Chapter 15 - Crossing the Mississippi

Our trio’s first ride together brought us to the Missouri border—the Mississippi River—and into the thunderstorm that landed us in the living room of a generous stranger named Ruby Dallas.

Afterward we thought we were done with storms for the day, and we rode along, happy in the Illinois springtime. For the first time in days, I could see for more than a half-mile in either direction. Crops grew in wide, flat fields, roads went straight, and we knew we were out of the Appalachians.

The Chester City Police, we decided later, were the chattiest police we'd encountered yet. Not only did they give us permission to camp in the park, but they recommended the best restaurants, best sights to see, and best way to cross the river. All of their recommendations were at least 15 miles away—not appropriate for a casual evening outing on a bike—but the five officers told us anyway. "…Let us know if there's anythin' we kin do for y'all," said one, when we finally headed out of the station. "We'll come by to check on y'all a little later! You do know there's a storm warning fer tonight, don't ya?" A tall officer winked at the others. "If you decide to, we'll drive ya to the hotel."

While we ate dinner in the park pavilion, we decided the officer was exaggerating about the storm. After all, how could the sky have any water left to dump after the afternoon's deluge? We ate dinner leisurely, a breeze rustling small clouds through the sky.

Since the ground outside the pavilion sloped steeply, I showed Jeff and Wyeth the way Nate and I had slept on picnic tables to save time setting up the tents. We were setting up "camp" that way when a police car drove up.

“How are y'all gittin’ along?” the tall officer asked. “I’m jist coming by to tell ya the storm is gittin' close.” He pulled out his pocket radio and listened to the unintelligible garble that came forth. After a minute he said, “Yep, it’s about twenty minutes away, comin' fast.” He surveyed our camp doubtfully. “Are you gonna be okay? I could still take y'all to that hotel—if ya don't think that's cheatin'. It could be pretty bad tonight.”

We looked at each other, but Wyeth volunteered, “No, let's stick it out. We’ll probably be okay.”

“Well, I’m gonna check on you later. If you decide on that motel, you let me know. Good luck!” With that, he got back into his patrol car and drove away.

Storm Number Two arrived with a gust of wind that sent our things flying willy-nilly into the air. Our sleeping bags bucked in our grasp like wild things, and as we watched the wind fly through the open sides of the pavilion, we realized—too late—that the rain could come in just as easily. Five minutes later, it did. As we stuffed things into plastic bags, the rain hit, as violently as it had in the afternoon. And Storm Number Two began giving Storm Number One a run for its money.

The rain poured and thunder roared, and Storm Number Two displayed its trump card: slashes of lightning that came so quickly that I couldn't even count the seconds between the bolts and the roars of thunder. The ground fairly shook, and gashes of light lit up the park like it was the middle of the day. Within seconds, veritable rivers were flowing on either side of the pavilion. I looked over at Jeff and Wyeth, their faces flickering in the garish light, and moved closer to them. The three of us watched the show, not talking much, while rain seeped down our necks and up our backs despite the raingear.

Two police cars came by after about half an hour, and turned on their loudspeakers. What we heard went something like this:
“Hello (garble BANG zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz BANG)! Are you (CRASH static BAM zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz garble)? 70 MPH winds (BANG CRASH blippity BOOM!). Do you (KABOOM zzzzzzzzzzzzzz BANG zzzzzzz CRASH)? Will come later (bloppity blip BAM) IF YOU UNDERSTAND THIS, BLINK YOUR FLASHLIGHT TWICE! (BOOM!)”

Wyeth blinked the flashlight, moments before Jeff or I said, “But we *didn't* understand! Did you?” and the police cars drove off into the roaring storm.

“Uh…no…” said Wyeth, a little sheepishly.

At 11:30 the storm finally wound down, and with inexplicable speed, the night was quiet. *It's funny,* I thought as I crawled into my sleeping bag, *but somehow I it’s like I've known Jeff and Wyeth for years.*

Thursday night, in front of a convenience store, I met a young woman who asked me excitedly about my trip. “Gawsh!” she said finally. “I’ve always wanted to travel. I never been anywhere but Florida"—she said it "Flow-ri-da," like three separate words—"and besides that, I’ve never been more'n twenty-five miles away. I’d just love to leave this town.”

