June 27th – July 9th Ash Grove, MO – Cobden, Il
HUMIDITY AND HUMILITY
In Ash Grove, MO, I woke from heavy dreams into heat that drowns. The air could not choose which to be, gas or water, and so it hovered above the ground, an invisible river that my lungs worked against like bilge pumps.
I had been warned by cyclists heading west that the road beyond Ash Grove was grueling hills, the beginnings of the climb through the Ozarks in long ribbons of narrow asphalt. I did not know if I would be capable of climbing them. I felt some power now, rather than just exhaustion and helplessness. But I didn’t know if it would be enough to take on mile after mile of steep grades through Missouri, Illinois, and up the Ohio River to Cincinnati. The weeks of flat Kansas roads pressing into headwinds as if I were climbing mountain ranges, had taken it’s toll on my confidence. I had trusted my body to respond to my needs, and humility for what I naively chose so many months before made every mile ahead uncertain.
My belief that the cycling would be the easy part, and the connections to humans would be hard, reversed. Human kindness was everywhere, helping at every turn. But the physical road itself was wearing me down. Without that kindness on a daily basis, I would have quit this quest at one of the many obstacles that stopped me in my tracks.
But I had known this all along. My route south, down the Pacific Coast in 2009, so soon after Vasu’s death, was littered with those moments when the road became too hard, and all I had was my pit crew to get me moving again. It is where my faith began. When my desire to experience this world stalls, it is in connecting to humanity that gets me back on the road. As I climbed onto Old Blue I thought of my next goal, on the far side of Missouri, where the man I have chosen to love would meet me for our first full week together.
I had an entire state to cycle to get there.
I pedaled into the first big climb, just a few blocks out of Ash Grove, my legs grumbling at the unfamiliar use of muscle and tendon, the pressure increasing to the back of my legs and into my butt cheeks as I stood up to press into the grade. Old Blue slipped gears as I awkwardly shifted into low for the first time since Colorado. But somehow I managed to stay above 10 MPH for the entire climb, and as I crested the top and saw the descent, I smiled. My squeal lingered in the space I left behind – a puff of dust where The Road Runner used to be.
Missouri’s ribbon roads led me forward, away from the plains and into the dense jungle forests of the Ozark Range. Each climb had two or three plateaus before the top, giving me a dozen heartbeats of ease to release the lactic acid before stepping into the next rise. I stopped at convenience stores along the way for nutrients. Not food. I still could not digest food well enough to desire calories, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had a grumbling appetite, but I could drink, and filled my dry bags with smoothies, V-8 Juice, milk and sweet tea. I added salt to the V-8 and tea, and my body responded with something akin to appetite every time I tasted the metallic flavor mixed in with the sweet.
In every town, I found a touch of human kindness. People offered me what comforts they could, from food to lodging to advice for the road ahead. Traffic was also kind, but different from Kansas. Instead of passing wide around, they would brake and hover a polite distance behind me until they felt safe to pass. So many cars used exceptional care to keep me safe that I only noticed the riskier drivers for a moment as they passed close enough to touch, and then they were out of sight and the next polite driver would make me feel welcomed on the road once again. But for the most part, I had the ribbon roads entirely to myself. I was alone, but for the cicadas chittering in the trees, the vultures swirling constantly above, and an occasional turtle. I always stopped to move the little sun-bathing reptiles out of the road.
Unlike the never-ending fields of Kansas, where I could see my destination town’s water tower and grain mills from ten miles away, Missouri kept secrets. Ribbon roads hid from view everything beyond the next rise, and the forest of oak and vine leaned over the road and tangled every molecule of air. The silt colored rivers of the windy plains did not flow here. Instead, clear water polished hard, igneous rock. My pace was dictated by the frequency of the streams, as I paused on every bridge to gaze into jewel-tone waters.
I kept reminding myself that I was supposed to be afraid, and then I’d laugh at the thought. I was supposed to be afraid because of the stories people told me of mountain men and intolerance in this part of the world. But I found nothing to be afraid of among tangled forest, polite drivers, wild animals, and heat; except the sleep waiting for me at the end of every day.
My sleep scared me. After 5-6 hours of cycling at a steady pace, I would stop and force myself to raise my tent right away. To rest first meant I would have to rally my thoughts later from depths of darkness I had never felt before. Not exhaustion. Exhaustion and fatigue have a semblance of satiation to them, a sense that finite energies were being rejuvenating. This darkness of consciousness was something entirely different, like blackout, like coma, like practicing death. Nothing existed within that space until the dark released me to wakefulness again. Every night I set my tent and fell into a black hole.
