McDonalds with a Side of Trespassing

The sun was descending in the sky as I continued south towards Mammoth Caves.  I still had about 40 miles to go to, and really no drive or reason to make the extra effort that night.  I passed through a small town and stopped at a beautiful highway side McDonald’s to warm up and explore the options locally for a place to stay.

As I sat down with my coffee, I had yet to get a response from the few Warmshowers hosts that had listed their info in this remote part of southern Kentucky.  After searching the internet a bit for local campgrounds, all I could find was a trailer-camping spot that provided electricity and water hookups for RV’s, but cost $25 a night.  I decided to take my chances finding a hidden spot along the road on the outskirts of town.

I rode away from McDonald’s and slowly scanned the thickly wooded areas along a stretch of  road on the country side of the highway.  There were only a few houses dotting the area, and it seemed as if the shrubbery and grasses would provide me with good cover.  I dismounted my bike, looked around quickly to make sure nobody was watching, and exerted as much strength as I could muster to lift my loaded bike over the dried weeds and brush, and into the trees that ended up providing me with a safe and comfortable camping spot for the night.

 

The next morning I awoke again to a frosty film covering the inside of my tent.  It had gotten cold, but knowing that I was only a few minutes from a warm drink at McDonald’s, packing up was relatively painless.

I sat with my coffee and tried to decide what to have for breakfast before I embarked for the day to the caves.  The gas station had a couple pieces of fruit, but I wanted something a little more substantial before riding.  I considered firing up my stove in the gas station parking lot, but after thinking for a while, I somehow rationalized buying the McDonald’s Pancake and Eggs Breakfast Platter.  I have to admit, after eating frozen snacks so often over the past days, I was actually excited about the meal.  My better half was not letting me go through with it without at least a little psychological punishment.  I felt guilty about supporting the food production practices of the establishment, not to mention the preservatives, artificial flavorings, and refined sugars that I was about to consume.  I told myself that I would try it as a way to explore and understand why people liked this stuff so much.  The caloric boost would be helpful too, I thought.

I decided to get the meal with an extra hashbrown instead of bacon or sausage, which further helped me rationalize this deviant behavior.  I got back to my seat and read the ingredients on the two rather large containers of brown corn syrup the afforded me with my meal.  Mildly disgusted, I decided not to read the margarine container.

As I began eating, the initial shock of flavor was intense, at first making me sick, but within seconds turning to some sort of deeply rooted animalistic delight.  McDonald’s knew what they were doing.  The pancakes were flavored alone with an explosion of sweet and salty, which made them delightful by themselves.  The syrup and butter served to increase the flavor even more.  My mouth watered as I grabbed a hashbrowns, which was crispy, greasy and salty, prompting me to eat them both at once.  I probably looked like some sort of crazed drug addict as I worked through the plate.  The eggs were the only thing that didn’t seem to be artificially enhanced in some way, which made them taste almost bland in comparison to the rest of the smorgasbord.  I was on an emotional roller coaster, the guilt of eating this junk weighing heavily, while the rush of flavors helping to flood my brain with happiness and positivity.  I could see how people got addicted to this stuff.

In the end, I was happy that I had bought my McDonald’s Breakfast, just so I could know what the competition was.

I left the restaurant,  1200 calories richer, and rode south towards the biggest cave system in the world.

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Rolling Hills of Kentucky and a Burned Church

With a full stomach after eating with Pat Robertson, and a bag full of pancakes from his wife Brenda, I ventured south on the cold, sunny weekday morning into the Kentucky hills.  My next planned stop was with a friendly sounding woman who owned a farm south of Bowling Green, KY.  I had found her in the WWOOF listings while visiting Laura in Bloomington.  By my calculations, her homestead was about 120 miles south of where I currently was, making it a multi-day ride.

Being in no hurry to make it to her place, I began by exploring route options, focusing on green spots on my smartphone map that indicated parklands where I might be able to camp and explore, and also calls to a few warmshowers hosts that might have been able to provide a comfortable bed.

