The Detour

Called Along the Way

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When the pickup slowed and the driver looked over at me, I saw only the gun rack. He pulled over ahead of me, got out, and waved me over. I slowed my bicycle and stopped behind the pickup, leaning on one foot—300 hundred miles from home, off my route, and all alone, I felt vulnerable—scared that I might end up like the two bikers in Easy Rider—shotgunned to death.[1] Only in August 1972, I was not motorcycling drugs from California to Florida; I was cycling from Washington DC to start college in Indiana.

“Why did you leave route 50?” His question stoked my anxiety: this guy had obviously followed me for at least the hour trip down route 19 from Clarksburg.

“Route 50 forbids bicycles west of Bridgeport.” I answered. Actually, where route 50 divided into a four-lane highway, the big, green sign had written in white letters: pedestrians, bicycles, motor-driven cycles—prohibited. Elaborating, I continued: “I was detouring south to route 119 where I could continue west.” 

He laughed: “We had 10 bicyclists ride through here last week. Nobody cares about that sign…”

“Really? Thanks for the tip.” I responded as the driver returned to his truck.

This gun-rack angel just saved me from a difficult detour and perhaps an extra day’s travel, I figured as he drove off. Still, I was more than an hour’s ride south of Clarksburg, unfamiliar with the area west of route 19, and without a topographical map in the mountains of West Virginia. Studying the traffic map that I had, I could see that local roads could be used to jog over to route 50 at Salem, about 18 miles off—as the crow flies. Just the sort of challenge that Eagle Scouts enjoy, I thought to myself.

With an official BSA[2] yucca backpack slung over the handlebars, I cycled up route 33 that cuts off route 19, Milfort Street, along Sycamore Creek. As the road ascended uphill into the woods, the grading became progressively rougher. Pavement gave way to gravel, which gave way to dirt which gave way to stones, which gave way to transmission-eating boulders. Walking my bike through shaded, old-growth oaks among the boulders at least gave relief from the morning heat.

As the grading improved and I found myself passing tin-roofed shacks—not abandoned, not maintained, just depressing to look at—I found myself in the Appalachia mentioned on television only during election years and then only in passing. Curious locals asked only—”where y’a headed?” —but must have questioned my sanity as I panted up the hill that morning on a 3-speed bike built mostly for city streets.

My thoughts wandered, focused partly on the war—far off in Southeast Asia, yet ever-present in political rallies, school discussions, and family feuds.

My thoughts wandered, focused partly on the endless hillside that I walked more than peddled. By my fourth day on the road I was used to the sunburn, but relieving my hunger would have to wait until I returned to a more populated area. And I hoped that my canteen water would last until I got there.

My thoughts wandered, focused mainly on a friend I desperately wanted to see and foolishly visited my first night out at a camp west of Winchester, Virginia…Now that my foolishness had legs, the remainder of the trip—like life itself—seemed pointless and cruel. Late in the morning and graciously before I lost my mind, the hillside peaked at the ridge and the grading upgraded to macadam[3] for the first time since leaving route 19.

With the ridge, my thoughts quickened. Gone were the oak trees, the dirt road, and Appalachian poverty—they seemed to melt away like the morning mist in afternoon sun. Present now were bluegrass fields neatly grazed, white boarded fences, and country homes with expansive porches—the only thing missing was an icy cold, root beer. As my bike picked up speed gliding down the hill, a black lab on one porch began to take interest and sounded off as he ran down the yard. I paid little attention, continuing to accelerate. What dog can run 40 miles an hour? I thought, more focused on enjoying the breeze as I picked up speed.

Suddenly, I heard growls as the dog snapped at my left foot—this stupid dog was giving serious chase! Still accelerating, I moved my left foot over to stand with both feet on the right peddle. The dog had seen that trick before and moved to snap at me on the right side. Still accelerating, I moved both feet back over to the left peddle. Before the dog could respond, the road veered sharply to the left. Being on the left peddle, I could not lean into it—I was going too fast, could not break, and ran off the right side of the road into the ditch.

My front wheel slid into a roadside sewer and pitched me over the handlebars. I hit the ground on the other side of the ditch hard—sliding and rolling another 20-30 feet.  I came to a stop face down:  Stunned…Sweating…Speechless…I did not look up; I did not get up; I just lay there barely conscious. No one came running; no one noticed my accident at all.

Finally, I turned my head to see where I was. The dog stood on the road just looking at me. When he saw me look up, he wagged his tail, and wandered off. At that point, I smelled the sewage and sat up not understanding my situation.

I got up and examined my bike. I was sure that it had been ruined, but the front wheel was hardly bent at all. I pulled up a few weeds to clean off the sewage, but I could do nothing about the smell.

I don’t remember much about the trip down route 31 to route 28 and up to Patterson Fork Road that took me into Salem. I remember the heat, the exhaustion, and the hunger; I also remember the anxious desire to call my parents—my emergency dime was ready for action. As I drew closer to Salem, however, I resolved to find a restaurant, to get cleaned up, and to eat lunch before deciding what to do next.

I was feeling sorry for myself as I washed up and got rid of the smell. But my other senses returned as I enjoyed a home-cooked hamburger with fries and that slice of apple pie a la mode. With every bite, I forgot more—more about the dog, more about the foolishness, and more about that irritating smell. Soon, I reflected on the unlikely intervention of that gun-rack angel and I remembered my mileage goal for the day. After lunch, I reported home on my progress, got back on my bike, and cycled on to Ohio.



[2] BSA is short for Boy Scouts of America.


The Detou

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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