I was expecting a certain amount of attention for riding a bike cross-country. I knew there would be lots of questions and conversations, and I was okay with that - looking forward to it, in fact. And in Kansas, I enjoyed those conversations. People would always ask slightly different things, and they would occasionally tell anecdotes of their own or describe local landmarks I should check out.
But here in Missouri, especially today, it feels different.
FOUR TIMES today, I have been sitting alone in a restaurant with my bike just outside the window, or walking the aisles of a grocery store, and someone has wandered up to me with a vague grin on their face and just stared for a while, as though I was an unexpectedly elaborate highway accident.
The conversation is always the same:
"... Is that your bike?"
"Where ya headed?"
... and then they wander away.
It's not really the content of the conversation that bothers me, or the lack of courtesy. It's the staring.
On my way out of Brookfield I went to a supermarket and bought two heads of romaine lettuce, then washed and ate one sitting on the edge of the parking lot, because I wanted something green to stabilize my digestion. Every car that went in, and every car that went out, did so at a crawl, to get the maximum amount of rubbernecking available before drifting out of range.
I did my best to ignore it, and then set out on the highway listening to a bunch of old comedy from Billy Connolly, which lifted my spirits. His interludes on the banjo were a perfect fit to the deep autumn landscape that scrolled around me.
I also found this little fellow:
Sometime in the afternoon I descended into a big valley, which I was grateful for at first because it was a reprieve from hill-climbing, but about a quarter mile across it the headwind became twice as bad. I took frequent breaks and ate many snacks, but my knees were bothering me from the constant effort. It was totally impossible to coast without being blown to a stop in moments by the wind.
When I got to Shelbina, I discovered that the one motel in the town had been booked solid with hunters. The lady behind the desk was unsympathetic - more interested in her television program than anything else - and said my only choice was to keep on going until I got to Monroe City, about 20 miles farther east. So I got back on the road, plodding along in the dark with my audiobook and taking bites from the big wax-coated hunk of cheddar cheese I'd bought from Miss Kitty. About an hour into the ride, I was struck with a powerful desire for Pho. Perhaps I needed more salt?
If only this industrial structure I passed on the way was making salt... Mmmm...
Monroe City had two motels. A third was out of business, its parking lot filthy and its topiary overgrown. The first motel I tried did not answer when I rang the night bell, so I assumed it was full and proceeded to the second. I counted twenty trucks in the parking lot, but over 30 rooms, so I felt I had a chance.
I rung the night bell and a sleepy man with a very thick Mexican accent unlocked the door. One night in a room: 39 dollars. The bed looked questionable so I chucked my sleeping bag on top.
After 80 miles and 2000 feet of climbing, I was exhausted, and I knew I wasn't going to get enough sleep. I fell asleep wondering if I should find some alternate method of transport to Elmira, NY, so I didn't have to sustain such a breakneck pace.
In my first dream, I was a young woman working in a resort as a maid. As I did my chores I was being threatened by two large men, and I was worried that I didn't have enough family members around to defend me.
One of my chores was to take a basket of laundry to the lodge basement, at the bottom of an old staircase. I placed the basket at the foot of the stairs, but when I started climbing back up, I got a nervous feeling and turned around again. Wraiths and demons were seething up from the basket, making ribbons of colored vapor. They were furious with me. If they touched me I would die. As long as I kept watching them, they could not advance, but I needed to turn around to keep climbing the irregular stairs. I turned around and ran for it, feeling icy hands reach for my neck.
Then I woke up in the dingy hotel room. I realized that what I'd just seen as a demon on a staircase was actually the light from a streetlamp, edging around the thick curtains of the window. I realized that the screaming of demons was actually the whistles from two trains passing only a mile or so away.
It took me some time to calm down again.
In my second dream, I was standing in a kitchen that was actually the command module of a spacecraft. The whole room was mounted on a multi-stage rocket, and it was about to take off for an expedition on the moon. I heard a thunderous blast and felt the floor shake beneath me, and I looked out the window to see the land slowly sinking below the sill.
Then the land began to drift sideways. Something was wrong with the stabilizers in the rocket. The launch was going to fail. Everything in a half-mile radius was going to be immolated in a super-hot explosion of fuel and shrapnel, and I was at the center. I was absolutely guaranteed to die in less than a minute, as soon as the rocket toppled over.
"Oh well, that's it then," I said to myself.
But then I had an idea. Could we fire the stage-separation mechanism, and blast a little distance away from the primary stage of the rocket, to get out of the explosion, and then deploy the landing parachute? I turned, and spoke to a crew member, a grandmotherly woman in spectacles wearing a dish apron.
"Yes," she said. "I think we can do that!"
She poked some buttons and there was another blast, and the room jolted sideways, then ground slowly to a halt as the capsule dug a deep furrow in the face of a hillside, miles from the rest of the rocket.
"That was close," I thought. Then I woke up.