Thirsty Thursday

Continued from yesterday.

Today is different from all other days. First, I play no music. I want to tune into the landscape and the bike. Second, I face a headwind all day. I’m going south and the wind is whipping north. Third, and most damaging, I encounter no services between starting in Clinton and arriving in El Dorado Springs. That’s almost 50 miles without so much as a vending machine. That’s devastating if you only packed one bottle of water.

I'm heading for deep trouble by not bringing enough drinking water

I'm heading for deep trouble by not bringing enough drinking water

Roscoe to the rescue?
I’m hoping there’s something in Roscoe. I see at least a post office and Main Street on Google Maps. As I bike 13 miles down Route E I begin to get thirsty and think about what else might be in town, maybe a diner or convenience store.

By the time I reach Roscoe I am ready to drink bath water. To my horror, its population barely breaks three digits. The quaint yellow post office is smaller than my studio apartment in Brooklyn. I turn onto Route 82 and stop outside a masonic lodge to eat another yogurt and shake the last drops out of my water bottle. Cars are parked around the building and I’m hoping someone comes out and asks if I want some water. Because I do.

Who will help me?
I move on and just down the road a dusty green pickup truck is waiting to pull out of a driveway. There’s no traffic coming, so I’m wondering what it’s waiting for. Maybe it’s waiting for me and has water to share! Yes, that must be it. I slow to a crawl to invite conversation.

“All the way from New-York,” the driver says with a drawl. He’s joined by another man and a girl in the front seat. Long planks of wood stick off the truck bed.

“Hey, do you know where the nearest store is?” I ask hopefully. I’m dying out here.

“Well now, you got Susi Q’s back the way you came. They got sandwiches there. Turn right at the little store, about three miles back.”

I saw that little store and it was closed. There’s no way I’m backtracking to see if Susi Q is buttering buns on a Sunday.

“Otherwise you gotta take this route, 82, all the way to El Do-ray-dah, and that’s another 12, 15 miles,” he says.

I shake my head, puff my lips and try any subtle gestures to evoke sympathy. I bet my bike and I can fit in the bed of his truck. I’m done for the day and want a ride to town. The offer doesn’t come. The truck turns towards El Dorado and motors out of sight.

I spend the next few miles wondering if El Do-ray-dah is how they pronounce El Dorado here, sounding out both versions 100 times until coming to the conclusion that I just don’t care. I want liquids.

Empty Aquafina bottles and crushed soda cans taunt me from the roadside. I wish I could magically resurrect them to their filled capacity. I pass time dreaming of expensive Manhattan cocktails and vacations on islands surrounded by turquoise water. Liquids. I would pay $100 for a Slurpee right about now. I’m not even kidding.

My next hope is a white Jeep Cherokee pulling out of a gated driveway. The woman gets out to close the red metal door and looks closely at what I’m riding.

I raise my hand as both a hello and signal for help. I sag my shoulders and exaggerate side-to-side movement to show I’m out of energy. The woman has the “nice mom” type of look. Maybe she has a sympathetic ear, but I can’t bring myself to impose.

The Jeep overtakes me but is going very slowly as if she’s watching me in the rear view mirror and thinking to stop and see if I’m okay. Because I’m not. She doesn’t and I’m crushed.

I begin climbing uphill. Up ahead three children bike across the road while their mother stands watch on the shoulder.

Michelle sees me coming and the New York license plate breaks the ice.

“Are you really from New York?”

“Yes. Hi. Umm, where is the nearest store?”

“Oh, there’s not anything here for miles,” she says chuckling at the absurdity of the question.

I’m not amused. In fact, I’m on the verge of tears. I tell her about my journey and she calls to her husband to get a load of this and bring over a can of Coke. This man is thirsty.

“Dah ya want a beer instead?” he hollers from across the fire. They’re burning trash in their yard. I pass no judgement. I’m focused on the ejaculatory feeling of liquids running down my dry gullet. Coke’s overpowering sugar coats my teeth and I use my tongue as a brush to dissolve it.

Michelle’s kids bike back from a friend’s house and I take off, tucking the empty can into my trailer to prevent it from getting tossed into the fire.

