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  • Writer's pictureTom Blower

Let the West begin - TN, AR and OK

Why hello! I am typing to you from Warner, Oklahoma, with just over 1250 miles on the clock and fast approaching my halfway point. I am becoming, I must admit, a little saddle-sore, but otherwise am in pretty good health and spirits. Sadly, however, one of my micro SD cards is playing up, and I am currently unable to access any of my photos from both North Carolina and Tennessee, which is more than a little frustrating, but I shall endeavour to recover them as best I can when I get back. After changing cards, I do have photos and videos from Arkansas and Oklahoma, so I'll try and get those in where I can. Again, apologies for not updating in a while, but this is the first time I've had a decent period of time to sit down and write up my experiences. Enjoy!

Thursday, 21st August - Nashville TN - Rest day

Though chronologically this is where I should leave off, I'll start with my first afternoon in Nashville. After arriving at the Nashville Downtown Hostel on North 1st Ave, I put my bike in storage after finding - understandably, to be honest - that check-in was not until 3:00pm. Unwilling to sit around waiting for three hours, I grabbed my fold-up rucksack and hit the streets, still wearing my salt-stained padded shorts, high-vis jersey and the rest of my incredibly sweaty cycle gear. I only had to walk to the end of the block to reach the Hard Rock Cafe, which, whilst a bit of a tourist trap, was nonetheless a pretty cool place to eat: something about eating in the presence of memorabilia of the likes of John Lee Hooker, Derek Trucks and Johnny Cash made the experience both a little bemusing and very entertaining. After wolfing down a grotesquely large burger and chips, I decided that, sweaty garb or no sweaty garb, I had to go to the primary place which had drawn me to come to Nashville: Third Man Records. I'm no country fan, but Third Man, being the centre of production for some of the music that inspires me most, I consider to be the first main site on my musical pilgrimage. Its painted black bricks and brightly-coloured doors making it stick out from, and yest strangely fit in with, the rather run-down industrial neighbourhood of South 7th Ave, the building was, to me, an imposing sight; the culmination of 10 years of fandom of Jack White and his musical idealism, one of - if not the - most significant influences on my musical life, and even my life in general. I tried to tell myself to stop fetishising, that it was just a record shop. But it's not just a record shop. It's a recording studio, a performance space, a cinema, the centre of so much incredible vitality and passion and creativity. I walked inside, and could instantly see why Jack White has been nicknamed the Willy Wonka of the record industry. Strange, almost sinister figurines and automatons, a mold-o-rama, a microfilm tape viewer, and, to me most important, a restored 1947 recording booth, in which for $15 you can record 2 minutes of audio onto a 6-inch vinyl. Overwhelmed, I bought a few t-shirts and left, deciding to save the recording booth for later.

Finally checking in at the hostel, I quickly met a really nice Australian called Brooke, with whom I explored a bit of the downtown area of Nashville and bought some dinner from Dollar General, which I consumed back at the hostel, much to the disgust of Brooke and Declan, another Australian and one of my dorm-mates (the other of whom was, unsurprisingly, Australian). At dinner I also met Perri, from Reading, Katie, from New York state, and Ann-Elise, from Oregon. Although somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to go down with them to Broadway, the main drag and area for nightlife in Nashville. Although it was cool to see the impressive display of neon signs and abundance of shops selling cowboy boots still open at 9pm at night, it quickly became evident that, being under 21, it was prety pointless trying to get into any venues, not that I had much interest in such establishments. I headed back to the hostel with Ann-Elise and played pool until, unable to stifle the waves of tiredness washing over me, I went to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.

