Saturday, December 5, 2009

Friends in high places

Total distance: 2920.4 km

By Sundance:

This past week we've been assisted by all sorts of helpful folks along the way. Nothing too unusual there, it must be said, but it's interesting and at times amusing that police, churches, Walmart managers, and town mayors have been helping us along our way, rather than just the usual folks we bump into in the street.

As you remember from last time, we had turf-surfed with Charles and Merida on our way out of Cleveland, Mississippi. Before we left in the morning they fed us breakfast (including corn grits, which for the curious is another name for polenta), and gave us numerous fresh eggplants, tomatillos, herbs and chillies from their veggie garden. We set out for Greenville, and unfortunately my water bladder slipped off the panier rack while we were riding, and the rear wheel rubbed straight through it causing a huge leak. That held us up for a little while, as we decanted the remaining water into other receptacles and I berated myself for not tying the bladder in place more carefully. We also figured out that you can crack pecans on bike handlebars, so we gobbled up some of them and then set off into Greenville. After a shopping trip at the local Kroger supermarket (while Yana was inside I bemused passers-by by doing stretches in front of the shop), we found a Walmart which stocked replacement water bladders. Now, I have to admit I don't love shopping at Walmart. The first time I bought something there I could hear a little sucking sound as a part of my soul got slurped out. But I have to admit that when you are just passing through a town it's very handy to be able to find everything in one store, rather than hunting around for a grocery store, a camping store, a hardware store, et cetera. After all this bally-hoo it was getting a bit late and we made our way to the State Welcome/Visitor Info Centre (built into an old wooden paddle-boat parked by the road), where we were able to get advice about road conditions, pitch our tent for the night, and I cooked up a scrummy eggplant and tomatillo curry. Ah, fresh ingredients!

The next morning it was raining, but soon that cleared and we made our way to the nearest bridge into Arkansas, determined to stamp-collect yet another "Welcome to ..." signpost in our photo album. In Arkansas we stopped off for lunch at a roadside cafe/restaurant before heading south towards the Louisiana border. We crossed into Louisiana, rode on into the night a bit, and after deciding that a few of the houses we passed looked a little dodgy (rusted-out cars in the yards, and so on) we pitched our tent behind a church  for the night, and enjoyed another curry.

The following morning we were awoken by a thunderstorm at around 3 am. Since we were right next to a church steeple (those things tend to attract lightning strikes being tall and pointy) we crouched into fetal positions on our thermarests (to minimise our contact with the ground, and hence the risk of shocks from electricity grounding out near us) and waited for the storm to pass. Once we climbed out of the tent we made brekkie on the less windy side of the church building and rode south again, passing the Cotton Museum, which turned out to be fascinating. We saw lots of exhibits about how cotton was grown and picked, and collected many fallen pecans from the trees in their yard. And it was free. Bonus! We then proceeded to Lake Providence, where the Visitor's Centre lady allowed us to make lunch and put up our tent and sleeping bags to dry out. We proceeded on to Tallulah, and found that the Visitor's Centre there didn't have a place to pitch a tent. Plus there were no campgrounds in town. We dropped into the local police station, who called around, and finally got the mayor's permission for us to camp on the oval at the town civic centre.

The next morning, and indignant maintenance guy told us off for camping there, but we told him that we had the permission of the mayor himself. He told us he was going to speak to the mayor himself - and that's the last we ever saw of him. I fixed a flat tyre. We then rode east to Delta, intending to cross the old bridge back into Mississippi at Vicksburg, but found that the bridge was closed. The only bridge we could use was the interstate, where bicycles aren't allowed. The woman at the town hall phoned around and apparently you need two weeks advance arrangement and need to buy insurance to cross the old bridge. Pfah! We were just about to ride back to Tallulah and down to Natchez to cross there, when a local cop offered to escort us over the interstate bridge, so we set out to meet him, and with a police escort behind us, blue lights flashing, we rode like celebrities into Vicksburg! At the Welcome Centre there we were told that we might be able to camp behind the local Walmart, and so we made our way down to the shopping centre, asked the customer service people for permission, who asked them manager, who said yes, and so we set up our tent out the back, bought some fresh chicken and veggies, and proceeded to make dinner. When it started to rain we dashed under a parked semi-trailer for shelter, and thus bas born the dish known as Chicken Sub-Semi (a spicy blend of chicken, zucchini, and spring onions, served on rice).

Next morning we were again confronted by folks (somewhat more friendly this time) asking why we were camped where we were. We told them we had the manager's permission. Friends in high places. Then we decamped, and made our way past the tourist info centre at the other side of town. Here they told us that the roads down to our next port of call were quite busy, without much shoulder. It had also been several days since we'd showered, so they arranged for us to drop in at the YMCA, and use the facilities. By the time we got there and got showered it was getting late, but the friendly folks were more than happy for us to put our mattresses down in a meeting room and cook dinner at in their kitchen. So yes, you can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal... it really is fun to stay at the YMCA. Although we covered a grand total of only about 10 km that day.

It's worth noting that by this time we'd decided to keep heading south, to New Orleans. Our original goal was California, via Texas, New Nexico and Arizona, but the weather is starting to turn cold, so we have been aiming south  more and more.  We'll figure out where to go from New Orleans once we get there. Presumably Mexico. Near the coast, where it's warm. And then cut across to the west coast of the Panama isthmus somehow. Isthmus is such a great word. I love using it. Isthmus. Isthmus. Isthmus.

Having consulted Google Maps we found ourselves a backroad path towards Hazlehurst, which was very pretty  and relaxing. It even included a trip down Fonsylvania rd (just think "Fonzie" and "Transylvania"). Another flat held us up while we fixed lunch by a lake, and then we cruised into the outskirts of Carpenter, where a nice old fellow called Neil let us set up our tent in one of his paddocks.

The following day we could hear strangely human wailing noises through the woods. It turned out to be Neil's herd of goats, who were carrying on while trying to mate and argue over food. After watching them get fed we set out for Hazlehurst once more, but after a little while discovered that Yana's front tyre was starting to wear thin, and the tube was bulging through ominously. We dropped the pressure in her tyre and made our way slowly to Hazlehurst where we obtained a new tyre at Walmart (I see a pattern developing here). While I was inside shopping, Yana got chatting to a woman who was very concerned about us, since it was supposed to snow overnight. She contacted the sheriff, who contacted a local church, and to cut along story short (too late!)  the church wound up paying for us to stay in a hotel room last night. It did indeed snow, so it's nice that we were warm and comfy, but I am a little but put out at not getting to put our nice snow-rated expedition tent through its paces. I'm sure we'll get the chance though. And we should bust through the 3000 km mark of our journey either today or tomorrow.

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