I set off into the swampy Illinois heat with my new cycling friend, Greg, after a fast food breakfast. Following the Adventure Cycling Association bicycle maps, we found ourselves on a hilly stretch of scenic backroads with lush overbrush, old farmhouses, lakes, and lots of required turns onto unmarked or poorly-marked roads.
One of the things I loved about Greg was his ability, like myself, to enter complete presence as we rode. We each found our own pace and let our minds melt into the beautiful surroundings, taking pictures, chatting with locals, imagining the history, and truly experiencing the serene countryside. We both forgot that we were on bicycles half of the time, which led not only to a rich and meaningful experience, but also to us finding ourselves lost on multiple occasions. My pace was slightly faster, so I found it routine to stop and use a napkin to dry off my sweaty fingers and my phone's touchscreen, finding my location on Google Maps, comparing the roads to our cycling map. Multiple times, I discovered we had both missed a turn, indicating to me that it was not just my wandering mind at fault, but that our maps really had issues, desperately in need of updates to help identify roads with missing signs.
I rolled over a highway overpass into a small town and noticed my bike was bouncing: I had a flat tire. Heat can make normal setbacks seem dramatic—even devastating—and it took everything in me to remain optimistic. I pulled over to the side of the road under a tree and fixed the flat tire, occasionally glancing up at the sky toward approaching storm clouds as the wind picked up. Greg pulled up and helped me load my bike onto my repaired tire as the wind tried to push my bike towards the ground. Our clothes suddenly became soaked by heavy rain showers, and the sky exploded with thunder and lightning. We shuttled our bikes towards a covered garage at a nearby retirement home where we waited out the storm.
After a long wait, we decided the rain had slowed down enough to start riding, so we set off into the drizzle across a slick and puddle-laden road. Between the blistering heat, humidity, hills, poor maps, flat tire, and storm we found ourselves in the mid-afternoon, still hours of riding away from our reserved cabin in Eddyville. We called the owner to let him know that we would arrive late, then powered through our exhaustion until the sun escaped behind the damp green hills. During moments like these, I am thankful to have had the foresight to line my entire bicycle and body with reflective material, allowing the headlights of cars to light us up as we fought through the pitch black darkness of the busy highway, regularly coughing and spitting out mouthfuls of buzzing and pestering bugs.
With the continual blinding beam from the headlights of passing trucks, we attempted to distract ourselves from the exhaustion, disorientation, heat, and seemingly endless climbing towards our cabin. The star-studded sky seemed vast, reminding me of my insignificance compared to the enormous happenings throughout the universe. A truck pulled to the side of the road accompanied by Ben, the owner of Hayes Canyon Campgrounds, who had come out to search for us. He offered to throw our bikes in his truck, and despite the overwhelming temptation to call it quits, we opted to keep pedaling, arriving at our cabin at around 11pm. With every last morsel of our energy used up, we scraped everything resembling food out of our bags and set them on the table: one packet of ramen, one can of soup, several pieces of beef jerky, a variety of energy bars, one package of oatmeal, and some Triscuit crackers. With ravenous hunger and Greg's hiker ingenuity, the most delicious concoction was born: Greg's Illinois Chowder — beef jerky Triscuit-noodle soup. We further enjoyed cliff bars for dessert before I fell into one of the deepest sleeps of my life.
We slept late, and in the morning I limped my sore legs toward the office to settle up for the cabin. I was greeted by a sweet little girl who handed me a tomato exclaiming, "It is my job to give the guests tomatoes and fruits." I thanked her, and passed several other cheerful little ones running around on the porch as I made my way inside.
After explaining that I was riding to raise money for a faith-based drug and alcohol recovery home for youth, Ben, the owner, refused to let me pay and explained that the cabin rental, which would have totaled about 70 bucks after tax, was a donation from his family. As we rode off into the heat, I found my train of thought continually drifting back to the amazing generosity that I had just experienced. Ben and his wife Patti had 5 young kids, including one with special needs. They were likely not in a position to give away business, and yet they gave freely and treated us like their own family. This was indeed a world full of good and generous people, and I teared a little thinking about all the goodness this trip has shown me that I otherwise would not have known existed.
Thankfully, our ride to the town of Cave-in-Rock was much less eventful than the prior day, although the climbing and heat still left us rather exhausted as we pulled up to the only motel in town. The motel had five rooms and an office, and clearly doubled as the home to several families who congregated around the entrance to the porch. The men had tank tops, held koozie-wrapped beers, and smoked cigarettes. Similarly, the women clung to babies, or beers and cigarettes. Swarms of slack-jawed shirtless mullet-headed kids of all ages began to circle around our bikes as if we were superheroes, and welcomed us with thick accents exclaiming, "We got y'all the best room and turned the AC on already, will be nice and cool for y'all!" As soon as the door closed behind us, Greg and I burst into laughter at the strangeness of the place. The room was dingy and dark and smelled like mildew and was decorated with American flags. Even the sheets, comforters, and shower curtain were American flag patterned and Greg immediately encouraged me to wear socks as he noticed that the carpet was damp and sticky.
