Hot, Blind Earth
- Banging handlebars. The treachery of a springtime thunderstorm. Missing a feed. Cars on the course. Moments of terror come to the bike racer in varied forms. But spend enough time living the racing life and you’ll end up experiencing most of the catalog. Much more memorable, perhaps, are the moments of terror that come on the way there and back. As out of control as races may sometimes seem, the world at large can’t be contained in a rolling enclosure.
One evening I was high-tailing it to a crit somewhere deep down in Faulkner country. The destination was Tupelo, Yazoo City or Natchez. Which town, exactly, I don’t recall.
At night the Delta is a black sea of cotton and soybeans. They’re parted only by slender roads -- Highways 65, 61 and 49 -- which were made famous by the blues and what may be the most notorious deal with the devil this side of Dorian Gray. After hours of ripping through so much Mississippi emptiness, I stopped for gas in a tiny town. The only sign of life was a four-pump convenience store.
Like my home state of Arkansas, Mississippi has no shortage of what you might call Southern modernness. Little Rock and Fayetteville share the same qualities as Jackson and Oxford. For a brief time, at least, we can hold the attention of visiting New Yorkers. But the heart of the Delta? ‘Hot, blind earth,’ Faulkner called it.
Being nighttime, the air merely simmered instead of being on its daytime boil. Up on my roof rack was a bike double-encrusted in the history of entomology. Pay-at-the-pump hadn’t yet been introduced to these parts and between me and the store loomed a few carfulls of brooding college-aged kids. College, of course, is a sloppy word choice in reference to those whose main amusement is getting shitfaced outside a gas station. They didn’t appear thrilled by me or by the bougie vibe I sent by having a bike cinched to the roof of my car. The human cost of two centuries of sharecropping was thick in the air.
Later on in life I lived in San Francisco, not far from the Tenderloin. I often walked through the heart of the ‘hood to make my way to the magnificent public library. If you’ve lived in San Francisco, you know the streets I’m talking about -- Ellis, Eddy, Turk, to name a few. The meanness there is ripe. Out of place with my fancy headphones and Timbuk2 backpack, I looked like a frat boy trying to score drugs or, worse, a naïf from Arkansas stupidly oblivious to big city treachery. But, to this day, urban slums don’t light fear in me like the country once did. Why? I was just two or three blocks away from the upper crust -- SOMA, the Opera House, all that. Escape was always just one sprint away.
The Delta is sprawling fields for hours. Familiarity is never right around the corner. But I was out of gas that night, it was late, and I had no other option. I was still young back then and seen little of life. So each step towards the store intensified my dread.
I held my breath as I walked between their cars. But no big city verbal hell followed. They asked where I was driving to, nodded, and that was the end of it. From my moment of terror came my first appreciation of the south. I love the mountains of my new home, Utah. But I miss the south. I miss its people. Some days I miss it everyday.
- The greatest cycling photographer of our generation is Jered Gruber. It’s worth mentioning that he, too, learned to love cycling in Louisiana and thereabouts. Tonight I’ll raise an Abita to toast a southern boy gone certifiably global.
- The map below shows a piece of England, Arkansas, my favorite spot in all of the South. The howling winds there and thereabouts are what taught me what it means to be hard on the bike. Some day, hopefully later than sooner, I’ll be buried not too far away. Can a Strava guru please create a segment from a clockwise loop? The fastest lap in Strava in 2013 will earn the rider a $250 Competitive Cyclist gift card. For the love of God, road bikes only. No wheels deeper than 404′s, and no aero bars. And please don’t drive it in your car to win it. If there’s one thing the south is all about, it’s karma.