Jeff's and Karen's last night in the Bluegrass State proved to be one of warm welcome. Arriving in Marion, KY and anticipating Jeff's arrival from Utica, Karen first encountered Bob, who cordially offered to back her trailer into a tight spot in Marion's only little RV park. Bob and Melodie are full time residents here, living in their Class A motorhome with three small dogs. After a lifetime in heavy construction, Bob (an ex-Marine), is suffering from COPD, with only 4% function remaining in one lung. Years of inhaling concrete dust from rebuilding the nation's interstates took a toll on his health. Melodie works in the county detention center, supervising the kitchen. Their hospitality was genuine, a wistful reminder of the many kind and generous people Jeff and Karen met throughout Kentucky.
May 24 and as of today, Jeff has officially logged 1,140 miles on the Trans America Trail, one pedal stroke at a time. More than one quarter of the way west! He leaves Kentucky on May 25, riding a ferry across the Ohio River to enter the State of Illinois. As a parting gift to trading the Southern diet for Midwestern cuisine, he stopped for a cheeseburger at Classic Cafe in Dixon, KY. This restaurant specializes in fried chicken, meatloaf, hamburgers and Hoagies. There he met Roy and Ronnie, about to enjoy lunch together. Roy just left his doctor's office complaining of recurring chest pains and his heart condition.
Expertise at outrunning dogs is Jeff's hidden talent. On May 23, he only had to outpace four. His ride from Madrid to Utica, KY was pleasant after a severe thunderstorm the day before. The terrain in far western Kentucky is changing. Miles and miles of cornfields. Pedaling into Fordsville, KY, Jeff stopped at the Marathon Mini Mart to grab a cold drink. Inside, he met James Earle or "Jimmy." Jimmy is 45 and has lived in Fordsville all his life. He is an artist, and his work lines the walls of the mini mart, with the consent and encouragement of the owners.
As of May 20, Jeff has now logged over 750 miles on the Trans America Trail. Riding from Berea to Burgin, KY, he met up with Karen at the Chimney Rock RV Park at Herrington Lake. While enjoying lunch together, Jeff and Karen struck up a conversation with David and Ann, seasonal residents at this lakeside village. David owns an Airstream trailer he keeps at Chimney Rock. He is a craftsman and calls himself a Hippie who has lived around the country but now lives in a cabin in the woods near Lexington. Ann is a professor at the University of Kentucky, specializing in research and prevention programs addressing sexual and domestic violence.
Bluegrass and Appalachian music are both traditions of Kentucky. The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in Mt. Vernon, KY honors famous musicians like Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs Crystal Gayle, and the Judds who all came from Kentucky. Jeff and Karen stopped by the museum to take in this history, and were rewarded by an afternoon concert with two local musicians Sam and Deborah. Sam plays banjo and guitar and has a beautiful voice and obvious love for traditional mountain music. Deborah plays fiddle, sings harmony and has a beautiful voice of her own. Their music makes you want to jump up and dance.
Jeff and Karen took a day off on May 19 and discovered a gem of a place - Berea, KY. Located 35 miles south of Lexington, Berea is an arts centered community with a youthful vibe. That's largely because of Berea College. Berea is a small, liberal arts college that was founded in 1855. It provides free education to students and was the first college in the Southern United States to be coed and racially integrated. The Berea Tourism Bureau is located in a converted train station in the arts district, and Maya greeted Jeff, Karen and Buddy when they stopped in. She was a wealth of information about the town, and is also a "Warm Showers" host for the Trans America Trail. She takes cyclists into her home at no charge and offers them a bed and a shower. She presented Jeff and Karen with t-shirts commemorating their quest.
Problem solving has become a part of the daily routine for Jeff and Karen. One problem they couldn't solve was how Karen would follow Jeff to Booneville when all roads leading there were impassable with the van and trailer. Thus, Jeff saddled up his bicycle with an overnight bag and sought alternate accommodations for the night of May 17. That's how he found Linda. Linda runs the Victorian Rose Inn in Booneville. She converted a 1915 church into her home. The building originally had no electricity or plumbing. Linda offers a room for rent to Trans America Trail cyclists passing through the area. The house is an eclectic mix of her own artwork and collected items. Linda is originally from Cincinnati, she moved to Booneville in 1995 with her late husband and says she is still considered an outsider. In addition to being a one room innkeeper, Linda is also a gardener and a painter.
May 17 Jeff rode from Combs to Booneville, KY. Outrunning loose dogs on the backroads of Kentucky has become a part of Jeff's daily routine. They add an extra dose of adrenaline needed to climb steep hills when sharp teeth are gnashing at your ankles. Surviving his canine escort, Jeff entered Booneville and met Paul at the Shopwise grocery store. In Paul's own words: "I've always lived in the mountains so that makes me a Hillbilly. I love these hills. That's where I'll die. I didn't find God because he wasn't lost. He found me. I was lost."
As though they were destined to meet, Jeff happened upon Leon sitting on a guardrail between the towns of Hazard and Chavies, KY. The day before, Leon had seen Karen travel the same road with van and trailer in tow. A rig this size an unusual sight on this out of the way country road. Leon grew up near Hazard and says he loves it there. In describing his homeplace, Leon said "All it is, is a bunch of hills."
The Combs Kentucky Post Office is just a bump in the road housed in a converted storefront. On the day Jeff rode from Vergie to Combs, it became a meeting place for fellow cyclist, Joe, who was traveling east. Joe is 31 and he was fully loaded and self-contained. He lives in Lexington, KY, works in sales, and just decided to take a month long sabbatical from work and see how far he could get on the Trans America Trail.
