Thursday, October 23, 2008

Martin, Tennessee

Friends: As Waydell and I had breakfast this morning in one of the four remaining restaurants in Cairo, Illinois, three different guys with pick-up trucks offered to drive us over the long, narrow, treacherous bridge spanning the Ohio River from Illinois to Kentucky just before its confluence with the Mississippi. We declined them all, though we did accept the card of the diner's owner, who said we could give him a call on Waydell's cell phone when we got to the bridge if we had second thoughts. While I went out to my bike to retrieve a water bottle, one of the men with a pick-up reiterated his offer to Waydell and added, "If your husband didn't want to accept a ride because he thought I was going to charge you, I wasn't. I'd gladly do it for free." Waydell told him that wasn't it at all.

I've heard exaggerated horrors of wretched roads and horrible traffic and unclimbable hills and rebels and other dangers up the road for years. So rarely have they lived up to their reputations that I give them little heed. Such was the case with East St. Louis and Cairo too. Cairo was littered with boarded-up homes and businesses, but it presented no threat to us whatsoever as we biked down its main four-lane wide, lightly-trafficked, thoroughfare this morning past its stately library built in 1883 and a several story courthouse and century-old mansions. When we passed a motel I told Waydell that if she were desperate for a shower, she could return to the motel after breakfast and hang out waiting for someone to check out who might leave the door to their room ajar. She could quickly slip in, grab a quick shower, and be gone before anyone knew, as I've done on occasion. "I don't think I'm going to be doing that," she replied, without giving it even a moment's thought.

Cairo was clearly a city in decline, but also formerly a city that had once thrived. In 1886 Cairo had the highest per capita valuation of commercial property in the U.S. thanks to the millions of dollars of goods that passed through down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the two largest rivers in the U.S. There was a neighborhood of mansions known as Millionaire's Row and an opera house and casinos. It was one of the most lively cities in the country away from the eastern seaboard.

We mentioned to a couple of people in the diner that for miles everyone who knew where we were headed warned us that Cairo was a dangerous place. An older woman turned to a guy and said, "See I told you that was our reputation. It's hogwash. When I go out at night I don't even lock my door. Everybody knows everybody here and there are no worries." The guy was concerned that she didn't lock her door. "It may be okay to do that now," he said, "but with the way things are going, I'd start locking it."

The two of them had been mildly arguing politics. The guy thought Obama would be good for the economy, taxing companies for outsourcing jobs, but the woman didn't agree. The owner said Obama's policies would allow him to hire an extra employee or two. I asked if they attended Obama's appearance when he was in Cairo in 2004 during his senatorial campaign. Obama writes about it in "Audacity for Hope." He too had been warned that he wouldn't receive much of a reception, that he'd be lucky if anyone came out to hear him in this greatly depressed city of 3,200 that had had a population of 10,000 after WWII. The cafe owner said that some 40 people came out to hear him, which was a lot for the town, but that he wasn't one of them, though now he wished he had been.

The offer of a ride over the bridge became a little more attractive when it started to rain as we were eating our breakfast, Waydell an egg sandwich and me a barbecue pork sandwich. This BBQ joint had a minimal breakfast menu and since hotcakes weren't on it, I settled for the house specialty, served all day long. The owner said we were lucky it was raining, as it would cut down on the farm traffic on the road after the bridge. We both have good rain gear, so we just gritted our teeth and dealt with it. It just made Waydell all the happier that tonight was a motel night, as we had camped the night before behind an abandoned house 18 miles north of Cairo. It was a nice flat campsite, more amenable to sleep than our previous campsite in a forest with a bit of a tilt that the all-too-slight Waydell kept sliding down.

There wasn't much traffic on the approach to the bridge, a mile from the cafe. We could see it rising up high over the Ohio. It was definitely very narrow, but as we crossed it the vast majority of its traffic was heading north into Illinois. Only two cars passed us going south, neither at a moment when there was traffic from the opposite direction, making for an uneventful ride. We could spare a glance or two to gaze upon the many barges docked in Cairo to our left and floating past, as we climbed to the peak of the bridge and then descended into Kentucky. It was four miles to Wickliffe. Half a mile out of town a 90-foot white cross stood on a hill overlooking the confluence of the brown-flowing Mississippi and the blue Ohio. The cross was erected in 1999. Fifty-one churches in the area raised $314,000 to fund it. Bright lights illuminate it at night for the river and road traffic.

