Day 14: Ghostly road to Parsons

by James

I woke up in Room 27 of the James K. Polk motel feeling the jittery ache of fever. It was May 31st in Columbia, Tennessee. I consulted with the mirror and saw that my eye was still red, though it had improved from the previous day.

Claims from the internet notwithstanding, no thieving prostitutes had visited us in the night. If they had, they’d left me undisturbed and cleaned up after themselves.

We brushed our teeth, chamois-cream’d, and put on our day clothes. After a quick pack, we were out on the street and I was fighting the urge to clamp my eyes shut. I returned the key to the front desk and we rolled down to get breakfast at Shipley’s Donut Factory.

Donut Factory
Counter of the Donut Factory.

We entered the empty Factory and ordered from an Asian kid wearing earbuds and tending the shop. Who knows if the kid could hear a thing we said, but he delivered the food we ordered. Mike and I sat in the back, munching donuts and wondering how the hell to prepare ourselves for biking in the sauna outside.

We finished up our food and left almost immediately. Giving your stomach a few minutes to digest a half-pound of white flour and sugar before biking a few hours is a very good idea, but it wasn’t one that occurred to us.

We stepped out into the sweltering heat. The roar of traffic and the bright glare made my head whirl. I felt like the used dance-floor of a Hollywood nightclub on Sunday morning.

We pedaled on and all I could do was try to keep breakfast down. I know it sounds like a lot of complaining (and it is), but this is the phase of the day when I’m absolutely miserable. I have this recurring inner monologue that includes a healthy string of obscenities, declarations of my profuse hatred for bicycling, promises to sell the bike as soon as I hit Haight-Ashbury, and a quick pep-talk to get ready for upchucking. There are many good reasons to do this trip. I just can’t call any of them to mind during the early afternoon.

A few miles down the road, Mike hit a flat for the second consecutive day. We stopped by the side of a bridge and got his back tire off. Mike went to work and I milled around looking for shade, sweat pouring out of me.

Tire fix
Mike investigates the flat.

When you’re biking in serious heat, you do a fair bit of sweating, but nothing compared to volume you exude once you stop moving. If you stay in heat without movement, you no longer have the wind cooling your sweat: like a stationary water-skier sinking into a lake, the heat collects around you. The only response possible is to sit, gushing sweat, or get back on the saddle.

The Trek on the last of May
The Trek at the end of May. I had to do something while Mike fixed his tire.

After Mike fixed the flat, we got back on the road and went a while before hitting a gas station in a very small town. At this point in the trip, whenever any chance for a water-refill presents itself, we pounce. We went in and bought two 24oz. gatorades from the young girl working the counter.

We sat drinking the gatorades and watched locals come in and out. One guy with a big ol’ country gut came in, took one look at us, and let out a “WHEEEE-WHEEW!”

We finished up the sodium water, filled up our bottles, and kept riding.

Full sky
Occasionally when I look up, I see something like this.

An hour later, we hit a small town called Hohenwald that contained a McDonald’s. We ran at the golden arches like two pissed bulls at a flamboyant Spaniard and spent the next few hours lounging in climate control and cherry-picking from the value menu. Mike read Capote and I fought with my netbook, trying to square Linux and Flickr’s flash-based upload page.

We left the comfort of the cool haven. I dragged my feet like a grade-schooler coming in from recess. We rode on, pumping our legs against the hills.

In a few miles, there was a large descent. We ran into a fellow bicycle tourist named Julie. Julie said she’d just recently gotten out of Missouri and had been ten miles outside of Joplin when it was torn to pieces by the tornado. We told her we’d be spending a rest day in Memphis, so she told is in response that we should hit Beale St. and find the most grungy dive we could for some brew and music. Check.

Julie the bike tourist
One super-happy Julie. My lens was foggy from the humidity.

