Tandem, An American Love Story

On the way to St. Albans, 20 miles east of Huntington, on U.S. Route 60, we were run off the road by a garbage truck driver who laid on the horn and steered onto the shoulder behind us. I steered violently off the road. We were lucky there was one of those nice Midwestern lawns there, and not a deep ditch. It is by far the worst experience yet with a motorist. Welcome home.

As soon as we arrived in St. Albans, we rode to the cemetery where my parents are buried. I took my time leaning Zippy up against a tree, making sure he was secure, preparing myself for a return of grief and loss. I haven’t been there since Mother’s death and Claire has never been there. It was emotional, and I was glad Claire was with me. My parents should have known Claire, they would have loved her so much. “Finally did something right,” I can hear Daddy say.

The heat and humidity continues at record levels here. Lucky us. All across the country we have been blamed for bringing hot weather with us. We are exhausted by it. Trail Ridge Road, at 12,000 foot elevation in the Rockies was nothing compared to one of these steep Appalachian hills in these 90 degree temperatures and 80 percent humidity. I don’t feel I can breathe in enough oxygen to pedal. How people exercise at all here is beyond me. The truth is that few do in the summer, and I understand.

We stayed the first two nights with my aunt Nellie Barnette and I saw cousins I hadn’t seen in 30 years. One of her grandsons, Joe Barnette, 10, was fascinated by Zippy. He could wear Claire’s clipless-pedal shoes and I took him for a high speed ride that opened his eyes. Kids everywhere are fascinated by Zippy and by the concept that we have pedaled over 4,000 miles this summer and are going to keep going. I think some of them may be changed by the idea. I know I would have been.

Nellie is so sweet and we really enjoyed staying with her and visiting with my Barnette cousins. Nellie is in her 80’s, and quite spry thank you; she lives at the top of an incredibly steep driveway that we barely made it up. She walks it each day to get her mail. If she keeps that up she’ll live forever.

We rode four miles to visit my cousin Billy Wayne and his wife Daisy. They now live in my uncle’s house. They’ve modernized the inside, but it looks the same on the outside, nestled there on a knoll with apple trees and sunflowers, although uncle Robert’s Percheron (work horse) and tobacco patch are gone, as are he and Cleo, my aunt.

Billy quit smoking, eats low-fat and walks a hilly two mile route every morning. He looks fit and enjoys it. He is perhaps the last person I would have ever expected to get religion on fitness.

We walked across the road to the place where I grew up. The people who bought it are very nice, and we walked around the place that formed so many of my early memories, my sense of place and values. I tasted the fruit from several of the apple trees and the memories flooded back. Most of the orchard is gone or dead and should be cut down. Things change. I was glad to show Claire where “Bobby” was a boy.

After a second night with Nellie, we rode to South Charleston to visit with my cousin Annabelle Hoppe and her husband Ray. They insisted we borrow their second car to use to get around while we are here. In this heat, we don’t mind a break from pedaling and sweating.

We could smell the chemical plants as we rode toward South Charleston. I remember those smells as being a part of my childhood. When I moved to Huntington for college, I was surprised to learn that air was not supposed to smell like chemicals. Although still unpleasant to us, accustomed to breathing air off the Pacific ocean, I will say that smell had moderated considerably from my last visit, and covers a much smaller area of the valley.

Annabelle is a fabulous cook (a family trait), and we had a wonderful dinner, with crystal and the good china. We’ve been happy with some white bread, squeeze cheese and a can of pork n’ beans set between us on the ground, so you can imagine…

We also stayed with Linda Ridgeway in the village of Tornado near my parents farm. Linda is a close friend since childhood who I haven’t seen for many years. It is great to get caught up on old friends. Sometimes it can be tragic. There have been deaths in my graduating class. Too many. Cancer is big here is the Chemical Valley. The highest in the nation I am told. One in three here will face the dreaded word sometime. It is how both my parents died.

Our visit with Linda has been special. The years have not come between us. She loved Claire the moment they met. I should have known. Some friends are truly forever. I am sad that she has insulin dependent diabetes and still smokes. Life is hard here.

Flash forward: We convinced Linda to consider early retirement to focus on her health. She did, and we were able to visit her twice in Turtle (our motorhome). Not long after our last visit she had bypass surgery, and probably because of her diabetes, she never got out of the recovery room. We treasure the Afgan she crocheted for us on that last visit.

We went for a walk last night to visit another former Sunday School teacher, Madeline. As we walked down the street/road to her house, we could see, and smell, raw sewage running in a ditch, and this is in an area of middle class homes.

West Virginia has serious water quality problems. Senator Robert Byrd gets them billions for new interstates (to take people to jobs elsewhere) but the streams are a mess, the septic systems are failing and nobody seems to think anything can be done.

