“I think we have everything, Sweetie,” Jeff says to me as we lock the door and head to the car. We both stop and look at the back end of the car.
“I guess it would help if I had my bike,” Jeff says as he turns around and heads back into the house. Soon, he returns to place his bike on the bike rack next to mine. We get into the car and head toward East Prairie, Missouri for the 2016 Tour de Corn.
We arrive at East Prairie around 6:30 p.m. East Prairie, Missouri is a small town in the Bootheel of Missouri. The normal population is just above 3,000. This weekend there is an influx of nearly 1,000 cyclists and many people from the nearby towns who have come to enjoy the Sweet Corn Street Party which is being held in the 2 blocks that comprise “downtown.” Downtown is abuzz with activity. Some of the roads are closed for the Husker’s Charity 5K run. Cars, trucks, Gators, golf carts and a trolley fashioned like a miniature train dominate the rest of the streets. Our red car adds to the confusion as we ramble through the backstreets and eventually find a parking spot near the street party. We exit our car and the smell of livestock assaults us. Approximately 100 feet to our left is a pen of goats for children to pet. The June heat has not made that booth appealing. We head to the right and maneuver around the scrambler ride and weave our way in and out of food venders and jewelry salesmen to find the ride registration in the drive-through of the local bank.
We gather our registration packets complete with our ride numbers, leave the bank drive-thru and head to the party. The band playing in the town gazebo is actually pretty good. Jeff and I meander past Tupperware saleswomen, jewelry makers, food stands, sellers of tacky t-shirts, plastic balloon animals and the like. We turn the corner and see a group of children excitedly dipping small, green nets into a bright blue children’s wading pool. From the pool, they are scooping small turtles into their nets. The children squeal with delight, examine the turtles, and then return them to the pool. This is an educational exhibit on wetlands environments which is being hosted by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The exhibit has a great deal of information about animals and vegetation of the wetlands. I find it interesting, but the kids don’t care about the educational posters. They just want to hold a turtle. We move to the next booth which is also hosted by the Department of Conservation. It informs us of the dangers of the Asian Carp, an invasive fish species which endangers the local ecosystem and injures humans. The conservation officers are also doing something I never thought I would see conservation officers do: frying fish. They are instructing the public on how to catch, clean and cook Asian Carp. Behind the posters warning of the dangers of the Asian Carp is a deep fryer frying up plates of the fish and they are selling them to the public. We decide not to bite and continue our journey through the festival where we see adventurous souls taking camel rides. The camels look bored as they walk on a leash while being led by a large man in a red shirt as children ride them around their oval shaped enclosure. Near the camels a crowd is gathering around a neighboring pen. Jeff and I are curious and go to see what is attracting the crowd. The pen is square. The crowd is gathered on three sides of the square. A livestock trailer is parked parallel to the back side of the square pen. Inside the pen is a small, horseshoe-shaped race track with a numbered starting gate on one end of the horseshoe. What is going on? Pig racing! My inner redneck is intrigued. I must watch! The barker is engaging the crowd and the kids are going wild. The gates open and 4 little black piglets race around the track. They are quick. The next group is a little larger and a little slower. The third group are fat, potbellied pigs and they are not motivated to move. They meander around the track, much to the delight of the crowd. One stops on the track and the crowd hoots and hollers as the “Zookeeper,” aptly named Hambone, pretends to be failing at attempts to push the pig while the pig does not budge. The races end and the crowd disperses. It is hot and I’m thirsty. All night, I have seen people drinking from pineapples. I want to drink from a pineapple. Jeff wants to leave and go to the hotel. We find the pineapple drink booth and purchase drinks; pina colada (no alcohol) for me, peach for Jeff. Jeff loves his drink. I remind him I’m the best wife in the land.
The sun is setting, as we leave the festival and head to our hotel in Sikeston. We wheel our bikes around a bus unloading senior citizens, through the lobby, into and out of the small elevator, down the narrow hallways and into our room for the night. We prepare for the ride tomorrow, pin our numbers onto our jerseys and go to sleep a little later than planned, but happy for the night we have had.
What is that noise? What is that terrible noise? Where is it? I must kill it! What is it? It is my alarm clock. I fumble in the dark, hit snooze, take my medication and place my head on the pillow for a precious 10 minutes until that horrible sound reoccurs. We stumble from bed, dress, procure coffee, eat, load bicycles onto the car and head down the road to East Prairie.
