Dispatches from a cross-country bike trip
Bill Brown shares 3 stories from a DC -> Denver bike ride.
Paw Paw, West Virginia
The convenience store in Paw Paw, West Virginia, is called the Liberty Gas Express Stop, a name which just about sums up everything an early 21st-century American could want. There are pickup trucks out in the parking lot, and large men wearing blaze orange camouflage overalls inside. Paw Paw is not the kind of town where you’d expect to find a cyclist’s hostel, but there it is: the Red Rooster.
LJR and I ride up to the front door. It’s locked. In fact, the place looks altogether shut down. As we ride away, someone yells at us from around back. “Hey!” says the voice. The guy’s name is Joey. Actually, that’s not his real name, but I think it might be best to give him a fake name, for reasons which will become apparent in a moment. Joey has a shaved head and a bunch of tattoos. He tells us that the hostel has been closed for the past couple summers because the owner has been on vacation. “You’re the first customers in a real long time,” Joey tells us.
The Red Rooster has a hoarder aesthetic.
I give LJR a look which I hope clearly telegraphs to her what I’m thinking, which is something like let’s please get the fuck out of here before this skinhead guy sends us on the same quote-unquote vacation on which he dispatched the now-missing owner. But LJR is from Georgia, so, as she’ll tell me later, she knows a thing or two about sketchy skinheads. She asks Joey how much a room costs. It’s cheap. We check in.
The Red Rooster has a hoarder aesthetic. It’s full of big piles of things: vintage vinyl records; collectible toys; commemorative porcelain plates. There’s a hollow-body Gibson electric guitar lying on the top bunk of the bunk bed in our room. Joey disappears, so we creep around the place, looking for clues. We peek in the empty rooms, and read old postcards from previous guests that are tacked to the wall, noting that none of the postmarks are recently dated. We quickly conclude that we’re indeed the first guests in a very long time.
I go to bed early. In the morning, LJR tells me what happened when she went to do her laundry. Joey came back. He was drunk, and began to tell LJR his life story. He used to be a meth head. But then his brother got cancer and needed money for the treatment, so Joey set off alone on a cross-country bike ride to raise cash. That’s how he wound up in Paw Paw, West Virginia, and first stayed at the Red Rooster. All this happened years ago, but recently he came back to town and offered to manage the hostel for the owner, who seems to have lost interest in running the place.
LJR tells me she felt sad for the guy. She also tells me that she knows a thing or two about sketchy skinheads, particularly drunk ones, so when she finally got back to our room, she made sure to lock the door.
“Some people come to Paw Paw,” she says, “and they never leave.”
In the morning, we ride back to the Liberty Gas Express Stop. The place has a deli counter, so we order a couple veggie subs from the high school kid behind the counter. We’re not expecting much — it’s a gas station deli in West Virginia — but the kid makes a fine vegetarian sandwich.
While she’s working on our order, she tells us about the Great Flood of 1985, when the Potomac topped its banks and wiped out the trailer park. We tell her we met Joey at the Red Rooster, and she smiles to herself, like she’s got a lot to say on the subject. “Some people come to Paw Paw,” she says, “and they never leave.”
It’s getting dark as we ride our bikes into Norton, Kansas. We’re way up north now, just shy of the Nebraska state line. The people we meet aren’t unfriendly, but they’re definitely no-nonsense and a little reserved. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t rain much up here, and the land’s not so fertile. In a place like that, you don’t waste anything, including your breath. All the sweetness that people around here don’t express is baked into their pies. Big-hearted, generous pies. Dutch-apple, strawberry-rhubarb, and coconut cream. Rich, creamy, oversexed pies that practically ooze off the plate and plop on your lap.
We get to the local natural food store just before it closes. We plead our case with Jim, the owner: We’re vegetarians, adrift in the carnivorous wastes of northern Kansas! Please! Jim takes pity on us and heats up some leftovers back in the kitchen: veggie lasagna, Greek pizza, and a green salad on the side. It’s the best meal we’ve had since Lawrence.
