Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Of Course it Did" or the Ebb and Flow of Disaster and Delight

The people in Missouri have been giving Kansans a run for their money! We didn't think people could get any nicer or more personable to four fools crossing the country on bicycles. But then there was Missoura.

We left from Sedalia just before dawn and rode to Jefferson City (Jeff City) to catch the Katy Trail, the longest rails to trails project in the country and an awesome, shady, quiet (but insanely humid) break from the roads. The surface is packed gravel, and knowing this and the fact we wouldn't go as fast as possible we came in a little skeptical, but the trail was no problem, only one tire exploded (gunshots on the Katy Trail??), and we made it to just outside St. Louis, with a overnight stop in the German town of Hermann. We camped in the town park and were dripping with sweat all night. You do not know humidity, it's been the worst in a lot of people's memories. The next day we headed to Chesterfield, Missouri, a western suburb of St. Louis 20 miles from downtown. Patti O'Mally (remember the Wells Fargo regional VP?) called the St. Louis branch asking for one of the branch managers to see if we could get a place to stay. When Elizabeth Mannen, a financial analyst taking his calls told her he was out of town, Patti O'Mally proceeded to spew our story in a convoluted arc, at the end of which Elizabeth simply said, "well, he's not here, but I'll take them." This is how we met Elizabeth.

The surface is packed gravel, and knowing this and the fact we wouldn't go as fast as possible we came in a little skeptical, but the trail was no problem, only one tire exploded (gunshots on the Katy Trail??), and we made it to just outside St. Louis, with a overnight stop in the German town of Hermann. We camped in the town park and were dripping with sweat all night. You do not know humidity, it's been the worst in a lot of people's memories. You can see what it's done to my camera, so my apologies, it needs a cleaning.

Hermann on the Missouri River as we headed out around dawn.

The next day we headed to Chesterfield, Missouri, a western suburb of St. Louis 20 miles from downtown. Patti O'Mally (remember the Wells Fargo regional VP?) called the St. Louis branch asking for one of the branch managers to see if we could get a place to stay. When Elizabeth Mannen, a financial analyst taking his calls told her he was out of town, Patti O'Mally proceeded to spew our story in a convoluted arc, at the end of which Elizabeth simply said, "well, he's not in town, but I'll take them." Patti was stunned, and this is how we met Elizabeth.

So beyond awesome, she made us amazing salmon with orzo, gave us beers and took us to eat frozen custard, Missouri's delicious obsession. We talked with Elizabeth all afternoon and night and had a great time, it's just incredible the people we meet and what they want to do for us. She also made us a giant breakfast, and said we ate 4 pounds of salmon and then a dozen eggs plus bagels and so many potatoes. She said she wishes she could follow us and cook for us the rest of the way. Trust us, we do too. If you're reading Elizabeth, we're doing great and promise we definitely haven't been eating gas station hot pockets, pop tarts, beef jerky and taco bell (lies).

The next morning we finally headed out around 7, having gotten to sleep around 10:30 (crazy late for us), and made it to downtown as a downpour began. Still, we got to enjoy the Gateway Arch for a little while at least. Stand on your head, hold a chain is both hands, let it hang and you have yourself a little Gateway Arch! Look you didn't even have to come to St. Louis. Actually it really is amazing, one of those things that changes the character of a city so much that people at the time must have said "what??" (to put it politely) but now is so simple in its form that it's iconic. As the torrent came, we had to make it north along the Mississippi, and while on a map it looks pretty straightforward... The Mississippi had other ideas. The street running along the riverfront was on and off flooded by the river, we discovered this after walking our loaded bikes down about 80 steps from the hill where the arch and the rest of the city is located. Arturo thought it might be a good idea to just ride across the river. It wasn't. But he didn't get much wetter than we already were.

Finally after winding through abandoned warehouses north of downtown and talking to workers at the loading docks, the managed to make our way across the river to Illinois, avoiding East St. Louis proper. While it would have been great to include a place that is definitely extremely American, especially in recognition of the extent to which leukemia and other cancers disproportionately affect many impoverished and industrially exposed communities, anyone we told we might head through East St. Louis would literally always say "do you want to die?". East St. Louis is infamous as one of the roughest cities in the country, a place where daytime muggings, carjackings and murders are common. This ride is absolutely for its citizens too, but crossing on bikes may have been, well who knows.

Anyway, just north of East St. Louis we entered an industrial waste zone, and the best way for me to describe what it looked like is a hellish landscape.

