Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Trials and Tribulations on a Trail (Day 36-39)

I got up around 9am and strolled the 2-3 miles to downtown Mauston, arriving at the McDonald's just as the rain started coming down. The McDonald's there was one of the biggest and busiest ones I've ever seen. The parking lot alone was the size of a Walmart. By the time I was finished downing my three McDoubles and filling up my bottles with iced tea, rain had stopped and was replaced with glorious sunshine, so I headed back onto the road. Before leaving town, I passed the local Middle School where a long line of 13-15-year-olds were practicing their marching band routine. They were a bit muddled and out-of-tune, but provided a good soundtrack for my strut down State Road 82.



I spent the rest of the day walking along windy roads through the Wisconsin ranges, which is composed mostly of a metamorphic rock left behind from the Ice Age. As night swooped over the interlocking land of ridges and valleys, I reached the outskirts of the town of Elroy, WI. This was a significant milepost. From there on in, I'd be on nothing but off-road trails... all the way to the Minnesota border.

The next morning, I woke up to cold, heavy thunderstorms that swept over the land like a gigantic Eskimo car wash (if there is such a thing). I fortunately had the foresight to camp near a large gazebo, to which I quickly ran under to use as cover. Knowing that scattered showers were expected for the entire day, I dashed back into town during a short dry spell and hid in the Elroy library, waiting patiently for an opportune time to venture out onto the trail. According to the radar map, a big band of rain clouds were heading our way from the west, but it looked like they might skirt up to the north and miss us completely. I looked up into the questionable sky and decided to take a chance and head down the Elroy-Sparta Rail Trail.

It was 6 miles to the next town of Kendall and I figured I could walk it in about an hour and half to two hours. Unfortunately, it was around mile 4 that I got hit with a vicious downpour. Basically, every single part of my body got drenched. Slosh formed in my shoes, solid waterfalls emerged down the arch of my back, and every piece of clothing stuck to my skin so close, it felt like they were painted on. But as awful and unfortunate of a moment in hiking as it was, I still managed to keep my sense of humor and laugh it off. (Man, this walking is bringing out the best in me!)

By the time I reached Kendall, the precipitation had stopped, but the sun remained hidden behind the predominate clouds in the sky, so any attempt to dry out my soaked items was pretty much futile. So, resolved that I wouldn't be wearing any dry and comfortable wardrobe, I bought a fist-full of Tabasco-flavored Slim Jims at the local mart and hoped that their spicy boldness would warm my soul. (The Slim Jim is the number 1 brand of meat sticks in my book, and they got that intense flavor and snap that I love! Regrettably, they did not help dry out my shoes or clothing.)

The next day, more scattered showers were in the forecast, but luckily, they ended up skipping our particular area. However, that didn't stop me from constantly staring into the sky, scrutinizing every Cumulus cloud that entered my field of vision, and gasping with dreaded anticipation every time I thought I felt a raindrop. So, even though we had a dry day, it didn't stop me from being in constant panic-mode. However, I did still manage to find occasional moments of relaxation as I trotted down the serene trail.



The best thing about the E-S trail (besides giving me a break from the loud, speeding cars) is that it is on an old RR bed, so it has a nice low grade; never more than a 2-3 degree incline. Often, I was walking above the general lay of the land on these man-made ridges, or through hillsides that were blasted open, which made for a very picturesque hike. The trail also happens to have three old tunnels on it that shoot through various mountainsides (the last one being almost a mile long). Some friendly kids were at the opposite end of the first tunnel, and they were kind enough to help me find my way through the dark passageway by screaming and hooting and hollering as I stumbled along the path. Gee, kids in the Badger State sure are accommodating.

The next morning, it was only 4 and half miles to the town of Sparta, which not only had a surplus of fast food restaurants to choose from (something lacking in the small towns I was passing through the last three days), but also had the world's largest bicyclist. When I read about it the days leading up to my arrival, I thought the description was slightly off and what they really meant was the world's largest bicycle... but nope... sure enough, it was a gigantic man on top of a bike. And he talked, too! They had a corny 90-second message that kept repeating over and over, telling you all the wonderful sights and attractions you can see while staying in Sparta. The best part was the beginning when he blurted, "Hi there!" and then directed you to gaze up at his face by clarifying, "No, up here!"

From Sparta, I started walking on the La Crosse River trail that took me further west and closer to the Minnesota border. My plan is: once I reach the end of Wisconsin and cross the Mississippi River, I will finally rent a car and complete the retracing of my 2001 walk at 65 MPH.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

It Sounded Like Baraboo... Whatever THAT Is (Day 33-35)

Day 33 started with a visit to the Foreverton -- the world's largest scrap-metal sculpture, which sits inside Dr. Evermor's park. However, calling it simply a sculpture is not doing it justice; it's a complex, magical assembly of salvaged machines, gears, cables and engines, welded and bolted together to create a fantastical Victorian apparatus from some Jules Vern or H.G. Wells novel. And the ham that he is, Tom Every, the 71-year-old artist behind the Forevertron, creates an elaborate fable behind each of his artistic inventions, often referring to himself in the third person, under the name of his alter-ego -- Dr. Evermor. "The Foreverton is designed and built in a time frame of around 1890," he explained, "whereas our dear doctor is a scholarly professor who thought he could perpetuate himself through the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam inside a glass ball inside a copper egg!" (Quote from roadsideamerica.com)

Aside from these sci-fi devices, adorned with things like "lasers" and "decompression chambers," the massive park behind Delaney's Surplus Store was filled with other metal sculptures of all shapes and sizes... although his ex-wife Elenore told me, "Dr. Evermor keeps wanting to make them bigger and bigger." A lot of the pieces resemble odd-looking bugs or birds, including a menagerie of musical birds made out of old tubas, saxophones, banjos and trombones. There's also a huge Chinese dragon which can be played like a colossal xylophone... which Elenore demonstrated for me with great flare.

By the end of the day, I left the confines of Dr. Evermor's creations and reached the town of Baraboo, which is the birthplace of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I celebrated this historical tidbit by doing a series of tumbles and flips down the street. Then, after loading up with some Taco Bell food, I hiked another 4 miles north and ended up camping next to a cornfield across the road from the Ho-Chunk Casino. (I called the casino before setting up my tent to see if they had any inexpensive rooms, but according to the deadpan clerk on the phone, the cheapest they had was $135 plus tax.)

The next morning, it rained, rained, rained and... it rained. I hid in a Burger King in the Wisconsin Dells area for several hours as droves of tourists came and left, but the rain would not stop. Finally, unable to wait any longer, I threw on my rain gear and dove into the wet abyss. I knew I was in expensive tourist country (Wisconsin Dells is like a crappy Disney World in the hills), so I figured the chances of me finding cheap lodgings was slim to none. But on a whim, I decided to pop into the office of the locally-run Holiday Motel to see what the rate was. The rotund Spanish lady behind the desk looked at me, dripping all over the place, with reserved curiosity. When I asked her what the rate was, she said, "Forty Dollars."



This number I found quite pleasing... but to push the envelope, I asked, "Is that plus tax?"

She paused for a moment, then relinquished, "Well, you pay cash, it can be forty dollars even." I smiled and slapped down two sawbucks and she handed me a rusty room key.