Dave Peyton has a right to be discouraged. People have to show respect for their own land and water before they can expect others to move businesses here and do the same. Catchy phrases like, “Almost Heaven”, don’t carry much weight when you can see sewage running beside a residential street.

Linda has a dog, Tiffany, a tiny little furball. When she gets excited, which is often, she looks like a dust-bunny jumping on a rubber-band. There was a thunder-storm last night and she came to our bed and hid between Claire and I until it passed. Linda came to wake us up when she left for work to say good-by. Wish we had more time. Tiffany stayed in our bed awhile to console us.

Cousin Mary Jo (Bill’s sister) and husband Bob returned from vacation today and we had a nice visit with them over lunch.

Afterwards I took Claire on a ride up some of the small creek hollows off of Coal River Road. We were appalled by the amount of junk that gets dumped in the streams. Some people keep immaculately mowed lawns, but dump sewage, old appliances and tires into the creek beside the lawn. I’d forgotten.

Tonight we will stay with Annabelle and Ray before leaving for the wilds of the middle of West Virginia tomorrow.

We have found a back country route that avoids the worst of the coal truck traffic and uses some gravel roads. Sounds like it is really in the boonies and we may have to carry a good bit of food and water. I can’t find any camping along the way. We may have to ask permission to camp in some farmer’s field. I hope the West Virginians we meet on this section are friendlier than that garbage truck driver. I trust it will be so.

On the way out of Charleston on Saturday morning we were surprised by a loud horn behind us and a woman waving us out of the way, and yelling something at us.

At the stoplight I got off to find out what she was saying, leaving Claire to hold Zippy in the middle of the street. The woman was telling us to get out of her way since she was late for work. Perhaps she should have left enough time to get stopped at a stoplight or slowed by traffic, I suggested?

I politely reminded her that the law gives bicycles the same rights and responsibilities as automobiles. I explained it all very carefully and in an even voice. I explained it so slowly and carefully, that the stoplight cycled twice while I was talking.

“I don’t care what the law says! I’m late for work and you’re just a bicycle!” I suggested she might hit us from behind and learn first hand from the legal system what rights belong to bicyclists. She was quiet after that and remained behind us until her turn-off, presumably so we could not get her license number.

I feel a bit defensive about standing up for the right of bicyclists to use public streets and highways. I shouldn’t. Few dispute that automobiles are a major contributor to air pollution, and for every mile we ride a bicycle, for transportation, or recreation, we leave our car at home and don’t add to the problem. Some say bicycles should not be allowed on roads because they aren’t taxed. Not true. In states with sales taxes, bicyclists pay taxes on all purchases of bicycles, helmets, tires, chains etcetera. The vehicle (bicycle) is not licensed, but those fees are levied, along with gasoline taxes, to maintain the transportation infrastructure. When is the last time you noticed a bicycle breaking off a piece of a pothole, or starting one? Also, most cyclists, by the very nature of our automobile dominated society, are also motorists, and pay all those fees.

We are learning more and more that the freedom we have come to associate with our SUV’s (single occupancy vehicles) is extracting a cost well beyond air pollution and traffic jams. Our automobile based society is the major contributor of urban/suburban sprawl, creating a never ending spiral of flight to the ever more distant suburbs, leading to longer commutes, worse traffic, more pollution, more accidental deaths. What often does not get noticed is the negative contribution of motor vehicles to stress and stress related illnesses. All you have to do is look around you at rush hour, most any time of day in many areas, to see severely stressed people gripping steering wheels, yelling into cell phones and mouthing obscenities to other drivers. Increasingly, fists and guns play a part as road rage turns normally civilized people into animals. With all the problems associated with automobiles, I’d think people would be glad to see us using a bicycle to get around. Not yet.


Tandem, An American Love Story — 3 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.

  2. What a marvelous and beautifully descriptive article about a simply amazing woman – Karen Landis. I’ve had had the serendipitous experience to create and nurture a friendship with Karen after I underwent a hip replacement and three hip fractures and realized I needed to request the local “Meals on Wheels” service. And of course, if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Karen serves the Chino Valley community two days a week by delivering meals to people in my circumstance.
    I loved Karen the first moment I met her. And when we started chatting I knew I had met a soul mate. I’ve been looking all my life for a role model, a hero, an amazing example of humankind. I don’t know if she realizes what an outstanding example she is of a strong, independent, intelligent, talented woman. Sometimes as women, we have a dentency to undervalue ourselves. But Karen, I want you to know you are the real deal. You are just so beautiful in your authenticity. And I a so appreciative of the value you have added to our environment by caring for the land and the animals under your watchful care. Your abilities and strength simply boggle my mind. And thank you for your loving service to me these past four months. You rock girl!

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