Jim’s store is called Pure Prairie. Jim is all about purity. He tells us that pure food feeds a pure spirit. He’s an organic farmer and a Christian. Not some namby-pamby mainstream Christian, either, but a fiery Christian soldier who believes in a wrathful God. When Jim talks, his eyebrows stay fixed, and his eyes shoot you with bright blue laser beams. And when he says that Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds are Satanic, he’s definitely not speaking figuratively. Jim’s God seems like the kind of deity that might turn a blind eye if someone were to, say, torch a truck full of GMO acorn squash.
I have to admit, it’s hard to see much difference between the white guy who won and the white guy who lost.
Before we ride out of town in the morning, we stop at Norton’s most famous attraction: the Gallery of the Also-Rans. It’s a portrait gallery of every US Presidential candidate who lost. The gallery is on the second floor of the First State Bank. A middle-aged lady in a pant suit greets us. She tells us that in addition to her duties as a secretary at the bank, she gives guided tours of the gallery. Then she launches into her spiel:
“These men built this country and I applaud them,” she says, motioning toward a wall hung with portraits of losing candidates from the 18th and 19th centuries. Then she lowers her voice. “But those last four around the corner,” — George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Al Gore, and John Kerry — “I think they’re pulling our country apart.”
Two things strike me about this lady’s comments. First, I’m not sure how eager I am to applaud the politicians of the 18th and 19th centuries, who include a good number of slaveholders, Indian killers, and corporate stooges. And second, does she really believe that Kansas’ own favorite son, former Senator Bob Dole, is tearing our country apart? I consider asking her to clarify, but then I decide to keep my mouth shut.
The lady slowly guides us from one picture to the next, occasionally reading highlights from the index cards hung next to the candidates. I’m pretty sure we’re meant to consider how radically different things would have turned out had these losers won, but I have to admit, it’s hard to see much difference between the white guy who won and the white guy who lost. The exception to this is Darlington Hoopes, the Socialist Party candidate who ran against Eisenhower in 1952 and, again, in 1956. I’ve never heard of Darlington Hoopes, but I’m glad he’s memorialized somewhere.
The gallery was started back in the 1960s by the bank’s former president, W.W. Rouse. I Google him up, but aside from references to the gallery, the only mention of him I find is in the July, 1952, issue of The Rotarian magazine. They had a contest to write the last line of this limerick:
- There was a slick fellow
Who always wanted to borrow.
But if you “touched” him,
Your chances were slim,
W.W. Rouse’s entry was selected as one of the ten best entries:
- And if he “touched” you,
You would sorrow.
St. Francis, Kansas
St. Francis is just 14 miles from the Colorado state line. In the morning, we call Kyle and ask him if he’d mind picking us up at the Kansas-Colorado border, just so we can say we made it to Colorado. Kyle says he doesn’t mind at all. The wind, however, is dead set against this plan. It pushes so hard from the south that we can barely ride in a straight line. Instead, we tack along like little sailboats caught in a gale.
A couple miles from the state line, we see a car parked on the shoulder up ahead. A guy is standing next to it and he waves us down. On the hood of the car, there’s a Tupperware dish full of sliced apples and a another full of dried fruit. The guy hands each of us a paper cup of cold water.
“I saw y’all riding in the wind and figured you could use a SAG stop,” he says, using the cyclist term for a refreshment break. It turns out the guy is a long-distance bike rider himself. He reminisces about a few of his favorite trips. Then he wishes us luck and drives away.
Kyle shows up from Denver in a big Buick SUV he rented. We break down our bikes and cram everything in the back of the car. Then we stand there, staring at the stuff. A couple months and a couple thousand miles of pedaling.
- “That’s it?” Kyle asks.
“That’s it,” I say.
[Editor’s note: These dispatches are excerpted from Dream Whip #15, the upcoming issue of Bill’s zine.]