The long ride I'm planning along the Ohio River could get even longer. After a peaceful night inside a “tin can,” I follow State Road 56 out of Rising Sun to 156 until a detour points up a hill that rises out of sight.
“Oh hell no,” I say to myself, weaving Countri Bike between Road Closed barriers to press my luck along the river and 156. Must. Stay. On. Flat. Land. Three miles later, construction equipment cuts me off.
“Ok, Jeffrey, here we go,” I say to myself. I flick the kickstand and put on my best tough guy half smile. I continue on foot, signaling peaceful intentions. I’m not about to blitz their operation on a bicycle. They've got steamrollers and big boy construction trucks.
With my helmet and neon vest, the construction guys and I are sort of dressed alike. I hope my attire sparks an affinity and they’ll let me slip through. The first worker I question points me to a man in a green helmet who “is the brains of the operation.” Indiana Department of Transportation is printed on his vest.
“What the hell are you doing over here?” he laughs, incredulous that I’ve ridden from New York on a bike.
I recite a 10-second summary of my trip and a five-second appeal for safe passage because flat land is my only friend.
He raises his eyebrows and looks down at the fractured roadway that is calving into the river like an asphalt glacier.
“The river’s been taking this road for the last 40 years,” he says. “We have to keep repaving it, but next year they’re hiring private contractors to fix any recurring slippage.” My interpretation: he can’t wait to get done with this job so it’s someone else’s problem next year.
Looking at my equipment he has one concern: “There’s not a baby in the back of that thing, is there?”
I get the green light. Thankful, I run back, grab my bike and walk it at a Wall Street gait.
“Oh you don’t have to rush,” he says. “We’re not working that hard.”
We both laugh. On my way through I wave to the repaver people who are staring intently.
“Public relations, guys, public relations!” the supervisor jokes to his workers who break out in smiles and inside jokes.
Pleased with my success, I take off my helmet and continue riding. It isn’t just flat land that I’m after. Another advantage of the closure is that I have no traffic behind me until Patriot where the detour links back to 156.
Patriot owns a footnote in American history for being the birthplace of Dr. Elwood Mead, “engineer who made the desert bloom.” Mead served as a top authority on irrigation and reclamation in the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. Most importantly, Mead supervised Hoover Dam construction; Lake Meade east of Las Vegas is named in his honor. Without him Las Vegas would be dust and bachelor(ette) parties would totally suck.
A shake and a heartache
In Vevay (/ˈviːviː/ VEE-vee), I pull over at Shell’s Ice Cream & Grill, which bills itself as “a hot spot for a cool town.”
If there’s ample parking, I’ll put Countri Bike in the middle of a space in front of plate glass windows (see photo below, bottom right). I dangle dry my helmet, gloves, arm sleeves on the bike. Taking off the gear gives everyone inside plenty of time to notice the strange man with the strange bike with the outta towner license plate.
“You did not ride that all the way from New York,” the cashier tells me.
“Oh yes I did,” I smile. “It’s taken me more than a month.”
“I would take me three years!” she responds. I'm thinking it would take her at least four.
I bring my coffee shake to a seat by the window so I can keep an eye on Countri Bike. Having overheard the exchange, Dawn the owner comes over to chat. Her father Dave once owned this restaurant when it was a Dairy Queen.
Dave owned two others in the area before selling them. Years ago Dawn acquired the shop from the guys who had bought it from her father, and she turned it into a retro-style eatery. I learn that her father passed away two weeks ago, having sold his last Dairy Queen two weeks before losing his battle with pancreatic cancer.
“He was never sick a day in his life,” Dawn says, her eyes getting glassy. “The only sign was that his back felt pinched. Doctors thought it was nerve damage. Six months ago we took him down to Louisville and found out. I was devastated.”
Dawn is one of four daughters—a clan known as the Gurley Girls after her last name. I offer my condolences, and Dawn asks me more about my trip. She thinks that everyone “should just go for it” because life is too short to wait. She is supportive of my ride, refills my water bottle with ice and wishes me the safest of journeys.
The Ohio River hangs off Indiana like a necklace. The brightest bead of that necklace is Madison.
I roll into town a little after 6:00. I’m blessed to meet my wonderful hosts Bob and Charlotte. Their home has a perfect view of the Madison-Milford Bridge linking Indiana with Kentucky. I have the entire second floor to myself, and the shower is the warmest and best I’ve had to date. I can actually sit down and bathe, which is exactly what I want after almost 50 miles on a Citi Bike.
I walk down Madison’s Main Street in search of dinner and wind up at Hong Kong Kitchen. It looks like your typical Chinese dive, but my hosts recommend it as being popular with bicyclists. And you know what? I haven’t had Chinese since Brooklyn and am suffering from acute General Tso’s chicken withdrawal. (Writing about this now in the woods of Missouri gives me the shakes. I need another fix!)
Hong Kong Kitchen to the rescue. Turns out this place is better than 95% of the Chinese food I’ve had, and easily beats my Downtown Brooklyn standbys. The hot and sour soup tastes particularly fresh, which I haven’t said about any hot and sour soup ever.
After dinner I set off to admire the architecture along Main Street in the heart of historic Madison. This was built to be Indiana’s capital but never served as such. Settled in 1805 or 1809 (depends on what you read), Madison is named in honor of James Madison who was Secretary of State at the time before taking the Presidency in 1809.
Madison’s riverfront geography was an early advantage to capitalize on steamboat and river trade, sparking a building renaissance and class of wealthy merchants. When railroads surpassed waterways as the highways of the 19th century, the hills around Madison were too steep to lay tracks. Investment fizzled and the town “slipped into a century of slumber. What appeared to be Madison’s misfortune was to become Madison’s legacy,” notes a tourism brochure.
Without political clout or economic stimulation, modernization never changed the streetscapes. As a result, it’s one of the Midwest’s prettiest and best preserved historic small towns, and I'm so happy to have passed through.