The next day, with an end to the rain, I left the motel and traipsed through the heart of the tourist trap known as the Wisconsin Dells. Aside from the endless numbers of oddball motels, there were fun houses, water parks, roller coasters, waterski shows, monster truck rides, and of course, boat tours of "the dells" -- the small, secluded glen surrounded by unique sandstone rock formations that often resemble things like clouds, castles, or a grand piano. I approached many of these theme park attractions, considering buying a ticket, but the prices were all outrageously high and the quality seemed amazing low. But I had a ten dollar bill that needed to be spent, so I went to a Taco Bell and got the Volcano Combo Box for $6.09.

After my meal, I went to a gas station on the outskirts of town to pick up a few items for the next leg of my walk. I told the cashier about how my bike trip turned into a walking trip and she quickly offered up an abandoned bicycle they found a few months ago behind the store. As much as I appreciated her kind benefaction, I was now embracing the simplicity of walking again and declined the free, albeit rusty, bike.

I then marched along Highway 12 for another fifteen miles, traversing the rolling Wisconsin farmlands, and knowing quite well that the hills and bluffs will be getting bigger and tougher as I continue northwest. After passing through the small town of Lyndon Station, there wasn't very much to see in this farm country... except, I did find a pile of very odd picket signs on the side of the road. It appeared as though they were discarded signs from some farmer's market or something, but on their own, strewn along some stark, less-traveled road, they seemed singularly odd and whimsical. I couldn't resist picking up a random sign and picketing passing cars with stoic certainty. I firmly help up a sign that read "SAUSAGE," without a single indication of irony.



After tossing the sausage sign aside, I walked into the night for a few hours more, finally camping in some trees just south of the town of Mauston, WI.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Walking Fool's Fool (Day 30-32)

On a regular basis, I often ask myself the poignant question, "What the hell am I doing?" And as I find myself tripping over my own footsteps from eight years before, I'm asking that question a whole lot more. "What the hell am I doing?"

Biking my 2001 walk seemed like a fun and sensible thing to do... I could revisit the places and people I saw nearly a decade ago, and I could do it in a fairly rapid pace, while still exercising and challenging my endurance. But when it ends up with me walking along the exact, same shoulder I walked in 2001, it feels ridiculously stupid and pointless... like watching a rerun of a game show you just got through watching. ("Wow, I can't wait until she picks case number 12! I can't wait to find out how much is inside... again!") And I've been shaking my head even more ruefully than usual after deciding to extend my walk beyond Madison, WI, and try to make it all the way to La Crescent, MN... adding an additional 150+ miles to my trip. "What the hell am I doing?"

After leaving the backyard of my newly acquired friend, Ty, I trotted along County Road A until hitting Stoughton, WI -- a small town south of Madison, whose streets are lined with Norwegian flags and is home to the term "coffee break." The best thing about the town, though, was that it had a bright and beautiful McDonald's restaurant. It had been a few days since experiencing cheap food, free refills, and unlimited, hassle-free seating time. McDonald's are wonderful for being able to sit and not worry about a waitress coming over to bother you or an uneasy local owner eying you suspiciously as you wear out your welcome. Most fast food joints have young, apathetic workers who couldn't care less how long you stayed at that corner booth.

After Stoughton, the rain started coming down and my feet started getting rather wet as I trudged along Highway 51. Eventually, I found refuge at the Rodeway Inn in South Madison. The rate was a fairly reasonable $49.95, which I was able to get reduced to $43.95 by just looking pathetic. However, a few hours earlier at a convenience store, I must have looked downright nefarious, because the big bearded dude behind the counter accusingly asked me as I walked through the door, "What do you want?" I stopped and looked at him oddly, and then he continued, "You're not supposed to have a backpack in here."

"Well, then, I don't have to stay," I plainly replied and walked out the door.

After a good night's rest at the Rodeway Inn (which, by the way, was huge! It took me literally 6 minutes to walk from the front desk to my room.), I got up the next morning and raced to Ella's Animatronic Deli on the north side of Madison. It's a deli/restaurant that is filled with hundreds of mechanical toys, robots and gadgets and has a full-scale merry-go-round out front. The place looked like the Choo-Choo Diner times one hundred... not only were there trains, planes and automobiles, but singing clocks, dancing cartoon characters and a plethora of trinkets I would had loved to snatch for my own. I was ready to go inside for lunch, but the wait for a table was over an hour, so I went to a nearby KFC instead.



By nightfall, I was on the west side of town and ready to do some serious walking... instead of sightseeing strolling. I found my way to Route 12, which was a heavy-duty 4-lane freeway that prohibited pedestrians. Fortunately, there was a nice bike trail that paralleled the highway, so I could walk through the dark night without fear of cars, trucks or cops. A few miles later, I hit a large stretch of farmlands and all was black, except for the occasional headlight or distant porch light. Needless to say, I was quite surprised when I walked around a bend and discovered a small bar called the Missouri Tavern‎, situated in the middle of nowhere. The converted farmhouse glowed in the dark like a majestic spaceship; a large beacon of cheap booze and loud music. Figuring it was a good time for a break, I sauntered into the honkytonk, to the sheer delight of the young bartender. "Let me guess," he beamed while waving his index finger at me, "you're a hiker!" I nodded and he proceeded to give me a free round of beer. "You look like you could use this," he shouted over the blaring country music, as he slid a frothy glass jar of Pabst Blue Ribbon.



After a couple more rounds of PBRs and finally realizing that the 23-year old ladies were not staring at me because of my masculine beauty but for my awkward, shabby appearance, I made my exit. But before I left, the still enthusiastic bartender plopped into my hand three wooden coins... each redeemable for a free drink. "In case you ever come by the Missouri Tavern‎ again." A few miles later I found a patch of pines next to a large farm and set up my tent for the night.

The next morning I walked 10 more miles to the Sauk City, a town of 12 thousand nestled along the grand Wisconsin River. Still a little hungover from the night before, I knew I needed some nice greasy food, so I bustled over to the town's McDonald's. While there, I spotted a rather curious old fellow who came in to buy a pair of 1-dollar chicken sandwiches. As he placed his tray on his table, he reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a salvaged McDonald's cup he obviously had been saving from a past visit. He then took the dented paper cup over to the soda fountain and essentially stole a serving of Diet Coke. He didn't show a hint of guilt or nervousness as he boldly downed his pilfered beverage.



Around 6 o'clock, I headed north through town, weaving around schools, residential homes and laughing/mocking teen drivers. After I passed the municipal airport and a grungy hotel that advertised "10 stays, 1 free," I got back into sparse farmland. I ended up sleeping in an abandoned field, just south of the town Bluffview.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Giant Cows, Pumpkins and Kindness (Day 29-30)

I spent the night under a tree by some railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere. It rained through the night and I woke up the next day to a leaky tent and a wet sleeping bag. But the sun was peaking through the clouds by late-morning, so I hung out my items to dry while resting in the unincorporated town of Avalon (population: 387). I plopped down onto the sidewalk and feasted upon one of my soggy ham sandwich I had stowed away, while watching my tent and ground sheet flap in the wind from a pair of sign posts.

Nine miles later, I reached the heart of Janesville, a city of around 60,000 people and home to Bessie -- a 16-foot-tall, 20-foot-long, one-ton fiberglass cow. Apparently, she's been moved around a bit over the last couple years and her fate was uncertain, but when I came through, she was standing tall and looked just fine. After dancing in front of the gigantic heifer for a few minutes, I adjourned to the Motel 6 for a good night's rest. It was fabulous to be able to sleep indoors for a change! (God bless a/c.)

