Our mileage is rarely an exact, rounded off number, but we round up or down and let the decimal points slide. Not today. We had 46.5 miles and as I watched them tick away, I was ever-conscious of that last .5 miles, as every .5 before it had been a struggle to extract from my thighs.
I had the responsibility of town facts today, which means I stood up and gave some facts about the town we were biking to. These are typically pretty boring, probably because most people glean some stats from Wikipedia and call it a day. I usually just remember if I hear a particularly low average income. I prepped mine just before, and was told be several people that I had done the best job. Looks like school was good for something! We also played a game that JoHo might have played on his previous trip or might have made up that second. You sit in a circle with one blindfolded person in the middle who crawls to sit on someone’s lap and guesses who they are. Christina guessed I was Luke, which is flattering.
I was sweep today, with Katie S, but Kayla joined as well. The trip started in Texas and in Central Time, and ended in New Mexico and Mountain Time.
The road could have been a beautiful ride, not in terms of scenery but in pavement quality, which is the real beauty. Looking ahead, we saw the pitch black that usually signals a freshly paved road. But the entire shoulder, save not even a line thin enough to roll a 25 road bike tire through, was blanketed in gravel. I wished we had a zamboni or that earlier riders had realized we didn’t all have to go through this if the people at the front just played broom polo. I reflected on the ridiculousness of our usual habit of pointing out debris, sticks, and rocks to the riders behind us in normal road conditions and then getting to a minefield like this and letting that all go, helplessly. The same convention goes for biking on quiet versus busy streets: on a highway, you stop calling out “car back” because of course there’s one.
I also started suffering in some places that are not on the approved pains list: my knees and my left hip. I was able to get my hip back by just flexing a bit, but in the world of aches and pains I am firmly in the No New Friends camp.
The gravel eventually ended, but not before lodging a weirdly twisted nail through my brand new tire, though evidentially and miraculously angling itself in a way that just bypassed my tube. But our next gauntlet would be no less Herculean: the elemental equivalent of gravel, a headwind. Biking into a headwind is like biking into nature telling you you shouldn’t be. It’s like biking into a thousand punches, pushing a boulder up a hill, walking through a hallway punctured by a series of leaden doors, besting your way into an invisible castle with only your legs for a battering ram. The only thing to do is to count down the miles, which go slower than ever as your pace falls. Sometimes winds are not pushing directly into you, but blow sideways: crosswinds. These are hard too. Hilary taught me to watch the direction of the grass to assess which way the wind is blowing, so I’m a wilderness survival expert now. After all, everyone knows that the thing that takes the most people out in the wilderness is not knowing the direction of the wind.
I pushed myself into the wind for those miles, knowing that this being a short day was the only thing that was going to let me complete it. The wind blew hot, as winds shouldn’t be allowed to do, and I drained my bottles of water and water with Nuun tablets dissolved into it, tri-berry flavor. Somehow everyone who brought Nuun tablets seems to have synced up, because I’ve been seeing a lot of tri-berry bottles out this week (Though Bike & Build supplies Gatorade powder [which I didn’t know going in]), Nuun has fewer calories and sugar). We stopped for photos with the time zone sign (Kayla’s favorite time zone; it also means I’m now 2 hours earlier than my parents and 1 later than Joe, which is hard for me to fully work out sometimes when I want to call someone and need to sort out who’s awake/not at work) and the New Mexico State sign. Then I got into zombie cyclist mode and eked out the last few miles point 5, promising myself I didn’t have to do this again tomorrow.
We got to the church (Baptist) and I found a room with a couch and lay on it, unable to sleep, for three hours. Staring at the room, it was clear it could have been in any state, any country, and frankly, any decade of the last half century. No college, I went on a study abroad program with the theme of globalization, and I saw firsthand, with some exceptions (you can’t buy a decent pen in Tanzania, New Zealand has great laws like allowing you to walk barefoot and having a Green Party presence in parliament), how the world is mashing itself into a new cultural Pangea, with the same corporate ads, the same mores, the same clothing. It’s probably less surprising but no less sad that this trend is intensified within the boarders of a single country, the one that’s driving the homogenization of the rest of the world at that. Every Vacation Bible School, which is a thing I only just learned existed this summer, has the same theme of The Beach. In Lawton, OK I found the script for the last VBS’s sketch. It was photocopied from a book, so that children at churches across the US could all learn that God does the same four largely asinine verbs (saves, helps, gives, another thing?) and hear the same lame jokes delivered with a knowing wink rather than a rewrite.
