I was going to leave on my second, better-planned bike trip today, but it’s rainy and the forecast says it won’t be tomorrow. So I have some time to tell you about my first, abortive one.
I finished those saddlebags I was making. They turned out looking pretty nice. The trickiest part was figuring out how to connect them to the rack on the back of my bike. I was going to do it with simple snaps, but I discovered that even the ones marketed as “heavy duty snaps” don’t even come close to holding the kind of weight you’d load a saddlebag with. So then I hit on the idea of connecting the bags together with a strap that I hang over the top of the rack. That worked for the most part, but the bags slipped into positions where my foot kept hitting them. So I put on one more strap between them, this one behind the rack (my fender keeps it from rubbing the wheel). Finally the bags were stable. And they held all the weight I put in them, and they worked beautifully on a test ride that featured gravel roads and big hills.
So then I had to decide where I was going. Doing some quick research on the Ozarks on the internet, I found a town called Van Buren, which is near the biggest spring in the Ozarks, imaginatively named Big Spring. Big Spring empties out into the Current River, which has a weird density of springs emptying into it; I guess that’s probably how it got the name. Anyhow, it sounded like a nice enough place to go visit, even if the springs were just the plain old cold type. So I had Google Maps give me biking directions to Van Buren. They were 16 pages long, but I printed them all out and stuck tem in my pockets. Then I loaded up my saddlebags with what turned out to be significantly more stuff than I’d put in them on my test ride, and I took off one cool morning.
I had never done any long-distance biking before, really. So I was feeling proud of myself when I got to Cleves, about twenty miles from home, and it was still early afternoon. I stopped briefly at the public library there, and then kept on going. Crossing the Indiana state line was pretty cool. Then I was in Lawrenceburg, and that’s when I found out how moronic Google Maps can be. It told me to go behind the Hollywood Casino and come out on a street that wasn’t where the directions said it would be. Then it told me to bike for 18 minutes down Walnut Street, which is maybe a mile long, if that. At the end of Walnut, I was supposed to turn on George Street, which doesn’t intersect with Walnut anywhere along its length. I found a gas station that had a book full of street maps. With the help of these detailed maps and of a gas station attendant who had grown up in the area, I was still unable to piece together what Google wanted me to do. There wasn’t even a George Street in Lawrenceburg. So I just bypassed a bunch of its directions and went toward Dillsboro on the highway, at the suggestion of the attendant upon seeing Lower Dillsboro Road mentioned much later in the directions.
Biking along the highway wasn’t the most preferable option, since there were cars going by me, being loud and occasionally honking at the crazy guy going down the highway on a bike covered in mysterious big bundles. But I was still outside, in the air, not to say the fresh air, since I was breathing plenty of exhaust. Once I got out of the Lawrenceburg–Aurora town complex, things got quieter, and I started enjoying myself, except maybe for the spitting rain coming down on me.
I passed through little tiny towns, places where you wouldn’t even know there was a town if not for the welcome sign, like Nebraska and Butlerville. Nebraska had a couple houses. Butlerville had some train cars (auto racks) parked along the highway, and a grocery store where I oriented myself and saw the peculiar phenomenon of a black man with a redneck drawl. After a while, I came to Dillsboro. At about this time, I noticed the light was fading, and figured I should decide where to set up camp for the night. So I went into the local grocery store and bought some toothpaste and asked where I might find a park around this town. The lady told me where, so I went to see it. “Park” was an overstatement. It was a lawn next to a church, with a shelter that had picnic tables underneath it. But I wasn’t going to find anything better. So I pulled out my camp stove and set it up on a picnic table to make some ramen. I had managed to forget a fork, so I fashioned chopsticks out of some twigs I found, and ate it. It might not have been the most wholesome thing, but it was hot, and that made it taste pretty okay to me. I put my stuff in the saddlebags again and moved it all under the same table I’d eaten at. Then I set up my sleeping bag under the table and went to bed.
