Many sides of Kentucky

Kentucky is the state that experienced cyclists warned us about, but like most fears, few of the facts were right. One fear was that we’d get up close and personal with coal trucks. Another fear was that many dogs would chase us. The first 2 dogs that chased me were Dachshunds. Even if their little legs could catch me, they’re too short to reach my pedals. A few bigger dogs chased me after that. I used an anti-dog horn that I have, with very short bursts, and the dogs went away. Other people in my group talk to the dogs or yell a little. We have 10 riders, and none of us have had problems with dogs or the coal trucks that we were warned about.

The risk in Kentucky hasn’t been much greater than riding the streets of Minneapolis, London, or St. Cloud, Minnesota. If anything, I’ve become convinced that fear quickly causes more problems than it solves. Of course, there’s risk in cycling or life, always has been. But at the risk of sounding cliché, the biggest risk is not pushing your limits a bit.

Some of the rewards of taking a risk are in the pictures I’ve already shared. But the best are from the people I’ve met. A special person and story happened a couple of days ago. I’ve finally been feeling in shape, so I wandered toward the front of our group, instead of far behind. (I’ll say again that retirees can be impressive cyclists.) Anyway, being ahead made me more comfortable taking a long lunch. I saw a grocery store, in the town of McAfee, and enjoyed eating my sandwiches and snacks outside of the store, in the shade. After I finished lunch, I went into the store to buy some Gatorade, to finish my standard 4 large bottles a day.

I wandered around the grocery store for a bit, just for the fun of it. I found the Gatorade and walked to the only checkout lane open. The woman at the cash register asked me where I started cycling. We get that question a lot, but this time, it led to a special moment. I answered that we started in Lexington, Virginia, and that we were cycling to Oregon. She gave the surprised response that many give. She paused in scanning my Gatorade bottles and said that her daughter used to enjoy running 5 or 10 miles, as often as she could. The woman continued scanning my Gatorade bottles and added, “until she broke her back. Now, she’s been sad a lot, gained a lot of weight too.”

She told me what I owed her, but I barely had the sense to hand her some cash, since I was sad about what happened to her daughter. She explained how they almost lost her a couple of times, and once, they had to feed her only Jell-O for a while, just to keep her alive.

I finally handed her some money and said, “I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter. How did she break her back?”

The cashier explained her daughter was a nurse, and one night she was taking care of a patient who had psychological problems. The patient thought she was locked up in the hospital and tried to “escape.” In the process, the patient slammed a door that pushed the woman’s daughter back into something hard, which broke her back.

I stood for a moment feeling sad. I also thought about how some people have said that I’m an inspiration. Honestly, that idea doesn’t feel right for me, since I’m on this trip because I love what I’m doing— even with the hills, heat, and dogs. But recently, I’ve decided that I’ll offer some inspiration if it can help someone. Those thoughts went quickly through my mind, so I replied, “I can relate to your daughter a bit. I love working out too, and I have cancer. If it helps, please let her know that and about my ride across the US.”

The cashier sincerely said that she was very sorry about my cancer. Customers were waiting behind me, so I thanked her, took my Gatorade, and walked out of the store. When I got to my bike, I decided to give her one of the business cards that explains my story with cancer and cycling across the US. I took a card out of my handlebar bag, walked back into the store, and gave it to the woman. She thanked me, and I walked out of the store, back to my bike, and started putting on a new layer of sunscreen.

While I was putting the sunscreen away, the cashier walked back to me and said, “I looked at your nice card, thought about it, and decided you should have this. She handed me a $20 bill. I was surprised again, accepted it, and asked for her name. She said, “Crystal.” I said my name was Steven. I warned her that my hands were full of sunscreen, but I wanted to shake her hand anyway. We shook hands. Crystal walked back into the store, and I rode off.

For me, that’s the kind of moments that happen when you put aside some fear and get out in this great world.

Other parts of Kentucky show the tough times the folks here face. Many houses here as nice as houses anywhere else, but other houses show a sadder story, since we’ve cycled through some of the poorest parts of Kentucky.

Any description of Kentucky has to include coal mining. The foreground of the picture to the right shows a store for coal miners. The background shows a mountain top being prepared for removal. They’ll literally blast the top off of that mountain and create an open-pit mine, like they have many times before. I’m opposed to coal mining it for more reasons than I want to get into here, but after meeting people in coal country and seeing how they now live, I respect how they need options for work instead of more criticism about coal mines. Of course, people have tried that for a while, with limited success. But we need to keep trying. Coal is fading away for a lot of reasons, like other forms energy becoming less expensive.

For the sake of the good people of Kentucky that I’ve met, I very much hope we get passed the fears that coal is the only option here and that we push our limits to find other jobs for them.

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