The next day I awoke early, my circadian rhythms by this point acclimatised to early-morning risings, and decided to go for a walk. After briefly stopping outside the Easy Eye Studio, owned by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys on South 8th Ave, I headed north through the centre of the city to the Capitol building, an impressive neoclassical structure facing north into the hills, flanked by various monuments to Confederate generals and figureheads. I then walked back across the city to Third Man and finally recorded my 6-inch. I don't have any of the music I have attempted to write, so I went with a brief rendition of 'Bicycle' by Reignwolf - it seemed, if anything, to fit the occasion best. Dizzy with excditement, I went straight to the post office to double-bubble-wrap my record and mail it home. I headed back to the hostel for lunch and, paranoid about being unprepared for the 100-mile day I would be waking up to, I began to pack and to write up my blog. I had, perhaps unwisely, bought a ticket for La última película, a film showing at Third Man which I'd been too enticed by to resist. Late finishing dinner, I ran the mile and a half from the hostel to the store, only to find that the film would probably start about 40 minutes late anyway. The film itself was, well, ok: definitely something a film buff would enjoy; but for me, it was just an awesome experience to be sitting in the store's Blue Room, half performance space and half weird taxidermist's dream. Leaving the building, walking for the last time through the south central area of the downtown, I started to feel sad and strange. My being in Nashville had been part of a dream that had taken a year and a half to come to fruition, and now I was about to leave. I was not so sad because of my leaving, but rather because I felt lost. I had, and still have, no idea what I am doing with my life. I have no career ambition, and no real plans for the future, only some vague personal desires. I started to cry. Arriving back at the hostel, I put on a brave face and tried to make the most of the time I had left to finish my blog and chat with the people I'd met earlier. Eventually it was gone midnight, and I had to be up in less than 6 hours, so I hit the hay, melancholy thoughts swimming around my head.

Friday 22nd August - Nashville TN to Perryville TN - 96.18m, 767.5 total

A hellish day. Not much more to say. The weather was hellishly hot, and the climbing began wearing at my legs within the first 10 miles of my ride. In retrospect, I can't really remember that much about the day, but two incidents during the ride spring to mind. I realised that I was running low on water, and stopped at the first place I could in a heavily wooded area. It was perhaps the most stereotypical 'hillbilly' experiences I've had. Pushing aside the screen door, I stepped inside and tentatively looked around. Now this was a taxidermist's. All kinds of animals and birds, glassy-eyed and trying to break free from their suspended animation, stared down at me from walls and shelves. Two guys, in britches, checkered shirts and trucker caps, peered over their shoulders and one asked "Can I help you?" They were both incredibly friendly, and happily filled my bottles before wishing me well on my journey. I also stopped at a cafe in Linden, a small town just east of the Tennessee River, for the same purpose: I was delighted at the owner's offer of some free organic strawberries, but was quite surprised when he stepped around from behind the counter with them and I noticed the massive handgun on his hip. It was the first truly confrontational moment in my mind where I was really struck just how open some states' 'open-carry' laws really are. Pushing on, I reached my destination for the day: a campground by the river, where I paid $15 for the pleasure of sleeping underneath a concrete picnic bench. It was too much. I sat on the bench, feeling tired, lost, and, for the first time in many years, genuinely homesick. It felt pathetic and self-indulgent, but a call to my parents really did make me feel a bit better. I bedded down for the night, still unhappy as a swarm of flies and mosquitoes pressed in around my bug net.

Saturday 23rd August - Perryville TN to Whiteville TN - 68.57m, 836.0 total

Though I'd hated the previous day's ride, I was thankful that, by not staying in Linden, I'd shortened my ride by nearly 30 miles. Up at 5:00am, I hit the road, desperately wanting to put what had been a relatively uncomfortable night's sleep behind me. After a few miles of navigating back to the main road, I got onto Highway 100, which at that point was the straightest bit of road I'd cycled - 10 and 15-mile stretched of curveless road, visually punctuated only by the rolling hills of southwestern Tennessee. It was nice, however, to be able to background attempting to navigate the twisting and turning back-roads, and simply being able to put my efforts into riding. Though the terrain was getting gradually flatter, I was beginning to tire quicker, and though the first 30 miles passed in a breeze, by midday my pace was down to 10 mph as I crawled into Whiteville, my stop for the night being in a local church. However, I managed to mix up which church I was supposed to be staying at, and accidentally sent the one on-duty local policeman at the station on a wild goose-chase to find the pastor of a church I was not supposed to be staying in. After realising my mistake, I was quickly able to locate Corinne Robinson, pastor at the Trinity Missionary Baptist Church. With a loud, lively personality, Corinne chatted to me about her life and her job as pastor as she drove me to the store to get provisions and showed me that I would actually be sleeping in the sanctuary of the church. It was a little odd, but I was thrilled - I had a space to finally play my harmonicas, and there was even a piano on which I could have a go (though I confess my piano-playing ability only extends as far as a shaky 'Mad World'). Thanking her, I locked up the church and bedded down on some pew cushions, the ceiling fans whirring softly above me.

