Day 19: Escape from Memphis
After ingesting a batch of beer and misadventuring across Memphis, we slept like rocks. We rose at 7AM; back to business.
Mike made 4 packets of oatmeal to split between the two of us and it took less than 5 minutes to renew our memberships in the Clean Bowl Club. We dressed, packed, and loaded our bikes outside Brittany’s door. One last sweep of the apartment and we were gone, traveling the same route we had seen twice yesterday.
Before long, we hit the red, dusty streets of Memphis proper and pumped our legs through some familiar avenues. The city looked like a busted antique in the unrelenting morning sun.
After a few turns through the labyrinthine west, the De Soto bridge was in sight. How exactly we could access the bridge was not obvious; we had to stop in a nearby park to study maps before seeing a concrete staircase that led to the bridge’s sidewalk. We shortcut onto the pedestrian walkway through the park.
Crossing the Mississippi wasn’t as I had imagined it would be; it’s nothing so striking as crossing one of the bridges over the Hudson. The river is wide and silty, giving it a thick brown color and an unobvious depth. The bridge itself was grimey and bare; the walkway we biked on was thin and dirty.
After a few minutes, we arrived at the other end, officially exiting Tennessee and entering Arkansas. Easy, right?
Not so. Arkansas apparently isn’t interested in anyone entering who is unable to do so on an interstate, so the walkway dumped us into the thick, tall grass beside I-40. To boot, there was no clear way to get west.
We didn’t expect the harsh welcome; through our two previous states, there were usually auxiliary roads that ran parallel to the massive concrete veins of the interstate. GMaps seemed to think there was no such convenience here. How the hell do pedestrians and cyclists get from Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR?
After a few minutes of shrugging our shoulders and baking in the morning heat, Mike devised some hackneyed route consisting entirely of back roads that would drop us into I-40’s first exit. Since our choices were limited to either braving the back roads or thumbing on the side of the interstate, we began to wheel down through the dense greenery and onto a dirt road leading under the bridge we’d just crossed.
We pedaled hesitantly; I wondered what kind of terrain we’d find around the corner.
Under the bridge, the road had been flooded, but it wasn’t dire enough to deter us. The water was only a few inches deep, so we rolled through, disturbing the even surface of the warm, colloided water. I stuck around snapping a few pictures while Mike pedaled ahead.
As we went down the road, the foliage became more and more aggressive and we felt increasingly farther from civilization. The place felt calm, but I wouldn’t wanna stick around for the after-dark showing.
After a mile or so, we cleared the structure of the bridge and made our way into an absolute vacuum. The only things ahead for miles were dust, water, and a few telephone polls.
Riding on gravel is a little unnerving. You get almost no traction and your weight is continually shifting involuntarily because the rocks throw your wheels around, so it’s easy to wreck. But after you get into it for a while, the brutality is kind of fun. A few times, one of us would laugh when the other would almost eat shit.
Once in a while we’d point back to Memphis, only a few miles away and gape at the rapid deterioration. Mike said, “how is it that 300,000 people live right there and we’re biking around in this?” It was then I realized that I was a long way from home.
We biked on through the gravel, getting a few miles at snail’s pace. I felt like someone had shipped me back 100 years in time.
The gravel led to a slipshod bridge, so we crossed that and then took a break in the middle of the road. Believe me, no one complained. We cracked a few jokes about the absurd situation we found ourselves in, took a few shots of water, then continued on into a stretch of road shadowed by trees.
The shadows had concealed a surprise: a giant, dead tree was blocking the road. Someone throw me a colored t-shirt, ‘cause I’ve just entered an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple. We let out a hybrid groan-chuckle that’s been polished to a sheen in the past three weeks and then began hoisting our bikes over the trunk’s two-foot diameter.
After clearing that obstacle, we rode through more gravel until we got to an intersection. Our choices were left for north, right for southeast. Memphis was cool and all, but we kind of wanted to stay in Arkansas, so we turned left and pedaled down a grassy, wet path to an odd scene.
A variety of wreckage awaited us down the road. An apparently-abandoned, elevated house sat next to some rubble; an RV crashed into a tree sat decomposing; assorted and weird flotsam sat quietly in the afternoon light.
We were properly creeped out, so after ducking under a disconnected power-line, we naturally took a break right in the middle of the wreckage. This was convenient, because the continuation of the “road” led right into a freshly-minted lake.
