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Warm Showers Bike Tour

Joff Summerfield, riding his high wheel bike around the world. Photos by Attila Horvath.

My riding partner Mike Knutson and I are both gleaming with sweat. We’ve just pedaled more than 50 hilly miles in 90-degree heat coupled with Ohio humidity when we arrive at a modest little house in the commercial stretch of Main St., Chillicothe. We dismount our loaded touring bicycles and push them through the grass to the back, squeezing between the house and the heating and cooling repair place next door. I grab the house key from its hiding spot, our cycling cleats clacking on the wooden porch floor as we walk to the door, unlock it, and enter the kitchen. The place looks like an elderly person who recently died lived here. But Mike and I might as well be entering a room at a five-star resort. We grin broadly and exclaim “All right!” because the air conditioning is cranked and the cold air hitting our sweaty bodies feels like a gift from the cycling gods. There’s a note of welcome for us on the kitchen table next to a stack of clean towels. We’re so thrilled with the chilled Gatorade in the fridge you’d think we’d been wandering lost in the desert and stumbled upon a lemonade stand.

We can’t wait to meet our host.

We made contact with Mike Duffy through Warm Showers (www.warmshowers.org). “The Warm Showers List is a list of Internet cyclists who have offered their hospitality towards touring cyclists,” says WS webmaster Randy Fay, echoing the site’s description of the service. Members post a profile and then they’re able to search where other members live. Then, the traveler(s) can e-mail their potential host and ask if they can have a place to stay on whatever day and for however long. In addition to Warm Showers, we also use Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org), a similar online community open to all travelers, not just touring cyclists. The idea behind both is to create a community of people all over the world who are alternately hosts and guests, with no money exchanged – ideally a community that encourages an overall optimism through kindness, trust and openness to strangers. Since I’m using both communities, I start calling the trip the Warm Hospitality tour.

I must admit that being a touring cyclist sometimes doesn’t encourage my own optimism, kindness and trust of strangers. In fact, it sometimes feeds my misanthropic tendencies. It’s hard to feel positive about people when I’m riding along and the guy in the oncoming van yells “Get the f--- off the road!” So when I decide to do this Warm Hospitality tour through southern Ohio, eastern Kentucky, and western West Virginia, I know I might encounter enough harassment and stupidity to make Gandhi want to chuck a U-lock through a car window. But as it turns out, I encounter mostly people like Mike Duffy: overflowing with kindness and generosity.

Mike comes and visits the house after we have a chance to cool off and relax. He’s amiable and always smiling a crooked smile. His main reason for hosting us is simple: “It’s nice to meet people and see where they’ve been ridin’.” Mike is an avid cyclist himself, and he tells me he enjoys being a host because he knows that people appreciate having a free place to stay, and it encourages people to ride.

The kindness of strangers
The next day we’re heading to the little town of Peebles, OH through a bit of Amish country, where we overtake a black horse-drawn buggy and stumble upon a touring cyclist’s dream – a big room full of sugar and carbs at the Country Crust bakery in Bainbridge. This is part of our usual m.o. -- ride in the heat and hills till we’re half baked and half dead, then stop to eat and linger for a while in AC and then roll out, reborn. We immediately stuff apple fritters into our faces to fuel us to Peebles, where our host for the night, Roy Willman, lives.

We phone Roy while standing at his front door. He says, “Just go around back, I left the door unlocked for you guys.” I’m struck again by the amount of trust we’re encountering. We walk around back and I immediately notice there’s a hot tub on the deck. We’ve hit the Warm Hospitality jackpot.

Roy arrives in a couple of hours, by bike, all smiles. We are his first Hospitality Club guests, as Peebles isn’t exactly a hot tourist destination. He’s 54, easily looks 10 years younger, is tan and fit. He offers use of the hot tub, beer and wine to drink, and even his car (the only thing we decline). “I like to be a gracious host.” Yeah, no kidding. He tells me he’s willing to invite strangers into his home because he’s interested in growth through connections with new people by being “open and unafraid, tempered with caution” and scoping out potential guests by “smelling the air, and looking at it with both your heart and your head.” And he’s into the karma of it all: “What comes around goes around. I don’t see any downside to it.”

Now that’s entertainment
Mike is only able to ride with me for two days, so I’m on my own when, through the haze of humidity and traffic at the Kentucky/West Virginia border, I see someone else pedaling something. Whatever it is, it’s not a regular bike. I catch up with the mysterious pedaler and I meet Joff Summerfield, riding his high-wheel bike. It’s big, archaic, and attracts a lot of attention. The front wheel is over five feet tall, the rear wheel about 10 inches, and Joff’s head is about eight feet off the ground while riding. Joff is 40, from London, England, and he’s been on the road for more than two years, riding around the world. He’s already been through Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Now he’s crossing the United States.

We ride into Huntington, WV together, and it’s there where so many of my cyclist-fueled notions of misanthropy are seriously challenged, as I come to understand why Joff chose to ride such a weird bike around the world. I’ve never seen a cyclist arouse so much joy! Adults and kids alike laugh, smile and point and jab their friends in the ribs to say “Look at that!” Drivers give him thumbs up. That can happen to a cyclist?

In the spirit of reciprocity, I invite Joff to visit my home before we part ways in Huntington where I meet up with my host, Madison Reed, at his new-agey store that sells herbal supplements and books with titles like “Gay Witchcraft” and “So You Want To Be A Medium.” Madison is in his mid-40s, calm and articulate. He’s been a Hospitality Club member for two years, but I’m his first HC guest. We meet up later in the evening with his mother and some of his friends to have a delicious meal that we eat by candlelight in his backyard garden. Often, when I’m on a solo bike tour, I just eat whatever I can find, by myself. It can get lonely sometimes, but thanks to this Warm Hospitality gig, I’m eating a home-cooked meal with new friends. This may be the best way to travel: under your own power and on the cheap, getting invited by cool people into their homes when the ride is done for the day.

Out of Huntington, it’s a straight shot to Malden, WV on US route 60, an ugly stretch of utility lines, used truck lots, and a titty bar with a marquee reading “2 Hotties Tonight.”

I’m eager to finish riding by the time I reach Malden, a little bedroom community south of Charleston. I follow the directions my Warm Showers host, James Thibeault, gave me to his tidy and inviting home next to the Kanawha River.

I ask James what attracted him to hosting guests through Warm Showers. “It’s a reconnection to touring when you’re not touring,” he says. James has cycle toured in Europe and even organized some tours. Being able to host a cyclist not only feeds his passion for biking, but also his love for his community, which becomes clear as he takes me on a walking tour around town, introducing me to some of his friends and neighbors, including Martha and Llewellyn Cole, octogenarian sisters who live across the street. The Cole sisters are eager to tell me the story of Daniel Boone’s powder horn (an animal horn with a cap to store gun powder). With comic timing, they tell a tale about Boone giving the powder horn to their grandfather, and it being passed down ever since. Martha says they took it to show and tell as kids, and as they grew up to become school teachers, they continued showing it to kids in Malden. The powder horn has become legendary, and to make seeing and touching the horn a more dramatic experience, they’ve made a little certificate to commemorate holding the artifact, which they ceremoniously sign and give to me. You just can’t buy entertainment like this!

I realize that my misanthropic feelings have faded. This Warm Hospitality gig might make me a lover of humankind yet.

Attila Horvath may be a misanthrope, but he really likes all the people who buy his album, Bike Rock, available at www.myspace.com/attilahorvath.