Have bike, will make friends

The Nada Tunnel (left) in the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky; and avid cyclist and bed-and-breakfast owner Joe Bowen (above) with the bike he rode across the country.
The Nada Tunnel (above) in the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky; and avid cyclist and bed-and-breakfast owner Joe Bowen with the bike he rode across the country.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
The Nada Tunnel in the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky; and avid cyclist and bed-and-breakfast owner Joe Bowen (above) with the bike he rode across the country.
The Nada Tunnel in the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky; and avid cyclist and bed-and-breakfast owner Joe Bowen (above) with the bike he rode across the country.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

A journey on two wheels through the back roads of eastern Kentucky offers beautiful scenery and interesting encounters

Ale-8-One is a ginger ale-like soda usually sold in glass bottles and popular in the hills of eastern Kentucky. During a bike trip through the region last month, for example, I washed down a burger with one on the back porch of a bed-and-breakfast owned by a man who once walked more than 4,800km across America on stilts.

I rarely drink soda. But what is the point of travel if not to have new experiences?

Eastern Kentucky, Appalachian coal country, was, in truth, a rather random destination, the result of browsing the routes plied by Megabus and realising I could get to nearby Lexington from New York for only US$63 (S$85), round trip. (Warning: The bus trip is far from direct and took me 17 hours on the road, with two connections.)

As my method of transit within the state, I chose a bicycle.

Bikes are the most social form of transport. People wave to you and you can stop anywhere to fill a water bottle. Although Kentucky has plenty of beautiful scenery, my hope was that this trip would be about people.

Bikes are the most social form of transportation. People wave to you and you can stop anywhere to fill a water bottle.

After some e-mail messages and telephone calls with two avid Lexington cyclists - Mr Randy Thomas, president of the Bluegrass Cycling Club, and Mr Allen Kirkwood of the non-profit Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop - I had a four-day, almost 260km back-roads route through a bit of bluegrass country, best known for its horses and bourbon, and then east into the hills.

I would pass by Red River Gorge in Daniel Boone National Forest, and tiny towns with nary a restaurant or motel, before picking up about 32km of a new bike and horse path, the Dawkins Line Rail Trail.

It ends near a small town called Paintsville, which happens to be home to a rare Enterprise Rent-a- Car office that could get me back to Lexington and my return bus.

But first, the bike. At Scheller's Fitness and Cycling in Lexington, a Trek Domane 4.3 was US$160 for up to a week. Once I had wended my way out of the city, things got scenic fast: car-free country lanes lined with deep-brown, four-rail fences enclosing lush pastures dotted with horses that barely moved in the heat.

A couple of hours in, things began to change. Horses gave way to cows, fences got shabbier, the paint on homes more weathered. And I finally began to encounter people, as in the tiny, worn centre of North Middletown, population of 650 or so, where I stopped at a gas station and convenience store that was - typically, I would later learn - the lone source of action in town.

Back on my bike, I headed through a route dotted with barns. Slender gaps in the boards of one older barn created a strobe effect. Outside another, dozens of goats lounged in the shade, only to scatter as I approached, as had horses earlier in the trip.

Close to 50km later, after an unfussy US$9.99 catfish dinner at Kathy's Country Kitchen in Clay City, I checked into the nondescript Abner Motel (US$60 for the night), expecting to collapse on my bed.

However, Mexican ranchera music was playing in the carpark and I wandered out to inquire. A mostly Latino group of workers on a local gas pipeline was occupying a row of rooms and had set up a barbecue. A Texas-born Mexican- American gave me a Corona and pointed me towards the grill.

With a lack of lodging along upcoming stretches of my route, I was to stay the next night about 10km ahead, at a bed-and- breakfast. At US$110, it was over my budget, but Mr Thomas and Mr Kirkwood insisted I was not to miss the character who owned it: Joe Bowen, a retired construction worker, political activist, inveterate storyteller and Kentucky booster.

A widower, his family has been in the region since the 1700s.

He had extraordinary energy. He made the beds, cooked breakfast, booked reservations and entertained his guests, which meant me and the six-person Olnick family, who had been vacationing at the place for years. They treated

Mr Bowen like a grandfather and he spoilt them as if he were one.

That day, after I had biked into some challenging hills in the Red River Gorge Geological Area,

Mr Bowen met me in his truck to show me views of the forested gorge and its sandstone cliffs, popular among climbers.

These included views of two of the 100-plus natural bridges the area is perhaps best known for.

He also told many stories. How he had manoeuvred to have the founder of a local children's home carry the Olympic torch. How he had walked from Los Angeles to Bowen on stilts and travelled across the country by bike. How he got a statue built of his favourite Kentucky leader Bert Combs, who was governor from 1959 to 1963.

I'd miss the hospitality during the following two-day stretch of my trip, with about 140km to Paintsville and nowhere to sleep in between.

I started again early on Sunday morning, riding past barns with colourful patterns, flower-covered graves in tiny family cemeteries, Civil War plaques (Kentucky was a famously divided border state) and, occasionally, shops that could have passed for tourist attractions, such as Bea's Bee Hive in Hazel Green, a former general store turned into something between a yard sale and an antiques shop.

By 5.30pm, I had reached the Dawkins Line Rail Trail, but I found it was gravel and not bike-friendly. Wondering about a potential alternative route, I stopped at yet another gas station, the Parkway Convenient Mart, for assistance.

At the counter, homemade Kentucky cream candy, a melt-in-your- mouth local treat, was on sale in plastic baggies for US$3 and people gathered by an out-of-place communal table near the soda machine.

They were members of the Marsillett family, owners of the store. The road would take me to Paintsville, they said, but they doubted I could make it there before dark. So they made me an offer: I could stay in one of the family's hunting cabins, set deep in the woods amid their hundreds of hectares.

Minutes later, I was hanging out with Kevin, 19, and his cousins Cody, 14, and Jordan, 10, at their pool.

The family was well-off, at least in local terms: The house was huge and, besides owning the gas station, the family bred hunting dogs and owned a metal scrapyard. And raised goats, who stared down at us from a small bluff as we dropped down the water slide.

Besides a pizza from the gas station and an activity which involved hitting soda bottles off a tree, the night was calm. I thanked everyone the next morning and took the road into the hills, reaching Paintsville by about 11am.

It turned out I could have made it the night before, but I was glad I had not tried. My motel in Paintsville was quiet and anonymous. The whole experience had been anything but.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'Have bike, will make friends'. Print Edition | Subscribe