East Prairie is pandamonium. Cyclists are everywhere: riding up and down the streets, unloading bikes from the backs of cars, swarming the registration area and lining up for the ride. I am thrilled we are registered and already have our numbers pinned to our jerseys. Today there will be no running back and forth from car to registration desk and back to car. We are pre-registered, waivers have been signed, numbers have been secured to jerseys. This is the most prepared we have ever been for a ride. I already feel like a winner. Helmets, shoes, gloves, Garmins, bikes and we’re heading to the line up. Here we go into the swarm.
On our way to the start line, we see our friend, Shon. We chat for a few minutes and then weave our way through family riders to get closer to the front of the ride. Someone I can’t see makes a few announcements and then begins singing God Bless America. I decide to sing along in Jeff’s ear. I try to get him to sing, knowing full well Jeff would rather a hole opened up and the earth swallow him whole than to sing publicly. I am amused by his discomfort. Perhaps this is disrespectful, but I just never have seen the need for jingoism at the start of a minor sporting event. After the singing stops, we are asked to bow our heads and a prayer is offered. I don’t see the need for overly patriotic songs to be sung, but I do see the need for prayer before each and every bike ride. I bow my head and pray to God for the safety of all the riders and for guidance in my own behavior that I might not be discourteous to other riders or civilians. The prayer is offered, amen echoes throughout the crowd and the ride begins to the the tune of Gonna Fly Now (you know, the theme from Rocky 3).
Here we go into the fray. Cyclists are riding shoulder to shoulder as we roll down the main street of town. The townspeople are lining the street shouting encouragement and taking photos. We pass the local school and cheerleaders aged 5-10 are chanting not quite in unison, “Let’s go, cyclists. Let’s go!” with the encouragement of teen cheerleaders behind them. The crowd is filled with enthusiasm as am I. We leave East Prairie feeling like heros.
I do feel like a hero and I am cycling well as we travel the first leg of our journey. I am riding faster on this leg of the journey than I ever have in the past. Still, I am being passed. I am being passed by strong riders. I am being passed by people who appear to be novices. I am not happy about this. I remind myself it is a long day and the goal is to finish not to be the first arrival at the first rest stop. I continue pedaling. I am being passed again. This time I am being passed by a large man in a bright orange, yellow and green cycling kit. He has a GoPro camera mounted to his helmet, a camelback hydration backpack attached to his back and so much luggage on his bike I’m not sure what color it is. He is followed by a large blonde woman wearing a fanny pack. They pedal confidently past me and then they pass Jeff who is riding a few yards ahead of me. I remind myself that many of these riders who are now passing me will fade later in the ride. Gadgetman swerves in front of Jeff and heads for the driveway of one of the implement dealerships we are passing. Well that didn’t take long. His woman pedals ahead clueless that she has lost her man. She is riding well ahead of us now just ahead of another group of cyclists when suddenly and abruptly she stops. The group ahead of us swerves to avoid her. We too maneuver around her. Well that is that. Two down. It pays to remember this is a long day.
I feel good as we continue along our route. Today’s goal is 63 miles. We are pedaling along a highway which is bordered by businesses serving the local farm community. The businesses surrender to the farm fields upon which the local economy depends. Most of the fields yield corn crops, but the field we are passing on our right is raising beautiful sunflower plants. It is a beautiful sight even with their faces turned away from us. They are facing the one they serve: the sun. The sun is low in the eastern sky giving its light to the sunflowers and warming our right shoulders. It is still low in the sky, but it is climbing and gaining strength. As the sun warms the earth, we continue our journey.
We turn off the main road onto a paved secondary road. I sense orange creeping into my peripheral vision. Gadgetman and his woman are passing me again. They sit very upright on their bikes and I have the feeling I will be passing them again soon. I do not want to play bicycle leap frog and I groan inwardly. Surprisingly, they keep up their pace until they reach the first rest stop where they stop abruptly in the road and dismount their bikes.
The first rest stop is located at a mowed field adjacent to an old board barn. I wonder if there was once a home located here. Today it is full of cyclists. I know from past experience there will be a bluegrass band, sweet corn and homemade snacks. On the one hand, it would be a shame to pass up a good party; however, on the other hand, it would be good to get in some miles before the sun gets any higher in the sky. I am feeling good. Jeff is feeling good. We decide to get in the miles and leave Gadgetman and the first rest stop behind us.
