World by Bike: Trials by Tent
After a few unplanned but enjoyable few days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and with the bike back in working order, I rejoined ‘America's Main Street’ and headed for the Oklahoma’s state capital. The famously strong winds that rip across the plains of the central States were out in full force with a 15mph headwind for the 107mile ride to the outskirts of Oklahoma City, where I was due to stay with a lovely couple who had graciously allowed me to ship a new spare tyre out to their address all the way from Oregon, as the tyre I needed wasn't in stock in either Tulsa, or Oklahoma City. Finding such replacements was a concern I had when taking this bike on this sort of adventure, with smaller-than-standard wheels, meaning a less common tyre size is needed. If I'm having problems sourcing one in two relatively big cities, it doesn't bode well for the rural parts of this trip. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it though, I guess.
Melvin and Pat were very accommodating that evening, offering me great food, a bed and an interesting insight into the political landscape in this part of the country, with the US mid-term elections happening the day after I joined them. After learning some of the history of the US, with the Civil War, how various states were founded and how states joined the Union, it's interesting to see how these chapters in the story of the America are still prevalent today. What struck me most, however, was not thei vastly different political opinions to the people I'd met up in Michigan and New York, but their willingness to give and help others. They talked to me about how they're part of a program to provide meals for the homeless, and about some of their difficult family situations. It’s really motivating to hear people with struggles which, by the sounds of things, could really inhibit or trouble many families, and yet there they were giving time to a complete stranger just to help them out. They've even let bike tourers like me stay for several weeks!
I'd contacted Melvin and Pat through Warmshowers, a couch-surfing like organisation for bike tourers, and it's a network that I've tried to use as often as I can on this trip as it's a fantastic insight into other's lives, and how different people live - like AirBnB but without the costs. However, heading out west after Oklahoma City there are few people on the site, and with a sudden drop in temperatures forecast I was in for a few rough nights.
After traversing OKC, and finding the State Capitol building was undergoing repairs so I couldn't look around, I followed Route 66 on its ever ascending path into the High Plains. My first stop in the most rural part of the US I’d been to so far was Weatherford, Oklahoma. I arrived as the sun was setting and I no plans for accommodation or food. There are motels in town, or decent hotels, but when you're working with the budget I am, and working to spend around $10 a day, a single night in motel could cost you several days on the road, financially speaking. With towns becoming increasingly spaced apart and fewer Warmshowers hosts to contact, I was trying to avoid motels, and force myself into finding cheaper alternatives.
The first RV park I called wouldn't allow tents, but the second site said they didn't mind me pitching up, and said it wouldn't cost as they had no facilities for campers. Rocking up in the pitch black at the edge of the highway, I searched around for a space that would minimise risk of being run-over by a large RV in the morning but couldn't find anywhere appropriate that was also out of sight of the large barking dog at the farm next door. Unclear of my options I knocked on a the door of a wooden office on site, which turned out to be a the office of a psychological therapist not the site manager, but they said I camp on the soft ground behind the office, out of the wind. My small, one-man tent popped up easily in 15 minutes and then, snacking on the doughnuts and deli sandwich I had just bought at Walmart, I settled down for the night.
The next morning I woke to a beautifully quiet day, with little wind which promised good progress westward. The sky was overcast and what little wind there was came from the north which brought with it the colder weather from Canada. I layered up and headed out on old-66, which parallels interstate I-40 for most of the journey west to LA. The roads weren't particularly interesting, and with each mile west the lands became flatter and more featureless. It's all cattle-moving territory round those parts, shifting the large herds northwards back in the 19th century to then transport meat and produce across the country from railheads in Kansas and Arkansas. It’s really interesting seeing the vastness of these landscapes, and to wonder how people survived or managed to cover such distances, when I can struggle to find adequate food and water in the 60miles between towns, even with modern 21st century luxuries.
That evening I crossed the Oklahoma-Texas border and made for an RV site just west of Shamrock, Texas. The site owner told me that he'd just bought the place and that it was technically not open to campers yet, so I quickly asked whether he minded if I just pitched up for free due to the lack of facilities. He obliged and greeted me upon my arrival - I'd forgotten to mention I was on a bike. He offered me water and a heater for the night as temperatures were now hovering around 0°C, and he thought I was pretty crazy to biking at this time of yer As I tried to get warm that night, and was drifting off to sleep, I heard something moving outside then tent. I heard it sniff, inspect my bike, then test the guy-ropes, poking and prodding at the tent's structure. Alert, I lay there as the offending being moved around, just inches from where my head was. I don't know a great deal about the wildlife around this part of the world, but I do know there are coyotes or potentially more threatening animals here. I knelt in my tent, and reached for my small penknife as the intruder probed the tent. Then as I pressed my ear to the edge of the inner, a small rounded head-shaped bulge pushed at where my head had been just moments before, having seemingly ducked the outer tent. I punched out at it, unwilling to use the knife in my other hand. As the being retreated, thoughts that this could be the site owner or other person trying to get to my bike diminished, and I tried to work out what animal it could be. Unsure, and pretty nervous as this point, I phone the site owner and asked if he'd let his dogs out and if they were sniffing around my tent. He said he hadn't, and came out to check on me - I obviously sounded startled. He said that there was 'wildlife' about, but that coyotes are nothing to be worried about.. That didn't do much for me though, as I was unable to see what was attacking my tent, but knew it was capable of getting within inches of my face through a fragile inner tent. As he approached, still on the phone, he let out a little laugh as he spotted a black, stray house-cat sitting by my bike. A little embarrassing for me.
