Orangeburg Odyssey

The Year of the Century: Ride 2
Place: Orangeburg, South Carolina
Ride: River’s Bridge Ramble
Date: November 3, 2012

Given that December’s century has already come and gone the fact that I haven’t yet supplied a report on November’s ride is starting to look especially sad.  So let’s see what we can do to rectify that.

The Age of Aging
As I’ve noted previously, Fall and Winter century bike rides tend to be in short supply so I’ve had to grab what I could; if I’d had my druthers, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to do a century a week after doing the last one.  Sure, that happens several times during Ironman training. . .but we’re not doing an Ironman anymore, Dorothy.  Nevertheless, I was hoping that my residual fitness would be enough to carry me through.

Driving down to South Carolina on the Friday was an interesting experience in and of itself.  When you travel America’s highway system during the weekdays, you realize that they belong to the AARP.  There is in fact no more visible evidence of the greying of the US population than pulling into a roadside rest stop during “work” hours.  Now I loves me a degree of exaggeration (you’ll be shocked to hear that, I know) but in this case I’m really not.  At a rest-stop in the morning and then an exit ramp McDonald’s in the afternoon I didn’t see a single person who wasn’t silver-haired.  Some of them of course were obviously enjoying their retirement Winnebago-style.  But there were more than a few whose advanced state of decrepitude and confusion made me seriously concerned to be driving on the same road.

The Rivers Bridge Ramble is now in its fifth year and draws its name from the fact that a substantial portion of the ride passes through the Rivers Bridge State Historic Park; the park commemorates an abortive rearguard action by Confederate Troops trying to stall Sherman’s advance.

The starting point for the ride was in Orangeburg, a small town in the center of the state, south of Columbia.  Orangeburg, it has to be said, is not a prepossessing town.  But that is just to say that it has become what a lot of towns in the rural US have become: a small knot of houses centering on plain set of municipal buildings that house civic functions that everyone used to agree were important. . .all wrapped in an ugly tangle of cheap motels, fast-food joints, muffler repair shops and billboards advertising cash for gold.  It is a town whose soul has gradually been leached away by convenience commerce.

Living Large
What was really dispiriting was trying to find some place to eat.  Almost everything was a chain.  The first night I was relatively lucky and found a barbecue place (part of a chain, but at least a short chain and local).  It was a buffet, family style-dining format, and the food was good, with a lot of vegetable dishes and relatively cheap.  The dining room was a depressing sight, however.  There wasn’t a single person there who wasn’t. . .well, I guess “heavy” is the polite word we are using now.  Many of them were beyond “heavy.”  We hear the words “morbidly obese” so often in the media these days that I suspect those words have, for all intents and purposes, lost any real meaning.   What was especially depressing was that this applied to the kids as much as the adults.  One reason wasn’t hard to see.  People departed from the buffet with plates threatening to buckle with the weight of food on them and then went back for equally mountainous seconds.  Dangle the words “all you can eat buffet” in front of humans and most people instantly drop two million years of evolution and start behaving as if they are out on the savanna fighting it out with sabretooth tigers with no knowledge of where their next meal is coming from.

Now I know the causes of the REAOA (Rapidly Expanding Arse of America) are complex and can’t be reduced simply to the tragically misguided popular misconception that it is all about willpower and self-restraint.  Many of the causes of obesity are, in fact, environmental.  For example, eating healthy is not an option if there are no supermarkets in your neighbourhood where you could easily get fresh produce.  This was something in fact that seemed to plague Orangeburg.  Except for the barbecue place, it was hard to find any place halfway decent to eat.  Morning of the ride I was looking for a decent diner. . .no go.  After the ride, as you can imagine, I was pretty damn hungry, and jonesing for pizza.  So I went to one place which was suggested by the few reviews I could find as offering the best pizza in town.  The pizza was a stodgy horrible mess.  It came with a “chicken” caeser salad which was a mass of soggy lettuce weighed down by some strange substance that I suddenly recognized was canned chicken. . .the thing that I give my dogs when they are crapping themselves silly because it is so bland and overly-processed that it won’t upset their stomachs.

I realize that it is difficult to write any of this without coming across as some kind of big city food snob.  Beer snob?  Coffee snob?  Guilty on both counts.  But anyone who has seen me at one of our team barbecues knows that food snob I ain’t.  And I’m sure someone from Orangeburg would probably correct me and say that there was in fact a really nice restaurant located at such and such.  But one great restaurant hiding in a secret location for a town of this size is not enough.  The sad and appalling fact is that if you are a resident of this town (and many, many towns like it across the US) and you want to eat out, then you pretty much have no choice but to eat shit.  And I don’t mean good shit.  I mean bad shit.  The kind of shit that will ensure that in short order you look like the Hindenburg and are on course for the same tragic end.

In one sense, therefore, the visit to central South Carolina was decidedly dispiriting.  We were still well in advance of the election but at this time I was already thinking about something that has preoccupied me quite a bit since the tragic farce of the dueling infomercials subsided: the fact that the real split shaping US political and civic life is not between left and right nor between races, but between rural and urban.  The unreflective approach to US ideology is to believe the truism that this is a land where freedom of choice prevails.  But in many small rural towns (Orangeburg’s population is a little over 13,000 according to the 2010 census) your choices are really limited.  When we use the word choice we also tend to think about whether or not people have big choices (like whether or not to become a rocket scientist or a Wall Street financial rapist).  In fact, the limitation starts with much more constrained choices.  If you don’t have any choice but to eat crap food, for example, then that is going to have an effect on your health which is going to affect whether or not you have a meaningful choice to do all kinds of other things.