Ahead of us on the long, straight blacktop are several groups of cyclists. Their jerseys are bright spots of confetti against the black road. We follow behind them until we make our way to an intersection. The 30 milers go left. We go right. We pedal along our route until we see it: “the big hill.” As I have previously noted, every ride has a “big hill.” This ride is no exception. We are approaching “the big hill” for this ride. We climb the overpass, cross over I-57, roll down the ramp into Bertrand.
Bertrand offers smooth pavement and shade. I remember that in past years we arrived at this town much later in the day and I needed to stop and rest in the shade. Today, I feel good and we keep rolling. The sun keeps climbing in the sky. I am feeling warm. I am feeling tired. I am ready for a break. We have cycled nearly 20 miles when we reach the small town of Diehlstadt. It does not make a great first impression. On the left is the Diehlstadt Bar & Grill, which is a shabby block building with iron bars on the windows and door. On the right is a small home which I couldn’t describe because I am distracted by the lavender porch swing in the front yard which is being held aloft by a metal frame painted fluorescent coral. We roll past these eyesores, round the curve in the road and find more pleasant homes lining the road. A couple of residents wave from their truck as we pass them. We follow the road out of town and continue toward rest stop number 2.
We find rest stop number 2 at mile 25. I welcome this stop and congratulate myself on riding 25 miles without stopping. This is a great rest stop and is manned by one of the local churches. We leave the pavement, roll into a long gravel drive lined on either side by tall shade trees with fern-like leaves (black walnut?), dismount and find ourselves in the midst of a crowd of cyclists refueling with snacks and water. We do the same.
We eat some small snacks, my favorite being the orange wedges. I quickly finish my 24 ounce bottle of plain water and start downing my electrolyte bottle. In no time I have finished the 24 ounce bottle of electrolyte infused water. Today, I started with lemon lime Skratch laboratory in the electrolyte bottle. It is delicious. Our hosts supply us with bottled water which we empty into our Polar bottles. I add CamelBak tangerine-orange to one of my bottles. Our hosts also offer us paper towels which have been soaking in ice water. We take them and wipe our faces and necks with them. We lay them across the back of our necks while we refuel. We feel cooler; refreshed.
Feeling refreshed, we walk our bikes to the road, remount and continue our journey. We round a curve in the road and see to our right a group of about 20 teens hoeing weeds in a field with all the enthusiasm you might expect of teens working in the hot June sun on a Saturday morning. We pass the teens only to see a SAG truck stopped. The SAG driver is helping a cyclist with a flat tire. We continue along our route.
Our route turns to the right taking us east. The pavement is smooth and we are enjoying ourselves. A SAG truck passes us with a surrendering rider in the cab and a bicycle on the bike rack. We continue for a few miles then turn to the south. The wind hits us in the face. Our pace slows. We turn east again, out of the wind and our pace quickens. Then we turn south into the wind and our pace slows. I am tiring. Fortunately, we have arrived at our next rest stop.
We roll into the rest stop hot and tired, but much earlier than we arrived at this spot last year. We have now completed 35.6 miles. Gadgetman and his woman arrive shortly after we do. I am not excited to see them. I am excited to have a big slice of watermelon. It is refreshing. I don’t feel especially hungry, but I feel it would be wise to eat something else. Neither cookies nor bananas appeal to me. I spot another cyclist eating chips. I suddenly covet them and feel motivated to see if I can find some for myself. I find them. True to the theme of the event, they are sweet corn chips. They are crisp and delicious supplying me with the thing my body is craving: salt. I eat the salty chips, down all my water and electrolyte drink, refill water bottles then take a few photos with Jeff.
After we are done with photos, we resume our route. We walk our bikes out of the gravel drive, past the running Missouri State Highway Patrol vehicle, pass the SAG truck with yet another bicycle being carried home to the paved road. We resume our ride. My legs are a little stiff and the wind is pushing against us. After a few minutes, my legs loosen, but the wind does not relent. We press on. After about 5 miles we turn east again and I am pleased the wind is no longer pushing against us. The pedaling becomes easier and our pace increases. The heat continues to build. I am guzzling from my electrolyte bottle as I ride. I’m getting more graceful with this skill. Ahead our country blacktop intersects with a somewhat busier highway. Beside the stop sign is a large tree yielding enough shade for two or three cyclists to enjoy. I stop for traffic and Jeff stops behind me. I know we are close to the next town, but I am a glutton for the shade. I rest beneath tree guzzling cool water. A tan, lean, muscled, female cyclist passes us and asks if we are doing ok. We assure her we are. She continues along the road as we prepare to follow her. Am I hallucinating? I hear music. Specifically, I hear Curtis Lowe being sung by Lynard Skynard. I turn and look: Gadgetman is passing us. He has a music playing device amongst his other gadgets. He does not acknowledge us, but pedals down the highway. His woman is nowhere in sight. Jeff and I leave our shady spot and follow. Before long, we arrive in Charleston and find the next rest stop.