It was only about seven in the evening, so I couldn’t sleep yet. I lay there and thought about the trip and whether I should keep it going the next day. After all, I hadn’t really seen much today, and I was getting a bit lonely due to my only conversations being with gas station attendants and grocery store clerks. But I was out and about, at least, and seeing things I hadn’t seen before, so there was that, at least. I resolved to make my mind up in the morning. I got a call from home, and eventually I fell asleep.
There was frost on the ground in the morning. I lit the stove again and boiled water to make oatmeal, then slowly packed up my stuff, shivering. Cold mornings are no fun. The only solution for them on a trip like this one, it seems, is to pack up and get those legs moving. I came to the highway and had to decide which way to turn. I had now decided that I didn’t feel like failing, so I went in the direction of greater progress. New landscape now continued revealing itself.
I passed another small town or two, and then I was passing a sign that said MUSCATATUCK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE. Sounds good, I thought, and I turned in to see what there was to see. After all, wasn’t that the point of the trip? Like I talked about on my last blog—I wanted to wander around and see things spontaneously. It was about here that I really started relinquishing the idea of going all the way to Missouri. I knew I wasn’t making enough miles each day. Going to Missouri was a 500-mile trip, and I had seven days to do it, so I needed to make about 72 miles a day. I didn’t know what I’d made the day before, but if I stopped to see this park, I probably wouldn’t make 72 today. In the end I decided that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and I might as well see this park for sure rather than possibly get to Big Spring, which might be awesome or might just be boring. Once I went inside, I was happy about the decision. For one thing, it was a warm building. It also had some cool stuff inside it, and there was a back room that looked out on an area well designed to attract lots and lots of birds. They looked like they were having fun. The refuge was made mostly to give migrating birds a good place to stop over on their journeys. Wood ducks are the signature bird of the park. Once I left the visitor center I took a couple hikes around, but I didn’t see any wood ducks. I did find some cattails, but I didn’t really know how to harvest them at this brown stage of their lives, so I didn’t do anything with them. It was a very pretty place, with plenty of forest and a good share of wetlands too. I stuck around in the park until about 4:00, which was when I estimated that I would need to move along in order to get to the next town, Seymour, by nightfall.
Seymour appeared to be a pretty big town, from what it looked like on my way in. There were lots of restaurants on the way in. Then as I got further in, I saw that there were still just lots of restaurants. I was beginning to fear that I might have come to one of those places about which people say, “When I got there, there was no there there.” I stopped in one of the numerous gas stations to ask where I might find a park. The guy paused as though it was a foreign concept to him. Then he told me how to get to one a few streets up. I went there, and it was just grass. Lawns and sports fields, and some jungle gyms for kids, and a closed swimming pool with a NO TRESPASSING sign on the fence. There was a shelter sort of like the one in Dillsboro, with lots more tables, and looking unused, from the looks of all the leaves under the roof. That seemed like the only real place to sleep, but I didn’t fancy that, because there were lots of people in the park, all with their cars parked around the perimeter, walking around in full view of the shelter. But for the time being, I pulled out my stove again and made macaroni and cheese for dinner. Delightful. Not really—I couldn’t get it to jell like it was supposed to, and I didn’t want to spend more fuel on it. Well, now having eaten, I went to another gas station to ask if there were any other parks, maybe with such a thing as woods in them. The woman thought for a while and suggested a park about ten miles outside of town. “I’m just looking for one in town,” I said. She directed me back to the same park that I’d just come from. I was gathering that this was the only place that the citizens of Seymour had to recreate. How sad.
I started biking around to evaluate my options. There was that park, if I could find someplace to sleep in it. As I biked by it, I noticed that in the dark some lights had switched on in the shelter, which ruled out a night under a picnic table like in Dillsboro. There was a wood chip factory next to the park that looked like I could climb it. There was also a cemetery a little ways away, and a Marathon station with a possibly accessible roof. And that was about all. I tried climbing on the wood chip factory, but it was harder to get up than I had supposed. I went to the cemetery, but it seemed like the kind of place where people might come to visit in the morning, find me sleeping, and call the police. And the Marathon station had a really noisy generator or something next to it. In a last-ditch effort, I asked inside the Marathon whether there was someplace in this town where people camp out. The guy said he couldn’t think of anything, but maybe I could go ask at the police station. Yeah, right.
