North Carolina 2012: Mountains to the Coast

“I pray a lot,” said the woman from Lumberton.  It was 7:30 am on Saturday, October 6, the last day of the 2012 Cross North Carolina (CNC) bicycle trip. Most of the 1,100 riders were spending seven days on a 450-mile winding route that lead from the mountains to the coast. But the woman had signed up for just one day, riding 61 miles from Lumberton to White Lake. This was a big step for a person who had mounted a bicycle for the first time just one year ago. “I never did anything like that before. I thought I never could do it,” she said.  “But I talked to the Lord all day. It got me through.  And my goodness, I did sleep well.”

She was a roundish woman with bright eyes, her words were free of irony, and she spoke with a thick Southern accent. Yankees and city people tend to see these as indications that the speaker isn’t very smart, but that only shows Yankees and city people can be just as narrow-minded as anyone else. I knew what she was talking about.

Bicycle touring is a form of meditation.  Instead of staring at a candle and concentrating on your own breath, you scan the next 50 yards of asphalt and concentrate on maintaining your cadence – in my case, 70 to 80 leg revolutions per minute – and after a while, it’s just flow.  Instead of sitting for an hour of silent worship with Quakers in an old meetinghouse, you ride silently for an hour or more with birds, bugs, and the infinite interplay of light on greenery.  But any form of

(click on the photos to make them bigger and see my goofy grin. Click the “back” button on your browser to return to the text)

meditation is a journey. The real destination on a long-distance bicycle trip is not the next town, but transcendence.  We’re all seeking the moment when leg pain, wet tents, trouble at home, and even the slow drip of time — all of it fades away. Suddenly you’re like a bird, joyful just to see the sun. That’s the goal.

I thought I was taking a week off from writing when I signed up for the 2012 CNC fall ride, but by the third day I was writing down notes, and by the end of the week I was seeking out public libraries and hogging my friend’s computer. I wanted to write down what I saw, and especially how I saw people, mostly people in their late 50s and 60s, seeking that joy when they are fortunate enough to have enough money and free time to spend a week riding a bicycle (the average CNC riders were in their late 50s).  I wondered why some of these people did not seem happy, even though they had gone to a lot of trouble to be on the ride, and I wondered about what separated the happy people from the sour pusses.  On a typical day I would eat local food, meet interesting folks, see memorable things, and then ride off alone to think about what it all might mean.  If you’d care to ride along, here’s my journal.

Friday & Saturday, Sept. 28-9: Getting there

I paid my dues to get to the starting line.  On Saturday I drove 13 hours to get to the finish line in Carolina Beach. Rachel and Mark Luyben, the daughter and son-in-law of my riding partner, Jim Kersting, were kind enough to give me a bed and a beer at the end of the drive. Jim is the same person I rode across the country with in 2008 (see that blog here); he invited me, and this was going to be our first long trip together since that outing.  I had been training and riding, but as usual, I did not feel like I had been doing enough.

Jim Kersting

There was one memorable stop on the drive down – a 30-minute dinner break at Wilber’s Barbeque in Kinston, which I am told may be the best vinegar-and-pepper BBQ restaurant in the state.  The “barbeque line” in North Carolina delineates the use of a vinegar and pepper sauce in the eastern Low Country from a tomato-based sauce in the western foothills and highlands, and of course there are never-ending arguments about which is better.  I can only report that Wilber’s barbeque was cheap, tasty, and reeking with integrity as well as vinegar and pepper.  They put hush puppies in front of you immediately upon request; the “unsweet” iced tea refills are free and plentiful; there’s a great t-shirt; and the Brunswick stew, served in a cheap plastic bowl, seemed pretty close to perfect until I had a much better bowl at Jackson’s Big Oak BBQ in Wilmington. As I said, the arguments are endless.

Dinner at Wilber’s BBQ 

On Sunday we loaded up our bikes and bags, got on a bus, and headed across the state to the starting line in Brevard, near the crest of the Smoky Mountains. The bus ride took nine hours on a non-direct route, mostly in a misty rain, with nearly three hours of breaks.  The less said about that, the better.

We arrived around 5:30 pm and set up our tents on the lawn at Brevard College, a small Methodist campus with a cultural vibe that is solidly 1965. At least 50 identical Kelty tents were set up in front of ours. They were erected with military precision in rows and numbered, and each had a large inflatable mattress inside.  These were the dwellings of Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers, who pay $50 a day to escape from the responsibilities of making and breaking camp themselves.  They also get lawn chairs under a tent with free snacks.  As the week went on, we became more and more envious.

We walked into town for a very tasty burger and an Asheville-brewed beer, Highland Gaelic Ale, at the Jordan Street Café, which has a nice outdoor patio and some imaginative but not expensive stuff on the menu.  Immediately after ordering we each took out our phones and called our wives, proving once again how thoroughly domesticated we both are.

Brevard is a Southern resort town, which means that a lot of people in it aren’t Southern.  The couple next to us was handsome and looked to be pushing 70. She had a stylish haircut, he was a retired Marine Corps pilot who had flown in Vietnam, and now they were enjoying their bonus years with the help of big monthly pension checks.  Affluent retirees are probably the most valuable resource in the Smoky Mountains these days. They dribble dollars wherever they go, and the working people sweep them up.

The ex-pilot sidled over to us as the couple was leaving. He told us where to go if we’d like to drink and listen to music, just like an old soldier giving advice to his comrades.   I would have been interested several years ago, but Jim and I had learned on the 2008 ride that lots of alcohol at night definitely does not mix with riding a bicycle the next morning.  We were born to be mild.

We waddled back to our tents and lay down about 10 pm.  Shortly thereafter, two Brevard College boys who had not gone home for the weekend (and who had also not found dates, unless they were secretly dating each other) decided it would be fun to pitch tennis balls, swat at them with racquets, and make loud exclamations about nothing.  While this was not fun from our perspective, I had also learned that whenever you’re pitching a tent near other people, earplugs are of paramount importance.

Sunday, September 30:  Day 1, Brevard to Lake Lure

I lay in my sleep sack, awakened in the dark by the stirring of an encampment of several hundred bicyclists, and thought of the opening lines of Steve Fromholz’s song, Texas Trilogy:  “Six o’ clock silence of a new day beginning is heard in a small Texas town/ Like a signal from nowhere, the people who live there are up and movin’ around.”  Except it was five o’clock. I was getting my introduction to the school of grim determination.

A lot of guys on this ride – most of them past 50, and almost all of them guys – were acting like soldiers on the march.  They would break camp ridiculously early so they could be waiting in line when the breakfast hall opened at 6am.  It didn’t even get light outside until after seven, but many of them would start riding in the dark.  They rode hard, never seemed to smile, and arrived at the day’s destination in time for lunch.  In the afternoons they would sit around talking in low tones, and they never missed an opportunity to complain or point out mistakes and things that did not meet their standards.  They had paid for the privilege of holding a job for a week, and they didn’t even seem to like the job. It was weird.

The daily load-out in the morning seemed to me like the breaking of a Civil War encampment, except not as heavy, hairy, or smelly.  You were allowed two bags, and they had to be on the truck by 8am.  Breakfast was from 6am until 9am.  The line for a plate of scrambled eggs, biscuits, bacon or sausage, grits or potatoes, and coffee was long, but it usually moved quickly. You had to be rolling by nine.  What happened if you weren’t?  I asked Jim.  After all, these are public roadways.  Don’t you have a right to use them?

You are such a troublemaker, Jim replied.