The next stop is hosted by the Mississippi County Historical Society located on Main Street in Charleston, Missouri. We arrive at the stop and dismount our bikes in the street and then lean them against one of the many shade trees lining the large yard. Gadgetman appears out of nowhere and stands with his bike just a few inches from me. He is blocking my path to the walkway leading from the street to the Victorian era house which is bordered with folding tables of snacks and coolers of bottled water. We make our way around Gadgetman, greet our hostesses, secure some snacks and head to the wrap-around porch of the historic home. We take seats on the rocking chairs that have been provided and eat our snacks. Nearby a group of men including Gadgetman discuss the benefits of a CamelBak hydration system. They compliment themselves on being smart enough to find a way to drink water on the bike without stopping. Personally, I prefer water bottles. I can drink and ride without having something attached to me making me hotter. I keep these opinions to myself and finish my snacks as Gadgetman’s woman appears on the porch.
After finishing my snacks and water, I head inside to use the facilities so nicely provided by the Historical Society. I remove my shoes as requested, open the large wooden door and enter the house-turned-museum. The door makes a satisfying creaking sound as I open and gently close it. I walk shoeless across the thick, antique carpets passing antique tables, chairs, china, lamps and home furnishings. I make my way to the back of the house to a somewhat modern bathroom. In past years, the upstairs portion of the house was also open so that there were two restrooms available to cyclists. Unfortunately, that was not the case this year and as luck would have it someone tried to open the door while I was in the one available bathroom. Seriously? Who doesn’t knock? I let the rube know the room is in use; and yet, this brainiac tries the door again. Well, it’s a hook and latch lock. It seems to be holding well. I take advantage of the sink to wash my hands and arms, and then splash some water on my face. Indoor plumbing is a beautiful thing. I unlatch the lock and open the large wooden door, but my exit is blocked by Gadgetman and his woman. They do not seem to grasp the concept that they aren’t getting in until I exit. Somehow, I make my way through them while neither makes eye contact with me or acknowledges me. I am wondering if they are going in together when the woman asks Gadgetman, “Haven’t you already gone?” Why does she think he was waiting outside the door? My morning prayer must be working because I succeed in keeping my snarky comments from leaping out of my mouth.
I meet Jeff at the front door. I am exiting as he is entering. I warn him about the couple, but he continues on his path to the restroom. Later as we are riding he will tell me of his encounter with Gadgetman’s woman.
Jeff waits his turn to use the facilities. Gadgetman’s woman begins to exit the restroom, stops in front of Jeff and abruptly turns around reenters the restroom and turns out the light. She once again exits the restroom, stops in front of Jeff without acknowledging him, turns around and heads back to the restroom and closed the door. She then brushes past Jeff without a word and makes her way to the front door leaving Jeff to wonder at her bizarre behavior. He tells me this story as we leave the rest stop and make our way through beautiful Charleston, Missouri.
We leave Main Street and turn left onto a side street and head east. The street is lined on either side by historical homes in good repair. Their doorways and porches are decorated in flowers and bunting. The yards are well-maintained and landscaped with flowering and non-flowering plants. I’m in no hurry as we pedal through this part of Charleston. I enjoy the scenery as we continue on this leg of our journey. Soon it is over. We make two right hand turns and enter a busy highway that leads to the downtown area. The traffic is light and courteous as we travel just a few short blocks on this road before turning south again toward the outskirts of town. We make our way out of town into a mild headwind. A dark cloud is building in front of us. The temperature may be dropping and the wind is gathering some strength.
“Here it comes! The biggest hill of the ride!” Jeff shouts to me over his shoulder.
“I thought we already did that!” I say as I laugh.
“I don’t know which one is bigger.” Jeff replies.