As I waited for the potential Warmshowers hosts to return my calls, I aimed myself at Mammoth Caves National Park, which was barely out of the way of Bowling Green, and sure to provide a beautiful area to ride through.

I took my time chugging away the miles to the caves.  The sun was shining all day, and with the wind at my back, I didn’t feel the need to press so hard, instead I glided along and enjoyed the scenery that I had been blessed with that day.  At some point in the afternoon, I slowed to a stop outside a lowly church in the middle of the country.

The gravel parking lot of the church was roped off, and it was apparent that nobody had put much care into the landscaping or building facade for a number of years. The Ten commandments were painted onto a little billboard that sat on the edge of the property facing the road.  Piles of old bricks littered the grass next to the cracked concrete steps.  The white paint along the side of the chapel was dirty and peeling in spots, but fresh and clean in others, indicating that somebody had been putting time into the place.

I needed a bathroom break, and decided to see if the owners of the old car outside would be willing to let me in.  I walked up to a side entrance that led into an attached building that I imagined would be used for coffee hours and Sunday school.  I knocked on the door, and heard some commotion inside before being greeted hesitantly by a man of about 50 years.  He looked at me as if I was trying to get something out of him, but when I asked for the bathroom and a place to fill my water bottles, he opened the door wider for me to enter.

As I entered the hallway, I realized that the church had probably not been active in a while.  There were power tools interspersed with other random furnishings and boxes that I imagine have been married to the building and had hung around since it was last functional.

I came out of the bathroom and the man was waiting there with his partner, a woman of about the same age, holding a couple bottles of water.  “You probably dont want to drink the water here.” the man said, holding out a couple bottles.  “Take these.”

“I am fine drinking the tap water, but thank you so much.” I said, not wanting to impose on them.

“My name is Dave, and this is Tami.” the man said.  “So where are you from?”

And so began the conversation that led to me learning the story about Dave, former electrical engineer, turned pastor of this church, which had almost totally burned down in a storm soon after he worked to reopen it.  The small following that had begun to call the church home in the early days of Dave’s tenure there were all lost as members when the fire happened.  Since the storm, he and Tami had been rebuilding with the little funds and manpower that they had, running into numerous hurdles and obstacles along the way.  He told me of a group of Amish builders that hadn’t stood by their work, and problems with rewiring the electricity.  Rebuilding seemed to be an immense task for the two, yet they plodded on with the dream of someday creating a positive spot in their community that, according to them, had many self-serving individuals, and needed the help.

I left after chatting for a while, and we have since exchanged emails a handful of times.  The two of them offered a place for me to stay anytime, and had been worried about me as the cold weather rolled through after our visit.  It was nice to meet another pair of really good people.  A year later they are still working on the church building, and enjoying their time with each other.

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Family Life in Crandall, IN

The Robertson’s took me in as family as soon as they met me.  We arrived at their beautiful farm house that sat proudly on top of big hill, deciduous Indiana woodland blanketing the backdrop.  Brenda and Pat treated me as if I was their own child, and their kids Andrew, Natalie, Luke, Lucy, and Emma Kate, and their Nephew Ben, treated me as if I was a cousin who had grown up in town.

I spent a fun afternoon getting toured around by the youngest Emma Kate, and the next oldest, twins Luke and Lucy.  They told me all about their school, toys, books they liked, their family, and their talents. Emma Kate showed me her dancing, and Lucy made me a rainbow loom bracelet. We converged with the rest of the family later that night at a local restaurant for Emma Kate’s cheerleading fundraiser.

I was so happy to have met such an amazing family, I went to bed feeling a little sad that I would be leaving my new friends so soon.

I woke up the next morning to a wonderful surprise.  There had been a big snowstorm throughout the night, and school was canceled.  Pat came into the third floor presidential suite bedroom/kids playroom that had been given to me, and said to sleep in because the kids had no school, and I wouldn’t be able to bike.