We approached the Tennessee river, rode up to the crest of the bridge and snapped some pictures. We were hungry by then, so we googled eateries to the west and found a variety of places, all seafood based. Mike had wanted to try some genuine Tennessee catfish, so we rode on to check out the Fish House Diner. We completed the bridge and found ourselves in western Tennessee.

Over the Tennessee
Mike over the Tennessee

We branched off of 412W to find the Diner and noticed that there was an abundance of closed shops and restaurants. We hadn’t seen any movement for a while, but we kept pedaling in the hopes of encountering live civilization and hot food.

But that didn’t happen. Every restaurant we hit was dead: dim and empty. The streets were deserted. An abandoned grocery store sat lifeless and crumbling across the street from the diner we’d intended to stop at.

The whole locale had a foreboding, desolate weight that kinda freaked me out. All the marks of humanity we’d encountered so far were stations of active, flowing commerce. This place was like a decaying mausoleum, soundlessly waiting for us to either leave or stay and decompose.

Empty grocery
Abandoned grocery store, strange and empty.

We stopped to figure out where we could get some food. Mike said that we may end up eating toaster pastries for the night; I said something to the tune of “hell no.”

We started to bicker and then realized we were hungry1, so we wolfed a Snickers each and then found a town called Parsons on the map.

Parsons appeared to have all the modern accoutrements we were after, so we decided to make the ten mile hike. We’d originally intended on staying at a campgrounds in Decaterville (the ghost-town), which left our sleeping arrangements for the night to-be-determined from here on out.

While we wheeled out of the small town, Mike commented that this is the kind of place in which horror movies are filmed. I agreed, then caught sight of a church billboard that read PRAY FOR HOLLY. GOD HEARS YOUR PRAYERS. This message shook me further; I didn’t know who Holly was or what had happened, but it didn’t sound good. We later found out that Holly was a town girl who’d gone missing.

Empty neighborhood
Empty neighborhood.

I snapped some pictures and we started for Parsons.

The ride to Parsons was a series of hills, which was a trying way to end the evening. The sides of the hills were littered with empty businesses and menacing, windowless hovels with wrecked furniture outside. I made a mental note that, while we could camp behind these places likely without incident, I’d rather not.

A few grueling minutes later, we got into Parsons and saw people and movement. I felt relieved. We navigated our way to a place called Granny’s Kitchen and chained our bikes to a signpost. There were three police cruisers out front, which spoke well for the cuisine.

Granny's Kitchen
We never met Granny.

We walked into the restaurant and saw that the dining area was mostly empty; a few tables were stirring warmly. We collapsed into some chairs and then were approached by a brusque waitress who looked not a day over 15.

Mike settled down with a plate of deep-fried catfish and hush-puppies and I enjoyed a plate of breaded chicken. We watched the table full of cops, wondering if we should approach them to ask if we could camp on their station’s grounds. Mike wondered if they’d let us spend the night in a cell, then I thought back to one of O. Henry’s stories about a vagrant unsuccessfully trying to get incarcerated for the winter.

The food took around 45 minutes to arrive: we wondered if they’d lost the instructions to the deep-fryer until we realized that the cops topped us on the totem pole. By the time we’d finished the food, it was dark and I was feeling the icy trough of a fever. We decided that given the circumstances, we’d better rest up in a motel.

I called the Parsons Inn and talked the lady on the other end down $10 (!) for our cheapest stay yet at exactly $35. We left the restaurant to an empty parking lot and made tracks for the Inn. My glasses had come unscrewed in the restaurant, freeing one of the lenses, so I followed Mike as best I could through the streets of Parsons.

Mike did his disappearing act and one signature later I had a key from the Indian girl working the Inn counter. The place was noticeably shoddier than our previous motel, the James K. Polk. We packed into the 8x12 box that had “103” taped on it.

I showered up and went to bed after downing two bottle-fulls of water and enough Ibuprofin to treat half the Airborne division.

  1. hunger or fatigue being the catalyst behind most of our arguments

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