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The Herald, Friday, January 5, 1990
Meals offer security
Finding something to eat on the road is a major part of the bicycling adventure. Most of a trip is spent not knowing where your next meal is going to come from. A quaint cafe in the forest is a pleasant surprise, and not finding any sort of food is an ever-present risk.
The latter condition is only slightly more favorable than having a wreck. Running out of gas on a bicycle is not funny at all.
The sporadic availability of food is magnified by a cyclist's bottomless need for it. Bike touring requires thousands of calories per day. On the first day of a trip you burn whatever your body has stored, and after that you are living from hand to mouth to pedals. Unless you tow a trailer, you can't carry enough food to last you very long at all.
The appetite of the typical touring cyclist is legendary worldwide. I have read accounts of good Samaritans who take traveling cyclists into their homes and endeavor to feed them to capacity. It is a surprisingly expensive project, often clearing cabinets of food earmarked for the next week's meals. Only the truly selfless people ever feed cyclists again.
When Rusty Wilkerson and I rode from Rock Hill to Florida 10 years ago, we camped overnight in the southwestern corner of South Carolina. Like many state parks, Rivers Bridge is a long way from civilization. We ate a scant supper and went to sleep, oblivious to how far we were from any more food.
The next morning we started riding and looking desperately for some breakfast. We didn't find vittles until 25 miles later in Hampton. By then, the sign for the pancake house looked like the Pearly Gates. We raced each other to the counter and Rusty won.
The meals on the menu were listed by number. A number three was pancakes and sausage, a number five was bacon, eggs and grits, and so on. Rusty said, "I'll have a number six and a number four, with four cartons of milk".
The waitress said, "OK, I'll be back with you fellas in a minute." She started to walk off and I stopped her by saying, " ... And I'll have a number seven and a number two with three cartons of milk. Let me get a couple of orange juices to go with that, too."
The waitress gave us a strange look. She thought Rusty had ordered for both of us. Now she had two guys ordering four complete meals. She accused us of joking until we reprimanded her for not already serving at least one of our plates. What did she want us to do, starve to death?
We both ate two full plates, and it seems like we had to reorder hash browns a time or two, as well. The waitress watched from the safety of the cash register as we ate like lions. I saw her shake her head in disbelief as we rode away on our bikes.
By the time I had ridden to Dinosaur, Colo., I had gone weeks without hearing any music. I walked into a cafe and put lots of quarters in the jukebox before even scanning the selections. It turned out that I had never heard any of the music that's popular out West, so I just chose the B-sides to generate some noise while I enjoyed my breakfast.
The guy in the kitchen knew every word to all the songs I chose. He flipped omelets and caught them with his spatula as he howled off-key broken harmony at the top of his lungs. As the band banged its last note, he hollered, "Yee-hah!" and slid a plate of steaming food through the service window.
After three or four songs I badly wanted to tell the cook he could keep the money I had in the jukebox if he would just let me unplug it. My selections were still wailing and the cook was still shamelessly crooning as I finished my meal and left.
The worst meal I have ever traded cash for was in McCook, Neb. At a motel restaurant I paid top dollar for two dried-up pork chops and a sickly potato. It was the loneliest looking plate and actually stared back at me.
Easily the best meal in the history of my travels was served in Spring Creek, Fla. In the tradition of the Florida Panhandle, the table was spread for me as if I was a party of four. The fresh snapper was fried to perfection, and there was more stuff than I could have eaten in a week. That was one meal I'll never forget, maybe because I had ridden 600 miles to get there and had eaten dozens of microwave sandwiches in the process.
I was about to say that it's worth a trip to the Panhandle just to eat at the Spring Creek Restaurant, but I won't. Anybody who believed me would likely go by car instead of bicycle, so there's no way that meal could taste as good as it did to me. It's something you have to earn.
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