Once again, we cross I-57. Once over the overpass, we see rain ahead of us on the prairie. We feel sprinkles. We are not concerned. The rain feels good and we see no lightning. We continue on our way, but the wind fights us. It is becoming stronger. We see a shed with some farm implements. We take shelter there and consult the radar on our cell phones. The shed is two very tall, long portable garages which are open at each end. Each shed has a roof and one wall covered by sheet metal. They have been placed close enough together to eliminate the need to finish the other wall on each of them. An eighteen wheeler is parked in one bay while a smaller grain truck and combine are parked in the other. We take shelter near the combine and I mentally note that this would not be a great place to be in a tornado; and yet, it offers some protection from the wind and rain. It doesn’t offer as much protection as I would like because the sheds covered walls parallel the road leaving the south end open to allow the south wind to funnel into the shed. Still, I’m happy for what cover I can get. The radar shows us that the storm is small and will be moving through the area quickly. It also shows us there is lightning nearby even though we don’t see it. We wait a few minutes for the storm to pass and then venture out of the shed.
As we step out of the shed, I notice just across the road, behind a row of trees is a bar and grill. I guess we could have been in a building. We don’t have time for regrets so we continue on our way. The road is lightly damp as we start down the road, but as we travel it becomes wetter and wetter. Before long we are dodging large puddles of water. I believe our choice to stop and wait for the storm to pass was a good one. Although there is a headwind, it is much cooler now. The sun is not done. It once again shines through the clouds and begins to heat our heads. Again, I am reaching for the electrolyte bottle and guzzling what I can. There is very little shade along this stretch of road. I am tiring when we reach the highway. This is the same highway on which we left town. It is busier now than it was earlier. We must stop and wait on a few cars. We have arrived at this point of the ride much earlier than we ever have in the past. So while there are more cars on the road than there were earlier, it isn’t as busy as it will be in a few hours. We enter the highway and encounter a few drivers, most of whom are courteous. We ride the highway passing the same implement dealerships we passed on the ride out. After a mile and a half we make a left turn off the busy highway onto a blacktop. I’m glad to be out of the traffic. I will be happier to be at the rest stop. I am tired and I am hot. We are passed yet again by the SAG vehicle with another bike on the back then we come into Anniston and find our rest stop at the community center.
We leave our bikes leaning against the brick building and enter the community center. It is air-conditioned and it feels great. It is mild chaos inside. The community center resembles a church. When you walk in the front door, you are at the back of the community center. Looking all the way across the room is a long counter that runs the width of the room. Upon it are several treats: sweet corn, orange wedges, bananas, peanut butter sandwiches, homemade cookies. These goodies are being served to cyclists by the volunteers who stand behind the counter. Cyclists mill about in front of the counter. They sit in groups in plastic chairs pulled up to long, white folding tables which are arranged in rows to the right and to the left with a center aisle much as you would find in a church. I stand just inside the door to the left of it. To my right is the men’s restroom where Jeff has headed. To my left is the ladies room. I stand and wait my turn. The door opens and I am face to face with Gadgetman’s woman. She does not make eye contact, speak, or acknowledge me in any way. She stops, turns around, and pulls the door closed. I speak up and let her know she doesn’t need to close the door because I am going inside. She ignores me. You definitely meet some interesting people when you do these charity rides.
I meet Jeff at one of the tables. We extol the virtues of peanut butter. Peanut butter is possibly the best thing to have at a rest stop. We eat our peanut butter sandwiches, orange wedges and part of a cookie. Jeff is contemplating another sandwich. I look at him and ask, “Do you know they have sweet corn up there?
“NOOOOO!” he says looking at me wide eyed. We both wonder how he missed it. He goes back to the counter and secures an ear of corn slathered with butter. I want to take a photo of him gorging himself on the sweet corn; but alas, we have both left our phones in our bike bags. I watch and laugh as Jeff devours the corn. We tidy our table, thank our hosts, and exit the air-conditioning.
We leave Anniston and pedal into the heat to complete the last leg of our journey. We only have 7.8 miles to the finish line. I’m excited because I still feel reasonably energetic. The first time I rode this route, it took me a long time to complete these last miles. I stopped every mile or so. I won’t be doing that today. I am riding —OUCH! What is that? Ouch! There it is again. I swat at my back and when my hand grazes the wing I know exactly what is biting my backside. It is a horsefly. It keeps coming back and attacking. I nearly wreck the bike trying to get it off me. Finally, Jeff is able to get rid of it. I breathe a sigh of relief and keep cycling.
Soon, I spot the water tower of East Prairie. It grows larger and larger on the horizon. We enter East Prairie and follow the main street through town. We pass the local grocery store, the school, the man of questionable sobriety walking down the street. We cruise through the town and make our way to the Family Life Center where we have started. We have made it. We have made it faster than we have ever made it before. There is even some of the spaghetti dinner left. It has been a great ride.