Dead in my tracks

I don't ever want to forget today. In fact, I don't think I could. But just the same I wanted to write everything down as soon as I got a chance lest I forget any details.

My sleep out in the tent at the culvert was a minor adventure. Even though I was cozied up in my toasty sleeping bag I was unable to get very warm, particularly my feet which stayed ice cold. I worried the rain would turn into a flash flood that this culvert, or whatever this place is, would create a channel that would wash me into oblivion. For many daytime hours I had nothing to do other than worry and scrunch my toes in a vain attempt to warm them. I had nothing to eat, so nothing I ate. I did swallow a few Cheezits and every now and then I'd take a swig of my last juice bottle. By early nightfall I fell asleep and through fitful rest periods the morning finally arrived.

I looked at the thermometer on my watch and it showed a chilly 39 degrees. Outside the sky still looked bleak and evenly gray. A perfectly ordinary day for December in New England, I thought. So I decided to wait this morning until it warmed up outside.

A few minutes later I heard someone yell "Hello". I peeped out to find a guy wondering whether I was ok and whether I needed any water or food. I was honestly shocked that someone would go out of their way to check up on a stranger but this wasn't the first time I've been shocked at how friendly people out here can be. I thanked him and said I was ok. He worked for the state doing road work and mentioned that if I needed anything to look for him driving on the red truck and to wave him down.

Perhaps an hour later the winds were picking up again and again coming from the north. The temp was still hovering around the 40 degree mark and then I heard voices coming from a walkie talkie. I peeped outside the tent again this time to see two cops amid a background of blowing flurries. They were also here to make sure I was ok. While one of them ran my driver's license to make sure I wasn't a felon on the loose the other one engaged me in small talk. Both again offered to bring me into town to get lunch or whatever and I thanked them for their generosity but that I was fine and would be leaving just as soon as it got a little better outside.

But I kept waiting and waiting for that moment. It stopped raining that mix of drizzle and the occasional snowflake but the wind was blowing steadily, relentlessly, mercilessly.

With no food, a busted tent and no hope that it was going to get any better I resolved to make a run for Oberlin which was only 27 miles from this spot.

The minute I got on the road I knew today was going to be a very special day. One for the books as they say. That crosswind was just murderous. I had gone through one such bout of crosswinds back in Missouri and remember worrying whether it could topple me outright in one good gust. Today I had that same level of crosswind but with the added penalty of a wind chill factor I conservatively estimated to be around minus two hundred. I had my trusted windbreaker on top of my bike jersey and my bike shorts but nothing else. I had mailed back my sweatpants two weeks before because of the bulk they added was making packing the trailer a tricky business. So I rode with great difficulty at about 8mph, looking constantly at the trip computer on the handlebar the way a bored employee looks at the time clock on a Friday afternoon.

On mile two or thereabouts I spotted a work crew constructing a bridge. They were all heavily bundled and when the first one saw me riding he elbowed the guy next to him to take a look at the spectacle of the idiot biking in weather like this. I waved meekly and rode on in my labored, slow motion cycling show. By mile three my eyes were tearing, my nose had developed salivary glands and my fingers were curled so tightly that I thought if I flexed them open they might just break off like pieces of glass. On the fourth mile I had dropped down to the granny gear even though the road was mostly flat. I could look up in the distance and see the road like an abstract ribbon disappearing into the horizon half a dozen miles ahead. I could see nothing else in any direction save for an occasional cow or tree. Through mile five I witnessed a bird's futile struggle against the wind. It had somehow managed to make it to the middle of the road where it stood considering its plan of attack. It then took off and flapped its wings furiously towards the north but it managed only a few feet, hanging more or less like a helicopter in the air. As soon as it stopped fighting it would fall right back down to the pavement near the same spot it had started. It repeated this cycle a couple of times more before giving up and heading south at which time it advanced at supersonic speed.

By mile six or seven I spotted a water tower far away and what looked like houses. I wondered if I had deteriorated mentally enough due to the cold that I was hallucinating. Eventually I got close enough to see that it was no figment but a real town. This was Norcatur, one of those blink-and-you-miss-it locations. I started fantasizing about it having a gas station and, while we're at it, why not a cheap motel with internet access too?

It wouldn't be until mile 10 that I reached Norcatur. Because the town was actually about a quarter mile north of the road, and the one sign that announced its services looked like it had been made sometime before World War II, I deliberated for a while on whether to make the investment of effort in checking it out. In the end I took the plunge and rode in looking for a haven from this cold. I found a building with a bird painted on it and a faded 'Cafe' which also looked like it may have been lively in the WWII days. Amazingly, when I pulled up a small neon sign was lit and although empty the waitress inside confirmed it really was open for business.

I sat at the nearest table and could barely talk because I was winded like I had just run a marathon. Winded and shivering. I collected myself to order a cheeseburger and a Coke. Then I started talking to the waitress. Jessie told me nearby Norton (pop. ~500?) was the biggest city she had ever lived in. She said this without a trace of jest or hyperbole. I had to chew on that one for a moment then asked her if she had ever been to a big city, you know, say New York or something. She mentioned the one time she had to go to Albany, NY on a school trip and was terrified of the experience. I didn't know if it would have been appropriate to feel good or bad for her but either way she seemed to enjoy her life and job in this speck of civilization called Norcatur where apparently nothing happens. Ever.

After lunch I said good-bye to Jessie and asked her to wish me luck on the 17 mile ride into Oberlin. Throughout my whole mean, a good half hour, and I was still shivering. This was not a good sign. But nothing prepared me for the next few moments of utter misery on the bike. The temp was now dropping back into the 30's and the wind was still blustering energetically. I got only as far as the road entrance some 500 yards out of town, stepped off the bike, sat down and just huddled myself. I wasn't just shivering. I was heaving with intense freak-me-out whole body spasms. I couldn't go on. I just couldn't. What do I do? Set up the broken tent right here in a ditch five feet off the road? I started weighing the idea when a pickup truck pulled up to the intersection. Instinctively I waved for help. The driver stopped and in cold-induced stuttering I asked whether he could give me a lift into Oberlin. He said sure.

When the driver got out to open the back door so I could load up my bike and trailer I scolded myself for cheating. In an instant I wrestled with whether I would be better off feeling like a cheat or feeling the hypothermia. I pondered the choice I was making as I hoisted the bike onto the flatbed and then still more while I shut the door for my ride into town. Am I ok with this 17 mile gap? Can I make this up somehow?

Jim, the driver, was a calm and well spoken farmer who was also born and raised in the area. His great-great-grandparents were the recipients of a homestead back in the late 1800's just a couple of miles from where we were and his family still owns and works the same piece of land. We spoke of farming and his family during the brief ride and at the last minute he brought up Jesus. Normally when this happens I reflexively roll my eyes and prepare to endure a few minutes of sermonizing by someone trying to get me to convert at my doorstep to a Jehova's Witness. But not this time. He was just telling a story and it was - I surprised myself to admit - actually interesting. Jesus had been the greatest thing that ever happened to him and for that I was as thankful as he that his life had found meaning and happiness.

I checked in at a motel in Oberlin, feeling a sense of defeat for taking a ride but also thankful that I hadn't lost any body parts to frostbite. I figure that if tomorrow I'm feeling petty enough about it I can always ride back to Norcatur and begin my ride from there. I think that utlimately I will be grateful enough if the weather cuts me a little slack so I can just get back to biking.

Day 43