Soon we were packed, fed, and mounted on our trusty steeds.  Jim was looking for John Frank, an insurance executive from Raleigh who had become his friend on the CNC ride in 2011.  John turned out to be a Southern gentleman with a dry sense of humor and a keen eye for the foibles of this vast rolling circus.   He also gave Jim someone to ride with, which was great, because I prefer to ride alone in my search for transcendence, and riding next to a monk can get pretty annoying to a normal person.

John Frank

We hit the highway around 8:30am.  The mountains were still fully green, more late summer than early fall.  The route was almost perfectly level for the first 14 miles, running along county roads parallel to State Highway 64 East, and we rode quickly through older second-growth forests so beautiful that I forgot to take pictures. After Penrose came a climb of about 400 feet to a height of land, through architect-designed dream homes that were perched to take full advantage of endless mountain vistas, each of which doubtless contained a handsome older couple like the one we had met last night.  The foliage masked the crest, so it was a surprise when we started heading down, but we quickly lost all the elevation we had gained and more in thrilling Tour De France-style turns on two-lane roads.  Then it was time for Hendersonville, another village made fat by upscale tourists and retirees, and the shopkeepers seemed delighted to be mobbed by upscale tourists who were all wearing tight pants and helmets.

Past Hendersonville came another 14 miles of valley riding with gray-green mountain peaks in the distance.  These were beautiful, but the things that catch my attention are usually random objects, often discarded, that might have a story attached.  Let me give you two examples.  We rode past a pull-behind trailer the size of a small U-Haul that was painted silver and black. It had a logo of a lightning bolt coming out of the letters “TCB,” which stands for “Taking Care of Business,” on the side. Elvis!  And beneath that logo was the title “World’s Smallest Elvis Museum.”  What was inside that trailer, where did they get the stuff, where did they set up, and how much would people still pay to see sweaty scarves and old telephones that were once touched by a King who died more than 35 years ago?

Or sometimes the thing I saw was like a seed that might grow into a short story.  At a stoplight in Dana, I looked down and saw a cardboard square with a clear plastic circle inside, the kind you’d use to protect a collectable silver dollar, except it had been opened and discarded.  I thought of someone so desperate for food or alcohol that they couldn’t even take it to the pawn shop, so they settled for a small fraction of what that coin was worth because they were convinced that they were going to die unless they got what they needed immediately.  What would drive a person to do something like that?

Two-second glimpses like these are like bits of candy to me; they generate long minutes of happy daydreaming as my eyes and legs do their automatic business.  The small things beg for an explanation, but it is usually impossible to find one, so I make things up.  Imagine my excitement when we finally pulled onto SR 64 East and started seeing signs for a tourist-trap town called Bat Cave.  And then it was back to business as we flew down through more than 1,000 feet of elevation before cruising into Chimney Rock, where the entire economy seems to be organized around a knob of stone that yields a good view of the mountains when you pay $15 to ride up to the top on an elevator (I did not do this).  It’s a remnant of pre-hiking tourism.  And just past that was our destination, Lake Lure, a long snaky thing behind a Roosevelt-era dam. We were at an elevation of about 1,000 feet, which was about 1,000 feet lower than when we had started.

Chimney Rock (the small knob on horizon)

The day’s ride had been only 42 miles. It was just after 1pm, and we could easily have done another 30.  We should have, too, because the forecast called for steady rain starting around midnight and continuing through the next day.  Jim, John, and I ended up killing the afternoon by watching tourists, and then eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant that was cheap and quite good (unfortunately, I can’t remember the name).  I made a last-minute decision to take down my tent and sleep under a pavilion, trusting in an expensive Big Agnes air mattress to protect my middle-aged back from the concrete floor.  It worked.  I stirred a bit when the rain started, but that was all.  Middle-aged people do sleep well when they work outside all day.

Day Two:  Lake Lure to Shelby

The pavilion where I slept in Lake Lure’s Morse Park had an electrical outlet. It made me a popular guy.  Almost everyone on the ride carried a cell phone, GPS device, camera, or something else; all of these devices eventually ran low on juice, and few were willing to plug in and walk away from their precious device after they found a precious outlet, so they waited.  There was an electric light under my pavilion too, so I read The Idiot and kept the guys company.  They didn’t talk much, and I kept wondering what Prince Myshkin’s opening line would be in a situation like this, but he was more interesting to me than they were, so the evening proceeded silently.

The rain started around midnight. It’s a pleasant sound as long as you’re warm and dry, but it turned mildly dread-inducing once dawn came up and the grim men started breaking camp.  It was mostly drizzle, though, and it wasn’t too cold. We were not going to ride on any dirt roads, I did have rain gear, and most important of all, I had a front fender.  Riding in the rain is not unpleasant if you are prepared for it.  Shoes are the biggest problem; I have never found a way to keep my feet dry in the rain, so a wet day increases the chance of blisters and almost guarantees that your shoes will stink.  And rain also drains some of the joy from the day. It makes riding more like a job. Grim determination seems more appropriate when the pavement is wet.

Jim dropped by around 6am to pick up his phone (which I had charged for him) and then he was off with John.  Jim is from a German family in Minnesota and John managed supply lines during the Iraq war, so they plunged into the wet and got ‘er done.  But I lingered for a while. Breakfast was at the Lake Lure Inn and Spa, which was built on the shore when the dam was completed in 1927.  It’s a 69-room concrete structure with Moorish touches and lots of dark woodwork, and the smartest thing to do would have been to check in and go back to sleep.  But I wandered around instead, looking at photographs and memorabilia left by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (they stayed here), FDR (he did too; he loved to take the waters), Patrick Swayze, and Jennifer Grey (parts of Dirty Dancing were filmed here).  The family that built the hotel and the dam also collected art, and there were several dozen oil paintings by pre-World War II Americans on the walls.  The collector was particularly fond of portraits of debutantes, so I said hello to a dozen young women with carefully curled hair posing in gauzy robes, their heads thrown back, smiling and inviting me to join them in their moments of glory.

This was the hardest day for me.  We were in the foothills of the mountains and rode in and out of many small creek valleys. The day’s total climb was 1800 feet with 2000 feet of descent, and it was 55 miles, which doesn’t seem like all that much. But the climbs were steep and short, so it felt more like an interval workout that went on for six hours.  Wet pavement also makes going downhill harder, because your brakes don’t work as well; you need to watch carefully for leaves and gravel and other stuff that’s extra slippery and can wipe you out if you hit it wrong.  There’s less time for daydreaming, and more time on task.

Fortunately, the CNC staff had chosen another route that maximized scenery while minimizing traffic.  We dipped south of State Route 64/74 East and pedaled for an hour through mixed hardwood forests, pastures for cattle and horses, a few goats, and many fallow fields. The first rest stop was a Baptist church out in the country, where I caught up to Jim and John. We listened briefly to an acoustic trio doing a creditable version of “Soldier’s Joy.”   This is what a geographer would call the “cultural hearth” of country music, and it was good to hear that song coming straight out of the soil.

Jim and John had pulled far ahead by the time we got to the second rest stop in Rutherfordton (pop. 4,100). The historic markers were thick and the 19th century central business district was intact, but there was no time to enjoy it.  The rest stops had coolers full of water and Powerade; a table full of crackers, cookies, bananas, and other things, staffed by smiling locals; and port-a-Johns serving dozens of haggard-looking wet people who were furiously gobbling, gulping and voiding.  Most of the riders were friendly and chatty, so the stops also had a strange cocktail party vibe. But there were always loners around the edges too, and these guys (almost all of them were guys) stared at the smiling chatterers while keeping a safe distance.  They were monks, like me.

