After a lousy sleep next to Route 66 in a lightning rain storm that dials down the temperature, it is morning to move on. My destination is the Blue Whale, a Route 66 roadside landmark in Catoosa, Oklahoma. I love the way my mouth moves when I say “Catoosa.” Now you try it. Just repeating Catoosa as I pedal makes me go faster. The route is straightforward: 66 all the way and hope for the best. As it turns out, I should have hoped harder.
Initially the shoulder is good to me. Then south of Chelsea, home of the motel I never made it to last night, the shoulder disappears without reason and I'm forced into the right traffic lane. I’ve never biked with highway traffic without the security of a shoulder. I mean, that’s nuts, right? Luckily this stretch of 66 is pretty quiet. Infrequent vehicles move over quickly upon spotting me ahead, so there are no close calls.
This gentle highway experience contrasts with yesterday’s death-defying dive down Twentynine Palms Highway through Morongo Valley, California where I flew downhill into a canyon against whipping headwinds and around pitched curves while biking in the road with don’t-care-cars doing 70 mph. There was no shoulder for at least three miles, making this the most terrifying patch of road I’ve encountered in all of America. And folks, I'm not exaggerating. This California deathtrap is a spillway for blood. Read the excellent investigative report here; it's gripping even if you don't live near here. In happier news, I am in California. Now back to Oklahoma....
In Foyil, I pull over to roll last night’s missed dinner into today’s breakfast and lunch. Three meals for the price of one! Annie’s Diner is a home kitchen with country cooking and cheeky signs. A fried catfish lunch special with hush puppies and coleslaw hits the spot. And, in bigger news, I have my third best chocolate milkshake of the trip. Way to go, Annie! After parking lot chatter with a local man incredulous of my journey, I continue down Route 66 praying for a shoulder.
It doesn’t return. I’m still on the highway. In the highway. I’m doing well for me, almost 15 mph, as traffic passes at 65. I’m feeling vulnerable yet invincible. I’m moving fast yet moving slow. I’m on my game yet out of my comfort zone. I am biking across America.
A whale of a problem
I hit Claremore, 12 miles north of my target the Blue Whale in Catoosa. I don’t really care about a landlocked fake whale that looks like a miniature golf hole on steroids. I care about Robyn. She’s a Tulsa cyclist and Warmshower’s host who offered to pick me up in her pickup and drive me into town because Route 66 into Tulsa is no one’s idea of a good ride (neither is Twentynine Palms Highway!). She says cyclists arrive completely rattled from the congested conditions without sanctuary of a shoulder. Since I’ve been biking 12 days straight since St. Louis, I take her up on the offer, not to mention the whole safety thing.
When I reach Claremore, I stop for a breather on a grassy area on the roadside. The recently cut grass makes for a comfy resting place despite the constant vehicle flow. Two cop cars roll past with officers giving my bike the eye. I stretch out on the grass wearing my American flag bandana, looking at the sky, pleased with my progress. I have only 12 miles to bike before I enjoy the luxury of motorized transportation. (Note: car rides do not count towards my bike mileage stats.)
I leave Robyn a voicemail with an ETA of 1.5 hours. I reapply sunscreen, fasten my bag back in the basket, and squeeze each tire out of habit. The front tire is firm and plump and the back tire collapses in my fingers.
My senses are paralyzed. The tire feels flat. The tire looks flat. But the tire cannot be flat. I’ve done the tire squeeze countless times, multiple times per day. The tires have only been full.
“Nope, no problems whatsoever,” I respond with a smile whenever people ask me how the bike’s been holding up. The feat seemed increasingly impressive: 200 miles… 500 miles… Pittsburgh… 1 month… Cincinnati… 1000 miles… into Illinois… St. Louis… 2 months… the Katy Trail… 1500 miles! But here on Route 66, where some get their kicks, I get my first flat at mile 1,760.3 thanks to a construction staple in Claremore, Oklahoma.
What happens next turns out to be one of my favorite random road experiences.
To be continued…