USA Part 7: The Hillbily’s Hills (St Louis MO to Washington DC 30/08/17-16/09/17)

I got off the Greyhound bus in Missouri and rubbed my eyes. It had been another long ride through the endless plains of Illinois, coming down from Chicago. I sat on my pack outside the St Louis bus station and watched an Amish family exit a mini van. The father of this family had a long beard, a straw hat and suspenders over his trousers. His wife and the daughters had full length plain dresses on and their hair tied up under brown caps. They looked like something out of a time piece drama. They stood collecting their belongings together while a couple of black guys loitered outside the station. These chaps’ trousers were so low I’m amazed they didn’t fall down and they both had the tags hanging off their caps in some sort of strange fashion statement.

It’s those juxtapositions that make city life so much fun in the US, but after an urban fortnight in Boston, New York and Chicago I was quite ready to get back into the countryside on my bicycle. But first I had to navigate East St Louis. As far back as the West coast people were warning me “try to avoid East St Louis!” The town has quite the reputation and I’ve often heard it described as the country’s ‘most dangerous city’, which obviously made me want to go there…

Crossing the Mississippi river meant I had now left Missouri and was in the state of Illinois. East St Louis was a sorry looking place. Everything was falling apart, including the roads. Old ornate buildings that had once been the town’s centerpieces were now overgrown. Some of the houses looked like they too had been left to ruin, but then I’d see a satellite dish and realise that people did actually live there.

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First night back in the tent

It didn’t take long before I was back in the corn fields. My legs felt fine but my head didn’t. I think this last break was my 5th pause off the bike for a fortnight or longer but something felt different this time. Usually after a break I’m raring to go. Now I simply didn’t fancy cycling. I thought of all the many things I wanted to do with my days and riding a bicycle was a very long way down that list.
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It was an unpleasant feeling and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Had the charm of America worn off? Was I just bored because I knew the scenery coming up would be boring? Had my enthusiasm for touring finally worn off after so long on the road?

I suspect it was a combination of all the above. I kept turning those legs but a feeling of apathy clouded my ability to engage with the world around me. Fortunately I wasn’t missing out on much. It was the same old corn fields I’d spent weeks riding through already in the Mid-West. Southern Illinois was flat but I had awful headwinds the first few days back on the bike so I struggled to cover much distance.
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I crossed Illinois in three days. The small towns I passed were drab and unexciting. The only colour was from the US flags hanging from lampposts and posters thanking their local lads serving in the military. In one supermarket there was a whole section of army/veteran themed merchandise featuring baseball caps with slogans saying: ‘FREEDOM IS NOT FREE’. When I first came to this country I was charmed by the national pride. Now it often just feels weird. There is a fine line between patriotism and bigotry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Indiana the ground began to undulate but I still struggled to find a reason to take my camera out of its bag. The temperature had dropped and the wind had turned in my favour but hurricane Harvey’s tail end bought a bunch of rain in. I’d take long coffee breaks in service stations and watch elderly men chew fried chicken. They’d all have neatly trimmed white mustaches and smart polo shirts tucked into their trousers.

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Vincennes, Indiana

Life in rural America revolves around petrol stations in a unique way. The service stations sell everything and are often the only places doing food in the smallest places. I often get chatting to people at these hang outs. Outside one a guy said: “What are you doing out here? This is bean country! Ain’t nutin but hillbillies and cattle out here!”. Actually there was no cattle at all. The landscape was so boring that he hadn’t even noticed that himself. There were plenty of soy bean farms though. That and corn, needless to say…
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I’m not entirely sure what a hillbilly is but he looked like one. Trucker mesh cap, beard, teeth missing and a shirt with the sleeves crudely ripped off. He spoke with a soft southern twang. For the first time in the US I am starting to notice a difference in the accents of people. It was a very gentle edge in Missouri but now as I head East the Southern drawl becomes stronger and clearer.
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Soon the hills became more menacing. They were not my main concern though, the dogs were. It was like running the Gladiator gauntlet, honestly. People had warned me it would be a problem out here but I hadn’t quite believed them. West of Missouri I didn’t have a single dog come after me. Out here I get chased by dozens every day.

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Morning view from the above campsite

Indiana only took me two days to cross. After the first day I camped by a lake in Hoosier National Forest. It was a beautiful spot right on the shore (see the two pics above). After that night’s sleep I felt much better about cycling again. Sometimes all it takes is a peaceful campsite and everything syncs up for me. Had I been a couple of days ahead I’d have been absolutely soaked by the end of Hurricane Harvey but I’d dodged most of the wet. Now the sun was out and Kentucky was calling me.
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Louisville was my first stop in Kentucky and it made a great impression on me. It was Sunday and in Indiana that morning every church car park had been rammed (and there was a church every few miles in the countryside). Here in Louisville everyone was out in the bars.