We had an amazing snow day together, watching and discussing their favorite show, Bear Grylls Man Vs. Wild, having lunch, and most fun of all, taking a trip to their relative’s beautiful woodland to cut a giant Christmas tree for their home.  We played hide and seek on the steep wooded hills, finishing the trip with an epic snowball fight.

The Robertson’s were so generous the whole time I was there, not only feeding me, but taking care of all of my needs.  Upon waking on my second morning, Brenda had cooked me about 15 pancakes to power me up for my ride before she left for work as an occupational therapist.  Pat helped me load my equipment into his pickup, and we left the home towards the elementary school where we would drop off the young ones.

Pat offered to drive me a ways down the road, and I new that it would be much further than he ever had to go.  He took me about 15 miles, into Kentucky, and invited me into a breakfast place for one last meal before I headed out.  It was an amazingly generous offer, and I was happy to have some more time to speak to a man that had an obvious confidence and strength in his morals, catholic religion, and overall values.

He was happy to answer questions about his views on God, their family’s strict but loving parenting style, his job as a self-employed scientist testing Indiana limestone, the story about him growing up on the land that his family now inhabits, and the process of designing and building his own beautiful home by hand.

I said one last goodbye and pulled on my new mittens that Pat and Brenda’s nephew, Ben, had given to me because I had lost my glove at some point while I was there.  I turned south towards nowhere in particular in Kentucky, so thankful, once again, for the generosity and love of strangers.

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A Lucky Stop

The ride out of Louisville was cold and blustery. As I pedaled up and out of the beautiful and protective hills that bank the Ohio river on the western side of the city, I entered flatter, more open farmland. Without tree cover, the wind intensified and cut through my gloves and shoes. Even the plastic bags and extra socks that I had pulled over my bike cleats weren’t enough to persuade the warmth to stay where I wanted it.
I stopped briefly for a snack, enjoying the relative warmth that came with avoiding the extra 15mph windchill. Looking at the map on my phone, Corydon, IN lay ahead of me only about ten miles. I decided to make a warming stop in the town, and rode on contemplating the cheapest way to warm up. Snow blanketed the gently rolling fields around me, which helped to distract me from the singing in my extremities.
I began to see more signs of civilization as I approached the small
town. First a golf course, and then some small one story shops that lined a classic main drag. I scanned the mom and pop shops, passing hardware, used books, and other window displays while I eagerly searched for a warm diner.
I rounded the corner and in front of me stood a newer building with a sign in front that read “Corydon Public Library”. I slammed to a screeching halt and parked my bike as close to the front doors as I thought acceptable. Somewhat eager to go inside, I made a quick decision to risk having my bike and all of my gear stolen in order to not have to spend time sifting through my bag in the cold for my lock. I clip clopped my way across the sidewalk and into the library, beard iced up something special, and plopped down in a padded chair. Life had rarely felt so good as I melted, both literally and figuratively, into the chair. A constant drip drip of water rolled off my beard and on to my bright yellow construction vest. While I obviously wasn’t there to check out a book, the librarians never seemed to even notice me.

I spent longer than expected in the comforting warmth, and though I knew I wasn’t going to make much progress in terms of mileage that day as dark was fast approaching, I couldn’t get myself to go. As I began to feel my spirits sink due to the rather unproductive day, and the looming freezing cold snow-camping night, a middle aged man with three children following close behind approached me in my wonderful armchair. “Is that your bike out there?” The man asked. And so began the conversation that would lead eventually to an invitation to go home with the Robertson family.

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Onward (and back into Indiana)

We got back to Jim’s apartment that afternoon and he laid down to relax after having a cigarette.  Golf played on the TV and, in combination with the sedative effect of his large Coca-Cola, lulled him right to sleep.  I used Jim’s bathroom hot plate to steam the Kale and Potatoes that I had gotten from the Root Cellar the day before.

I was just finishing my meal when there was a knock upon Jim’s door. Not totally trusting the neighborhood yet, I felt myself tense up as the door swung slowly opened. Jim was aroused from his nap and greeted the friend. A young man of about my age, tall, light skinned, and a full brown beard came in and calmly greeted us. He looked a bit suspicious of me, but became relaxed as the conversation moved about and I was able to explain how I had come to be with Jim.

