that way. His wife, Joanie, joins him in the evenings after her day job.

Dogs and hills are the challenge of Kentucky. Coal trucks on narrow roads, too. Here begin the fields of soybeans that dominate the verdant farmscape for 1,000 miles.

A scream, "Get outta here," makes the dogs turn tail and run. Good thing, because they chased this bicyclist at the rate of a half dozen a day, only in Kentucky. Others use pepper spray.

Norvill Jones, who has biked across country three times and in every contiguous state in his retirement, swears by a big stick. When a pack comes after you, he says, whack the lead dog on the head and they'll all run off.

* * * * *

Mary Hale answers the door, a touch suspicious. The day is roasting. Heat shimmers off the new blacktop on a steep road deep in the hills and hollows. Dizziness, nausea and shivers signal that I have heat exhaustion.

From the porch of her hilltop home, Mary offers ice water and explains her nervousness about seeing a stranger at her door. Her house has been broken into three times. Recently she caught a man trying to go in through a window. All Christmas presents were stolen one year.

Matronly in her long dress and white hair in a bun, she invites me in, makes me a ham sandwich, shows a picture of the house as it was when she and her husband, Mike, bought it. It was falling apart. Now it's like new. They did all the work themselves, and it's still a work in progress. The backyard looks down steeply on tobacco fields.

A thunderstorm gathers and we sit on her front porch watching it sweep by. She shrugs off an apology for interrupting her day. "I was just downloading gospel songs on Yahoo," she says.

At a convenience store miles down the road, a man in a pickup truck pulls up. "I'm Mary's husband," he says. "She sent me to see if you're OK and need a drive anywhere."

Norvill Jones, that veteran of dogs and mountains, had told me: "Never be too proud to hitch a ride up a hill." Mike drives me the last miles to the nearest town.

At Whitesville, Kentucky, near the Indiana line, the terrain abruptly changes. The rollercoaster hills turn gentle. Union County, the last chunk of Kentucky before the Ohio River, is spectacular.

Soybeans and corn everywhere. A farmer pulls up in a pickup, then a neighbor pulls up in his truck on the other side of the road. I stand on the yellow line between them. "I don't like to travel," the farmer says. "I like to know where the sun comes up and where it goes down every day."

An easy two days across southern Illinois brings me to the Mississippi River, riding on levee roads in the state's western section that are so quiet, three hours go by without a car passing. The question arises: Where on earth have the 298 million Americans gone?

Adventure Cycling publishes authoritative maps of the TransAm and other routes, laying out terrain, history, quirks and services of each section. This is vital information when biking many miles between sources of water, food and shelter. On the banks of the Mississippi, the course ahead looks daunting -- the Ozarks, more "nickel and dime hills so overpopulated with snarling dogs," as a friend warns me. Enough.

I go 70 miles north to the Katy Trail on the outskirts of St. Louis. The nation's longest rail-to-trail route, at 225 miles, it demands no steeper climbing than the trains of past centuries could manage. The limestone path turns the bicycle white; much of the four-day leg snakes between the Missouri River and steep bluffs.

Katy gets its name from the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, or M-K-T, and tiny towns along the way are named after railroad executives. One exception is Mokane, Missouri, drawn from the initials for Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.

A passing biker discloses his strategy for showering after camping in town parks; he ducks into self-serve car washes and hoses himself down at high pressure. No word on whether he springs for the wax finish.

On a particularly remote stretch, a too-large feline figure occupies the center of the trail ahead. It walks in a circle, sits and stares. The "get outta here" yell seems inappropriate. I turn tail and find a path leading to a gravel road and a long looping detour into the nearest community, where people confirm sightings of mountain lions. The big cat was probably heading to the nearby sheep farm for lunch, they say.

The only reasonably direct way into Kansas from the end of the Katy Trail in Clinton, Missouri, is by Highway 7. It isn't pleasant.

Busy and hilly and, worst of all, no services for many miles. I finally come to a convenience store late in the day, with 30 miles to go to the nearest town.

* * * * *

Craig Pattison, 56, pulls up in his pickup. Burly, rough-edged, a braid halfway down his back -- I don't know what to make of him. He invites me to camp at his place on the hill.

It's a great old farmhouse on 63 acres, bought for $160,000 not many years ago. A natural bowl in the earth serves as the amphitheater for his music festival. He's got fancy "hippie chickens" and various gardens, including a patch where he and his wife defy the climate and grow bananas. His daughter Tess has the Internet savvy to help market the festival then two weeks away.

Pattison makes his living as founder of Beaver Stump & Tree. When big hurricanes come hundreds of miles away, he packs up his crew and drives into their path, and has much business for weeks.

He cooks steaks for us. He dotes on his wife, Christy, a truckstop waitress, and stays up past his usual 8 p.m. bedtime for several hours until she gets home. She walks in to soft music and candles.

In the morning, he takes me to breakfast at Christy's restaurant. I tell him he should run for mayor. He points out there is no town to be mayor of.

Become a member to create a blog