Nashville to Farmington
Nashville is a great city. It has been a few years since I’d last been there and since then loads of cool places have opened up. I had a couple of days off - namely to rest - but ended up doing more partying than resting.
I took the opportunity of being in a big city to make a few changes to my kit. I’d been carrying the excellent Terra Nova Voyager XL but felt I could make do with something smaller and lighter so ended up buying a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 - it’s only a little smaller than the Terra Nova but it weighs less than the poles of the Terra Nova. It’s not as robust but should hopefully do the job. I also switched my 4 season bag for a 2 season bag and finally bought some more pedals (back to Shimano Saints MX80s) as the studs had fallen out of my last pair making them slippery in the rain. I also got the wheels trued up - there were no significant buckles but there were a few minor wobbles in the wheels where I’d hit rocks/potholes/other things.
With the bike a few kilos lighter the ride out of Nashville was the absolute antithesis of the ride into it. I was on quiet suburban streets that were signposted and I was a way out into the country before I joined the main road, 31W north, and after one busy interstate intersection there was a good shoulder making the ride to Franklin painless. Just before Franklin I crossed into Kentucky, my 11th state. The next day was a painless cycle through countryside to Mammoth Cave National Park.
I’d been to Mammoth Cave a few years ago with Simon G where he had talked me into doing an intro to caving tour with him. I was right on the waist size limit so had spent the previous week eating salads to try and make sure I’d fit through the holes. Luckily I did and the tour was excellent although our canoeing that afternoon was a little less successful with us capsizing the canoe and getting it stuck under a fallen tree nearly trapping us inside and losing a shoe or two in the process. Ever since then I’ve wanted to come back and do the full day caving tour.
I’d signed up a week in advance but couldn’t get a spot on the Sunday tour so had another rest day and went on the tour on the Monday. It was as good as I’d hoped. There are 14 people and 2 rangers. You go and get into caving gear and are driven out into the woods to enter the cave through a door that looks so out of place in the middle of the woods you feel it should take you into wonderland. You then spend 6 hours squeezing yourself through impossibly tight holes, bouldering, climbing, seeing some beautiful caves and formations and scaring the more mainstream tours by appearing through random holes they are looking at. I didn’t take my camera but there are some photos that others have taken on other tours I’ve borrowed.
These photos of Wild Cave Tour are courtesy of TripAdvisor (full album)
After the rest days in Nashville and the two days off in Mammoth Cave I was feeling the lack of progress. It was a little over 1400 miles from Cave City to the next place I’d done any research on - Pueblo in Colorado - an intimidating distance with nothing in between me and it. I wondered if I was up to doing it in 14 days with a target of approximately 100 miles/day. Leaving Mammoth Cave I felt pretty strong and set out for Madisonville nearly exactly 100 miles west. The day was hard and long - after 9 hrs 32 mins I watched as my GPS ticked over to 100 miles for the first time. I don’t remember much of the day other than it being long.
The next day I had 3 potential stopping points - one at 80 miles, one at 106 and one at 117 miles. I ended up doing 106 miles - this time the gps ticked over to 100 miles at 9 hrs 20 mins with me getting to the motel at 9 hrs 59 mins. I crossed the Ohio river into Illinois (state #12) just before lunch - the river crossing was a bit scary as the bridge was busy, long, steep, narrow and reduced to one lane controlled by traffic lights as there were road works. I stopped at the bottom and watched the traffic for a cycle or two to check the timing and thought I might just be able to make it before a truck came barreling over the crest of the bridge not expecting yours truly on a bike to be coming up (in which case I’d have to jump a concrete barrier to get out the way and probably sacrifice the bike). With very tired legs I got ready and sprinted up the bridge behind the last car. As I got to the top the traffic lights had changed but the driver at the front spotted me before he pulled out and he waited for me to descend before heading off! The end of the day brought me to Marion, IL. I was absolutely knackered and getting depressed about the prospect of the rest of the trip and not enjoying myself at all.
The next morning I cycled the final 15 miles into Carbondale. I’d headed for Carbondale as it’s the last city the main trans-America bike route passes through before Pueblo, CO. I figured if I was going to do 1400 miles through nothingness then it would be better if I could do it with a few other people and I’d be more likely to meet them on the equivalent of a bike highway than on small random roads I’d picked myself so US Bike Route 76 was to be my home for at least the next 1400 miles.