We all spoke for a while, Robbie describing his chance encounter with Jim on a walk to church with his wife one morning, and the subsequent effort by them and their weeknight spiritual group in aiding Jim in any way they could over the past few weeks.

After trekking over the railroad tracks to the grocery store to grant Jim’s request for some 2-liters of cola to have on hand at his apartment, Robbie and I gathered up Jim’s soiled laundry and walked it across the street to the house that Robbie shared with his wife Stephanie.

Despite my being saturated with the smell of smoke and more from Jim’s apartment, the couple was generous and loving enough to invite me in, consciously contaminating their home with whatever germs and parasites I might have been harboring. I welcomed the reprieve from Jim’s place, and was excited to have the opportunity to get to know the young couple that were obviously very generous and caring.

We spent time chatting about all parts of our lives as Stephanie sautéed vegetables for a dinner that they would eventually invite me to join them for. They were both very active in the church and the community, and lived their lives according to strong Christian values. They were proud and strong in their belief in the bible as truth, and that steadfastness and confidence in their beliefs came through in their demeanor, which was perpetually calm, mature, calculated, and loving above all.

Since our meeting I have kept in touch a bit through email and text. They spent a portion of early 2014 traveling to the Horn of Africa on a mission trip, hiking around and spreading the word of their church. Robbie is moving forward in seminary school, and they are both still in touch with Jim as he continues to situate his life with their help.

I woke up the next morning and had breakfast with Jim as he tried to convince me to stay with him. It broke my heart to hear of his loneliness. Though I knew there were people to take care of some of his essential needs, I could still sense the void that was his longing for steady companionship. I was happy to hear later from conversations with Robbie that Jim had found his way into a nursing home, which I can only believe was a positive development for him.

I rode away into the cold Kentucky morning. The snow had melted off the roads, making for the first day in almost a week that would allow an efficient and safe passage out of the city. The wind blew hard into my face as I crossed the pedestrian bridge back north into Indiana in order to circumvent the busy suburbia that sprawled south of the city. I was soon into the country hills of southern Indiana, west of Louisville, enjoying the crisp air and the frozen cascades of water flowing out of the brown and black roadside cliffs.

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Church and Fish Sandwiches

I woke up to the sound of Jim fumbling to get his morning Pall Mall lit.  The air in the apartment was thick, and getting thicker as he puffed away, but I no longer noticed the smell that had overtaken me when I first arrived.  Jim and I relaxed throughout the morning, him in his bed, and me on the floor, going between conversation and silence as we waited for the 11:30 church service.

Jim had grown up in a small Kentucky town east of Louisville before joining the military and being shipped off to Vietnam.  He returned home but stayed in uniform as he was utilized on various bases and eventually in Operation Desert Storm.  In all he was in uniform for 17 years, and the experience had undoubtedly taken it’s toll on the man.

As I laid on the floor relaxing, Jim piped up from his bed. “Could you do me –a favor?” His slowwww southernnn drawl raspy from years of smoke.  His sentences were often jerky, sometimes interrupted by a fit of coughing, but most times just broken up ever so slightly by the need to take a fresh breath where others would have spoken on. “Could you call, the operator –and ask to be transferred –to the Dallas Cowboys stadium, in Arlington, Texas.” He paused to rest for a second before going on. “I’ve always been –a fan, of the Dallas Cowboys –and I’d like it –if I could get my hands, on one of those catalogs –from the Dallas Cowboys store in Arlington Texas.  I’d like to get myself –something to wear –with the Dallas Cowboys logo on it.”

Jim had requested of me some other things already, including “A couple of fish sandwiches –from McDonalds.”, which I had denied him for personal moral reasons, but, I was more than happy to request for him the catalog.  How he was going to afford anything in the magazine, I don’t know, but it gave me a good feeling imagining his excitement on the day the catalog arrived.  I called the 800 number and submitted the request, much to the delight of Jim.

