Chapter 8 - Bizarre Incidents

It was true that during the past two weeks, my fear of dogs had nearly disappeared. *Maybe now I could be alone again!* I thought.

But there was no getting around it. Rural Kentucky was weirding me out. The day we passed through Bevinsville, population seemingly nonexistent, Nate rode on ahead and I caught up with him halfway up the steep mountain. I was just in time to see a man stumble chaotically across the road with a bottle in his fist, followed by five of the mangiest dogs I had ever seen. When his wild eyes settled on Nate and me, he lurched toward us, muttering unintelligibly. Then he yelled to his dogs, “Get them!”

The dogs started towards us, we screamed at them, and they kept coming, growling. “Get rocks!” Nate yelled to me. “And throw!” We picked up some stray stones and began tossing them at the pack, and after more shouting and several more tense minutes, we finally managed to get by.

“Thanks for waiting for me,” I said to Nate afterwards.

“Oh, no problem,” he answered. “That guy wasn’t too nice-looking. And when I saw those dogs, I thought I’d better.”

Each morning in eastern Kentucky, Nate and I began to ride as the mist rose with the sun. We shared the road with ungainly coal trucks that lumbered purposefully to the mines. They emerged loaded with tons of coal, and loomed out of the smog and mist of the valley like determined turtles. The weak rays of the sun glinted on my bike and my breath hung frostily in the air. The exhaust fumes hung in the air too, and when cars and trucks went by they spewed me with sooty blackness. It was a surreal landscape, the richness and poverty and beauty and ugliness of the land all rolled into one.

We passed by numerous mining rigs, many abandoned and fenced off. Decrepit signs hung by a nail to the fences: “Keep out.” “Ambulance Entrance.” Once, we passed an old tumbledown shed that had a faded, stained sign on it: “Mining Office and First Aid.” There were no windows in the little shack, just gaping holes and a door off its hinges. It was old and tired and useless, now that the mining companies had abandoned it in their quest for cheaper methods of pulling their product from the earth.

In eastern Kentucky, the land was peppered with mobile homes and junked cars, and I didn't want to think about the poverty. *Why should I have so much,* I wondered guiltily, *when others have so little?*

One day, Nate and I started talking as we rode past a particularly large trash heap.

“I feel like I should be doing something to change all of this,” I said.

“Yeah, it sure is poor here,” Nate agreed, pedaling next to me. “But I don’t have much sympathy for them. I mean, why don’t these people just move away and get a job somewhere else? Same thing with inner cities. Why do they stay? People have the power to change their situations and they just don’t do it.” The road wound up and around a small hill, and down in the valley I could see a stream flowing sluggishly through a field.

“I don’t think that’s always true,” I protested. “I mean, yeah, people have power, but how many of them can change their whole lives around and move to another state?? That’s a lot easier said than done and...”

“…I know what you’ll say next,” Nate interrupted, “that ‘people can’t do it by themselves and they need support and stuff.’ You said that’s why society needs Feminism. But I think people *can* change alone. You shouldn’t expect someone else to fix your life. Lots of people grow up poor and rise above it. I still say it’s your fault if you don’t change.”

He did have a point. Some people do become rich and famous even when they were lowly peanut farmers to begin with. “But I think most people aren’t strong enough to change alone,” I said. “Imagine growing up here. Say you’d lived in one of those falling-apart trailers all your life, gotten a second- or third-rate education at a rural school, and eventually you got rewarded with a job at the local strip mine! Probably your parents grew up the same way, too. I mean, our parents had the resources to give us all sorts of things.” I paused, and dodged a few soda cans in the road. “You need someone else to help. We had someone else, *lots* of someones, and if you don’t have that I don’t think it’s so easy to change your life around.”

“Well, I don’t agree,” said Nate. “And man, you take everything so seriously!” He laughed.

I shut my mouth firmly and resolved, from then on, to stay away from controversial topics. I hate being laughed at.

One day in May, when the temperature suddenly turned summery and humid, we were sweating up a hill and had stopped for a drink of water. That's when I decided that I wanted Nate to disappear.

I'm sure that by this point, Nate had found plenty of things about me that annoyed him. But I had figured out some things about him, too—in particular, his Starting-To-Ride song. Every single time—without fail—that we began to ride, even if we’d only stopped for a short break, Nate would yodel, “Oh ho ho ho ho, aaaa-alrighty then!”
It seemed innocent enough. There was no logical reason to be annoyed by it. But today I thought I would go bananas if he sang it one more time.

After our water break, we started to ride. And sure enough, Nate crooned, “Oh ho ho ho ho, aaaa-alrighty then!” Then he proceeded to sing a rollicking tune while I huffed and puffed, and somehow, that annoyed me too. I didn't want to hear his cheery song for one more second.