Getting lost in Virginia and Kentucky seems to be a recurring theme. Both Jeff and Karen have had their challenges, with lots of side roads, back roads, mountain roads, poorly marked roads, steep winding roads, and hollers. Meeting great people in parking lots also seems to be a theme. That's how Jeff and Karen met Perry and Marty. On May 16 Jeff was preparing for his ride from Virgie to Combs, KY, and his map directions were unclear from his starting point at the Family Dollar Store parking lot. Perry came to the rescue, reading the map and offering guidance. Perry is a retired school teacher and lifelong resident of Virgie. He retired to take care of his Dad who is now 82. Marty pulled up in a shiny new olive green Jeep Renegade, interested in what was going on. He too offered assistance, insisting that if Jeff wanted to take his picture he had to get out of the car. Marty is 6' 10". A gentle giant! Marty drives a school bus part time and his wife is the breadwinner in the family. The Jeep was hers and Marty said he only gets to drive it if she's asleep when he takes off in the morning. Both Marty and Perry had lots of opinions about life, politics, current events and religion, all of which they offered with humor, perhaps a little regret, and a generous spirit.
On May 15, Jeff had another ambitious day, riding 40 miles with 5,700 ft. of climbing. Stopping to catch his breath in Elkhorn, KY, he was offered a cold bottle of water and invited to Acy's Tinkering Shop by three gentlemen sitting out front. Acy is the owner and tinkerer. He is 55 years old and has lived in Elkhorn all his life. He was working on everything from lawn mowers to pickup trucks when Jeff happened by. Tookie's name stuck when he was just two or three years old. One day when his Mama put him on the counter, he pointed to a cookie jar and said "Tookie." He is in "sales," peddling his wares at flea markets and thrift stores. Doug said the Lord brought him to Elkhorn and he feels blessed to live there. He has worked in coal all his life.
Mothering takes many forms. Nancy is the grandmother of Jacky. They were out for a Sunday drive with Nancy's dog, Itsy, when they stopped by the Dollar General where Jeff met them in Honaker, VA. Since Jeff was riding on a Sunday, few stores and restaurants are open in this part of Virginia. He decided to give the Dollar General a try in his hunt for food, and ate his first Lunchable ever. He met Nancy and Jacky on their way out of the store. Nancy was born in Haysi and has lived in Copper Ridge, VA for over 30 years.
May 13, Mother's Day, and Jeff dedicated the day's ride to his mother, Harriet. Although she never completely understood his cycling obsession, she also never stood in his way. Undoubtedly, she would have shook her head at the ride Jeff did on this day in her honor. Take a look, 54 miles and 6,700 ft. of climbing in the heart of Appalachia's coal country -- Meadowview to Haysi VA. A feat of strength and endurance, all honoring the memory of Mom. Tomorrow, Jeff leaves Virginia behind, with little regret for the unrelenting climbs, and fond memories of the beauty of the area and the great people he met there.
Every ending has a new beginning. Thus, Jeff returned to the Draper Mercantile and Trading Company on the morning of May 11 to begin anew where he ran out of gas the day before. While preparing his bicycle for the ride, the proprietor stopped by for a chat. Brian and his seven siblings began buying up cabins and other nearby properties until they now own almost the entire town of Draper. They lease the operation of the restaurant at the Mercantile, but run a flower shop and home decor store brimming with unique finds, old and new, right next door. Brian has a short commute, as he lives right across the street where he is trying his hand at raising goats, to give his herding dog something to do.
At the end of the day's ride, challenged by never ending climbs, wind and an approaching storm, Jeff stopped for lunch at the Draper Mercantile in Draper, VA. While he waited for his order, Jeff listened to live music performed by Charles, a Morgantown, West Virginia native. Charles is a singer/songwriter who plays acoustic guitar and performs around the region.
On May 10, Jeff was preparing his bike for the day's ride from Christiansburg, VA, while Karen was restocking the camper with groceries. They were approached by Jamie, a customer service representative from Kroger's Grocery Store. Jamie was very excited about the idea of the ride, and the fact that Karen was driving the "chase" vehicle. Jamie served two tours of duty as an Army Ranger. One of his missions was a refugee rescue operation in Sudan. He shared that the lives of the refugees were dependent on the 16 men in his unit, no one else. Jamie thought Jeff and Karen were "living the American dream."
Patti is a self proclaimed feminist, liberal, environmentalist from the Bronx, now living in Catawba, VA. Jeff met her on the road, riding her rusty trusty mountain bike. Patti said she bikes the mountains as much as she can, and loves the view of the world from her bike.
Stopping for lunch at Ranson's Fountain Grill in Buchanan, VA, Jeff’s Waitress, Sam, introduced him to two local residents who were eating at the lunch counter. Chris, age 32, has lived in Buchanan his entire life. His step son works at The Fountain. Michael, age 49, has lived there for many years. During the same lunch break, Jeff opened the door for Tony, who ended up solving a housing issue. Unable to find a place to park the camper the next night, Tony invited Jeff and Karen to park their camper in his yard in the Cloverdale, VA area. Dinner included! Jeff and Karen spent a wonderful evening on the family compound of Tony and Shelley, enjoying a home cooked southern meal. Tony is a sixth generation Virginian and Shelley is a local insurance broker. Plans were made for Tony and Shelley to make a future visit out west.
And now a word about our rider. Jeff has passed the one week mark and is getting stronger every day. Two weeks of sitting in a car on the way to your starting point is not the most winning strategy, so week one was a grind. Three days of temps over 90 didn’t help either, but Jeff soldiered through. On May 7, Jeff rode a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway with Karen’s niece Rachel. She joined him from her home in Raleigh NC and provided just the youthful energy a man of the ripe old age of 60 needed to complete the task.