Day Twelve: St. Louis to Cape Girardeau (by car)

We used this as a driving day to get back on course, and went from St. Louis to Cape Girardeau three times because of the absence of one-way car rental drop off options through Enterprise and seemingly all rental car companies in this state. (Again the car leapfrog: drive down in one car, rent a second car at the destination, drive back to where we started with two cars, turn one in at the airport, return to the destination in the remaining car.)

We left early, and drove into a terrible storm right after we had stopped for some coffee at a St. Louis Bakery (which by all appearances was a Panera but with a different name); the storm was severe enough that we exited highway 55 and parked under a gas station overhang with several other drivers to wait it out. The wind was fierce and the rain was cascading in waves down the pavement and the lightning was close and we kept saying “maybe this is all working out for the better” as we would have been riding our bikes from a nearby state park if all had gone according to plan. There is still a tornado watch in effect as I write this, and we can hear thunder from the porch of our AirBNB.

Our lodging plans have flip flopped from what we expected to be doing. Originally we were going to camp for a 2-3 night stretch, then have a night at a hotel or other vacation rental so we could do laundry and have A Really Good Shower, and continue on following that pattern. Now we are on the “camp only when we have to” plan, which is leaving us more refreshed and ready for whatever wacky or challenging thing is going to happen next.

Tonight we are staying in an 1880s cottage in the old part of Cape Girardeau, about a block from the river, which is very charming and tastefully appointed. The owner is a musician who wrote a country song titled “A Man Holdin’ On (To A Woman Lettin’ Go)” that did pretty well when it came out in 1998, and his mother ran a candle shop from the other side of the building until recently…much of the inventory is still in the shop and the whole building is an aromatherapy dream. The A/C is out so we have fans on and are spending time outside and we have been catching up on the history of Cape Girardeau. A Civil War battle took place here, and Ulysses Grant lived here for awhile, and SEMO University is here, and we learned from the guy who drove us back from the car rental place that the movie Gone Girl was filmed here.

Tomorrow we start a twelve day stint with no days off, cycling across southern Illinois and Kentucky and Tennessee and then down the Natchez Trace. Fingers crossed that our mechanical issues are behind us….

Day Eleven: Troy to St. Louis (but not by bike)

We ended yesterday by showering and walking across a busy highway to a Mexican restaurant where margaritas were half price. Strangely, given all the calories we are burning – about 4,000 during the biking portion of the day – our appetites aren’t great. We had good meals but didn’t finish them and I didn’t finish my cheap margarita.

We got a great night’s rest and woke at 6:00. I checked Lisa’s tire and found it pancake flat, which I actually was expecting.

This trip, maybe typical of adventures like this, has been a series of problems to solve. Here’s the situation, what are the options and the possibilities? We knew there wasn’t a bike shop in Troy, but there was one in a town 40 miles away on our planned course, so I could replace the tube again and we could limp there and hope they could replace the tire, which we now, slightly too late, realized was what we had to do.

We also knew there was a small car rental agency in Troy. Could we rent a car, drive to Cape Girardeau, fix the bike and catch up on our trip? We knew there was a good bike shop there and it is only two hours away.

We started to make calls and realized that no rental cars anywhere were available for a one way rental.

Then Lisa wondered if maybe there was an REI in St. Louis, and bingo, there was. We’d been on the phone last night with the bike team in Seattle (Lisa’s riding an REI bike). Now we decided to get to an REI where they’d have an expert mechanic. But how, without a one way rental?

By playing rental car leapfrog, that’s how. Rent a car in Troy that is big enough for one bike, take that bike to REI and get them started on it. (Bonus, lunch at the Whole Foods next door.) Then drive to the St. Louis airport and rent a car big enough for two bikes. Drive both cars back to Troy, return the first car and pick up the other bike. Drive back to REI and take care of business, and go to a hotel. Tomorrow, we’ll drive all our gear to Cape Girardeau in the big car and unload at our AirBnB. Then we’ll drive to the Cape Girardeau airport, rent the cheapest car available and drive both cars back to the St. Louis airport and return the big car. Then drive back to CG and return the little car and Uber to our rental cottage with everything ready to roll the next morning.

Our experience at the St. Louis REI’s bike department put all the other mechanics we’ve seen (quite a few) to shame. They are the Mayo Clinic of bike illnesses. While everyone else had told us there was no problem with the rim or the tire, these guys dig deeper (there is a trick involving panty hose for finding tire piercings we can share sometime.) It turns out, Lisa had picked up numerous metal shards which eventually worked their way into the tubes and pierced them. Should we have just replaced the apparently fine tire sooner? Yup. But we listened to people who were troubleshooting at a shallower level.