In small town America the people have a strange bar culture. I often fancy a mid-afternoon beer but the places here are so unappealing. Every little town will have a dive-bar but the windows with be blackened and it will almost certainly be a dingy cave inside. None of these places ever have an outside area. It’s very odd because they get such lovely long summers here. In the UK every pub has at least a bench outside for the smokers. When the sun comes out everyone fills up their local beer-garden. That’s something missing in small town America.

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Crossing the Ohio river, dividing Indiana and Kentucky

Across the river in Louisville, people knew how to drink. The road I cycled into town had a bar every two doors and each of them had nice big outdoor areas that were chock-a-block. “Man – this is a town where people know how to enjoy a Sunday afternoon!” I thought. I was very disappointed to discover that the Americans were celebrating Labor Day. It was not any old Sunday at all.
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Kentucky also took me three days to cross and it was very much a story of two halves. I was now in Bourbon country where an awful lot of whiskey comes from but this region is also known for horses. On the road towards Georgetown I cycled past miles and miles of sweeping fields with horses behind neat fences. I was glad to be rid of the corn fields. Clearly there is money in horse breeding. The houses were big & fancy and the farm entrances were decorated and had elaborate signs. I chatted to one girl from a breeding family. A ‘mating session’ with a premium stud can cost $50,000 easily. You could buy a house for less than that in the poorer parts of the state. It’s a strange state of affairs when animal jizz is worth more than a home…
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Eventually the posh horse farms disappeared and the farms became more rugged. Now there were cattle again and the rolling fields looked a lot like they could be in England. The houses were run down and sorry-looking. For the first time in the US I saw very poor rural areas. Before coming here the only ‘poverty’ I’d seen was in cities.
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Many of the homes were just converted trailers with rusty panels nailed into the sides. I saw quite a few that were abandoned and were slowly being swallowed up by the forest. It seemed that the more decrepit a house was, the more ‘NO TRESPASSING’ & ‘BEWARE OF THE DOG’ signs would be attached to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw people walking around with ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’ signs nailed into their foreheads around here.

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Abandoned trailer home

My first stop in West Virginia was Huntington, tucked in the state’s corner just below Ohio. It had been a very rural blog’s worth of riding until I cycled the busy stretch to Charleston past a whole bunch of little towns. It only took me a day to reach Charleston, which is the state capital. It has a big capital building with a large golden dome. It seems every capital in this country has the exact same building in the middle. Not the most imaginative architecture.

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The pic below was taken from my campsite on the shore directly above my handle barsIMG_4104

I was back in the mountains at last. They were gentle green mounds covered in thick forests and cut deep by rivers. The air was cooler in among the trees and the clouds drooped low in the mornings. I was tired from blitzing my way across the boring Mid-West but now I was excited about some proper hill climbing.
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West Virginia is the only state in the US where the people have seemed a bit ‘off’. Perhaps it was the Confederate flags that made me feel uneasy. A large chunk of this country is covered in them (I was seeing them as far back as Kansas) but here they are everywhere. It’s a very odd phenomenon. If I’d not come cycling here I’d have learnt that they were still a ‘thing’, because I’d have seen the Charlottesville riots on international news. (I actually cycled pretty close to Charlottesville but I reckon I cycled straight through the villages where the right-wing morons headed into town from). I do understand that the the flag can mean more than: “hello, I am a racist” but it still seems an unnecessarily provocative thing to wave around. I have made friends in this country who have very different views to my own but none who would ever fly that flag.
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It was hard to enjoy the cycling because of the dogs. The problem was just as bad as in some of the worst parts of the crazy-dog world. Here they weren’t quite as vicious as in Asia but they were greater in numbers. Everyday I’d get chased by dozens. It was ridiculous.
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Occasionally the owners would come out to restrain their love-able pets but usually no-one was home. One bearded bloke came bumbling out of his trailer early in the morning when his dog woke him up by barking at me. He was bare chested and covered in tattoos. “God dammit Lucy, get back here!”. The dog didn’t give a shit, she just wanted to chase me. It was like the redneck version of our middle class viral ‘Fenton’ video from my local-ish Richmond park. (The place that I did two entire laps of and then decided that was enough training for a 15,000 mile bike ride from the UK to Australia).

