Sunday, June 3 and Monday June 4, 2018.
Though breakfast was included at the Napoleon Knights Inn, no thanks. I mean, what are they going to serve? Scrambled regrets, with 2 slices of misery, 2 missing-child links smothered with gravity, and a short stack of shattered promises? I wanted to get out as early as possible. It was around 95 miles to Wendell and Terri Brane’s place in Markle, Indiana, and I wanted to get there at a decent hour. Last night on the phone, Wendell had warned of rains and westerly winds all day (i.e., in my face, since I’m traveling west). Despite precedent, I peeked at the weather app after my short confab with Mr. Brane. One of my consistently made-to-be-broken rules is not to check the weather until the morning, because a) it’s weather and, therefore, is only quasi-predictable, and b) I don’t want to fret about it, because there’s nothing I can do to prepare for tomorrow’s weather conditions the night before I ride, except circle the fret drain. The weather forecast was meh, rain early in the AM making way for high temps and humidity, and westerly winds. Weather.com said the winds would initiate their westerly havoc around 9am, so leaving at 6:30 would at least give me some calm before headwinds of 18mph with gusts up to 30. Breathe, Daniel! It could be way worse.
So, I ate what I had on me for breakfast: banana, almonds, banana/peanut butter Clif Bar (this is a newer flavor that I haven’t gotten sick of yet), sped through the warmup Kristin had created for me, donned my stink-wear still damp from yesterday, and clicked into my pedals at 6:49am. Twenty minutes later than desired. Not bad, Danny! For real.
The morning is quiet. It’s Sunday which, I’ve found, to be the best day for long rides. The sky’s threatening rain, but the wind is at my back, so I don’t care about the few drops hitting my neck and calves as I pedal.
After about 16 miles of flatter-than-flat farmlands, I pass through Defiance, Ohio, named for Fort Defiance, built by General “Mad” Anthony Wayne (coincidentally the Revolutionary War-era general whom the town in New Jersey I came up in is named after). “I defy all the devils of hell to take [my fucking fort]!” proclaimed Gen’l Mad Wayne.
I’ve been squarely in ‘Trump’s America’ now for a day or two; Defiance County is no stranger to supporting the current president. He won Defiance County by 35 points. Fascinatingly, the main drag of Defiance, is Clinton Street. During the election and in the ensuing months of the current administration, there has been quite the campaign to switch the name of the road to Trump Street. However, at a recent town meeting, one of the more moderating voices in town, Helen ‘Give ‘em Hell’ Wayne, great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter-by-marriage of the Mad General himself, rose from her chair. She removed her parka to reveal glittering 1970s-era Soul Train-inspired regalia underneath. While pledging her eternal allegiance to the president, she reminded all present in Defiance Hall that Clinton Street was named for George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic. Lighting in the auditorium darkened everywhere except the podium. Through a spectrum of colors and fog from a smoke machine, Mrs. Wayne growled, “Give ‘em hell, girls!” A middle school-aged dance troupe appeared behind out of nowhere and performed a dance to “Funky Town,” which is certainly not George Clinton, but no one in Defiance Hall knew the difference nor could they deny its funkiness. The movement to change (George) Clinton Street’s name has (at least temporarily) been shelved.
(People ask me, “What are you thinking about during the hours and hours you’re riding?” Sometimes I swear I’m in a deep trance-like meditation, and other times see above rabbit hole.)
At 25 miles, I stop at a golf course with a port-a-potty right off the main road. Score. There’s also an honor system for purchasing bottled water, a cooler in a three-walled mini-cabin. I honor the honor system placing a buck in the box provided and grabbing two waters. (Note: even though I’m carefully following the posted rules, I’m still a little nervous about getting caught out, à la “That water’s not for just anybody off the street! Go on, git now!”) (Another note: in the recycling container provided there’s a greater number of empty Busch Light cans than water bottles.) A trio of older white guys give me the thumbs-up as they motor past me in their golf cart. Cheers, gentlemen!
