by Chris Quimby
Special to The Weekly
I arrived in Tennessee after four weeks of cycling through many states. We had just left a week in Virginia behind us, and were truly in The South.
There have been beautiful mountains along the road. Unfortunately, I must spend a lot of my time looking down. Tennessee received some stimulus money some time ago and spent a portion of it interrupting the smooth, bikeable shoulders with rough rumble strips.
Riding a road bike across rumble strips is an uncomfortable experience. It is like operating a jackhammer by sitting upon it.
After 10 days, we were around the Camden, Tenn., area and did not have a place to stay. We decided to spend three nights at Birdsong Campground and allow me to have two consecutive days of needed rest.
We have been interested throughout this trip in not just passing through areas, but getting to know people in various areas of the country. We really like building relationships and this adventure affords us the opportunity.
After the first day, we learned that there was a mother cat and her four new kittens living in the laundry room. While waiting for someone to leave the sound room so we could prepare for my comedy performance that night, we decided to stop over and visit the kittens.
The room was occupied by a kind-faced woman who might have been in her 60s. She was wearing a faded T-shirt that said, Tennessee.
She greeted us kindly while folding her laundry and the conversation easily flowed between us.
After further discussion, we learned that she’s from Indiana, but her husband is a pipe fitter who has a temporary job at Dupont and is staying at the campground during that time.
She added, with pride, that her husband is also a Natural Santa who takes off six weeks before each Christmas to work in a mall in New York, a job he loves and holds in higher priority than pipe fitting.
A Natural Santa is one whose beard is real and cannot be pulled off without injury. Her husband is also a skilled welder, but refuses those jobs because they would put the health of his valuable facial hair in jeopardy.
He had a heart attack a few years ago, and the doctor instructed him to lose weight, an unenviable decision for someone whose girth is an asset. Fortunately, he had some fake flab fashioned that allows him to appear sufficiently jolly and does not sacrifice his status as a Natural Santa.
We had an opportunity to share the story of our adventure with her and connected on a deep, spiritual level.
I was very glad to get to know this person better. It’s quite possible that we could’ve spent our time waiting by watching television. This woman likely would’ve passed by outside with folded laundry in hand while we passively entertained ourselves and missed a friendship.
The new relationships did not cease there, either, for our fellow tent dwellers to the left assisted us for a while searching through the grass for a camouflage knife that my son lost after throwing it at a squirrel the previous night.
Shortly thereafter, their son and mine spent time fishing together, and they all attended my comedy show that evening, buying a T-shirt that will allow them to help us publicize Spokes and Jokes Down South long after we’re gone.
She discussed the weather in Maine, the differences between groups of people she referred to as Country Folk, Rednecks and Hicks, and also reported that her older son said, after spending some time with us that we “are pretty nice for Yankees.”
When my son heard that, he corrected her by saying that we’re actually Red Sox fans.
All of the interactions have not been productive, however. Some people are not the conversational sort. After buying 12 ice cream sandwiches and not being able to eat them all, we drove by a woman and a man fishing. The woman was looking away from me, but I stuck the box out the window and asked if she would like an ice cream. She did not turn around and did not respond, but just looked at the man she was with.
I repeated the offer and she labored over the decision like one might a spontaneous calculus problem. Without looking around at me, the man looked at her and asked, “What did he say?”
She reported my offer and he just said no.
This came as a shock to me, because I was not aware that it was possible to resist ice cream. Perhaps they had just had some for supper and could not entertain the idea of having another bite.
Above all, the principle of building relationships has been reinforced throughout this trip. There are a lot of friends out there we haven’t even met yet and, if we stood back in our comfortable shells, our worlds would be smaller than they should and much less colorful.
Chris Quimby is a standup comedian, author and graphic designer who is undertaking an eight-week adventure, Spokes and Jokes, with his family, cycling to Texas with their logistic support and performing in venues en route while staying in the homes of hosts across the nation. The family’s blogs of the mission can be viewed at spokesandjokes.com.