The next morning, I veered off the main highway again and took some back roads through the Rock River Valley. While cutting through some farmlands, I spotted a large orange mass hovering above the distant treeline. As far as I could make out, it appeared to be a huge pumpkin head, floating in the sky. The sight was both magnificent and frightening, as I feared that black magic might be involved in creating this apparition. However, as I got closer, I realized it wasn't some magical entity, but rather a farmer's grain silo, with the top painted orange to make it look like a big jack-o-lantern.



Relieved that the evil Saints of Hallow weren't trying exact revenge on me for some past inadvertent infraction, I did a quick dance in front of the farm and walked off to the next town of Edgerton, some 7-8 miles away.

In Edgerton, I revisited the A&W Restaurant that I went to on my 2001 walk, and it was just as delightful as I remembered. I got a juicy bacon cheeseburger, crispy onion rings and an ice-cold root beer that actually came in a frosted glass mug. The chilled mug and the scantily-dressed waitresses made the meal one of my favorites so far on this trip.



After a quick stop at a local C-store, I headed north towards the next town of Stoughton (which I've been foolishly mispronouncing for the last two days). Once again, I veered off the main highway and hopped on County Road A (all the county roads in Wisconsin are lettered instead of numbered) and started walking west as the sun slowly drifted below the horizon.

Just as things started getting really dark, a big burly guy came rolling by on a bike that looked a bit too small for him. His name was Ty, and he offered me an evening's greetings. He asked me why I happened to be walking in the middle of Wisconsin farmland in the dark and I ended up telling him the whole elaborate story of past walks, stolen bikes and my goal of reaching Madison, WI. It seemed as if my stories of ongoing travels moved him in a personal way... bringing back memories of when he was younger and free to roam the earth. Knowing that I'd be setting up camp fairly soon, Ty offered his property to sleep on. He told me that he had a large boat in his yard that I could sleep on if I wanted, and if not, I was more than welcome to pitch my tent on his lawn. Sensing my hesitation, Ty casually dropped the info that he had a wife and three kids, letting me know he wasn't some lone farmer who invites strangers to his home, only to eventually ask them to "put the lotion in the basket or it gets the hose again."

Still not fully committing to his offer, I walked along with Ty to his backyard to check out the accouterments. Sure enough, there was a big white schooner parked in the back of his house... but the thing seemed a bit confining and was a little stale smelling, so I decided to simply set up camp on the grass next to it. Even though it was quite dark by this point, I could tell Ty was beaming with joy with the fact that I decided to stay the night, and he quickly gave me the tour of all the amenities he had to offer. "I can set up some lights and give you electricity, if ya like," he announced, pointing to some extension cords he had in the barn. "And we got an outside faucet there. It's nice and cool and tastes good. Plus, we got the outside shitter, so you'll be all set."

It was nice being able to camp outdoors on a nice piece of flat, grassy land without worrying about being on private property or waking up to realize I was snoozing in a garden made-up of poison ivy and sumac. I slept a good, solid sleep that night.



The next morning I was awoken at 7 o'clock (a bit early for a fool like me) by Ty baring gifts: toast, a hard-boiled egg, and hot chocolate. Even though I wished I was able to get a couple more hours of sleep, his generosity helped perk me up. Then, for the next hour or so, Ty kept returning with more items to donate to my walk, including: berries, Q-tips, twist-ties, a tiny book-light, cherries, and a chart of the evening stars. He regretted that he recently sold a bunch of his old bikes, or he would have given me one, but I told him I was actually enjoying being on foot again; you don't have to worry about mechanical failures, it getting stolen, and you can walk in places you can't bike. But I thanked him profusely for all his charity and finally managed to get packed and on my way.

Meeting a guy like Ty gives me hope that the world isn't such a crappy place after all, and I walked with a little more spring in my step. (However, let me be clear... those bike thieves in Chicago can still eat me!)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back to My Walking Ways (Day 26-28)

After playing hide and seek in the dark with the Parks Department security car for an hour, I found a patch of trees in the Algonquin Woods Preserve to camp in... hidden from the eyes of any park dwellers and fairly unadorned of poison ivy. The next morning, I got up and hiked to the town of Niles, home of the Leaning Tower of Niles -- a replica of the famous Italian tower in Pisa. The structure stands at 94 feet, roughly half the size of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it felt like the real thing to me. And besides, once you calculate the savings in overseas airfare to Italy, you'll be more than satisfied with this Chicago suburb's rendition.



From there, I walked to the next-door Target to buy some snacks and a new pair of shorts. I took my old, dirty, torn-up, poison-ivy-infected shorts and carefully placed them in the nearest trash receptacle, in hopes that science has found a way to destroy such a monstrosity in apparel. I then tightened my backpack straps and continued walking north-west.

By 4pm, I was in the next town of Des Plaines, where I rushed to the library to use their bathroom and use their computer lab. (I took a crap in one of them... try to guess which one.) Around 5 o'clock, I was ready for an early dinner, so I headed over to the Choo-Choo Diner, where I heard they serve your food from a moving, electrified, miniature train. I was very excited with the prospect of being served by a child's toy, but when I arrived... the place was closed. At first, I was afraid that some out-of-control urban renewal program was forcing the diner to be shut-down and destroyed, but then I realized... the diner simply closes at 3pm on Sundays. (Oops!)

To add to my woes of the closed Choo-Choo, I discovered that my newly-bought video camera was no longer working. I think I dropped the 800-dollar electronic item one time too many. The whole point of this trip was to film the people and places of my 2001 walk for my WALKING FOOL documentary... and now I was stuck in the tiny town of Des Plaines with no bike and no video camera. The closest electronic store was a Best Buy in the town of Crystal Lake, which was another 20 miles away, so I wasn't able to reach it until the next day. Thankfully, nothing hugely interesting happened in-between.

Once in Crystal Lake and armed with a (cheaper) video camera, it was back to walking. I headed north on Route 14 to the town of Harvard, and from there, it was seven short miles to the Wisconsin border, which I reached sometime around 10pm. After chewing on some leftover dough from my Chicago-style pizza slice I bought the day before, I walked another few miles to the next town of Walworth, WI, where I set up my tent in the field behind the Subway.

The next morning, I woke up to a few light rain showers, packed up my tent, and walked along 14 to the next town of Darien. I then stopped off at a gas station/convenience store to load up with some food and drink for my next leg of the walk. I wanted to be sure that I had enough stuff to last me to the next town of Janesville, which was over 20 miles away. (In the peak of my 2008 walk, 20 miles between towns would be a cakewalk, but since I'm out of practice, such a long gap got me a bit nervous.)

I grabbed a couple sandwiches, some beef jerky, a bag of chips and several bottles/cans of various liquids, and loaded them into my pack... adding an extra 8-9 pounds to my cargo. However, to my surprise, the one thing I didn't leave the convenience store with was napkins... that's because they didn't have any. Who ever heard of a gas station convenience store without napkins? They had a full deli, hot pizza, and a huge array of other snacks and treats... but nothing to wipe your face with. When I pointed out this depletion to the Asian man behind the counter (who spoke cliché broken-English), all he could do was offer me a few sheets of Kleenex from his private stock. He nodded with expected gratitude as he handed me these flimsy tissues, which practically fell apart as soon as they left his hand.



A few hours later, I found myself on a desolate farm road in southern Wisconsin. I wanted to get off of Route 14 (and the heavy traffic associated with it), so I decided to take some back roads for the next 12 miles or so. By 10pm, I reached a railroad bed and found a nice full tree to set my tent under.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What To Do When You're Bikeless (Day 25)



I entered Chicago with great jubilation. I was undeniably proud with my accomplishment... that I cycled from the beaches of New Jersey to the heart of the windy city. Then, all those blissfully exuberant feelings were gone with the wind when my bike got stolen!!