As if on cue, after the golf course bio-break is when the winds pick up and shift squarely into my face. I’m headed southwest or due west for the remaining 70 miles until I get to the Branes’ place in Markle, Indiana. The wind keeps my pace at a frustrating 8 or 9 miles per hour, with an occasional break when I get to turn away from the wind directly for a mile. At those times, even though the gusts coming across aren’t strong enough to blow me off the road, crosswinds deliver their own challenges—steadying the bike, figuring out how to use my core muscles to accommodate the force, rather than put pressure on my lower back or my knees which are killing me at this point. The roads I’m traveling on today and the next few are primarily low-traffic county roads, so I’m not worried about getting blown into traffic. The worst that could happen is ending up in a ditch. I’ve been gusted in ditches, and that sucks. I haven’t ever been blown into a semi, but with my incisive evidence-gathering and deductive reasoning skills, I surmise that’s potentially much worse. (Sorry, Ma, if you’re reading this.) Also, despite the addition of the second pair of bike shorts to my, er, ensemble, my butt is sore as hell. At about mile 60, I cross into Indiana.
Even though it’s hot and I’m kinda miserable, I get excited. Check Ohio off the list!
Monroeville is where this section of the Northern Tier maps ends. I need a rest and a real meal, and the Blueberry Pancake House is right here in Monroeville, just a block away from the “Make Monroeville Great Again” sign! I wonder, exactly who is going to make precisely what great again in Monroeville? There’s no one around to ask, and I’m not going to anyway. That’s not why I’m here. Approach with love, only. That’s the unbreakable rule. Curiosity, too. But I don’t think there’s any tone in which to ask the above question that doesn’t sound like a mad general’s glove-slapping challenge for a duel.
The restaurant is empty except for an elderly white couple. (Can we just say for the foreseeable future that pretty much everyone I encounter is white? I’ll specify the other way…if seeing a person of color ever happens again until I get back home. Jk! … Sorta.)
The salty waitress calls me ‘hon’ which makes me feel welcomed. I order the breakfast I wished I had this morning, but without the sorrows, regret, etc. When the food comes, I’m puzzled by the little plastic tubs of… ‘spread’ in place of butter. I don’t have my glasses inside with me, so I can’t read the label. I sample it; it’s margarine…I guess…? Ohhh, I bet they have real butter for the people in-the-know enough (e.g., me!) to ask for it. Ugh, I don’t want to be a pain, though. …Oh fuck it, just ask. The waitress is puzzled at my request. “I thought I put some on there for ya. I bring it to ya one sec, hon.” The ball drops. Ohhhhhhh, that is the only butter, what I already received. I want to say don’t worry about it, but even more so, I don’t want to be the I-only-eat-REAL-butter-West-Coast-elite snob dickwad. She brings me more margarine, and I devour everything. When in Monroeville…
A while later in Zanesville, I call Wendell as instructed so he can give me directions to his place. Because I’m undergoing a major shift in trusting myself with directions, I write it all down, rather than the usual “Uh huh, I get it, yeah I’ll remember” and then disappear off the grid. He is off-route about 5 miles, which is concerning. “I live down a gravel road,” says Wendell. “In the middle of the woods.”
Now, some of you know that I watch a lot of horror movies, largely because of my long-term relationship with (my now-ex but we are still extremely close and forever linked) Donny who’s a horror film/TV writer-director. Living with someone who conjures up hideous (and often hilarious) ways to be murdered has definitely affected my thinking. And I love thrillers and mysteries, too, always have. And sci-fi (not to a geek level like my sister and mother) and apocalyptic tales and disaster movies. So, when a stranger who curiously has zero references on warmshowers.org speaks in horror movie dialogue (e.g., “I live in the middle of the woods”), I feel just a wee bit vulnerable to the kill room. Plus, I’m in a weakened state. And it’s hard to run in bike cleats, even ones like mine which have a bit more support. And, if you scream in the middle of nowhere, off the path 5 miles, then it’s curtains a million percent. Hopefully, the Branes aren’t too twisted and will just get it over with quickly, sans torture. Coincidentally, (or is it?!) the way to his house is south, and the tailwind blows me there easily. Also…Brane?!