We stood around laughing about the bizarre situation we found ourselves in. Mike said aloud something I’d been thinking: “you know, if I were home, I’d just call my Mom and say, ‘Hey Mom, I’m in the middle of the desolate wilderness. Can you come pick me up and drive me down the freeway?’ But we’re not at home. We’re in goddamn Arkansas.”
I’d faced similar scenarios countless times on a PlayStation as a twelve-year-old. Clearly, the solution here was to go into the creaky, elevated house, find the giant, brass hand-lever, push x, and have a freshly-paved road slowly rise out of the flood in front of us with a mechanical whine.
In reality, I wouldn’t be setting a foot within ten feet of that strange hovel.
So that left our options at
- Swim the lake.
- Try faring the brush to the right of the lake, hoping that would connect up with something man-made down the line.
- Turn around and redo the horrible obstacle course we'd just finished and risk getting dead on the interstate.
(1) was out from the get-go. We opted to leave the 20-pound machete at home, ruling out (2), so we went with (3) and reluctantly turned our bikes around, dodging a shock from the torn powerline a second time.
It’s ridiculous, hopeless situations like these that the trip is about.
Just after clearing the log again, we saw a pickup truck down the road. We waved our arms and shouted, hoping that the driver would see us and stop, but the show was to no avail. He kept driving down the road.
Luckily, the driver would stop periodically to clear brush from the road. Eventually, we caught up with him and asked him if there were any paved roads nearby — any way at all to get west of here. He laughed and basically said he didn’t know. He drove away, and we decided to try our hand at the interstate and hope for non-lethal injuries.
We scaled the green hill to the side of the violent highway, we wished each other well in the afterlife, and then we began biking in the shoulder.
It actually wasn’t that bad; I think we’ve found ourselves in more dangerous situations earlier in the trip. We passed a State Trooper laying a ticket on some motorist; all he did was give us this look that said, “what are these idiots doing?” We were happy that’s all he gave us, because one of the other main deterrents to taking the interstate was the fact that it’s illegal for non-motor-vehicles.
As we flew down the interstate, we caught sight of the wilderness we’d tried to traverse in vain. It tasted something like triumph, but the sweat made it a little more tangy.
We saw the sign for the first exit and got off the interstate as fast as our cranks would let us. We left the ramp, got onto Mound City Rd., and the world went flat.
We rode the level, alien sprawl ten miles to a town called Marion. I discovered my first flat of the trip on the way, but we made it to the McDonald’s before patching the tube.
After lunch, we hit 64 west and pounded out a few miles. I had someone’s electronic music shattering my headphones. Mike hit a flat, so we stopped and he fiddled with tire levers while I admired the windy void.
At this juncture, I should probably explain how we eat Snickers bars, since it’s a pretty major part of our day. The bars are extremely high calorie per unit cost so we love them; only problem is they melt like a sonuvabitch. We cut the tops off and suck out the chocolatey contents, as Brittany said, “like a Go-gurt.”
I find it slightly ironic and completely unsurprising that, so far, the only thing I’ve used my unsubtly-titled-“Extreme Ops” combat knife for is cutting the tops off of melted candy bars.
The flat fixed, we tore through the low-grade roads for a while, then stopped at the town of Parkin, which has a population of less than 2000.
We biked through the town, starring at the empty and deteriorating buildings, and looking for somewhere we could buy a hot dinner. I saw two girls walking through the street, rode up to them, and asked if there were any restaurants in town open. They half-looked at me and said that if there were, they wouldn’t be open right now, but that I should try the “FlashMart” up on 64.
Per the girls’ advice, we rode up to the FlashMarket and, hallelujah, they had hot food, seats, and power outlets. We chained our bikes to a fence in back of the ‘Mart, unloaded and settled in to the convenience-store ambiance for a few hours.
On one of the trips spent carrying gear from the bikes into the FlashMart, an SUV pumping gas was blasting some funky R&B at an incredible volume; I could feel the vibrations on my chest. Dude must’ve been playing FlashJamz, vol. 1.
I swapped my contacts in the mart’s bathroom and did a little typing while Mike read more Kerouac.
Nightfall came and we set our tent up in back of the mart, under the cover of some brush. I half-thought that sleeping behind a convenience store was a recipe for getting rolled, but we slept undisturbed in the warm night.