When I heard that Heartwood would be holding its annual forest council meeting in the Appalachians, I thought ‘Oh great. I can ride my bike to that’.
Heartwood is the leading environmental organization for the protection of eastern forests in the US. The issue for this year’s annual Forest Council meeting would be on preventing mountain top removal for coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains. This is where they tear down the top of a mountain and fill up the gorges to get at the coal.
So, I thought, if the larger issue is to reduce our carbon footprint, then I’ll start with mine. I would ride my bike the 230+ miles to the conference. I’ll release some CO2 thru exhaling, and a bit of methane aft, but my goal was to have to lowest carbon footprint possible. And what better place to do it than an environmental conference.
So, what did I have going for me? An excellent bicycle and all my gear. And against me: zero bicycle conditioning this year. I had spent all my time working on my farm. Excellent exercise, but not cycling. The conference began may 22nd. So I decided to leave on May 18th. That would give me plenty of time to get there, or fail trying. My goal was to arrive at the camp south of Mount Sterling, Kentucky using 100% muscle power. Because it is the Spring planting season, I would catch a ride back home with a friend. Maybe I can miss one week of planting in the Spring, but I cannot miss two weeks.
Day 1. May 18th, 2009
I packed up my bike with about 23 pounds of the minimalist gear that I need to survive on the road. After having done 15 or so long-distance trips, I have this drill down. I pulled out of my home around 11 am. After I rode thru Bloomington, I navigated Southeast down 446.
It was perfect cycling weather. 65 degrees and sunny. All I could have asked for was a tailwind. For the next 9 hours I rolled thru rural Indiana. I stopped every hour or two for a brief stretch and nap, munching on organic crunchy peanut butter and crisp Gala apples. On the way, I must have counted 50 crushed box turtles on the road, mostly young ones. I did not find one living one on the road to rescue. The box turtle migration time is usually in late April or early May, after the first warm flooding rain. I was too late to take them off the road. Another thing I noticed, and have noticed, in the last 20 years, is ‘Where are all the snakes?’ I always used to be able to find 5 or 6 different species of snakes. Now I am lucky to see a Garter snake. (Garters are the most common snakes here). I recall when I was in Bolivia 12 years ago. The country opened up a new road to the jungle along the highway to Corioco. In the first year when I traveled down it I saw literally hundreds of snakes, almost all of them flattened by the traffic. In the morning snakes will crawl out into the sun to warm themselves. This road in the tropics was one of the few open spaces available for sunlight. So the new road became the killing field for the snakes. Two years ago I bicycled down the same road in Bolivia. I did not see one snake, living or dead, on the road. I had to presume that all the snakes along side it were now gone. This has been happening in the US for 70 years, so we are much further along with our snake slaughter. Progress.
At sunset I found a road south of Brownstown Indiana leading into a state forest. It had a chain fence across it to block vehicle traffic. Perfect. I slipped my bike under it. 100 yards later, I had the woods all to myself. So in my first day I had made about 57 miles with a late start. As I slipped into my sleeping bag in my tent, I was happy with that.
DAY 2: May 19th
BOOM! My day began with a shotgun blast. It was a 12 gauge, and all too close. At 6 am it must have been either a turkey or deer hunter. Since both deer and turkey were now out of season, it was a poacher shooting the gun. I packed up my campsite as quickly as I could. I did NOT want to catch someone committing and illegal act with a loaded gun. I was quickly on the road. And by the way, if you live in the country and/or camp out a lot in it, you will learn that single gunshots are common.
I headed southeast, working my way down isolated farm roads toward Madison Indiana. Madison had an old bridge where I could cross the Ohio River. For the next 50 miles, I would find no local restaurant. I was in isolated, rural farm country, where people ate at home and packed their own lunches. Near a small town named Hilltown, I found by accident a small cemetery on a scenic hillside, hidden among the trees. On bicycle trips, I like cemeteries for resting and picnics. So I stopped. While eating more peanut butter, I walked among the graves. Most were limestone slabs, worn illegible with carbonic acid rain. But I could read a few. There were people buried here who were born in 1772. These were the oldest graves I have found in Indiana. While I was finishing up my break, a truck stopped in front of the cemetery. An elderly man in fit condition got out with a weed eater and walked up to slope. He was surprised to see me. We introduced ourselves. Mr. Campbell said that I was about the only person he had ever seen at this cemetery. It was the second time he had cut it this year. He had lived nearby and the county paid him a small amount to keep it clear. We spoke cordially for a while. He knew as much about the history of the area as anyone. I wondered if that knowledge would go with Mr. Campbell’s passing.