Markle, Indiana has a sense of humor, at least. A sign proclaims something to the effect of “Welcome to Markle! Home of all really nice folks except for a few grouches.” (Later, Wendell tells me that every year a few lucky people are named the Markle Grouches and they get to be judges in their annual festival. It’s all in fun, though he did mention that one year someone who was known to be a truly grouchy person was chosen and he took it very personally.)
I pedal down the Branes’ gravel path into the woods…and of course Wendell is very welcoming and extremely accommodating with water and places to plug in my phone and watch (wait! He wants my phone and watch [that has GPS!]????) …though there is a basement that seems a bit mysterious, as if some other unsuspecting cyclist is down there, tied up and screaming for help through her gag! Wendell is really, really interested in showing me something in the garage that he’s very proud of. He uses the pronouns ‘she/her’ about his prized possession.
Wendell’s ‘kill room’ turns out to be the most impeccably organized garage I’ve ever seen. “Holy OCD!” I exclaim.
“It’s definitely my thing,” he says, “keeping everything in order.” His recumbent bike is the centerpiece of the garage. She is the apple of his eye. He knows every inch of her and has cycled all over these local roads. In the morning, he will ride with me and show me the way back to the Northern Tier route. (As it turns out, he isn’t out of the way at all. You just take a different road to get there.)
Terri emerges from the house with the couple’s two dogs (big, sweet Jackal and smaller, fussy, ultra-suspicious Sassy. And dinner: cold cuts and chips never tasted so good. And grapes. And carrots. I make myself one sandwich, and they insist I have another. I comply. (YES!) I mean, I just rode 97 miles with a headwind. I could eat the dogs. Sassy barks constantly, wants me off her property. I can see that she wants to like me, but she just can’t quit her instincts and if Wendell left her alone, she’d bite to kill, or at least maim. Jack is just the opposite; he wants to love me to death.
I chat with the couple for a while before setting up my tent on their screened-in porch. Wendell is from the area right around Markle and is a pastor at an evangelical church, a position he’s had for a while, though he’s had many other jobs over the years. Terri is from the southern part of Indiana and volunteers a lot of her time caring for a disabled neighbor, when she isn’t caring for Wendell and their home and dogs. Both are very devoted to their Christian faith; after spending an evening with them, they seem to be quite a traditional couple. Their only daughter doesn’t live nearby, so they don’t get to see their grandchildren much.
Before bed, Terri generously sets out breakfast items for me and welcomes me to anything the kitchen has to offer. I sleep well, and in the morning, as promised, Wendell rides with me on his recumbent bike. I’ve been in touch with another warmshowers host couple, Jodi and Chris, both Methodist pastors who are also school bus drivers, in Rensselaer which is about 110 miles away, so I want to get as early a start as possible, especially since the wind is supposed to be terrible again. As mentioned in an earlier post, I had been in touch with Frances, a warmshowers host in the “Middle of Nowhere.” I was already a day later than anticipated, and since she was only about 60 miles from the Branes, I aimed to get all the way to Rensselaer. But Frances’s references on the website were so stellar (regarding what a wonderful person she is), I wanted to at least swing by and meet her, too. Lots to do!
