Day 7 Continued
Sunday, June 10, 2001
Somewhere in eastern Kansas
I was in high spirits after my fleeting encounter with the Lone Rider. Kansas’s beauty revealed itself to me, then. Where before I saw flat and featureless plains, I now saw the sprawling Heartland reaching out in all directions to meet the vast blue sky. There is a perfect solitude that can only be experienced in the flat expanses of our planet. Like looking up into a river of stars on a moonless night, standing in (or riding through) vast open spaces heightens our perception of the awesome scale of planet Earth and our own insignificance in the face of Nature. Soaring mountain ranges may inspire awe, but to stand in an empty field while a massive thunderhead approaches is to feel Mother Nature’s raw power and fury.
I crossed the border into Kansas City, Missouri and decided to ride right on through. There are countless small towns in this country, and I would prefer any of them over a big city when on a road trip. My America is defined by those small towns and the folks who inhabit them.
I pulled off of I-70 in Oak Grove to get some gas for my bike and some beef jerky and a soda for me. I pulled a few Advil from my bag and swallowed them with my Diet Mountain Dew. My knees and butt were starting to get a little sore, so I thought it best to nip that pain in the bud. Little did I know then that the pain I was feeling was just the tip of an iceberg of suffering that would almost consume me by the end of the journey.
Yeah yeah, you were in pain. So what? I want to know about the beef jerky and Diet Mountain Dew!
I know, it’s an awkward combination, but having already traversed the country a couple of times by car, I had zeroed in on my body’s optimal diet for long road trips: 2 McDonald’s breakfast burritos with hot sauce in the morning, Jack Link’s beef jerky and Diet Mountain Dew throughout the day (all protein and caffeine – no carbohydrates to make me sleepy) and dinner at a local (or chain) restaurant washed down with a few margaritas. I could ride to the moon and back on that diet. Or at least I could have 15 years ago. My knees, butt and back are not as gung-ho about long rides of any kind anymore. But if I were to try, I’d also have to switch those margaritas to a few dry martinis – that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read my stories 🙂
While I was gassing up my bike and nursing my nascent pains, it struck me that I was wasting the journey riding on I-70. The interstate highway had served its purpose in western Kansas as I fled tornado-spewing thunderstorms, but there was no reason for me to be barreling through the rest of the country. I pulled a Missouri map out of my tank bag (I had bought road maps for every state I’d be riding through. Maps! Remember those?) and had a look at my situation. It appeared that if I just headed south on the road I had exited onto, I would intersect with Route 50 again. It wasn’t the same Route 50 I had taken out of California and across Nevada, Utah and into Colorado, but I took it as a good sign. I plopped my helmet back onto my head and pointed my front wheel south.
The road south to Route 50 was only 10 miles, but I loved the ride. There were farms, fields and trees as far as the eye could see. I could have ridden that road all day. But Route 50 came up quickly and I veered left and was heading east again. The day was getting on, so I decided to stop for the night in the next town I came across.
I pulled off Route 50 in Warrensburg, Missouri and found lodging at a Days Inn. After dumping my bags in the room and showering off the road grime, I headed out for my nightly ritual of dinner and margaritas.
Monday, June 11, 2001
It had been a hot ride since I blasted out of the Rockies, and this day promised more of the same. My front tire was front and center in my mind. I couldn’t put it off much longer. I would have to get it changed that day. I couldn’t risk it any further. But it was Monday, so the BMW cycle shops would be closed. I’d have to find another. These were the days before smart phones and portable internet, so I called my roommate Kevin at work in San Francisco. He was a fellow rider, and he’d be able to help me find a shop to change my tire. I doubted there’d be anything before St. Louis, so I asked him to look there. He gave me some names and numbers, and I started calling around. I found one whose name I can no longer remember. It was on the outskirts of St. Louis, and they had a suitable tire in stock. I told them I would see them later in the day. I hoped the tire would last that long.
My mind was settled and I enjoyed my Missouri morning watching the farms and trees open up before me and slide behind me. I was in a peaceful state of mind, and the first 100 miles passed quickly. I pulled off to refuel in Linn, Missouri, a small speck of a town about 20 miles east of Jefferson City.
The gas station had a general store, and an old fellow in faded overalls and a worn-in cap stood out in front. From his attire, his dark skin and the creases around his eyes, I took him for a local farmer. I had seen that same look when I was a kid working on the tobacco farms in my hometown. He watched me as I was gassing up my bike. I walked into the store to pay for the gas and to pick up some beef jerky and Mountain Dew.
“Hello there.” He said. “Looks like you’re goin’ a long ways.” His voice was soft and he spoke slowly, each word measured against the thought in his mind. He asked where I was from and where I was headed. He remarked on my bike and the load I was carrying. As we spoke, he would nod his head, and sometimes his face would light up with a smile. I might have thought him slow or maybe considered him a “hick,” but as I listened to him speak further, I understood that this man was no simpleton. His unhurried cadence came from a life lived by the clock of sun and moon, of planting and harvest. While my days had once been measured by opening and closing bells, by morning and evening rush, his days were defined by the rising and setting sun and his years revolved around the sowing and reaping of crops.
As he spoke, I realized that this was the America that I had been subconsciously seeking, right there in that moment, in that man. It’s hard for me to explain why I felt that way, but I would have liked to spend a lot more time with that old timer, learning about his life, his family, his world. But the road was calling louder than ever, so I extended my hand to him and told him that it had been my great pleasure to meet him. We both went inside, and I shopped for my goods, paid for he gas and walked back outside to my bike.
