For the first time in my life, I am about to ride my bike from one state to another. This has a lot more to do with having lived most of my life in the middle of a state than with how far I’ll be riding. I am going to the last bike tour of the Chickamauga Battlefields, a large memorial for the Civil War.
This will be my first time commuting by bike here and I’m a bit nervous about riding on the roads. I got the route from Outdoor Chattanooga, the organization sponsoring the biking tour at the park. They also gave me the lowdown on the difficulty of the climbs and the traffic situation. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask about the neighborhoods I would be riding through and Pat is out of town this weekend, so I will be riding alone. Now that I am almost out the door, I’m suddenly wondering if I’ll be going through any scary parts of town.
I decide that if it were really bad, Outdoor Chattanooga wouldn’t have sent me that way and finish gathering up my gear. I pull on padded mountain biking shorts–after much time off and then riding yesterday, I need the padding today. I love the fact that it’s the middle of October and I’m putting on shorts for a 7:30AM ride (not something I’ve ever done in Ohio). I also love mountain biking shorts–they look like normal shorts so I don’t feel like an idiot walking around in them if I end up going into a store or something.
I snap on my helmet, velcro my riding gloves, zip up my high-visibility jacket, and snug-up my backpack. Then, I mount up and take off. Today, I head over the Market St bridge instead of taking the longer route over Walnut St. It’s early Saturday morning and traffic is light so I figure it’s a good time to experience riding over Market St bridge. There are actually fewer obstacles–no meandering tourists with small children to dodge–and there’s plenty of room for cars to pass me safely. I continue through the familiar part of downtown that I’ve walked many times. This doesn’t take long. As I continue my ride through downtown, I realize how little of it I’ve actually seen.
The non-touristy downtown area is quiet. Only a few people are out, mostly waiting on buses. I quietly glide by, cranking at a steady pace. My legs are still warming up and I’ve discovered a few bruises from my fall yesterday. As I get outside the downtown area, I go through some neighborhoods that might not be areas where I would look for a home. There are a surprising number of people out and about for early on a Saturday morning, but as I pedal past a flea market set up in a parking lot, I realize the draw.
I cross under the freeway that goes around Chattanooga’s South side and through a couple more intersections and discover I have now ridden the full length of Market St. It is now called Alton Park Blvd. Sounds nice, but it’s not. The area is very industrial–hard surfaces with cracks seem to be the architectural theme here. As I get to my first turn, I pass a convenience store. A teenager crosses the street in front of me. I catch myself staring–I’m amazed by how low he has managed to position his pants on his hips. His rear end is actually completely above the waistband, although he’s wearing blue shorts underneath, so he is not indecently exposed. He takes small, awkward steps, restricted by the low-hanging crotch in his jeans. It’s nearly like having your legs tied together. While I’ve seen this fashion statement many times and for many more years than any such style should remain popular, this is a new extreme.
Having made my turn, I continue down 38th St and ride through a new housing development that looks like it was intended to start a revival of the area probably right before the market crashed. The small area of new houses looks well-maintained–everything still looks fresh and new–but it looks a little lonely, like it was deposited in the midst of an industrial wasteland from the sky. The small trees draw attention to the newness of the community–I try to imagine what it will look like in 20 years when the trees are big enough to cast shadows on the roofs.
I make my way on over to Rossville Blvd think I must be getting close to the state line as Rossville is in Georgia. The area remains depressed looking. By “depressed looking” I mean: there is a lot of trash along the roads and sidewalks, the buildings and their surrounding structures (like parking lots) are in a state of disrepair, the style of signage suggests no one has bothered to pass any zoning laws to make the area look less cluttered, the signs themselves are old and haven’t been updated for many years. In short, there is no indication that anyone cares what the area looks like or invests in making it appealing.
I pass another flea market just before I see a sign indicating I am almost at the state line. However, I miss any indication of the state line itself. I am suddenly in Rossville and there, in front of me, is the Food Lion that we have looked up on Google maps. As it turns out, one of the disadvantages of living in Tennessee is that there is a sales tax on food. It’s slightly less than the tax on non-food items, but it’s roughly 6%. Plus, the food seems like it’s already about 20% more expensive than in Columbus, which makes no sense (but it makes cents!). So, we have toyed with the idea of going grocery shopping in Georgia, where there is no (or little) sales tax on food. The Food Lion looks every bit as depressed as the surrounding area–I am not encouraged.
I continue on by and make it to the last turn before my destination. There is a bit of a climb here–I’m going over a ridge. But, I make it just fine. As I get to the final mile or two before my destination, the Outdoor Chattanooga van and trailer pass me. The woman who gave me directions is in the van and they honk and wave, but they are already passed me by the time I realize it’s them. I make it safely to the visitor’s center and coast down the parking lot to where Outdoor Chattanooga is lining up loaner bikes for people who want to join the tour but don’t have a bike of their own. The moon is still visible in the incredibly blue morning sky and the combination of colors inspires me to get my camera out.