“Please be quiet or Go Away!” I burst out suddenly.

"Uh—well, okay,” Nate said agreeably. Hastily, I tried to rephrase what I had just said, in between huffs and puffs.

“Oh! [puff] I’m sorry,” I said, “I [huff] didn’t mean it like that [huff]–you have a right to sing if you want to and I shouldn’t have said that [puff]. But I—” here I paused for a longer breath “—need-to-be-alone-or-else-I’m-not-going-to-be-able-to-get-over-this-mountain! Please go ahead and I’ll meet you later.”

“Okay,” said Nate again, and, probably relieved to get rid of me, he pedaled quickly out of sight.

Then I was alone with my mountain and my bicycle. As I strained in the pedals, the sun beat down and I rode until I couldn’t pedal another stroke. Then I stopped. After I rested for a couple seconds, I started up. I didn’t get more than a hundred yards before I stopped and rested again. This time, I chewed on some dried apricots and contemplated the next three miles. Those miles loomed ahead, the mountain seemed interminable and steep and impossible and...

“No,” I told myself firmly, “you’re going to do it. You can stop all you want, you can do whatever you need to do to make it, but you’re not walking and you’re going to get to the top.”

The next hour was like an unpleasant dream. Every time I stopped, I wondered if I would really be able to start again. But then for a moment, as my muscles pulled and pushed the cranks, I became an outside observer to my thoughts.

“…What if,” I asked myself casually, “a nice woman pulled over with a pick-up truck and asked you if you wanted a ride to the top? What would you do: you’re hot, you’re sweaty, you’re tired, you’re aching, you’re miserable—would you accept the lift?”

And then, from somewhere deep inside of me, I said, “NO.” I said it out loud, too, to make it more definite and emphatic. “I wouldn’t take a ride. I’m doing this, I’m going to make it. I wouldn’t take a ride, not for anything, not for all the world.”

I laughed aloud. *There’s a part of me who's willing to do something even if it isn’t easy!* I marveled. *Now I can do it—I’m ready to ride alone again.* And then an explosive sound from an approaching muffler-free car shattered my thoughts.

Up until today I hadn’t worn my red tank top, partly because it hadn’t been very warm. Partly, though, I was afraid of attention from men. But Nate was around this afternoon. And who would bother me, anyway? It was so hot out! It wasn’t fair that guys could ride with no shirt, while I was stuck forever encased in a polyester jersey.
So I wore it, and all was well, and I figured my fears of harassment were unfounded and silly. That’s when the loud, beat-up station-wagon pulled up next to me. It looked like it had never been painted, and the man inside was equally unkempt. He was grizzled, with mottled skin, and his overalls looked like they'd needed a washing machine months ago. The window was open and he stared at me. I stared back.

Then, craning his neck to see around me, he asked, “Ded thet baay gowaaf en layve ya behind?” I looked blankly at him, wondering if he was speaking English.

He tried again. “Ded thet baay gowaaf widout you?"

Now I got the gist of his question. “Uuhhh—well, no,” I said, “he’s just down the hill ahead.”

“Wall,” said the man, appearing satisfied with my answer, “wall! Why don cha jist put yo’ bike in ‘na back here and I’ll take ya wherever yer goin.’”

“No,” I said, “I actually want to ride.” And surreptitiously, my right hand closed around the canister of pepper spray in my handlebar bag.

After a few more tries, the man tried a different tactic. “Aren' cha scared thet a bear’s gonna come ketch ya? Suh cha pretty little girl like you, and you are a pretty girl, a bear might come right out and et chu up!” He grinned widely and crazily from behind the wheel of his banged up car. I noted that he was missing several important teeth.
By that time I was too dumbfounded and annoyed to say anything. *Maybe he’s deranged,* I thought. *I wonder if he’s dangerous?* I wondered how I should make my exit. But before I could think of a brilliant comeback, the man continued.

“Bears like honey, ya know, and sweet things, and they’ll want a sweet girl like you...”

Now, fear turning to anger, I pulled away down the hill. When he saw that I wasn’t stopping, the man drove past me and disappeared down the mountain. I was positively seething.

The rest of the ride was awful. As soon as I had descended the mountain, the road led through deserted, open farmland. Every so often, various pick-up trucks (the only mode of transportation around here, it seemed) drove by and guys honked or yelled or leered out of the window. I was scared and angry and that energy powered my legs. I was ready to vent when I caught up with poor Nate.

“I can’t wear a tank-top without practically receiving a marriage proposal!” I exploded as soon as my bike stopped. That night I was utterly overwhelmed by exhaustion and anger at the stupidity of some men. *They should try being a woman sometime,* I thought. *They should see what it’s like to wear comfortable clothes on a hot day and end up getting harassed for it.*

Even though it was Wednesday (I checked in at home every Sunday and Thursday), I called my house the next day.