Home stretch and Jack's home
Fueled by sugar, I’m able to power another six miles into Eldo, but am flagging by the time I hit “historic” downtown, which consists of empty storefronts, one Mexican restaurant and an Opera House from 1901. A strip of fast food joints and one local motel are father away.

I’m walking up my last hill and catch the attention of Jack, who is sitting on his porch in his black Vietnam Veteran’s cap while smoking a cigar. He invites me up for a cold bottle of water, which I quickly drain and am handed a second.

We start talking and I quickly get lost in his comings and goings from California, the Boston area and Midwest.

“I majored in booze and women, and Vietnam thought that sounded good, so I was drafted and shipped out there,” he tells me.

Jack has been all over the country for work, most recently as a headhunter where he “made a fortune.” He moved back here 20 years ago. Two years ago his wife died of cancer, but his younger friend Robin keeps him company. After a cigarette she goes back inside to watch the football game. Jack and I continue talking.

He actually knows what bike share is because his son, who traded up to Miami from Boston, rides a Miami Citi Bike to work as the bar manager of the upscale Delano in South Beach where he, too, “makes a fortune.”

Gosh, how do I get in on this fortune-making stuff? Everyone’s getting rich and I’m slowly getting poor riding a shared bike. Yet these are the moments I cherish. Being invited onto someone’s porch and conversing over a cold beverage, preferably a dark craft beer, but with the day I’ve had plain water is just fine.

Jack tells me there is one motel in town, and while not luxurious, it should do good for a night. If I’m not satisfied, I’m welcome to come back and he’ll put me up. I thank him for the offer and the water.

Liquid heaven
I’m still not slaked. At the intersection ahead lies a Casey’s General Store, the Midwest equivalent of 7-Eleven. I step inside and find God. There’s a frozen soda machine with Dr. Pepper, my favorite soda the three times a year I drink soda. I pull on the lever and frozen glory flows out. My eyes are already drinking and my mouth follows. I pour more into the cup. I don’t care if they say anything. I’m thirsty.

Lining the back wall are crystal clear coolers chilling a dazzling array of beverages. Perfectly aligned labels face forward, ripe for the picking. Although this is an embarrassment of riches, I can’t find coconut water, which is what I want to rehydrate. I bypass two dozen foul-sounding brands of energy drinks and settle for a slightly sugary Honest Tea.

Motel encounter
C&J Motel is El Dorado’s only sleeping option. I am tempted to stop by the police station to ask about camping in the city park, but I want a shower, bed and TV to watch playoff baseball.

He won’t do $50, but I bargain the Indian owner down to $51 for a room. This is my third motel owned by an Indian family (last night in Clinton and the night before St. Louis in Okwaville, IL being the others… and a trend that will continue throughout my travels). You don’t see many brown faces around here.

Susan confirms my surprise. The owner of the local carwash is using the motel’s public laundry and explains this area is about as diverse as vanilla icing. We chat about my planned route into Lamar tomorrow and I explain the day I’ve had.

“Well at least you didn’t come through Schell City,” she says.

“Why, what did I miss there?”

Susan smiles and softly repeats three letters that hit me like a punch in the gut.

“It’s a good thing you’re not…” her voice trails off and the eyebrows raise as she turns her attention back to the dryer.

Shock cracks across my face. I’m in KKK country. It always seemed so far away from where I grew up in the Northeast, but now I’m riding around the edge of extremism in western Missouri.

“There was an Indian owner of the mini mart down the street. Ran him right out of town,” she says.

“What about this motel guy? He’s Indian,” I ask, suddenly worried for his future… and mine if the clan comes burning down the motel in the middle of the night.

Susan shrugs her shoulders.

“He’s new. Maybe not yet,” she says. “I don’t mean to scare you. You’re not going towards Schell City anyway.”

Maybe not, but it’s too close for comfort. And with that she takes her clothes out of the dyer, packs up, and wishes me luck.

I’m scared and hungry, but more hungry. The Mexican restaurant seems too far, so I walk to Casey's for a sandwich and another frozen Dr. Pepper and fall asleep watching the Blue Jays beat the Rangers.