Sunday 24th August - Whiteville TN to Memphis TN - 58.82m, 894.9 total

It wasn't in the least bit hard to wake up at 5:00 and to be peddaling before the sun rose: the pull of Memphis and the milestone of my last day in Tennessee drew me onto the road at a blazing pace for the first 40 miles of my ride, the gentle descent towards the Mississippi giving me a good average of nearly 18 mph. Navigating from the suburbs to the centre of Memphis, however, proved to be difficult and frustrating. The signage of numbered highways as the 'X so-and-so memorial highway' led me to eventually ask directions at a gas station as my confidence in my navigationak abilties quavered. After a pleasant ride along the Shelby Farms Greenline, allowing me to bypass several miles of congested roads, and what seemed like forever sweltering under the rising sun as I rode down Union Avenue, I eventually reached another musical highlight: Sun Studio.

It was another case of my own fetishing my musical heroes, but I didn't care - it was so cool to see the effective birthplace of rock'n'roll, where Howlin Wolf, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and a tonne of other cool musicians had made their name. I didn't even realise until I was standing inside the recording room itself that this was where U2 had recorded Rattle and Hum there. But the coolest thing is that it's not just a tourist attraction: by night it's still a recording studio, and musicians can record with the same mics that have been used since the 50s, and play the drumkit left by U2 after they recorded songs like 'When Love Comes to Town' with B.B. King. After purchasing my fair share of merchandise, I headed down Beale Street, a downtown location famous for its harbouring of blues culture. I know it was a Sunday, but man, that town felt dead. Apart from a couple of tourists wandering up and down, the streets were practically deserted, and even the traffic had subsided in comparison to the city outskirts. Bemused, I headed on to my motel for the night, right next to the Memphis-Arkansas bridge, where I got my first glance of the Mississippi. It was strange, but that sight felt highly symbolic to me: a river which had nurtured so much of the social and musical culture which had fascinated me for several years now. And yet simultaneously, it is just a river - the days of steamboat travel and trade are long dead, and now it generally just poses a geographical obstacle to travellers and developers. But to me, there was still something special about this river and all it has stood for. Oppressed by the heat, which was reaching the high 30s, I headed indoors and holed up for the night, slobbing out on food and Comedy Central.

Monday 25th August - Memphis TN to Hazen AR - 98.59m, 993.5 total

It was this day that I decided to make 5:00am starts a regularity - being able to beat the heat, cycling for longer with less traffic, and having more time to be able to sort out potential problems during daylight hours were all benefits which I felt would aid my success levels. After schlepping my bike up a grassy slope, I headed out over the Memphis-Arkansas bridge on the footpath. Sadly, I spent less time gazing back across the river at the Memphis skyline than I did a few feet in front of me, scanning my path for manhole covers and used syringes, encountering several of each.


The view north from the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge as the sun began to peek over the horizon.

Once across the bridge and through the small town of West Memphis, I took full advantage of the flat terrain and gunned it, riding at 20 mph for a full hour to reach Forrest City and then 19 mph between there and Brinkley, where for 'lunch' (I generally have lunch at around 10:30 or 11:00 to boost my energy so I can reach my destination by early afternoon) I drank nothing but milk, orange juice, and sweet tea. Coming into the afternoon, the terrain remained very similar: wooded in a couple of places, but generally flat, arable land, the locals taking full advantage of the fertile plains around the Mississippi to till almost every available area for agrculture.


