It was a vagrant, homely looking man who, by the cockroached public bathroom, said “Welcome to Misery”. Perhaps it was an accent or perhaps he was affluent in the art of pun, but our stay in Missouri had thus far lived up to the comment. It was a town called Houston, in the heart of the Ozarks and the man left us to set up our tent before the bugs spilled out from the cracks of the pavilion floor, under the unceasingly bright light of the wooden overhang.


We crossed the Mississippi on a sunny, windy afternoon in June and up until this point Grant had been, surprisingly and inexplicably, the only one to get a flat tire (or seven). So when the shoulder on which we were riding within the first 2 miles of the state yielded the pebble that pierced my first tire in a thousand miles, I had an issue with Missouri already. After I changed my tube, we were unpleasantly met by a series of hills, steep and gravelly, as the sun set quicker than we would have liked. We switched on our lights, and clutched to our bikes and the increasingly invisible white line marking the shoulder as we entered a 10-mile ride on a heavily trafficked, tremendously dark road to Farmington, MO. As the moon became brighter, the sky became a deeper violet and the cars became invisible shots of wind that could have clipped either of us if full attention were not being paid to the road. Their frustrations with us were manifested through unending blows of the car horn. Remarkably, we made it unscathed, ate a delicious meal at Steak N’ Shake, and headed to the city park to set up camp.


The park’s main attraction was an impressive youth baseball field, occupied at the time by what looked like two college-aged baseball teams in a rather unexciting game. Our disappointment met disgust upon reaching the public bathrooms where we hoped to wash our faces and change out of our biking uniforms. The toilets were a blender filled too high with the unimaginable, and the sinks should have been cleaned 87 years ago. We went to the gas station that night to clean up instead.


When we went to breakfast in the morning, we met up again with a colonel in the army who we had seen in Illinois that is trying to bike across the country averaging 120 miles a day. Now I wouldn’t have said it to the man’s face, or his biceps, but hearing about his regiment of vigorous cycling let me appreciate the pace at which Grant and I rode. We averaged 60 to 70 miles a day, pending terrain and we took days off. We took detours— that is to say, if a certain bourbon distillery in Kentucky appears as we round the bend, we’ve been known to peek in and take a 2-hour tour. We used the car toit’s maximum potential; to visit and re-visit sights and attractions we couldn’t fully appreciate otherwise. You see the country at 10 miles per hour on a bike, picking up the details of landscape and culture you miss out in the rush a car accustoms you to, and sometimes even that’s just too fast.


We left Farmington giving ourselves plenty of daylight to spare so as to not repeat the previous ride’s predicament. But as we approached our first stop for lunch, the shoulder was reduced to a series of potholes and rocks, on which a bike proved unsuitable to ride. So we toed the line, keeping as far right as possible, fully aware of the nature of some drivers and their insatiable desire to disturb cyclists. Within a mile of our checkpoint, a series of three 18-wheelers rode by us. The first sped by, leaving the gift of a trace wind which blew us into the cratered shoulder. The second appeared to be closer and reached out the window to give us the old middle finger. Hilarious. And the third, well the third could have slowed down and waited for an acceptable time to pass safely, yet it opted instead to speed by closer than the previous two, lay on the horn so as to blow out our eardrums and give us the finger (original and witty) as it turned the corner. As we pulled into the service station to take a break, we saw the drivers of those three behemoths laughing to one another. And they looked back at us, satisfied that they had once again chased two cyclists off the road in what was a primitive, idiotic attempt at the only kind of comedy that jolts the numb reality of their lives like a defibrillator, only a gust of wind or a pothole away from manslaughter.


I will say it got better from there. I suppose it couldn’t get much worse, though. We rode through the entrance to the Ozark Mountains that day. Some riders had told us the Ozarks were worse than the Appalachians. Those riders had not been through the Appalachians yet, because these ended up being a rather pleasant set of roads. Tall pines, clear streams and steep, but quick inclines covered the route westbound. We never really ascended to peaks in the mountains; we just rolled through seldom driven highways with the landscape on display, stopping in small towns for pleasant lunch breaks. 


We came into the strange little town of Ellington eventually. There were two roads in town; one had a speed limit of 23 mph and one was 29 mph. No acceptable reason was found for these ridiculous denominations of speed.


Almost as absurd as the speed limit were our shower accommodations that evening. We really needed a shower that night, after three long rides without one, so we searched the city park at which we were camping for a water source under which we could clean ourselves.


We bathed in a water fountain that afternoon. Throw water on your body, lather, press the button again, rinse and repeat. It was a beautiful thing.


In the morning we rode through some national parks and really got the Ozark experience on our way to Houston, MO. It was relaxing despite the capricious hills of the mountain range and we both enjoyed (maybe it was just relief that it wasn’t as treacherous as was warned) our travels through the area. We were woken up not by the copious amounts of cockroaches that scoured our tent area, but by an equally large, and equally pestilent at that hour, number of camp kids running all around the playground that our campsite neighbored. But Houston led us to Marshfield, where we camped in another city park and showered next to what appeared to be a pig or dog racing track. Grant and Lauren investigated a friendly raccoon that enjoyed the trash we parted with in the garbage can next to our tent… I abstained as I was not in the mood for rabies.


And in our last stop in Missouri, we descended out of the mountains for good. A fierce afternoon rainstorm rolled right through our path, conveniently timed for the moment Grant’s back tire exploded from wear, so we called Lauren, who had a reserve of tires we had previously bought and took cover in the woods. Grant repaired his bike and soaked, we went to Ash Grove. This town had absolutely nothing. There were two restaurants and a city park that looked well kept, which was hosting a birthday party at the time. Some locals, and that term is meant with only endearing connotations, told us about the Ozarks we had left behind and the flat roads of Kansas to come.


But, oddly, there was no one to tend to the dormant downtown buildings that appeared to have once operated normally. We ran into many of these towns up until this point, and we certainly hit a lot in Kansas upcoming, but it’s like the town was deserted a couple years ago and the only survivors are angry, retired farmers and cowboys. If a monument were to be erected in the center of town to represent the constituency, it would just be a confused, disgruntled old man wondering where all the people have gone. We theorized that at one point these towns were quite prosperous but without the will to move out and the lack of interest for anyone to move in, the old just got older without anyone to replace them. And when we walked into the one restaurant serving breakfast in town, the geriatric stares of starched locals was the clear indication that we had somehow become strangers in our own country.



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