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.