Pulling out of town, I saw a plain brick building, the Norris Public Library.  I stopped, went in, got a password, checked my e-mail, sent an important message to a client, cleared out my in-box, and was back on the road in 15 minutes.  I love small public libraries.  Someday I am going to make a list of all the public places I have set up in to work when I am supposedly on vacation, and I am going to send each of them a big fat check.  Andrew Carnegie was right.

After Rutherfordton we went north of the main highway and after another hour or so we rode through Washburn, a country intersection where a General Store advertises that it had been “family-owned since 1831.”  Wow.  It was a memorable place, with shelves boasting things like oil lanterns, hard candy, and butter churns as well as the normal hardware, overalls, and tchotchkes.  If I had been in a car, I would have bought something I’d regret later.  A nice older Carolina woman was making ham and cheese sandwiches as fast as she could, fresh with tomatoes, salt and pepper, smiling and saying nice things to everybody, and selling them for only $2.50.  There was free coffee, too, and the rain had stopped.  Context is everything, but I didn’t see how you could do any better.

“Is that sandwich good?”  I was standing outside.  A woman with processed blonde hair was asking as she pulled off her helmet.  “Yes, delicious.  They’re right inside,” I said.

“Is it grilled?”  She fluffed out her hair.  She was a creature from some affluent suburb. She looked closer at the sandwich.  “It isn’t grilled.  Let’s go on into Ellenboro,” she said to her silent male companion.  “I want a Panini.”

“Let me know what happens in Ellenboro when you ask for a Panini,” I said.

At the rest stop at Ellenboro I talked to Lauren, a brown-eyed girl who was riding with her dad. Lauren worked on a farm near Durham and seemed to be enjoying the day, so I stood near her and tried to soak up some of her positive energy.  People with jobs seemed to enjoy themselves more out here, maybe because we find riding through the country on a cloudy day to be better than working.  Lauren and I talked about how we had left the affluent hills and were now seeing more modular houses, old farms in various states of disrepair, and towns that were just hanging on. Ellenboro was one such place, with a big, burned-out complex of brick mill buildings testifying to what had been, and a half-empty downtown business row wondering what will come next. Then it was back out into the fields and forests.

I caught up to Lauren again two miles before the end of the ride.  I was exhausted from going up and down all those small hills, and happy to have a distraction.  But just as I pulled up next to her and said hello, my chain broke. Suddenly the thing that made my bicycle go was lying in two pieces on the ground.  Lauren looked back at me with concern and shouted, as she pulled away, “Do you have a phone?” Goodbye, Lauren, from your friend the dork.

I did have a phone, but I didn’t need it. The CNC sag wagon came by about ten minutes later, loaded me up, and drove me to the campsite in Shelby (pop. 20,000). I dropped my bike off at Cycling Spoken Here, a crack outfit of wrenches from Raleigh who set up a tent at each campsite and seemed to be doing big business, as dazed men and women holding shiny credit cards waited patiently for their turn.  I had a new chain installed for $50 which was expensive, but not outrageous.  Then I met up with Jim and John, we got on a bus that drove us downtown, and we enjoyed truly memorable bowls of tomato basil soup at the Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille, along with high-quality pizza and local beer.

Shelby was nice.  It was a rare creature, a rural town that seemed economically healthy and even kind of hip even though it wasn’t a quite a suburb and had no college.  It is the seat of Cleveland County; it is where Earl Scruggs learned to pick the banjo, and where Don Gibson dropped out of second grade several years before he wrote “Sweet Dreams” and “Oh Lonesome Me.”  We walked past a storefront office for the Obama campaign, and I got two bumper stickers for my bike from a proud black guy who was excited to meet one of the riders.  It had been all Romney signs until then, which made sense because the areas we had been riding through were rural and mostly white.   There was a Republican storefront too, but they seemed to be getting along with each other.  Something good was going on in Shelby.

We set up our tents behind a big carousel that was protected by a beautiful new wooden building.  Next to the carousel was an elaborate playground that included a child-sized railroad, lots and lots of athletic fields, and a big community center.  Shelby clearly has both money and benefactors, and they aren’t afraid to spend their wealth on public works.  The carousel was built in Tonawanda, NY, so all props to my Upstate comrades (even though it was built 90 years ago). I nodded off with the help of Gillian Welch on the headphones, ushered into sleep by a sad lullaby and rain pattering on the tent.

Day Three: Shelby to Matthews

By the end of the ride, everyone was calling Day 3 the Day of the Tornado.  The skies were still gray at dawn, but it was a textured kind of gray, with clouds at different heights moving quickly.  We were riding before 8 am, 40 miles west of downtown Charlotte. The route would take us through the middle of town in the afternoon and end up in Matthews, a southeastern suburb, 77 miles away.   Although the ride was 20 miles longer than yesterday’s, the elevation changes were smaller  – not really hills, just slowly rising and falling grades, much easier on the legs – and it was an easy cruise through agricultural land to the first rest stop at Kings Mountain (pop. 10,000).

We thought that the most interesting thing about the Kings Mountain rest stop was going to be free sausage biscuits from Popeye’s.  These were good, but as I munched on one I noticed a plump lady among the servers having an intense conversation on her cell phone. Then she put the phone away and yelled, “May I have your attention.  There is a tornado warning.  Do not leave the rest stop until we get more information.  You might have to spend the night with us.” Her last sentence was a bit over the top, and it got a big laugh from the crowd.  I didn’t check the list, but it seemed to me like there were at least three male riders for every female.

One interesting thing about the tornado warning was that some riders didn’t pay any attention to it. They heard the woman, mounted their bikes, and rode away, convinced of their immortality I guess.  I took the warning as an excuse to eat another biscuit.  Then the lady got back on the phone. She told us that the storm was near Gaffney, South Carolina, which was at least 40 miles west of us, and it was headed northeast.  We were advised to ride on, maybe head for a YMCA somewhere if things got too scary (I didn’t hear where that was), and to watch the skies.  The ride organizers were more concerned about the people who were still on the road to Kings Mountain.

A light rain started just west of Bessemer City. As I cruised past a huge industrial park, with factories making canned food and drywall, a siren sounded and someone started talking over a loudspeaker.  I couldn’t make out the words. Looking west, I could see that the rain was probably going to get heavier. Jim and John were about 10 minutes ahead of me.  I saw a small portico on the side of a church that might make a good shelter, so I rode toward it. There were people standing under it, waving me in.

The portico covered the basement entrance to a black Baptist church. The basement door was unlocked, and seven riders were already there. They showed me scary-looking radar on their cell phones and convinced me to stay.  We were from Atlanta and Durham and Maryland and Upstate New York.  We joked nervously as the rain intensified, and we moved deeper into the basement as the portico flooded.  I found a pile of child-sized plastic chairs, left over from Sunday School, and we set them up in a circle and kept talking while the rain finished its business outside.  It was a weird, funny half-hour. Whenever I ran into someone from the group later on we’d call each other “brother” and talk about our prayer meeting.

The rain slacked off and I rode away from the church on soaked pavement. Nothing was falling from the sky anymore; I was still getting wet from the bottom up, but a hard rain like that is usually like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, followed quickly by the sun.  I was curious about how Jim and John did in the storm, so I made a fly-by at the rest stop in the village of Dallas (pop. 4,500), merely filling up my water bottle and grabbing a refrigerator magnet that said, “Dallas, the Crossroads of Gaston County.”  Then, as expected, the clouds started to break and I saw the first blue sky in two days.   The light was clear and diffused through the thinning clouds, and it made everything glow.  I rounded a curve and started a small climb, with a white fence on one side, a green pasture behind that, and trees in the background. It was just where you would expect to see a photographer.