After a patriotic night of sleep, we rolled into the center of the small town to a diner for pancakes and eggs before we headed separate ways: Greg traveling farther South toward Virginia, while I began to head North toward Ohio and Pennsylvania. I had really enjoyed having his company for four days of riding, and got the sense that we would remain friends for years to come, perhaps joining forces for some kind of adventure in the future.
Now that I was off of the ACA cycling maps, I rode on several highways towards Owensboro, creating my own route. I stopped for lunch in Shawneetown at The Shed, a small burger joint owned by a young lady named Abbey. Her mom, Paula, showed up and I began to talk to her about my ride. She told me about her nephew who was addicted to heroin, and explained how difficult it had been to recently kick him out of her house, leaving him without a home. She talked about how much she worried about him, but yet she felt like she could no longer enable him. I thought of my own parents, and the shame I carried all those years for putting them through so much similar stress and worrying. Addictions are a family disease. I am grateful that time, positive behavior, and forgiveness have healed my relationships with my family. After an emotional discussion, Paula gave me a big hug and handed me a twenty dollar bill exclaiming, "Dinner is on me tonight."
No matter how small the town, I keep hearing stories like hers during this ride, seeing the impact of addiction firsthand. Addictions have become a national epidemic—particularly youth opiate abuse—that is destroying every small community I have visited. It is these encounters that remind me how important the efforts of Providence Network really are. This new home that I am riding for will not solve every community's problems, but it will help a lot of young people, particularly in my home state of Colorado. It may have a ripple effect too: if even a fraction of the many that will be helped through Providence Network end up reaching out to help others, it could make a real impact. There are times that I wish I could help all the people I have met that are being destroyed by addiction, but I realize I can only try to do my part. If you have donated to this trip then you are doing your part too. For that, I thank you.
I arrived in Owensboro in the afternoon and stayed with a host family that I had arranged through warmshowers.org, an organization that offers a platform for hosts and touring cyclists to connect. As the name suggests, they offered me a warm shower, after which I met Todd and his wife Coneathea and their sons Dalton and Jacob. They were incredibly friendly and welcoming and treated me to a delicious home-cooked meal of pork chops, veggies, and potatoes followed by Coneathea's famous Swiss mocha cheesecake for dessert.
After dinner, Todd and Dalton drove me down to a gorgeous riverside park in downtown Owensboro to watch the sunset. Todd is a professional artist and he allowed me to film him painting the sunset, watching his brush blend and smear the colors on the canvas, chasing the pink light as it disappeared below the Ohio River. It was a lot like watching Bob Ross on PBS: there were several moments where I thought he surely botched the whole painting, then over time I began to see it all come together into something amazing. With the presence of my camera, tripod, and microphone, as well as Dalton on the other side taking his own video, it roused the interest of most of the kids at the park and they began crowding around, one of them asking, "is this guy famous?" Dalton and I simultaneously answered, "Yeah, kind of!" For a moment I think we all felt unnecessarily important.
After some morning coffee and warm biscuits with butter and jam, I said goodbye to Todd and peddled away, feeling that I had made another long-lasting friendship. I spent the morning thinking about getting into painting, which is one of the miraculous things I have discovered about an adventure like this: you tend to find new avenues of inspiration from these brief, yet meaningful, encounters with people.
The day's ride consisted of several sketchy highways with little side room and lots of traffic until I crossed the border into Indiana and reached the outskirts of Louisville suburbia. The traffic began to swarm me and I started to notice a pattern in the types of businesses: gun stores, liquor stores, tattoo shops, pawn shops, small convenience stores with large EBT ACCEPTED signs, and cash advance places.
I pulled up to a stoplight and got a really uneasy feeling as a group of thugs began circling around my bike whistling and hollering. The light turned green and all I could hear was "something…white boy!," as I moved my heavy bike faster than I ever knew was possible from a dead stop. For the first time in what seemed like a long time, I was back in the city. After several blocks, I began to see well-manicured lawns and a normal-looking grocery store. Despite not crossing over any, I must have made it to the other side of the tracks. Using my phone, I found the cheapest motel, and once I arrived it became apparent that despite not changing directions, I must have crossed some other tracks to get to it. After my bike was safely in the room, the first thing I did was fasten the deadbolt. It was that kind of neighborhood, but it was cheap.
Thanks for all the prayers, shares, comments, donations, and support. I truly appreciate all the love and support!