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Not Calm in the Storm

July 1 2012

On June 29th 2012, the Eastern United States experienced one of the worst storms in living memory. Millions were left without power as a ‘derecho’ hit the states of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. I was caught right in the middle, and it’s only thanks to the community of Buckhannon, WV that I am still on track to reach New York City by the end of July.

The heat has been astonishing this whole trip. Aside from a few chilly nights at elevation, I’m pretty sure the temperature has been above 80 degrees every single day. More recently, at least 90 since I crossed the Continental Divide! To counter it I’ve been sitting out the hottest hours of the day in libraries, gas stations, and, more commonly now I’ve returned to civilisation, McDonalds. Free wifi and refillable soft drinks for a dollar makes it a pretty tempting place to avoid the mid-afternoon heat.

This is what happened in Buckhannon. I arrived in the town just after lunchtime, saw the McDonalds and pulled in. Settling down with my laptop and a Dr Pepper, I browsed the usual: BBC, Facebook, Cricinfo, then caught up on my eternally lagging journal and pretended to write some blog posts. At 5pm I’d come to the conclusion that I was done riding for the day – since I had no time pressure after leaving the Trans-America route behind at Lexington, KY, and make a bee-line straight to DC in order to save myself around 400 miles, I could afford such luxuries as a 35 mile day. Besides, I’m becoming increasingly unable to ride on a bladder full of soft drink!

One employee on his break began chatting to me about England. He couldn’t believe that we don’t carry guns in the UK, and felt the need to apologise after mentioning the Civil War. I was distracted, as he began listing all the guns he owned, by the looming black clouds overhead. Concerned that this could leave me in for a wet night in the tent, I jumped online to find a severe thunderstorm warning for the area. It said that it would be gone by 9pm though, so I could just sit it out in the restaurant then set up camp in the city park after it had moved on. Seemingly fool proof, especially as a post-storm town is unlikely to be concerned about someone in the city park after close.

I watched with the young workforce as the storm clouds gathered. I ventured outside to get a better sense of the atmosphere and that’s when things changed. The sky was as dark as I’ve seen it, the air was still yet there was a noise like the distant charge of a rhinoceros. It felt like a scene out of Twister. When an electricity box exploded I ran back inside the restaurant, before turning and realising that my bike was still outside so fort the now terrifying winds to get it inside.

The rain was pounding and the winds banged against the glass doors. It seemed as though they were shatter any instant. The storm was far more intense than I had anticipated, and now my plans to camp later on seemed unfeasible. Then the power went in the restaurant for the fourth and final time and my world collapsed in with it. With rumours flying round of fires throughout the city, panicked employees called parents and relatives to arrange lifts home. The restaurant was closing and I had no idea what to do.

The storm was ravaging on, with no sign of relenting, and in a few minutes I would be locked out into it. I sat down just as my legs gave way and began breathing as deeply as I could, trying to ignore the trembling in my hands and tears welling in my eyes. What do I do? Where do I go? This storm is terrifying even for those with homes to shelter in, what am I expected to do?

I tried to rationalise my situation, believing that nobody would really kick me out into weather like this, and I was right. The Manager allowed me to stay until they’d cleaned up, which bought me maybe half an hour. She didn’t seem overly keen but I think the wideness of my eyes and the panic in my breaking voice convinced her.

That half an hour was all I needed. Two flashing sirens pulled into the car park and I ran out to speak to them. Crouched down between the two police cars I listened to them work out where to take me. They settled on the emergency shelter at the top of the hill, but with their radios being down they had no way of communicating with it. I wasn’t keen on being on top of a hill in a thunderstorm, but my options were zero at this point. The manager kindly let me store my bike in the break room of the restaurant, and I jumped in the back of the police car.

Trying to regain my composure I sat quietly and listened to them debate the situation. The 911 centre was out, the radio communications were down, they had no way of knowing where they were needed to be, or where they should take me. The Emergency Shelter wasn’t even close to being operational when we arrived there, and whilst the ‘good cop’ was speaking to the man in charge, the ‘bad cop’ ignored my questions and generally made me feel uncomfortable. I started to wish that I had cycled on to the next town earlier on.

The police dropped me off at the hospital where I sat in the waiting room all night listening to the stories of the people that showed up for A&E. They were mainly elderly people who’d taken knocks to the head, but there were a couple of men who’d be caught by branches whilst trying to clear roads. I felt guilty for being there. I’d chosen to cycle across the country cheaply and could’ve easily been in a motel rather than sleeping in a hospital. Tired but relieved, I broke down outside as I checked in with my SPOT GPS Messenger. Completely mentally drained I curled up on a couple of chairs and fell asleep, only to be woken a little later by a nurse with a blanket and an offer of a reclining chair in another room.

Unsure what to expect when I woke up stiff and still tried the next morning, I stumbled around the hospital wing looking for someone to talk to. It was like ’28 Days Later’ except I didn’t have a hospital gown on. Eventually I discovered the power was out and that nothing in town was open. Concerned now about how to feed myself and how I would get my bike back from a closed McDonalds restaurant, I tried my best to remain calm. The hospital canteen gave me some eggs, cereal and oatmeal, which I wolfed down (I hadn’t eaten since before arriving at McDonalds yesterday) and then strolled down to Maccas, having established that I would be welcomed back at the hospital if I couldn’t get my bike.

