Part 30 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 planning to cycle out of Mississippi and into Arkansas:
Decided last night that Helena would be my destination today, leaving me with two comfortable days to Little Rock. This all depended on the storms. Found a route on the map which would total about eighty four miles and minimise time spent on Highway 6.
Figured I might not get a chance to eat until thirty miles away so had breakfast in Oxford. Hardees for the familiar stodge. Staff and customers nearly all black. I answered all the usual questions.
Sky was pure blue. Not even watery. No danger of any rain for quite some time then. Dropped down the slip road and so began Highway 6. Dual-carriageway with central reservation. No shoulder whatsoever. All vehicles go very fast. Luckily little traffic. Fifteen miles I estimated before my turn off North.
Stopped for drink at a gas station which was really an excuse to find out if my turn-off, Highway 315, was paved all the way.
-It wouldn’t be a Highway if it wasn’t, he laughed at me.
Speed was good. I was doing the best since the day I left Maryland - the day I got knocked down. One or two vehicles wouldn’t go around, or beeped, or had no room to go around, so I went off into the grass - trickier when you’re going fast. Rednecks hollered at me. Dogs in the back of pick-ups barked at me, and when I saw an oversize load sixteen foot wide mobile home coming at me (in my mirror) I went off the road, over the gravel and well into the grass. Those things are so big.
Followed the signs to the State Park North of Lake Sardis. It was beautiful. Here, Kudzu ruled and it made the road to the lake seem it was in somebody’s garden. You play games with the trees and the bushes covered in the stuff and try to see what shapes they look like. I see a lot of giraffes.
And then the dam. This was my greatest sense of space yet on the whole trip. To my right was the entire lake of which I could not see the far end. And on my left (to the west) was a view of the lower lake recreation area and several miles of trees. Saw a whole flock of those carrion eating birds. Black or dark dirty brown. Red beaks, some with red bald heads. And an egret and a heron. About three miles across the dam - I loved it.
But then the entrance to the State Park. I was not supposed to be here. The young attendant at the gate sent me back somewhat but I’d only gone about twenty minutes out of my way. When I did get onto my road - in the lower lake area, it was marked as a scenic route. Certainly nice but not a patch on the dam. In Sardis I would eat.
When I crossed I-55 there were places to eat but I’d wait until the town proper of Sardis. A pretty little downtown but nowhere to eat. I wasn’t going backwards. A garage. Creole Chicken - same as yesterday. Two potato logs, a burger, and a pizza wrap. This was an entirely black neighbourhood. They talked to me but couldn’t understand me much except for one woman who I had to speak to to translate to others.
Spoke with a couple of the boys in the car park. A few fluffy clouds appeared. Five minutes later a spoke broke. Back wheel. The sprocket side. Damn. I can fix broken spokes, but not on the freewheel side. Badly buckled. Tyre wouldn’t go around. Needed to try and get the wheel to rotate and think of where to go.
Helena looks sizeable so might have a bike shop, but Memphis is only forty five miles away too. Spent an hour adjusting other spokes and the wheel would just about go around. To Helena. Maybe I’d be lucky and get in before the shop closed.
Then I remembered it was Saturday. I had to get in before the shop closed - tomorrow was Sunday. Then I remembered it was Labour Day weekend. Shops wouldn’t re-open until Tuesday. Big Problem. Head down and pedal hard for Helena. I could feel every wobble, the bike felt unstable. One more spoke to break and I’m stuck.
Sixteen miles later after trying to enjoy what was the nicest countryside I’d seen for weeks or at least the most different, and of trying to sing happy songs and not be too concerned, and I was in a town called Sledge. All black and very poor and ugly. I loved it and got two cans from the inside of a small garage. The locals were working but stopped to talk to me.
A young white man said he’d seen me before. He hadn’t. All bicyclists are not the same. He gave me a detailed breakdown of the quickest way to Helena - twenty five miles. His daddy was the Mayor of this town so he could go to City Hall and make a copy of a map of Arkansas for me. I didn’t have time if I was to find a bike shop so I said I’d get a map in Helena.
He had a snobbish manner, and gave the impression of taking me away from the black people, as if saving me. And once he befriended me they no longer would talk to me. They were far better company.
Fourteen miles to Highway 61 where I had only three cars overtake me. The whole fourteen miles was just fields of cotton and a couple of other crops. I did a slalom the whole way ’round the millions of fuzzy caterpillars called wollybears. So many grasshoppers too. They kept clattering into me since they can’t fly so good.
The three miles on US 61 was hairy because it was narrow and they go so fast. Into Lula singing a Johnny Clegg song. The Mayor’s son said there was nothing here but hoodlums. Stopped for a can. Old and young men sitting outside a run down garage all came up to me. Some were drunk, some were knowledgeable.
US 49 to the bridge. Hairy again, even more so than 61. Twelve inch shoulder on the bridge it was bye bye to the state of Mississippi. Too dangerous to cycle on the bridge let alone stop and take a photo. I could make it into Helena before five. If they were open ’til six and they existed I’d have a great chance.
The nearest sign to a Welcome to Arkansas my 15th state said, Arkansas traffic laws are enforced from the air. Still too dangerous for a photo. I’d enjoyed watching a yellow old bi-plane spray its crops rather spectacularly as I approached Sledge. With the larger view afforded by the flatter landscape I could spot the water towers which told me where the towns were.
In Helena went past motel and a B&B. To a gas station. Drink. They rang ’round for me. Bike shop in Helena closed at twelve today. The one in West Helena closes at five. It was five to five and too late to make the four miles. So am I stuck for three nights?
At the B&B I was told the city and everywhere for miles was full. Something big on in the casino and the holiday weekend. He brought me in and rang ’round but this just confirmed the fact. Do you have a friend with a shed? I asked, I’d just done eighty two miles and the bike wasn’t well.
-You can stay in the attic for free. There’s a bed there. I’m doing it up but there’s no air-conditioning yet.
So here I am. He gave me drinks, a bed, fed me, introduced me to his other guests, gave me towels etc. My bike is indoors, he let me ring home. He’s been great.
Jennifer and Scott, newly wed in May are guests from Memphis, Tennessee. She’s actually from Alabama. We all chatted for ages in the kitchen before I got washed up and then they said they’d take me to the casino. Cheap food. Free beer. And I threw ten dollars away in the slots - eventually.
Told me all about B-B-Q, about Mississippi (technically where the casino is - on the water for legal reasons), about Alabama. I enjoyed talking with them so much. We all understood each other too - so that freed me up to talk a bit more fluently.
I think tomorrow I’ll just pretend the bike is fine and head over to Brinkley or DeVall’s Bluff. And then the next day (Monday, still a holiday) into Little Rock. John tells me once I get over this famous Ridge it’s all flat farming land. Hopefully that means I won’t be putting a strain on the spokes. If another one goes I’m in big trouble. I could lose several days over this yet. And rain is forecast for tomorrow. Don’t fancy carrying the bike forty miles in the rain.
It’s good to be somewhere where there’s no telly. This is a nice historic town, famed for the Hopewell Indian mounds, for Civil War battles, for blues music festivals, and the Lady Luck Casino. I’m very happy.
Read the Next Entry (#31) in my Bicycle Trip Across America