Into Joplin

At one of the top Super 8s in the country, breakfast goes beyond off-brand yogurt and mystery waffle mix. I’m treated to biscuits and gravy and a canned fruit medley in addition to the usual yogurt and waffle suspects.

I don’t get on the road until almost noon. I’m not worried because today is going to be easier than the previous two days since the Katy Trail. No gravel roads and full access to emergency services like bags of Skittles in case of sugar deprivation.

I face more of the same flat farming landscape along roads with letters instead of names. These are country roads or state highways, and unlike brassiere size, I can’t tell the difference between single letter routes, such as A, versus double letters like DD. Size doesn’t matter; the only thing I care about is pavement.

Zip code 64857
Purcell, MO is a little like Roscoe. The town consists of some houses and a post office, which is just what I’m looking for. I need to mail my exercise reimbursement form, which I was able to print at Super 8 last night, to my insurance company Oscar, which gives me a $200 check for going to the gym 50 times. I achieved this just prior to departing NYC.

(Oscar, however, declined to credit bike ride days like gym days even though some of those "gym days" I simply went to the locker room to store a bag for a few hours when I was a NYC nomad. Months later I am pedaling across the middle of the United States and can't get credit for working out.)

Purcell’s post office is the only non-residential building on Main Street. A chirping bell alerts workers that I’ve intruded on federal property.

“Can I help you?” says a woman in a sparkly pink sweatshirt. It doesn’t look like official attire, but whatever, we’re in Purcell. I half expected to see a USPS-branded donkey tied up outside.

“Oh, I’m just here to drop off a letter,” I say, slapping the envelope against my hand. While I could have left it in Super 8’s outgoing mail, I wanted an excuse to use postal facilities along the way. I’m riding through rural Missouri and need something to put on my to-do list.

“It’s so… cute in here,” I remark. By cute I mean cozy. There’s barely enough room for me to turn around and head back out the door.

“Cute, huh. Well, this ain’t much,” she says laughing.

“Yeah well I’m from New York, so this is interesting to me.”

NEW YORK? What in the world are you doing all the way out here?” she squawks with disbelief like I’ve crash-landed a spaceship outside and am trying to take her pink sparkly sweatshirt back to my people. And she hasn’t even seen my bike, which probably weighs about as much as a two-seater UFO.

“What I am doing? I’m ummm getting away from New York,” I say without thinking. My instinctive yet ineloquent response is true.

Pedaling out of Purcell, spinning spokes rile up every dog in the neighborhood. Some bark madly behind chain link fences while others sound off from indoors. Even if they can’t see me, dogs erupt in frenzied barking at the low mechanical vibrations when I roll nearby. Thankfully no canine gets loose to charge at me teeth first.

The Mother Road
Today I get my first glimpse of Route 66 and I can’t believe my eyes. It’s a busy four-lane avenue with no shoulder for a bicycle. Who called this a bike route? (Adventure Cycling, apparently.) I walk on the sidewalk and turn onto back roads to reach the former tracks of the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway for a four-mile ride on the vehicle-free Frisco Greenway.

The Frisco funnels me from Webb City into Joplin, where I’ve been trying to get for the past three days since the end of the Katy Trail in Clinton. I could have covered the same distance in a car along the interstate in two hours, but isn’t riding through confusing signage and getting severely dehydrated more exciting?

You may have heard of Joplin before, but not for any happy reason. In 2011 Joplin suffered the single costliest tornado in U.S. history and the most fatal tornado since 1947. The destruction caused by this tornado was astounding. Look it up.

Severe weather aside, I was also warned about Joplin by people I met in St. Louis, calling it a place “where all the religious crazies live.” This phrase has stuck with me since then and is already tainting my outlook of Joplin. Will zealots armed with crosses and prayers pop out of the woods and chase me down the greenway until I convert?

False finish
I’m standing on a corner downtown near city hall looking for my hotel, which Google Maps shows is right in front of me. That’s when I discover my error. I keyed in directions to Joplin, MO instead of the actual hotel. The sun is setting and I’m not happy moving the finish line four miles across this sprawling city, but the silver lining is a photo-op with a cool Route 66 mural that I would have otherwise missed. The discovery is important because from here on out I’ll be following it to California. My Route 66 experience begins here. Will I make it to the end in Santa Monica?

Get me out of here
Unable to connect with a local host, I check into a shabby chain hotel and cram the bike into a rickety elevator to the second floor. Across the hall from my room deep moaning puts a Puritan frown on my face. It’s not even dinner time. I push Countri Bike into my dark room and open the curtains only to see a gas station called Kum & Go. Egregious misspelling aside, who came up with such a sexually charged brand name in the Bible Belt?

The jumble of plastic motel and gas station signs make me wish I were camping in the middle of nowhere, or even in the parking lot of the Best Western next door. Sleeping in the rough outside feels cleaner than sleeping in the rough inside.

A slamming door interrupts my thoughts. Dirty hotel sex is over and I run across the room to press my eyeball against the peep hole. You know curiosity would get the best of you, too.

As for dinner, I’m hopelessly locked in franchise hell along South Range Line Road. Anything local would be downtown, and I’m not biking eight miles roundtrip in the dark on these busy streets.

From the start of this journey I pledged not to eat fast food or patronize mega chains like Starbucks and Walmart. (Update: I have kept to my consumer high ground with one exception of buying a warmer sleeping bag at Walmart in Amarillo, Texas. Also, occasionally I’ve had to eat at Dairy Queen or Subway or else face starvation.)

After painful deliberation, I settle for Outback Steakhouse across the street. I’m sick of meat and order a salad, which is essentially a bag of pre-washed lettuce dumped on a plate with some dressing. The server temporarily loses my credit card, which would have been disastrous. I go to bed eager to start a new day in a new state. Kansas and Oklahoma are next.