Jim Harris and his photographers have a cool little niche. They go from one organized bicycle event to another, take pictures of riders as they pass, and sell the shots for $20.  I bought one; a lot of people bought four or more.  We saw Jim every day, standing by the side of the road with a megaphone, exhorting us to smile, look at the camera, remember our file number, and stop by his tent later to see how it turned out.  The setup for today’s shot was so good that I stopped and talked to the photographer who, as I suspected, was having a joygasm.

Jim’s business works because so many of the riders think they’re so hot. Plodding along in my Bianchi Volpe steel-frame touring tank, wearing my loose shorts and street shirt, I would regularly get passed by packs of three or more riders who wore brightly colored jerseys (about $80) and tight shorts (up to $120) and rode bikes that sometimes weighed ten pounds less than mine did and cost at least twice as much ($2,000 and up).   These were guys (and a few women) from cycling clubs.  They rode tightly together in a “peloton” to cut wind drag and go faster.  Unless you’re the lead guy, everyone in a peloton has to focus on the next guy’s rear wheel and ignore the scenery.  Peloton riders also tend to shout out orders (“Slowing!”) and warnings (“Car Back!”). These exhortations, along with their uniforms and tight formations, give them a freakish military aspect.

I find the whole thing baffling.  Bicycle racing is fine, but it isn’t really fun if you do it seven days in a row.  If you have gone to the trouble and expense to ride through 450 miles of incredible scenery and small towns, why ignore them?  Peloton touring, to me, is in the same category as opera and ice fishing. I know some people like it, but I can’t understand why.

If the whole soldiers-in-a-peloton thing is also baffling to you, check out Just Ride by Grant Petersen.  He is a former racer and the founder of Rivendell, a custom bike-building shop, so you might expect him to be a hyper-competitive jerk.  Instead, he’s a good writer with something important to say:  if you aren’t trying to keep up with Lance Armstrong, it’s ridiculous to act like him. Come to think of it, maybe it was ridiculous for Lance to act the way he did, too.

I met up with Jim and John for lunch in Mount Holly, and had an enjoyably huge grilled tuna melt with fries and about a gallon of iced tea.  It was a predictable mistake, and I should have known better.    The food sat in my gut like a lump of concrete for the next five miles.  I know that when you’re riding you should snack often, eat sugary things and simple carbohydrates, and avoid proteins and fats. I suppose I need to lash myself to my bike frame whenever I pass a diner.

Soon we were navigating our way through the suburbs of Charlotte, snaking around on residential roads and heading for downtown on a southeasterly trajectory.  We wound through edge city developments, downscale inner-ring suburbs, and then enjoyed a short stretch of interesting old small houses. Then, suddenly, the skyscrapers were upon us. I was surprised to be riding through the center of a big city on a Tuesday afternoon, but it wasn’t too scary. We went past the Carolina Panthers stadium, headed through the concrete canyon on Trade Street, and then turned onto the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.

A well-designed urban greenway can transform a cyclist’s experience of a big city, and Little Sugar Creek was beautiful.  The recent rains made it clear that this was really a stormwater disposal system; some of the low points were flooded; but this, to me, made the whole thing even more appealing.  (This video gives you a good sense of things).  An unused floodplain had become a well-designed park.   The only problem was that it only lasted for three miles.

Finish it, please!

After Sugar Creek, we rode through endless manicured upscale neighborhoods.  It went on and on, a maze of turns and views of “nice” postwar houses.  At the beginning of the day I would have enjoyed it, but by this time I was completely whipped and it felt like a Google Maps nightmare. Then it got worse, as the route dumped us into rush-hour hellish suburban gridlock traffic. I kept looking for the “welcome to Matthews” sign, but there wasn’t any welcome to Matthews.  The people in Matthews didn’t seem to care whether or not we were coming.

The night’s campground was shoehorned into a vacant lot that was a half mile away from food and showers. The shuttle buses that were supposed to carry us from our tents to these comforts were snagged in some really awful rush hour traffic.  We ended up walking back and forth on our exhausted legs.  I know the ride organizers did a huge amount of work, and most of the results were great, but Matthews was a serious misfire.

Old codgers, like infants, are far more likely to have tantrums when they are tired and hungry.  But beer and good conversation can solve almost anything.  Jim, John, and I went to a tasty and somewhat overpriced nouveau Mexican restaurant. John and I had fun talking about all the bad behavior we had seen among the other cyclists.  Jim, who loves free items, coveted my “Crossroads of Gaston County” refrigerator magnet.  There was a Mister Softee ice cream truck on the way back to the campsite.  By the time I crawled into my tent, all was well.  Send me on a 77 mile ride and then give me earplugs, a sleep mask, 600 mg of ibuprofen, a nice antihistamine to make me drowsy, and a Big Agnes air mattress, and I can sleep through anything.  In fact, I did. And nobody got hurt in Gaffney, either. The funnel cloud never touched the ground.

Day 4: Matthews to Rockingham

Jim woke up woozy and pale.  He said he felt dizzy. He was probably dehydrated, but we weren’t sure. Although he has the attitude of a 17-year-old, Jim’s body is 66, and if that is your number, that is the kind of warning you don’t ignore.  I immediately became an ambassador for his wife Sara, trying to persuade him to sit out today’s ride, and to my surprise, he agreed.  So I gave him the “Crossroads of Gaston County” magnet to make him feel better, and he hitched a ride to Rockingham in the luggage truck.

John and I headed out about 7:30am and were swept into rush hour traffic on two-lane roads with no shoulders.  We had a tough go of it for the first hour of the ride. The cyclists made things much worse by riding down the sidewalks, massing at the traffic lights, and jamming the intersections.  The lines of cars got longer and longer.  This didn’t seem to bother the locals – I got the impression that this kind of aggravation happens twice a day in Matthews – but it pissed John off mightily.  To a military man and a nice Southern boy, not following the rules and not waiting your turn are unpardonable sins.  Although I have lived in New York for three decades, I still saw his point.

We finally reached an intersection where most of the cars turned and we went straight. John broke free and rode off, and I started cruising up and down gentle grades, along the edges of soybean fields and pastures, as the suburban sprawl gradually faded away. The morning dew had been heavy enough to soak the grass and trees, and it was turning into mist in the sun.  Before long I pulled into the community center in tiny Unionville. It was time to enjoy North Carolina’s second-most seductive export.

Winston-Salem is the birthplace of the modern cigarette industry, and it is also the home of the first Krispy Kreme doughnut store.  They are glazed and made with raised yeast dough, so they are light, unsubstantial, and painfully sweet. They are available nationally now, but are best served warm as they come out of the frying machines in those stores.  I salivate just thinking about them.

You can eat a lot of these sweet little things and get yourself in trouble if you’re not careful.  John told me about the Krispy Kreme Challenge, an annual event in Raleigh whose participants run 2.5 miles to a Krispy Kreme store, eat one dozen dounts, and then run back, leaving (he says) mounds of donut vomit on the street all the way back.  Mmmmm.