But having seen the farms, we had to see the industry, and the workers in these places do incredibly dangerous things in the roughest conditions to support their families. It was definitely a chang of scenery. Of course once past that, Illinois is a lot of corn...
That's the story so far, but we didn't mention that during the entire ride from Elizabeth's house west of St. Louis to Vandalia, Illinois, the day was filled with a huge series of misfortunes and near-disasters, which we figure were just balancing how amazingly we were treated by Elizabeth. Let's summarize: As we were entering downtown, Loreen wanted to use the bathroom at a Del Taco, but going over a grate into the parking lot Loreen punctured her tire with glass AND got a pinch flat. While fixing it, the rain came. Fortunately it was a quick shower. At the Arch, the real rain came, and that one was not a joke. As mentioned, we couldn't find a way to get down to the river except an extremely long cascade of steps, and halfway down Alex's pannier (saddle bag) snapped off, one of the clips already having broken in a crash. We secured it with zip ties and tried to continue along the river, were thwarted by its waters, and had to ask around to find an alternate route to the McKinley Bridge. On the otherside of the bridge, riding on the highway by Venice, Illinois, Arturo's tire exploded hitting a nail or something, ripping his tire up something aweful. We replaced it with one of the foldable tires we've been carrying and continued. A good while later, a sudden stop was made, and since we were all close together our train crashed into itself, and Alex went flying with the supporting struts for Stacy's rear fender getting sheared off and Alex's pannier once again snapping off. Alex hit his knee in the fall but was more shaken up than really hurt thankfully. We zip tied Stacy's fender clamps on and re-zip tied Alex's pannier. The zip ties did not fit on his knees. We should have tried duct tape. Continuing on, Loreen's brakes were constantly rubbing, and at one point heading up a ramp she almost completely stopped, lost her balance and fell, banging up HER knee. We released the rear brakes entirely after repeated attempts to reset the tire and loosen the brakes so we could just deal with it later. It was about 5 pm by this point and we still had more than 30 miles to go. Fortunately the rest of the ride was pretty uneventful, just full of corn. We came into Vandalia after dark, finding a Holiday Inn Express. Unfortunately the manager said they weren't able to donate at that time, but just as we were leaving, Jeff, who we'd been talking to in the lobby for a while as we were waiting, said he'd spring for a room for us because of what we're doing and so we didn't have to ride in the dark any more!

An awesome guy, booming and towering over all of us, heading from Phoenix where he's been doing contract work back home to Michigan. He's a lot of fun to talk to. So at the end of that ridiculously miserable day, we got an amazing room and managed to get a good night's sleep. The balance is maintained and next stop Indiana!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Midwest, with some of the nicest people you'll ever meet

In Great Bend, we finished early, so we had time to go around town and do laundry (which was much needed) and get a good rest before heading off to Abilene, Kansas.

We headed towards the northern part of Kansas and followed the major road I-70 so that we'd hit some large cities on the way. But compared to the stereotypical flatness of Kansas, the roads of northern Kansas are a little hillier than advertised.

You gotta love the farmlands.

After going about 100 miles, we made it to Abilene! Alex went downtown to Sonic while the others went to a motel. He talked to a nice lady named Patti O'Malley, who just so happened to be the Regional Senior Vice President of Wells Fargo (kind of a big deal). She told him, "You know what, I have a cabin at my place that you can go to, so just throw your stuff in the back of my car and I'll drive you there." He promptly accepted the offer.

Alex went to her compound. There were three houses, including a cabin (that was Alex's for the night). He definitely enjoyed the jacuzzi, and I had my own ATV to get around.

Patti O'Malley is big into living organically. Here's a picture of her chicken coop (she even had peacocks on her farm, which Alex tried to chase around to take a picture of). The signs are of companies that Mrs. O'Malley helped found. She grew up in New Canaan, CT, went to school at UCONN - such a crazy coincidence! She had to show Alex her credit card with Jonathan the Husky on it to prove that she went to UCONN.

The offer was given to the other riders to stay at Mrs. O'Malley's compound, but they were settled in the motel and didn't want to head over.

Mrs. O'Malley gave Alex a bunch of herbs - oregano, basil, mint, chocolate mind, lavendar, and aloe - to have some fresh scents on the road (because we're obviously not smelling very fresh throughout the day). However, Alex forgot them in the morning! She made him a delicious breakfast with organic eggs and toast with raspberry pomegranate champagne jelly. It was amazing!

We all met up at a hotel and had breakfast at a diner in Abilene. Before we leave Abilene though, we have to mention that it's the birthplace of Dwight Eisenhower.

Eventually, we made it to Topeka. We were biking on Route 75, and on the other side of the road we saw a local NBC news van. The guy in the car asked us, "Are you guys biking for a charity?" And Arturo replied, "Yeah, we're biking across the country."