In every state, each city and small town, we pass the same chain restaurants, the same chain drugstores and dollar stores. Sometimes they’re regional chains, at least. But in the small towns, we pass something else as well: shuttered storefronts of local, independent shops, fossils of a regional economy that sold goods according to what that individual place produced and needed, colored the houses and memories of the town, made the human landscape unique and interesting to look at, and allowed a few to rise to the ranks of the owning class. Not that this would guarantee they paid workers with an understanding of the actual cost of living or were any good to them, but perhaps the ability to negotiate with a real human instead of a board tied to the bogeyman concept of shareholders and wear stupid vests and stand all day under fluorescent beams and sell things that are overpriced and undervalued. Mosquero, NM, population of 93, had one row of shops, all with depictions of their purpose hand painted on their edifice. Some had closed, so that Frank’s Place was perhaps now just a guy named Frank’s place, and some had inscrutable wares, like Lala’s, but they made the town instantly interesting, memorable and enjoyable.
Wichita Falls, TX had a downtown of small shops that turned out to be carcasses, though apparently the town has since moved onto a new downtown, leaving this one to rot or be gentrified, depending on demand. I’ve biked past Dollars General, Winn Dixies, Piggly Wiggly, Waffle Houses, and other chains either unfamiliar to me or familiar only from words, not experiences, and it’s odd that we live in such a multinational time that these should be markers of the southeast for being slightly smaller chains than the ones we’re used to. Starbucks and Chipotle, as thick on the ground in Manhattan as rats used to be, are scarce here. Too expensive, I assume, though granola bars in gas stations are often of $2.
Seeing a Taco Bell in New Mexico and KFC in Alabama smacks of a particular sadness, of replacing even food, the last touristy vestige of specificity, with its corporate imitation. You can go into a gas station in Texas and buy any of 15 varieties of Chex Mix, and you can get a bag of chips that’ll imitate for you whatever real food you want– biscuits and gravy, jalapeño, macaroni and cheese with bacon– all catering to our regional memory palates, courtesy a flavor factory in New Jersey. The food we eat is similarly what it is in name only. You can dye corn syrup purple, but that doesn’t make it jelly. Each church that gives us bread places a tub of plant-based butter alongside it. Desserts come in plastic bags. I know my microflora has suffered a mass extinction, but I don’t think the pickles in a bag or the Trix yogurt I’ve seen would pump many more reserve forces into their ranks.
The distinct, the unique, it’s all been shellacked and packaged for tourism– New Orleans’ French Quarter– or made far away and sold back home, a simulacrum of a tradition– biscuit mix, cowboy hats made in China. I seek out differences the way I do water– New Mexico’s road signs encircle the route number in the Zia sun symbol while Texas’s say Farm to Market and hoisted on curved white metal posts, New Orleans homes are shotgun while Florida’s are on stilts, some vestigial accents remain, gas in rural Louisiana dipped below $2 while everywhere else hovers between $2.10-$2.50, the ditches lining the roads in Louisiana are filled with water, Texans served us brisket.
I keep wondering what it would have been like to make this trip 20, 50, 100 years ago. How crossing state lines would feel like crossing between countries, how the houses, stores, people, clothing would look and smell and sound different. But if I came to search for America, I came too late.
The land stubbornly holds onto its individuality, even as humans have worked tirelessly to demise and dehill and make it a New England or New Spain or New Nova Scotia. But of course the land had no interest or input in the lines drawn over it anyway: though some state borders occurred more organically than a line drawn on a map, Texas and Alabama and Oklahoma are just inventions, even if we’ve convinced ourselves. Biking reveals the true differences of the land more than even living in a place ever would. You drag yourself up every change in slope, memorizing its angles through the minutes you must put into a hill that would take seconds in a car. You bear the full brunt of heat and rainstorms, bear the bites of local flora and fauna, and hold full awareness of your presence in the desert or a muggy swamp the way air conditioning and concrete and other tools of denial allow you to pretend otherwise. But for the most part, the country has been a bit like that room in Clayton, NM: you could be anywhere.