The wind was already in force, but riding and chatting with Wendell made it a lot more bearable. His knowledge of the roads and where I was headed permitted me to focus on the conversation and not worry about where I was going. I didn’t share a whole lot of personal information with Wendell, and he didn’t ask. He told me a lot about growing up here in this part of Indiana and I remarked on how different the lifestyle was here as opposed to where I lived. This is an obvious topic that has emerged in countless conversations thus far on the trip (I’m writing from the future = Day 29!) – but it’s still fascinating. The space that people have access to in rural America is mind-blowing. Every day it blows my mind. Also, I continue to marvel at the difference in the weather and how the seasons dictate your life in ways that I don’t experience in Southern California. I grew up with a four-seasons climate, but that was a long time ago. Wendell isn’t one of those hardcore cyclists who gets out there in the cold. He prefers to wait until it starts to warm up in May. He’s also toured cross-country a couple of times with his brother (with their parents driving a support vehicle during one of those trips). His last tour was in the early 90s, before these maps existed – and of course there was none of the technology I have access to. And small towns hadn’t been Walmart-ized, so they had more services. And there was more American industry, so more jobs. Maybe Monroeville was greater back in the day. While we never explicitly spoke about politics, I explained about the housing crisis in Los Angeles and why there are tens of thousands of people without shelter each night in the County. I told him also about my experience with Brenda, acknowledging the deep divide amongst people in the U.S., implying that he and I likely had some differences of opinion but that the connection we had that morning transcended those differences, at least one that day, in that windy, slightly hillier Indiana terrain. I can’t remember how the subject of Confederate flags arose that morning, but he did use the term “snowflake” as a way of describing people who object to this symbol of states’ rights. I said, “Well, one person’s symbol of states’ rights is another person’s symbol of centuries of enslavement!” We left it at that.
After 30 miles, in the town of Lagro, Wendell rode his way and I rode mine. I really appreciated that opportunity to connect with someone I’d likely never meet in any other circumstance. Bicycles have a way, don’t they?
Lagro is a sweet little town right on the Wabash River, so in leaving it, I had to pedal up a pretty steep and long hill. I had figured out the day before that the knee/butt problem could be solved by maximum dosage of ibuprofen consistently. Pain-free, I rode up that hill and back alongside of endless rows of corporate corn and soybeans. The corn seemed slightly taller in Indiana than in Ohio. Is that even possible that it could grow that much in just a few days? Hmm. I stopped in the diminutive town of Denver, where I purchased a sandwich at a grocery store that had almost zero produce (food deserts aren’t just in urban America), before hopping on a bike trail for a few miles to Deedsville, a town that had nothing but a post office. On the trail I took a break. I ate the sandwich and chips and looked at my phone for the first time that day. Frances’s son, Kevin, had messaged me on warmshowers and were wondering whether to expect me. Uh oh! Feeling a bit like an LA flake, I messaged back saying that I planned to stop by for a visit at least but was planning on heading to Rensselaer.
About 90 minutes later, I arrived at Kiser Farm, and I am so glad I did. Frances and Kevin and Kevin’s 15-year-old daughter, Yael (pronounced Yale), greeted me warmly—and coolly with ice water and a Klondike bar! Meeting Frances and a couple members of her vast clan of Kisers was another seminal experience thus far in the trip. Frances brought up her 8 children in the farmhouse that we sat outside of and chatted and drank water and lemonade. In addition to her kids, she has 37 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. And almost all showed up for Mother’s Day a few weekends before. (They have a family reunion that everyone attends on Labor Day, which she invited me to. It sounds like quite the organized affair, with everyone pitching in to set up and cook and make sure everyone is housed in a bed somewhere on the property. I don’t know where I’ll be for Labor Day, but you never know…) In the short time I spent with her, I found her to be such an incredibly vibrant, loving and generous person, the 78-year-old matriarch of a family who ensures that their acreage of corn and ‘beans’ (no one really seems to say ‘soybeans’) is tended to with the help of Kevin and at least one other son. Frances has spawned a force of incredible athletes who play basketball, football, track, you name it, at Notre Dame, Purdue, Indiana U, you name it. Attending a four-year university is a requirement for the Kisers, so it would seem. While happy to list her family’s athletic and academic accomplishments, she’s also careful to give it up to God. “Oh, come on, Frances,” I said, “you had something to do with the success of your family! You at least set the stage.”
