Arkansas High Country, days 4 and 5: the kindness of strangers

When we last left our hapless heroine, she was quietly crying in the aisle of a small-town convenience store, having resolved, after a long and difficult day, to quit the race and go home.

I'd had some basic goals before starting ARHC: A) finish; B) get in at least 3-4 days (my longest previous bikepacking trip being two nights); C) learn something from the experience. With the latter two thoroughly achieved, I figured I could assign myself a solid B and go home with my head held up regardless of what anyone else thought.

Looking around in an effort to find something that looked like what I wanted, whatever that was, I noticed a deli counter on one side. A sign listed the hours as closing at 6, and the meats were all covered. "Is it too late to get a sandwich?" I asked the owner. It was, of course, but he looked at me for a moment and then replied, "I'll make you a sandwich."

I carried a random mix of food and a chocolate milk to the counter. The woman at the register took note of the tears streaming down my face and asked, "Are you ok?"

"It's just been a really hard day," I sniffled.

I ate in the small seating area and looked over my maps. There was no hotel until Mt. Magazine State Park. I googled the distance between Waveland and Edwardsville: 7.5 hours. I pictured calling my husband and asking him to make a 15-hour round trip because my race was too hard.

That option off the table, I thought of my DK buddy Matt, who lives in Arkansas: 3 hours for him, plus another 2 back to my car in Little Rock. How would that tearful conversation go? "Hi, remember me? We've met a total of three times. Would you mind spending the rest of your day in the car because I'm tired of riding my bike?"

I'd have been on my way home if I'd been at a convenient place to quit, but no way was I going to ask someone to drive that much because a race I knew would be extremely challenging was turning out to be just that. (And it should be said that both of these guys, as well as several other people, would have rescued me from myself.)

Chris, the store owner, came over as I was reaching this sad realization. We talked for a while about a touring cyclist his family had hosted years ago, about the race, about Rebecca Rusch's May ARHC trip, about what roads I'd taken (men were always asking this, and I was always disappointing them with my lack of route knowledge: "I just followed my GPS."). His kindness couldn't make me feel better about the race, but I did feel less alone.

Eventually I had to leave. With my hopes of a quick escape from the race dashed by logistics, I now had a 13-mile uphill ride to the campground at Mt. Magazine State Park. I'd have to summit the highest point in Arkansas before getting off my bike. I'd have been unhappy about this even if my lights been working, but their failure the previous night had left little hope I'd be able to see (or be seen) in the dark.

Chris came outside and watched me sobbing as I shoving my remaining food into my bags. "Miss, are you sure you're ok?"

I choked out how ready I was to be done and my fears about riding uphill without lights, and he gently suggested a campground around 2 miles back. I'd overlooked the it on my maps but now, recognizing a good plan when I heard one, thanked Chris again and turned back the way I'd come.

A short, flat, paved ride brought me to the campground entrance, where I still had a cell signal, and called home. Almost all of our conversations during the race had been via text, so I imagine it was a bit jarring that the first Jeff heard of my voice in nearly a week was through sobs. He listened while I cried about my terrible day, then filled me in on life at home ("Only the good stuff...I don't want to hear anything bad.") .

I then rode the rest of the way into the campground and tracked down the host (this was actually a consistent problem for me, showing up at a campground after the main gatehouse attendant left) to ask if they had any tent sites. "I'm not sure about here," he began, "but over at the other campground..."

The look on my face at the words "the other campground" must have spoken volumes, because he interrupted himself and said, "Let's just go back to the office and check." When he went into the camper to get keys, his wife reminded him they had an empty site just across the road. I gratefully took it, and before I did anything else, sat down at the picnic table to update Facebook:

"Not very many pictures today. I’m sure it was beautiful, but all I really saw was the ground in front of me as I mostly shoved my bike up hills I couldn’t ride. That was pretty much all of them. My legs were totally fried.

Saturday I rode big miles and ate Fritos for supper, Sunday morning was awful until I got a big breakfast at Subway AND finished the day off with pulled pork. Monday had my second biggest mileage of the trip and was amazing until that big push into the mountains, then I had pork jerky for supper. Today was awful. The best way I can describe it is despair. So many hills, and I pushed my bike up 95% of them. I averaged like 4 mph for like 11 straight hours and I only achieved that speed bc of the downhills. 

I spent A LOT of time crying. A lot. Then I continued to be a sobbing mess at the convenience store where I got my supper (ham and cheese, that means tomorrow will be better, right?). The couple there was super sweet and directed me to this nearby campground since I was clearly in no shape to ride another 20 miles to the next one. 

I was 100% committed to quitting when I got to Waveland, then I googled the distance and realized Jeff would have to drive 7.5 hours to pick me up bc my dumb ass got in over my head. I’m not doing that to him when I’m not injured, so for tomorrow at least I’m moving on. 

 It’s pretty clear to me, though, that the 90 miles thing isn’t going to happen and I need to start giving more respect to my limits and to where and when I can get quality (and quantity) food instead of arbitrary distance, so that kind of screws up the Noah challenge. I’m sorry to all the people who’ve signed up for the next days. If you’d like to donate to Team Noah Foundation you could always make up your own system... $.25/mile, $.50/mile, etc. 

 The thing about doing big things so publicly is then when you fall on your face you do so publicly. And I know most people won’t judge me that this is turning out to be so very hard for me (I mean, I knew it would be, but it’s SO HARD). So thanks for all of your support. I actually had signal and checked in several times and all of the posts picked me up. Oh, and 63.2 miles today. Hard won miles, to be sure."

Waveland Park, 8:38 p.m.
Important social media duties completed, I began setting up my tent, and the magic began. The host and his wife came over to help me set up. Then the park ranger drove by, asked if I needed anything, and drove back to town to buy me some soda. A neighboring camper walked up to see if I'd like some food. Yes, the answer to food was always yes.

By the time I finished showering, my phone was flooded with messages of support from people following my race updates. Family and friends from every stage of my life chimed in to lift me up and encourage me. One of the people I most admire in the world messaged to say, in essence, it's ok to quit if this isn't making you happy. Others, who've pushed through their own demanding and difficult bike tours, took a more tough love stance: "Suck it up, sister. This is what you want to do." There were private messages offering help getting back home and a new route planned for me in case I still wanted to quit but get back under my own power.  The support was overwhelming in the best possible way. It freed me to realize that whatever decision I made would be ok.

My campground neighbor returned with a plate of chicken, baked beans, and corn on the cob. Her husband and dad brought bottles of water and granola bars. They all were so curious about the route, especially my experiences as a woman alone ("I'd never let my wife do that."). Before they left, they asked if they could pray for me, and Ada's prayer was perfect.  My next visitor was the ranger, who plied me with route questions while I ate, and even on a bad day the race was still my very favorite topic.

It took me a long time to go to bed, reading through the messages that continued to flood my phone, and I didn't get in any big hurry the next morning. As I moseyed through my morning packing, the campground host came over with a cup of coffee for me and later returned with a breakfast sandwich his wife had made me and another coffee with milk and sugar. I finally rolled out of camp around 8, still fragile and teary. I didn't know if I'd finish the race or just find a better place to quit, but buoyed by the kindness of friends and strangers, I was at least ready to see what the day held.


  1. Ah, people are sooo nice! How sweet of everyone to rally around you when you needed it!


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