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Day 22: Godspeed, Appalachia

On our longest day so far, we inadvertently honored Daniel Boone by biking from Booneville to Danville.

We also broke free of Appalachia: about fifty miles into our morning we joined a long, sloping strip of highway cut deep into the mountains, with blasted-out, terraced cliffsides looming along both shoulders. It wasn't just a long descent — you could feel something changing in the overall landscape. And it wasn't just the landscape that was changing.

Complete with rumble strips, and Sara on the far left.

Appalachia's been a strange challenge. Yes, the mountains were tough, but there will be more mountains. Still, I remember riding this long stretch out of the foothills and shuddering at the idea of turning around, of heading back the way we'd come — whatever travails the coming months hold (and certainly they are many), I believe Appalachia will continue to have a unique status in my mind; there is a feeling that we've just come through a modern American wasteland. A forgotten place. One of the many hidden bruises on the national psyche.

The people we actually met and spoke with were largely kind, helpful, interested. A woman engaged us outside a dairy bar in Booneville and told us about her antique shop she was opening finally. The guy working the checkout in Buckhorn told us about the bicyclists he'd seen over the years, and about his own upcoming trip (by car) to Mount Rushmore. This dude with Willie Nelson hair in Hazard introduced himself as "Goatman" and immediately got mystical about super volcanos, then went on to tell us how he'd been dead on the internet for three years, so, technically, he was a zombie… Actually, let's forget about Goatman.

But the area is extremely economically depressed (Appalachian KY has nearly twice the national poverty level). You get the sense that, if coal is what keeps these communities afloat, it does so like one of those viruses that doesn't kill the host only so that it can continue to feed. Pike County (the first KY county we passed through) felt particularly hard hit — it wasn't just that the houses were old and small, it was that there was no effort to maintain them. It looked like people had given up. And then children are being raised in these depressed environments — I kept thinking about the schools, about what an important role a teacher might play in the young lives in these parts. I kept thinking about art and literature as one of the few available gateways to the world outside, to a greater context, to an expanded life of the mind.

Who's parked here? Why?

Day 22, we wake in Booneville after a hard night's sleep (the sleeping pads only put up so much of a fight against concrete). We know we have a big day of biking ahead, so we're up hours before dawn. The outdoor pavilion we're under is surrounded by fog. Our headlamps set off the mist droplets, like uniform static across your real-life vision.

From Booneville to Berea, KY, there's essentially three sets of climbs, each growing slightly in intensity until you hit Big Hill, the "town" at the top of the last incline. But already you can feel the landscape softening — you've left behind the area that's like a upturned egg carton, dominated by the mounds, leaving room for people only down in the crevices. Now you can see a little ways. Now sometimes there's a field of crops or a small business, a sign that someone still has hope, still believes their efforts might come to some return.

Back in a place where creativity has a foothold.

Then we rolled down out of the mountains and up another three miles or so to Berea. If you're coming from the west, Berea is "the gateway to the Appalachians," but for us it was the exit. It was coming back into a recognizable place, with restaurants that are actually and only restaurants, and stores that don't have discount, dollar, save, or deal in the name. The city's motto is "Where Art's Alive," and there are stores supporting local artisans, and people wearing masks. There are yard signs again, for both parties, and you realize that for a long while there'd been none — it's like both sides have just given up on the area we'd just left. Maybe their votes are a foregone conclusion; maybe they just don't vote.

We stop in the Welcome Center in Berea, where they give out t-shirts every year to the TransAm riders who pass through. We were the apparently the first ones to take them up on the shirts this year. Then we grabbed some lunch and—we have another 35 miles left today—we set off again.

There's a new kind of road west of Berea. We call it the "bike lane" road — there's scarcely any actual bike lanes in the state, but some of these rural country roads, with one lane, no painted line, and hardly any cars to speak of… They're nearly bike lanes. We haven't had such pleasant, easy riding since the other side of Richmond, VA. We pull through Lancaster, KY, another nice-seeming town, and wonder why we took our rest day in Hazard.

But we were pushing it today, and for the last 6 or so miles, my knee starts acting up again. I have to stop to stretch it out and rest every mile, then every half-mile. And we're heading for Danville because there's a bike shop here, and we haven't had the bikes looked at since back in C-ville. Sara's lowest gear is skipping on her sometimes. Both our brakes are running a little loose. Et cet. But now I have to nurse my knee again and we're getting dangerously close to the shop closing before we get there. With about a mile left, we make the decision for Sara to head off solo, to let them start on her bike and I'll get there when/as I can.

Which turns out to be the good call. I pull into Danville Bike and Footwear with time to spare and Sara's bike already unloaded for the checkup. The guys at the shop are great — father and son, both of whom have done the TransAm, and who've made books about their journeys. We get our stallions tuned up for a super-reasonable price. My used front wheel is pronounced terminal, but will apparently still hold out for a long time (when the hub starts making sounds like popcorn popping, it's time to find a new wheel — ha). And I get a mirror for my bars, since I'm tired of looking over my shoulder constantly.

We grabbed a pair of beers in the back corner of the nearby Gypsy Run Brewery (recommend), and then headed to the (kit-built, very cool-looking) house of this couple we met, Andrew and Laura, who let us camp in their backyard. We set up the tent, made ourselves tuna sandwiches, and were out soon after the sun fell.

Day 22 stats: Booneville to Danville, 87.6 miles (most so far), 5125' elevation gain (2nd most so far), an Appalachian exit.

Also, this:

All for now.

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