It’s Halloween and I’m about to do something spooky: bike 59 miles on a Citi Bike from Elk City, Oklahoma to Shamrock, Texas. I’ll need the luck of the Irish to make it by nightfall.
The day begins at my mainstay cheapie Motel 6 where I spent an extra night because yesterday was a total washout.
I’m preparing my rig in the lobby when Shane walks in. He sees my bike and introduces himself as doing something in the oil industry. He’s also a triathlete and wants to show off his bike on the back of his Suburban in the parking lot.
We return inside so I can settle the bill.
“Your bike’s pretty nice,” I tell Shane. “Looks more expensive than the truck,” I joke.
“Just about $10,000,” he says.
The desk clerk gasps.
“$10,000 for a bi-cycle,” she moans. “Well, I’ll be!”
With that kind of money she’d be free from sitting here watching the hands of time tick round in circles.
Shane and I share war stories from the road, specifically Oklahoma roads. Shane, a native Okie, was hit in the head with a beer bottle while riding in Oklahoma City. I was hit in the face with a fist. We have so much in common we're almost brothers. Shane’s assailant was walking on a bike path and nailed him on the helmet. He spun around to engage.
“If you get hit, you gotta hit back. So I maced the hell out of him!” he laughs. “I rode away, not sure if he called the police.”
“So, you carry mace when you ride?” I ask.
“I carry mace and pepper mace. One for the dogs and one for humans who get on my bad side.”
That was on a bike path with no cars. On the road he’s been pelted with golf balls. None of this is making me feel any better after my recent assault. How will I protect myself next time? The downside to mace is that if the wind blows the wrong way or, in the heat of the moment you spray the wrong way, you nail yourself.
As for dogs, I’ve been told that air horns work best because they bewilder the beasts. Stopping dead in their tracks, dogs suddenly wonder why they’re so far from their yard and go home.
Yet sometimes handheld accessories can’t fend off danger. They cause it. Earlier in the summer — and just south of Elk City — a cyclist was killed by a distracted driver.
Shane brings it up, but I already know the story. It was in the NY Post a week before I left. I’m not a regular reader but was on their website for some reason. The article grabbed me. I read it twice just to make sure. He was young, working as a teacher in NYC and going cross-country as part of a Bike & Build charity ride. He got killed in a state I planned on visiting.
Little did I know then that I would ride near where Patrick’s life ended unnecessarily. It could have been Patrick getting punched in the face by a lunatic in Sapulpa and me getting run over by a woman driving a Chevy in Elk City.
The driver, who was looking at her phone and “didn’t see” the cyclist resting on the side of the road, was eventually charged with first degree manslaughter, a felony.
Danger can emerge suddenly and senselessly, when you’re riding or when you’re resting, as I was when attacked. Patrick wasn’t alone. I was. Could you imagine biking across America solo as a woman?
I’m closing in on the Texas border, about to enter Erick, Oklahoma.
On the horizon something small and black is on the road. At first I think it’s a dog because it’s moving erratically, but it seems larger than an animal. It looks like a motorcycle, but it’s going too slowly. The object is getting bigger, which means I’m moving faster.
Someone walking… no, someone riding a bicycle. Someone like me! An exciting goal is suddenly within reach. I'm determined to catch whoever this is. It’s lonely out here and I could use a new friend.
I’m closing in when I notice something else. The bicycle comes with long back hair. It’s a woman!
She’s moving slowly and weaving side-to-side as if fatigued. I pull alongside and surprise her with a thundering hello. She turns and I’m shocked again. She’s Asian. When she greets me I realize she’s not Asian American, she’s Asian Asian.
I get really excited. I have many questions and one hope: that’s she’s Japanese. I taught English in Tokyo for two years and would love to throw around a few phrases and reminisce about the complex culture and fresh cuisine to enliven the roadside nothingness that makes my mind go numb like the motel clerk.
I lived in Asia long enough to recognize differences between Japanese, Korean and Chinese, but I can’t tell by her looks alone. But her name is Jane and the Japanese never adopt Western names.
Jane is Korean. I’m so disappointed. I’ve never been to Korea, and although I love the food, I don’t know my way around a menu. I only eat Korean with my Korean American friends who do all the ordering… in Korean. Jane and I have nothing in common except for being on bicycles in rural Oklahoma, which I guess is a lot in common at this desperate point in time.