Looking back towards West Memphis

The heat began to wear me down as the day wore on, and finally, after what I hope will be the longest day of my trip, I reached the small town of Hazen. Or rather, I reached Hazen and then headed directly north to the interstate, where I stopped at my Travel Inn for the night. Although I do enjoy staying with people, the privacy and self-controlled pace of staying in a motel was exactly what I needed, and so I gorged myself on potato wedges before drifting off to sleep.

Tuesday 26th August - Hazen AR to Morrilton AR - 91.86m, 1085.3 total

Another early start through an arguably picturesque morning did not help counteract the hellish morning I faced. After realising that my planned route took me over several miles of gravel backroads, I gritted my teeth and started on my way.


Country road west of Hazen

The shaking numbed my hands, and the bike, not having the benefit of any gravity to pull it along, swerved across the loose stones with almost every pedalstroke. The GoPro mount on my handlebars couldn't take it, snapping and falling apart. When I did finally reach some paved roads I was unsure of the way, but the local drivers weren't the most friendly. One deliberately swerved onto my side of the road in his huge GMC pickup to scare me, and another woman, whom I had seen coming ahead of me for a mile, refused to even look at me, let alone slow down to help, as I stood in the middle of the road, my hands raised, yelling "Please help me!" Once west of Cabot, however, Highway 64 took me through some gentle, undulating countryside, the heat steadily rising. Only a quick stop at a bike shop in COnway to check the health of my tyres broke up the second half of the journey, and I arrived at the Holiday Inn Express in Morrilton, where my host, Karen Caig, had very generously put me up for the night. After checking in and showering, I hung out with Karen and her son Aidan: they were fantastically lively and well-travelled people, with lots of interesting stories and an enthusiasm to induce me into the peculiarities of American life, involving taking me to Walmart and showing me the gun section, an experience both strange and a little scary. After driving up to Petit Jean's Grave, on an outcrop overlooking the Arkansas river and miles of lush countryside, we headed back into town to a Texas steakhouse, where we dined with some of Karen's friends.


The panoramic view looking northeast over Morrilton and the Arkansas River

The atmosphere was great: the food was delicious, and the conversation entertaining, and I was rather sad to have to turn in before 9:00 in order to be up again for 5:00. But it was lovely to meet such wonderful, friendly people, people who can make a lost young Brit feel at home so far from his country. It was nice to tip over the 1000 mile mark and, though still a little melancholy, I went to bed with a definite sense that progress was being made.

Wednesday 27th August - Morrilton AR to Mulberry AR - 90.78m, 1176.1 total

My second full day in Arkansas felt remarkably better than certainly the beginning of the previous day. The terrain wasn't too challenging until I reached Clarksville, when the hills began to rise in front of me as I began to encounter the southern edge of the Ozark range. The signs along the road reminded me that I was cycling the Trail of Tears, along which thousands of Cherokee Indians had been force-marched from North Carolina and eastern Tennessee westwards into Oklahoma, perishing in great numbers along the way. A particularly poignant moment was passing Point Remove, where many had been herded onto boats and simply cast adrift onto the Arkansas River. It was strange to me that such serene lands had once been the scene of such cruelty and inhumanity. The terrain's worst few miles were the last 10, between the towns of Ozark and Mulberry, where the intensifying heat and agonisingly slow climbs began to dissolve my strength, but the views over the landscape helped keep me going. The countryside of northwest Arkansas has been some of the prettiest I've travelled through, evoking memories both of Scotland and Kenya simultaneously: rugged, but somehow almost tropical.


