“Are you going to buy a house when you finish?”
“Where do you keep your tent?”
“So you just keep going?”
These are all pretty solid questions to ask just about any cycle tourist—I’m sure my parents would love answers to more than one. The only surprising thing about them was their source: a very curious, very outspoken seven-year-old boy. Like the twenty or so other people buzzing about around us, he’d come to Big Clifty for a family reunion, and was immediately drawn to the bikes.
Big Clifty is a bit of a misnomer. The town is unincorporated and consists of one road, the railway track, a Dollar General, and the community center. Previously a bit of a boom town due to its proximity to the railway, Big Clifty suffered the same fate as many rural Kentucky towns when rail-use decreased and commercial shipping routes changed.
We had stumbled into the reunion at Clifty’s community center hoping to find shelter from rainstorms (a theme of our trip so far) and a place to sleep. While no one quite knew whether camping was officially allowed, they all agreed that we were unequivocally welcome. Although jaded, we enjoyed the company and its clear interest in our adventure. We were particular hits with the young ones and a jean-clad middle-age man who had once plied the east-west route as a truck driver.
Now, I don’t consider myself much of a conversationalist. Nor am I the most social bird in the flock. In truth, I’m a total chicken when it comes to gabbing it up in big groups. I’m most comfortable flying solo for spans of time, touching down here and there to catch up with family and friends. Being an introvert and a cycle tourist can be challenging; a fully loaded bike is a conversation magnet with the awesome power to draw in the shiest of strangers and set even the most stubborn of tongues to wagging.
Interestingly, in spite of my own skittishness I find these bike-side conversations incredibly energizing. How wonderful to have something that sparks the curiosity of almost anyone, anywhere. It’s an invitation to step through the looking glass and see life from someone else’s perspective. The gathering in Big Clifty was special, but not unique to our experiences thus far. We’ve run into a heap of people who relate in one way or another to our trip. From grandmothers to gas station attendants, old-timing farmers to high school students, retired truck drivers to avid motorcyclists, everyone seems genuinely eager to talk about the trip, themselves, or both.
America is the first country I’ve travelled where there really isn’t a language barrier (although I was a bit like a deer in headlights when hit head-on with some of the Appalachian accents). It’s a totally new experience for me to be able to dive into conversations that surpass the small talk and charades in a foreign language, that shed light on the history of a person or a place, and that leave me with a richer understanding of or deeper connection to the whole experience.
Although many of these conversations happen on the fly—at a gas station, grocery store, or on the road—a number of them have taken place in the public parks, baseball stadiums, soccer fields, churches, and community centers where we’ve set up camp for the night. I do miss wild camping, and the constant onslaught of No Trespassing signs does ruffle my feathers, but it is wonderful to have access to public spaces where such conversations can take root and blossom into a meaningful exchange of thoughts. I’ve noticed my affection for a town is based less on its amenities and outward appearance, and more on its public spaces, the people, and the relationship between the two. Empty or unused public spaces generally suggest something amiss in a community. Big Clifty is small, and I’m sure not without its problems, but the people there use what little public space is provided to gather and spend time in one another’s company. Even better, they welcome outsiders sans suspicion. (The bikes and our dashing good looks, I’m sure, help keep suspicions at bay).
As someone who barely gets to skim the surface of a place, I can only rely on experience to form opinions and draw conclusions about a place. And so far, I’ve noticed that some of the healthiest communities (not to be read as wealthiest) are the ones that have public spaces with people who use them and welcome the opportunity to share that space with an outsider for an afternoon’s moment or two.
Saturday May 9th: Bardstown to Big Clifty
Sunday May 10th: Big Clifty to Utica (Utica Volunteer Fire Department)
Monday May 11th: Utica to Marion (Marion United Methodist Church)
This was a big day, and therefore I don’t have any pictures. But I do have a wonderful memory of Herschel, a septuagenarian who stopped us about 7 miles outside of own to offer us two cans of Mt. Dew. His story warrants more space than I have time to write up now, but I can say it was true road manna, and testament to my theory that the universe will provide if you’re willing to listen and look for the signs. The sodas weren’t half bad either, and probably saved us from crying on the side of the road when hills refused to deposit us at our destination.
Tuesday May 12th: Marion, KY to Lake Glendale, Oak Point Campground, IL (Shawnee National Forest)
We crossed the Ohio River to Cave in Rock, where we visited a cave supposedly once used as a hideout by outlaws.
Wednesday May 13th: Oak Point Campground to Little Grassy Lake
After a roller-coaster ride through what locals refer to as “Bull Run” we were happy to be done with a day of hills and headed towards a campsite, thanks to the timely advice of a local man named Steven. We’ve taken to heeding the advice of locals, and it always seems to keep us on track and out of trouble.
Thursday May 14th: Little Grassy Lake, IL to Ste Genevieve, MO
Today we crossed the Mississippi, a particularly exciting moment for me, not only due to my love for Mark Twain, but also because my Dad once worked its waters on a river boat. Our day was also infused with excitement after stumbling upon a $6.50/person pizza buffet in Chester, IL. The town happens to be home of Popeye. While we passed on the spinach, we did get our fill of salad and pizza.
May 15th: Ste Genevieve, MO to Cedar Hill, MO
No pictures. Once again, Missouri opened its skies to us, baptizing our cycling-souls in its icy waters. We took cover in a pagoda in a town called Festus. The highlight of this whole experience was taking selfies with some elementary school boys who seemed to have gotten the impression that because our bikes and bags took up a lot of space, we were also a big deal. Tired of the rain and Missouri’s fun-house-mirror twist of roads I simply soaked up my 15 seconds of fame.