“I think it’s beautiful!” I said.

“Well, that’s ‘cause you don’t live here!” said the girl matter-of-factly. “It’s so boring you wouldn’t believe. I’d love to do something like what ya’ll are doin’, but I jist got married and I've got a three-month-old kid at home, and I jist couldn’t ever do it. Even if I didn’t have the kid I couldn’t do it—I’m not brave like you.” She was quiet for about two seconds. “Say! Do y'all like parties? There’s gonna be a great one tonight, jist about five miles down that road, and we’d love it if you came! Will you? It'll be so much fun!”

I explained that actually, we would probably get to bed early tonight, but thanks for the invite.

“Well, if you change your mind, just come over! Now listen—have a great ole' trip to Oregon, and I’ll be thinkin’ about you!” Her friends had arrived to pick her up, and she drove off in their jeep with the music blaring.

“She was so young!” I said to Wyeth. “So *young*…"

The girl's face haunted me for the rest of the evening. It was a little-girl face, naive and blossoming. But she'd said she was married, with a baby. I wondered where the baby was while its child-mother cavorted around town. I wondered why most people said that wherever they lived was “boring.” And I marveled at how different people could have such different lives. The girl couldn’t have been more than two years older than I was.

Riding into Centreville, Missouri, at the end of the week, I tried to understand how sweat alone could cause so many airborne dirt particles to stick to my skin. I couldn't remember ever feeling so clammy and dirty. *I'm glad we're nearly there,* I thought doggedly. *Fifty miles is* plenty. I was ready to pitch my tent, crawl into it, and fall asleep. Maybe I'd even skip brushing my teeth—that would take more energy than I felt like I had at this moment.

According to the detailed service listing for today's TransAm map section, we'd have several choices for camping in Centreville. Our options, however, turned out to be more limited than we'd thought. Five miles outside of town, we saw a sign for Pines Campground, eight miles north over a ridge. No way were we pedaling sixteen extra miles, we all agreed. We never even saw Jackson’s—and as for West Fork, the place looked as if the very trees were about to fall down, forget about the run-down shack that proclaimed “Camping Office.” A city park would beat that kind of campsite, we decided, and we continued pedaling.

But Centreville was a ghost town, deserted except for the gas station/restaurant with a few dented pick-ups in front. The town square was incongruously enormous and quiet, and was surrounded by tiny houses. The man in the gas station directed us up a rutty, muddy, flooded road toward the city park.

I had to crane my neck to see across the baseball field. The billowing sea of green grass grew as high as my chest, and in the distance, I saw a rickety pavilion. No games had been played on this field for a long time. There didn’t appear to be bathrooms anywhere. And there wasn’t any way to get our bikes through the tall grass even if we did want to camp there.

We retraced our path to the town square, and sank down on the benches to eat something. “I don’t think I can pedal any more,” I said unhappily. My legs felt like rubber. The air felt heavy, too, and the gray skies were beginning to get to me. We ate mostly in silence, and then we got out the maps. Beyond Centreville there was nothing until Ellington, fourteen miles away and over three ridges.

I groaned. “I don’t wanna go any farther.”

“Yeah, but what else can we do?” asked Wyeth. “Those other campgrounds weren't exactly hospitable.” I groaned again.

I rode the next fourteen miles on sheer willpower, by following Wyeth’s steady lead and laughing at Jeff’s jokes. Without the latter, I wondered if I could have made it.

“…Did Wyeth and I tell you about our plan for the ‘flattening out of America’?” Jeff asked me. Our tires sang rhythmically, KATHUNK, KATHUNK as we rode over cracks in the cement.

“No,” I giggled, “what is it?”

“Well, see after the Appalachians, Wyeth and I had this idea that if we were ever elected president we’d have a campaign to fill in America and make it level—we’ll take all the mountains and use them to fill in the holes so we could ride our bikes straight across. It’s actually part of a continuing plan we have to form our own country. We’re going to call it USAP—the ‘United States of Awesome People.’ We're gonna to be in charge—co-dictators—when we secede from the Union.”