I rode thru a very small town of Lancaster, Indiana. A sign advertised the Levi Coffin House. It was a home used to transport over 2000 escaped slaves to freedom. Levi Coffin was a Quaker Abolitionist who devoted his life to the cause. I walked around the building. It was closed. Thru the windows I could see that it was in disrepair from its restoration. Not many people were visiting it.
I pedaled ten miles south to Madison Indiana. This is a pretty river town with a restored historic district. I rested in the riverside park and chatted with the locals. The city had commemorated the great flood of 1937 with a plaque on a nearby building marking the crest of the flood. It was hard to believe that the river could have risen so high. In January, 1937, it rained 21 of the first 22 days in the Ohio River valley, dropping 22 inches of water. The river exceeded the highest previously recorded flood by at least 10 feet. This may truly have been the ‘once in 500 year’ flood. The complete clear cutting of the forests of the area at that time only assisted in the speedy runoff and flooding.
When I crossed the old bridge into Kentucky, I found that there was no pedestrian lane. I pumped as hard as I could, but cars still backed up behind me. But no one honked. By the gear on my bike, they could see that I was riding long distance.
I climbed out of the gorge onto the beautiful rolling hills of the bluegrass region of Kentucky. There seemed to be a bit of a difference. More agriculture, numerous black tobacco curing barns, and more cars in the lawn. I am always looking for old cars, trucks, and tractors, so I stopped whenever I saw something interesting. My experience is that the old guys like talking about their collections of mostly non-running historic vehicles. Oftentimes they say that they will ‘git it runnin’ some day’. I have heard that very often, and said it a few times myself too.
Well, it was getting toward sunset and I decided to check into my free wilderness hotel early. I have made 65 miles on day two, and was getting some leg pain. Time to rest. I saw an abandoned tobacco barn and I hid my bike next to it, out of eyesight from the road. Tonight I would sleep out under the stars without my tent. I spread out my gear and was talking with a friend on my mobile phone when to my surprise, something happened to me for only the second time in all my bicycle trips. I was BUSTED!
A man in a pickup truck right upon my camp. He might have run me over had I not jumped up and waved to him. I asked if I were trespassing on his land. He stated that he was the owner. I apologized and told him that I would move immediately, if he wanted me to. He looked around at my bicycle and gear, then said that it was not necessary. He was unloading farm gear into this barn for storage. Only the third time he had been here this year. I offered to help him unload, and he accepted. We unloaded the truck. I assured him that I would be gone by sunrise, and that I would not leave a bit of refuse. (I never do) The best traveler, the Buddhists say, leave no footprints.
That night, I stretched in my sleeping bag and slept soundly. It is always easy to fall asleep after a long day’s riding. In the middle of the night, I opened my eyes to see what I at first thought was a shooting star. But no, it was just my first lightning bug of the season.
DAY 3. May 20th.
Before sunrise I packed up and rode off into Henry county. I rested next to a sign announcing the Berry-Smith winery. Then I rode into New Castle. I noticed a law office with one of the partner’s names being ‘Berry’. I began to wonder. I found the local ma-and-pa restaurant for lunch. I always seek the local places and will avoid national chains at almost all costs. I sat down and looked over the specials of the day. I checked out what the locals were eating. My they had large portions. There were a number of construction men and farmers. They all seemed to know each other. I like places like this. Then a construction guy in his mid 50’s comes up to me and says, “You look like the kind of person who would appreciate this. I built and repaired Wendel Berry’s writing cottage on the river here.”
“You’re sure right. Wendel Berry lives around here?” Yep. Most of the people here dont even know he’s a writer, and that’s the way Wendel would want it too.
I chatted with the guy for a bit about Wendel Berry. An interesting man. Ah I thought, this is why I am riding my bike. I would never have arrived here or met this guy if I were on my motorcycle, much less a car.