So he got out of the news van with a video camera, and Arturo gave an impromptu interview. It kind of caught us off-guard, so I wasn't able to take a picture of it - but I wish I did!

The Days Inn in Topeka donated a room for the night.

After having a complimentary breakfast (always a plus), we went to downtown Topeka to see the capital building.

We started heading towards Kansas City. During one of our breaks, Arturo took this awesome picture. These random views are the kinds of things that you miss during a road trip across the country.

When we got to Kansas City, we stayed at a Holiday Inn just southwest of the city. There was a Green Mill restaurant attached to the place, where they had a special for $10 for a large pizza with two toppings. We took full advantage of that special. And by the way, they have fantastic deep dish pizza.

Near our hotel, there was a bike shop, Turner's cyclery, where the owner tuned up Loreen's bike for free! He was amazingly generous, and even gave us some cool key chains to go with Arturo's expired Nevada license plate.

Just south of Kansas city are some pretty ritzy suburbs. This entire shopping district had some interesting architecture. We also crossed into Missouri, which was uneventful, because we merely crossed a road called State Line Road.

We saw an awesome fountain in the art district of Kansas City, and with the hot, humid weather, we had to indulge ourselves by going in.

That pretty cool building in the distance is actually a Cheesecake Factory. Loreen took a trip there to pick up some of her favorite Red Velvet Cheesecake.

We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express in Kansas City. Stacy and Arturo went to the movie theatres to see Salt while Alex and Loreen (who were kind of upset that Toy Story 3 was not playing theatres in Kansas City) went to the pool to relax.
Alex took a stroll through the sculpture garden.

And a tour of the Sculpture Garden isn't complete without a picture of one of the giant shuttlecocks.

The next day, we reluctantly left Kansas City (it's just so neat here!) and headed east.
We stopped by at a restaurant in Warrensburg, Missouri, and a woman saw us with our jerseys on. She asked us what we were doing, and we explained our bike ride for Lea's Foundation. She told us that her son struggled through three bouts of leukemia, but he passed away. She thanked us for what we were doing. Later on, we realized that she paid for our meals without telling us and left the restaurant.
Sometimes rides get tough. I'm constantly dirty, sweaty, and gross. I miss my family and friends. I'd like to lie down in my own bed, and I'd like to have the familiar comfort of being at home. But when I meet people who have had loved ones who passed away from leukemia, or people who have had leukemia themselves, and I see how grateful they are for what we're doing, I know that I can keep on going.
Tonight, we're staying at the Comfort Inn at Sidelia, Missouri. It's 6:30, and we're trying to get up early to beat the heat, so I'm embarassed to admit that it's almost my bedtime. So good-night everyone!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kansas didn't even greet us!

We woke up from the Travel Inn of La Junta at 2 AM, and left really early to start biking before the heat came. Out of La Junta, we saw a huge thunderstorm towards the east, but luckily by sunrise the clouds dissipated and the storm subsided.

About 50 miles into our ride, we passed by Lamar, Colorado. We've been looking for a theatre because we really want to watch Toy Story 3. However, when we finally found one in Lamar, we had to continue biking.

Considering the "Welcome to Utah: Life Elevated" and "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" signs, we were expecting some sort of greeting from Kansas. The first sign that we saw in Kansas that gave us a clue that we were in Kansas was a sign that said "Kansas Department of Transportation: Road Work Ahead: Give 'em A Brake. A little anticlimactic, but we'll take it.

About 12 miles past the Kansas border, we arrived at Syracuse, KS. The first thing I noticed was the Hamilton County Fair and Barbecue sign.

We had to check out the fair! We figure that if you're biking across the country, you might as well check out the local events to get a taste of the area. Alex and Arturo had some fantastic BBQ with funnel cake.

In Syracuse, the pastor of the First Covenant Church (who is a graduate of Dartmouth, so he and Loreen had a bonding moment talking about New Hampshire) allowed us to take showers at his home. Then, he opened up a school that he owns for us to spend the night.

That night, Kansas was exceptionally hot and very muggy, so we slept on the floor of an air-conditioned classroom.

We left Syracuse, and soon passed into the Central Time Zone. About 50 miles into our ride, we made it to Garden City. We got there around 11:30, which is when the Pizza Hut buffet started, so we took advantage of the timing and ate our weight in pizza. (Later, it was rather uncomfortable to bike on such a full stomach, so we're now questioning our decision to eat such a huge meal in the middle of a biking day.)

We stopped by at a bike shop and picked up some essentials and tuned up our bikes. Then we got a little side tracked in Wal-Mart (which tends to happen considering how much stuff Wal-Mart has), but we eventually left the Garden City and headed towards Dodge City.

