Part 27 of the Cycle-Across-America series relayed day by day, exactly ten years after it happened. (Read from the start in Boston)
Ten years ago today I was watching Al Gore on television talking live at the Democratic Convention. Something about the Macarena:
28 August, Hamilton, Alabama
Tubes and tyres held out but I feel vulnerable. Tomorrow Tupelo Mississippi I hope. That’s big enough to replace things but risky leaving things another day.
This morning they said there was a 60% chance of rain today. Well, as it was raining out the window at that time, I think I was looking at 100%.
Only about nine miles into Jasper proper. Took long enough though as it was as busy as any highway I’ve seen so I was on the grass and the gravel on the side. Felt weak from not eating last night but oddly didn’t feel hungry. Nevertheless still had to eat or I wouldn’t be going anywhere. A Waffle House was preferred over all the other usual options.
An old man tapped me on the shoulder. Was I going cross-country on the bicycle? He wanted to talk. I invited him to join me. Called himself League of Nations - part Irish, part German, part American Indian. His grandfather was at least three quarters Choctaw. He spoke of the Trail of Tears. Before he left he whispered to me to be careful - although he was from these parts he could say that the people down here would steal anything from me.
Those waffles and hash browns are pure stodge and perfect to start the day.
Decided against looking for a bicycle shop. Even though I was only doing a short day I had started late due to the tube problems and needed to finish before the thunderstorms.
Highway 5. Busily trafficked including trucks of all descriptions. It was clearly going to be like this all the way although hopefully after I get out of the town it would be more spaced out and I could get longer stretches on the road. Quite a narrow road also. It did turn out that way but required constant concentration on the mirror and the road ahead. The bends and hills never stopped. Very few houses. Little to look at. Scruffy trees almost all the way.
Today was mild regarding temperature. In the 80’s, the sun was in and out of clouds. I drank:
• two cokes at breakfast
• five cokes at lunch
• three cokes at dinner
• a pint of milk when I arrived here
• a pint of warm water before I left the motel,
• a bottle of Mountain Dew in a small shop on Highway 5.
I only bought the Mountain Dew as an act of goodwill to ask for an alternate back road route I could follow. The men inside couldn’t help me. One used to be a school bus driver and knew Walker County roads inside out but they weren’t all numbered so he couldn’t direct me. I understood but sometimes people are unnecessarily reticent at giving me directions. I can usually handle them. Drank the drink and accepted I had a lot of mirror gazing to do but at least I wasn’t missing a whole lot. The view did not compare with the Talladega National Forest.
Made it to Natural Bridge and where the bridge that gave it it’s name was. All that was here was a cross-roads with a motel and a restaurant. With only twenty five miles to my destination I thought I might as well eat. Biggish restaurant with a few fat dirty truckers eating. Their trucks were all outside - lots of engines running. When I left after my ham on toast and my crinkle fries, I was stuffed. It wasn’t as good as yesterday’s meal at Argo.
I had finally found Argo after that detour and going up and down corkscrew hills. I went into a café, and they said they were in between breakfast and lunch. And I said,
–Well I’m the same.
I just wanted something filling. So I had loads of the fried potatoes in milk. And I had Squash Casserole, which is done in eggs and stuff. It was a sizeable plate and I devoured it.
Took my left turn onto U.S. 278 which I expected to be more of the same. And then there it was - the entrance to the Natural Bridge. This was a gamble. It was after 2.00 p.m. and I wanted to beat the thunderstorms (expected promptly at 4.00 p.m.) but I still had two hours to cycle. Lots of fluffy white clouds and the odd dark one so I took the chance.
Two dollars fifty entrance fee, virtually nobody there. The woman guessed I was from England and then proffered directions for the next couple of days of no consequence. Five minutes is all it took to look up at an arch you are not allowed upon. The signs outside said the it was the longest natural bridge east of the Rockies. It didn’t look very long but the setting was really nice.
I needed more time and some company. A couple in their thirties were there and the man was very interested in my trip. He was born in California, brought up in Canada and now lived in Tennessee. He did some mountain biking so we had a good look at “Long Grass” together. They both found Alabama people very friendly in contrast with their experience in North Carolina.
It was turned three o’clock when I restarted. A five o’clock dismount at the earliest. I was courting with danger. The road was busy but frequently a three-lane which gave more scope for things to go around me. It was a lot straighter too but still up and down all the time. Four o’clock on the nose and the sky dropped.
The road was up on a bank so stopping was impossible but the rain affected visibility that going on was lethal. I could see an unpaved path on the far side of the road by some trees. There was some buildings. It was a large farm. I went into a shed and covered up what needed covering up. A man with a tractor and a crazy accent pulled in. He was a worker and didn’t mind me being there at all - he suggested I go over and get a better seat. I said it was only a shower and I’d be off shortly.
- No problem, people pull in all the time.
He told me of a man who had a load of furniture in his pick up last week who pulled in, and last year of two English people on motorbikes who were going cross-country. His employer’s father was killed on the road driving a tractor when a truck hit it from behind. He understood why I feared poor visibility.
There was no thunder and lightning. The owner came and mostly just smiled. He assured me there would be no storm.
I turned off the road a lot on the 13.5 miles into Hamilton. About five miles out the road was banked on both sides by trees covered in Kudzu. When they’re close together it’s very tropical, indeed very Chinese, looking. But when they’re spaced out they’re like crazy hedge sculptures.
Through that very green gap and the road opened up. It was beautiful. Fields of corn. Pretty, but uncomplicated houses. Farms. Horses. Cattle. A very straight road that crossed the Buttahoochee River twice. The second time was from quite a spectacular height and dangerously narrow. A car waited behind me and we acknowledged each other.
I saw an insect today three inches long, sitting on the road. The ugliest grasshopper I’ve ever seen. I’ve see one before, closer to four inches but this one was black, pure black, sitting right up, high off the ground. Black segments with yellow borders, like a snake, like squares. I had to swerve to go around him. And from a good fifty yards away I could look back and I could still see him. Scary looking thing.
This is a Best Western that used to be a Holiday Inn. I asked for a discount so she gave me the corporate rate (five dollars less). Another great bath. Shampoo again - hurray! Put my reflective vest on and took my lights with me. It was still bright when I took my bike out for something to eat. Ages since I had a pizza. Getting tired of burgers. Kept a couple of pieces for breakfast.
They just featured Barkley, his return to Alabama, which is his home state, where he’s going to play basketball. And talking about him as a potential future Governor because he’s expressed interest. He met the governor yesterday.
Smaller roads are planned for tomorrow. The forecast is dry but only for tomorrow. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday (Labour Day weekend) are all down for thunderstorms. Having just dropped a day I didn’t fancy losing any more until I get to Oklahoma.
Rather a lot of armadillos - all dead - on the road today. They look and smell horrible all two dimensional and broken up.
I feel great. Despite the pain and ordeal aspect it’s impossible to communicate the joy of aloneness in a landscape.
Read the Next Entry in My Bicycle Trip Across America
Read from the beginning of the Cycle Across America