TABR Day 18: Beauty and the Banjo.
I carefully tip toed out of the guest house at the AirBnB in Danville, careful not to wake any of the other guests. Holding my cycling shoes in one hand, water bladder and various charging equipment in the other, I crept down the creaky wooden staircase through the kitchen and out the backdoor. It was about 3:30 in the morning, and the summer Kentucky night air was mild and inviting.
As I left, one of the barn dogs took note. I couldn't see the dog, but the barking seemed to grow louder as I tried to navigate quickly out of the house area, down a gravel drive with only a single light showing in front of me. Luckily I escaped with no encounter of the dog. I never did have a chance to see what the house or area actually looked like, coming and going in the pitch black.
Back out on the course, the roads were gentle. Not but 10 miles into the day, the route veered into some smaller side roads buried in a section of thick Kentucky backwoods. The roads narrowed considerably, almost to one lane. The tree canopy grew tight overhead. A few little cabins were tucked off the main road, and the sound of coon hounds echoed in the background. It was pitch black, the only light coming from what the dynamo chose to produce, which wasn't much at 10 mph. This area was definitely feeling strange, and seemed to have come out of nowhere. Glimpses of ravines and drop offs could be seen as my small light swayed back and forth towards the sides of the road. I kept pedaling, hoping for daylight to come soon and give me a little more comfort as to what I was riding through.
The sun rose around Buggytown (yes, Buggytown), giving light to some beautiful Kentucky farmland. The morning commuters were in full effect, but that still only meant a few cars here and there. The plan was to stop in Berea for a proper breakfast before getting into the climbing for the day.
There wasn't as much to choose from in Berea as I had hoped, or maybe I wasn't searching as hard as I should have. I waited at a local bagel shop for about 20 minutes for them to open and to pick up a few sandwiches. A 20 minute wait a few days ago would have been unrealistic, but as the exhaustion set in I was now willing to hang out a little more. I snagged a few bagels with avocado- two to stay, and one to go. It was now close to 8 am and you could feel hints of the days heat starting to mix with the morning air. I wasn't particularly looking forward to the next stretch of Kentucky. Not because of the climbing, I love climbing, but because of the backwoods banjo howling, "I'd like to wear your skin" vibe that I knew was about to ensue. I'm no white collar elitist- I've spent a good portion of my life living in the deep south, watching trucks parade around small towns with large confederate flags flying in the back. But this is a different feel. This is that, plus extreme poverty, where you and your bike might be of good value to those good ol' boys driving down the road. Where the set to Deliverance starts to feel real and dogs patrol the roads for tolls. On top of all that, the zipper to my jersey had broken about two days ago and I was riding with full man chest blowing in the breeze. It wasn't too bad in all this heat, but it was a pain every time I had to go into a business. I still had a light jacket with me that I would put that on when entering places. No shirt, no service!
Enough about that, it's time to get moving! The first of the large climbs out of Berea was Big Hill- a long and mellow climb on a larger highway, fairly exposed, but with a good shoulder. After a good breakfast, the morning legs were feeling as fresh as they could, and ready to tackle the road ahead.
The highway eventually narrowed to two lane country roads but still with a moderate amount of traffic. Shoulders became tighter through sweeping bends, but still nothing as harsh as Missouri. There were still a few reasonable sized towns in this section of the route, and drivers seemed pretty courteous in this part of Kentucky. Sure enough, the dogs were out in full force today. I had packed a small bottle of pepper spray exactly for this area of the country, and was afforded several opportunities to hone my skills today. In one instance, I was able to spray a beagle right in the snout as it came up hot on my back wheel. The dog yelped and immediately ran into a grassy area to try and wipe the sting away. Success!
I stopped in McKee at a CVS for a refill of sunscreen and some other supplies. I remember buying a spray bottle of sunscreen (far too lazy to lather at this point), but finding the twist lock on the top was jammed. I went back inside to notify the clerk, and he proceeded to start fiddling with it. I was watching him as he held the nozzle straight towards his face and thinking "he's going to spray himself right in the face". Sure enough, he fixed it and gave himself a nice coating of sunscreen right in the eyes. We had a laugh about it, I thanked him for his service and continued on.