The winds in Kansas are pretty strong (one lady in Syracuse, who really loved answering questions with stories, said "'The winds always blowing in all directions in Kansas. Sometimes it's in this direction; other times, it's in this. If it's not blowing, I'll tell you what; you're probably scared. In the winter time, the snow blows like this" - she moved her hands across horizontally.) We have to agree with her, the winds are pretty strong, but luckily they were blowing generally in our direction.

So the winds helped us get through the last 50 miles into Dodge City, Kansas. The Days Inn kindly donated a room to our cause. They were probably the most comfy beds that we've slept on during this trip. After a 100 mile day, we decided to go to bed early to rest up.

After getting up at 4 o'clock from Dodge City, we left and started heading towards Great Bend. On the way, there was a 3 mile stretch of wind farms.

At Kinsley, Kansas, we almost missed this sign, but luckily one of us spotted it. We're halfway home!

Kansas is chock-full of silos and grain-elevators. Apparently, the wheat harvest has just finished, and they're preparing to start the corn harvest soon. So as we're biking across Kansas, we see the completely cut down wheat fields and waiting-to-be-cut-down corn fields.

The winds were blowing in our direction, so we biked 87 miles in six hours (including breaks and stops, which is pretty fast considering that we're carrying all of our gear on our bikes). When we made it to Great Bend, we ate at a Chinese Buffet (we learned from our Pizza Hut experience to eat buffets after we're done biking), and the Days Inn donated a room to us.

It's only 3 o'clock in the afternoon and we're completely done for the day! Unfortunately, the movie theatre here isn't playing "Toy Story 3"so we'll have to wait for another time.

Monday, July 19, 2010

No more mountains?

When we arrived at Valley View Hot Springs, Loreen made us a delicious stir-fry (with vegetables (?!) which we haven't eaten in a long time). We went to the hot springs late a night, and Alex, who went to a tiny school in Waterbury, CT, coincidentally met a woman who also graduated from that school.

The hot springs were so removed from the light pollution of civilization that you could look into the sky and see the streak of the Milky Way. Pretty awesome.

The next morning, we weren't exactly excited leave the hot springs, so we spent most of the day there. There was a dirt road for about 7 miles getting out of the place (which is impossible to bike on with our tour bikes), so Arturo's friend Alexa helped shuttle them down to the paved road.

We started towards the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We were in a valley surrounded by mountains.

We also passed by signs for the Colorado Reptile Park. However, since we left late from the hot springs, we weren't able to go. People informed us that there are tilapia farms in the area, and to dispose of the extra fish parts, they started growing crocodiles to eat them. Eventually, this endeavour became the Reptile Park.

Everything in this part of Colorado is so "crunchy." For those of you who haven't heard of this term before (only 50% of the Coast to Coast riders this year have), crunchy refers to upper-middle class people who enjoy alternative lifestyles. The root of crunchy actually comes from a description of granola.

We came across a solar panel farm, which I think fits the crunchy atmosphere.

We set up tents at Oasis Campgrounds, which is about 3 miles down the road from the Sand Dunes.

Sunset from our camp site.

Arturo went to the University of Colorado, and lived in Colorado for quite a bit, so quite a few of his friends came to visit us at the Sand Dunes. Andy and Julie came with baby Remy (pictured below), and they made us a delicious salad (once again, we're having vegetables!) for dinner. At the dunes, we met up with Susan and Justin.
We loved playing with Remy, and we wanted to take us with him, but I don't think his mother would have appreciated it.

The sand dunes are a pretty cool experience. There are these massive sand piles on the west side of these mountains. These are the biggest sand dunes in North America (about 700 feet tall). We took a rest day at Oasis and explored the area.

The dunes at sunset.

We left Oasis early the next morning, and went over La Veta Pass. Little did we know, it's actually the last pass of the Rocky Mountains that we'll go through. I'll definitely miss these downhill signs.

We eventually made it to Walsenburg (the court house is pictured below). A motel kindly donated a room to us.

This morning, we left Walsenburg towards La Junta. We traveled about 73 miles without any services, and considering that it was hot (about 100 degrees), we were scared about running out of water. We bought about 5 extra liters of water and carried them with us just in case.
Here's Loreen biking past some farm. Notice how there's no mountains in the distance.

About 36 miles into the ride, we saw a Christmas tree, which was bizarre because there was nothing else in the area.

Today must have been the hottest day that we've biked since we started. Who knew that western Colorado was a desert?

Trees are a sign that we're near civilization.

Loreen biking into La Junta.

We're staying in La Junta today. They have a nice downtown area with shops and a movie theatre. The others are going around town looking for a place to spend the night.