Chapter 11 - The Final Straw

"Nothing is to be feared; it is only to be understood."

Marie Curie said it a long time ago, but I figured it applied to my bike trip. I needed to understand the things I feared, which were, at this point, leering men in pick-ups. I was also realizing, as we approached the Illinois state line, that Nate's presence didn't protect me from them.

We arrived in Beechgrove as it was starting to get dark, and stopped in front of the small market. “How’re y’all this evening?” a large man boomed, coming out the door. His face was large and red and his voice was about as big as he was.

“Fine, thanks," I said. "We’re actually wondering if there’s anywhere around we could set up our tents around here.”

“You don’t hafta look any further!” the man boomed again. “I’m Bob, and y’all kin camp in the backyard of the grocery store, of course! I own it,” he added. "Lots of cyclers come through here, and I like 'em."

“Hey—thanks!” I said, surprised and happy that five minutes had yielded us a campsite.

“No problem,” he said, “it’s a pleasure to do anythin’ to make a pretty girl smile!”

Comments such as his—from men in grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience shops—had been way too common lately. My estimation of our host promptly plummeted.

We followed Bob behind his store, and I didn't say anything.

“You two kin jest set up right back in the yard,” he said, pointing to some lovely grass. “You kin use our shower too—we got one in the store—and there’s a stove in that there garage if you wanta use it… Ya know, lots o' times the cyclers don’t stop here anymore. Used to be, Bikecentennial groups stopped at Beechgrove all the time. By ther way, who are you two?”

“I’m Nate,” said Nate.

“I’m Sarabeth,” I said, a little tersely.

“Nice to meet you,” said Bob. As we walked away, he winked at Nate, “Hey! How far did ya hafta ride to get that one?” His head jerked toward me. “Musta taken a while...she’s quite a catch.”

I was absolutely fuming as we walked back to our tents. “How dare he talk like that!” I said.

“Oh cool off!” Nate said irritably. “Don’t let it bother you!”

“I can’t help letting it ‘bother me!’ I know he's being nice to us by letting us stay here and all, but still! I’m tired of going into stores with you and having the male clerks talk only to you. I’m tired of them commenting about me—not to me—like I’m some piece of meat that you’ve happened to drag in. I’m...”

“Just stop it!” said Nate. “It’s not so bad. You always assume that everyone’s out to get you!”

“No I don’t—that’s not the point…” I trailed off. *And I certainly can’t discuss this topic with you!* I thought. I didn’t say anything, just stomped inside the store and took my turn in the shower.

As I scrubbed several days of grime off myself, I thought about it. Maybe it was my problem, as Nate so considerately suggested. After all, this was how those men had learned to relate to women.

*But that’s not right!* I thought vehemently as I tried to remove the everlasting grease stains from my leg. *It’s not right! Just because they’ve been brought up that way doesn’t make it okay—it doesn’t mean that I'm going to accept it. I am not a commodity, ripe for the trading.*

I gave up on the grease stains and realized that I was exhausted. I finished the shower and went outside, as the sun disappeared in the west with a display of purple light.

Then I sank down in my tent and heard an ominous Pop! from my kneecap. My mind quickly switched gears to the pain that followed, and I wondered if 69 miles had been a few too many.

My knee got worse overnight, and the next day's 55-mile ride caused me to wince more than once. We hadn't had a layover since Berea, and I needed one now.
To make matters worse, Nate and I had another argument as we set up camp in the Marion city park pavilion. He said something about the church hostels we’d stayed in so far, and how they were an example of Christian generosity and charity. Then he added, “…It bothers me when places like that give so much, and everyone's willing to take from them without believing in their ideas. I think it’s hypocritical.”

I can’t remember exactly what I said, except that I wondered what not believing in Christ had to do with accepting kindness from someone who did, and vice-versa.
Then, “…You wouldn’t understand anyway,” Nate snapped finally. “After all, the Jews killed Christ.”

Later, after an hour or two of cold, icy silence, Nate suggested that we tell one another exactly why we found it difficult to get along. What ensued was a fairly good discussion, but we both said the same thing. We each felt that when one of us said something, the other person automatically contradicted the statement without thinking about it.

"Gosh," said Nate, "that's all? That’s easy! All we have to do is not contradict if the other person speaks first." That, I told him, didn’t sound like a good solution at all, but I said I’d go along with his plan since I couldn’t provide a better one myself. What I didn’t say out loud was that it was about time for me to muster the courage to tell Nate that we should part ways.

