Day 8: Young Americans in Tennessee

by James

Mike and I went to bed around 11PM last night in Bob Atkins’ Wytheville home after talking with Bob about inductive chargers for electric cars, venture capital, and finally (the terminus for all conversations even vaguely related to money) the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007.

We yaked pleasantly for an hour or two in his livingroom, enjoying modern furniture and the view of Wytheville visible through the glass seperating the balcony from us. When the conversation came to a natural close, we shuffled off to the bathroom, now only perfunctorily performing hygienic activities; we’ve been spoiled by three (count ‘em three) nights indoors.

Bob's window at sunset
Bob's window at sunset.

Since Bob had a bed for each of us, I don’t even remember hitting the sheets last night. I don’t even think I changed positions.

The sunlight streaming into the guestroom woke us at five before seven. Bob called us out and we sat down to breakfast. I enjoyed a rare treat: hot, black coffee. Bob is a magician with a french press. We then wolfed a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, and English muffins. Bob claimed he could only cook “simple shit,” but for my money, simple shit is all it takes.

We said goodbye to Bob, forgetting to get a picture with him. We finished packing up, briefly debated strapping the 12 of Coors Light to our bikes, then we left the beautiful Wytheville estate for the hot pavement of 11 South.

The driveway approaching Bob’s neighborhood was an incredibly steep ascent1, so the descent happened quickly. On the final and steepest downhill, I didn’t brake hard enough and made the turn onto 11 way too quickly; a patch of gravel locked my back wheel into a slide and I thought I’d be eating lunch out of a tube. Luckily, the wheel slid into pavement and static friction did a little work. My balance came back and we were off (one “oh-shit!” later).

The first portion of the ride was relaxing. I thought on each part of my body to figure out where tension was and whether or not that exertion was necessary. I relaxed certain parts (shoulders, stomach) as the hilly, green country whipped by.

10 miles out or so, we passed a church. The billboard in front of the church read



which is, to date, the most dumbfounding catch-phrase I’ve seen on a church billboard (and we’ve passed around 30 by now). Is there a branch of Christianity that only meets in warm weather? Or they just pushing a new divine mandate that prohibits the use of snow shovels and kosher salt? I dunno, but I’ll report back when I find a holy jingle that tops that one.

We rolled on to a very small town called Atkins and we stopped outside of an abandoned deli for a snack break. After two or three delicious selections from Food Bag 2 apiece, we kept moving. The wonderful thing about snack breaks is that when they’re over, my bike is lighter than before. Conversely, the awful thing about Walmart trips is that, after I’m done bathing in the intoxicating sea of discount snack items, my bike is much heavier than it was before. Yin and yang, or some such tripe.

Atkins gas station
Lonely Atkins station.

After Atkins, we hit some stretch between towns where a few houses and a church had been worked over by a tornado. Giant spliters of wood were jutting outwards, walls were missing, and roofs were precariously unsupported because the columns once there had been ripped away. A Sunoco still stood, though obviously roughed up.

We rode on into Chilhowie, which was a town with slightly greater ripples of civilization. We parked on the side of a gas station, listened to David Bowie play over the loadspeaker, and watched a beer merchandiser go back and forth with stacks of corn lager. After a while, I went into the station and browsed for the sake of browsing, just to see some variety and to simulate making choices. It’s fun to do hypothetical comparisons between brightly-colored Hostess pastries. At least when you’re on a cross-country bike trip. Eventually I sold myself on one of those gas-station cherry pies, walked out, and began munching it next to Mike. We watched the beer guy play the back-and-forth some more and took shots out of our water-bottles.

Around 12:30PM, we hit Abingdon, which was the largest town we’d seen all day. In fact, the place was too civilized for us: we tried three restaurants before finding one with a suitably low price-range. A note to the audience: grass on the roof and a sign claiming that an establishment was founded in 1770-something is a great heuristic for ruling out a joint on the basis of price.