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I have also heard that reading the Bible improves your spelling…

Two particularly angry dogs came running out at me one afternoon. The owners just leant on their pickup truck watching the show. I stopped and shouted up: “are you going to do anything about your fucking dogs?” but they just took a drag on their cigarettes and slouched forward. It was very odd and I didn’t fancy a confrontation with people like that….
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In the little town of Summersville I arrived just as the annual potato festival was taking place. It was the most wonderful thing ever. Only in America. A guy in a lumberjack shirt and aviators was hosting the auction by yelling some strange sounds in a thick southern-accent that I could barely understand. They were selling piles of potatoes (that couldn’t have been more than 10lb) for $150+. Accompanying him were two leggy blondes in silver dresses that didn’t seem to be on stage for any other reason than to look pretty and feminine beside the vegetables.
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In the next parking lot of bunch of cars were parked with the bonnets open so that passers by could admire the engines. Some of the cars were real antiques but others were just normal pickups. Country music blasted and old men stroked their handlebar mustaches while admiring the mechanics.
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I continued across the border into Virginia and the temperature dropped. Everyday it seemed to be getting colder and colder. More of the leaves were turning into autumn colours and many more had already fallen. Suddenly the nights were cold and it dropped down to about 40F. The first night in this blog I’d been unable to sleep because I’d been so hot in my tent! It seemed summer had finally come to an end.

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As I understand it, coal used to be a big industry out here. Now the lack of that industry is a primary reason why some areas are so impoverished.

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I was able to camp in Waynesboro at the free Appalachian Trail campsite for the hikers. There I met a couple of guys who were through-hiking the entire thing (over 2,000 miles!). I made the mistake of complaining about not having had a shower for a week, when they’d go for over a month without one at a time. Lucky we were allowed to have a free wash in the local YMCA. I’ve read a lot about the AT trail because I became quite fixated with a couple of the US’ long distance hikes back in 2014. I forgot to mention in the Colorado blog that I was particularly excited when I crossed the Pacific Crest Trail (when is even longer than the AT!). I was strongly considering attempting the PCT but decided instead to go for a bike ride and the rest is history…
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The AT hikers were waiting for the tail end of Hurricane Irma to pass. It had been a couple of awfully wet days but I was keen to get over the mountains and into Washington DC. I left Waynesboro in the drizzle and headed to Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive. I wondered what the point was. Visibility was barely 20ft in the low cloud. I had to blag my way past the ticket entrance because I didn’t have any lights. The park staff said I’d get a $200 fine if I was caught cycling without lights, which seemed a little over the top to me. My batteries were dead (I didn’t have time to charge them) and I hadn’t planned on needing them at 10am! I promised to change batteries around the corner but just put my high-vis vest on and pedalled quickly up into the mountains.
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I didn’t stop at the first few view points because visibility was atrocious but slowly the clouds cleared and by the time I reached the higher lookouts I had glorious views across Shenandoah Valley.
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All the other National Parks I’ve visited in this country have been spoiled by huge crowds. Now the holidays were over and the Skyline Drive was not busy at all. It was tough on the legs but worth the climbs. I had two very peaceful days up there in the high forests.
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The most exciting thing up there for me was the wildlife. One morning a large black thing pottered across the road about 50ft in front of me. I squeezed my breaks immediately – a bear! It spotted me and leaped up into the undergrowth. I’ve been living in fear of those animals all the way across this country and it was good to finally see what it is I’m so scared of. I’ve never seen a bear in the wild before. I don’t think I was expecting a teddy bear, but I was surprised how long its legs were. I also didn’t realise black bears were quite so black but I suppose the name should have given that away.

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This is how I have to tie my food up every night…

I rolled down into civilisation and onto the busy roads leading to the country’s capital. It was a shock to the system after those quiet days up in the mountains. A dog came charging out of a suburban home and I swerved without thinking as it jumped out of the bushes at me. Thank God there hadn’t been a car behind me – that could have been the end of me. Those homeowners shave no idea how dangerous their wretched dogs are. They have really spoiled this section of cycling for me.
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I have experienced some striking cultural changes on my crossing of this country but none more obvious than the divide of the Appalachian mountains in Virginia. The west side had been poor, with run down trailer homes covered in confederate flags. On this side of the mountains we were within commuting distance of DC and there was money around. The houses were fancy and far older. The villages had historical charm and featured flashy cafes and Italian restaurants. It was a crazy difference from the other side of the hills.
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I had made it to Washington DC, which marked the conclusion of my cross-country cycle. It had taken me 10 weeks to cycle about 4,000 miles from San Francisco. I guess this a logical place to wrap up the blog.

I could no longer cycle east every morning. Time to choose a new direction.

Think I’ll go for NORTH!

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