*In Carbondale I’ll figure it out,* I promised myself. *Just a couple more days.*

It was May 18 when we crossed the Ohio River on a tiny ferry and entered Illinois. For almost a week I’d been having vivid dreams that I was home, about to leave on my trip again. In each dream, there were different friends helping me get ready, and they were all giving me advice (though I couldn't remember what they'd said when I got up). I kept waking up muddled each morning and wondering what it was about.

We started riding into Carbondale as the sky clouded over, and we heard menacing weather reports from the man in a general store. It was one of those blah kinds of days, where nothing went wrong exactly, but nothing seemed right either. Nate was in a bad mood and I suppose I was too, and we did nothing but argue. Every topic that came up turned out to be a bone of contention between us; and after every short exchange of words, I jerked my pedals and sighed and stared straight ahead at the road furiously. The gray weather only exacerbated my bad mood.

It started to drizzle when we entered the outlying suburbs of the first large-ish city I'd been to in ages. Also, I thought we'd gone too far. “I think we missed the turnoff for Pleasant Hill Road,” I said to Nate, and we stopped to look at the map.

“No,” said Nate, “I don't think we missed it. Let’s just keep going.”

I didn’t want to, because I didn't like not knowing where I was. “No,” I suggested in my best imitation of a calm voice, “let’s go back and see if we did miss it.”

“You are always so nervous!” Nate said hotly. “Let’s just be adventurous for once and go straight ahead!” His retort silenced me, but I rode on with my teeth clenched and an about-to-explode feeling in my chest.

Two minutes later, we passed a junction and I said triumphantly, “We DID miss the other turnoff. East Grand Street is the one after Pleasant Hill.”

“So it is,” said Nate. “Well, we can turn here and get there just fine anyway.” He didn’t get mad, which frustrated me even more, because I wanted him to be as hot and bothered as I was. I felt like stomping my feet and having a good long cry. But since I was clipped into the pedals, I decided against the former. And since crying would only cloud up my vision, I decided against that too.

As we rode up the narrow road the wind increased, and so did traffic because now it was rush hour. The small drops of rain ran down my back. All my efforts were concentrated on not falling off the road or hitting debris or swerving into a car in the process. And then, CRUNCH. I rode over something. I heard Nate talking in a sing-song voice behind me, but I couldn't make out the words.

“What did you say?”

“Do you know what you just rode over?” he said sweetly.

“No,” I said shortly.

“A little baby turtle,” said Nate, even sweeter. “I can’t believe you did that—I thought you liked animals. I thought you were a vegetarian. I thought you didn’t like to kill things. Such a *young* turtle. I thought you--”

“Shut up!” I yelled. We didn’t talk much for the rest of the way.

That night we stayed with the Bike Surgeon, whom we’d read about back at the Elk Garden hostel. In the Pippa Passes hostel logbook, a person had described him as "a hippie who rode into town twenty years ago and never left.” Nate and I stood in front of his house, barely talking, and the rain came down, hard.

The Bike Surgeon—otherwise known as Mark—was tall and thin, with a long face and wild hair. “Hello!” he said when he answered the door. “You guys made it to the right place. Come on in!”

Nate and I were not on the best of terms after the turtle, and when we’d settled in and begun to make dinner, we had another civil debate. Mark's girlfriend Rachel had asked us what we ate on the road, and Nate said something like, “Oh, beans and rice and peanut butter, mostly.”

“We do eat well though,” I added, “and we’ve made some pretty good soups and things lately.”

While we were cooking, Nate reminded me of the conversation. “See? That’s what I meant the other day! That’s just the kind of thing that really drives me crazy!”

"What do you mean?" I asked, honestly confused.

“You *know* what I mean. It’s like you always need to contradict what I say, like you never think what I say is enough. You always jump in when I’m telling stories!”

“But they are *our* stories,” I pointed out.

“That’s not the point,” he said. “I’m tired of always feeling like what I say isn’t right.”

"The thing is,” I said, “never once have I said anything like, ‘we do eat well’ in order to prove you ‘wrong’. It was just something that popped into my head—a *comment.*”

“That’s not the point,” he said again. “The point is, when you do it drives me crazy.”

At that moment Mark’s girlfriend, Rachel walked cheerfully into the kitchen. Nate and I smiled frostily and didn’t look at each other.

“So,” she said, “have you been riding together the whole way?” We told her how we met up in Roanoke three weeks ago. Then Rachel said, “Well, I think it’s just great that you two could meet up and ride together for so long and still get along so well!”