My papa and I kept in touch on our electrolyte recoveries, passing on tidbits we were learning such as the spicy V-8 having sodium but the regular being entirely deficient. He would mention the temperatures both in Seattle and in Missouri, keeping careful track of both and worrying over me when he saw spikes in the Mercury in my area. And in return I worried that he was alone, and still getting dizzy whenever he stood up.
On the hottest day of the week I hit the steepest hills I’d encountered for the entire trip. In temperatures pushing triple digits and humidity pressing my bicycle into the ground, I left the ribbon roads behind and found myself on roads that climbed straight up and over tall ridge lines. It was on one of these slopes that I climbed off Old Blue and walked for the first time in 2,000 miles. And it wasn’t fatigue that forced the walk. I felt heavy. As if the earth desired to bury me deep in her soils and wasn’t going to bother digging my grave first; she would merely pull me into her embrace and absorb me.
That evening I rested on the ground in a sunbeam, and listened to the birds. They were everywhere here. Above my head were a murder of crows, only they were unlike any crows I’d ever heard before. Instead of the clear rasp of their voice, the sound that emerged from them was that of a newborn baby testing out its vocal cords for the first time. I closed my eyes and let body memory of Vasu take over until the sun set and the babies flew off to sleep. That night, darkness could not take me because of an orgy of frogs that filled the air with sound thicker than the humidity.
I was too weak to travel as far as I wanted to each day, and when the weekend finally came for me to spend with my guy, just south of St. Louis, I was farther east than expected. He neither grumbled nor complained, and in fact admonished me for pushing too hard. “I will always come and get you,” he said. “No matter how far.”
We were both excited for this visit. It would be our first time being “domestic” together. Since we had begun dating in February domesticity had not been possible. I had been couch surfing since the day I escaped my ill-chosen life of the past six years, and he had not yet created a permanent home after beginning a new career flying to a new state almost every week. Our amiable lifestyles were a blessing, because we were both capable of doing what we wanted to do and still see each other once or twice a month without bankrupting either of us. As long as I was near a major airport, he would come find me. And so, when he had a week off from his work, we planned to my first week off to coincide. We got an Air B&B cottage in the southwest tip of Illinois, in a tiny town called Cobden.
We managed to walk through the entire cabin before the kissing started.
Our week domestic was mostly spent snuggling in bed, cooking meals, and watching movies. It was accented with explorations of the area. A short drive to the north was the university town where his dad graduated, and the movie theater that we would end up going to often to escape the torrential rains that struck almost every day. On clear evenings we sat on the porch while the fireflies awakened to mate. My guy would take a flashlight and talk to them and I fell a little farther in love with him for it. There were many trails and lakes to explore too, but we quickly discovered the melting point of human when humidity and heat are at war. Watching my poor man struggle to breath just getting out of the car made me wonder how I’d managed to bicycle across the entirety of Missouri. Perhaps, I thought, it wasn’t just that I was having a difficult time adjusting. Perhaps my body was not supposed to be able to adapt to conditions so extreme.
It was the first time the reality hit that I could actually kill myself on this quest. I was proud of myself for how far I’d made it, and humbled by the realization that I might have to walk away from it unfinished. I was uncertain how I would feel starting up again after my man and I parted ways. My body, once stopped for even a few days, reacted as if struck by illness whenever it was time to get back on Old Blue.
Then, in the middle of the night toward the end of our week, I woke from nightmare. It had been a long time since I dreamed, and these ones clung to my waking mind. My thoughts were too clear and strong to ignore. I got up and wrote a quick note, the way I would write my thoughts down when I cycled the road; a marker only, to remind me of what that thought felt like for me to return to later when I had the clarity of my writer’s brain. I slipped back under the covers and closed my eyes, and was bitten awake by another thought. I stood, walked to the living room, wrote my snippet, and returned to bed only to be bitten again. I returned to my notebook again and again, until I finally gave up on returning to the bed. My man found me in the morning, curled up on the couch, my composition book open on the coffee table filled with black ink.
On our last day in the cabin before heading to separate corners of the US, my guy and I spent the entire day in bed watching movies. I knew what such sedate activity would do to my body once I had to get back on Old Blue the next day. Flat roads would burn like hills, and joints would behave as if they had aged decades. But I did not want to let go of skin to skin contact with my love. I wanted to soak in enough touch to last until we saw each other next. And so we stayed in bed, our legs tangled together, my head on his chest. I fell into dreamless sleep during a couple of the movies, and would wake in exactly the same state I fell asleep in, neither refreshed nor exhausted. The next day, he was packing, and leaving, and I was alone in the cabin with Old Blue waiting for me by the porch. And I was neither inspired to ride, nor determined to quit.