‘You know it’s getting colder tonight?’ said the chap filling up his car at the gas station.
‘Yes, I can feel it dropping alre-…’ said I, relayering my face masks and regoggling.
‘REALLY cold’, said he, frowning as though I might not understand what really cold meant.
‘Uhuh. And is the snow still coming tomorrow night?’ said I, not concerned by the temperatures but knowing that the forecasted snow would force a rest day.
The chap harrumphed a yes and shook his head disapprovingly. I thanked the kind worker who had just let me use the rest room under oath of not telling her boss and wheeled Hercules off from his kickstand. She shouted ‘Be safe, friend!’ as I half-swung half-hopped my leg over the cross bar, clipped in with my right foot and pushed off to start hauling up the hill. I grinned and waved back, trying not to wobble off, enjoying the sunshine while it lasted and the good energy of having just been called FRIEND!
It didn’t take me long to realise that the North American greeting of ‘Hi, how are you’ doesn’t have a question mark. It is just a greeting and people don’t actually want an update on how cold my toes are or anything else for that matter. In fact they look surprised, scared even, when I forget the rules and offer more than the expected ‘Fine. How are you’ in return. So, when a total stranger is keen to see me safe and well, and says it and means it, it can feel really special. Instead of sending me off with ‘Have a good day’ a lady in a store yesterday looked me in the eye and said ‘Be well’, which felt rather more thoughtful than the robotic norm.
I am daily grateful for gestures outside of robotic norms, feeling like I am bundled down the road in kindness and goodwill from people of the road. A favourite recently was hotel manager Isaiah listing everything under the sun that he could find for me to keep me warm and safe, if I wanted it, suggesting everything from extra coats, his own blazer, a scarf, an escort van with tea supply to my very own bus.
‘Hell, I’m more worried for you than you are!’ It was a giggling ping pong as he played up to the camera I had rolling, his offerings of this and that met with refusals from me, as his colleague reassured him that I must be OK because, ‘it says on her jacket “Don’t Worry I’m OK”. We all laughed at each other, the sleepy cyclist now chuckling as she left to pedal the day.
So many strangers have been good to me lately – from people who have taken me in from the roadside, inviting me into their homes or sponsoring me into a hotel room out of the cold to Kathy who drove for an hour to come and say hi and bring me some groceries, including a bottle of (medicinial) gin.
Ralph’s kindness was the gentle chat mixed with easy silence over a lunch break for me while he mopped the floors at a rest station, whistling as he worked. In Warsaw the weekend before last, locals Wendy and Rick rounded up a crowd of friends to take me out for breakfast and then troubleshoot my various needs.
In Van Wert the Collins family insisted on putting me up in a motel for the night where the owner, Miss Angie, fed me delicious curried foods from her native India after calling me down from my room to help her sort something with her computer.
I know my last blog pined for Lucy as I got through the separation again, but let this one reassure you that the Outen is calm and content again, enjoying and savouring the encounters and unknowns of the road, grateful for the experiences and insights and humbled by the kindness and willingness of strangers to share.
The Scheurich family were an hilarious evening, egging me on to pretend to their daughter, arriving later, that we had met years before at Aunt Mary’s party. I slept in my tent in the ornate gardens of Jeff Scheurich’s boss, Mr Hamstra and the next morning shook hands with various employees. One of them, Joyce I think her name was, returned shortly after to give me an orange. Whenever I go to a supermarket I always buy fruit – great guesswork.
And Boima was something of a happily serendipitious happening – we were checking in to a hotel for the night at the same time and he asked if I wanted get some food together. He had just flown in from Brazil to take part in a conference on Africa at a local university. As an African-American, married to a Bolivian, son of an immigrant and having travelled the world over, it was interesting and refreshing to swap stories and viewpoints and ask questions on all sorts and everything.
Stalled for a moment
The pattern lately seems to have been one snow day per week – forcing a welcome top up of sleep and rest and if I am lucky a chance to clean the salt from Hercules, me and my clothes. This weekend’s snow day has turned into six days off the bike – not because of prolonged poor road conditions (as they abided by the one-day-a-week rule) but a viral tummy bug. Happily, I had made it into Massillon and a hotel just before my insides really started rebelling. And here I have stayed, mostly in the same four walls, a bit like a narcoleptic sloth since Friday afternoon…
Heading downstairs for breakfast exhausted me and a trip to the doctor on Tuesday fairly wiped me out. Thankfully, after some anti-nausea medication from said doc I have been able to eat, the cramping has gone and I have been able to sleep soundly. I had hoped I could cycle today but the short walk to breakfast exhausted me again so here I have slept some more. Maybe tomorrow.
