Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically



Article Published: Jun. 23, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically

A flooded road in Indiana proved troublesome for Bigley and his bike.

Photo by Joe Bigley



mtfrontdesk@mountaintimes.com

Editor's Note: On May 12, Boone artist Joe Bigley commenced his most ambitious project yet: Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically. Having mapped a course in the continental U.S. that follows the border and contour of Afghanistan, Bigley will bicycle the entire length of the Afghan border - 3,435.5 miles to be exact.

"Essentially, (the trip) is to highlight the peculiar nature of political boundaries," he said.

Along the way, he'll record dialogues with those he encounters and deliver presentations at various contemporary art venues. Bigley is also submitting his travel experiences for publication in The Mountain Times, and they'll appear regularly as they arrive.

The presentation on Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically went well at the Swope Museum of Art in Terre Haute, Ind.

Although there was a modest turnout, those there seemed really engaged and responsive to the work. One of those in attendance, Patricia Creasy, an 80-year-old woman, found out about the talk because I approached the local paper in Terre Haute the day before.

Pat, as she is known, is a sweet woman who got her doctorate in holistic nutrition after having seven children and immediately played a concerned, generous and grandmotherly role.

She brought me to lunch and insisted that she pay for the haircut that I had scheduled to help with some of the impending heat as I head south toward Kentucky and Alabama. She also invited me to a talk given by the mayor on the improvements that have been made to the city. The upcoming election year prompted his accessibility to the public, I imagine. It was interesting to see the nuts-and-bolts operational strategies of a mid-sized city in the Midwest.

Leaving Terre Haute, I soon found myself on back county roads, pedaling through farmland. The large, loose gravel along with the hilly terrain made for slow and frustrating traveling.

There were two instances where I had to push the bike and trailer up inclines. Because of the gravel, the tires were just spinning in place, not propelling me forward.

Having biked about 12 miles or so into farmland on these county roads, I noticed that some of the adjacent cornfields were flooded. As I turned around a corner, part of the road was underwater. As I got off the bike to inspect what lay ahead, I was able to soak up the wildlife with small fish trying to swim up stream, across the road, deer in the distance and a symphony of birds. I headed on.

About a mile later, I came to a spot where the road was really underwater. It was impassable on a bike. I could see the road emerging on the other side of the water, and it was only about 25 yards or so. I walked through part of a cornfield to see if it was feasible to push the bike and trailer through the field. Calculating that it would take a long while to perform this task and not wanting to damage the crop, I decided to carry everything across the water. I proceeded to unload the trailer, carrying all of the gear across in two trips, waded back to unhook the trailer, carry it across, waded back and carried the bike across, as well. This was only about a 45-minute setback, and I knew that it would be a rich addition to the narrative of the trip.

Continuing on, there were some spotty areas with water on the road, but I was able to either ride through it or push the rig past. Then I hit an area that was severely impassable on a bike. An educated guess would put the span of the water over the road at between a quarter and a third of a mile. The decision was to either turn back, close to 15 miles of back tracking on unfriendly road, through the water section that I had just taken the trouble to make it through, or carry everything across this expanse of black swamp water with who-knows-what in it.

Feeling reluctantly up to the task, I chose the latter and proceeded to take all of the gear out of the trailer once again. With the distance and time that it takes to walk through knee-deep water, I tried and succeeded in getting all of the gear across in one load. Carrying clothing, digital equipment and notebooks required keeping them well out of reach of the water. Thus, I had makeshift backpacks and carried things placed on top of my head to keep them out of the water. It took a good 20 minutes to walk one way across this flooded section.

After I had carried the trailer, went back and got the bike, it was a good two-hour setback. At this point, I did not know how much longer I would be on county roads or what conditions were ahead of me. I knew that it was getting close to 5 p.m., and I had at least 30 more miles to go to reach that day's destination. This all occurred within a stone's throw from the Indiana/Illinois state border and proved to be a memorable way to leave the state. The rest of the day's riding went by without incident, thankfully.

I had set up a place to stay that turned out to be a hunting lodge that night. Going from trudging through the flooded cornfields to sitting in a log cabin with laundry and showering facilities was a welcome change.

