Deep in the heart of the Tennessee countryside there is a little country road. Unassuming to look at, not even worth a glimpse as you pass by; it winds gently but briefly through a small, short valley dotted with simple wooden houses and elderly outbuildings.
Near the end of this road, standing atop a small grassy incline, is a barn. Nothing to mark it so very different from the others around it, slightly newer perhaps, but a modest red barn nonetheless.
And it is here, in the virtual silence of the countryside, with trees and fields and birds for company, that we find ourselves still and restful for the week.
It’s rather strange I find, because if you had asked me before we started our travels where I would feel most at home and at peace, I most likely would have said the mountains or a National Park of some sort, out in the wilderness anyway. However, we have just spent a full week, parked outside a barn in the middle of a farming community, a fair few miles from anywhere nearing a town, and it was perfect. All that I would want it to be. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because it feels not too different from the countryside of home.
So how did we come to find ourselves here? Well, the barn is in fact a very special treat for Loops. He has been lucky enough to make friends with a lovely gentleman called Rick who owns the special barn. For this is not just a barn for storing hay or tractors or the like. No, this is a barn built for motorhomes. You can park one outside, under the awning or inside the barn. If you park inside the barn, your motorhome will be resting directly over ‘the pit’. Yes, this barn has a much coveted inspection pit which allows people of a mechanical nature to view their bus from the underneath and to play around with all types of mechanical parts I cannot tell you anything about. In fact the only thing I can confidently tell you is that people go into the pit clean, and come out filthy.
And it is our extraordinary good fortune that Rick and his wife Marilyn have been kind enough to allow us to stay at their barn for a week (it should be noted we actually came to stay for 2-3 days and ended up here for 7. The barn has a black hole effect, nothing it seems escapes).
While Loops spent a full week in mechanic mode, I on the other hand decided to put my time to a different use.
First and foremost I decided to finally put the Blue Bandit through her paces. And if you have no idea what I am talking about, that’s because I have yet to share the very exciting news that I’ve decided to name my new bicycle ‘The Blue Bandit’. Mostly because absolutely no-one provided me with any possible suggestions for her name and this was the first one that popped into my head.
At this point before I go any further, I would just like to give a big thank you to the very nice gentleman at Chainwheel Drive in Clearwater, FL; who spent about 2 hours talking with me about bicycles, seat height and comfort and letting me ride their bikes in the neighbourhood. Having tried riding a bike recently before buying one, I was getting the worst back, butt and leg pain which made me want to set fire to any bike saddle in sight. Having talked to the knowledgeable man at the shop, it seems all my pain was caused simply through having the wrong seat height. I never knew that could be an issue. So if this sounds like a problem you are having, apparently your seat should be high enough that when sitting on it you should only be able to touch the ground on your tippy toes, which means you have the right leg extension when you peddle. Sermon over.
Anyway… back to barn and the Bandit.
It appears I have struck gold with the local terrain around the barn and find we have landed ourselves in an overwhelmingly flat part of the state; or at least the part with gentle rolling hills that I can actually tackle on a bicycle without falling down dead of exhaustion. Like many adults, my bicycle riding days ceased around the age of 16 when I discovered things like public transportation and a driving licence. Up until that time though I loved riding around on my bike and so I am determined to feel that way once again.
So despite the heat of the morning, I strap on my helmet, slip on my high-viz jacket, check I have a bottle of water and off I peddle.
And it’s wonderful. It’s the freedom it seems I have been missing since we began our travels. My very own mode of transport that I can hop on any time I want to explore. Not needing to plan what roads are suitable for a massive bus, or wait for someone else to be able to drive me where I want to go, it’s a taste of independence and a confidence booster all in one go. I can see all around me, hear the sounds of the natural world and breathe in the scents of the outdoors.
I cycle down our little lane and spy a deer briefly stood stock still in a field, before it prances off into the nearby trees. I pass an elderly gentleman on his equally ancient tractor cutting the hay in his field and another tending to the weeds near his barn. I wave to a young woman sitting on her porch watching her children play in the garden and am playfully chased down the road by no fewer than three different sets of dogs. A group of young calves eye me suspiciously as I ride by while they laze in the shade of the edge of a barn; and two horses snicker and shake their heads at me when I fly by.
I come to a stop at the junction with what is laughably considered a ‘main’ road, with not a car in sight. I debate which way to turn and choose right, the longer route until I hit yet another road. I cycle amiably along the road, in no hurry, passing more farms and fields, livestock and the occasional vehicle on the road, each driver pleasantly waving at me as they pass. With each passing minute, the smile on my face becomes wider. Even the growing heat does not discourage me, and in my joy I decide to cycle further than intended and even become so carefree that I whiz down a huge, steep hill, not caring that I will have to peddle my heart out to get back up it.
I come to a brief stop at the bottom of the hill outside a Baptist church, the car park full, and I realise it must be Sunday. How the days do just roll into one when you’re not trying to keep track. The church bells begin to toll just as I begin my ascent to head back towards the barn. I fiddle with the gears to try and pick a suitable pace, and in my haste of trying to click through 21 of them (does anyone really need that many?), I end up freaking the Bandit out and as a result she sulkily throws off her chain.
I can tell now how happy the morning has obviously made me, for instead of throwing my arms up in the air and my bike into a hedge, I simply stop and take a moment to breathe. I’m not mechanical minded in the slightest. Usually this is where I would turn to Loops and tell him I broke it, but not today. Today I look at the chain, and from a distant memory past vaguely remember seeing someone fix one by pushing the gear changer forward (and I’m not going to lie, I have a really odd feeling I was watching my old neighbour Jamie work on his bike from over 20 years ago). I try this and see the bike chain slack off, enough for me to thread it back on to gear wheel and voila! I fixed it!
