A grain of salt

August 4, 2010

July 26

Rested under the watchful eye of the law, I was beginning to prepare breakfast at a picnic table when a man walked up to the table, sat down and began talking. It was the start of a conversation that eventually headed off, like a rotary, in many directions of his choice.

He had come to use the county library, but had gotten here early because a friend had given him a ride. He usually walked here from some miles away. He had spent part of the night fixing a break in a cattle fence, and mended it just enough to hold the cattle in before the owner could apply the more permanent fix. “This whole area is my stomping grounds,” he claimed. “I’ve walked all over.” He proceeded to convey a reasonable list of local historical events and famous people who came from the area. Then, perhaps thinking about the library again, he talked about his progress in writing a book, “La Lure,” a fantasy that incorporated Dungeons and Dragons mythology. His relations, having read the first few chapters, had given his work high marks up to that point. Cars would drive by and he would wave at the people inside them. I’m not sure how many waved back.

We somehow got onto talking about my trip. When he learned of my route, he cautioned “You’ll never make it up those hills. I’ll show you the route you should take.” Borrowing my Missouri map, he was guiding me on a more southerly U-loop.

Our conversation must have run out of steam for him, because he abruptly got up and left, declaring he needed something to drink. He disappeared for awhile, then started making his way back in my direction. Partway back he stopped to talk to a fellow getting out of his truck. He walked up to me again and declared, “That guy concurs with me, you shouldn’t follow your maps.” I finally replied, “Lots of bicyclists go that way every year,” “No, they must have taken the detour,” he insisted.

This was one of the traveller’s dilemmas. How much do you trust the knowledge of local people versus your own instincts? I began to size up this stranger. He said he repaired that cattle fence last night. I don’t know what that entails, but he was wearing a plastic body brace around his midsection. Would you really be doing something like that if you had a torso injury? He seemed interested in starting a conversation with anyone driving or walking by. The county workers and librarian who were coming in for the day didn’t really acknowledge him–what did that mean? While I ranked him high on sincerity, the straw that broke the camel’s credibility was his insistence that all cyclists took his detour. My verdict:  gut over guidance–I’d keep on the route.

The view across the high Missouri plateau

I was not long out of town when I ran into Ross, a westbound cyclist. There were few of these encounters anymore, since it seemed to be getting late for westbounders to have only come this far. Ross was a cheerful guy, giving me soon-to-be-useful information on lodging options. He also commented that my cycling day would be only moderately challenging. Later, I recognized why that was the case. As I looked at my surroundings I saw I was as high as all the hills around me. I was on top of a plateau.

Today I had set my sites on reaching the Ozark National Scenic Riverways area. Efforts to protect its rivers, streams and springs began in the late 1960s, when there was talk of damming the Jack’s Fork and Current rivers, the major rivers in the area. The work to save these waters from development set the standard for creating the national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which now protects many free-flowing rivers. Part of our own St. Croix River, I believe, is protected by this legislation.

Looking down into the Jack's Fork river valley

I was planning to camp next to the Jack’s Fork, at a place called Alley Spring. As with all the waters in this area, it was way below the elevation I was typically cycling at. In late afternoon I came to one of those yellow diamond signs depicting a truck heading down a triangle. That always means a steep downhill. I rounded a curve to the right, then one to the left. Before me, the view opened up into this deep, wooded valley. To the periphery on my left I saw a tiny sliver of tan marking a river beach. At a similar place on my right periphery, another tan sliver. That’s all the information I had telling me I had arrived at the Scenic Riverways area. The grade help me make quick work of the distance between the top of the valley and river level. I cruised into the campground to check out the river and the camping options.

The Jack's Fork River

Jack’s Fork was a snaky river that was slow running and quite shallow in many spots. In one portion a man and woman were standing calf deep trying their luck at fishing. The campground was on the floodplain beside the river. Five miles before this point I had been in the midst of a delightfully gentle rain shower, cooling me like one of those playground misters. But now thunder began rumbling overhead. Not interested in being so close to the river if a heavy rain occurred, I started thinking about traveling to Eminence, one of the places Ross had recommended. He had stayed at a great bed and breakfast–comfortable with friendly people. It had one other desirable feature for me at this point–a roof.

But along with cycling an additional five miles, another task lay before me–cycling up the equally steep east side of the Jack’s Fork valley. The grade had to be more than 10 percent. If I had pedaled any slower, I probably would have fallen over from lack of forward propulsion. One saving grace about Missouri hills, though, is that many of them are terraced. You climb some, then the road levels off a bit, then you climb some again. That brief “rest” enable me to make it back up out the valley again.

The dark clouds and thunder followed close behind me all the way to Eminence. I reached the edge of town expecting to get poured on at any moment. I was anxiously looking for the B&B. It finally appeared on the other edge of town. Pulling in, I saw a bike on the back porch. Another cyclist had made it here before me. I hoped this was not a one room facility. The cyclist came out and assured me there was space. Within ten minutes the clouds let loose with a downpour. But I was undercover, talking with Monica, this Swedish cyclist, about her travels from San Francisco across the desert.

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