In any case, we were in very good hands with Rob and Jake at REI St. Louis and they comped all the work on Lisa’s bike. If you are not a customer yet, become one. We both left with new chains, me with a new cassette (the series of chain rings on the back wheel) and Lisa with a tough new tire.

Lisa once suggested that we apply for the Amazing Race TV show. I think we’re on it but with no chance of winning millions.

So, how are our spirits? Mine were low mid-afternoon, waiting while mechanics were telling me our chains were likely to fail and did we have spares (no, and could I replace one if I had to…no) and I was thinking that we are heading into places where they don’t have REI and Whole Foods – I mean, not even close…I was just thinking how can we do this (and why.)

I even looked at the train schedule, that’s how low I was. Meanwhile, Lisa was upstairs looking at hats. When she came down to ask if I liked the gray one or the black one better, I told her how I was feeling and she said “I’m optimistic, let’s just go for it.”

Then, when we were checking into our bargain, past-its-prime hotel down by the Cardinals’ stadium, I looked up and saw a promotional banner which read “going the extra mile for adventure is always worth it.”

And I guess, in the end, that is the truth. I may not pass this way again, I believe someone once said.

Day Ten: Hannibal to Troy, MO

We were up early this morning and eager to get on the road…by 7:15 we were packed and ready and on our bikes, and rode downtown to drop off the key to our lovely little AirBNB at a shop owned by our hosts. It felt SO GOOD to be out in the cool morning air, riding fast after two rest days, and we left town on Highway 79 on a big hill that led to Lover’s Leap,

This was the best biking day so far: it was overcast and cool, and beautiful, and the route took us through small towns and big farms with white fences and old trees and cattle in the fields, and up and down long hills that were slow to ascend but glorious to descend (we maxed out at 30 MPH on one). All day I was smelling honeysuckle, which lined the road in wild places, and it was sort of intoxicating.

It was our first day being chased by dogs and all we had to do was yell “Bad dog, go home!” and they stopped and looked guilty, which was a relief. It was also the first day that someone rolled down their car window and asked if we needed cold water or anything else. The traffic was light, and we felt great.

A lunchtime stop in Clarksville gave us a chance to watch a barge navigate into the lock and dam, and we continued on through the hills. At some point Dan looked at my rear tire and noticed that it was losing air (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) after we had traveled about 60 miles, and we went a little further and inflated it and made it into Troy, for a total of 77 miles.

I had called REI yesterday morning after discovering the last flat tire, asking if there was some sort of design flaw in my one-year-old REI Co-op bike that would help us to figure out why this keeps happening, as it is designed to carry 250 lbs with gear and rider and we are way under that limit. Someone from the product team emailed me today with some suggestions about what to look for and do, and I called him after we got to our hotel. His colleague Cathy was on the phone with us for about half an hour, and after reviewing options. we decided that a good course of action would be to go back to a 48mm tire on the back of my bike (the original size – we installed 42mm tires before going to Duluth on a bikepacking trip last fall.) So guess where we are headed tomorrow morning: the next town with a bike shop!!! We may change our blog name to “Bike Shops along the MRT” as a public service.

While we were walking to dinner across the other side of the highway, Dan remarked on his emerging biking shorts tan lines. Which will be getting more pronounced as we continue on.

Dan’s Addendum:

Our total elevation gain today, that is, the distance we climbed, was 5,000 feet. That’s a lot. That’s like riding in the mountains. We had to walk those loaded bikes up a few of those hills; and no apologies here! Our pride got lost a few days ago.

We are thinking about ways we might make this a little easier on us. And still do the job, and get to New Orleans in time for our flight home. More on that later.

Day Nine: Hannibal, redux

This will be short and uninteresting. We woke up refreshed after our day off and started packing up. As I brought our bags out on the porch, I suddenly realized that Lisa’s back tire was flat again – for the fourth time in seven days. (Don’t worry, I didn’t swear – or cry.) I got to work putting on a new tube, a messy job since we’d ridden through that melted tar and gravel on Saturday. When I got it on the wheel, I took it on my bike down to a gas station and inflated it.

But I was not at all confident about heading out on an 80 mile day in 100 degree heat, especially when it included another 30 mile stretch with no services – a flat tire out there would be really hard. And my feeling was that maybe this tube will last all the way to NOLA, or maybe it will last ten miles. There is a bike shop in Hannibal, and another back in Quincy, but both were closed this morning. We decided to ride out to the Hannibal shop, which was opening at noon, stop for groceries, extend our stay by a day and sort the coming days out later.

The owner of the bike shop said the rim and the tire are fine, and we’ve maybe just had a bad string of luck with tubes on that wheel. (As a point of reference, my bike has not had a flat in 2,000 miles, while Lisa has now had 4 in 500 miles.) The heat hasn’t helped. I asked him if he were us, would he keep going on it, and he said he would.