I am exuberant, nothing can stop me today!
And it’s on this high that I find the energy to slowly peddle my way back up the hill and along the roads from where I’ve just come. It’s as I crest the final slope nearing my turn, that I find an older gentleman ambling along the roadside towards me. He hails me as I get near.
‘That must be a real nice comfortable bike.’ He tells me. ‘I’ve seen you peddling up and down here for a while’.
‘It’s a wonderful bike’ I tell him.
This is Kenneth. He is a farmer. He points out his house just behind him on the road and tells me he farms cows and corn. He asks me where I from, my accent so obviously different from his own. We talk about England for a little while, and then about his local community. It turns out that Kenneth has lived here all of his life, in fact he points out to me that I’ve cycled past the house his parents lived in and where he was born; now swallowed by nature, vines, bushes and trees covering it. I ask him if he has always been a farmer and he tells me that he used to be a bus driver for Greyhound until he retired from it 16 years ago and decided to work the land instead. We talk about Belle and the travels we hope to take. We pass a happy half hour chatting together.
As the heat and sweat begins to get to me, I say my farewells to Kenneth and head back to the barn. My meeting with him gives me thought as I freewheel towards my destination, of what it might be like to live in the exact same place your whole life, to be so content that you need not go elsewhere. He reminded me of a number of older gentlemen I met while hiking the trail, kindly souls with some of the most amazing and interesting stories to tell – the ice cream man who will give you an ice cream in exchange for a story from your life, the chap who had three heart operations who gave us a hitch, our last ride from the trail with gentleman who had cancer and not long left to live. So many different lives, and I’m the person lucky enough to meet them and privileged to remember them all from now on.
And that there is the short story of how the Blue Bandit and I became new best friends.
So I cycled during the week, but I also had the pleasure of getting to know Marilyn, Rick’s wife, who was kind and generous in her time. We spent part of our afternoon visiting a local town called Sweetwater to have lunch and a cup of tea in a restaurant called The Mansion. A hidden gem, located above the Sweetwater Flower Shop which you wander through to reach the staircase taking you into a decadent dining room, which looks and feels like you’ve stepped back in time to the 1920’s.
This is clearly a place for ‘the ladies’. It is frilly and flowery with a baby grand piano taking centre stage, the tables covered in linens and the prettily presented food. I enjoyed a warm vegetarian wrap with fresh cucumbers, red pepper, roma tomatoes, red onions, hummus, artichoke hearts, and feta cheese. It was delicious, and yet, not the only treat. The main event actually came when I tried a slice of Mamaw pie.
Now it should be noted this pie is not for the faint of heart, wimpy ladies who are watching their waists. One look at this pie will easily add half a stone to your weight. It is made of cream cheese, caramel, condensed milk, coconut, cool whip, butter and pecans. Pretty much any sweet food stuff with a huge calorie count and beginning with the letter ‘C’ is included. But, oh, it is heaven on a fork. So sweet, Marilyn and I actually had to share a single slice, even with my addiction to sugar I wouldn’t have managed a full one on my own. Take my advice, google the recipe and enjoy!
Not only did I take time to enjoy the finer things in life, but also time to tackle some of the more mundane ones. I spent the afternoons working through some of my assignments for my course and, at last count, completed my 231st load of laundry. Yes, I have discovered the non-joy of the world’s smallest washer dryer with the world’s longest wash and dry cycle. I now have to wash clothes 1-2 times per day, as you can literally only fit in one outfit from both Loops and I into the machine at a time. I have also learned to get used to the startling shake of the RV as it goes into its spin cycle. It scared the living daylights out of me the first time it kicked off, feeling like a large gang of footy hooligans descended on us and were rocking the bus back and forth from outside.
We spent a couple of evenings in the company of Rick and Marilyn, testing out the local Mexican cuisine, having a pot luck dinner at their house (where they have the most amazing outdoor screen room which is one storey up and hangs out over their garden with a view of the woodland behind) and visiting Blaze Pizza; a restaurant where you get to build your own pizza which is then fired in an oven – really tasty!
Rather coincidentally, the evening we were headed to Blaze, we saw a rather different kind down the road from the barn. The afternoon had brought with it a thunderstorm and several lightning strikes, we lost power at the barn and sat waiting in the gathering heat for our lift. When Rick and Marilyn arrived, she leapt from the car and bolted to the door of the RV, rapping quickly on the door.
‘We need to hurry,’ she tells us, ‘before we get blocked in by the fire’.
Fire? What fire?!
As we head back down the road we can clearly see the old wooden barn, owned by the man I saw clearing the weeds and mowing his grass earlier in the week, fully engulfed in flames. It had obviously been struck by lightning during the storm and was fast being consumed by the fire. His family and a couple neighbours were gathered around, desperately trying to drag an ancient tractor out of the barn using another to do so.
We managed to drive past the barn before pulling up a safe distance away and stopping to see if there was any help to give, but sadly all that anyone could do was to stand and watch the inferno.
I’ve never seen a real fire such as this, not a building or a house. It was immense, powerful and the heat was incredible, even at a distance. We could hear the sirens of the local volunteer firefighters on their way, but by the time they arrived, there was nothing left to try and save. Ten minutes and the whole thing was gone. I actually wanted to cry, it was so sad. I felt so bad for the old gentleman and his daughter, she was stood nearby in tears holding her baby, as they watch their barn burn.
He told us he had a little insurance on it, but really he just seemed grateful his horses were out in the field and he’d managed to rescue his tractor, it was his father’s, he explained.
As our time and adventures at the little barn on the lane drew to a close, we spent our final afternoon giving Belle a much needed bath, hours of scrubbing and drying to get her shining and bright again and ready for our next adventures. I wonder what they will be…