Her English isn’t good. How is she communicating with people with accents I have trouble understanding? My protective Tokyo teacher instincts kick in, and I immediately take responsibility for her well-being whether she likes it or not.
We’re approaching the intersection of Route 66 and Sheb Wooley Avenue, which sounds like a bigger deal that it is. Our two bicycles are the only traffic in any direction. This is the last chance for food or drink until dinner in Shamrock. Does she know that?
I suggest we pull over to find lunch. The town cafe is closed as is the Roger Miller Museum that commemorates the musician who grew up here.
That leaves Puckett’s Food Store as the only option. We park our bikes and enter the grocery store like aliens, and we're not even trying to dress up for Halloween. Her almond-shaped eyes and my helmet hair and bright neon vest draw stares from the cashiers who ring up my chocolate milk, pepper jack cheese and pretzels. Jane buys a blue sports drink, America’s best-selling cookie, the Oreo, and the world’s most popular snack food, Pringles.
Jane is traveling alone, I know. Jane is Korean, I know. Jane lives in Korea, I didn’t know that. Whoa.
“What are you doing in the U.S.?” I ask.
“I'm riding a bike across the states,” she says.
“I can see that. Umm this is pretty big country, why on Earth did you choose here? Korea or even Japan would be much easier. God knows they have more careful drivers.”
“I wanted a challenge after I finished school,” she says. “So I wanted to bike across the states.”
“Your parents must be worried sick,” I say. Mine are and at least I’m white, male and speak the language. She nods but is determined to finish her trip. She started in New York and is ending in LA, following Route 66 just like me.
“So you’re going back to Korea and then you’ll get a job?”
“No, I’m going to start university.”
“No, you just finished school,” I say correcting her.
“I finished high school. I’m taking one year away before university.”
HIGH SCHOOL. She just finished HIGH school and is biking across America. Alone. A girl. Asian. Without much English. On the border of Texas and Oklahoma. How?
“Are you staying in motels and with Warm Showers hosts?” I ask, referring to the cycling hospitality network that I rely on.
“Sometimes I stay with host, but I camp outside people’s houses.”
“I knock on the door.”
“The nicest one,” she says.
I spill chocolate milk onto the ground. I’m totally blown away. She knocks on doors and stays with strangers, camping in yards or getting invited inside. This girl is far braver than I’ll ever be.
Yesterday it rained all day. I sheltered in place at Motel 6 and visited Elk City’s Route 66 Museum. I ate lunch at the local Braum’s, my favorite dairy delight that also is the only place within 800 miles that knows what a salad is and how to make one that doesn’t suck.
What did Jane do? She rode all day in the f*cking rain. She can’t stop, won’t stop. She needs to make it to LA before her visa expires. I’m worried about the gradual onset of winter and she’s got a hard deadline to be done or else.
We finish our snacks and saddle up. We’re both heading to Shamrock and keep riding together. It’s going to be a dull ride and I’m grateful for some company.
My last town in Oklahoma is Texola, which is a lil’ bit Texas and a lil’ bit Olahoma. Actually it’s a whole lotta nothing, but would be a great ready-made set for a zombie apocalypse filming. The town already looks dead. Weeds burst through pavement cracks in the middle of the road.
Just like in a scary movie, waist-high grass screens dilapidated houses. A pack of dogs materializes. I don’t know how many, but too many to count while moving. The canine welcoming committee doesn’t sound very hospitable. Jane is screaming and pedaling, about to be ripped from her ride and eaten alive.
She’s scared of dogs and the ones patrolling Texola are an evil subspecies out for blood. They’re probably starving and have never tasted Korean or New Yorker before.
I’m navigating full steam ahead trying to outpace them. Jane is behind me. Then I realize we missed the turn out of town because our avenue of escape looked like it went nowhere. We have to turn around and go through the dogs. I start screaming, too.
I don’t remember how we did it, but neither of us get bitten.
Jane is silently cursing at me in Korean, I know it, but then I show her something that makes her smile. It’s a giant Welcome to Texas sign. It optimistically asks motorists to “Drive friendly, the Texas way.” Let’s hope they’re friendlier on the roads here than in Oklahoma.