And so, I was forewarned.  Yet today really was a special occasion. I mean, all-you-can-eat free Krispy Kremes at a cycling rest stop – how often is that going to happen?  My son Will, who was a college athlete and remains a reliable athletic advisor, has always told me to eat sugar when I’m riding, so I had three.  They were not warm but were still fresh and melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and more — they were served to us by three nice Southern ladies.  I said thank you and made small talk, but many of the riders did not.  You could tell this horrified the ladies.  They kept smiling, but one of them started saying “you’re welcome” to the silent men as they gobbled away.   I love passive-aggressive Southern style.

The Krispy Kremes hit my stomach like jet fuel and I sped off, riding through small farms and past clusters of trailers and concrete-block homes.  I entered Marshville, the home town of Randy Travis, and noticed more African-American faces and more Obama lawn signs.  Marshville is about half black; statewide, about 22 percent of North Carolina residents are black.  I saw Obama signs in small towns that had black populations, and I saw some Obama signs in Charlotte and Wilmington, but other than that, the open country was all Romney, with extra-spicy homemade anti-Obama vehemence always threatening to show up around the next bend.  Sometimes that stuff came pretty close to the line beyond which you would call in the Secret Service.  I saw a billboard with a picture of a group of Navy Seals and the caption, “They got Osama. One more to go.”  I also saw a cartoon monkey painted on a piece of plywood with the caption, “Four more years?”

North Carolina ranks 13th among the states in the number of recorded lynchings, which is far behind Mississippi (with 581 lynchings) and Texas (with 493).  But still, 86 blacks and 15 whites were murdered by mobs here. The last recorded lynchings in the US happened 48 years ago, as the Civil Rights Act was being passed, but they were fairly common occurrences until World War II.  So if you are a white southerner in your 60s or older, you might have clear memories of a time when communities had private ways of dealing with uppity negroes.  Whenever I see race-baiting like this oozing out of our social sewers, I am reminded of the anonymous cynic who said, “Progress happens one funeral at a time.”

I left Marshville and the scene changed to pine plantations with rows of straight, spindly trees stretching away on either side. The smell of pine sap in the rising mist, the beautifully monotonous scenery, and the cadence of my legs came together then, like a curtain lifting Psychologists use the term “flow” to describe “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”   Flow is why I ride.

The sun broke through the clouds and the day dried out, and it became hot for the first time in four days.  Then it got hotter.  The forests went on and on for twenty miles or so.  What I was experiencing wasn’t exactly profound or ecstatic. It was more like tuning my mind to an open channel, so thoughts could flow in and out freely. All the bandwidth ordinarily devoted to work, home, and human relationships had been cleared. Whatever I absorbed seemed unusually sharp, with small details popping out from the background.  This is the state people reach by meditating.  When you finish, you feel as though you have had a deep, refreshing sleep.

These must be third or fourth-growth trees.  It was an intensively managed agricultural landscape, and there was a time when I would have made snarky comments about trees planted in straight rows and the occasional clearcut, but now that I own a house made of wood that needs regular repairs, a pine plantation is just fine with me.  Every so often I’d see a square piece of plastic nailed to a tree or a fencepost, identifying it as a “Family Forest,” full of “Wood, Water, Wildlife, Recreation.”  Hey guys, stick with the alliteration.  How about “Whoopee” instead?

I finally pulled into Wadesboro, salty with sweat and down to the last gulp on my water bottle.  They had gone all out for us.  The modest, mostly brick, early 20th Century downtown block has a good hardware store and a public library but no restaurants, so the friendly economic development guy, who seemed to be all over the place, greeting everybody, had arranged for food trucks to come and surround the normal rest stop.  One of them sold chicken and biscuits; others had bags of cookies, to benefit local schools; and the free one, the blowout, was giving away homemade ice cream. I got a big scoop of chocolate and sat in the sun, gulping it down, until I gave myself a blinding brain freeze.

I staggered down Greene Street, waiting for the ice cream headache to ease off, and eventually stopped before the office of the Anson County Partnership for Children, which had a table of free bottled water and an invitation for cyclists to use the bathroom. Anson County (pop. 27,000) is equal parts white and black; about 20 percent of its residents, and perhaps one-quarter of its children, live in households with incomes below the poverty line.  The Coalition is a not-for-profit but is part of a statewide program called Smart Start, which works with Head Start and other government agencies to educate and assist children and their guardians, especially those of pre-school age. The bright, clean office was teeming with white and black children and their mothers. They had shelves of games, car seats, books, blankets, and other stuff that you could check out for free like a library, and the sunny, sixty-something woman at the desk was quite proud of it all.  They were a great counterpoint to the anti-Obama crap I had seen earlier.  The bathroom was great, too.

It was less than seven miles to the next rest stop at The Old Store, another well-merchandised shout out to the history of small town retailing.  They sold penny candy, yardsticks, and other tchotchkes, and outside they boasted a seven-foot-tall fiberglass rooster.  As Woody Allen once said, that’ s a big chicken.

The Old Store is actually just an exit ramp away from US Route 74, the Andrew Jackson Highway, which is almost but not quite an Interstate in that part of North Carolina.  It was not an inspiring route. When you’re tootling along at 10 or 15 miles an hour on a four-lane limited access highway designed for people going 70 miles an hour, it seems like you’re moving very slowly. There are big long ramps, signs that warn you of the next feature miles before it happens, and straight stretches that seem to go on forever.  Interstates are corridors 60 feet wide that are engineered to national standards, so any given mile of one looks a lot like any other interstate anywhere. They give cyclists the feeling of being lifted out of the local landscape and put into some national landscape, like an airport boarding area or a McDonald’s.

The reason for the route change soon became clear. We coasted downhill for a long way to cross the wide Pee Dee River. Must be the only bridge for a while.  And then, unexpectedly, came what might have been the worst hill of the entire ride —  a butt-kicking, one mile long uphill grade in direct sun, testing the limits of non-athletes who had already gone 70 miles that day.  It was quite a cliff, in a part of the country that didn’t have many of them.  The Pee Dee must flood like a sumbitch.

I limped into Rockingham and found Jim, who had gone to the local emergency room for a couple of hours to absorb a bag of intravenous saline solution and nap in the air conditioning.  He looked a lot better.  The campsite was another community center but was friendlier than Matthews had been, with a Southern-fried rock band playing in the parking lot across the road from us until 9pm.

A friendly guy named Don, who belonged to John’s cycling club, invited the three of us to a cookout, and it was a pleasure to enjoy his hospitality. He also invited Jenny Hilton, who had hitched a ride with him to the starting line. Jenny’s youth, wit, and optimism were like a bright light that lifted me out of my fatigued fog.  She lives in Wilmington, and another Wilmington local she had met on the ride, Alan Walshe, also stopped by; Jim, John, and I shot the breeze with them pleasantly as the sky grew dark. Thanks, Don.  Before long, though, fatigue crept up on me and pounced.  I barely made it to my sleeping bag.

Jenny Hilton

Day 5: Rockingham to Lumberton

A light rain started during the night and continued through dawn. It would be our third rainy start in five days. But the anticipation of getting wet while riding is almost always worse than the reality, as long as it isn’t cold and you’re not planning to ride on dirt roads.  Numb fingers and mud actually do suck. But as Yogi Berra once said, the other half is 90 percent mental.

Jim, John and I started together as usual, but they were out of sight before the end of the first mile.  I rode in a line that gingerly coexisted with light traffic going out of Rockingham, and then we picked through raggedy commercial and residential buildings. It was still raining when I pulled into the town of Hamlet, a railroad stop with grand buildings left over from days of glory. The old depot, recently restored, serves one passenger train a day heading north, one heading south, and a steady stream of freights that don’t stop. It also has a nice museum. I was not in a hurry and thought maybe I could outwait the rain, so I wandered through. One of the galleries had a recording of an unaccompanied female voice singing a mournful song, written in 1898, called “Please Mr. Conductor Don’t Put Me Off” (later recorded by the Everly Brothers as “The Lightning Express:”)

Please, mister conductor, don’t put me off of your train/ For the best friend I have in this world, sir, is waiting for me in vain/ Expecting to die any moment, and may not live through the day/ I want to kiss mother goodbye, sir, before God takes her away.