As I was putting on my helmet, the old man stepped back outside the store, smiled at me and wished me a safe trip. I saw him still waving when I checked my mirror as I pulled out onto the road.
Like the Lone Rider, I will never forget the Old Man of Linn. I wish I got his name. I wish I could go back to Linn and find him so we could talk again.
I took it easy for the next 140 miles until the repair shop. I’d never a seen a bike tire so bald. The steel belt was showing in places. Why had I waited so long?
Luck was with me that trip. I made it to the shop without incident and waited an hour or so while they replaced my tire. Once I was back on a new tire, I felt like my bike was new again. I could ride fast again! St. Louis was just to my east. The side trip to the repair shop had cost me a couple of hours of riding time, so I decided I would splurge and stay in St. Louis that night. As I mentioned earlier, I preferred to avoid cities, but I was relieved I had fixed my tire, and I wanted to pamper myself with a good hotel with room service. I rode into the heart of the city and made my way towards the Gateway Arch. I found a perfect hotel overlooking the arch – The Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Gateway Arch. If you’re gonna splurge – splurge all the way. I parked in the garage under the hotel and hauled my sweaty and stinking carcass into the lobby. They must have been thrilled to see a dirty biker with his filthy saddlebags show up at the front desk. But I had a smile and I had plastic, so they gave me a key and sent me on my merry way.
I’d love to report that I changed my clothes and went outside to see one of America’s greatest monuments, but I didn’t. I showered, ordered a cheeseburger and two margaritas from room service and watched movies until I fell asleep. It was epic.
Tuesday, June 12, 2001
St. Louis, Missouri
The night of pampering in St. Louis was good for my bones, but it took some of the wind out of my sails. I was about to cross the Mississippi River. I would soon be back in eastern America. Even though a vast distance separated me from my childhood home, I was starting to feel like I was there already. And once that feeling hits, it’s hard to keep taking the slower and longer routes. My brain was starting to tell me to end this journey as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, my body was starting to agree. I pulled out the map again.
There it was. I-70. Calling me.
I sighed and let the little war play out in my head, but I already knew which side would win. I would be hopping back on the interstate and hightailing it back to Connecticut.
I remember leaving St. Louis that hazy morning, but I have no memory (and no journal) of the day. I imagine it was an uninspiring slog along I-70 with nothing to see but asphalt and cars, nothing to hear but the roar of wind in my ears and nothing to feel but the growing pain in my knees and butt. I put on a lot of miles that day and called it quits in Dayton, Ohio. The sky was looking threatening, and I wanted to find shelter before the storm. I remember pulling into a McDonald’s for a vanilla ice cream. It was another scorcher, and I needed something cold. Thunderclouds gathered above me as I slurped my icy treat. I gobbled it down, brain freeze be damned, and headed across the street to a Comfort Inn. The first drops started to fall just as I pulled up to the lobby to check in. I quickly got my key and drove around to my room. I unloaded my bags before the main front hit. It amazes me, even after all these years, that the only rain I felt on that entire cross-country trip were those few drops in Dayton before running inside to my room. When I started the journey, there was severe weather all around me in the country, and as I progressed east, the bad weather closed in behind me, as some good weather would break in front of me. I rode for a total of 10 days (including the stopover in Winter Park), and for most of those days, I was in a lone pocket of good weather surrounded on all sides by raging storms.
Wednesday, June 13, 2001 9:00 am
I remember that morning like it was yesterday. The morning was crisp and sunny. The night’s rain had cleared out the heat and humidity and left perfect weather in its wake. But I was tired. I loaded up my bike with my saddlebags, tent, sleeping bag (only used those once) and boots. My knees hurt. My butt felt raw. Everything hurt a little that day. I swung a leg over and mounted my bike. I looked down at the map pouch on top of my tank bag. It was a clear plastic pouch that held a map, so I could see where I was heading while riding. I pulled it out of the pouch. I then fished out my map of the country. I found Dayton. I looked over to Connecticut and found Glastonbury. I did some rough estimating.
About 750 miles.
That’s 50% more my longest day so far and three times as much as my lesser days!
I’m so sore and tired!
That’s one quarter of the entire country!
F@&k it. I’m doing it!
I fired up the engine and lit out for my childhood home.
I had to stop at least every 200 miles for gas. My pain exploded that day. Every time I stopped for gas, I would pop four Advil. My butt was so sore that I had to fish a fleece vest from my pack and tie it down over the bike seat with a bungee cord. My knees popped and groaned every time I got off the bike, and I had to ride for long stretches with one or both of them sticking straight out into the wind.
My bones were falling apart. But I wouldn’t be spending another night in a motel.
I remember the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. I was getting closer. The landscape was familiar.
I passed through the Hudson Valley in New York – so close to Connecticut.
The light was fading as I crossed the border. Couldn’t stop now. Another hour? Hour and a half? That was nothing!
I held on and rode, and every inch of my body shrieked for mercy.
And then it was over. I pulled into my parents’ driveway at 9:30 pm. I had ridden for 12 1/2 hours over a distance of 779 miles. I have never broken that record and don’t expect to.
My parents were shocked. They weren’t expecting me until the next day, and I never told them my plans. I walked around back to the patio, sat down and drank a glass of whiskey. My hands and arms buzzed from the bike’s vibration. I was exhausted, but I was home.