“Well, maybe a little,” she laughed. Frances wore a wedding ring but didn’t mention her husband. I didn’t ask, but I did wonder. Kevin and Yael took off after a bit. I really needed to get on the road. It was already four o’clock and I still had 45 or so miles to go. But Frances had other plans. I don’t know when it emerged (or when my water glass got filled again and again) but all of a sudden there was a banana cake she’d just baked, and she was plating a slice for me. “Too bad you won’t be here to meet [the cyclist who was coming to stay that night],” she said. “You could compare notes.” It’s only been a couple of years since Kevin encouraged Frances to join warmshowers, but clearly she has this thing down! Since her farm is right on the Northern Tier, she’d been calling out to cyclists for years offering them lemonade or water, or chasing them down in her pickup if she missed them as they went by. Frances is not a myth but she’s for sure mythic.
She seemed genuinely disappointed that I wasn’t going to stay. I was tempted, but I thought this was a good moment to stick to my guns and move on. I still wonder what dinner would have been…
But onward alongside the red-winged blackbirds who’d been following me, it seemed, for a couple hundred miles, flapping their wings against the wind until they surrendered!
I texted Jodi and Chris letting them know I was behind. My goal was no later than 8:30. The days were getting longer and the further I went within the Eastern Time zone, the later the sun set. Tonight, it wouldn’t set until after 9pm, so I still had daylight on my side. The wind was not nearly as bad that day, except for early in the morning—the opposite of yesterday. I was stressing a bit about showing up so late. I checked my watch for the millionth time—and bam!! —it was an hour earlier. I was in Central Time and just had gained an hour. Magic! I relaxed for the rest of the ride. I FaceTimed with Samm while I was riding. She saw the gorgeous expanse of darkening blue sky behind me. “Where are you? It looks so beautiful!”
“Indiana!” I said. “I fucking love Indiana!”
When I finally got to Jodi and Chris’s place in Rensselaer, it was nearly dark. Chris and their dog Tobias, a late-in-life rescue, greeted me in the garage. Jodi was at her mom’s (right next door) and would be back in a few. Chris showed me to my room, assuring me that he understood if I just wanted to unwind and do my own thing, since I had such a long day. But I wanted to converse with them. Besides, I can’t just go into someone’s house and say “goodnight.” Even if they’re okay with it. Even after I’ve ridden 113.5 miles, my first century of the trip. I just needed to shower. (In my own guest bathroom!) And eat something. Jodi was back by the time I got out of the shower. “You want to do laundry?” she asked. Uhhhh. “You don’t have to. You can do anything you want, or not! Whatever you need!” No, I definitely wanted to. I wanted to do my laundry and eat the hamburgers that Chris pointed out had no salt, which made no sense because the meat was so delicious and asparagus (my first produce in what felt like a millennium!) they had for me. And what?? Jodi made strawberries for shortcake. OMG. Klondike bar. Banana cake. And now one of my favorite things ever. Chris plopped down the bottle of whipped cream. “Take as much or as little as you want.”
Who are these people?
Jodi and Chris are a few years older than me and have been together since 1985. Before being called to become pastors for the United Methodist Church (“It’s hard to describe how that happened,” Chris explained when I asked) and school bus drivers, Chris had been a corporate guy. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what their previous careers were, or even if they told me specifically, but I got the feeling that they had in their 30-plus years together reinvented themselves more than once. I don’t know how many times I can say this about people I’ve been meeting, but they are fantastic, and Chris especially is very humorous. I felt more like myself with them than I had in days, weeks even. Well, maybe it had been 3 days that I felt almost at ease (as ‘at ease’ as I get with strangers, or at all!), since parting from the Goldstein family, but, heck, it felt like ages and ages.
The bed in their guest room was beyond comfortable. It’s like tasty meat, grilled asparagus in a produce desert, and build-your-own strawberry shortcake got together and had an offspring that’s a bed. Yes, that comfortable.