As the time for church approached, I asked my new friend if he felt like having breakfast.  He was excited and eager to eat, though his inability to muster enough energy to feed himself on a regular basis had toughened him, and he would have went along on an empty stomach without complaint if I had not said anything.  He turned down nuts and apples because of his teeth (or lack thereof). I searched around and found some soft white hamburger buns in his bathroom cabinet and made him a peanut butter sandwich.  We ate, and I helped Jim by putting his socks on.  In retrospect, I should have clipped his toenails for him.  They had grown into long, sharp points that extended more than a half inch past the tips of his curled toes.  I couldn’t muster the heart at the time.

I don’t know how he managed to clothe himself on a normal day.  His stiff muscles would barely allow him to bend down to touch his feet.  The struggle that Jim had to endure just to provide for himself the most basic essentials of daily life made most of the tasks unworthy of his effort.  I believe that he spent most of his time in his bed, watching TV and sleeping.

During Breakfast, I recieved a text message from my snow-biking friend, Leandro.  He told me about his church’s services that morning, which I said I could not attend because of my commitment to Jim.  I asked about a later time, which Leandro confirmed that they had, and he sent me the church address. Recognizing the street name, I asked Jim the address of his church…and sure enough, they were the same!  I told Leandro that we would see him shortly.

We got dressed, and opened the door to a blindingly bright, snowy morning.  Without any windows in the apartment, our eyes had adjusted to the relative darkness.  I set Jim’s wheelchair down on the snowy walk, and he hobbled over and plopped down in the seat.  The fresh air and sunlight was very enjoyable as we plowed through the snow on the sidewalk.  We approached the bustling church parking lot after a three block trek, the other members walking about, smiling and greeting one another.

We went up the wheelchair ramp, into the elevator, and got off on the main floor.  The building was large and new.  I later learned that the congregation had recently built and moved to that location.  The population seemed to be a younger crowd overall.  The dress was nice, but casual.  Many of the young men had beards, and I recieved a smiling complement from a young woman on mine as we walked in.  Another guy looked at me smiling and said “Don’t I know you!?”  I laughed and replied that no, I was from out of town.  “No I saw you on TV yesterday!!” the guy said and we both started cracking up.

Leandro appeared out of the masses of people and greeted both of us.  I introduced him to Jim, and he led us to the seats he had been saving in the very front of the church.  We made our way past dozens of filled aisles as I began to feel self conscious of our stench.  I am sure that Jim and I were some of the only folks who hadn’t showered in 30+, and 3 days respectively, and the fact that we had been marinating in Jim’s apartment probably didn’t help.  Regardless, no one looked twice, and everyone was friendly to us both.  Leandro gave us coffee, and introduced us to some of his friends.

The service was lively, and included a talented rock band that broke out into guitar solos between lyrics that were filled with love and worship of Jesus.  We chatted with one of Jim’s friends, Jason, after the service.  He explained that he had showed up at Jim’s apartment that morning to wheel Jim to church.  I felt good knowing that someone else was there for him, and as we talked more, I realized that Jason and his friends were on a mission to improve Jim’s life.

He said that himself and a couple other members had become aware of Jim’s situation about three weeks prior.  They had since bought Jim the two new space heaters, and a large comforter for his bed.  They had been bringing food, bottles of water, and doing his laundry.  We left church and Jason drove the both of us to a local shelter where we were both able to rinse off.  Jason helped Jim to undress, and sent an encouragement as he left the bathroom.

Stay in there for a good 30-35 minutes Jim!

We left the shelter feeling like new men.  Jason put icing on the cake as we drove away: “Jim, you must be gettin’ hungry huh? I’m sorry to say, but the only thing around here is McDonalds.”  I was in the backseat, but I could almost feel Jim’s excitement.  “I would love –a fish sandwich and a soda” Jim exclaimed.  Jason pulled through and ordered the meal for Jim. “We will have a fish sandwich…actually, make that two fish sandwiches, fries, and a large coke.”  Jim wolfed his food down in the car as we drove back to the apartment, everyone feeling happy, refreshed, and positive about the direction of Jim’s life.

