Thursday, November 17, 2011

Farmington, Missouri

Friends: For four days I enjoyed relatively flat terrain as I skirted the southern fringe of the Ozarks in Arkansas, but after I crossed back into Missouri south of Poplar Bluff, the hills began again. I ventured off onto county roads identified by letters rather than numbers that took me through towns that were nothing more than a small church.

For more than fifty miles of steep ups and downs from Lake Wappapello to Marquand I had the roads nearly to myself without a general store or cafe for fuel or warmth in the sudden wintry temperatures. I was down to one bottle of water. I began stopping at churches in search of a water spigot without success. I knew if need be I could stop at one of the occasional homesteads, but before that was necessary I came upon a campground on the outskirts of Cascade, the only cluster of homes to qualify as a town along the way, though without any stores that weren't boarded up. The campground only had an outhouse and no showers, but there was a water tap.

I knew if I were truly desperate I could have dared to drink from any of the many streams I crossed, all with low-lying bridges and signs warning "Impassable In High Water." Each had a measuring rod sticking up going to three feet. This was truly the back country. The temperature was only in the 40s, so I had to keep moving to stay warm, just taking a couple short breaks to eat and rest the legs leaning against the south facing wall of a church to shield me from the stiff north wind that had cooled the temperatures dramatically. Just two days before it had been in the eighties. It was a most strenuous day, but I managed seventy-five miles with all the time on the bike. How strenuous it had been was confirmed when I settled down to sleep and I could feel a still accelerated heart beat as my body continued to recover.

Though this had been a sunny clear day, the shift in weather had brought rain a couple days before. The guy who told me I was in for a rainy night in Walnut Ridge was absolutely correct. Even before I had set up camp, thunder and lightning were menacing the near black sky. I had to leave the road I was riding flanked by farmers' fields in the flats of Arkansas to detour down a side road that turned to dirt to reach the nearest forest. I found some high ground, so if the rain was as severe as the sky was intimidating it would be, I needn't fear flooding. My biggest concern was the dirt road turning into a muddy quagmire the next morning. I considered turning back when the road turned to dirt, but there hadn't been any place to pitch my tent where I was confident of the drainage or that was secluded enough, plus it was too near dark to go back to the main road in hopes of finding better camping along it.

It rained all night and didn't let up with the morning's light. My tent dripped a bit slightly dampening my sleeping bag, but not significantly. I slept to eight hoping the rain would abate, but ended up breaking camp in a light drizzle. Seeing the dirt road in the morning light, I was relieved to discover it was more gravel than dirt and only had patches of standing water. It was rideable. Best of all, no dirt or mud clung to my tires and clogged my fenders and brakes, as I have experienced all too many times on rough roads in isolated quarters around the world. Once in Bolivia the mud was so adhesive I had to remove my fenders, but was still unable to push my bike through the mud, forcing me to carry it.

It was a couple hours before the rain let up. The sky remained thickly clouded though, threatening more rain at any moment. I had been hoping to stumble upon a laundromat to dry out my sleeping bag and tent, but had no such luck. I did unroll my tent late in the day, drying it a bit, but without any sunshine, just a slight breeze, it was hardly worth the effort.

I was slightly nervous about attempting to camp that night with wet gear in the very soggy countryside. The furrows of the fields along the road were all filled with water, looking as if they were rice paddies. It would be a challenge to find unsaturated turf, but I was gaining on more forested terrain that promised better drainage.

I feared that I might be forced into a hotel, something I always dread. I consider it a defeat, an admission that I'm not tough enough to endure a little discomfort or risk, as bitter a pill to swallow as accepting a ride from a car. Resorting to a hotel is like buying one's way out of trouble--maybe not an immoral or unethical act, but at the least the easy way out. Far better to solve a problem with ingenuity and fortitude than by throwing money at it.

I passed through the large city of Poplar Bluff just as it was getting dark with motel after motel offering a temptation. But I knew thick woods awaited me and pushed on. The first couple of patches of woods I attempted were too spongy and on lower ground. But before I could get to thicker, higher forests I came upon a small church on a hill surrounded by a lawn. I checked the turf behind the church. It wasn't saturated and hid me from the road.

Not long after I was set up the rain began again, not hard, but steady. It soothed me to sleep. But I awoke at one a.m. with a wet arm. The rain was no longer soaking in and I was in the middle of a small lake. The front of the church had an overhang. Though it was concrete it was dry. I quickly moved all my gear, without once regretting I were in a motel, happy to have spent the night in my tent.

I am now within seventy miles of St. Louis hoping to overnight with friends tomorrow, then visit a Carnegie in Alton across the river and pick up Historic Route 66 back to Chicago.

Later, George

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