Monday, 13 August 2012

Rain, hills, mining and a hippie liberal oasis

When I began writing this blog entry I was having breakfast - bacon and cheese omelette and coffee topped up twice. Made a vow to myself not to have yellow processed cheese again. A guy at our table described Boonville as 'dead town' and it certainly seems that way. We camped in the back of the church where there was a custom made shelter for cyclists complete with cold shower, sink, toilet and picnic table. All a pair of cyclists could ever want. That was the start of day ten and the day we finally decided a rest day was due.

When we crossed into Kentucky the rain came. Proper torrential stuff. Coupled with mining communities - this really was like Wales.

It was raining when we arrived in Virgil, Kentucky. We asked a couple of guys in a gas station about where to camp and they suggested the back of the baptist church where there a covered picnic area. It was getting dark and the sounds of the mountain were growing - loud crickets, bats and birds. We talked to three teenagers who were hanging out by the church. They were positive and friendly and when we asked them about what they would teach the world they talked about tolerance, peace and art. One of them had various piercing and tatoos and said how people often couldn't see past that. Another told us about seeing a bear in his back yard. The night was falling and we got a bit scared.

We set up camp under the shelter applying the hiker's bear triangle that Jonny, the Swede had told us about. Have your food and smelly stuff separate from your tent and from your other stuff. Fox the bears. We left the food bag a good 100 yards from our tent. Nonetheless we both had a restless night's sleep. James thought he heard a bear but it turned out only to be me, snoring. Girls don't snore, they just gently growl.

Kentucky is mining country. We have met lots of miners who blame Obama for wanting to close the mines down. We've seen the odd 'NoBama' bumper sticker. Kentucky coal powers 10% of America's energy and coal generates 40% of America's energy use but it's got a bad reputation. Dirty old town as the song goes. Mountain top removal mining has become unpopular. One miner (whose carport we sheltered in as James' brakes failed in a rain storm) told us how taking off the tops of mountains improves the area - 'You can put in an airport or a golf course.'

We weren't completely convinced. Most of the mining they do is shift mining where they go in at the level of the seam. Much less dangerous than deep navigation. However we found out about the other side when we got lucky in the town of Berea.

Berea college was founded in the 19th century by an abolitionist who wanted black, white, men and women to learn together. Radical, in fact pioneering at the time. Shame they segregated from 1909 to 1950 to comply with Kentucky law. The town had retained the reputation of tolerance and draws people who believe in those same values. Our kind of place. They have cyclists, organic food shops, young folk and Democrat supporters.

Through we had emailed a guy to ask if we could stay. He was up to his eyes but his friends Grace and Chris volunteered to host us. Chris and Grace both went to Berea college. Tolerant, liberal, generous, hospitable, Christian and well travelled we had hit gold. We were desperate for a rest day and I was delighted when Grace invited us to stay for two nights. Berea is a dry town so James was particularly delighted when they offered us a beer. Definitely our kind of people.

I learned so much from talking with Grace and Chris. They had joined a group to go to New York when the United Nations was in session to protest about mountain top removal. It brings with it huge pollution problems including damage to eco-systems, poisons water sources and flooding. Huge ponds that have been built for cleaning the coal leak and damage communities. Blasting also destroys foundations, buildings and wells. A crude and wreck less business.

Chris spent his day off with us and took us to visit their friend Sarah and Jeff. They are both potters and welcomed us with coffee, whilst Sarah demonstrated her pot throwing skills and shared her answer to our all important question. 'What would I teach the world? To do something in your work than brings you joy. That you love.' Their friend James, better known as Moose, told us about the music scene in the area. He was playing the Beatles from his car stereo. He'd seen them on their American tour and had obviously had a great time later in the 70s - he had the tattoos to prove it. He's taken up Tai Chi more recently and surprised us with a leg move. People are amazing and unexpected. I loved that Sarah and Jeff have made their home so welcoming that people gravitate to the place.

Kentucky is dog country. Jonny, the Swede who studied risk management and was therefore well versed in all the risks we might face - cars, snakes, spiders, bears warned us too about the dogs. Apparently they are all over the bike forums. The pattern seems to be that a dog sees a bike and thinks 'It's a big dog, I must chase it.' The more you cycle,the more the dog runs. There are different strategies people have recommended: squirting the dog with water, spraying with pepper spray, shouting; but the best one we heard was from Jeremy - a great guy we met who was crossing America going west. A TransAmmer. He said he just stops, puts his legs on the floor then the dog thinks 'oh hang on a god damn minute - this ain't no big dog. What we got here is a human'. So we tried it and it worked except then you are stuck walking backwards.

It's always a special moment when you meet other Trans-Ammers on the road. Jeremy also recommended the use of baking soda as a replacement for toothpaste, deodorant and talc. He was cycling for the day with Promise and Whitney. Whitney is having her first sober summer. She had been off the booze for ten months and really didn't seem that she needed any artificial stimulants. She also gave a super funny answer to our question, what would you teach the world - around hygiene. Check out her blog.

It is hard to describe hills on bikes. When you are climbing, all you want to do is stop. You are puffing and panting and if the sun is on your back there is no rest. However when you get to the top and there is down hill and views you feel immensely privileged to be there. Every day when I am cycling something else seems to be uncomfortable. One day pins and needles in my hands, the next something is itching, another day shins and yet my body continues to adapt. I have cycled at least 50 miles,usually 60 every day for the last ten days and I feel ok but I really needed this rest day.

So as Chris cooks us stir fry, as we laze on their sofa and my legs are grateful for the pause I'm excited about what will happen and who we will meet next. I am learning so much more about America - its diversity and complexity through the eyes of others. I know there is so much more to learn.

NB - note the photo of the 500 mile point. Exactly at the point of a liquor store. Uncanny.


  1. awww... shoot! ya'll were just in time (and nearby) for our annual Holler in the Holler music festival. we live just a couple miles (or less!) from sara and jeff and let cyclists in for super cheap (or free) since they have much smaller footprints (on many levels). talk about an oasis. maybe next year? (

  2. Thank you.

    We heard about Holler in the Holler from Moose and Jeff whilst we were visiting their pottery. We loved Berea. Seemed like a great community. Though we would miss the odd glass of wine!