Swallowing Kentucky

"You can't hide in here forever," nagged a voice from inside my head.

Hovering 3 feet below the surface of the Mississippi, I emerged from the water, frog-style - two eyes just above the surface. Silent. Still.

I moved my gaze from the eerie strip of moonlight dancing upon the water to the space between me and my bike. They were still there. Waiting. Only now they were gathered in numbers that I could no longer ignore.

That's when I just made the move. A high-speed, knees-to-the chest sprint out the water toward my bike.

The attack followed instantaneously. A thousand pinpricks all at once.

They started at my feet, then my legs, arms, head and chest. A united battalion of chiggers, mosquitoes and some other horde of unidentified blood-suckers gathered in such number around my head that it felt as if someone had covered it with a biting burlap sack.

In the 10 minutes it took to set up, I jumped, slapped and twitched before diving into the safety of my finely netted tent.

Bugs were only one of the challenges of bicycle touring Kentucky.

Cleaving through a thick, hot soup of humidity in the hills outside of Wickliffe, I turned onto County Road 286.

I envisioned my death time and time again, once with my head tumbling within the wheel-well of a big-rig and another huddled on the roadside next to the local roadkill.

Witnessing my plight, a portly man wearing an oxygen tube rolled down his window and yelled, "You'll find Southern hospitality down here, boy, but when we get in our cars we're @*%$*#! crazy ..."

I could hardly argue.

But after 70 hard miles, I was less interested in what Kentuckians did wrong than what they did right. To find out what that was, one need only look to the abundant waistlines. Between the laughter, music and prayer, there was always food.

Not just food, but down-home Southern food.

Spotting a hand-written sign boasting "Home Cooking," I parked my bike and slipped inside a tumble-down diner.

A handful of rugged-looking farmers drank coffee and spoke in circles. Blue-gray strands of cigarette smoke branched from their hands and mingled with the sound of old-time gospel music that hung in the air. A portrait of Jesus cradling a lamb stared at me from the center of a gold-framed clock.

As I pondered the hour of His return, I was eclipsed by the shadow of my plus-size waitress.

"What'll it be, hon?" she burped apathetically.

"I'll take the special," I replied.

In the time it takes to say coronary bypass, she returned with my plus-sized plate. It was piled high with crispy-brown chicken, macaroni salad, butter beans, mashed potatoes, gravy and cornbread. It was a plus-size slice of heaven.

Just before shoveling in a large spoonful of mashed potatoes, I glanced back up at Jesus, raised my spoon, and silently mouthed, "Thank you."

I left the diner and rolled down tree-lined streets of Paducah.

From there it was south, and seemingly back in time, to the rarely touristed streets of Tompkinsville.

"Do you know where I can find some home cooking?" I asked a nearby teenager.

"Two blocks down 'ar," the boy said, pointing over his shoulder.

As I looked back, he smiled as if holding back a secret. Turning off main street, the neighborhood retreated.

Rows of ramshackled homes in various states of disrepair held a universe of garbage and junk scattered indiscriminately one house to the next. A teenage mother, no more than 15, held her baby and silently rocked. She pointed and giggled.

I learned later that after the coal companies had drained the last of Kentucky coal mines they simply up and left, leaving thousands without work. In 2004, the Kentucky Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of the population, or just under 700,000 people now live below the poverty level.

I tipped my helmet and moved on.

Two blocks down, I found the R and S Barbecue and stepped inside. All eyes turned. I suddenly became aware of the color of my skin.

"Can I help you?" inquired a woman through the window of a smoky kitchen. Behind her a 10-foot grill sizzled with every type of meat imaginable.

I was sideswiped by a smile and the inquisitive voice of owner Anita Hamilton.

"Where'd y'all ride in from?" she asked.

"San Francisco," I returned.

"I had this feelin'" she replied then disappeared into the kitchen.

She came out a moment later with something I hesitate to call a sandwich. It was more like a 15-inch slab of meat looking ridiculous, hanging out of either sides of two slices of bread.

"Tell me how you like it," she said and walked away.

With a triumphant smile, I ate again and scanned the walls of the cinderblock building. They were plastered with photos and quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His message was simple: "Love or perish. Hate is not the answer."

As I finished my tour, eastern Kentucky seemed to save the best for last.

In a exploding crescendo of flora and fauna, I rode beneath a never-ending canopy of beech, basswood, ash, walnut, maple, elm, oak and pine.

Nearing the border of western Virginia, my attention turned to the wrath of an angry female: Katrina - and she was headed my way.

A continuous wind-blown rain forced me into a hotel where I turned on the TV. I got the first glimpse of Katrina's wrath.

Although I didn't have much to give, the next day I sought out a place and donated $5 to the American Red Cross. It was a-fourth of my daily budget. I hope that if you're reading these words right now, if you haven't already done so, I hope you will do the same.


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