High on the hill
The riding before Massillon had brought us swiftly through the agricultural flats of Indiana and western Ohio before the landscape started curling into hills. On the back roads the grades on said hills seemed pretty crazy and unthought out, certainly for those of us with a laden bike. I can’t imagine the trap drivers of local Amish communities enjoy them too much either, or rather their horses. My up hills were mostly slow, steady carthorse style efforts where I can look around and take in anything to be noticed, looking at the somethings or the nothings and talking or listening as fancy takes me. The down hills have been rollercoasters at times – a teeth-clenching, handle-bar squeezing ride of either pedalling hard or standing up off the pedals and wigglign my toes for warmth, always tucking my chin in to my jacket to keep wind from whistling through the vents in my goggles and freezing my forehead. Sometimes I whoop to the sky, flattening myself across the handlebars to be more aerodynamic- imaging I am in the Tour de France. And then I am reminded that my forehead is freezing to numbness and that on the opposite hill I shall be slowed to six, five, four or three miles an hour as I crawl and pant up the best of the ‘Scenic Byway’ hills. I don’t know why this route – the Old 30 – is the ‘Old Lincoln Highway’ but it is. Lucky fella – it’s a charming ride for anyone looking to pedal the area.
It is about 100 miles to the border with Pennsylvania and within lie the Allegheny mountains, bisecting the state north to south. I am looking forward to the lung burn and satisfaction of the ups and the yippeeing flights of the downhills, the twists and the turns following rivers and wondering what they will be wearing – snow, ice, water or combinations thereof. I am excited for rounding hills to new views, seeing mountains and moods of skyscapes and snowscapes and looking back on the flatlands behind me. I am really going to savour the space from urban areas and traffic, beautiful camping spots and camp fires and silent nights. The wildest spaces are always my favourite, even when they are fleeting moments of rides through forests, along lakes, between fields, hopping from one town to another… or in this case a couple of hundred miles in the hills before I roll down to NYC.
Spotting a red cardinal (bird) along a river bank recently – a bright splash of colour against the lyre string hedge as cars whizzed by on the road to my left was such a treat. A rather more comical avian treat was rounding the spur of a hill to see some wild turkeys scrabbling at a trot through a wheat field trying to hide, heads down – as though, like three year olds, they thought they couldn’t be seen because they were looking in the other direction. As they scurried for what they must have imagined looked like cover in a field of uniformly short corn stubble so too did whirls of snow spin across the fields, chased by the wind like dancing hares at a spring cavort. It was delightful and I laughed out loud.
It is dawning on me that my biking on this continent is drawing to a close, the space between me and the sea on my map ever shortening. It is now just two of my hand spans to the Cape. Soon the characters of my journey will be the whales and dolphins, the fish and birds of the ocean and the conversation altogether different.
Lying here on the bed that I have cursed at times in the last few days, I think I am grateful, actually, for the enforced pause. It has rebalanced my perspective and reminded me that there is more than the weather out of my control and that a few days here and there, in the grand scheme of things, are just a few days here and there – moments in the journey. Getting ruffled by the juxtaposition of my expedition and its closing phases and life after the journey, I was reminded by someone recently the need to focus in on the now and let the afterwards happen as and when. It was a good note.
I have been reminded that every moment needs savouring and feeling and noticing, be it with stranger or friend, a host of black turkeys trying to hide in the snow or the space of the open sky. Be they good, bad or something in between, all moments are potential for memories, unrepeatable happenings in time and space. As Kathy (gin deliverer) and I sat and talked of adventures past and present, she acknowledged that ‘although the replacements are slowing me down these days’ (referring to her bionic limbs), she was satisfied at a lifetime of memories in her bank to reflect on. Happy days, as one cyclist often says.
I’d like to take these last few lines to make shout outs to some very special parents of very special friends of mine currently facing health challenges bigger than my dodgy tum. Mr Hammond, Jane, Mr Harris – Hercules and I send you warmth from Ohio and look forward to seeing you in the autumn.
Until next time,
Sarah and Hercules
P.S Recent road thanks to: Wendy, Rick, Troy, Amy and the Breakfast crew; Dr David Dick; Isaiah Trammell and colleagues at Holiday Inn Express, Mansfield; Kathy Wells; Shelagh Egar; Team Scheurich and Wilb Hamstra; Chief Boima; the Collins Family and Geoff; the ladies who bought me lunch and the staff at Hampton Inn, Massilon
P.P.S Thanks to all recent donors to the L2L charities. All donations gratefully accepted here: www.sarahouten.com/the-mission/charity/
P.P.P.S Apologies not to have a picture of the turkeys in the snow – I was laughing too much to get my camera out.