The song made me think about how isolated these places once were, and how much effort it took for people to get from one town to another.  The rails were the link they had to the outside world, just like the highways are now.  Bicycling gives you a slight feel for the older styles of travel. Local trains in the 1890s went about as fast as a bike does now, and the daydreamers of those days probably stared out of their windows just as I was doing, seeing the world pass at the same rate. It’s easy to understand how they came up with all those mournful songs.  Still, the effort I put into locomotion doesn’t really compare.  Most working people who needed to travel didn’t have the fare, so they walked or rode a horse.  Even slower.

The rain stopped before I pulled into the first rest stop, at the home of Bob and Millie McNeil. We were in Scotland County now, moving into the southeastern part of the state. As the name implies, Scottish Highlanders settled this district in the early 18th century.  I thought I could still see a bit of Glasgow in Millie’s cheekbones as she and Bob strolled through the gobbling crowd. The McNeils were beaming, asking people where they were from, and generally being gracious as all get out.  Millie said that their house was built around the turn of the century.  Not one blade of grass was out of place.

I saw Jenny Hilton at the rest stop, and we got into a conversation about inner dialogues. Jenny also prefers to ride solo, so we reviewed some of the things we had been hearing on our internal radios. We talked about imaginary conversations with departed family members; imaginary arguments with politicians we disliked; random associations that go on and on (for example: Scotland County, Thirfty Scot, Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons, “Slick Willie” Clinton, Willie Mays, Lyle Mays); riffs from popular songs that bloom and overpower every other thought, like mental infections; and other ideas too strange to describe here. It wasn’t quite like telling a total stranger that you hear voices, but it was still an unusual exchange.

The territory was perfectly flat now, with pine forests wherever there weren’t houses, and it didn’t seem long before I pulled into rest stop number two, the John Blue House (c.1890), a striking mansion in a style the curators call “Steamboat Gothic.”  John Blue was a self-taught genius who made a fortune designing and selling machinery to cotton farmers, and the local lore is that he designed the house and did a lot of the woodwork himself. It’s now a museum complex that includes the house, a cotton gin, and old cabins, and it’s the site of an annual Cotton Festival.  But nobody cared about any of that, because the star attraction at this rest stop was Subway sandwiches.  Gobble, gobble.

It was getting close to harvest time for cotton, and I rode past fields of brown plants still holding their white bolls.  There were also fields of sorghum and soybeans, along with more pine woods and now a new feature – swamps, and the birds that love them.  I rode into Maxton, where the community had organized a welcoming rest stop for us, and learned that their annual Collard Festival would take place on Saturday, November 10.  It features competitions for main dishes, side dishes, salads, and desserts made with collard greens; stories, poems, and songs about collards; the Biggest Collard competition; clothing decorated with collards; and of course, the crowning of the Collard King and Queen.  If I weren’t already signed up to work the spreaders at Toast and Jelly Days, I would certainly attend.

Maxton is in the territory of the Lumbees, a recognized Native American tribe that has its own government and social organizations, but no reservation land.  Lumbees are descended from Siouxan-speaking tribes that were driven out of North Carolina or exterminated in their original forms. The survivors escaped to isolated areas that also attracted free blacks, escaped slaves, and whites, so Lumbees in antebellum censuses were counted not as Indians, but as “free people of color.”

Lumbees faced persecution and violence, and they learned to respond in kind. During the 1950s they famously clashed with the Ku Klux Klan, after a Klan leader began a campaign of harassment aimed at them.  On January 18, 1958, about 100 Klansmen gathered for a rally at Hayes Pond, near Maxton, and were overwhelmed by perhaps 400 Lumbees who eventually opened fire, inflicting minor wounds on four Klansmen; the others panicked and fled, and the Indians celebrated by burning the Klan’s regalia.  Today, the Lumbees still celebrate the Battle of Hayes Pond.

I learned about Hayes Pond at rest stop number three.  The University of North Carolina at Pembroke had a nice Lumbee cultural center and museum, and at 50 miles and counting, it was a good place to take a break.  Jenny, with whom I had been playing tag all day, was sitting on the front steps with a couple of other people. It was hot, and none of us felt much motivation to go on.  But we had twenty more miles to go.  They were on big flat roads, past wide-open agribusiness fields, a fairground, and then next to Interstate 74 for the last eight miles.

Deep into the last hour of the ride, focused on nothing except the motel I had decided to check into that night, I was yanked back into the world by an older man, with a silent little boy standing next to him, who was yelling out “where you from?” to the riders as they passed him by. I circled around and got into a conversation with the guy, who was impressed and a little puzzled that I had driven down from New York just to do this.  “I’m going to Carolina Beach in the morning to go fishing,” he said. “Don’t you want to just put it in the back of my truck?”  He was joking, but I was conflicted. A couple of days of beer, lawn chairs, and surf tackle sounded pretty good.  Oh well, you can’t be everywhere.

Lumberton had planned quite a party for the riders, but I skipped it.  Jim was meeting his brother Paul, who would ride with us for the last two days; they had decided to get a motel room out by the interstate, and I decided to do the same.  I checked into a Best Western and marveled at the cleanliness, the deluxe linens, and the first total silence and darkness I had experienced in five days.  I spent two hours spreading out gear, drying it, and repacking before meeting Paul and Jim for dinner, and we were all asleep by 10pm.  If you want to appreciate your bedroom more, sleep on the ground for five days.

Day 6: Lumberton to White Lake

We pull into traffic at 7:20 am. It’s three miles to downtown Lumberton on Fayetteville Road, and we’re dodging oversized pickup trucks. The ride is a lesson in corporate geography. Near I-95 it’s a scrum of big boxes, chain motels, and fast food restaurants, most of them already open for business, In the city, worn-looking local stores are sleeping late in old brick buildings.

Last night I wasted a half-hour wandering through a Wal-Mart that could have been anywhere while the other cyclists rocked out on Main Street, talking to locals and sampling whatever cuisine Lumberton is most proud of.  I didn’t mind.  The motel was just what I needed.  I depend on Interstates, although one has to remember that choosing them means that you’ll miss most of the interesting stuff.

After a week of cycling, this has become a job. It’s a job I love, the kind that leaves a person tired and satisfied at the end of the day.  My brain is full of images and empty of noise.  After hours of steady physical exertion, it’s impossible to focus on worries or schemes. I can’t think very much about the past or the future, because it takes a lot of effort just to keep moving forward fast enough to finish before dark.  What’s required is an intense focus on the next 20 yards of road.  That is liberating.

Lumberton is a blue-collar town, nothing fancy. We leave it gradually, and the space between the buildings increases with the size of the tilled fields.  It’s dry but cloudy, humid, and about 68 degrees, perfect weather for riding.  A plume of smoke from a slash fire joins the clouds seamlessly, reminding me that despite all the soybeans, sorghum, and peanuts, Lumberton is still about lumber.

