Thursday, July 13, 2006
Mount Vernon to Wooster, Ohio
44 miles – 4 hours 40 minutes
(Three years ago I came up with this idea that it would be fun to ride my bike from my home to my parent’s home in Skaneateles, New York. Later I wrote a story about that adventure which I hoped to have published. I haven’t been able to find a publisher for the story so I decided to share it with the world through my blog. This is the second of nine installments.)
I drive to Hyde Park and pick up my son, Stephen. He has agreed to drive me and my bike on to Midway Airport and then take the car back home. He’s the one who suggested I ride with a backpack, like he always does. I turn and look at him as we near the airport. He’s a gymnast. Shorter than I am, but he has much stronger arms and back. I’m having second thoughts about riding with a pack. We pull up to the curb and drag the boxed bike out of the trunk. Stephen helps me on with the backpack.
“Hey, this thing is heavy, Dad. How far you going to ride today?” he asks. Then he laughs and hands me my shoebox of bike gear.
It’s a good thing I’m ninety minutes early because the check-in line at Southwest is a mile long, which is short compared to the security screening line, where ten streams of passengers converge on three stations. I finally make it to the x-ray machine, but there must be something interesting in the shoebox because they run it through again.
A woman with a Marge Simpson hairstyle is staring at the screen. She calls for her supervisor. He looks like Elvis might have looked if he had kept getting bigger and his sideburns had turned white and he had needed glasses. He takes off his glasses and squints at the screen. He shakes his head. It’s not an up and down shake. Elvis sends me to another station so a different agent can inspect the contents of the bag.
William is a young black man, about twenty-five. He’s smiling, as though he enjoys his work. He asks me how I’m doing. I tell him I’m okay. He pulls out the pedal wrench.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“A pedal wrench. I need it to reassemble my bike.”
He shakes his head just like Elvis. Maybe they train them on headshaking. “It’s too big. Eight inches. Can’t carry on anything longer than seven inches.”
I tell him how I’ve had to disassemble my bike and how Southwest specifically said I had to take the pedals off. I explain that you can’t put pedals on without a pedal wrench. He nods his head up and down. He understands.
“Goin to have to check it,” he says.
I look back at the five thousand people behind me in the line. “You mean I have to go through this whole thing again?”
“Yep. Have a nice day.”
By the time I finally make it through security the plane is ready for boarding.
John is waiting for me at the Columbus airport. We load his car and drive towards Mt. Vernon, about forty miles northeast of Columbus. Ten minutes after we leave the airport it begins to rain. Hard. My careful planning does not include bad weather. We stop for lunch in a Mexican restaurant in Mt. Vernon and I change to my bike shorts in the restroom.
When we walk outside, the sun is shining. It seems very warm. And humid. I unbox the bike and we reassemble it. The bike shop forgot to pack my water bottle, but I figure I will buy some water on the way. It’s only forty miles to Wooster.
John helps me on with my pack. “Hey this thing is heavy,” he says.
I catch my cleat on the bike frame when I try to mount. It’s harder with the pack on my back. I get on the bike and wobble around the parking lot, getting use to the feel of riding with a pack.
“It’s not too late to come back to Columbus with me,” John says encouragingly. He’s joking, I think.
I make it out of town and immediately encounter something I didn’t have to deal with in Chicago. Hills. The warm sun now seems very hot and the pack is pressing down on my back. I figure it must weigh at least twenty pounds. Maybe twenty-five. I am thirsty. I wish I’d taken John’s suggestion to buy water before I left Mt. Vernon.
I spot a roadside tavern at the top of a hill. They have a drive-through window. I pull up and ask them if they have water. The bartender says yes, and suggests I come inside out of the heat and have a drink. I’ve been on the road for an hour and now I am sitting at a bar. But I just drink water, because I’m not that stupid.
There are three other guys in the bar. They look like workmen finished with their day’s work. A guy in a tee-shirt and overalls asks me where I am headed.
“Wooster” I say.