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Big Storms a Comin’

(This post is what happened to me in the day/night after I left Bloomington. I couldn’t post it because the app wasn’t working.  The correct chronological placement of this post would be before the post titled With a Little Help from My Friends)

I made my way across the parking lot and down an alley that led to a small white house with a porch across the front.  I got off my bike and turned to the van that that I had been following.  Out of the sliding back door jumped two young smiling boys who immediately ran up to my bike and let off excitedly with a barrage of funny questions.

What are you doing here?You biked from Michigan?! Is that 100?! These carrots are superfood!!

I looked over and each had taken a giant carrot out of my bag, looking guilty and cute as they munched away. What an opportunity! I thought and reinforced their superfood notions while I set up my tent in the yard.

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The father, grandfather, and uncle all joined us and we chatted for a while. They helped me clean the trash off the porch so I could have a roof, and advised me to lock my bike, telling stories of past thefts. They left for a McDonalds dinner with the boys’ mother and baby sister while I helped with some yard work they had.

As time passed, I noticed multiple cars come and go in the back parking lot, people shuffling in and out of a 1st floor apartment about 30 yards from me. A pair of pitbulls barked continuously at me from their chains next door. The situation eventually made me uncomfortable enough that I decided to leave for the night and find a spot in the woods outside of town.

Just as I started walking back to my bike, a scruffy, tanned man got out of the backseat of another car and approached me smiling. He was carrying a large paper bag, and as he began to talk, I realized he was intoxicated. I struggled to make out some of what he said, but I felt comfortable and unthreatened. He asked me a few questions and offered a spot for the night in his apartment across the street. I said no thank you, still feeling that he was being honest and friendly, but seeking some solitude. He continued to reaffirm that he was a good person and that NOBODY would touch my bike in his apartment, but I continued to decline.

I thanked him, and reassured him that I believed he was good. But when I swung myself up onto the saddle, something didn’t feel right on my bike. I looked down to notice that my tire had gone flat. “Is the offer still on the table?” I said.

We stepped into Bill’s studio apartment, him insisting I bring my bike in for safe keeping. He said that he was very happy to have company, and that I should make myself at home. I was pleasantly surprised by how clean his space was, although it smelled of cigarette smoke and natural gas. I guess the cleanliness was partially due to his lack of possessions. He had nothing aside from a table, a bed with a nightstand, and a number of empty 40oz beer containers.

We chatted for a while and he was nothing but friendly and generous. He told me how his good friend was struggling with cancer, and that he hadn’t eaten in 3 days. I offered to make him dinner, but looked in the fridge to find only butter. He did have some pots and pans, so I left for the grocery store to pick up some veggies and eggs.

Bill was almost asleep when I finished cooking, and kept insisting that his stomach couldn’t handle food. I gave him a big plate full, and put another in the fridge for later. He ate a little, smoked a cigarette and washed it all down with beer before falling asleep around 9pm. Throughout the evening he had offered me his mattress, his only blanket, the Christmas present from his friend that he had just opened, and a pair of dirty socks, which were exactly the kind I had been looking for at Goodwill that morning. I gratefully accepted the socks, Bill more than happy to help.

Throughout the night, my new friend got up every few hours to drink, smoke, and to eat more of the egg and vegetable dinner. By morning he had finished his dinner and the extra plate. I made oatmeal before leaving and left a couple meals worth in the fridge.

Despite my initial feelings about staying with Bill, I left feeling happy that I could help him, and thankful for the wonderful hospitality. He was one of the nicest people I had met thus far. We wished each other luck as he tried to get me to stay, making a good point that the snow storm was coming, and would make my travels tough. I said no, but thank you, and began the 70 mile ride I had to the city of Louisville and it’s dense collection of warmshowers hosts that I hoped would keep me out of the coming storm.

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