After smashing my helmet and cleanly-cut cable onto the sidewalk, I returned to my cruddy Howard Johnson's hotel room to wallow in pain and suffering. I had lost all faith in humanity. The world seemed like a place I didn't want to explore anymore; a place where people nonchalantly steal bikes like they are taking a mint out of that bowl in the front of a diner. "What? A bike without a titanium safe wrapped around it? Oh, that deserves to be stolen!" I guess having a bike locked with a simple cable is like an insult to anyone strapped for cash. It's like dangling a sack of money, secured with only a silk ribbon.

Some folks have suggested that since I still had my trailer and my belongings in my hotel room, why not buy a new bike and be done with my self-pity. Unfortunately, to attach the trailer, I needed a special rear-wheel skewer, which needed to be special ordered. The pallid, unruffled salesman at the local bike shop whiffed, "Well, since it's Saturday, we probably won't get that new part until Tuesday or Wednesday. Mmm..." That meant not only would I have to buy a new part and a new bike, but I'd have to pay for three or four more days in Chicago where the cheapest hotel is $125 per night.

So, I thanked the shrugging slacker salesman, returned to my hotel room, packed my belongings, threw my trailer into a nearby dumpster and started walking out of Chicago. As sullen and depressed as I was, I still didn't want to give up on my journey to South Dakota and I didn't want to get into a car or bus, so I did what any other walking fool would do: walk. My plan is to walk from Chicago, IL to Madison, WI, where I'll rent a car and drive the rest of my route to Sioux Falls, SD. It's only 143 miles, and I figured I could do that in 7-10 days.

Around 11am, I left downtown Chicago, bought some much-needed hiking socks at a camping store, and headed north through the vast city. When I first mapped out my route back in New York, it included many side trips -- after all, I was expecting to be on a bike -- but since I was on foot, I took the most straight and direct route out. I needed to be out of the urban sprawl by nightfall so I could find a suitable place to camp. However, even though I was racing to exit the city, I did manage to visit the infamous Biograph Theater where John Dillinger was shot and killed by FBI agents.

From there, it was onward and upward towards the first Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, which has a very eclectic residency. There was a large community of Greeks, Indians, and Chinese there, and I had trouble understanding most them whenever they spoke to me. I did a lot of nodding and feign understanding (punctuated with many "ahhs'" and "I sees"). However, pretending to understand was a little troublesome when I needed crucial walking directions.



By sunset, I made it to the town of Niles, north-west of Chicago. There I stopped off at the famous Superdawg restaurant for one of their renowned hot dogs... with all the fixings. While there, I chatted with Flo, the owner of the place, who started the business with her husband in 1948 to help pay for his college tuition. They eventually gave up the idea of "higher learning" and focused their attention full-time on the hot dog business... and the rest is history.

While munching on my second dog, I met up with a 65-year-old guy named Jim, who was very keen to hear about my walking adventures. He told me that he was a walker himself, and he walked across the country... but he did it "virtually." When I asked him what he meant, he told me that he walks around 7-10 miles a day in his hometown, then goes home and logs the miles in Google maps as if he was walking across the country. At the time we met at the Superdawg, he was just a few days short of 1,000 consistent days of walking. I was quite impressed, considering that he managed to keep it up through back pains, sprained joints and a severe case of kidney stones. Since completing his walk across the USA, he is now walking across Ireland, and blogging it on his website, Walk Forrest Walk. Make sure to check it out... and tell him the Walking Fool sent ya.

An hour later, night fell and I knew it was time to move on. From Superdawg, I disappeared into the nearby park to set up my tent and sleep amongst the rapid squirrels and raccoons.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Gone Again! (Day 24)



I am the stupidest man in the world! I parked my bike in front of a library in North Chicago. One hour later, I was left with a cut lock and cable. Bastards!

I am now stuck in Chicago, with no bike, a useless trailer and no place to sleep for under $135 per night. What to do? Where to go? How to do it?

I am feeling great sadness.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Chicago! (Day 22-23)

After setting up my tent near a bridge just south of Gary, Indiana, I realized I just waded through a knee-high field of poison ivy to get there. So, I hid my bike behind some trees, stowed my trailer on a mound of mud under the bridge, and trotted over to a nearby tavern -- The Groggy Morning Sports Bar over on County Line Road -- for a quick clean-up. I ordered the 75 cent draft beer (which comes in a tiny, plastic 5 oz. cup) and dashed to the men's room to scrub and scour my tainted legs and shoes. After wiping down any potentially ivy-infected skin, I returned to my stool to enjoy my 3/4 of a dollar Bud.



Then, to add a little more atmosphere to the already displeasurable surroundings, the Karaoke machine got kicked on and I got to sit back and enjoy off-key, slurry renditions of songs ranging from Garth Brooks to Vanilla Ice. My cue to leave was when some grey, long-haired version of my father stepped up to the stage and mumbled his sour version of Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" to the inattentive crowd of fat ladies and drunk farmers.

After stumbling back to my tent and falling sound asleep, I woke up the next day to the threat of rain and the prospect of cycling though dangerous neighborhoods. I made it through the day without any major problems and arrived at a Motel 6 in Hammond, IN, for an early-afternoon retirement. By 8pm, I was getting restless and was tempted to visit the gentleman's club next-door, Deja Vu Showgirls of Hammond‎. I was particularly enticed by their sign that read: 1000's of gorgeous ladies, and 3 ugly ones. But, before I could enter, my senses came back to me and I returned to my motel room. I might have gone inside if they had a sign that read: You're guaranteed not to leave here broke, with a depressed, empty-feeling.

The next morning, it was off to Chicago! I checked-out of my motel and headed north... going through crappy, busy industrial areas, where the narrow shoulders are infested with discarded pieces of metal and shards of glass. These roads are also filled with an endless stream of large, boxy semi-trucks, chugging only a few inches from your bike's handlebars. It makes for a very unrelaxing bike ride.



The last stop in Indiana was East Chicago -- a dark and depressing strip of crumbling buildings, cracked sidewalks and dangerous-looking men. While stopped at a street corner, a shabby (but bulky) man with half his teeth missing, slinked up next to me, and held out a cell phone and a tiny ear piece. He then cornered me up against a wall trying to get me to buy the phone from him. "Ten dollars!" he bellowed at me while displaying the obviously stolen merchandise. I told him I had no money and didn't need a phone, which elicited the response: "Eight dollars!"

I shook my head and slowly saddled up onto my bike, trying to make it clear I wouldn't be a customer but also trying not to insult/anger the guy. The hulking man slyly looked around, noting the thinning out traffic, and moved in closer. "Come'on, man. Seven dollars. It's got an ear piece. See?" I told him again that I didn't need a phone and he responded with, "You can sell it!" By this point, my feet were firmly on their pedals and I gave him a sympathetic shake of the head and took off before he could stab me with the cell phone's antenna.

A few miles later, I was in the state of Illinois and in the city of Chicago. After going through a few more shady neighborhoods, I found myself on the Lakefront Bike Path that runs along the Michigan Lake shoreline for 17 miles through the city. It was nice to be off the road and away from speeding cars, but soon I realized I had a new annoying thing to contend with -- douchebag cyclists. Once again I had to deal with these obnoxious, shiny-panted dudes racing their bikes up and down the narrow pathway as fast as they could, ignoring safety and/or courtesy. All these guys looked like they were practicing for the Olympics and their constant whizzing and wurring, along with their incessant shouting of "On your left!" ruined any possibility for a nice relaxing ride into downtown Chicago.