I set my afternoon goal for Frankfort, Kentucky. I rode thru rolling hills and woods, along local railroads. The best part were the small towns that still had true general stores. My favorite was Bagdad. It had a wood stove, a great miniature tractor exhibit, and bins of different types of seeds for the garden. The seed scoop was the size of a cup. This was a store for serious gardeners. I did notice thruout Kentucky lots of greenhouses with plants for sale, and lots of local crafts for sale. Much more so than I had seen in other places. Small towns in Kentucky seemed to be connected to local crafts and skills. The meats in the local sandwich shop appeared to be locally produced. I asked the waitress if that were the case. “Of course. We always buy from our neighbors. Why not?” I couldn’t argue with her. And was she born here? “No. Next county over. But my husband brought me over here and we never left.” Ah it was fate for her.
After a large lemonade, I headed east to Frankfort. The hills were getting steeper, and my left leg stiffer. On some of the steepest climbs, I walked my bike up. That counted for me, as long as I only used my muscles. Exercise is exercise. When I came to the edge of the Kentucky River gorge. I let my bike fly down the road, dropping perhaps 500 feet down a gorge to the river. Hands on the brakes all the way. I crossed a bridge into downtown Frankfort.
Frankfort appeared to be a city that depended almost entirely on it being the state capitol for its income. It also seemed to shut down at night. It was getting late and I needed to find a campsite soon. So I had to move. I saw a bar with a bunch of Harley Davidsons parked out front. I went in to ask for directions.
“You came here on what????” a big tattooed guy said to me. “Bring your bicycle in here. It’ll be safe, and I wanna look at it.” They bought me beers and toasted me me as the crazy Hoosier on a bike. The place was loud and rowdy. I felt at home. Another great big bellied guy comes up to me and toasts. “On a bicycle. On a fuckin’ bicycle.” He gave me a second beer. It was going down easy in the heat of the day. They said what everyone says to you when you are riding a bicycle long distance. “You’re crazy” and “I could never do that”. You’ll hear that every day.
I declined my third beer after I had gotten directions. I told them I had to find a campsite outside of the city. “Where you sleep?” “Outside”. Like a wild animal? Yep. A pause. We’re all a bunch of wild animals, right? Cheers. I’ll drink to that. I toasted one last time with my now empty beer.
I headed out with the setting sun to my back. I got to the edge of the city and began climbing out of the Kentucky River gorge, going east to Lexington. Halfway up the slope I saw a dirt rod heading off to a construction site. There was a sign that said DANGER KEEP OUT. But it did not say NO TRESPASSING. So I quickly slipped my bike under the cable and out of site of the highway. 200 yards up the hill I saw a large construction project. They were building a cistern for water for the city. There was water draining off the edge of a ledge. I quickly stripped and got under it. Ahhhhhh. Clean cold water. In my mind the water hissed as it hit my hot salty skin. Ahhhhhhh. I put clean clothes over my wet body and felt just great. Now, where to sleep? I didn’t see much of any level land. But there were a number of four-foot in diameter lined water pipes. I put my pad in and lay on it. Comfortable. So I unrolled my sleeping bag and slept solid and good inside a pipe.
DAY 4 MAY 21ST:
BOOM! Again I was awakened by a shotgun blast in the distance. It was before 6 am, before sunrise. It came from above me, at the top of the ridge. Another poacher taking a morning shot. I was packed up in 10 minutes, before sunrise, and out of the construction site and onto the road. My one consolation was that rural gunfire was most likely at animals.
I got to the top of the gorge and headed to Lexington. The suburbs of Frankfort, Kentucky are like the suburbs of Anyplace, USA. All of the standard food chains and retail merchant stores. I’d guess 90% of them would be found at any suburb. From these stores alone, you would have no idea where you were, other than perhaps the east of the USA. Cupcakeville. These buildings and businesses just fall from the sky, in identical standard format, into Anyplace USA, and we all think that this is normal, the way it has always been. Identical burbs for identical people. Unique character– difference, would be disturbing to many.
I checked the map and found that the shortest route to Lexington was also the most hilly, the scenic Old Frankfort Pike. I took it. Quickly I was surrounded by trees and stone fences, and almost no traffic. As I pedaled southeast, I passed continuous horse ranches. Some were individually owned, others were marked as corporate business ventures. All of them looked ante bellum. When else could they have been able to afford to surround large areas with stone fences except when labor was free. The central buildings were as conspicuous as the horses were beautiful. Many had gate houses that appeared to be inhabited, probably by the groundskeepers. I stopped several times for the vistas of rolling blue grass and horses. Lovely country.
