By T.R. Foley
I pedaled to the passenger window of the Mitsubishi sports car and pleaded with the gaunt-faced, middle-aged driver to be more considerate of cyclists. He shot back with insults and verbal abuse. I threatened to call the police.
A minute later his wiry frame exploded from the car, a beige University of Tennessee football hat resting atop his mangled gray coif tumbled, as he charged in a wide-eyed, flailing attack.
“I’m going to kill you, motherfucker!” he repeated, spit flying from his mouth as he ran with the flimsy and uncoordinated gait of a drunk. I cranked on my pedals, gaining fifty yards on him quickly and hid behind a yellow-and-red circus tent selling infomercial kitsch and Halloween masks. Crouching behind a display, bike in one hand, small knife in the other, I watched as my attacker returned to his car.
He patrolled the parking lot for the next ten minutes, dedicated to finding me. When his car turned away I sprinted to the nearby garage of an air conditioning repair shop and waited for the police.
It was mid-October, and I had left New York City a few weeks earlier on an unassisted bike trip to profile voters during the 2008 presidential election. My goal was to cycle from my Manhattan apartment to the porch of friends in New Orleans and talk to strangers everyday, all day, for fifty days. My friends worried. How safe would I be in the South, talking politics in the age of Obama? They feared a derelict, moonshine south — caricatures of real people made famous in movies like “Deliverance” — while I thought of my southern neighbors as a mint julep drinkin’ southern aristocracy, or a happy gaggle of Bud Light boozing NASCAR fans. But on the heels of hiding from a rage-aholic underneath a circus tent, I felt a deepening resentment and shyness around strangers. The idealism I packed so proudly in Manhattan and had hailed as my greatest asset to friends now seemed lost in Dixie.
I arrived in Jasper, Georgia — a small marble-producing town in the North Georgia Mountains — a few days later. But because of a bad online address, my iPhone sent me to a chicken farm instead of my hotel.
The houses surrounding the chicken farm were early 20th-century, single-story structures with weedy flowerbeds and old farm implements rusting in the yard. Across the street were a couple of brand-new, two-story brick homes standing firm and apart on a large green hill. The area around the farm felt desperate and alone. The evening was silent and porch lights started to flicker on. As I sat, straddling my bike and scanning the neighboring yards for help, a motorbike appeared from the woods, circled to my right, and came to a stop.
Enter Brian: a well-built 26-year-old construction worker, missing several important teeth, en route to see a friend. Brian listened to a brief explanation of my difficulties, and then pulled a mayonnaise jar full of grapefruit juice, orange juice, and vodka from between his legs, drunkenly insisting that I try some of his brew. I politely declined. Noticing I was sun-burnt and without water, he appealed, “C’mon, I know you need some Vitamin C!”
“Quite alright,” I said as Brian shrugged his shoulders and drank to contentment.
Brian went on to explain that he would have liked to drive me, but he’d just received a second D.U.I., and the court had mandated a breathalyzer ignition lock as part of his probation, leaving the motorbike as his only transportation. “Tell you what, I’ll grab my buddy and his truck,” he said. “It’ll just be a minute or two.”
Fifteen long minutes passed but Brian didn’t return.
Frustrated, I crossed the street to the two-story brick McMansions, hoping the well-to-do family with their new truck and jetski might be in a better position to lend a hand. Alas, despite their well-lit kitchen and living room, and despite an open garage door, and despite the fact I could hear the sound of children playing, this family, like Brian, chose to ignore my heat-stricken and pathetic ass.
Out of options, I stood silent on their porch for a few moments and pondered the complications of complete darkness and how this day might be the end of my trip. Suddenly, and as unexpected as a Tennessee death threat, headlights appeared at the chicken farm.
Brian had taken his sweet, vodka-drinking time, but had finally arrived with a sober-ish friend, truck and directions to the hotel.
“I didn’t think you’d come back,” I said.
He scoffed, “I wasn’t gonna leave you out here all alone, buddy.”
With more than seven hundred miles left to cycle in Dixie, that felt pretty good to hear.
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