Tandem, An American Love Story

Chapter 6. Tidewater and Appalachia Redux

Blue Crabs, Coon Hounds and Katy Hill Farm

Yesterday we said good-by to Lynn as she left for work, then Dave. Claire told him she’d come back anytime he needed her to help him get well.

Dave is a little reserved, but you can see how much he loves his only girl. I feel a great sense of responsibility to protect her, and yet I know he approves of what we are doing, can see how important it is for Claire.

He’ll be getting our email newsletters and we’ll check in often to see how he’s doing. I think he’s pretty tough.

Last night was our first night in the new tent we got while at Dave’s. Wonderful! We left the fly off and could lay on our backs and look up through the huge expanse of mosquito netting through the trees and see the stars. And, so big! We have room to both dress at the same time. What a difference a few square feet, better design, make.

This morning we discovered the Conowingo Diner just past the Susquehanna river in Maryland. It is a classic rail-car shaped, stainless steel diner, and served one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. They not only have grits, but they have scrapple!

For those who don’t know about scrapple (head cheese and other local names for similar foods), here’s my recipe. You start by boiling the whole head of a hog (I take out the eyeballs first, some people don’t). You boil it all day, until all the soft stuff (meat, fat, brains, gristle) falls off the skull. Then you fish out the bones, teeth and skin, break up the big pieces. Then you bring it to a boil again, stir in corn meal and pour it into pans to congeal. Cut into bricks and freeze. To serve, thaw and slice, fry and serve with eggs and grits, maybe a little pan gravy, or drizzle with maple syrup. Wonderful stuff. Absolutely zero cholesterol. Trust me.

The next night, we camped behind a big oak in a roadside rest area, which was all we could find. All night car lights swept over the tent. Sometimes the lights stopped on us, trying to figure out what we were.

Then there was the little soap opera at about two in the morning:

He drove up in a van and sat smoking, his face a periodic red glow in the light of his cigarette. He looked at his watch often, and at the road.

She drove up in her Camero, got out and went to his window. They kissed. They talked.

She started to get into the van, and then she saw our tent. They talked some more. She left. He left.

Looks like we spoiled that one.

St. Michael’s, Maryland is a touristy ocean side town in the mold of several on the Oregon coast, but with older buildings. It is on the Chesapeake bay side and the waters are not all that salty or rough, so the feeling is not exactly the same, but there are lots of gull-like birds in both places. We did see a bald eagle today, which is the first we’ve seen since the West. It’s good to know they are making a comeback on Chesapeake Bay. Claire studied the bay at the University of Maryland, and is very interested in the progress being made to clean it up.

On our third day out of Westminster, where we only rode 60 miles in 13 days, our quads really began to hurt. The first two days back on Zippy were hilly and there were some nasty headwinds.

The traffic is heavy, but the biggest roads have a wide shoulder. Today we got off on some small roads; mellow with oak and pine forests, fields of soybeans and corn under cauliflower clouds and yellow sun. Wonderful riding.

The northern third of the DELMARVA Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) might as well have been Indiana it was so intensely farmed. People here are still not as openly friendly as west of the Mississippi, but at least on the rural roads, they are beginning to wave back to us. We were called an obscene name yesterday by a tradesman. We were on a tall bridge with no shoulder, and we must have cost him 30 seconds. Time is money. I wonder how long it took his blood-pressure to return to normal.

At Nanticoke, we got a campground on the bay for $22. That is $7 more than the most we have paid for a tent site. Things are expensive on the East Coast. However it has a white sand beach, and there was a beautiful red sunset over the bay and we woke up to a crabber dredging just off the beach; perfect image of Chesapeake Bay.

It is hot again, and very humid. We are enjoying our new tent with all its mosquito netting and cool breezes. The mosquitoes are tenacious and numerous. I guess the bay is not really very salty here, more than half-way down to the open Atlantic, and they can breed in the brackish water.

The next morning, we took a small ferry ($1 each, Zippy free) across a broad inlet to the small town of Oxford. It was only slightly touristy, and that in a charming way, it had many nice old houses and little artifice. There is something soothing about Victorian architecture. It reminded me of Augusta, Kentucky, in its architecture and also Port Townsend, Washington in its water face and architecture.

A back road takes us by fields of sorghum, the short variety grown for animal feed. The air is heavy and sweet with the ripeness of the seed and the dying of the plant stems. Sweet and musky, air with the texture of moss; it holds a vague dread, a sadness of spirit, and we pass sunken grave vaults in silence. Nothing moves. Only crows stalking the fields.

Two vultures perch on an old chimney, top bricks already fallen among the weeds. A gibbous midday moon anchors a hard blue sky. Vines crawl through dark broken windows and up the gray and rotting boards; slack-skinned heads and black eyes follow us…

An old scarecrow of a black man waves from his stooped shoulders; he shuffles and lurches, cane stabbing at a lawn of burnt grass beside a clapboard house, also succumbing to time and gravity.

A huge field of pungent rotting watermelons. Roving hogs eat them, snouts turning over choice pieces, rooting, grunting. Watermelon wine dribbles from hog-jowls. They fight among themselves for choice pieces; bite and squeal. I imagine drunk pigs, rampaging through the countryside, eating cats, dragging off children.