The next morning, my intruder was sitting out in the cold, and watched as I packed down the tent and got moving again. It was a bitterly cold morning, so I went back eastward into town for food, and held up there for a couple of hours until the sun had warmed things back to positive degrees Celsius. Much like the couple of days previous, it was a progressively uphill ride all the way to my next stop in Amarillo, TX, and things continued to become more empty and the spaces between towns grew larger. I managed to pick up a good wind and the 107 miles to Amarillo had some beautiful riding, with no clouds in the sky and a pure flat plain on which to enjoy watching the sun disappear below the horizon in the evening. I had hopes of linking up with a contact in Amarillo, the brother of a Warmshowers host I’d stayed with in Missouri, but when I couldn't get through to him and he wasn't at his house, I had to look elsewhere. I knocked at a couple of his neighbours houses' asking if they knew if my contact was in town, hoping the conversation would segue into them being okay with me putting a tent in their yard, but most just hid half-behind their door and waiting for the weird man with a funny accent to stop talking and leave. With the sun now gone, and no cloud cover trapping any heat from the day, the evening got cold really quickly. I called by a couple of churches to see if they'd take me in, but when I found no one there, and when no local RV parks would take tents, I called a BnB enquiring about prices and whether I could pitch a tent in the garden. The woman at the end of the phone, Bonnie, said she was fully booked up as the Rodeo was in town, but if I really wanted to I could pitch a tent in the garden, warning me that it was due to get to -3°C that night. Upon my arrival though, she took pity on me, and out of the kindness of her heart, invited me inside. She'd managed to manoeuvre somethings around and said she could give me a bed. I was incredibly grateful as I hadn't had access to a shower or a bed in several days and the build-up of salt on my clothes was starting to cause issues with sores from the friction caused by bicycle riding. As I was rinsing my clothes and about to shower, she called out to me and said she had some leftover dinner too that I was welcome to. Bonnie was incredibly generous, taking me in, fixing me with dinner, some cherry pie, homemade jam, English muffins (which I've only ever eaten in America), and even breakfast the next day. She introduced me to her other guests, a group of friends littered around the south-west of the US in New Mexico and Arizona, who meet up every year for the rodeo in Amarillo. They gave me great information about the route ahead, places I should visit, which roads to take and which places could be too cold for a bike at this time of year. Although my original accommodation plans hadn't worked out, I'd left town with clean clothes, a good night's sleep and with invites to stay in Albuquerque and Farmington, New Mexico, as well as Tucson, Arizona - incredible!
The next morning Bonnie and her guests all warned me about an incoming snow storm and suggested I tried to get away from this part of the country as soon as possible. As much as I wanted to, my efforts that day where thwarted by a 30mph headwind, constantly blowing me all over the road, and even into a ditch at one point. It was a challenge just to stay upright, let alone make forward progress. Over the first two hours I managed 9.3mph, the slowest I think I've ever ridden a bike since family trips down narrow canal paths when I was aged 8. I broke the day down into hour sections, just focusing on getting some time in the saddle done, knowing that the miles would come. After 5 hours, and 50 miles, I arrived at Adrian, TX, the halfway point on Route 66, and where I decided to call it a day. In the morning I'd had hopes of making it another 80 miles to Tucumcari, New Mexico, but the weather quickly put an end to those aspirations. Pitching up my tent on a campsite I’d found, and after phoning the site owner to check it was okay to camp for the night, the site manager came by and invited me into the site's small wooden office. He said it was way too cold for anyone to be camping out, said I could bed down in the office / laundry facilities area. He also said it'd be $10 for the night, but as I didn't have any cash on me, he said he'd sort something out and waived the fee. He was wonderfully generous, and I had a much warmer night than I would have had, with -4°C temperatures and strong winds outside.
Waking up I could see the clouds had returned and were looking heavy, threatening a potential dump of snow. However, the wind had completely reversed, now with a 15mph cross-tailwind, driving me towards the state border. I made an early start, and loaded up on some dodgy day-old muffins for vitial calories at the gas station in town and set off. My hands and feet really struggled to keep any temperature in the strong winds, freezing temperatures and increased speed of my riding. Whereas the day before I'd just managed 10mph, I was cruising along now at 16/17mph, despite making a few navigational errors, where old Route-66 just stops, is barricaded and the suggestion is that you ride on the Interstate until the road resumes again - wherever that may be. The landscape was starting to see signs of change too, as I crested one hill at 4400ft above sea level (4000ft above Tulsa, just a few days ago) before descending a little to the border with New Mexico. I was starting to see large, flat-top rock formations, littered across the vast plains, and more shrubbery was poking its head out of the ground compared the emptiness of the rest of the Texan panhandle. It started to look very western (in my head at least), and much more like the wild desert you see in old western movies. At the border, crossing into the Mountain Time Zone and a new state, I felt optimistic about the day's ride, with wide shoulders on the freeway, and a decent wind behind me.
