The Cyclist in the Cyclone

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“FUCK man, that was RIDICULOUS,” I exclaimed. “I mean, that was like a tornado!”

Editor’s note: In the following essay, Jonny Waldman discuses what it’s like riding across half of the United States by bicycle. When you’re finished reading this piece, be sure to check out his piece about surviving a hit-and-run incident with a truck.

On the third day, God made land and plants, and both of those things were (and still are) good. On my third day, I made Macastrone, and it was good, too. No, wait: it was awesome.

I had just made the most significant purchase I’d make all summer, an 88-cent can-opener, so from that day on, instead of eating plain macaroni and cheese, I ate it with a can of Campbell’s Minestrone soup mixed in. I called it Macastrone.

Macastrone was born of necessity. I was biking about 90 miles a day, uphill and upwind, and my metabolism was rising rapidly. As a result, I was astounding myself with the quantities of food I was able to consume. Soon enough, I’d up the ante with veggie Macastrone, which incorporated a yellow onion and a red pepper.

That evening, shortly after I rolled in to Weston, West Virginia–263 miles from where I had started a few days before, in Washington, D.C.–I bumped into a bunch of kids who’d never seen a guy on a bicycle like me. They crowded around as I set up camp behind the volunteer fire department, and started asking questions. I took out my map to show them where I had come from, and where I was going. I traced a line from D.C. to Colorado, more or less along U.S. Route 50, then waited. One chubby little guy didn’t know where Colorado was, but knew about Kentucky.  “That’s where my pa’s got his rig,” he said.

On Day Four, I had a 2,500-calorie breakfast that included two egg/cheese sandwiches, two pieces of apple pie, an ice cream cone, and a snickers bar. After fixing the first flat tire of the trip, I rode 87 hilly miles to Kentuck, West Virginia. I set up camp behind the Baptist church, and while preparing dinner, met a few locals born and raised in Kentuck. One of them asked me, without much of an introduction, “Do you know the Lord?” I didn’t really want to get into it, so I replied, “I know the Lord–Amen!” That sufficed, apparently, and soon they left me alone, to fall asleep on a picnic table.

I’d learned pretty quickly that, when biking alone on a budget, there were four places where one could reliably get a full night’s rest, safe and sound: a volunteer fire department, the woods, someone’s backyard, or a church. Since I’m not much of a religious guy, I favored the first three. But sometimes, when my legs were cooked and it was getting late, I had to take what I could get.

The next day I had a box of Oreos for breakfast, and while chugging up a steep hill at three mph, noticed a turkey vulture up ahead in the road. It was busy picking away at something. I’d learned to expect roadkill by the smell of decomposition, which, in a car, you rarely notice. On a bike, you notice.

From my bike, I saw a lot of other dead things in this part of Appalachia, mostly off in the woods: couches, chairs, washing machines, old cars, and who-knows-whats. I saw so many of these unknown objects that I started calling them HRMTs (Heavy Rusty Metal Things). I was rolling through the place where things go when they die.

I stopped for lunch in South Portsmouth, Kentucky on Day Six. I ate a pizza, looking up just enough to notice Jesus paintings all over the walls. Afterward, I rode over to a thrift store, where two kids interrogated me. “Are you, like, some famous dude who, like, rides his bike everywhere?” one asked. “No, I’m just like you,” I said. “You could do this if it was all you did all day,” I added, and meant.

The next day, while riding along the Ohio River, someone threw a can of beer at me from a pickup truck. Another guy, without provocation, asked me whether I was riding for the devil or the lord. That night I bedded down in the woods on the campus of a Christian college because it was raining hard and I had nowhere else to go.

First Signs of Trouble Bicycling Across the United States

On Day Eight, it became apparent that my left knee was not in good shape. I’d ridden hard seven days in a row, without much in the way or preparation or training. Since I was on a schedule (I had to be in western Colorado for a job by May 1) I decided to hitch a ride to Kansas, and skip the boring/flat part of the country.

Hitching proved more challenging than I had expected. One guy told me, “I can’t give you a ride, son, but I can pray for you.” Someone gave me a pamphlet about Jesus, and told me I should read the Old Testament. I told him I had a book list a mile long. Another woman gave me an apple and a little book of scriptures called “Help From Above.” I told her I didn’t need help from above. I needed it down here. 

I ended up hitching a ride with a guy named Craig, who was headed from Pennsylvania to Texas to see his family. Craig and I talked a lot. He was 29. His hair was dyed. He had been adopted. He hadn’t gone to college. He once spent 90 days in jail. He’d received 15 speeding tickets. We made it to Topeka without incident.

But my arrival in Kansas was particularly ill-timed.

First, I got pulled over by a state trooper, a huge guy who actually turned his patrol car lights on to pull me over. The first thing he asked me was, “Do you know where you are?” I responded, “Uh … Topeka, Kansas.” He responded, “You’re on private property. This highway is private property, for cars and trucks only.” I explained that I had just been dropped off by a car, and was eager to be on my way, so that I could ride my bike on a smaller, less-highway-like road en route to Colorado. The trooper remained unmoved, and wrote me a warning.

