Newton KS – Marion KY
Being under lockdown rules has the useful effect of making you realise how valuable the freedom to travel actually is and how much we all probably take it for granted. I’m sure lots of people are already planning some big adventures for when it’s safe to get out and about again. My brother has been looking for advice on touring bikes and there’s been talk of exciting journeys on the Karakorum Highway or perhaps into the Pamirs. How much better will it feel to finally get out there after all of this?
In the meantime we’ve been very grateful for the little adventures we can safely do at the moment. An hour riding on lanes with more cyclists than cars and more pheasants than cyclists. A sunny walk across the fields watched carefully by a herd of young calves. Running through woods carpeted with bluebells. I even climbed a tree the other day. We’re incredibly fortunate to have so much space around us here in The Vale of Evesham compared to other people’s lockdown environment and we’re trying to make the most of it.
As well as travelling I’ve also missed competing. Last weekend I was supposed to be running the London Marathon wearing a tap costume to raise money for the charity WaterAid. Instead I ran 45 laps around our farm on a tap-shaped course. This was harder than I’d anticipated, but it was a fun challenge to satisfy my competitive urges. The best bit though was the amount of support I received from friends and family via the wonders of an online stream on Facebook. It made it feel like a proper event even though there were actually more four-legged spectators than people. If you’d like to make a donation to WaterAid, who are needed now more than ever before to help provide clean water and decent toilets to areas of the world that need it most, then please click here: www.tiny.cc/FastestTap.
24th September 2016 – 6th October 2016
In Britain if you refuse to go out cycling when it rains then your bike will stay indoors for most of the year. Pull on a jacket and get on with it is the best policy. The rules in Florida and California are slightly different, so when we check the weather forecast for the day and see pictures of small grey rain clouds Dan and Charlie start to look nervous. “I think I’ll take a day off today” Dan tells us. “There’s a chilli fest in town that we could check out?” suggests Charlie. We dig out our waterproofs and leave them to it.
America does all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets better than anywhere else in the world. By the time we’ve finished in The Bread Basket Cafe it feels like we’ve got enough fuel on board to power us for the next week. The road out of Newton gives us a panoramic view of the storm clouds rolling across the plains. We manage to avoid the first one as it rushes across a few miles in front of us leaving soaking tarmac and that unmistakable smell of summer rain.
We’re not so lucky with the next one and get caught by the edge of it with a refreshing shower. The rain is heavy but warm and is fun to ride in. Wild horses graze the fields alongside the road and are just as unfazed by the weather. We pull the zips on our jackets up to our chins while the peaks of our caps act as a gutter to keep the worst of it out of our faces. While stopped at a cafe some concerned drivers ask if we’re OK to be out on the road in these conditions. “It’s only a bit of rain!” I reply. Despite our British attitude to the weather we’re still glad to find shelter in a church that James in the bike shop had told us about. During the night the rain continues to fall outside and thunder and lightning shakes the windows in the early hours.
We stand, dripping in the corner of a grocery store in Eureka the next morning. Clutching warm coffee in our cold hands, there’s already a wet floor sign by our feet. The rain has got progressively heavier, the temperature has dropped and we’re not feeling so happy about being out in it any longer. The next customer to come through the door is Robyn who immediately assesses our situation and leaps into action. “Follow me!” she cries.
Soon we’re in warm, dry clothes eating sloppy joes and sipping on root beer floats. Robyn has a house that she lets cyclists use when it’s not being rented out and lucky for us it’s currently empty. She lets us use the shower and dry our clothes while making arrangements for somewhere for us to stay that night.
We feel recharged and reinvigorated when we eventually leave. The rain clouds finally blow over revealing a rolling road in the Flint Hills that takes us onwards to Toronto. Robyn had told us about the tornado that had wrecked several homes in Eureka last year and we can’t help but think about the opening scenes from The Wizard of Oz. It’s an appropriate thought when we roll up to the house of Robyn’s friend Jeanmarie. To say she’s a fan of the film is an understatement, even her number plate says Oz Bcoz! It’s the end of yet another tough day that has been saved by a fortuitous meeting with some very kind and generous strangers. Jeanmarie drives us out to watch the sunset over a lake before chatting all evening about life in the Sunflower State. She has hosted dozens of TransAm cyclists but recently had a more unusual guest. Oli was from Slovenia and has been walking the route while carrying all his gear in a pushchair. “He can’t be more than a few days ahead of you now so you should catch him up soon”. We promise to say hello from her if and when we see him.
We’re approaching the edge of Kansas now and the plains are starting to ruck up again into increasingly steep hills. Huge cobwebs hang in the trees catching the morning light and a few unlucky tortoises lie by the roadside. One of the more fortunate ones gets some assistance from Kirsty to get safely to the other side, at least she assumes that was where it wanted to be.
In the small village of Benedict a hand painted sign invites us to stop at the community store where we encounter another TransAm legend. Pastor Joe is an ex-serviceman full of stories about delivering furniture to John Wayne and falling off scaffolding in Germany but his specialist subject is conspiracy theories. While being plied with free ice cream we’re educated on various devious plots by Russia to otherthrow the USA using submarines hidden on each coast of the continent. We mock incredulity and try to nod and shake our heads at the appropriate places. Armed with two DVDs that he promises will teach us more, we eventually say our goodbyes and pedal out of there at full speed!
We hadn’t expected to see Dan and Charlie again but when we arrive in Pittsburg a couple of days later we’re surprised to see them riding down the main street towards us. We all pitch up at the town’s community campsite where they tell us that the rain wasn’t all that bad after all. We’ll have them touring in the UK one day. They’d also made use of Robyn’s house in Eureka.