The day ended with me roaming the Naval Park for a statue of Bob Newhart. It took me almost an hour to find it, but when I did, it was like magic... sitting face-to-face with a replica of the psychologist character he played in the 70's. I immediately broke down and told him all my problems. He was very understanding.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pork Chops and Amish Folks (Day 20-21)

I woke up in the trees, gathered my bike and trailer which were strategically hidden behind logs and bushes and got on Route 6 heading west. Biked close to 20 miles to the town of Nappanee, IN where I stopped off at the library for an hour or so and managed to drop my video camera three times in that period. After reaching the west side of town, I made a quick stop at Amish Acres -- an odd tourist attraction created from the 80 acres of the Old Order Amish farm. This is the place where, during my 2001 walk, I got semi-threatened by a tattooed Spanish man who claimed that "his body could kill my body in a second!" (Watch the WF trailer to see him in action.) After a brief jaunt through the 19th century property, I was back on my hard bike seat and traveling west again, trying to make some decent progress.



Not much else exciting happened that day. I biked along some old farm roads, passed some Amish folks in carriages and bought some new sunglasses at a Family Dollar Store. Then, while resting at the Dairy Queen in Bremen, I spilled about three tablespoons of liquefied mustard onto my pants and over several of my maps. Trying to not explode with deranged anger that would cause locals to gawk and gape, I just nodded my head and quietly murmured "far out" like the Big Lebowski and adjourned to the men's room.

The next day, I emerged from a weedy, tangly patch of trees and biked into the next town of Walkerton. After that, it was just biking, biking and biking. I finally got to the town of Woodville, where I heard there was a cheesy Wizard of Oz museum/gift shop. However, after cycling three miles out of the way to the supposed address, all I found was a house with a "For Sale" sign out front. So, I headed back for Route 6, looking to get some dinner. I was in the mood for a relaxing sit-down supper with table service, and feeling impetuous, I stopped at the very first place I saw -- The Rosewood Family Restaurant. And still feeling wildly spontaneous, I ordered the very first the thing I saw on the menu -- the stuffed pork chop dinner. Both were bad choices.

The food was odd-tasting and the waitress was odd as well. I got one of those "cheery" waitresses that have a permanent grin pasted on their face and talk to you like you're four years old. No matter what you say, you get an overly-sympathetic, sugary response with dumbed-down, unabashed enthusiasm. It's a shame when I waste a portion of my tiny nest egg on crappy food and cornball service.

However, one amusing event was when this perfectly abled middle-aged man parked his shiny, suped-up hotrod in the handicapped spot right in front of the restaurant. At first I thought he was simply being a lazy jerk, but after watching the patrons giving the car a "going over" whenever they came in, I could tell the guy parked it by the entrance so the folks could fawn over his "awesome" car. I could see the square-headed man gleam with satisfaction every time he saw some envious fellow crouch down and check out his ride.



After my lousy meal, I biked another 4 miles or so and camped under a bridge that was enveloped with poison ivy.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Like the WIND! (Day 19)

Having woken up in a new state, I started off the day feeling energized. I had a few set-backs the day before, but that was in Ohio... THIS is Indiana!

First stop in the Hoosier State was the town of Butler, where I loaded up with cheap candy bars from the Family Dollar store. While waiting on line, I asked the cashier of any good places to get breakfast. While she was thinking, a stringy man with dirty overalls and a mouth full of chewing tobacco stepped in and mumbled, "Oh, uh-yeah, you kin go to Maria's Pancake House over by the interstate. They got gud home cookin' and yull git yer money's worth!" Taking his advice I cycled to the interstate and stopped at Maria's. The place was packed with rotund farmers and truck drivers, so I sat at the counter, which was mostly empty, and got two eggs, bacon, hash browns and two pancakes for $4.95. The food turned out to be fine, but the experience was ruined by a pair of grizzled men who plopped down on the stools next to me and immediately lit up their cigarettes. It's nice to know that there are some states in the US that still allow gnarly old men to blow stale cigarette smoke into your toast. What a country!

After a Marlboro-y breakfast, I was on the road for another 20 miles or so before reaching the mid-sized town of Kendallville. The highlight of this grand little community is that it is home to the Mid-America Windmill Museum -- only one of two museums in the USA dedicated to collect, display, preserve and tell the story of wind power.



Admission was only 4 bucks, so I shelled out the cash and immersed myself in windmill history. The most dazzling part of the museum was the "windmill garden" out back, which was basically this huge field filled with all kinds of wind-controlled devices -- from the old fashioned Dutch windmill houses to modern wind turbines. The least exciting part of the museum was the mandatory 10-minute video presentation featuring a locally-hired actor, who was acting like a "scientist" by wearing a lab coat, nerdy-thick glasses, and occasionally cracking his voice ('cause everyone knows scientists don't ever reach puberty).

After leaving the museum and waving goodbye to Larry Poppy, the windmill caretaker, I was back on the road and heading west on Route 6. About 10 miles later, I passed through Wawaka, which is home to 1950's baseball commissioner Ford Frick. After soaking in the magnificent 12-inch wooden sign commemorating their homegrown hero, I pedaled away to the town of Ligonier and stopped off at a KFC. I wasn't particularly hungry, but I remembered this KFC from my 2001 walk, where I plugged in my cell phone to charge and then forgot about it when I left. I had to walk two miles back to retrieve it after discovering an empty pocket on the road.

While waiting the 20 minutes for my order to come up, I chatted with some local youths who were returning from a softball game for their church. One of the guys showed me his elaborate tat of praying hands and nodded at me as if I should get one too. I just flipped my index finger at the inked arm and grimaced, hoping my lack of words would encourage him to go away. Instead, he continued talking to me about his church and about his tattoo. I just wanted my chicken strips. Finally after several awkward moments, they arrived.

I ended the day camping in some trees about five miles west of the KFC.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Directions Are Subjective (Day 18)

I woke up from the mosquito-infested woods next to the muddy Beaver Creek and did some filming of me crossing back and forth on the rusted bridge. After 40 minutes of crappy photography, I pedaled off on County Road P. In western Ohio, all the roads are on a grid and are named in ascending letters from south to north, and ascending numbers from east to west... so you always know how far you've biked at any time. I continued on Route P, counting up the cross roads from 7 to 19, when I reached the town of Napoleon, OH and passed a church with a sign that read, "JESUS IS ALIVE. HOW ARE YOU?"

"Tired," I replied.

After a quick stop at the Campbell's Soup Factory north of town to see the world's largest soup can, I went to a Big Boy Restaurant for a late breakfast. As I chowed down on my scrambled eggs, I started considering taking a room at the local Knight's Inn for an early rest... but after consulting my latest bank balance... I realized a motel stay was not in my budget and biked out of town. Of course, in my anguished grief over my paltry savings, I got distracted and didn't realize I was on the wrong highway. I was actually heading due north instead of due west. "A minor set-back!" I facetiously exclaimed to a tweeting bird on a nearby power line. I then turned my bicycle 90 degrees and headed for my originally intended destination, waving to the speeding motorists with sarcastic glee.

A few miles later, I was on Route 6 West and back on track... but that didn't last long. I traveled about 18-19 miles on 6 when I came to a crossroad one mile north of the town of Williams Center. Wanting to stop off at the town, I took State Route 567 due south. After a quick and disappointing visit to the town's one and only mini-mart, I was off again. My plan was to take a diagonal road that would take me north-west and back onto Route 6. But somehow, I got my bearings way off and ended up on the wrong road and going due south. And I went 3-4 miles before I realized I was going the wrong way, acknowledging my stupidity by giving imaginary companions high-fives! So, I flipped my bike around, and returned to Williams Center to survey the land and consult my map again.

