Well, that started with a bang.
Barely 19 miles into what I hope will still become my 6th journey over 1000 miles, my biggest fear of riding a Bikecar through America was realised. I make no secret of loving water journeys more than those on land, but there was something tempting about the long open road, endless skies and another pedal-based challenge between two cities starting with the same letter. What I don’t like about riding on the highways is sharing the highways with other people that I don’t know and can’t trust. One loss of concentration, one badly timed text or phone call, one mistake and someone else can end up dead. Thankfully, the result, miraculously, was far kinder today.
We’d suffered one breakdown two and a half miles out of town, small fry compared to the generous work put into the Bikecar by the mechanics from Outdoors Inc and Tom Roehm of Big River Engineering, who spent the morning choosing a driver’s chair for me out of a selection of mainly Walmart-based lawn seats. This is definitely one of those journeys that I would have no chance in hell of even starting were it not for the time and skills of others.
My first day’s riding partner, Rod Wellington, who has completed a number of expeditions without emissions, has been instrumental in setting up this project. Arranging the shipping of the Bikecar while I was out on the Pacific was just one of his offerings, although it was definitely the most stressful!
And Dale Sanders, at 76 years old he’s fit as a fiddle as proven by our recent paddle down the Wolf Rear near Memphis. There was Dale, smiling from ear to ear, driving us all over town only to find himself as the only member of our Day One support team, guarding us from the heavy Memphis traffic in his battered old van.
But now it’s more than battered. Rod and I had lapsed into one of those endurance-led silences, both of us pumping away at the pedals focussed on eating into the miles ahead, grinding our teeth as we made up for the delay forced by a breakdown of the truck upon which Priscilla the Bikecar was eventually delivered late Sunday evening.
Then out of the background monotony of vehicles rushing past us a terrible, chilling screech of brakes. Sounds like someone screaming. A sickening crunch of metal accompanied a whoosh of approaching sound behind, it was only ever going to mean one thing. Dale had been hit, it was our turn next.
The Bikecar is a sturdy beast, thick beams of aluminium form the chassis, but the velocity at which events behind us were unfolding meant that we were at the mercy of fate. All at once, milliseconds after the motor vehicles behind us had collided, something hit us. I was at the wheel, tensed up from the moment the commotion had begun, there was nothing we could do except let events run their course. We were struck from behind, immediately altering our direction 45 degrees from due south on Highway 61 to south west down a grass verge and then into a field of corn. We ground to a stop thirty metres from the road.
My first assumption was that Dale’s van had been shunted right up into the back of us but the scene behind us at the roadside told a different story. Road reached the female driver first. She said her face was sore [from the airbag] but apart from that she was suffering from nothing but shock. The car horn was stuck on full volume, blaring out across scattered debris from the front of her vehicle spread 60 metres back up the road.
She had been going fast and didn’t see Dale’s trailer and hazard lights until it was too late. She swerved left, dodging the trailer but failing to correct her manoeuvre, which meant she lost control and sent the car into a spin. Her front right struck Dale’s driver’s door and front left wheel, a collision which encouraged her rotation. We were next. Now facing the complete opposite direction to all other vehicles southbound on Highway 61, she struck our back left wheel, the main impact that sent us off the road. An eye witness corroborated the responsible dent in her rear passenger door on the driver’s side. Before we went down the verge her car, velocity finally diminishing, bumped the side of my new chair, freshly extracted from someone’s office at Big River Engineering.
Nobody was badly hurt. Two days on from the incident my left shoulder has a dull ache of bother, but to escape from such an incident without any serious injury is unbelievably fortunate. Both motor vehicles will be lucky to get back on the road, but miraculously the Bikecar just needed a change of wheel.
Last year I gave a talk at Memphis’ Mud Island River Park and Jamie Zelazny was in the audience. Just three minutes after our accident he turned up on his motorcycle, having witnessed the immediate aftermath of the crash from the other side of the highway. Jamie, who also has experience on Martin Strel’s long distance swims down the Amazon, Mississippi and Yangtze rivers, just happened to have the tools to perform minor surgery on the Bikecar.
An immediate decision wasn’t necessary, but it wasn’t long before I made it. There are two ways to go after an incident like this. One: walk away. Two: realise that these things happen and decide whether you’re going to stop living in case something goes wrong, or whether you’re going to live despite the potential for failure. I took the second option.
We drove to the nearest town, Tunica, where there was also access to less busy roads. A quick meal, I bade farewell to Dale and Rod then made camp on a patch of grass beside a church. The next morning I rose early, keen to banish the memory of the day before. Slowly, in grand correlation with my speed that day, I realised that I wasn’t ready to be back on the road. The front left wheel of the Bikecar had a very slight buckle. By 7am the Mississippi delta was providing a mighty show of its famed southerly winds. Every vehicle that loomed in my wing mirror had me running scared. Three times in ten minutes I pulled violently off the road when a car approached without sign of overtaking, I was a ball of nerves.
The wind picked up and all of my energy was moving me no faster than 2 miles per hour. It didn’t help that my seat fell off, with me on it. The impact from the car yesterday may have had something to do with this. I just wanted sleep, a day of smooth passage, the wanton ability of knowing that every driver behind was watching the road and not texting or absent-mindedly grabbing for something under their seat. It takes one mistake and it’s over. I wasn’t ready to deal with that truth.
By 5pm I’d travelled 15.2 miles, it wouldn’t do. The smoothest the Bikecar was running was backwards when I climbed off - the wind just sailed it north. I was done, beat, exhausted, defeated.
I’ve had low moments on journeys before, but this took the biscuit. I have a lifelong ambition to become the first man capable of doing two things at once, which is why I set up engagements along the way during my expeditions. I had three days until the next one, but at 1.5 miles per hour I wasn’t going to cover the 150 miles to Vicksburg, Mississippi. The bikecar needed work. I needed work. I needed rest. I decided to ignore the thoughts of an impure journey and go with gut instinct, which was to sort out my state of mind.
So I found myself a few hours later in the cab of a truck, Bikecar nestled onto yet another trailer, heading south to Vicksburg. I have good friends there, they’ll take care of me until Sunday or Monday and it will be from Vicksburg that I restart this journey, hopefully revitalised, clearer of mind and prepared again to take on the dreaded American roads.