Pittsburg serves as a vital pitstop for us with our front dynamo hub needing an overhaul. It’s a specialist job so the wheel gets boxed up and sent off for repairs and we buy a cheap, used option from Tailwind Cycles to use in the meantime. We’ll catch up with the repaired wheel at a post office in a few days’ time, all being well.
Cooky’s cafe is famous on the TransAm for serving the best pies on the entire route. We find it shortly after crossing into Missouri and as soon as we step through the door the smell of fresh baking has us salivating. I press my nose to the glass of the counter to study our options but it’s no use, all the pies look incredible so we’ll have to work through the entire menu.
Luckily Missouri takes up where Kansas left off so we can justify the calorie intake as we begin winching up and zooming down the never ending sets of humpback hills. There’s a competition amongst cyclists on this road to take a photo of as many if the roller coaster hills in one shot as possible. We manage five which won’t win any prizes. The fields around us are now grazed by cattle and the palette of greens would start to look more like an English countryside view were it not for the large red wooden barns.
We continue to meet up with Dan and Charlie at the end of each day in parks, huts and sports fields across Missouri. Dan is blogging every day so has to make use of free WiFI where he can keep it updated. It’s a big commitment and contrasts with Charlie’s approach which is to keep his stories to himself for now, to be told over a drink with his friends when the time is right.
We all arrive one evening in the confusingly named Houston in the county of Texas, Missouri. It’s a town full of big people in big trucks with big tattoos and it happens to be the day of a big college american football game. It’s an important event for the town with a large crowd gathering to support the home team. Even the local fire brigade have turned up to sound their sirens whenever their boys score a touchdown. I have no idea what is going on and there seems to be a lot of standing around and not much playing. The marching band at halftime is good though. Houston lose 18 – 40.
Our road is taking us through the Ozark hills which lack the altitude of the mighty Rockies but make up for it with severity of gradient. The Mark Twain National Forest covers most of Ozark county with tall trees now lining the road and filling the view all around us. The drivers behind us wait patiently as we inch our way up and over each crest before gathering as much momentum as possible to get us part way up the next rise. It’s always disappointing to see how quickly the heavy bike slows from 40 to 4 mph though. Each of the small shops we stop at have a guest book so we scour the names above us to look for Oli-from-Slovenia’s name. He still seems to be a few days ahead of us so must be putting in some huge mileage days on his feet.
We’re feeling weary when we arrive in Farmington so we spend two nights in the local jail. It’s been converted into a cyclists’ hostel with such luxuries as sofas, a washing machine and a PC. It’s just what we need to recharge our batteries both literally and metaphorically before we ride on into our next state.
The Mississippi river is another major landmark as we cross this vast country. A broad expanse of chocolate-brown water flows slowly under the bridge that takes us into Illinois. Some of this water will have made its way down from the river Missouri that we’d crossed weeks ago in Montana. Somewhere that seems impossibly far away now. An adventure for another time might be to build a Huckleberry Finn style raft and spend some time following this great watercourse.
Our time in Illinois is relatively brief and features the replacement of some more bike parts and a night in the beautiful handbuilt home of Alan and Anne. All of the logs and stone used to construct the building were sourced locally over many years and you can sense their hard work and love woven into every detail.
On our way to our next river crossing we stop at some road works. One of the workers rests on his shovel and uses us as an excuse for a bit of break and a chat. “It’s a different way of life over here.” he tells us “All of my kids had a horse, a motorcycle and a gun by the time they were 16”. Denim and dungarees are becoming the standard uniform and we encounter our first chasing dog for many months.
The River Ohio is even larger than the Mississippi at this point but the two merge just downstream and continue together down to New Orleans. We hop on a little ferry as the sun hangs low in the sky. It’s now October so the days are getting shorter but the temperature is still very pleasant. We’ve been passing an increasing number of “Happy fall y’all” and Halloween displays in peoples’ gardens. We can buy pumpkin lattes and pumpkin ale to wash down the pumpkin pies that are on sale everywhere. .
Once deposited on the far bank we find ourselves in Kentucky, our 10th state. We hadn’t seen Charlie for a few days but just before the ferry crossing he’d come past at speed. He had met up with his wife Anna who is now following him in an RV. His panniers now hang empty on his bike so he still looks like a ‘proper cycle tourist’ but without the inconvenience of the weight of their contents. He and Anna meet us at the methodist church in Marion where we’re all spending the night along with some more cyclists, Chris and Amina from Spokane, WA. It’s Charlie’s birthday so we all help him celebrate with cakes and singing and a mississippi mud pie.
It’s great to share this part of the journey with other cyclists as we each experience each day in a different way. Everyone’s reasons for riding are different, but we all enjoy the little details that are unique to travelling by bike. We compare notes to see what we might have missed. Most interesting of all though is the conversation with Anna, Charlie’s wife. She is originally from Tajikistan but her family fled to all corners of the world during the civil war after independence. She’s happy to hear how much we enjoyed visiting her home country and confesses that she sometimes pines for the Soviet era days when things were more stable there.
We’re into the last two states of the TransAm route now with the finish in Yorktown edging ever closer. Given the time of year we don’t expect to see too many other cyclists on the route but we are curious to know what has happened to Oli the Slovenian walker that Jeanmarie had mentioned. He’s obviously making phenomenal progress but surely he can’t reach the end before us?!