By the time the tour starts, there are at least 50 bikes in the parking lot. Everyone gathers around Chris, the interpretive ranger, who kicks off the tour by talking about the trail of tears and the forced evacuation of the Cherokee down the road we all just came in on. He paints a picture for us of the loss of land, life, and homes as these people were forced to move. Then, he paints a picture of the people that came after them, farming the land that we now stand on. He tells us that he likes to focus on the people who were part of history and what the impact of history was on them. Every part of Chris’ body participates in his story telling. He is gifted with an almost magical ability to convey the feeling behind his words. There is no doubt that this tour will be different.
After our introduction, we all mount up and ride to another part of the park where many regiments have erected memorials indicating how many were wounded and injured here. Chris once again creates a vision for us of these men on the battle field, chasing each other and firing on one another. He shares personal stories of men and women who were so interconnected across the Mason-Dixson line that questions of right and wrong are transcended. If I had any fear that a lone yankee woman would feel out of place on this tour, it quickly abates.
Between this stop and the next, I end up talking with a man who tells me his wife is the superintendent of the park. When we get around to how long I’ve been in Chattanooga and why we moved there, after I explain that we wanted to move and how we picked Chattanooga, he says, “Oh, are you retired?” with a tone of voice that conveys certainty, not surprise. I cannot help but feel like he thinks I am much older than I am. In fact, I think he thinks I am his age and he looks to be in his sixties. I decide not to ask.
The next stop allows us to look across large open fields that the soldiers had to run across while retreating. Chris tells us harrowing stories of men being shot and honored, even by the enemy. I find myself feeling intensely sad that these men will live through history because of war. I look around me and see a bride posing in front of a bright orange tree. She looks beautiful in her white dress against the green grass, orange tree, and blue, blue sky. Her presence there seems impossible in the context of the stories Chris weaves together for us. But, I suppose it is the way the cycle works–one set of stories is replaced with the next.
For our final stop, we must ride up a steep but short hill. I feel somewhat redeemed when I am able to ride up the hill without getting out of breath–many of our group have gotten off their bikes and are walking up.
After Chris intrigues us one last time and finishes up the tour, we all start heading back down the hill. A woman in front of me has a completely flat rear tire. I call out to her and we both pull over. It turns out that she is also here alone. I get out my portable pump, but it’s for presta valves; she’s never heard of a presta valve. She tells me her husband is a firefighter and he usually takes care of the bikes. I would make fun of her for that, but she seems like and amazingly nice person. And, before anyone attributes her lack of knowledge to being a “Southern Belle,” she is from Ohio, too, so there goes another stereotype.
In any case, she doesn’t have presta valves and I can’t get any air into the tire. Fortunately, Outdoor Chattanooga has provided a sag wagon in the form of a couple on a tandem who arrives to help out. The man hands us a pump and we start pumping while he goes back to get some additional tools with his wife. He returns alone and we have made no noticeable progress getting air into the tire–even after taking turns pumping because we’d worn ourselves out. He takes the pump away from us, changes the position of the tire, and has the tire completely inflated in about 30 seconds. So much for my independent woman status!
We ride back to the visitor’s center together, keeping an eye on the tire. It clearly has a slow leak–we watch it deflate as we ride. We make a stop at the halfway point to inflate it one more time (well, we watch the man inflate it one more time). But, we all make it back to the parking lot just fine. The woman with the flat drove there, so she has no issue with getting home. In fact, surprisingly, I am the only one who rode their bike to the bike tour. Given that we couldn’t have ridden more than 5 miles in the park during the tour, I’m surprised.
I head on back home after making one more pit stop at the visitor’s center. The roads are busier on the way back and I enjoy the ride a little less than on the way in as a result, but it’s still such a beautiful day to be out biking that I can’t help smiling. That is until I’m headed up 37th St and a truck drives past me dripping really smelly runoff that sprays me for what seems like a half an hour. I hold my hand up to block the spray from hitting me in the face and slow down nearly to a stop just to let the spray dissipate ahead of me so I’m not continuing to ride into it. As the truck pulls ahead, I read the back panel: “Industrial Waste Handling.” I really wish I had a giant military weapon right at this moment so I could just eliminate that truck from the face of the earth.
I make it back alive–my skin hasn’t started peeling off my face, my eyes aren’t burning, and I only smell slightly like garbage. This is handy for the final approach to home since the tourists are all out this Saturday afternoon. I figure smelling like a homeless person might help alert them to get out of the way. I can’t remember the last time I so looked forward to a shower!