A bit further on I walked into a cafe for lunch and an odd looking guy calls me a nutter - a lot of people I meet look at me a bit oddly but very rarely say anything. I murmured something in agreement and went and got my sandwich. A few minutes later his wife comes over to say hello and it eventually clicks - she has bright white hands and tanned arms - they must be cyclists (the tan lines coming from wearing cycling gloves). They were the first trans ams I met, they had set off from Oregon on May 4th, about the same time I set off from Maine. I chatted to them briefly and they gave me the lowdown on the route (avoid the river alternative as it’s flooded, in St Mary there’s another flood but you can get round it by using a parallel road) a totally new experience. I wasn’t much help to them other than warning them about the dogs in Kentucky who seem to be trained to come out of nowhere, chase you and nip at your legs - especially if they live at the bottom of a steep hill so you have to work especially hard to get away from them.
I spent the rest of the day feeling pretty down again and my legs were really struggling to get me up the hills and arrived into Chester, IL hoping that something terminal would break on my bike so I didn’t have to ride the next day and give up on the whole damned trip. It was the first time I’d felt this low since cycling up the Erie canal in New York.
The next morning I got up and cajoled myself back onto the bike. After a mile or so I crossed the Mississippi with less drama than the crossing of the Ohio but the queue of trucks behind me stopped me pulling over for a photo of the bridge or the welcome to Missouri sign (state #13). Emerging onto the Mississippi’s flood plains my legs were feeling incredibly tired again. I was pushing hard and I was on the flat but I couldn’t maintain anything much higher than 8th gear (out of 14). After another 20 mins of this there was something wrong either my legs were totally fatigued or, well I didn’t know, both tyres looked well inflated. I jumped off the bike and checked the front wheel - all fine. I checked the back it looked fine then I picked the back of the bike up (not easy) and spun the back wheel - it immediately stopped. I looked at the breaks and found one of the springs that holds the brake off the rim had come undone so the brake block was resting against the wheel adding a lot of friction. I have no idea how long that had been like that but it was was a relief when I got back on the bike and could cycle more normally.
After a few more miles I found the road heading up a rudely steep hill. I had thought Missouri was flat so it must just be the edge of the floodplain or something. Over the next few miles it became apparent that this hill wasn’t a one off but the were a whole series of these hills. None of them were big - maybe 100-200 feet but they were horribly steep so you are either in 14th gear hurtling down a hill or below 3rd gear crawling up one. It’s incredibly tiring and doesn’t let you get any rhythm. This was going turning my 45 mile short easy day into a hard work day - just what my mood needed.
Ready to throw the bike under the next car that came along I crawled into Farmington and found the hostel. It was spectacular!! The city of Farmington have converted their old jailhouse into a cyclist’s hostel. The renovation has been done beautifully and it has everything a cyclist could want (nice rooms, good shower, laundry facility, kitchen and secure bike storage) all for $20/night.
After chilling out for a bit and using the facilities I headed down to one of the local bars and got chatting to Bill Thompson a local doctor. I was very effusive about the bike hostel and the pretty city of Farmington. Bill insisted on buying my dinner and beer which was incredibly kind of him. As I was finishing my meal Bill introduced me to a few folks further up the bar. P.R., Corey, his wife Tadao, Will and his girlfriend. They were heading to a July 4th party at a farm a few towns over and did I want come? I’d known these guys for about 5 mins but hey why not? Jumping in the car with Corey and Tadao we headed to grab some beers then off into the hills. It was was a good 30 min drive and I have no idea where we went but we eventually pulled up in front of a farm and parked amongst the numerous oversized raised pickup trucks. As we got the cooler out of the car I heard a loud clattering and a helicopter appears over the roof. It turns out it’s there to give rides to anyone who wants one. There is an amazing BBQ and I’m introduced to loads and loads of nice people who don’t seem to mind that I’ve totally crashed their party. After dark the fireworks are set off - the display is astounding and lasts a good 20 minutes. These Americans know how to celebrate kicking us out :)
After the fireworks people begin to disperse but we hear there is another party going on in the woods - we head over to find it and come across an opening in the woods with a fire and loads of people having a good time. It turns out it’s a keg party for the son and his friends, most of whom are seniors at university but are still too young to buy alcohol (you have to be 21 in Missouri). Despite feeling old it was great fun and there’s something uniquely American about a keg party in the woods with big trucks being used as the sound system! It always amazes me how as you hit a low point something will happen that raises your spirits and makes the ride a more positive experience. And given the hangover I was going to have the next morning I needed a more positive outlook on the ride! But that little joy is for next time..