I ended up looking for the darkest place in the park. That turned out to be the shadow of an oak tree, where I put my stuff and made it look like an inconspicuous pile. I wrote in my journal under the shelter, on a picnic table, while a group of loud teenagers talked at the other end of the shelter about pregnancy scares and how they’ve gotten caught for shoplifting. And then I slept. It was cold.
I woke up around dawn, and cleared out before anyone could bother me or steal my bike. I didn’t feel like making oatmeal this morning; I was planning on eating at a restaurant, hopefully a Subway. But in this town full of restaurants, not one was open on Sunday morning. Not one, that is, except for the McDonald’s. So I broke my streak, probably years long, of not eating at McDonald’s, and got some sausage biscuits. Immediately I started feeling deeply unhealthy. It was just grease, basically. McDonald’s may have gotten a cosmetic facelift and a few vaguely wholesome salady things, but their mainstays are still as nasty as ever. I finished the stuff off, and used its calories to get out of Seymour.
I was disheartened by this town, and by the cold, and by McDonald’s. Also, my gear was starting to come apart a little, and I was afraid of where that might lead. So when I left Seymour, I turned back toward home. Since I had already seen all the stuff along this road, I decided to see how much distance I could cover in the day. I ate oatmeal for lunch at Versailles State Park. I passed Dillsboro in the afternoon, and I got into Aurora around 3 or 4 and decided to have that Subway sandwich that I’d wanted so badly in the morning. I passed through Lawrenceburg and looked at the street map in the same gas station, and found that there was a place just on the inside of the Ohio border marked on the map as a “conservation easement”. So I made up my mind that I’d sleep there for the night.
It was green on the map, but in real life it was brown, because it was an enormous cornfield. My best guess is that it was the floodplain of the Little Miami River, and the government owned it, and decided that if there was nothing that could be built on that land, they may as well take the risk each year of sowing corn, and if there was no flood, the government could have the profit, but if it flooded, no harm done, because the government could eat the cost. That’s just a guess. In any case, it was completely empty of people, so I set up camp in some scrubby woods at the edge. I made dinner, ramen I believe, and then looked out at the view: a nuclear power plant on the horizon, and a huge sky all around. A raised railroad bed between me and the road. And really nothing to do. I stood on the railroad a little, but didn’t see any trains. Then I went to my sleeping bag and read a little. And then I went to sleep.
I woke up with cold feet and made oatmeal, and then biked back home. On the home stretch, my Achilles’ tendon started hurting, which has never happened to me before. But I made it anyhow, and since it was a warm day, I collapsed in the front lawn and soaked up the sun.
So that was it for the trip. I learned some things from it. Like how to arrange my stuff on the bike rack so it wouldn’t all fall apart. And also that I needed to stitch my saddlebags better. And that I probably should get in practice for a while before trying a long trip like that. If I had been headed the other way, my Achilles’ tendon probably wouldn’t have let me get far after day three. Also that feet get very cold in a sleeping bag in cold weather, even a zero-degree sleeping bag. Later I learned a few more things by talking to Ethan, the biking friend I’m sure I’ve mentioned. He told me about how he does meals: bagels and peanut butter for breakfast, restaurant food for lunch, something cooked hot for dinner. He has a recipe for lentil stew that I’m going to try out. I’ll probably also eat sandwiches for dinner sometimes, and buy bananas at grocery stores.
And I have something to apply the lessons to. I’m leaving tomorrow morning, bright and early, on my “redo” bike trip to West Virginia. It’s a four-day trip, so, not really that much longer that my abortive three-day trip. But it has a direction, and something to do once I get to the endpoint. (Hopefully I’ll get a deer this year. I never have before, but I intend to eat venison plenty in my future, so this will be a good introduction.) And this bike trip also goes along a bike trail for the last day or so, the North Bend Rail Trail. It’s an old railroad bed, so it also has the advantage that I’ll have a practically level grade all through mountainous West Virginia. That’s awesome. I’m looking forward to getting underway tomorrow.