I stopped for lunch in Tucumcari, with 70miles behind me, and a planned 60miles ahead to Santa Rosa, NM. The colder weather however had caused issues with my clothing choices, with my body too hot, sweating under my waterproof jacket and damping my layers underneath, whilst my hands and feet were too cold, and struggling to warm up. When I pulled up in McDonald's, taking advantage of their 'review us online for a free burger promotion', I warmed up but didn't take the damp layers off. As I sat eating, several people came up to me, warning me about the incoming storm and suggesting I bed down for the night and wait for it to pass. I was still in two minds, with snow not forecast until 6pm, and my predicted arrival time in Santa Rosa being 5.30pm. Despite my parents sending me storm warnings, and videos of trucks crashing in previous year in the bad snow on the road to Santa Rosa, I figured I'd give it a go, and if the snow started I'd be able to pull in at one of the two gas stations that were the only signs of life on the map for the next 60 miles. However, packing up my bags and ready to disembark, the snow started falling, albeit lightly, at 2pm. I then decided if it was risky to head out into a potential snowstorm, it was just stupid to head out into one when you can see snow has already started falling.
Then, browsing motel options on the McDonald’s wifi, an older couple approached me and asked if was riding out in this weather. I responded saying I'd hoped to, but now was looking for a place to stay in Tucumcari. They said they hoped I'd find somewhere and they'd be praying for me. This is when I took a chance, growing in confidence after the past few days asking for help from campsite owners, and using this couple’s offer of prayer as an indicator, I asked if they knew any local churches around who may be able to take in a stray like me. As I spoke to another interested bystander about my situation, the couple scrabbled around, made a few calls and came back to me with a number of a local Methodist minister who may be able to help me. I bid them farewell and they drove off into the increasing snow back to their home town, 25 miles east.
I waited in McDonald's, getting cold in the damp clothes, but also feeling very flushed and warm in the face - I'm not sure how best to describe it - that winter feeling of being cold, but very warm to touch? Anyway, I felt that. Calling the local minister repeatedly, I wasn't making any progress. Taking comfort in the fact that the music playing over the speakers at McDonald's was a Christian worship song 'Great is Your Faithfulness', I kept calling. This is when one of the staff came over and asked if I was expecting a call, and maybe stupidly, I said I wasn't - who knew I was at McDonald's and couldn't call me directly? A short while later, I asked the staff member at the counter if she could give me the number of the person who called. I rang the number and it turned out to be Larry, one of the couple who I'd spoken to earlier, with his wife Kathy, asking how I was getting on. When I explained I hadn't got through to the minister, Larry and his local minister drove all the way back to me to pick me up and offered to put me up in a motel. I've was so touched by their generosity and their duty-like sense of wanting to help out a fellow human being, even if a complete stranger. These guys drove an extra 50miles out of their way, into a worsening snow storm, just to help someone they'd just met. I'm blown away by their servant-heartedness, and I enjoyed praying with them before they left. I've received some good route advice from them and will keep in contact for the remainder of my journey.
As I sit in my warm motel room, hoping that the snow is thawing outside, I'm feeling wonderfully blessed, and cared for, even by complete strangers. It was a weird feeling in Amarillo not having anywhere to go, being able to just sit on the side of the road in the cold, with no one knowing I was there, or caring for that matter. It's a strange feeling of anonymity and vulnerability, but it forces you to become bolder in yourself, the questions you ask and the situations you push yourself into. Without being so vulnerable I wouldn't have pushed myself into trying to negotiate with campsite owners, or to knock on some doors asking to camp in gardens. Learning to be bolder, and persistent in request, trusting that something will come has been a real challenge over these past few days. But after the first night camping again, the weight of stress and the anxiety of not knowing where you can rest for the evening starts to lift, and you can extend your comfort zone a little more, trying bigger things, asking bolder questions. And similar to last week's post about being flexible with plans, learning to adjust to these new situations and trying to grow in confidence that you actually can deal with the new scenarios becomes easier as you look back and see how far you've already come. Knowing if I can find a tent spot on a RV site, why can't I ask to camp at a site that's closed? If you can do that, why not ask to camp in a strangers yard? The worst case scenario is that you get a 'no' response, and that's what you’d have anyway if you never asked. What I've found over the last week is that by taking that little initiative, and that small step of just making a phone call, or asking someone a question, then a whole new realm of possibilities, opportunities and potential rewards can arise.
That being said, I'm not sure my body is subconsciously handling the stresses of storms and uncertainty of lack of accommodation as well as my conscious mind thinks it is. I was in bed last night shivering whilst fully dressed with a hoodie and hat on, and had to get up twice in the night to throw up. Seems like this rest day and unusual snow storm have worked out alright, doesn't it?