Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Friends: One of the bonuses of staying in a hotel is the weather channel. Saturday night in Florence we learned a switch in the weather was due Monday with a strong wind from the northwest bringing colder temperatures. The cold didn't much matter to us, but we were thrilled to learn about the direction of the wind. We were headed south and that wind might be just what we needed for Waydell's century.

We intended to make Sunday a semi-rest day. Our plan was to leisurely explore Florence a bit before heading south to the Helen Keller House and Shrine in nearby Tuscumbia, only open from one to four on Sundays. We were due for a rest after six straight days spent largely on the bike, something Waydell had never experienced. Though she spends her work-week sitting in an office, her twelve-mile daily commute and long weekend rides had so far adequately conditioned her for this ride. Her only complaint has been some soreness in her glutes and the mystery bruises that have splotched her legs. Popping a Tylenol along with her morning vitamin pill has kept her going.

We didn't sleep as late as we might have Sunday morning, as our next door neighbors were up before seven loading their van for the weekend Renaissance Fair in the park in front of the library. But we probably got a better night's sleep than if we had stayed at the first hotel we tried in downtown Florence. It offered weekly rates and had the seedy look of a place that might attract some late night altercations. A couple of semi-homeless looking guys had a small barbecue going by the stairs we had to haul our bikes and gear up. We tried three different rooms before asking for our money back. The first reeked of tobacco, the second the faucets in the sink didn't work and the third the TV didn't work. A janitor, who had failed to get the sink to work, tried to connect a second TV. When that failed, we said enough. Henceforth, we'll try to stay at hotels recommended by Triple A.

We began our Sunday morning wandering about Florence in search of a grocery store. We were told the only one in the area was at the Wal-Mart. It was two miles up the road from our hotel. We missed it and had to ask directions. It was a bit obscured up on a hill. But once we were pointed in the right direction, all we had to do was follow the traffic, as that is where everyone was headed on a Sunday morning before church. People just get friendlier and friendlier the further south we go. We couldn't even walk the aisles of the Wal-Mart without someone asking about our trip.

From the Wal-Mart we headed two miles north to the Wilson Dam, built from 1918 to 1924. It is 137 feet high and nearly a mile long blocking the Tennessee River. It creates more electricity than any other dam under the Tennessee Valley Authority. Nearby is a huge Marriot and the 30-story Renaissance Tower, the highest building in Florence. A park overlooking the dam includes the Florence Walk of Honor recognizing noteworthy locals. There were several generals, the chief engineer of the Panama Canal, a Pulitzer Winner (Thomas Stribling) and Sam Phillips, "Father of Rock and Roll," founder of Sun Records and discoverer of Elvis Presley. If this were France, Jonathon Rosenbaum would have been amongst them.

Biking around the neighborhoods we saw many "I heart Sarah" signs, but not a one for Obama. The lone mention of Obama was a "Pray for Obama for President" bumper sticker on a painter's van driven by an African American. No dogs bothered us in town, though many have given us chase out in rural areas. Waydell was happy to discover that so far they have all focused on the person in the lead, which is usually me, rather than trying to pick off the one behind. But that doesn't prevent her from speeding up, sometimes coming up alongside me, letting me provide further interference. The dogs to worry about are those that don't bark, concentrating all their efforts on catching us. Once when Waydell was in the lead and she saw such a dog come a chasing she muttered, "Oh God," before going into sprint mode. They certainly enliven our day, as we do theirs, but aren't really anything to be much concerned about.

It was homecoming weekend for the local university, but the campus was very quiet. The only activity was a trickle of people visiting the school's mascots--a pair of lions. They reside in a large fenced-in enclosure with a waterfall and a pool and a handful of toys. They were slumbering this morning, perhaps exhausted from being hauled over to the football stadium for the previous day's game. They are only on display during the daylight hours, then are sequestered in their night-time dens. There were several different brochures describing them and answering the most asked questions, some a bit contrived. One of the questions was, "What is the color of their eyes at birth?" The answer--"They are born with blue eyes. They eventually turn green, then amber."

We arrived at the vast grounds of where Helen Keller was born and grew up just as a bus load of 50 Canadians from Saskatoon on a 30-day tour of the US was arriving. We were able to join their tour after we paid the five dollar admission. We were given green stickers with a water pump verifying we had paid. The water pump is significant, as it was at the water pump on the property that Helen learned her first word--"water." She was born in 1880 and suffered an illness 19 months later that left her blind and mute. She had an IQ of 160 and an equally extraordinary will to learn. One of her axioms was, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." She was the first deaf and blind person to graduate from college (Radcliffe) in 1905. It was 50 years before the next. She wrote books and was a strong advocate for the deaf and blind. She was friends of ten presidents and countless noteworthy figures. She died in 1968.

Wydell and I with our green stickers on the grounds of Helen Keller's childhood home.

The milk shakes of the Palace Ice Cream Parlor, just a few blocks from Helen Keller's home, are on the list of "100 Things to Eat in Alabama Before You Die." That was a must for Waydell. But it is no longer open on Sunday. The hours for Sunday in the window had recently been whited out. Its not the first business we've encountered that has cut back on its hours. While we sat outside on a bench munching energy bars, a father and his small daughter strolled up looking forward to an ice cream cone and a banana split. They were locals and were as disappointed as we were that the Palace was closed.