Ideas were starting to brew about some larger pushes through these last few days. Self preservation was at the border of being irrelevant, as the end of the race was coming close. My goal was to hit Elkhorn City this evening, get one last night of "good" rest and then push hard to the finish from there. That was the plan, at least.
Further and further I went into eastern Kentucky. My mind constantly battled with appreciating the great beauty that this area offered, while reflecting on the rough conditions that those still living in this area were facing. I wanted to enjoy the scenery but at the same time move through the area as quickly as I could. Jason was still hot on my heels, hovering about 20-30 miles behind me consistently. These two factors kept me working as much as I could at this time... which really wasn't much. My daily power averages were dropping quickly. I would think I was pushing hard, only to see 135 watts on the dashboard. (for reference my normal FTP is around 300). There was just no juice left in the 'ol thunder sticks.
We crept deeper into country highways, and with it came the storms. It began with the sun slowly fading behind clouds, ushering in a band of ominous dark grey coverage that quickly covered the entire sky. A light rain hit as the route dumped back onto a major highway, close to Buckhorn. Traffic was high, and major construction was in the works. What was left of the shoulder was riddled with large rock debris, and in some sections shoulders and right hand lanes were closed, forcing cyclists into a tight corridor with cars. It wasn't a very long section, but enough to rattle the remaining nerves especially in slick road conditions.
I only remember Buckhorn because it had a Wendy's, in which I helped hit some peak sales numbers on that day. I sat inside consuming several JBCs as the first storm system passed through.
Back on the road, the four lane highway slowly changed back to a meandering two lane road. On the left side was sheer rock face, right up to the edge of the road, and on the right was a small sliver of land that hugged the bend of the river. Here and there you would find a small convenience store built out of cinder blocks, with very few windows and several old trucks parked outside. I stopped at one to refill snacks and get my 18th chocolate milk for the day. I asked the gentlemen working the counter if there were any parks in the area. Nothing close at least. I needed a nap desperately. I remember walking outside the store, to find two good ol boys sitting in a 70's pickup. Windows down, no shirts, staring me down. I had to walk past them to get back to my bike. I think I mumbled something like "hot day" to them as I passed, to which I received a head nod and some Kentucky mumble from both. Keeping moving, Tim. But I really didn't have any energy to keep moving. Just a yard up the road was a small patch of grass. I walked my belongings there, opened up a second chocolate milk and starting looking at some offline maps (no service here). Quickly my fingers moved towards the alarm icon, my mind not trying to stop them. I set a quick alarm for 30 minutes and passed out immediately, laying in a small patch of grass right on the side of the highway. The hum of light road traffic proved peaceful.
The buzz of the phone woke me from a deep sleep, and I groggily collected my belongings to keep pedaling. This definitely could have been one of those moments where I started pedaling the wrong direction. Pro tip- always point your bike in the direction of travel when you're totally shelled. Almost immediately, I was in desperate need of a bathroom break. Sheer rocks on the left side of the road, and a small open patch of land on the right down to a river meant no real good place to drop bibs. Looking at my GPS file from this day, I can see several small pull offs I did in this section, just trying to find a restroom. Finally! I spotted a small baseball diamond that had a porta-potty on the back side of it. I veered off the main road, down a gravel shoot to it's glorious site. Inside, it must have been 150 degrees. I had leaned my bike up against the side away from the road, so as not to alert passing traffic that someone was in there. Only shortly after sitting down, I heard the sound of a large vehicle pulling down the gravel road, slowly coming closer to the front of the porta-potty. It stopped directly in front, not but a foot from the door I was sure it was those good 'ol boys coming to take me into the woods. I scrambled to get my bibs back on in that confined plastic heat cave, and in the process stepped right on my ear buds and ripped the cord clean apart. Damn! I slowly opened the door, only to find a sanitation truck there to perform maintenance. They hadn't gotten out of the truck yet, so I quickly picked up my bike and rode off. I had a good laugh about that experience as I petered on. The nap helped bring some afternoon energy, but unfortunately Elkhorn City was starting to loop out of reach for the night. There were still a few more large climbs to tackle and the storms were once again moving in.
