Christmas in September

It’s the second day of fall on the calendar, but I’m sledding ahead to Christmas. After a day in Corydon to catch up on writing, I embark on my longest ride to date: 55 miles to Santa Claus, who I guess summers in Indiana.

It’s the first day that feels like fall. Yellow and red leaves make me smile as much as they do cringe. A little color enlivens the landscape, yet the onset of autumn is a reminder that I may not finish this year if I don’t pace winter.

I face a few hills early in the ride and feel great. I’ve just cleaned and oiled the chain and Countri Bike is gliding smoother than ever before. I’ve also raised the seat an inch to give legs more leverage. Yesterday’s rest definitely helped. I'm fresh and recharged and the bike is also ready for a long ride.

Indiana Route 62 West will take me 90% of the way to Santa Claus. The road parallels I-64 so closely that in some places I see big rigs from FedEx, Wal-Mart and CVS. As a result, I enjoy this road’s scenic curves and dips without any competition.

The pavement is smooth, the roadside is clean and the scenery is pretty. There’s no shoulder but little traffic. The ride takes me through state forests where trees frame the open road. Even the hills aren’t causing headaches, and I’m rewarded with mile-long downhill bursts where I let loose roller coaster screams. This is my favorite day of biking on roads.

 A typical stretch of Indiana 62. This hill proves easy to climb.

A typical stretch of Indiana 62. This hill proves easy to climb.

Milestone 1,000
Around Leavenworth I hit mile 1,000. I smile but sweat harder. On the map Leavenworth is on the Ohio River, but in reality it sits on a bluff after the town relocated following the 1937 flood. I celebrate the milestone with a cookies and cream shake from the general store.

 1,000 miles: Leavenworth, Indiana above the Ohio River

1,000 miles: Leavenworth, Indiana above the Ohio River

In Sulphur, a one stop sign town, I pull into a general store and gas station. The rusted pumps look like they’re from the 70s. A handwritten note says the store is closed until next week. I drop $1.75 into the soda machine and a 20-ounce Dr. Pepper drops out. When did they start making bottles 20 ounces? I hardly ever drink soda but thirst for one now. From a wooden picnic table I admire authentic retro advertising for ice, beer and cigarettes.

A white woman in a shiny black Lexus SUV pulls up to the pump. She gets out and asks me, a cyclist, if the pumps are working.

“Oh boy, I’m in trouble,” she sighs. “I need gas.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not from around here,” I say. “But the interstate is close, so maybe if you got on there you'll find something.”

“Me neither. I’m from Cincinnati. I just came off the interstate and followed a sign that said ‘gas.’ I guess this is it. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Cincinnati is a great city! I biked from there so I don’t have to worry about gas,” I say. “I just gotta worry about hills.”

We wish each other safe travels and she motors off.

Party of four
I have another Lexus encounter at another gas station, this time in small St. Croix. This gas station is fully operational and has a well-stocked mini-mart. I grab a blue Powerade and red bag of Skittles to give me sugary support for my longest ride. I sit on the curb to refuel when a powder blue Lexus curiously pulls up to me.

We spend about 15 minutes chatting before they head back to Evansville, where I’m heading the day after Santa Claus. I ask them for recommendations on breweries, and they can’t help. A pastor and deacon are in the front seats and their wives are in back.

“Oops, OK, well... see you in two days!” I joke as they pull away.

I leave 62 West and turn onto 162. There’s a huge shoulder to bike on. This ride is getting better and better.

 Ho, ho, ho!

Ho, ho, ho!

 The post office does a brisk business

The post office does a brisk business

I reach Santa Claus at 5:59 PM and snap a picture of the bike with the green highway sign. (By now you should know that I love road signs.) Then I notice my phone is messed up. Not the cracks caused by the grasshopper in Barnesville, Ohio, but the time is wrong; it’s an hour earlier.

Central Time starts in Illinois, but turns out my smartphone really is smart. A handful of Indiana counties side with Central Time whereas the rest of the state runs on Eastern.

Lumber Jack
Just as I’m finishing my photo, a shirtless guy with a ripped physique runs past me down the road. We exchange “what’s ups” and I soon catch up to him.

Turns out he’s a cyclist, too. I tell him about my great experiences biking in southern Indiana and ask for food recs in Santa Claus.

“Uhh… there’s not much here,” he says. “We got a Subway and a pizza place and that’s about it.”

He asks where I’m staying and I tell him I don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve rolled into town without knowing where to sleep.

“So I guess I’ll have to stealth camp somewhere?” I say quivering with doubt.

There’s a pregnant pause. He’s running and I’m riding. The gears are turning in his mind and on my bike. I’m hoping he’s going to invite me to stay with him. The next 15 seconds will determine if I have a comfortable night’s sleep.

“What time do you get going in the mornings?” he asks.

“No time in particular, anytime really,” I say, which translates to whatever time you want just invite me inside your home!

“Well, I’d let you crash with me and my dad, but I gotta get up at 3:30 AM to start deliveries.”

“What on Earth are you delivering at that hour?” I'm shocked and disappointed.

“Lumber. We have a family business but we’re short of drivers right now, so my dad and I have to step in.

We part ways. He runs towards picturesque Christmas Lake and I turn into a sleepy shopping center. I thump my fingers on the handlebars. So close. Now what?

 Setting up shop after hours

Setting up shop after hours

Limited options
The pizza place looks terrible from the outside, so I make it a healthy grocery store dinner and picnic outside the visitors center a few stores down. There’s free wi-fi and an outdoor electrical socket, so I’m set. A Santa statue keeps me company. I pee in a bush. Only Santa sees. 

A cop rolls by around 10 PM. He doesn’t stop, but sees me. I’m sure he’ll be back later to check on a suspicious hobo on a bike, so I make a move now. On Google Maps I scout a nearby church to camp.

It’s a fine night to sleep under the stars, but I’ve never stealth camped before. Yet all the 20-something cross-country cyclists do it… behind churches, in corn fields, next to dumpsters at McDonald’s. It’s a rite of passage, and my trip wouldn’t be complete without trying it.

Silent night
Behind the church is an elaborate memorial with holy statues and tablets. It doesn’t look like a kosher place to catch some z’s. Nearby are two trees that screen me from the road. An open pavilion, school bus and forest are behind me.

I cozy up to the trees but don’t use a tent. I want to keep a low profile because houses are in my sightline. Fortunately the trees shade me from a parking lot flood light.

After midnight, the chill gets real. I pull the sleeping bag over my head and get in a fetal position to keep warm. I drift in and out of consciousness. Wild noises and wild thoughts disturb me. I dream that the Santa Claus police department finds me using an Interceptor scooter and flushes me from my position. I’m on the run and, lights flashing, the scooter gives chase. The police insignia is Santa Claus wearing an ammo belt.

 Waking up after stealth camping

Waking up after stealth camping

It’s just a dream. I awake at 5 AM and it’s still dark. I fall back to sleep until day break and start gathering my things. The school bus operator arrives. He or she opens the hood to work on the bus while I hightail it in the opposite direction towards church.  

I retreat to familiar ground outside of the visitor center to recharge my devices and mooch wi-fi. Staff arrive at 9 AM and one lady invites me in to use their conference room. I politely decline and finish route planning to Evansville, my last stop in Indiana.