The father was wearing a T-shirt that read "Bama is Back." "Is that a new T-shirt," I asked, knowing that Alabama is having its best season in several years, and is currently ranked number 2 in the nation. "No this is an Auburn shirt from a few years ago," he said, "Referring to how badly Alabama had been doing." The Alabama-Auburn rivalry greatly divides the state. An easy way to start a conversation is to ask someone who they root for. We talked for about 15 minutes. He told us there was a Sunday night fireworks display in the park. This was a camping night, so we had no time for that. He gave us directions out of town on back roads towards the small town of Crooked Oak, warning us of a hill just before a fork in the road. Waydell is experienced enough now to laugh at the hill when we came to it, as it hardly compared to many we had already climbed.

We biked for about an hour until dark, finally encountering a hill that forced Waydell off her bike, but only because she waited until it was too late to get into her lowest gear. That's not likely to happen again. We camped in a thick forest of oaks. All night long acorns plopped around us until about two a.m. when a northerly wind came blasting through shaking the trees and bombarding us with acorns. It continued for about an hour. When the wind slackened, all the acorns had fallen and we had no more interruptions. The cold north wind plunged the temperature from the low 60s to the low 40s.

The 200 feet from our campsite to the road was the most treacherous stretch we had encountered in our entire trip, pushing our bikes through low-lying strands of thorns. I hadn't initially seen them when I plunged into the forest before a motorist came along. They had lacerated my calves before I realized how thick they. Waydell was much more careful, though she did scratch herself as well during the night getting up to relieve herself.

It was another tights day, so our legs didn't have a chance to attract anybody's suspicions that we might be escapees or refugees of some sort. A little after we passed the tiny town of Crooked Oak and were approaching the larger town of Russellville, a town that people had been telling us had been taken over by Hispanics, a 20-year old in a Corvette pulled up alongside us and shouted through the open passenger window that he'd like to have a word with us. He had seen us pass as we was having breakfast and chased after us. He said he and his dad did a little touring and wondered what we were doing passing through their small town. That is a question we've been asked before. His dad had ridden the 444-mile Natchez Trace trail from Nashville, Tenn. to Natchez, Miss. with his wife as a support vehicle. He, as many others, highly recommended it. Since it passes through Jackson, Mississippi, where we'll catch the train back to Chicago, we'll ride at least a little of it. The young man said he hadn't ridden his bike in several months. He biked to school once and everybody made fun of him for it, so he hasn't since. We were looking for a place for breakfast. He knew of only one possible place, Dot's, other than several fast food franchises. When it wasn't on our way, we had to settle for Jack's, crammed with people having sausage and biscuits.

We had biked 12 miles when we stopped for breakfast. We hoped we were within 90 miles of Tuscaloosa, our intended destination for the night, but a closer look at our map showed it was 105 miles away. That was going to make for an extra challenging century, unless the tail winds were direct and exceptional, and the terrain not too hilly. We were due for a motel, so we had to push all the way to Tuscaloosa, a good incentive for Waydell. We had 11 hours of light. If we could average 14 miles per hour, we'd spend 8 hours pedaling.

We had a long climb, what the locals call "the mountain," out of Russellville. The terrain leveled off as we followed a train track. Waydell commented that she could now appreciate the flat riding around Chicago. One of the biggest surprises of the trip for her is how smooth the country roads have been, in contrast to the rough, bumpy, pot-holed roads of Chicago. We were able to fly at 20 miles per hour for a couple miles before coming up against another series of hills dropping our average speed to less than 13.5 miles per hour. For the next 60 miles we'd inch our average speed back to 14 miles and then be set back. This wasn't going to be as easy as we hoped it might have been.

We stopped at a one-person rural grocery store at noon that had no milk or juice, just a lot of cardboard box bins of items at extremely reduced prices, some boxes with all items priced at a quarter or a dime. We picked up a handful of 220 calorie energy bars for a dime and a grapefruit energy drink for 49 cents. A car out front had a bumper sticker, "No Obama-Nation" with a photo of Obama and a slash through it. I asked if they had any for sale. "I wish I did. I can't keep them in stock," I was told. The woman ahead of us in the check out line asked the cashier, "Did you hear Junior got saved? He doesn't watch TV or movies no more. All he wants to do is read the Bible." "You got a good Christian family," the cashier replied. "Maybe he'll become a preacher."

We had come 50 miles. We thought we'd take our next break 30 miles later. A few miles before, we came to a service station. Waydell suggested we take advantage of its bathroom. In the hallway leading to the bathroom was a large portrait of General Lee. Underneath was the caption, "If I had foreseen what would happen, I never would have surrendered at Appomattox. I would have fought to the death." Among the many Dixie bumper stickers on sale was, "American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God."

I had been leading out Waydell since breakfast and we were both doing fine. When we saw a 32 miles to go sign to Tuscaloosa at four o'clock after we had come 80 miles we felt confident we were going to make it. As we neared our 100 mile marker, I peeled off and let Waydell break the barrier. She raised a fist and gave a "whoopee," but didn't care to stop for a photo. It was another 12 miles before we found the Best Western we had been looking for. There wasn't a worthy nearby restaurant to celebrate at and it was best for Waydell just to lay back. I went in search of pizza. It was another momentous day on the bikes.

Later, George

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