"Ah-ha," I asserted while pointing to my tattered map, "here's where I made my mistake!" I turned my bike and headed on the next road... which turned out to be wrong as well. But at least this time, I was going due west, so I didn't have to backtrack completely. Pulling out my compass and giving my map an additional gander, I turned my bike one last time and was finally heading north. When I reached Route 6, I mouthed the words "Hooray," while rolling my eyes, and started heading west again.

From there, it was to the next town of Edgerton for a toasty Subway sandwich dinner. I ended the day by crossing the Indiana State Line... and finally was able to cheer without it being saturated in self-mocking sarcasm.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fill-Up Boxes (Day 16-17)

I woke up in my tent under the bridge without any gunshots or scary moments during the night. However, I didn't get much sleep, due to the thundering rains that came through and the loud squealing of some distant cat or lemur or emu. But by the time 9am rolled around, I figured it was time to "get up" and on the road. I stood up, somewhat crooked, and shook out the dirt from the inside of my tent, and shook off the raindrops and slugs from the outside of my tent.

The rest of the day was the usual mix of biking and filming. After passing through the medium-sized town of Norwalk (where some punk stole my unopened bottle of Mountain Dew Berry Blast off my bike rack while I was in the library) I decided to get off of the busy Highway 303 and hit a farm road for a more scenic and calmer ride. My hope was to avoid the constant din and danger of speeding traffic, but it turned out I chose to bike on the area's second favorite thoroughfare, which also happened to have zero shoulder. And it was like that for the next 18 miles or so until I could get onto Highway 20, where it was just as busy, but at least it had a small shoulder to accomodate my wobbily cycling.

By dusk, I finally reached the town of Bellevue, OH, where all the stores and restaurants seemed to be boarded up and closed forever. I managed to find a beleaguered Burger King on the outskirts of town that still had its lights on and its doors intact. Inside, I met a gang of elderly folks sitting around their own personal Algonquin table... laughing, pontificating and sipping their 50 cent cups of coffee (senior special). They all seemed quite intrigued by my biking adventure, especially one 72-year-old man, who informed me that he was a fellow cyclist that has accumulated nearly 3000 miles over the last few years. Worried about the weather, I asked him if the next town of Clyde had any decent motel choices. He recommended that I stay at the Winesburg Motel just outside of town: "locally run and much more reasonable priced than that Redroof Inn."

Taking the 72-year old, former pipe-fitter's advice, I cycled the six miles to Clyde and checked into the Winesburg for $45 (that's including tax)! The room was decorated with a late-1970's despression motif -- something out of a Roger Corman movie (one of the ones he produced, not directed). After resisting the temptation to take acid and hang myself, I slowly drifted alseep, dreaming of velvet paintings, cheap rayon shirts, and the music of Rush.


The next morning, it was out of the Winesburg and onto a railtrail that went from Clyde to the town of Fremont, some 7-8 miles away. After getting lost for about 20 minutes, I found my way to a local Kentucky Fried Chicken for an early lunch/late breakfast. I was feeling a bit weak and needed some fast, oily energy.

Inside, I stepped up to the counter and ordered one of their new 5-DOLLAR FILL-UP BOXES. (By the looks of their latest ad campaigns, it seems as though KFC is trying to compete with Subway's 5-dollar foot-long subs.) I looked up at the picture menu and eagerly pointed to photo of the 2-piece box, where, according to the menu, you get 2 pieces of chicken (leg&thigh or breast&wing) with a biscuit, a side, and a drink. But when I requested the white meat, the listless young lady behind the counter informed me that that would be a dollar more. I stared at the the picture menu again -- there was nothing there that said white meat was a dollar more -- no astericks, no footnotes, no nothin'. Like an infant child trying to communicate for the first time, I gestured towards their menu board with a strained expression, as if I was saying, "But... but... but..!" The teen gave the menu an obligatory glance before returning her expressionless gaze to me and reiterating, "Well, it's a dollar more." Not having the energy for a fight, I relinquished and paid the six bucks for a "FIVE DOLLAR BOX."



As I left the KFC, I noticed a big vinyl sign advertising that they do catering and that you should hire them to cater your next event... which seemed like the most absurd proposition. "Hey John, this wedding reception is great. The best part are these gigantic buckets of chicken! What high-class catering service prepared this fabulously greasy meal?" Your guests will never know it was KFC. (Wink!)

From there, it was another 40 miles or so of cycling through mostly farmland and into the town of Bowling Green. I ended up camping about five miles west of town under a small rusted bridge.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Choose Your Lane (Day 13-15)

After having a random rude encounter with the young dudes from Girard, I pedaled north-west through Warren, OH, and then west into the Sugar Bush Knolls. This was the last stretch of mild hills and valleys I had to bike through before hitting the flat and straight roads of western Ohio. Since, I knew rain was on its way, I figured it would be as good of a time as any to take a day off at a motel.



I thought about staying a night at the Tallyho Motel that advertised a suspiciously low rate of 36 dollars per night. But after looking at the cracked and crumbling facade, I was fearful that most of the Tallyho bedrooms had seen their fair share of tallies and ho's. So I continued on to the town of Streetsboro, where I was able to book a room at another Microtel Inn. "We're right by the Bob Evans," the eager hotel clerk informed me on the phone, as if that was a great selling point. "And... uh, we got both smoking and non-smoking rooms," he quipped with nervous excitement, as if revealing a new and novel selling feature.

After spending a full day holed up in my Microtel room, I set off again, facing dark, unpredictable skies. The weather channel stated the chance of precipitation was 40%, but the day before when they said the chance was 50%, we only saw a few drops, so I figured I'd take my chances. And even though a few short showers did come through, they were fairly brief and light, and I stayed more or less dry.

However, even though the weather was fine, I still had to deal with ornery assholes... this time, not in the form of obnoxious teens in speeding Hondas, but in the form of a snide, middle-aged jackass in a pick-up truck.

It was early afternoon and I, along with several other vehicles, were stopped at a red light outside the town of Hudson, OH. While waiting for the light to change green, I had three lanes to choose from. Generally speaking, cyclists are supposed to stay as far to the right as possible, but since the far right lane was RIGHT TURN ONLY, I shifted over to the center lane... since I was continuing straight and didn't want to cross paths with any right-turning vehicles. Meanwhile, a nosey, scornful jerk-o in a pick-up truck pulled alongside me in the right lane and cynically shouted, "Hey! You guys can't seem to decide whether you're a car or a bike!" Not sure he was talking to me, I turned to the guy, puzzled. He then stuck his knobly arm out his window and pointed at me. "You're not supposed to be in the middle of the road like that!"

I then shouted back with as much gruff as possible, "That's a RIGHT TURN ONLY lane you're in! See?" I pointed down to the painted arrows on the pavement. "I'm not going right! I'm going straight! I'm in the correct lane!"

Somewhat embarrassed, the guy reluctantly conceded the point... but for some reason felt compelled not to end it there. "Yeah, well... you're right this time, but most of the time, you guys are all over the road--"

I cut him off there. "I'm not those guys." Then, raising my voice even more and pressing my hands against my chest, I bellowed, "I'm MEEEE!!!" I got particularly angered at this point because I hated being lumped in with all those spandex-wearing, douchebaggy, speed-racing cyclists with 300 dollar sunglasses and 3,000 dollar attitudes. I'm just a guy in 12 dollar shorts, biking at my own sweet time, and obeying the rules of the roads as best as possible.