I had to work some steep hills without any shoulders on the road before I got to Lexington. The drivers were universally patient as I climbed the hills in front of them. I came into Lexington on the northeast, and it looked like a dying industrial district to me. Usually, the poor side of the cities in the US is on the South. But not Lexington. By the time I was in the city proper, I had passed thru the majority of it. From my small sample of the city, I was not very impressed.
On the east I headed toward the town of Winchester. I was making good time and decided to try to get to Camp McKee and the conference tonight. It was around 45 miles east of Lexington. Someone had told me that Highway 60 had good shoulder, so I took it. But there was no shoulder. So, for 20 miles, I was on the edge of a heavily trafficked highway with cars speeding past me. It was just heads down and pedal in the 85 degree sunshine. I was relieved when I finally got off the highway and found the local library at around 5 pm.
I checked my maps. As most auto drivers would drive, I had 27 more miles. Then I checked with the locals. A local greybeard who had lived here all of his life showed me a route thru the hills that would chop off 12 miles. There would be very little traffic on it. I just had to be willing to climb a few steep hills. I decided to go for it.
When I got to the steepest hills, I just walked my bike up. It felt good to use different muscle, and to be off my sore ass. When I came over the last ridge, I saw what I could honestly call mountains in the distance. Wow. I had slowly watched the terrain change from flat plain, to hills, and now to mountains. I coasted down a gradual slope for maybe two miles until I got to Egg Nest Road. I loved the name. I hung a right and proceeded down as country a road as you can get in Kentucky. Several families called out to me from their porches to find where I was going. They gave me detailed directions and wished me well. Nice folk. Every one had been along the way.
When I got to highway 11, I knew I would make it. One thing I can tell you about bicycling long distance. Looking at a map and studying a route does NOT get you there. Measuring how for you have come does NOT get you there. Rewarding yourself for working hard does NOT get you there. Only pedaling the damned bike gets you there. And believe me, when you are on the bike, you have plenty of time to think about that.
Just before I came to Camp McKee, I saw an elderly mechanic and his son working. I saw an old Toyota Land Cruiser with a FOR SALE $900 sign. That’s very cheap for any Land Cruiser. I rode up and took a look at it. Rusted out something terrible. “Where ya come from?” the fellow asked. Bloomington, Indiana. “On that?” I nodded. “I’ll be damned. Wished I could do that.”
We talked for a while about old cars, mechanics, sons, and life. A good leisurely conversation. But the sun was getting low. I told him I had to get to Camp McKee before nightfall. “Well, it’s right there, across the road.”
I looked and sure enough, there was the entrance to the 800 acre camp. I had made it. I shook the man’s hand and wished him well. Then I rode down the long gravel road to the camp. So I made 230+ miles in 3 and a half days. I had given myself a maximum of 5 days to do it. I felt good about that, despite my sore sore ass and swollen Achilles tendon. One good shower later and ten hours sleep, and I was on my way to recovery. Ah, the joy of completing something worthwhile and difficult.
I spent four days at the Heartwood Forest Council. I had expected to find at least several other people who had ridden their bikes to the conference. After all, the conference was about lowering our carbon footprint, among other things. But I was the only one who had ridden his bike to the conference. There were numerous 20-something people who had driven 20 miles to the conference. When I asked one of them why he had not ridden his bike, he said that it had not occurred to him. Maybe next time it will.
My takeaway points from the conference:
- The complete environmental destruction of mountaintop removal mining in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. 2000 square miles are forever gone. I knew it was terrible, but it is even worse. I think a case can be made that mountaintop removal mining does more long-term environmental damage than a nuclear blast would. The worst part is the dumping of the overburden into gorges and streams. The heavy metal runoffs are toxic to most life other than bacteria, with the pH of the water dropping to as low as 2.1. It leaves the watershed destroyed for time periods that we must measure geologically.
- The danger of biomass electrical generation plants. We need a lot of that biomass right where it is, in nature, rather than in the sky. It can only be ‘profitable’ with government subsidies (an oxymoron) but it will encourage the wholesale cutting of everything. It would be, as Denny Haldeman said, the last great clearance sale of nature, ‘everything must go, 90% off, get it while it lasts”.
- The rich indigenous cultures of the Appalachian peoples. There has simply been too much negative stereotyping of them. A must read book is NIGHT COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS, by Harry Caudill. This book has not aged in the 47 years since publication.
Dwight Worker June 3rd, 2009