We’ll head out again tomorrow, intent on making it to Troy, MO. We’ll take this one day at a time and we’ll go as far as we can on these bikes and we’ll get to New Orleans one way or another. Our luck will change one of these days and everything will be faster, cooler, and easier than expected, right?

Thanks for all your kind thoughts, comments and wishes. It means so much to us. We are outside of our comfort zone, but we carry all of you with us.

Day Eight: Hannibal, MO

Today was a rest day for us, and it was a relief. We received many kind messages of support after Dan’s post yesterday about how hard the day was…and he wasn’t really looking for sympathy, just trying to be honest about this experience. (And I am grateful to you all for your concern, and lovely comments). He said something like “Lisa was in tears” by the time we arrived in Quincy. I may have instead said something like “Lisa had heatstroke and was weepy and delirious.”

Riding seventy miles through southern Illinois farm country and experiencing thirty or so of those miles without any shade to speak of in the afternoon doesn’t really seem that terrible. But add in the fact that most of those country roads were recently resurfaced and covered with tiny rocks that alternately became embedded in my tires or rolled and popped through the fenders like popcorn before flying out, and that a bee flew in my ear and stung me at some point, and that my left hand seems to be experiencing some ulna nerve problem, and let’s just say it was a trying afternoon. This morning Dan shared the overall ride data including the temperature range from his Garmin, which reported the high at 109 degrees.

(Figure 1: Temperature change during the ride; Figure 2: Bike tire coated in tar and rocks)

So arriving at our little AirBnB in Hannibal for a two night stay with air conditioning and a kitchen was also cause for weeping, though they were tears of joy. We are staying in a remodeled studio in an old lumber worker’s home built in 1850, and learned today from our host John as he was clipping the roses in front that he and his partner Wesley have bought a bunch of properties like this, mostly to house traveling nurses as they cannot attract enough nurses to live here permanently.

The world looks better after a good night’s sleep and we set out on foot for downtown Hannibal, where we ate breakfast at Becky Thatcher’s Diner and visited the Mark Twain boyhood home and museum properties, and wandered through the Twain on Main festival happening over the holiday weekend. As is true with so many of the river towns we have passed through, there is a grandeur in these old buildings along Main and surrounding streets that is not consistent with the way they are now used…what was a thriving enterprise in the 1850s and perhaps for the next 100 years or so is now a little struggling storefront boutique, or a boarded up building that has been vacant for decades. But there is great history here, and it was pretty remarkable to stand in Samuel Clemens’ house with a group of excited Chinese tourists who had clearly read his work as Mark Twain and were in awe. I learned more than a few things about Samuel Clemens and his childhood friends who became characters in Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as about his family. I knew that Hannibal was divided over slavery but did not know that the Clemens family owned slaves, and that casts a different lens on reading his work, and I have just started reading some of Toni Morrison’s reactions to Huckleberry Finn as a result. This is a part of this trip that we are both uncomfortable with, and should be… it’s part of our nation’s identity that we don’t condone, or understand, and grieve over.

The rest of our day included naps and reading on the porch and watching the sky get clouded over with a short-lived rain that cooled things off some, and then we walked back to the Mark Twain Brewing Company for dinner and I said goodbye to Dan to go on the Haunted Hannibal tour. It was a great way to learn about the history of the city, and hear about a lot of weird and wacky people, and we ended the tour in the old Baptist cemetery as the sun was setting. This was supposedly the graveyard that Tom and Hick visited with the cat, and it was also a potter’s field, and the tour included giving everyone divining rods to use in the cemetery. And that is a story for another day..

More riding tomorrow in 90 degree heat anticipated…feeling rested, and looking forward to experiencing more of northeastern Missouri.

Day Seven: Dallas City to Hannibal, Missouri

We walked back to our tent after listening to the people of Dallas sing karaoke and climbed into the tent as we noticed thunder and lightning in the western sky, across the Mississippi. The trains kept roaring through town, fifty yards from where we were trying to sleep. Lisa worked on her blog post while I fell asleep. A couple of hours later, we realized that a major thunderstorm was approaching and we got out to batten things down, and bring our bags under the vestibule. The wind and rain increased and at about 4:45, we decided to run to the bathrooms and sat in the women’s room for about 45 minutes, then returned to the tent to try to sleep. By the way, everyone says a storm sounds like a freight train, but we had both a storm and real trains all night long. I think we slept a couple hours at the end of the night.

Good news – the Big Agnes tent really kept us and our gear dry. (Thanks, Mary Burke.)