Out of breath, I laughed again. "Then what?" *If he keeps talking, I'll make it!* I thought.

“Well then, people will consult us for stuff. Because people are always doing stupid things."

“Like…what?” I could only gasp out a few words before I resumed my near-hyperventilation up the hill.

“Like, all sorts of stuff…” Jeff wasn’t as breathless as I was, but he was breathing fast too. "Like polluting, building crummy roads, and making way too many bombers. Or like when they build bridges that are exactly big enough to accommodate the current traffic flow, and forget that in two years there will be more people driving. In USAP, Wyeth and I won’t allow stupid things like that to go on… Hey, doesn’t it seem to you that we’re pedaling as fast as it’s possible to go while traveling as slowly as we are…?”

I was laughing despite bumps in the road, thunder clouds, sore muscles, and a rumbling stomach. At one point I said, “All the cars that pass us must wonder what the heck we’re smiling about!” Although they didn't know it, in the past three day Jeff and Wyeth had made all the difference in my attitude.

That night, in a hotel in Ellington, I took the most-appreciated shower of my life. As I stepped out of the steaming bathroom, there was a knock on the door and Dennis Garrett walked into our room.

“The lady at the desk told me there was some other cyclists here, so I decided to see for myself! I'm ridin' from Billings, MT and I’m headed for Yorktown. And how about you two?”

Jeff popped in from the kitchen. "Three!"

Dennis had ridden his elliptical chain-ring Cannondale from Billings to Ellington in thirty days of riding. With glee, he talked of “dropping” seventy miles in “five and a half hours of seat time.” My legs ached just thinking about it. But Dennis appeared to love his travel style—his joy was the physical challenge.

"Do you have The Book?" Dennis asked at one point. No, we said, which book? Almost reverently, Dennis removed a sodden thing from his front pannier: “Bicycling Coast to Coast, by Donna Lynn Ikenberry. It is The Book," Dennis said. "With a capital 'B.' It's got absolutely everything. It tells you how far to go, where to stay, where to eat. She goes east to west, so I just follow it backward. She gives you directions to the *tenth of the mile!*" He paused for a moment, relishing such efficiency and specificity.

Dennis gave us news of the cyclists in front, the ones whom I'd probably never meet but whose progress I’d been tracking since Virginia: James Thomas from Texas, two guys from D.C. and Maine, an Englishman on a mountain bike. There was also a married couple who we hadn't seen in the logbooks yet. We swapped stories and examined each other’s gear and bikes until well into the night.

The Ozarks were a demanding set of hills, and too often the euphoria induced by speeding downhill was immediately squelched at the sight of another dozen steep grades ahead. But one afternoon there was a descent that left me flying high for the rest of the day.

As we reached the final summit of a series of hills, the road appeared to drop off the edge of the world. And for the next two miles, the Ozarks proved themselves as the ‘giant, self-propelled roller coaster’ my TransAm map promised they’d be. I went shooting down one hill, only to pop up on top of the next one without pedaling. I zoomed past trees and mountain homes with a huge smile plastered on my face: I was going 44 mph.

One after another, we rolled off the gorgeous descent and regrouped at the bottom. I pulled up to the guys gasping and laughing. “I think,” I said breathlessly, “that being high on drugs would *never* compare to that!”

A few hours later, we pulled into a gas station in the bustling town of Eminence. I saw my face in the mirror as I filled my water bottles in the bathroom, and for a moment I didn’t realize who it was.

Then it registered. “That’s you, girl!” I said to my reflection, whose hair was wild under a dirty helmet. “Can you believe that you’re actually doing this trip? Are you crazy?” I grinned timidly at the face in the mirror, almost in awe. Then my smile widened. “Hey you,” I said to that face, sweaty and dirty and tired and cold, “you know what? You’re beautiful!” And at that moment, in a bathroom cubicle in the middle of Missouri, I *was* beautiful. I was using all my strength, all my determination, all the grit I had in me. That was beauty, I decided as I walked outside into the gray Missouri afternoon.