My sister answered, and I surprised both of us by bursting into tears. “I need to talk to Mom or Dad!” I told her, trying to stop crying.

"Okay, okay—wait a minute!"

Soon I heard mom’s voice, calm and usual on the other end of the line. “Sara?”

“Yeah,” I said, and began really sobbing. “I just need to cry.” I stood there, at the pay phone covered with graffiti next to a soda machine, and cried and cried. I cried about the stupid men, how I felt frightened at the catcalls and that ridiculous guy I’d met. I cried about how much I missed getting hugs. I cried about how I wanted to ride alone but felt paralyzed about doing it. I cried about the poverty that I saw everywhere. I cried at how helpless I was allowing myself to feel.

I covered all bases while my poor mother, stuck at the other end of the line back in Highland Park, NJ, listened. For her it must have seemed like a lot all at once, and it must have been hard for her to hear me crying on the phone and not be able to reach out and pull me to safety and the comfort of home.

When I think back to that conversation, what amazes me is how calm my mother's voice was when I finally let her get a word in edgewise.

“Okay. Let’s put this in perspective. I mean, even though it’s embarrassing to admit now, my girlfriends and I used to like it when we got cat-calls and whistles as we walked down the street! To us, it was a symbol that we were pretty and attractive to men.”

“But that’s terrible!” I protested, sniffling a little. “And I don’t *want* to like getting cat-calls!”

“No, that’s not what I mean. I’m saying that while whistles and hoots could lead to something dangerous happening, it usually doesn’t. It’s the quiet guys you gotta worry about! I mean it—the loud ones don’t usually do more than just yell.” I nodded, though Mom couldn’t see. “You get angry when guys whistle at you at home, too—remember? The difference is, now you’re in a strange place, and fear comes along with your anger and makes it feel worse.
“It’s important not to accept the fear and anger like it’s the status quo. But–guys are gonna yell whether they should or they shouldn’t, and you need to separate your feelings. Do you feel angry—or are you in danger? There is danger out there, and it’s just as important to realize that as it is to keep fear from overpowering your emotions….”

I listened to my mother, and slowly my tears stopped.

Later, Nate and I walked back to camp as the sun set; I watched the sky and tried to figure out how to explain myself. "I know you're probably wondering about my sanity," I offered finally, "and I'm sorry I've been so upset lately. I know we need space from each other, and I don't want you to feel like you need to 'protect' me. It's just that I've started feeling so vulnerable when I'm alone around here…"

I was quiet for a minute, and watched the horizon. The sky was a huge fireball of clouds, the last rays of the day's light splashing orange across the sky. Then I burst out, “I hate fear! I want to feel comfortable being alone, with dogs, with men, with everything. It’s one reason why it’s hard for me to ride with you, even though it’s not your fault: I don't want to be dependent on anyone but myself.”

For once Nate realized that I was in no mood for jokes, and he was serious.

“I think I understand what you mean,” he said slowly. “It must be awful. I really can’t imagine it, though, because I don’t feel threatened—you know? I wish I could help you feel more comfortable…” he trailed off. “You know what, though,” he continued impulsively, “I’ll ride with you as long as you want me to—even all the way—if that would do anything.”

“No,” I said quickly, “I mean, that’s the whole thing—I need to get over my fear... But thanks—I really do appreciate that.”

Entries from the cyclists’ log book at Elk Garden Church hostel:

--Farmington, Missouri: Susan and Craig Nesbit host cyclists if you call in advance.
--Cambridge, Idaho: Bucky’s café has great pie.
--Golden City, MO: go to Cooky’s café for the best pie you’ll ever eat.
--Map section #107: stay with The Dragon Lady on Route 17. Call a day ahead in morning or evening because she and her husband take a nap.
--Map section #9: services at the junction of Route 38 are closed (38 miles no services).
--DON’T STAY IN MURPHYSBORO ST. PARK. [The entry didn’t say why.]
--Carbondale, IL: watch out for The Bike Surgeon. [A story followed, explaining that the so-called “Bike Surgeon" (a bike mechanic and touring cyclists' host) had completely messed up a bicycle wheel and that “…you shouldn’t let him TOUCH your bike if you want to get across the country on it!”]
--Berea, KY–shortcut. Save 25 miles: take Rt. 150 from Berea to Stephen Foster Town to Bardstown.
--Good Advice: "Unless you test yourself, you stagnate. Unless you try to go way beyond what you’ve been able to do before, you won’t develop and grow. When you go for it 100%, when you don’t have that fear of What If I Fail, that’s when you learn. That’s when you’re really living.”