At this, I apologized, and the trooper handed me a Kansas state map and pointed me in the right direction. It was late in the day, and the sun was hovering low above the great big Kansas horizon, with only a few clouds scattered about. The trooper then informed me of two more salient facts: hitch-hiking is illegal within Topeka city limits, and there is no camping within Topeka city limits.

I rode 10 miles north, and then turned west, and bumped into two guys at outside of a bowling lane. One guy, Lee Hamlet, said I could sleep in the field behind his auto repair shop. I took him up on the offer. He threw me a beer. I told him about the trip thus far, mentioning that it was only 18 degrees during my first night, back in Virginia. Lee’s buddy looked me up and down and said, “You’re a durable fucker, huh?”

An Unexpected Tornado

In the field behind Lee’s auto shop, I tied two corners of my tarp to a trailer, and stuck the other two in the ground, and bedded down beside it to watch the stars. Lee told me that if the weather got bad, I could hop in his “parts car,” an old Honda, with no tires, sitting in a puddle, beside a huge oak tree. I didn’t think twice about the offer.

Within an hour, it started raining. I collected my stuff and crawled beneath my tarp, stargazing be damned. Then the wind picked up, and my tarp began blowing around. Bolts of lightning flashed around me, followed closely by thunder. My tarp began flapping uncontrollably in the wind, and I began getting pelted by huge raindrops. And just like that, I made the decision to get into Lee Hamlet’s parts car.

With my sleeping bag and pad and tarp in arms, I hopped into the front passenger seat. I woke up at 3 a.m., because the storm was intensifying. I thought about finding real refuge–like in someone’s house–but it was too intense to get out of the car and run for safety. I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of my face, and even then, I couldn’t tell which way to run.

Lightning bolts started to appear more frequently, so frequently that I could no longer count the time delay between flashes and thunderclaps. I could see bolts striking the ground not far to the south.

The wind picked up and went from strong to violent. It began to shake the car. I started wondering if Lee’s parts car, my only refuge, was safe at all. After all, it was essentially a Heavy Rusty Metal Thing, and it had no tires, and it was sitting in a puddle, beneath a tall tree, in a large field. I wondered if Lee would find me either fried from a lightning bolt, crushed beneath a branch, or vanished, having blown away in this little metallic pod.

In an instant, the lights in town went out, and I realized that my heart was racing. I was shivering in fear. I was surrounded by ferocious darkness, but it wasn’t black–it was an eerie shade of greenish-bluish-gray. It was a tornado, and I was in it.

While the car shook and raindrops pinged off the roof, and trees blew ferociously around, I mumbled a plea to Earl and Valerie (the weather gods), something to the effect of, “Please let me enjoy nice blue skies and gentle breezes again!” It was the closest thing to a prayer I have ever uttered.

I woke up at 9 a.m., after just two and a half hours of fitful sleep. I was relieved. I peeked out the side window, and saw Lee working on a truck in his shop.

“Good morning!” Lee said.

“FUCK man, that was RIDICULOUS,” I exclaimed. “I mean, that was like a tornado!”

“I think you’re right,” Lee agreed.

Lee abandoned his work for a moment, and we went for a walk around town. The first thing he noticed is that his sign had blown away. Two telephone poles had snapped at the base, and were laying in the street in a jumble of wires and transformers. Not far away, a huge oak tree was in the road, roots and all. It appeared to have been uprooted by a giant. Some guys chopping it up said that the winds hit 80 mph. I said no shit. Another woman, whose swing-set had vanished from her front yard, said she hadn’t seen a storm like that since ’66. Around the block, a bunch of 18-wheelers were lying on their sides. Mail trucks had flipped over. Trailers had lost their roofs. I’ve been to a lot of rugged places, but never experienced a fury like I did that night in Topeka.

After that tornado, the rest of the ride seemed like cake. In Pueblo, Colorado, riding through 35-degree rain left me with a numb left foot, but no worse. In the Arkansas River valley, between Canon City and Salida, it was so windy that a tumbleweed blew into my front wheel, but that just made me laugh. (You call this wind?) And at the top of Monarch Pass–the Continental Divide, and my high point for the trip–it was so windy that I had to pedal hard to roll downhill into Gunnison. But, hey, that’s what biking is all about, right?

On my second-to-last day, just west of Sapinero, Colorado, I hiked down to the Gunnison River and jumped in. It was my first shower in three weeks, if you don’t count the rains in West Virginia and Kentucky or the tornado in Kansas or the frigid drizzle in eastern Colorado.

That was all several years ago. My trusty purple Trek is no longer with me, and those panniers are now owned by someone who’s putting them to more use. I haven’t gotten up and gone solo like that for a long time. And I haven’t prayed since.

Jonny Waldman is a writer living in Boulder, Colorado. He’s working on a book about rust, to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013. Excerpted from Boneshaker (43-200), a semi-annual pocket-sized periodical published with the intent of providing literary and relevant considerations of bicycling.

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