Thursday, November 1, 2007

Paris, Kentucky

Friends: I've wild-camped in some precarious and perilous spots over the years--on the fringe of a tiger preserve in India, downriver from a dam in New Zealand after a 5.9 earthquake as the region was being evacuated in fears the dam might break, at the top of a run-away truck ramp on the California coast, in the Botanical Gardens of Melbourne, at the trail head just off the road in the rebel territory of Laos, anywhere in Colombia, on a military firing range in France--but, some would say, none was more foolhardy than where I camped last night, in a Kentucky small town cemetery on Halloween.

I've camped in cemeteries before and was unscathed by the experience, but never on the night of the spooks and goblins. I didn't intend to cemetery-camp on Halloween, but I was down to my last few minutes of light, and the road the last couple of miles had been lined with small farmsteads, fenced and with dogs on the prowl. I was closing in on the town of Irvine, less than four miles away. But I had not a worry, just a heightened sense of expectation of what hallowed piece of turf awaited me that I could call my own for this night.

I knew something would turn up, as it always has, hundreds, no thousands of times, over the years. Half an hour before I was passing through Boone National Forest with deluxe wild-camping left and right, when I began an unanticipated two-mile, 20-minute climb. It was imperative I complete the climb, and especially the descent, before dark, as making that descent in the morning's 30-degree temperatures would have left my fingers and toes brittle enough from the semi-arctic 30 mile per hour wind-chill to break off. The climb had come as a surprise, as now that I was more than 100 miles beyond the mountains of Appalachia the terrain had been merely rolling and mostly flat on roads that lazily meandered along rivers and train lines. The cycling was so superlative and I was gobbling up the miles so effortlessly, I was spending more time pedaling than I had intended, and by the time I came to the cemetery I'd amassed an unexpected 100 miles for the day, my most in the 1,500 miles I've come since leaving Chicago three weeks ago.

I was in no rush to be anywhere, though if I wanted I could set my eyes on making it to Indianapolis by Sunday in time for the "Game of the Millennium" between the Patriots and the Colts. But I just wanted to take my time and enjoy the rural beauty and tranquility and linger a little longer at the cafes and libraries I sought for warmth, and to eavesdrop on the locals and read Paul Theroux's excellent travel book "Pillars of Hercules" about an 18-month journey around the perimeter of the Mediterranean from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Middle East and across the top of Africa to Morocco. He was enjoying it and was much less grouchy than he can be. It stirred many fond travel memories of my own, doubling my present travel pleasures by being in two places at once, here in Kentucky and over there. Each evening I was looking forward to reading more in my tent, but not so much as to quit riding early when the riding was as good as it was this day of Halloween.

When I came upon the cemetery I unhesitatingly seized upon it for my evening's campsite. It was a classic--unfenced, up a hill, with a few scattered trees amongst the graves. Back in a corner was a nice level spot beside a hefty tree that would partially shield my tent and provide a lean-to for my bike. There was a house across the street and another beside the cemetery below me surrounded by trees. I was fairly well-secluded, but I was slightly concerned about lighting my candle, as it gave a soft glow to my tent. If I didn't need the warmth it provided I would have stuck with my headlamp for my sole illumination.

As I began my dinner of sardine sandwiches and a can of baked beans, a dog below began barking, letting me know that he knew I was there, but not so frantically as to arouse the curiosity or concern of its owners. Still, I wished he'd desist, lest he betray my presence. When I called it a night a couple hours after dark, I knew there was the possibility the cemetery might attract some Halloween pranksters, but it didn't prevent me from promptly drifting off to sleep. If anyone came around, ethereal or otherwise, I wasn't aware of it. It was another great campsite after another great day on the bike. And I was happy, as always, to awake to my tires still fully inflated.

Kentucky has been treating me well since I crossed into it at the summit of Black Mountain, the highest point in the state at 3,500 feet. I reached it after a seven-mile climb up a road known as The Lonely Pine Trail. It could have been just The Lonely Trail, as I had it mostly to my self. It linked former coal mining towns that were now more dead than alive with the passing of the industry in this region. Not even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in one of the small towns was attracting any one. But it made for fine cycling, especially the gradual descent after the initial steep plunge of several miles through a narrow valley past countless uninhabited two-story wooden houses that at one time were most respectable.

Kentucky has abounded with refreshing and heartening small towns allowed to be themselves, unmarred by cloned tract-house developments or gated communities on their fringes or glaring eye-sores of someone's dream house. There is no evidence of wealthy city-dwellers building quaint refuges from the urban jungle for themselves, so common in Wisconsin and Michigan and out west near ski resorts and quaint western towns. Not too many of the towns have libraries, but I still manage to come upon one or two a day. Several have offered their discards free for the taking. I picked up Studs Turkel's memoirs written thirty years ago and a book about athletes who overcame more than the usual adversity to achieve great success. It was written before the Lance story. Riding and reading, two pleasurable pastimes.

Later, George

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