The owners lived next to the cabin and have two lab puppies that were very interested in the trailer and its belongings. I had to retrieve socks and other items from the yard, as the puppies were acting like themselves. The next morning as I was loading up to leave, I saw that the rear view mirror that was attached to the bike helmet was no longer there. I immediately thought that the puppies had torn it off the helmet and that it was either chewed up or lost in the acres of property that the lodge sat on. I came to heavily rely on the mirror for safety and comfort, and it was an invaluable device, which made the loss of it close to devastating. After looking in vein in the grass, I noticed it dangling from the bike frame. The glue must have weakened by the heat and it slid off.

Relieved, I was able to reinstall it onto the helmet with the wonders of Super Glue, where it is still holding as I type this. The rest of the day's ride was thankfully flat, but very hot, through more (unflooded) Illinois farmland county roads.

The picturesque setting of farmers on their John Deeres was starkly interrupted when I rode by a guy spraying hydrous ammonia on his field. The tractors drag perforators behind them with what looks like 300-gallon barrels of this ammonia compound. Supposedly, it is used to assist in the ground to retain moisture as it inhibits evaporation. Riding through a cloud of that horrid gas was awful. Eyes watering, throat burning and trying to hold my breath, I just pedaled faster and hoped that I was past it when I inhaled again.

Through the ammonia cloud, I arrived at Sam Dell Lake in Johnsonville, Ill. I set up this as a place to camp and had only one of the two sites being occupied at this site. The folks next to me were about my age, four guys and a child. They welcomed me over with a burger and a beer, and I hung out while these guys who have known each other there whole lives goofed off and pulled catfish out of the lake. The little boy, Hunter, was determined to catch the biggest catfish of the season, because then you are awarded a free rod and reel, a step up from the Spiderman pole he was using. I hope that the landed that 18-pounder.

Soon after starting this project and making it out into more rural areas of the U.S., it was easy to notice that a high percentage of people one might encounter are directly affected by the war.

Whether they personally are facing deployment, had already served, or have loved ones serving, the numbers seemed to be very high. This was reiterated when I stopped at Billy Bob and Dina's restaurant in a tiny Illinois town.

I sat at a random table in the near-empty restaurant, which coincidentally had a framed U.S. flag that was flown over Afghanistan. As it turned out, Billy Bob and Dina's son is the flight deck manager for the USS Carl Benson, the aircraft carrier that recently buried Osama Bin Laden's body at sea. This kind of chance encounter was part of the hope of project, and I was rather blown away that I ran into these folks in the context of the project.

That night, I was able to camp at the Omaha, Ill., Park. Another site next to a lake, I was pleased to find another free place to camp. At about 1:30 a.m., I was awoken by very strong winds shaking the tent and sharp crashes of thunder. Before I retired for the evening, I had spread out some gear on a picnic table under a pavilion roof to allow things to dry and air out. Remembering this, I sprang out of the tent wearing just a headlamp and boxer shorts, running around gathering up the now scattered gear. A water bottle almost found itself in the lake, and socks had travelled a good ways. Although it was a pretty intense situation with the wind howling and thunder and lightning getting closer, I thought how ridiculous and hilarious it was, running around in the pitch dark, in my boxers, trying to find whatever had blown away. Everything was accounted for and retrieved.

Heading down the road toward the Illinois/Kentucky line, a thunderstorm hit quick and hard - an immediate downpour. I made a U-turn, rode up someone's driveway, parked the bike and took shelter on their front porch. Ringing the doorbell twice did not produce anyone, so I assumed that the house was empty.

A minute or so later, I saw a figure walking toward the window. I smiled and waved, as the rain was still dripping off of me. He came to the door and said that I could wait out the storm and to have a seat. He came out with a drink and sat down, telling me about the local history, and ended up offering a chunk of Fluorite, which used to be mined in the area, as he was a former miner. He said that it wasn't the first time that people has sought refuge from the weather at his place, but they were typically motorcyclists.

There were plenty of motorcyclists on the road that day, too, for the huge, annual, Hog Rock motorcycle rally that lasts all weekend. The Illinois/Kentucky line is defined by the Ohio river, where I was going to cross, which required taking a ferry. Amongst the 15 or so bikers on the ferry, a 27 speed might not have been the kind of two-wheeled vehicle they were expecting to cart across the Ohio. Kentucky was immensely more humid than Illinois.