The town was a mess. There were trees and branches all over the place, power lines strewn across the roads, miniature lakes at every junction. It seemed chaotic, yet the people were calmly driving around, checking on their friends and neighbours, trying to be accountable in an unsettling situation. The McDonalds staff had turned up for work but without being able to cook were just cleaning out the kitchens. I grabbed my bike and went off in search of food, having heard that only the gas stations by the highway were open. They were, but only to sell drinks and cigarettes for cash – no fuel. This resulted in many irate customers, so I made the decision to cycle to the next town before somebody shot someone. Hopefully the situation would be better there.

Elkins is about 30 miles down the road. I say ‘down’ – I had to climb over 4 significant ridges, with temperatures yet again over 90 degrees. I just kept grinding away, anticipating a wonderfully refreshing Gatorade when I got there. I pulled into the gas station on the edge of town, saw a queue of customers at the door and joined it. I got to the front, saw an offer for Dr Pepper and asked for that. “I’m sorry, sir, we’re only selling cigarettes.” I flipped. I had cash, the Dr Pepper was beside the door, I didn’t care about getting change, I’d just cycled 30 miles in the heat over 2500’ of elevation gain. I probably didn’t need to tell him that he ‘could be killing me’, but I was incredulous. What a ridiculous situation!

A young man on a BMX heard my exchange and told me about Kroger’s community kitchen, he offered to show me the way. We got there, eventually after my new friend crashed into a kerb, and found a sea of people waiting for barbequed hot dogs and lemonade. It was such a change from the profiteering of GoMart – who I am now officially boycotting. I ate 10 hot dogs and a gallon of lemonade. Then a member of staff got me a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, and told me about the storm heading in overnight. The route out of Elkins was over 4 genuine mountains, and not fancying being caught on top of a mountain in another storm like last night, I asked about an emergency shelter and was directed towards the school.

There was nobody at the school, so I got some much needed shut-eye in the baseball dugout. When someone did arrive, The Lions Club, they told me the shelter wouldn’t be opening today, gave me two apples and told me to go to the homeless shelter. I didn’t feel at all comfortable with this, but eventually realised it was my only real choice as the motels were without power.

I had to be breathalysed as part of the check in process at the shelter. I’ve never felt so fake and out of place in my whole life. I’m not homeless; I’m a traveller with no fixed abode. I take each day as it comes and rely a lot on the kindness of strangers when things are tough. I had no right to be there. I had made the choice to live this way, the other occupants of the shelter, whilst not knowing their stories, find it hard to believe they want or would choose to be there. I went to bed feeling terrible.

My roommate, Reuben, asked about my journey before I left the next morning. I told him about how I have cycled 4,000 miles across the US without any training or experience. How I believe anyone can do it if they want to. How it’s genuinely pretty easy. He told me that I’d inspired him to get out of the shelter, as it would be possible if he put his mind to it. This warmed my heart, I felt better for having used the shelter as a result, and felt a little inspired myself – I’m definitely going to write my story once I’m done.

I passed over the four mountains easily, and before I knew it I was over the ‘Eastern Continental Divide’ and into the flat of a valley. I found a park on the outskirts of Petersburg to camp in where there were no ‘no camping’ signs and just a handful of people, including one lady who loved everything English and was delighted to have met me. I slept on a picnic table underneath a shelter, so had a roof but no walls, as another storm rolled in at midnight. It woke me up, but thankfully the shelter was large enough that I could remain dry. My only concern was for the idiots in their pick up trucks who’d come to the car park to do donuts, narrowly avoiding crashing into my shelter. After they left I was able to sleep in relative comfort until the morning, when I woke to an incredibly thick fog and the final chapter of my West Virginian weather dramas.

Despite being unable to see more than ten feet in front of me, I successfully negotiated my way out of the valley and to the McDonalds in Morefield where I treated myself to a pancake breakfast, fuelling myself for the 4 mile 10% climb to the Virginian state climb. The first two miles passed before I’d realised I was climbing, but once I did suddenly the bike became really heavy and my gears began to grind. It was only a 40 minute climb but sweat was pouring down my face and I downed two Gatorades at the state line summit!

When I got to Front Royal, VA, it was only 4pm but I could see more clouds rolling in, so headed to the Visitor Centre for advice. They rang the church at my suggestion but they ‘only cater for groups’, which seems ridiculous to me; it’s not my fault nobody wants to do this with me! Instead, one of the Visitor Centre employees offered me her backyard, if the homeless shelter was full. The shelter didn’t answer the phone, so instead I made my way to Katey’s where I slept in her basement to avoid the storm that never materialised.

This whole chapter has reinforced my faith in humanity. Ok, things weren’t perfect, but I am safe and healthy thanks to other people’s help and kindness. I wouldn’t have made it across America without that, and I dread to think what would have happened in Buckhannon had McDonalds refused to shelter me, or the police refused to help me, or the hospital refused to let me stay. But they didn’t. People are good.

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