“Wooster?” he says. His forehead wrinkles and his eyes roll back in his head like one of my daughter’s old dolls. He’s trying to remember if he has ever been to Wooster. As though it’s some faraway land.
“You know the bridge is out just before Loudonville,” says his drinking buddy in the camouflage hat.
“Uh, no I didn’t know that,” I say.
“Yeah them folks got hit pretty bad. Lots of damage. Road’s closed,” says their baldheaded friend.
This is not a good development. I have road maps of Pennsylvania and New York. I have no map of Ohio. Only my Mapquest printouts, which don’t help me if the road is closed.
“I think a bike can get through,” says the bartender.
“Yeah I think so,” says the first guy.
The others think about it and then they all agree - a bike can get through. I thank them and finish the bottle of water. I save the other bottle.
Eighteen miles later I pull up to the bridge. The road is indeed closed – to cars. But I walk my bike through the barricade and across the bridge, which is missing a big section where the flood-swollen river had washed it away a few weeks earlier. I stop for a break. A highway construction foremen pulls up in his pickup.
“Where ya going?” he asks.
I tell him Wooster, and he nods. He’s heard of it.
“I got a brother-in-law that rides for some club. Out in Colorado. They do two hundred miles a day. You ever done that?”
“This is my first trip,” I say. I decide I won’t mention that other trip thirty years ago, when I did two hundred miles in a week.
He shakes his head. “Good luck,” he says. “Watch out for trucks.”
The hills flatten out as I get closer to Wooster, but the pack is killing me. Even when I have a shady downhill stretch there’s no relief. It seems to get heavier with every mile. And it’s hot. I’m out of water again. I stop at a farmhouse about six miles from Wooster. I’m exhausted, hot and very thirsty. There’s no one home at the farmhouse. As I’m packing up, a car pulls into the driveway. I ask for water and the woman tells me to help myself to the outside spigot. While I’m filling the bottles a small brown dachshund runs at me, yapping. My first dog.
I discover a problem with Mapquest. I can’t balance the pack, flip through a multi-page document and still keep the bike on the road. Mapquest goes into overdrive when I get to Wooster. There seems to be a new direction every hundred yards as I wind through residential streets towards the Wooster Hilton Garden Inn. The final instruction is to turn right on to Madison Avenue for eight tenths of a mile.
The last leg of a long ride should be downhill, I think. This one is not. The Garden Inn is at the top of the hill. A steep hill. I am dying. The hot sun is beating on my back, the pack is pressing down - it must weigh thirty pounds. I shift to the lowest gear and my bike odometer reads four miles per hour. Most people can walk faster than that – but not with a fifty pound pack on their back. Finally I make it to the summit and coast into the parking lot.
I lock my bike and stumble into the lobby. Six P.M. and the desk clerk is talking to someone on the phone. He’s saying goodbye, telling whoever he is talking to that he has a customer. He takes a long time to say goodbye. They have cookies on the counter for their guests when they check-in. I eat three of them while I’m waiting for him to say goodbye. I’m sweating on his counter. And on the cookies.
I finally register and then walk my bike down the hall to my room. I strip off my clothes, which I’ll be wearing for the next week, and take a shower. I collapse on the bed.
I wake up. It’s eight P.M. I don’t want to move. Ever. But I’m hungry. The hotel restaurant closes in thirty minutes. I walk to the dining room and grab the last two cookies on my way past.
After a delicious overcooked cheeseburger and two beers, I return to my room and turn on the television. They have HBO. Cinderella Man with Russell Crowe is on. I’ve seen it, but I love those stories where the good guy wins - the struggle to overcome.
The movie is over. Jim Braddock has again knocked out the cocky, intimidating Max Baer. I set the alarm for five A.M. I look at the backpack on the floor. I think about leaving all my extra clothes - abandoning the pack. But that’s like Jim Braddock refusing to fight Max Baer. I can beat this backpack. There has to be a way to fasten it to the shoebox bracket. I fantasize about how great it would be to not have that weight on my back. I vow to come up with a plan. Tomorrow.