I made it through that portion of Kentucky in a single day, ending up in Paris, Tenn., that following day. Stopping at a small bar in Paris to grab a bite to eat, the bartender, named Boone, is facing deployment to Afghanistan. He had already served in Iraq and Kuwait.

This would be his third deployment, and it was coming up in a quick six weeks. His wife was at the bar, too. I asked them if they would be interested in offering their thoughts on the war on camera.

Boone said that he was contractually unable, and his wife, Stacy, claimed that she would just start crying, thinking about it too much and did not want to be seen in that state on camera, which is completely understandable. I, of course, did not push the issue. They were both very interested in TFBD and were really good company. They generously comped the chicken wings and Budweiser.

Approaching the Alabama state line from Tennessee, I was fortunate enough to find the Nantchez Trace Parkway - similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but not nearly as scenic or uplifting. The traffic was light and, as with the Blue Ridge Parkway, commercial traffic was not permitted on the Trace. It was nice not to have to wince every time an 18-wheeler rides by. I was able to go about 45 miles on the Trace that extremely hot day, eating snacks beside rivers.

Not surprisingly, as I was moving farther south the heat was intensifying. This resulted in having to find shaded spots about every 12 miles or so. Slowing down traveling time but cooling off was a must. The Trace with its heavily wooded areas provided ample shad to rest when needed.

Making it to Florence, Ala., I as set up with a good friend's aunt, uncle, cousin and Joe the dog. They were very welcoming, and it was nice to know that a roof and mattress lay at the end of a day.

The next day, I was awarded with more time on the Trace Parkway, heading in to Mississippi. My time in Missouri was brief, but I pedaled by a digital sign that read 104 degrees Fahrenheit. It felt like 104, too. I made it to Red Bay, Ala., and decided to get a room, because a shower was needed after six or seven hours sweating in that kind of heat.

Red Bay had just been notified that a local soldier serving in Afghanistan was just killed. The little town had its flags at half-mast, and residents were preparing for the memorial service to be held the day after I left the little Alabama community. Another reminder of the costs of war. Smaller communities get hit exponentially harder than cites, because a larger percentage of the population have ties to the deceased. This man was only 21 years old, survived by his young wife and 2-year-old daughter.

From here, it was basically a straight shot across Alabama on Highway 78, all the way to Atlanta, Ga. Seventy-eight was not the most hospitable highway that I had encountered on the trip. Tight or non-existent highway shoulders made the ride nerve racking. I can say with confidence that Alabama drivers, at least the ones that I encountered, are harder to bike around than in previous states I have been to. I was constantly honked at and had expletives shouted at me more than thrice.

The heat of Alabama only let up when thunderstorms proved to be equally as disruptive. There were several times crossing Alabama where I had to wait out lightning. Biking through Pennsylvania, I became accustomed to biking in the rain, and it doesn't particularly bother me, but lightning is another story. The rain was a welcome break to sweltering heat, and the clouds provided equally as assisting shade from the Sun.

I have been constantly reminded how much dogs do not appreciate cyclists passing their property.

Heading from Heflin, Ala., to Atlanta, Ga., I was fiercely chased by two dogs at separate times in consecutive houses. These larger dogs meant business, and I felt lucky that I was descending a hill to help out-pedal them. I have only had to spray the dog repellent that I carry once. The boxer-looking mix was too close for comfort. I tried to spray him as I was riding and missed, and he backed off.

Leaving Helfin, a very rural town along I-20, was a drastically different to biking through the urban epicenter of Atlanta. Approaching the lower income suburbs of Atlanta into the urban setting with street art decorating the buildings, liquor stores and bars on the windows, I felt really fortunate to be able to experience a culture shift from a bicycle saddle's perspective.

The business district of Atlanta was about as different as one could imagine from the rural railroad line-based communities and farmland that I had to pass in Alabama earlier in the day.

Later on today, as I type this, I'll give the fourth presentation of TFBD so far. I was able to secure a talk while in transit about a week and a half ago at Wonder Root. Wonder Root is a socially conscious art venue in Atlanta. Seems like their sensibility fits with TFBD pretty well. I look forward to meeting the folks there and engaging in a meaningful dialogue with those interested.

Many thanks to Boone Bikes and S.O.S. printing for supporting this project.

For more information on TFBD, visit http://www.travfbd.com and http://www.joebigley.com.

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