He was taken aback by my angry outburst, and wanting to be one up on me, quickly adopted a condescending, acerbic attitude. Sitting up in his bucket-seat throne of superiority, the pick-up driver sniffed, "Are we having a bad day?"

My only response: "No, not until you came along and started jerking me around." The man just shook his head and acted confused as to why a perfect stranger would be lashing out at him and just smirked at me with mocking pity. With this, the light turned green and we parted ways... but it took several miles before I was able to shake off the annoying exchange.

From there it was to the Town of Brunswick for a quick meal at the Burger King. After chowing down my burgers, I was off again and shortly in the town of Valley City which is the size of small parking lot, but is the "frog jumping capital" of Ohio. I guess they aren't big enough to be the country's capital, just the state. When I went to the local mart to get specifics of the town's claim to fame, the shop keeper just muttered, "Yep. We still do that." When I pressed him some more, he just stared at me, placidly, and just said, "During the August festival," and then excused himself to the beer cooler to re-stock it.

After that, I got back on my bike, went another 8-9 miles and camped out by the east branch of the Black River outside the town of LaGrange. This was my first night in the tent since the Grove City "shotgun incident," but I was fairly calm and managed to get at least 4-5 minutes of sound sleep.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Biking Can Sometimes Suck (Day 12)

I left my vile, sleazy motel room after spending the entire night trying not to physically touch the room in any way. I carried my bike, trailer and backpack down the flight of stairs to the ground level and dropped off my room key which was encased in a shell of grime and grit over the last three decades. From there, it was back on the road, heading west, out of the city of Youngstown (which is named after John Young, an early settler who established the community's first gristmill... and got a city named after him.)

Even though cycling across this great land can have its high moments, it is often blotted with numerous painful and annoying events. Aside from lousy shoulders, breakneck hills, torrential rains and oppressive heat, you have to deal with your occasional asshole. Since leaving New York, I've had several obscenities and sarcastic utterings shouted from passing cars and gawking residents seated in their faded lawn chairs under the safety of their wooden porches. And today. I inspired someone else to make the effort to insult and/or upset me.

It was a late Monday morning in the suburb town of Girard, just outside of Youngstown, and the weather was cool. Traffic was mild on this residential street, when two young men in a red, dented Honda turned onto the shady lane (a cartoon of their local college mascot frothing at the mouth plastered along their rear window). They were probably returning from an early morning bravado contest or a ritualistic, homoerotic circle jerk, and they needed to let out some pent-up rage. That's when they saw a man on a bicycle just a few blocks ahead of them.

This lone cyclist was pedaling hard, had a large trailer in tow and was obviously on some long journey... and without a doubt needed to be taught a lesson for having the audacity to exist in their field of vision. The driver downshifted his beat-up car, bringing it to a low hum as to not alert the cyclist of their stealthy approach. The passenger quickly rolled down his window and got into position... arching his back, stretching his neck and jutting his testicles. They puttered down the street, quietly swinging along the left side of the cyclist. Their time was about to come. They were about to declare their manhood and establish themselves as the dominate males on the block. They were directly to the left of the cyclist. He still didn't even know they were there. What an idiot this guy must be. He deserves whatever wrath they can unfold onto him.

The time was NOW! That's when they pounced!

"Blaaaaahhharr!" the robust passenger screamed out his window, unable to suppress his gleeful smile! Then he and his driver watched intently to their right to see if this sudden turbulent outburst would cause the cyclist to swerve or --if the gods were on their side-- lose balance and careen into a tree or signpost. But alas, all they seemed to cause was a brief shutter and a stern look from their unwitting victim.

Even though they were unable to cause any serious physical or emotional harm, the two young men were still able to relish in delight for causing a random biker 2 seconds of startlement. They couldn't contain themselves. They laughed and cheered as they sped away from an obviously angered man. Ha, ha, ha! This is one for the books! Their loud scream caused a man on a bike to shimmy for a fraction of time! And now they could safely escape down the road and relive this wonderful moment for years to come.

Then... a red light! A traffic signal that halted their escape. As the car slid to a stop, the two men shared a look. Not one of worry, just... concern. The driver checked his rear view mirror. Their former victim was still a lengthy four blocks away. The young, baseball-capped passenger assured his partner-in-crime that the cyclist was undoubtedly still shaken-up by their eloquent and sophisticated blitz and would in no way have the courage or strength to approach their 1997 Honda fortress. They were safe... or so they thought. The driver stared into his mirror, not believing what he saw. The man was actually cycling faster and seemed to be heading right for them. Was this possible? Did this guy actually want to retaliate? How could he possibly retort "Blaaaaahhharr!?!"

However, instead of waiting to see what pitiful response this pathetic cyclist had in store for them, the driver made a commanding decision and made a right on red and drove away... their aggregate four gonads reduced to the size of a flea.

Friday, July 3, 2009

All Is Well (Day 12)

I woke up from my comfy Microtel room after getting a good night's sleep unmarred by images of sweaty farm hands with shotguns stalking me through the dark hills of Western Pennsylvania. I grabbed my bike and the few belongings I brought with me last night and left the motel in route to my tent in the nearby forest. I found the dirt road about a half mile down the highway. I slowly pedaled through the greenery keeping my ears and eyes at full alert. I found the foot path to my left and dismounted my bike. A few steps later I got a view of my abandoned tent and trailer -- both in the exact same state as when I left them last night. No gunshot holes, no rips or tears in the tent, no menacing messages written out in blood on the ground. I let out a sigh of relief and convinced myself, now in the light of day, that I just heard two men arguing while setting off fireworks... at least that's what I told myself to ease my mind.

Once my tent was taken down and my trailer was loaded up, I was back on highway 208 heading towards the town of Volant where I had my last major steep hill to take on in Pennsylvania. After that, the hills were still present, but they were becoming less frequent and much less arduous. I'm not saying they were gentle slopes, but at least they were no longer these harsh, dramatic inclines that seemed to be practically perpendicular to the approaching road.



But just as the roads were leveling off, the rain started coming down. Hoping that the storm was going to eventually pass through, I took refuge in The Cheese House outside of the town of New Wilmington. It was this large dome-like building with a three-story ceiling filled with specialty foods, snacks, seasonings, toys, nick-knacks, and... of course... a variety of cheeses. But surprisingly, the selection of cheeses was not nearly as huge as you might expect from a place that boldly calls itself the CHEESE house. After strolling the aisles for 30 minutes, I ended up buying some goat-milk fudge and some Amish jalapeno pepper cheese. I bought the latter only because I fell in love with the label that had a dippy cartoon of an Amish man with steam coming out of his mouth and fire coming out of his ears. Boy! That's some spicy cheese!



Once the rain let up, it was back on the road and finally into the next state of Ohio. Once inside the borders of the Buckeye State, the roads became amazingly flat and straight. All the hills magically disappeared.

I celebrated my entering of a new state by booking a room at the creepy and crummy Knight's Inn outside of Youngstown, OH. For a mere 30 dollars (plus tax) I got a room with a bed, cable TV, hot & cold running water (minus the hot), a stained carpet and several floating STDs. What a bargain!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Western PA (Day 10-11)

I took a full day off at the Super 8 at Clarion to let my muscles rest and let the rain storms pass through. I spent most of the day watching endless news stories about Michael Jackson's death.

