We pick up our adventure where we left it last, with our hero steeling himself to cross a teetering bridge hundreds of feet above a raging torrent…
Actually, the adventure begins in Chester, Illinois, the home of Popeye the Sailor and all things Popeye related: Spinach, beefy forearms, the creator of Popeye, Popeye Picnic… While I don’t know much about Popeye, this town takes great pride in their nautical heritage and, more relevant to our story, is the site of the only bridge over the Mississippi between Cape Girardeau and St. Louis (a roughly 110-mile gap), and although I wouldn’t describe the Mississippi as a raging flood, it is quite wide and in advisable to swim across in late November.
The first few miles of Missouri were as flat as those in Illinois, but as the terrain rose into the third dimension I gave up on the idea that Missouri was going to be an easy cruise. it reminded me a lot of New York and New Jersey- oak trees are popular around here- and the hills weren’t super steep, or super long, but they were super everywhere, as were the cows.
About 30 miles into the ride, I was stopped for lunch when I unexpectedly heard a bike freewheeling, and excitedly turned around to see another cyclist heading east on the TransAmerica Trail! He stopped and we chatted for a while- two Red Lanterns, probably the last people crossing the country in each direction- and it was great to catch up with someone and share stories of what we’d accomplished over the past few weeks, compare the east and west sides of the trail, and our experiences and the people we’d met. One of his suggestions was to try more riding at night; something I did that evening and regretted within half an hour (who knew Missouri’s country roads could be so busy, or so full of trucks?), leading to a pretty sudden campsite at the side of the road to wait until traffic died sufficiently for riding, or the sun came out- whichever was first.
Well, it was the sun. Because I’d camped out so early, getting going before sunrise wasn’t too great of a challenge- a good thing, because between Farmington and Summersville lie the Ozark Mountains, and it took almost 10 hours of riding, plus a few hours of lunch breaks, to make it through them. The Ozarks were beautiful in a different way than Appalachia- they were more gradual, the rivers were bigger (and also Listerine-blue), and the confederate flags a little less prominent. Reynolds Country wasn’t particularly great- although the majority of drivers are good (and I so mean the outstanding majority), this part of Missouri had more than its fair share of dangerous traffic. I did get my first death threat of the trip and was strongly reprimanded for being a tourist (Can’t avoid the truth, I guess), but soon after someone slowed down to talk with me for a bit before driving on, so it ended up okay.
As the day drew on and the sun sank lower, I became deeply aware of how emotions are strongly related to bike speed- and by extension, to hill steepness. (Emotion is the derivative of slope?) Racing downhill, it’s all optimism and excitement and “oh man I’m gonna bike like A HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE MILES TODAY!!!!”, whereas uphill, particularly when there’s heavy truck traffic, you can almost feel your life sliding away as every mistake, insecurity, and defeat of the last decade somehow come to mind at once (It’s not really that bad- there are mountains to marvel at, forests to observe, and often the fantastically grisly remains of some animal to ponder).
Stopping just short of 100 miles in Summersville, I finished the century with a trip to the grocery store before making camp for the night and trying to convince myself that after the Ozarks, the rest of the country is “basically flat,” which is exactly what I said after leaving Connecticut, and after crossing into Kentucky, and after finishing Appalachia, and at the top of every hill I’ve climbed.
Waking early and moving on, my goal for the following day was to make it to Springfield, which at 113 miles was by far the greatest distance I’d attempted so far. Good weather, flatter-than-Ozarks terrain, and lots of caffeine helped make it possible. The greatest challenge was probably Missouri’s enthusiastic, but relatively unrefined road-patching techniques and making a successful transition from the TransAmerica Trail to Bike Route 66. With some minor fanfare, I hit 2000 miles and soon after made a left turn into America’s Mother Road (Which I always though was Interstate 195 or maybe US Route 1 or 6, but hey I guess I’m wrong) towards Springfield. Along the way, I was happy to pass by a very large solar farm, wattage unknown, but definitely big enough to charge more than a cellphone!
A lot is up in the air for riding over the next few days- rain, floods, cold, etc- so plans are likely to change. What did you expect?