June 27, 2010
Total mileage: 1,595
Two roads diverged in a wood outside the Gatesville Country Store. Our cycling had already taken us on the north-south route earlier in the day, and now the western branch was beckoning. The road-not-taken had a smooth, black surface that curved enticingly into the Indiana forest. What lay beyond that first turn? I was sorely tempted to find out, but decided first to ask the locals about the quality of the road. A tortoiseshell cat crawled out from under the store’s porch and I reached over the Sweetpea‘s top tube to pet it while waiting for the two ladies on the front steps to finish their conversation.
“Did’ya hear they found those boys?” asked one between puffs on her cigarette.
“No, I didn’t,” answered the other in an inquiring tone. My interest was piqued, too.
“They got one of them out, but have to go back for the other one,” the first woman said. By now I was really curious to know what had happened. Trapped in a cave, maybe? I hoped the woman’s next statement would offer a clue.
“Yep,” she said. “I told ’em we’d call if he floated up.”
Cycling can be a memento mori–a reminder of mortality. Family and friends fret to you about the sport’s risks, and the occasional close call with an errant driver brings to mind life’s fleeting nature. Last week on TRIRI (Touring Ride in Rural Indiana), the reminders came in different forms. Besides the above-mentioned morbid story, we observed many little country cemeteries dotting the roadsides. The people buried in them had died of disease, childbirth, accidents, and old age. I wondered if any of them were cyclists.
Indiana became a state in 1816, but it was settled by whites decades earlier. The first settlement was directly opposite Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River, not so far from where we were riding. Tiny family plots were all along the roads we cycled, nearly a dozen on the first day alone. I’ve got a thing for early cemeteries, and was disappointed I could spare the time to stop at only a few. Sometimes I had to drag the bike through thick, untended grass to get a photograph and read the markers.
Mr. Spoked and I had decided to try TRIRI because our first choice–a ride the same week but closer to home–had been canceled, and also because we heard it was “folksy.” Neither of us had spent any time in the southeastern part of Indiana where the ride was located, so we had no idea what terrain we’d encounter. Our impression of Indiana was one of gently rolling cornfields punctuated by grain silos and small towns. We were in for a big surprise.
The first day we cycled from Hardy Lake outside Scottsburg to Brown County State Park, just short of 70 miles. Most of the route met our stereotypical expectations, but towards the end the real southern Indiana terrain kicked in with a vengeance. We suddenly found ourselves riding up punishing hills. These were not the familiar attenuated hills of Kansas, but wickedly steep ones. There often was no warning of an approaching climb. You’d be innocently riding along in the woods, rather like Little Red Riding Hood, then you’d slow to make a turn and be pounced on by the Big Bad Hill. My chest began to hurt from heaving. Near the end of the first day, when the heat and humidity were at their worst, I finally gave in and walked up part of a hill. Oh, the humiliation! The feelings of inadequacy! The mental torture! And this was only day one.
After walking up parts of two hills the following day, I began to accept that this would be my lot on TRIRI. Instead of wallowing in misery, I noticed other riders doing the same thing. Hmm, was it possible that TRIRI was a tough ride? We overheard other riders discussing the difficulty, and someone with a GPS recorded occasional grades between 18 and 20%. Mr. Spoked, who rode all the hills, confessed he actually thought about walking the worst of them. After successfully attacking one pernicious incline, he was shouted at by another rider who’d walked to the top, “You deserve a medal!” At dinner on the fourth day, we sat with a TRIRI organizer who suggested the ride was best undertaken with a triple chainring (having “granny” gearing allowing you to spin up hills), whereas we had doubles (fewer small gears). That was some consolation.
The real joy of this ride was Indiana’s natural beauty. Every day we rode through incredible old-growth forests. Often there was a limestone streambed by the side of the road, with small waterfalls that attracted more than one cyclist to dump the bike and dunk her feet. Alternate days were potential rest days, with looped rides of varying lengths back to the same camp. On these days you didn’t have to ride if you didn’t feel like it. All three state parks we camped in–Brown County, Spring Mill, and Clifty Falls–had beautiful inns. In the afternoons, riders swarmed the lounges to escape the heat and humidity of camp. At Spring Mill I looked up from my book to see all the surrounding chairs and sofas filled with fellow cyclists, each of them sleeping with a book propped on his chest. Besides the swimming pool, it was the best way to get relief from heat indices in excess of 100°F.
The week was not uneventful. Mr. Spoked dropped a bottom bracket. I had to replace a gashed tire (only three months old). We didn’t sleep well in the tent because of heat or persistent thunderstorms. Some storms delayed our leaving, putting us on the road in the hottest part of the morning. The fifth day was the worst for me. Five miles from the start, I was climbing a hill out of the saddle when I had a gearing problem and crashed. Luckily I wasn’t going fast, but my knee was bloodied, numb, and starting to swell. It was clear I needed some disinfectant and an ice pack. I waved Mr. Spoked on, and dialed the number of the sweep vehicle on the cell phone.
Things were looking up, because I had a plan. After being tended to by the nurse, I was deposited at our car by a sweep driver. My left hand held the icepack on my knee while the right hand steered the car to the gorgeous Clifty Falls Inn, high on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. I limped to the front desk and checked us in. Mr. Spoked didn’t object when I picked him up at the campsite later that day and drove him to an air-conditioned room with a view. We settled into a real vacation. It was only one night, but it was great.
Thanks, Indiana, for your hospitality, primeval forests, and beautiful inns. But you can keep the hills. We like our homegrown ones better.