The next day, I loaded up and hit the road again. First thing on the docket -- I had to go down a steep hill, cross the Clarion River and then go right back up another hill. Once on semi-level ground again, I celebrated with a much anticipated hot dog lunch. I found a strange, little hot dog "house" just outside of the town of Shippenville. Edward, the 83-year-old owner and operator, served me two soggy dogs and a heaping of right-wing propaganda. As he squirted mustard along the top ridge of my second warm dog, he proclaimed that the country "is in the wrong hands" and that "socialism is about to take over." After espousing several Limbaugh talking points, Edward admitted that he was, in fact, a "crank," but at least he's fulfilled one of his dreams -- i.e., owning his own hot dog stand. He said he used to be an exec at Philip Morris some years ago, but gave up the chance of being "filthy rich" by quitting his job and buying a modest hot dog business. "Now I'm just filthy," he told me, "and my wife can attest to that!"



Although politically, we were on different sides of the universe, we still shared a few chuckles and had a nice conversation. He even gave me a free hat before I departed and wished me well on my cycling journey.

From there, it was more hills and turns along the woodsy route 208 to the mini-town of Emlenton, PA. When I hit the town I suddenly remembered that this was the place on my 2001 walk where my suntan lotion mysteriously exploded in my bag and I had to backtrack to a gas station to buy a 12 dollar replacement. Ah, memories.



From there, it was up another steep mountainside with lots of twists and turns and a 2-inch shoulder along a very precarious, sheer drop into the Allegheny River. I got passed by loads motorcycles out broom-rooming for the day, as I sweated up the treacherous slope. As bad as it was, at least it wasn't raining on me.

25 miles later, I was in the sweet Grove City where I adjourned to my favorite, fun-filled eatery -- the Elephant & Castle Restaurant. Once seated at the bar, I had myself a pair of pints of Sam Adams Summer Ale and a hearty helping of their Shepherd's Pie that had a distinct meatloafy flavor to it. Around 8:30pm I decided to go out and find myself a place to camp for the night. I passed a Micrtotel Inn about a mile later and decided to call them up to what their rates were. The young man on the phone quoted me a rate of $79 plus tax... which was a bit more than I wanted to spend, so I pedaled on. THIS IS WHEN THINGS GET A BIT SCARY...



About a half mile down the road, I found a narrow, dirt path that wound and weaved into some nearby woods, which seemed well-hidden and quite secluded. After setting up my tent, darkness unfolded onto the land and I curled up into my sleeping bag ready to get some shut-eye. But, for some reason, I had this eerie sensation as I tried to fall asleep... which I just couldn't shake. Something just didn't feel right. Maybe it was the thin layer of fog that creeped along the forest floor or the howling dog some couple miles away, but I had a strange feeling like I was on the set of a "Blair Witch" sequel. However, I'm a rational person and I was able to convince myself that this spooky vibe was all in my head and soon drifted off to sleep.

Then, around 1am, I was awoken from my sleep by a loud BANG! I sat up, still a bit groggy and confused... then I heard the sound again. BANG! I wasn't sure if it was a shotgun or what, but it was definitely some sort of explosion. Then, I heard something that sent chills down my spine -- two men arguing. "What the fuck did you do???" one man desperately growled to the other.

Then another loud BANG echoed through the forest! Another voice answered back, "Shut the fuck up! You better... (garbled) ...or I'll... (garbled)!"

I was wide awake at this point. And I was freaked out. I don't know if I was delusional or being extremely paranoid, but I swore I just heard the sound of two men committing a murder. The two voices got fainter, but I could still hear the crazed desperation in their voices. My heart was racing at this point... as panic shot through my body like an arrow. What if they really did just kill someone? And what if they came stumbling upon my bright white tent that practically glowed in the dark? The sound of that last explosion kept repeating in my head. I could picture two Pennsylvanian hillbillies at the foot of my tent, leveling a shotgun and firing into my chest. I held my breath, diffidently listening for any ominous sound. All was quiet except for that same distant dog howling into the sky.

Even though I couldn't hear the two men any more, by that point, I couldn't calm myself down. Even if I was mistaken... even if there was no crime committed in those shadowy woods... I knew I would never be able to fall asleep. So, I quickly and quietly grabbed my small backpack (which carried all my essentials), put on my sneakers and crawled out of my tent. I lifted up my bike (which was detached from my trailer) and tiptoed down the path until it hit a service road. From there, I got back on my bike and pedaled down the road, onto the highway and back to the Microtel Inn... leaving my tent and trailer behind.

I walked in the hotel lobby and booked a room for the night. For some reason, the rate dropped to 59 bucks... which was ironic, because if I had been quoted 59 back when I called earlier I would have skipped the woods altogether and booked the room right then and there.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reaching Clarion (Day 9)

After camping on top of Rockton Mountain, I got up the next morning, assembled my bike and gear and enjoyed some downhill coasting into Luthersburg, PA. From there, it was a few more hills and turns, taking me to the small town of Reynoldsville. Since it was noon, I decided I might as well get some lunch, so I went to George's Hotdog Diner on Main Street. I'd been having a hankering for a hot dog for the last few days and figured George's was the way to go, but once inside, I got convinced by the worn-out, dowdy waitress to order the all-you-can-eat pizza special for $4.99 instead. While scarfing down the doughy pizza at the lunch counter, I chatted with Mike, a young optometrist from Dubois, who was also indulging in the all-you-can-eat special a few stools down from me. He ended up eating eight (8) impressive pieces of pizza, while I barely was able to polish off five (5). As he paid his bill, he wished me luck on my bike trip, warning me that I had three major hills between Reynoldsville and the next town of Brooksville. "Are they big?" I timidly asked.

Mike paused to think as he laid out the tip for the waitress. Then, as if he knew his answer was going to ruin my day, his whole body exhailed and he solemnly admitted, "Yeah. They're pretty tough." Then he reiterated, "Three of 'em." He tossed the last crust of bread down his gullet and got off his stool, shaking his head in sympathy. "And I can't imagine biking up those hills after eating all that pizza."

Mike's warning was spot on; I had to bike three major hills, just as he described, over the course of the next 14 miles, and, just as he predicted, my pizza-ingestion caused major problems as well. By the 4th or 5th mile, my stomach started feeling like a slab of cement, and nausea started to creep up my throat. Every time I reached another gut-wrenching hill, I thought vomit was surely on its way. Along this stretch of road, I kept passing billboards for Edgar Snyder & Associates (a local accident law firm), in which, Snyder, the bald, grey-faced lawyer would be pointing straight ahead, next to big bold letters that read, "ACCIDENT?" For some reason, each time I passed these ubiquitous advertisements, the nausea would increase and the only thing that would help make it abate is if I answered the billboard by saying "No thanks. You?"

By the time I reached the depressing town of Brooksville, I decided to continue on for another 18 miles to the Super 8 Motel in Clarion. Of course, I had to pedal up another steep hill out of Brooksville, where I was going so slow, some college student carrying a keg up the hill almost passed me. Having some 20-year-old drunk on my tail made me more determined and I leaned into my pedals and picked up speed. 18 miles later, I reached Clarion, tired, sweaty and still a little nauseous. Unfortunately, I had to bike another 2-3 miles south of town to get to the motel... and naturally, there were a couple dandy hills along the way.

As soon as I reached the Super 8, I checked in, dropped off my stuff and jumped into the pool, cooling down with the dead bugs in the chlorine and urine infested water. Ten minutes later, thunderstorms came raging in and I retreated into my room.