A grasshopper flies in my face and clutches at my lips. I swipe and spit, and pedal faster.

There is a delicious strangeness here.

Whitehaven is a town rescued by retires and quiet as the dead. A large hulk of a wooden ship sits rotting in front of the town. There are beautiful old houses on the Wicomico River. A small cable-ferry crosses the river. There were ripe tomatoes and plastic cans of cut flowers lining the side of the small car deck for sale.

The road then meandered through a marsh and into pine woods, smelling sharply of turpentine in the heat and humidity. I also smelled something that I think is the blossom of the Kudzu; sweet sweet, cloying sweet, and as wonderful as the plant is beautiful in it’s destructive fecundity. Kudzu, metaphor for destructive beauty.

We’ve had a couple of flats in the last few days. There is lots of clear glass from liquor bottles here and it is hard to see. I have noticed that quick stop liquor stores outnumber food stores. This reinforces the sense of strangeness I feel here. So far we haven’t seen any drunk drivers, but we watch very carefully.

Crossing into Virginia tidewater country, we came to the awareness that we have been gone exactly four months. One third of the way through our year. Bummer. It seemed so short. We’ve spent approximately one month of the four not riding, visiting friends and relatives, mostly in West Virginia and Maryland. 4932 miles..

We are beginning to see more black people now in the rural areas. They are more likely to wave than whites.

To get to Virginia, we took two tourist cruise boats across the bay via Smith Island. It proved to be more expensive than traditional ferries, but was the only way short of a taxi across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. It was a gray day and I was reminded of Northwest waters. Smith Island is so low I am surprised it doesn’t just wash away. Maybe it will. There are two or three small towns of people, and a lot of crabs waiting in pans to lose their shells so people can eat them whole between two slices of white bread.

I tried a soft-shell crab sandwich, local specialty along the bay, and found it quite good. I like the way the little legs and claws stick out of the sandwich. I nibble them off first thing. This is the true calling of blue crabs; they pale in comparison to Dungeness crabs otherwise.

As is usual lately, we had trouble finding a place to camp today, and then when that failed, trouble getting to a motel. We were riding hard to beat darkness to a town with a motel, when it began to rain. That was fine. We do rain. No problem. Then a big nail shredded our new thorn-proof tube. The goop inside tried vainly to fill the holes, but failed. It was a rear tire, so all the gear had to come off, the drum brake had to be disconnected, the tire booted again (second boot in this tire with only four-hundred miles on it)… We made it to a nice small motel just at dark.

Rained hard all night that night, and was still raining hard the next morning. We didn’t feel much like complaining after talking with the people at the motel. They’ve been without rain for over a month and the crops they depend on have suffered.

I like the cool weather, high 60’s, even if it is damp with inky clouds overhead. We found some lightly traveled back roads that were beautiful. The highlight of the day was finding fields of cotton, ripe for picking. Neither of us had ever seen cotton growing. It’s amazing. Just the little hard balls growing on short plants that split when ripe, revealing cotton: not something to be made into cotton, but the real thing, pretty much like the stuff you get out of aspirin bottles, only with seeds.

We seemed to be lost half of the time today. Our second day in Virginia, and we haven’t been able to find a road map yet (we just pick up the free tourist maps as we enter each state). Who needs it; we just use our compass and take the most westerly pointing road at each intersection.

Other cyclists are surprised that we don’t use the Adventure Cycling route maps, taking the same routes the great majority of cross-country cyclists take.

Our reasons are several: We prefer serendipity to security. We often happen on roads where we are the first bicycle tourists they have seen in years, and it is usually the first time they have ever seen a tandem bicycle. Most people are glad to see us. I’m not so sure that is the case on the usual cycle routes where they see hundreds each summer. We don’t want to carry five pounds of maps (okay two pounds). We really don’t want to know exactly where we will end up each day, where we will find water, food and camping. We enjoy depending on our ingenuity. If we’d wanted life to remain predictable, we’d have stayed home. We’re a little strange that way.

It was a Sunday and we passed many small white churches with cemeteries and very well-dressed black people going in and out of them and standing around talking on lawns under sycamore trees. They waved and we waved and it felt almost like that act of communication included us in their worship.

We passed one cemetery that was just three old stones and one newer stone, set in the middle of a corn field that had just been harvested to stubble. It looked like the farmer has planted around the stones as naturally as if they had been a grove of apple trees he wanted to leave standing.

I imagine them as his ancestors who spent their lives tilling that very same field. They are planted there to hear the wind in the corn on summer days and the crows cawing in the harvested field, smelling the plow-turned spring soil and sleeping away the frozen winter.

We met two motorcyclists from upstate New York in the campground tonight. Both pleasant men in their early 30’s. We helped them build a fire and open some cans of chili. (Bicyclists must naturally be more adept at such things) They enjoy their mode of travel for many of the same reasons we enjoy ours, and face many of the same dangers from auto drivers.


Comments

Tandem, An American Love Story — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the memories, and the update on your own adventures. That last few days back to Sequim was bitter-sweet after more than a year on the road. We’ve never been the same; a good thing.

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