The roads are almost perfectly flat with no wind, so it is easy to add on the miles.  Despite the lack of topography, I find the low country landscape more interesting than the piedmont or the mountains.  The forests and swamps are mysterious. They can seem menacing or majestic, and I always get the feeling that there are good stories hidden almost anywhere you might look.  One reason for the low country’s narrative fecundity is that homo sapiens has inhabited it for tens of thousands of years. And things got really interesting 300 years ago, when people from Europe and Africa began their uneasy coexistence.

The Regan Methodist Church, our first rest stop, was organized around 1783.  Camp meetings have been held on the site since the 1840s, and (I was told) the present structure dates to the 1870s. The exterior of the church has recently been re-clad in brick, so it doesn’t look like anything special.  But the interior is original and paneled in dark-stained, first-growth North Carolina pine, also known as “heart pine.”  The wood is so dense that it’s difficult to drive a nail into it.  It is so disease-resistant that it looks fresh 140 years after it was cut.  It is a museum of North Carolina’s glorious forested past.  Today’s pine trees are like Styrofoam in comparison.

Flat, flat, flat.  My mind’s a blank.  Then, out of nowhere, I start thinking about another writing project I have been struggling with — a long, complicated one — and an outline for the whole thing materializes in my head.  It’s such a powerful vision that I stop and dictate what I’m thinking into my phone before it fades.  Amazing, what your mind can accomplish once you give it a good rest.  I might have saved myself several days of pencil-biting just then.

And it’s amazing how spacey this kind of thing makes you, too.  I pull into the second rest stop, Lu Mil Vineyard, a “winery” that seems to sell mostly grape juice, jelly, and gimcracky stuff aimed at middle-aged couples.  Wandering around in a pleasant, endorphin-enhanced fog, I see a cart that seats 15 people at a bar, with their legs attached to pedals, so that the riders get to drink while riding slowly around the grape arbors. An employee who isn’t drinking steers.  That is way too interesting.

Jenny, with whom I am playing tag again, is apparently in the same addled state.  We find ourselves walking back toward our bikes together, but she has to turn around because she has forgotten her water bottle.  I tell her it’s because she is so absorbed in the moment, and she thanks me for the compliment.  She thinks it is because she’s flaky and stoned on endorphins.  No, I say, you’re creative.  We pull out of the parking lot together but she’s gone quickly.  Even among the monks, I am one of the slow ones.

Another ten miles go by.  Jim calls from Elizabethtown to tell me that he and Paul are at Melvin’s and it’s not to be missed.  I arrive just as they are finishing.  Melvin’s is an old-fashioned hamburger stand.  They have been in business since the 1930s, and it doesn’t look like much has changed.  I get two with “the works,” which means coleslaw and some kind of seasoned salt, and it’s worth the price just to watch the amazing hand motions of the girl on the burger assembly line.  She’s really cranking them out. Jim was right, too: they are damn good.

We pull out of Elizabethtown together, but nature takes its course and I am soon alone again.  The next stage is twenty miles of pine trees, mostly in the Bladen State Forest, which means another two hours of beautiful monotony.  The third rest stop is at Jones Lake State Park, which was improved by the federal Works Projects Administration for the use of blacks during the Depression.  It was the one of the only places around here where blacks were allowed to swim until 1965.  Our destination is White Lake, which (I am told) is named for its white sandy bottom.  The bottom of Jones Lake is black mud.  This makes me wonder.

We cycle past a middle school, where an acolyte of Bart Simpson has prepared a special greeting. Someone has thrown tacks onto the road, and lots of cyclists have suffered flat tires.  The police have arrived and are cleaning things up, but we’re told to dismount and walk 100 yards. As I’m walking, I peer into the woods to see if I can spot the snickering 12-year-old who is having a really good day.  I don’t see anything, and ride on.

The last five miles go through the village of White Lake, which is really a ring of run-down motels, trailers, and some marginally pretentious houses around a large body of water.  I notice that one of the nicer structures is for sale, and the sign says the listing price is $700,000.  Can that be true?  If it is, the Future Farmers of America summer camp where we’re staying is worth tens of millions.  But it’s a charming place dating to the 1920s, with well-appointed public spaces and run-down screened bunkhouses that make it unnecessary to pitch a tent. It is by far the nicest campsite of the trip.

I pick out a bunk and run over to the lake and jump in.  It’s wonderful.  The lake is shallow and warm, and it does indeed have a sandy bottom.  You can go 30 or 40 yards out and still stand up.  They call this “the safest beach in America” because the Village prohibits bars and sales of beer.  But Dawn Maynard, director of the local Chamber of Commerce, has drummed up a party for us anyway. She is running around like a maniac because the vendors she is expecting haven’t shown up yet, and someone needs to feed the cyclists who are pulling in.  She keeps pulling out a handheld microphone and apologizing to the crowd.  But there are people selling food, and I feel sorry for them.

I run into John, who has been finished for a while.  He rode hard today and is drinking a huge cup of lemonade.  He’s outraged, as usual, by the rudeness of the riders.  “See that old lady?,” he says.  He points at tough-looking little woman, perhaps in her mid-60s, who’s standing alone, still clad in bike shorts and a jersey.  “She went up to the sandwich stand and ordered a barbeque sandwich with slaw on it.  The lady at the stand said, ‘ma’am, we’re out of slaw.’  But the old bat just stood there and demanded cole slaw for her sandwich, holding up the line and throwing a hissy fit.  I wanted to slap her.”

That is, indeed, horrifying behavior, particularly when the locals who are serving us are working their butts off and doing everything they can to show us a good time.  But, I tell John, maybe we should cut the poor old thing a break. Just look at her.  She’s completely tuckered out, she’s just had a tantrum, and now she’s standing there all by herself. Elderly people whose electrolyte balances are out of whack don’t always show us their best sides, especially if they’re used to desk jobs or golf.

“I don’t care,” he says.  “It’s inexcusable.”

You’re right, I say.  And there is also an ugly ruling-class taint to it.  Damn it, she is saying, I am on vacation, I have plenty of folding money, and I want slaw.  What are you, a lowly service provider, going to do about it?   Yes, John, however you slice it, it’s an ugly thing. The FFA Camp at White Lake is beautiful, but today it is being ruined by unpleasant people.

We need to go into town for dinner, and I am itching to get onto a computer.  Dawn Maynard, who is the hardest-working person in White Lake right now, has arranged for a bus to drive us into Elizabethtown. I grab a seat and in a few minutes arrive at the Bladen County Public Library.  It’s in a beat-up building and is clearly underfunded, but the desk ladies are smiling and selling raffle tickets. They cheerfully grant me access to the Internet for an hour, along with the last three editions of the Charlotte News & Observer.  Public libraries are among the more encouraging features of western civilization.

I meet Jim, Paul, and John, and we pig out at the Front Porch restaurant. It’s the last dinner of the ride, and The Front Porch offers Southern cuisine at its most plentiful, so I load up on fried chicken and okra, collards, biscuits, a little creamed chicken to go on top of those, some of that dang ole slaw – it just goes on and on.  Oh my God, there are even some pork cracklins.  That’s going too far, even for me.  But my license to overeat is about to expire, so I go for it. Yes, I do have some room left for banana pudding with Nilla Wafers.

The president of the local community college is driving the shuttle bus that takes us home.  That would not happen in my hometown.  John and I say goodnight to Jim and Paul, who go to a motel.  John confesses that he isn’t feeling well.  Maybe he’s dehydrated, or maybe he just hasn’t been sleeping well.  He calls his wife, who is just two hours away in Raleigh, and asks her to pick him up early.  I keep him company while he waits for her, and we talk about politics.

