Day 13: Redeye to Columbia
When I woke up at Brad’s on Memorial Day morning, my inner eyelid felt like sandpaper. My eye was swollen and immediately started tearing up after opening it. I wandered shakily out to the bathroom and confirmed in the mirror that my left eye was furiously red. Uh oh.
Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a big deal; I’d take it easy for a few days without wearing contacts. Unfortunately, the game is different on a cross-country bike trip, and, worse yet, we were scheduled for our biggest day of the trip: 80-some miles from McMinnville to Columbia.
I crawled back into bed for minutes-worth more rest while Mike was outside fixing a spoke I’d snapped on the way over to Brad’s. A few iterations of alarm later, I stumbled outside to find him remounting my tire. I thanked him while the morning light attacked my eyes.
Uncharacteristically, we lounged around for a while. Brad was entertaining us while we noshed on some of the breakfast food he’d laid out. We sat on his couch watching the news, making wisecracks as necessary. As far as I’m concerned, news shows are good for little else.
Eventually, the thick mental fog of morning lifted and it became clear that we had the longest ride of the trip ahead of us, so we got packed up, said goodbye to Brad, and set our dials to Pedal.
The ride out of Brad’s was unexpectedly hilly. Because of the humidity, the heat stuck to us; it feels like wearing a suit one size too small.
Midday, we stopped at a BP station. There was a European family, my guess eastern, lingering outside the station in a patch of shade, an unlikely feature for the stifling Tennessean environment. I said hi and they responded in thick accent.
Since the station had hot food for sale and the road so far from McMinnville had been populated mostly with darkened shop-fronts, closed for the holiday, we decided to eat at the BP. Various and strange signs littered the walls, I guess as decoration.
Meals that Mike and I share now can barely be called meals. Mike calls what we do “feeding,” on account of the lack of conversation. Instead of talking, we stuff our faces.
The dynamics between the two of us have changed greatly since the beginning of the trip, as I guess the case would be with any pair adapting to the kind of lifestyle we have. We rarely talk for the sake of conversation; most of our discussions are of a purely logistical nature. We’re less friends now than we are associates.
When you spend weeks on end with someone, you begin an exercise in social introspection. You begin to filter your thoughts through a stringent series of tests before they leave your mouth and, increasingly, most thoughts don’t make the cut to sound. Of any candidate questions, you ask “can I figure this out myself?” Of any candidate observation, you ask “is this something he might appreciate, or am I talking too much?”
This parsimony is necessary because anything you say will break the illusion of aloneness that the other guy has built up. The only way you can live with another person continuously at your side for weeks is if you spend most of the time pretending he’s not there, and the last thing you want to do is incite some trivial argument over what side you ordered yesterday for lunch. Semantics, and anything else not of immediate importance for the trip, is out of the question for argument simply for the sake of emotional economy.
It’s a good game to play; it’s made me more aware of what I say and to whom.
So we sat eating our breaded and fried food mostly without conversation, as we have many meals for the past few days.
We left the BP. Almost immediately terrain flattened out, fresh pavement lowered rolling resistance, and a Justin Faust mix was pounding through my $5 headphones; in other words, we hit warp-speed. We kept this going for the remaining 50 miles to Columbia.
When we hit Columbia, we looked like someone had trained a fire-hose on us for a good portion of the afternoon. The route was just over 90 miles, longer than we anticipated, and we were dog-tired. Regardless, we were happy to have made our destination.
We started looking for a place to eat and rest. The cellphones tipped us to a place on 7th, so we biked another two miles and turned into downtown Columbia only to find the restaurant, and every other shop in the immediate vicinity, unlit and closed. We didn’t see any other people around; it was eerie.
We rolled aimlessly further down the street and eventually found a place called The Sandwich Shop, an all-night diner that was open. A sign on the glass informed us that no one under 21 was allowed in the establishment, regardless of its wholesome appearance, because smoking was allowed within.
We locked the bikes to a tree nearby and marched our frayed threads in, catching the usual incredulous stares from the local fixtures. We sat down at a table and Abraham’s grandmother ambled over to take our orders. The one-page, laminated menu made it clear that this was a legitimate 24-hour diner; our first of the trip. I ordered a coca-cola, a double hamburger, and chili fries.
When our food came out, Mike said that it looked so good he felt we should say grace. The wordless grumbles of pleasure we let out in between bites came close enough. Midway through the meal, our waitress, Margaret, came back over and slipped a cold can of Coke by my side. She said it was on the house, then patted my arm. That’s when I fell in love.
Afterwards, we got milkshakes and sat around enjoying our discovery and testing the capacity of our stomachs. This place was exactly the sort of restaurant I’d wanted to find: cheap, gritty, slightly seedy, and delicious; these things consistent without regard for time of day.
A NO TRESPASSING sign hung over the bathroom and there were video-poker machines towards the back.
Throughout the day, we’d been communicating with our CouchSurfing host for the evening, a local girl. She’d given us her address a few hours before, but told us that she’d be out for a while and would give us a call when it was time to come over. It was around 9:00PM and, while we were enjoying the strange ambiance of the diner, we were also about to collapse.
At that point, I didn’t want to go through the getting-to-know-you boilerplate that is necessary with CouchSurfers. Usually it’s a pleasure, but when it appears as though someone has taken a Super Soaker full of vinegar to your left eye and you’ve just biked 90 miles, the polite conversation needed to convince someone that you’re not an axe-murderer traveling via bicycle is a little daunting and maybe impossible.
We called the girl to see what the deal was, but she didn’t pick up. We decided to call a spade a flaky CouchSurfer and find a motel. We googled for the cheapest option in town and the James K. Polk motel readily appeared.
The motel flaunted an average one star out of a possible five. One review was titled I WAS PROPOSITIONED BY A PROSTITUTE IN FRONT OF MY KID; another detailed a midnight robbery that had taken place in the client’s room. Of course, we were sold.
I called to check prices. I could only bargain the woman running the place down $3, bringing the total for our room to $42.50. Forty bucks isn’t fun to lose, but with an eye-infection at stake, we decided to take the reservation.
We pedaled through the dark town, past promises of cash-advances, title loans, and liquor, to a neon sign casting colored light down on the black pavement. Hello, James K. Polk.
Mike hid in the shadows of a parking lot across the street while I went in to get the room — a trick we’d learned after incurring a fee for having two guests stay in a single at a previous motel. The lobby of the motel was incongruously well-decorated relative to not only the surrounding area, but to what I expected from the Google reviews. Lush, healthy plants sat staring from the corners of the room, which was filled with antique furniture and clad in gilt wallpaper.
I said good evening to the woman behind the glass, whom I can only describe as tired, and minutes later I signaled Mike across the street and to our room.
The room was shockingly nice given our expectations. Two queen (!) beds promised a good night’s sleep and the whir of the air conditioner was the first sound inviting us into the dark cool of our loaned room.
After bolting the door and laying out my knife on the dresser, I peeled back the white sheets and slept like the dead.