We packed up in the very wet campsite and pulled out of town about 8:30. The course took us up the hill to the high farmland around the town. The riding was great, with little traffic, but a lot of sun and wind. At one point, we encountered a group that was basically doing our trip in reverse – and fully supported, meaning the cyclists ride their lightweight bikes, and carry nothing, and have a couple vans with leaders and mechanics on board. Needless to say, they do not camp. I was envious of their freshness, and good cheer. We were pretty tired and the day was just getting started.

We followed the course, and it was beautiful, as a tour info woman told me in Nauvoo, the most beautiful part of the Mississippi. I was hot and didn’t want to chat, so I did not say “I am from Minnesota and I beg to differ, tourist info lady.” (In fact, it was very beautiful.)

Then we approached the last town before Quincy, Illinois. Hannibal, our goal for the day, is roughly across the river from Quincy, but still a twenty mile ride. I’d calculated that today would be 90 miles, which I thought would be doable, since we had an apartment waiting for us in Hannibal. What I hadn’t known was that the thirty miles before Quincy were completely without services (no towns, stores, gas stations, nothing) or that today would be abnormally warm – the temp was in the mid nineties all day. We loaded up on water before we set out on this crossing (which reminded me of the desert crossing in my favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia) and rolled out onto a thirty mile road, with little traffic, and no shade…a long ribbon of concrete cooking under the southern Illinois sun.

I tried to conserve the water, but you sweat a lot in these conditions. I kept looking back to see where Lisa was and how she was doing, and she kept slowing down. I’d wait for her, but I had a hard time finding a shady place to stop. I stopped once under a huge tree with white blossoms by an abandoned farmhouse and in the quiet, heard a hum, a buzz, and looked up to see thousands of fat bumblebees feasting on the flower’s nectar.

As the miles rolled by, I realized that Lisa was struggling, so I found a place where we could park the bikes and walk down into a shady grove by a little creek. I grabbed these little camp chairs we’ve been carrying and we just sat and drank the (now hot) water, without finishing it, as we weren’t sure how far we had yet to go.

After a fifteen minute break we got back out on the road, still intensely hot, the white concrete radiating the heat back up at us. And then my bike computer started alerting me that there was a severe thunderstorm warning for the vicinity. I thought we were still 7 or 8 miles out of Quincy, and started getting nervous. I actually tried to hitch a ride for us into town…stuck my hitchhiker’s thumb out to an older couple who smiled at me and waved, and gave me a thumb’s up.

I was out of water – after doing long distance running for decades, I knew the feeling of becoming dehydrated and I knew it was bad. We were close to entering Quincy, but were not coming across any sources for cold water, and we were both seriously overheated, but Lisa was in worse shape than me. I just wanted to get her into an air conditioned space.

We finally pulled into Quincy and went to the nearest sports bar. Lisa was in tears.

I’d already decided that we couldn’t consider riding another twenty miles, especially with the sky turning weird colors and rain starting to fall in big drops.

After lots of calls, we found that the local taxi service had a van that they could use to run us to Hannibal, only twenty minutes away.

We went outside (we were both getting chilled, now, in the indoor air) and started to get the bikes and gear ready to get hauled. As we did that, out the door came a guy (Jim) who was a biker and who asked how we were doing. We told him our story and he said that he would take us to Hannibal if the taxi didn’t work out. “That’s what bikers do for each other.” His friends Terry and Holly joined us and we talked biking and touring till the van showed up. We were delighted to meet them, and wished we’d decided to spend the night in Quincy instead of Hannibal.

That is a long story about a day that began and ended with thunderstorms, a day with little or no rest, not much good food and way too little fluids. I’ve always thought the key attribute of an endurance athlete is the ability to not mind discomfort. And I’ve had that quality, but I want to tell you this experience is really different than running a marathon.

We’ve had lots of comments to the effect of “you guys rock” and “you’re amazing” but I want to be really honest…this is so hard and we don’t really feel that way at all. We are both (though we don’t talk about it) wondering if we can do it. That group of riders we saw this morning were cycling on a good meal and fast, unencumbered bikes, with a mechanic along and someone else telling them where they were going to sleep every night. And, good for them, but that’s not what we’re doing. We have to figure out every issue every day. There is very little down time for us.

For me, it isn’t so much a physical challenge, though consecutive 80 mile days are unquestionably hard. It is a spiritual or emotional challenge. I keep asking myself if we can navigate through strange country, find food to eat and safe places to sleep, or if we bit off more than we can chew.

All marathoners ask themselves those questions in the final miles of the race “why did I think this was a good idea?” But the best athletes overcome self doubt and that is my challenge tonight, honestly.

We look forward to a day off tomorrow and Lisa has great plans for touring Mark Twain’s childhood haunts. I just want to sit on the porch.