I can tell that John is leaning toward voting for Mitt Romney, but he is also pretty disgusted with the whole process.  I tell him why I think Obamacare is worth supporting, and he listens respectfully.  His biggest problem with Obama, he says, is the guy’s leadership style. He doesn’t think it’s appropriate for him to keep blaming George W. Bush. A Commander-In-Chief needs to take responsibility for the problems under his command, he says.  I can see his point.

This is what politics should be like in the USA. When you get away from the marketing machine and the media echo chamber, and you just sit down and talk to someone, it isn’t that hard, either.  John and I didn’t agree, but we parted as friends, and I’d like to think that we both learned something.  Why don’t people do this more often?

I say goodbye to John and walk back to the main pavilion, where a tight little garage band called “South of Sanity” is playing covers with precision and energy. I run into Alan Walshe, who also cannot understand why so many of the people here don’t seem to be having a good time.  Alan, who looks to be about the same age as my 26-year-old son, rode his fully loaded bicycle from his home in Wilmington to the starting line in Brevard, and now he’s riding back.  “This is absolutely fantastic,”  he says.  He’s right, too. It has been one hell of a ride.

I go to sleep on a foam mattress in an old bunkhouse, with earplugs walling me off from the diminishing noise of camp.  I have always felt completely comfortable in places like this.  I think it started when I was a homesick nine-year-old at a YMCA camp back in Florida.  I was sleeping in a screened bunkhouse just like this one. I woke up as dawn was breaking, and before I could experience panic or loneliness, I saw how beautiful it was outside, and just stared.  As the light gathered strength, I pulled out my stainless-steel Sony transistor radio in its leather case, and put in its single earplug.  I remember listening to “Alley Cat” and being amazed at how peaceful I felt.

Now it’s 44 years later. I’m still in the bunkhouse, not as desperate in some ways but more desperate in others, and I’m still searching for the same feeling.

Day 7, White Lake to Carolina Beach

I was sorry to leave White Lake. It was a beautiful morning, with the kind of sunrise that makes you want to stop what you’re doing and stare. So I did stare and dawdle, a little, before mounting up for the last day. After I said goodbye to the woman from Lumberton (see introduction), I went back to my bike and found myself feeling grateful to it. Whenever one develops emotions toward an inanimate object, it’s a sure sign that something important is going on.  Perhaps unhealthy, too.  I was half sorry to be finishing the ride, and half eager to get it over with and re-join my world.

The route took us back into pine forests, with houses, churches, old cemeteries, and barns occasionally hidden into the trees.  As the flat miles rolled on and the mist turned to heat, the “get it over with” half of me started to take command.  There was still a lot of history in the woods, but there wasn’t much to see.

We pulled into the first rest stop at Potter’s Store, a rural gas-and-grocery with a large candy aisle that had several regional specialties.   I bought a handful of Squirrel Nut Zippers, which are caramels made in Boston that for some reason are almost impossible to find north of the Mason-Dixon Line, as well as two Chick-O-Stix, which are made in Lufkin, Texas and taste like the inside of a Butterfingers bar.  It was funny and touching to see several cyclists seated at a communal table with guys in gimme caps and overalls, all of them drinking coffee and shooting the breeze.  They were all men of about the same age – only the clothes were different.

The second rest stop was at the site of a glorious massacre.  On February 26, 1776, a group of British loyalists attempted to cross a log bridge over Moores Creek.  They were pursuing a group of Patriots, but in reality they were all local people with single-loader rifles.  The ships carrying British regulars hadn’t arrived yet.  The Patriots booby-trapped the bridge by greasing it and hid on the far side. When the Loyalists finally got across, bruised and dripping icy water, the Patriots mowed them down. This discouraged the British army so much that they decided not to invade North Carolina at all, allowing Tarheel soldiers to head north and join the Continental Army.  Now it’s a National Battlefield, complete with historical re-enactors.  Boom!

I decided to use the Moores Creek stop to find out more about a rider I had been noticing for several days now. James Peiffer lives in Newark, Ohio, a small town about 50 miles east of Columbus.  He packed his bike in a box and flew into Raleigh to get to the shuttle bus, but unlike the other riders, he spent the night in the airport.  James wore the same outfit every day:  a long-sleeved button down shirt with a collar, bell-bottom jeans, and heavy black street shoes. The front wheel of his ten-speed bike was egg-shaped, and it made a thwocking sound when he rode.  He didn’t talk, ever, to anybody.  He barely talked to me, but he did allow me to photograph him and his bike.  Later I called him to learn more.

James is 65 and works as a custodian.  He has ridden the length or width of 20 states, usually with organized rides, and he says he particularly liked Minnesota because of the mix of farms, forests, and lakes.  James fortified his rear rack with wood to hold panniers, which he didn’t need this time because of the luggage truck.  He carried a tarp on the rear rack because he didn’t have room for it in the black cardboard box he used for his tent and luggage.  He had built a front rack out of lumber and had hung a fanny pack from it, and he completed his kit with two very used-looking water bottles.

Before I called James, I thought he was either mentally ill or the Buddha.  Now I think he is just an ordinary guy, and also perhaps the coolest person I met on the ride.  He doesn’t have a lot of money, and his severe stutter keeps him from making small talk, but this is a guy who clearly rides for love.  The warped wheel, the 15-pound racks, the dollar store clothes — so what?  He’s out there.  He turned 65 in June.  Long may you ride, James!

The last half of the ride was hot and boring, but not in a good way.  We got back on US 74 and rode eight miles into Wilmington, as the city traffic increased, and by the time we turned to go into the city, I was in full urban riding mode.  We crossed a huge bridge over the Cape Fear River, high enough to let cargo ships under it, and plopped into a third rest stop on the edge of downtown.  There I met up with Jenny Hilton and Alan Walshe, and the three of us rode through their home town.

Alan and Jenny were both going to pass by their houses on the way to the finish line.  Neither of them said they would stop, but I teased them about whether or not they were curious about their bathrooms, kitchens, beds, and cats.   We rode through Wilmington’s historic district and it was much nicer than I had expected – kind of like New Orleans, Charleston, or Savannah, but smaller and more manageable.  Alan peeled off to ride two blocks over and shout at his roommate.  He came back grinning.  “I’m riding for the ice cream,” he said, and Jenny agreed.

The last stretch of the trip went along Greenfield Lake, a long urban parkway, and then past the Cameron Art Museum and onto River Road. We rode for miles along the river, miles and miles.  The final rest stop featured Nye’s Ice Cream Sandwiches, an excellent local product, but it wasn’t enough to get my mind off of the imminent end of this long march.  We rode down the river until it became a peninsula called Carolina Beach, and then, all at once, it was over.  Here was the beach, and here was another party with loud music and exhausted people staring blankly while stuffing themselves.  I looked for someone from Cycle North Carolina to thank, but I couldn’t find anyone.  So I found Jim, threw my bike in his car, and headed for a real shower and a real bed.

I would leave again tomorrow, if I could.  Riding mile after mile, with my preoccupations temporarily disabled, I get to enjoy long periods of what a Buddhist would call mindfulness, or an attentive awareness of reality.  Mindfulness becomes power when it is coupled with a clear comprehension of whatever is taking place.  Because it is a form of meditation, bicycle touring allows me to cultivate a calm awareness of feelings, sensations, thoughts, and consciousness itself.  When you are within this calmness, it is easier to find wisdom.

Writing this blog has been another pleasure, because for me, the joy of riding fuels the joy of writing. I hope you have enjoyed it, too.

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bradedmondson

Writing about social change and how it happens.

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