The picture doesn't do either the beauty of the country or the toughness of the hills justice, but they were both there. You'll just have to trust me on that one

Finally arriving in Mulberry, I'd contacted my host for the night, Stacy Muntz, and knew that she wouldn't be back from Fort Smith from work until later, so I hung out at the library, where I chatted to some of the locals, and was even lucky enough to be interviewed by a reporter from a loca newspaper. Stacy's neighbour, Vonna, was kind enough to look after me until Stacy arrived, even driving me around town to show me some of the sights of Mulberry: it was a quiet, sleepy town, but one that felt tighly held together by strong bonds of community and familiarity. When Stacy did arrive, I met her and her husband Bob in their home, an unusual 2-storey affair compared to the majority of bungalows I'd seen so far. Stacy and Bob were wonderful - lively and incredibly generous, they dished up great food and great conversation, and even the mayor of Mulberry, GaryBaxter, and his wife, stopped by to wish me well on my travels and pray for me. As I tucked into some delicious BBQ pulled pork, some friends of Stacy and Bob's arried: Kayla, Doug and Olivia. I felt bad at having to excuse myself from such entertaining conversation after so short a time, but I needed to prepare my stuff for the morning.

Thursday 28th August - Mulberry AR to Warner OK - 78.99m, 1255.1 total

Perhaps it was the freshness of the morning, or perhaps the promise of making it to my midway state, but progress through the remainder of Arkansas into Fort Smith was quick and easy. Stopping briefly as I crossed over the Arkansas River, I contemplated the state who had hosted me so generously, and whose kindness I would not soon forget. The exhileration of reaching the great carven sign welcoming me to Oklahoma was heightened by the sense that, for me, at least, this was where the 'West' really began.


Cool as an incredibly warm, very sweaty cucumber

The first few miles into the state were pretty easy, and the change in the landscape was very noticeable. The landscape opened up as it flattened out, and the plains, through of course scored and dotted by signs of civilisation, rolled away into the distance. The heat, however, was beginning to drag me down, even from early on in the day, but I did get a couple of pick-me-ups. One was encountering this rather interesting sign:


A true champion of the West. His mother must be so proud

And the other was in the town of Vian, about 25 miles east of my day's final destination, Warner. Stopping at Bubba's Dairy Bar for some great road food (a cheeseburger and a shake), and after answering several questions from the staff about myself and my travel plans, I got up to pay and the lady in charge replied - "You don't owe us anything. It's on us. Welcome to Oklahoma!" It's small acts of charity and kindness like this that stops my mind from turning to darker thoughts which wear me down both physically and mentally.

Eventually, after a surprising increase in the rolling nature of the hills and crossing the Illinois River, I reached Warner, where I was welcomed at the First Baptist Church by my host, Sam Dunn. I showered, and bought some provisions with a voucher kindly given to me by Sam on behalf of the church. I then came back and logged on to an available computer, where I was found by 91-year-old parishioner Bob, who at first offered to take me out for dinner, but after my politely declining, instead stayed for a brief chat and a prayer.

I've been typing for almost four hours now. I'm quite tired, and I need to eat. I should go. But I'd like to say something on how I've been mentally. Generally, when I'm on the bike, when I've got some music going, I'm not thinking about that much most of the time. It's when the pace slows that I start thinking negative thoughts about the direction my life is taking, about how I miss my friends and my family, and the constancy and simplicity of life in my small town. Life on the road is undeniably interesting and eye-opening, but moving from day to day, never sleeping in any bed more than twice, is beginning to take its toll on me. The only defence I have against all this is compartmentalisation. By breaking my trip down into day-by-day chunks, I am able to cope with the stresses and strains that moving such great distances can have. Thinking 'Oh I can't wait until I get to California' is simply setting myself up for failure. I'm still really not sure that I'll be able to complete this journey. When I bed down for the night in a church or in a motel, listening to the sounds of the cicadas and the air con, I feel alone, and sometimes, I feel lonely. It's seeing the people I love again that is almost half the motivation for my continuing at this point. But to today. I am thinking only of tomorrow's ride to Prague, to my second full rest day. No further than that. Wake, eat, cycle to my next bed. Then we'll see.

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