Pippa Passes was a nice welcome as it had a college and resembled somewhat of a proper town. I was watching the sky rather than the town though; the brooding darkness warning me of another large system coming through. Sure enough, the rain started coming down heavy, with thunder intermittently rumbling in the background. It definitely warranted getting off the road, but once outside of Pippa Passes there wasn't much shelter on the roadsides. I saw a gentlemen working in his garage, slightly uphill from the road. On the other side of the road was a small wooden shack with a tin canopy, presumably owned by the same man. I yelled up to him several times, but in the rain it was hard to hear. I finally caught his attention, and used some hand gestures to the affect of "Can I take shelter in your shed?". He nodded his head, seeming to care less about the request. I dove into the shed to wait out the storm. I didn't have cell service so I couldn't tell how large these systems were. It was likely approaching 5 pm. No idea when the storms would stop, no idea what was available at the next town, and no idea where I was going to stop for the night. I was in 100% "wing it" mode, deep in the Kentucky mountains.
30 minutes later, the storm started to let up and I decided to keep pushing forward. Only a few miles up the road, yet another storm system forming on the horizon, and moving in fast. I stumbled across a local restaurant with an open sign, and decided to pull in there. I think this was in Raven. You didn't turn down food opportunities in this remote area, and some shelter to try and figure out what was going on was welcome. They had Wi-Fi as well, which would allow me to look at some weather maps and Trackleaders. I was the only patron in the place, and all chairs were up on the tables. The owner had her two young children working with her in the kitchen. I tried to start some conversation about the roads ahead and weather, to which I was warned about continuing out over the pass on Squire Rd towards Buckingham in this kind of weather. I took note, but I didn't have much of an option. Tonight I needed a shelter to hunker down in, and Buckingham was my next option to try. On Trackleaders I could see Jason was about 20 miles behind me and Donncha about 20 miles ahead. All three of us were trying our best to navigate through this area. Remote country, limited cell service and strong storms made this quite a complex endeavor. We were each piecing it together as best we could.
I reviewed the menu of the restaurant, in which most everything looked suspect. Of course, throwing better judgement aside I ordered the steak fries. Why not add some questionable meat to this bizarre day of Kentucky? I ate in peace, on a paper plate, in the middle of a restaurant with all the chairs turned up, by myself.
Again, the storms let up and I ventured back out. The roads were steaming as the rain cooled them down from the heat of the day. The next climb was very welcome, as the speed was so slow puddles on the road weren't splattering everywhere. Night finally crept in close to the top of the climb. I was definitely glad to have disc brakes in this moment. Kentucky descents are winding and steep, and in the dark my dynamo headlight didn't have quite enough side range to catch everything. I feathered slowly down the mountain towards the lights of Buckingham. It was approaching 10 pm by the time I arrived and as I passed through, I spotted a post office tucked next to a bar. The day had been a roller coaster and I wasn't mentally prepared to try and brave storms through the night. Progress had been dreadfully slow and I figured this was as good of place as any to call if for a few hours, recharge batteries and try and dry off. I was back in cell service, and noted that early morning the storms might be done. I had ditched my sleeping pad at the beginning of the race, so all I had was a sleeping bag to buffer me from the hard tile floor and a wet cycling jacket to make into a pillow. As I got ready to sleep, a woman came in to get her mail. She reached over me to open her mailbox, making small talk with the random man sleeping on the ground below her.
Buckingham wasn't close to where I wanted to get in this day, mother nature and sheer exhaustion having wreaked havoc on my plans.