RIght as Mike got a flat, we found a Mexican place that was suitably cheap. We locked the bikes and walked in. The eatery was dim and cool; the proprietors had spray-painted the walls to look like the internals of a Mayan temple and there were beer advertisements hanging from the ceiling. I guess this is what happens when you take Mexico and leave it in a hot car in southern Virginia for a few days.

Mike and I happily strafed into a booth and our waiter floated up to us immediately. Mike said that he had a strangely relaxed cadence in his speech. In a minute, we were situated with lemon’d water and perusing a surprisingly professional menu. In ten minutes, I was staring at two hot enchiladas and wondering if there was any way I wouldn’t trade the Alamo for two more. We shoveled, sat, paid, and left. The woman at the register prounounced “Michael” like a Spanish aristocrat.

Mike’s flat still had to be dealt with, so we found a patch of shady grass, pulled out some tire levers, and Mike got to work. I did what I always do when Mike is fixing a flat: take a cat-nap on my back with legs arched. Some indefinite time later, Mike finished and we saddled up for the final leg of the day’s ride to Bristol.

Mike changing a flat
Mike's flat. Before my catnap.

The ride to Bristol was around 14 miles, and we made good time. Coming in to the city, we saw a Starbucks and Mike had to restrain me. We rolled down to the VA-TN border, crossed it gingerly for ceremony, then Mike realized his headset2 had come loose. We googled a bike shop and luckily it was only three blocks west. Fifteen minutes later, Mike’s bike is fine and we’re enroute to a coffee shop, Java J.

Java J's on State (front)
Java J's.

We hung out at Java J for a good while. Mike read Capote and I wrote part of this entry. There was a cozy, semi-private space in the back with a couch and the staff was very friendly. After a few hours of writing, routing, and CouchSurfing requests, we left for dinner at the Burger Bar three blocks west.

Java J's on State
They didn't kick us out, even with the bike clothes.

Let me say this about the Burger Bar: they had Young Americans playing3, the seatable space was no more than 60 square feet, and they had 16oz draft beer for $2. The burgers were fantastic despite a healthy wait.

Burger Bar
It's as cool as it looks.

After dinner, we encountered four charming ladies outside who inquired about our trip. We responded and they chatted us up, which we enjoyed. They told us to have fun, be safe, and watch out for the weather awaiting us in the west. Sounds like Memphis is going to be interesting.

Charming women of Bristol
Damn cool ladies.

About that time the sun was setting, so we excused ourselves and hopped on our bikes. Our plan initially was to camp in Steel Creek park, but after following 11th street to its end, we found that entrance we’d sought was plastered with Private Property signs. In the south4, these signs are no joke, so we turned around and took stock of our options.

Mike on State
Mike on State.

Down the street was a Presbyterian church, but after a few minutes of banging on the door, yelling “SAAANCTUARY!!”, etc. no one answered. I spotted another church so we high-tailed it over there. Luckily, the proprietors were gardening in a courtyard, so we waved emphatically and explained our story. After a lot of laughing, Barbara, the pastor, invited us in and told us we could camp in the courtyard.

Mike and Barbara
Barbara is a queen.

Camping without big spiders or threat of bears or cops!? This was an unexpected surprise and a welcome improvement. We changed out of our bike clothes in the church and got to work helping out with the garden. We then met Steve, Louise, and Ms. Chang, who were also helping with the garden. All were very nice.

Churchyard gardening at night
Night-gardening in the churchyard.

Now we sit in a tent pitched in the courtyard of the historic Anderson St. United Methodist church in the heart of Bristol, Tennessee, surrounded by city-sounds but resting on grass. I couldn’t ask for a more relaxing combination.

  1. we had to resort to the stand-up-on-your-bike-and-pump method that everyone uses excessively in grade school and then never afterward for fear of social ostrasization.

  2. linkage between bicycle fork and handles.

  3. second time today!

  4. or really anywhere, but of course everything is more dangerous in the south

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