The forecast was for rain all day. It was not wrong. The rain alternated from a drizzle to a heavy mist, but never slackened enough for motorists to use their intermittent windshield wipers. The zipper on Waydell's rain coat broke yesterday, so she had only snaps to hold it together, making it a little less than waterproof. Her T-shirt was damp from mid-chest to her waist when we stopped for lunch, but she had no complaints. Evidently we didn't look too bedraggled, as one of the three waitresses on duty, who were all sitting at a nearby table, eating their lunch after the restaurant had emptied, turned to us and said, "We've been saying we all envy you for what you are doing."

"Even in this weather?" I exclaimed.

"We certainly do. It must be a fun riding your bikes and seeing the country," she said.

"Yes, you're right about that," I agreed.

We've heard this refrain before. A retired guy in Huntington, TN, who had worked in maintenance for Northwestern Hospital in Chicago for years, told us, "I wish I could join you. All the years I worked in Chicago, I always wanted to ride my bicycle from Chicago back to Huntington." He and his wife stopped to talk to us as we sat on a bench outside the town's central plaza eating peanut butter on graham crackers. Across the street was the Dixie Theater, named for Dixie Carter, actress married to Hal Holbrook. The two will be in town next month for a Mark Twain reading. The wife told us she used to work for Dixie's father 50 years ago at his general store in Huntington. She earned 50 cents an hour.

Waydell has a new best friend--her small chain ring. She had never used it in the two years since she had purchased her touring bike until day two of this trip as we were climbing up a long, steep hill from the Mississippi River in Chester, home of Popeye. She has always simply powered up the climbs. She had no idea how much easier it is on the legs to be in that small chain ring, once derisively known as "the granny gear." It was a rarity on bikes when I began touring 30 years ago. My first two long trips, coast-to-coast across the U.S. in 1977 and Chicago to Anchorage up the Alaska Highway four years later, were on bikes unequipped with a triple, and my knees suffered for it. When I asked Waydell what she thought of her until now neglected small chain ring, she said, "I'm liking it."

Waydell is an arch-stoic and endures strain and hardship exceptionally well, as any hardcore cyclist must, not letting wind or cold or rough roads crack her calm or set her off complaining. My greatest concern in traveling with her is that she might push herself beyond the point of her endurance. I've repeatedly reminded her, "Don't be hesitant to ask to slow down or to stop for a rest. I don't want this to turn into a death march."

"It better not," she said, "I'd hate to have to sic my father or brother on you."

I've met her father, a retired accountant, and though he's very protective of his only daughter, he didn't seem the type to do anyone any harm. I don't know him well, but he seems to be a kindly, affable gent. But he did spend his entire working life in the employ of Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, PA, so he could well have some burly steel worker friends who could make anyone shudder. I've yet to meet her younger brother. He's a 17-year veteran of the Army and has served a couple of tours of duty in Iraq. Fortunately, for he and his family, and me as well, he's presently stationed in Germany. I doubt he is anything other than a decent guy, but he could well know some rough hombres who might not take kindly to someone making life difficult for his sister.

I've inflicted some harsh cycling on Waydell over the years, including a 35-mile ride in single digit temperatures when we were caught in a blizzard biking out to a distant theater to see a Bollywood film, another of Waydell's passions, yet she keeps coming back for more. Waydell has proved her toughness time and again, so I feel relatively safe in taking her off on a long tour, despite the untold number of hardships that are possible. I am just ever mindful that I promised her a shower at least every other night. She completed 57 miles in 50-degree rain today without a whimper, making for a 75-mile day, accomplishment enough for her to end our day with a smile. Her biggest smile, though, came when I fetched her a hot chocolate from a gas station mini-market across the street from our motel just before she took her shower.

We had a lot of wet gear to dry out, including our shoes. Waydell had been using a hair drier to dry them when I returned from the library. I asked her if she knew the newspaper trick, stuffing crumpled newspaper into wet shoes to suck the moisture out. She knew about using newspaper to wash windows, but not to dry shoes. She thought she had her shoes fairly dry, but I could tell there was plenty of moisture left. "You won't believe this," I said. "In five minutes the newspaper will be saturated. This is more impressive than any card or disappearing trick and useful too." And five minutes later, "voila," I had impressed her again. We had enough newspaper for a second go, and it too emerged damp a while later. She can hardly wait for her first soaking back in Chicago to perform the trick herself.

Later, George

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