I had been on the road two weeks, fourteen long days. I felt every minute of it as I rolled out of Ellington around 4am, in my legs but also in my head. The steepest of the Ozarks were over, but the trip into the heartland of rural America was just beginning. I was almost ¾ of the way done, but there was still so much hard, hot distance to cover. Even though I now knew that I was well ahead of my sub-20-day goal, I was still stuck on that spreadsheet, and considered myself as having 60 miles to make up.
The roads felt spooky that morning. I don’t know whether it was all the pickups in rural Missouri that are keen to gun their engines as they pass, or if it was my emotional state, or the moonless darkness, or something else. Just as it started to get light, a truck idled behind me for far, far longer than it should have, and I had a few moments of fear.
A lot of people ask me about riding the Trans Am, “Weren’t you scared?” I always say no, and I mean it. When they ask, I don’t think they are thinking about car accidents, or constipation, or saddle sores (all things that do scare me). I think that what they have in their minds is some vague, yet still intimidating, idea that going “out there” into the world alone – especially as a female – invites an increased risk of physical harm.
Perceived danger is relative, of course. But my perspective has always been that the Trans Am route is a rural one, and rural America – in general – is a very nice, kind place to be. Of course, wackos can show up anywhere; but simply looking at the odds, the chances that I would be attacked or kidnapped or raped or murdered while in these parts of the country was very, very low.
But there were still moments – like the one that morning in Johnson’s Shut-In State Park, just before Pilot Knob, Missouri – that would leave me uneasy. Being on your bike in a strange location does leave you physically vulnerable, and sometimes you have to reckon with that. In this case, the car stalker eventually came up with another plan, or got bored, or decided I looked far too much like a vagrant to bother.
Coming into Farmington was a change of pace, with traffic and sidewalks and a quaint downtown. Just before getting to town, I heard my name and there was Brian McEntire on the side of the road. I was so happy to see him! I knew Brian lived in Farmington, but hadn’t wanted to get my hopes up that he would be able to come out. Brian is a two-time Trans Am Bike Race vet and we had spent some memorable, philosophical hours together in Idaho and Montana in 2016. Once again, there’s something about this kind of event that accelerates the cement of friendship.
I rolled out of Farmington and into the rolling hills to Chester, Illinois. (Side note: I thought about using quotation marks around the word “rolling,” but I think they probably truly are rolling hills; it was my perception that was the problem.) Every. Single. Little. Hill. Hurt. It felt like it was taking every bit of energy to even turn the pedals around – so much so that it was almost comical. I started playing mind games with myself, just trying to get to the tree at the top of a hill, or reach a stick laying in the road. Then I would think about incremental goals, and wonder how many zillions of incremental goals I would have to set to reach Yorktown in this manner. I remember calling Jimmy and asking him, “Was this part actually hard last year?” I now think he might have heard the desperation in my voice and been lying, but he confirmed that that yes, definitely it was very hard.
I crossed into Chester (home of Popeye!), which also meant crossing the Mississippi River and into Illinois over a big clanking bridge with trucks lined up right behind me and honking and spewing smoke. Once I escaped off that bridge and the trucks flew by, I climbed a giant hill, which seemed to take forever, and then promptly got lost. (Chester is not a big place, by the way.) I ate something that masqueraded as lunch in the convenience store, then wandered the aisles, and then told myself sternly I could not start finding excuses to hang around in the air conditioning.
The afternoon’s riding was a bit tamer. That, or my blood sugar rose, or my mind changed direction, or it got a bit cooler. I rolled through Carbondale, Illinois and took a small detour for a bridge out at the far edge of town. I knew how to navigate this detour based on a Facebook post from Evan a day or so before explaining how, and I remember feeling quite smug about automatically knowing how to do it. I don’t know exactly why I felt so proud. Maybe I thought of it as evidence to myself that, despite my deteriorating state, I was still a human being who could gather and process information – not just an automaton following a line on a Garmin.
Grasping at straws, clearly.
I rolled into Goreville, Illinois at 8:05pm. I had determined to make it to the tiny town of Elizabethtown that night, which was another 50 miles down the road. Sleeping in Elizabethtown would put me just ten miles from the ferry across the Ohio River into Kentucky. I could catch the first ferry at 6am the next morning.
I knew the ride to Elizabethtown through the Shawnee National Forest was do-able that night, and the best option if I was trying to cover ground, but the idea of it was just so depressing. I had been on my bike since 4am, and all I wanted to do was stop. I had sunk into another bad head space since Carbondale and was struggling to get out of it. My mental discourse had turned to berating again: Who was I to think this whole crackpot race was a good idea? What was wrong with me? Of all the things I could be doing with my summer, and I wanted to be out here in the middle of Illinois, hungry and with aching legs? It made no sense! I was, in fact, a hateful, stupid person. The only obvious choice was to quit and go home.
It was truly a pity party on a bike, and I was the only one invited.
I was hungry, and needed food for the rest of the day’s ride. The grocery store in Goreville had closed at 8pm, but I banged on the window with a sad look on my face (I didn’t have to fake it), hoping the two girls inside would take pity. One cracked the door half an inch and put her eye to it, like I was a hardened criminal, and enunciated overly clearly in case I didn’t understand, “Sorry, we are closed.”
Standing on the road dejected, and trying to figure out my next hopeless move, a couple pulled up in a car and called my name. I looked up, surprised. They both jumped out of the car and ran over, excited and with big smiles on their faces. They hugged me. They told me they had been following my dot for the last two years and had driven two hours to cheer me on in person. They were so excited to meet me, they couldn’t believe it! They called me a professional athlete (??) and told me I was an amazing bike rider and asked me to sign their cycling jerseys. They wanted to take pictures with me.
The contrast between my internal sad-sack narrative about myself, and who this couple thought I was, was so stark that I couldn’t help laughing. I used the bike pump they had in their car and thanked them profusely. I don’t think they could have known, nor could I have explained, how fortuitous their appearance was.
As I rode away, I tried to harness that jolt of energy. Yes! Perhaps I was a special person! Maybe I was meant to do the Trans Am Bike Race! Maybe I was a champion!
Then it got dark, and my demon mood returned. How could anyone know how terrible this was? Why did people make movies that made this whole experience look fun and inspiring and heroic and beautiful, anyway? This, this right here – riding on curvy highways in the dark, being battered and dirty and exhausted and just turning my legs over to keep from falling off my bike – was a certifiably BAD idea. And I was the only one responsible for getting myself into it.
I thought Elizabethtown would never come. But it finally did. I had ridden 230 miles that day, and was now only 10 miles from the ferry, and 20 miles behind my plan. Kentucky was next. And, lucky for me at the time, I had no idea how much adventure that state would have to offer.