These sobering reflections were all somewhat ironic given that I was there for an activity centered on healthy exertion.  Mary and I have always regarded the kind of exercise we are doing as, in part, an investment in our health; I use the word “investment” advisedly because so much of the research stresses the long-term benefits of sustained exercise, and both of us got a relatively late start on this whole exercise thing.  But the “investment” metaphor reveals something else important: staying healthy in the US costs money.  Ironically (or maybe more accurately, tragically) in a country of wealth and abundance the likes of which the world has never seen, the default setting is to ensure that its citizens are pushed toward being unhealthy.  Long hours in sedentary jobs, driving everywhere, parents so pathologically scared of strangers that they won’t let kids walk or bike to school (and acquiesce in the building of entire cities where walking and biking isn’t possible in any case) and everywhere an abundance of cheap, body-destroying food.

This is why the “health care debate” is all so tragically misguided.  There is no real debate about health care in the US, at least at the governmental level, and there hasn’t been for quite some time.  There is a debate about medical insurance, which is a very different thing.  At best, it covers the consequences of living in a land of abundance, but doesn’t do anything about the poverty created by the unequal distribution of the wealth and resources necessary to combat the effects of over-abundance.

I realize that a superficial reading of the above might convey the impression that I believe that the problem with people living in poverty is that they have too much (queue the frothy-mouthed conservatives ranting about welfare reform).  No.  The USA is a land not just of abundance, but excess: there are too many cars, too much anger, too many guns.  And the crime of widespread poverty in a land of abundance is that you don’t have the financial resources to deal with excess.  The more it becomes possible to feed yourself quite successfully off the McDonald’s 99c menu, the more expensive it becomes to deal with the costs of that.  This bike ride was about as accessible as they come for an organized event.  It was low-key, it didn’t cost much (I think my registration was $40?  That’s nothing for a triathlete compared with the cost of even your garden-variety sprint triathlon these days), there were all kinds of distances, and plenty of support.  Yet for someone struggling to get by that registration cost is insurmountable, let alone the cost of getting a bike that is sufficiently reliable and comfortable enough so that you will enjoy actually riding it (it is, in fact, the abundance problem in another register; walk into your local Wal-Mart and you’ll find plenty of $100 bikes).

Flatlining
But the ride itself showed me that while Orangeburg may be typical in having  lost (or sold) its soul, it didn’t lack heart (and I hope that is also typical of other places).  Like my previous century ride this one was for a cause, benefiting a regional police effort at early intervention to discourage teens from joining gangs.  The police chief himself was out there on the ride (along with a couple of members of his department) which was great to see.  The ride was low key, even compared with last week’s event.  The rest stops for example were usually a single lonely police officer sitting in his or her car out in the middle of nowhere.  But each officer had  plenty of food and drink and affable conversation for all the riders who came through, and each of them talked proudly of the reason for the ride and how they were trying to make a difference in the lives of the local kids.  The post-ride food wasn’t fancy but it was plentiful and delicious and served by extremely friendly volunteers.  Their efforts all resonated with me probably more than they realized.  In the small, rural town where I grew up, a town that, prior to its transformation by the local wine industry, made Orangeburg look cosmopolitan, if you were a kid there was fuck all to do unless you were exceptionally imaginative.  If your creativity and ingenuity doesn’t tend toward crime, however, that same imagination makes such towns hell on wheels because it is precisely that imagination that makes you unacceptably different.  Given the soullessness of the Orangeburg environment there was really no mystery as to why they might have a gang problem.  But what was great was that there were plenty of ordinary people who weren’t willing to accept the decline of their town and were actively working to change things.  It was quite inspiring.

The course was flat as a pancake.  We are talking Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake flat.  I didn’t unfortunately have my Garmin with me–I discovered that I’d left it behind about 3/4 of the way to Orangeburg–or I’d be able to verify that this ride was much flatter even than Cedar Point, which was the flattest ride I had ever done up until this point.  It was however quite brisk temperature-wise in the early going, so I was wearing the full complement of arm and leg warmers and a shell vest, most of which I progressively shed over the course of the day.  There was a little wind, but nothing too substantial (so not like the Eastern Shore in that respect) and the conditions made for some great pace-line riding.  The start of the ride saw a largish group of about 20+ form and we booked along quite nicely.  I was keeping track of the time on my chrono and was shocked to see that we did almost 21 miles in the first hour.  That took us pretty much to the first rest stop, and when most of the group ducked into the service station I joined a smaller group of half a dozen, and then five other riders.

This was a good group.  Three of them (John, Jeneane, and George) seemed to have ridden together a bit before, and the other guy, Phil, was tackling his first century.  But they were all strong riders who shared the lead and had a good sense of humor.  We took appropriate breaks to refuel but kept them short so we made excellent time.  And despite a couple of missed turns we didn’t get lost which I’ve found really helps your overall time. . .  While the country was flat, I was never bored; we road through some interesting pine forests, for example, but the thing that really caught my eye was the fields of cotton.  Yes, I know, a southern cliche, but nothing I could ever remember seeing before.

My Orangeburg Crew

My Orangeburg Crew. Photo courtesy of Phil Lien (second from right)

The whole route in fact felt very well designed; one of the problems with biking on the Eastern Shore is that it can easily turn into more and more of the same.  But there was a lot of variety here; small towns, rough roads, smooth roads, four line highways (!), fields and forests.

The pace was definitely a lot faster than I was used to, however, and I could feel that I was having a harder time staying with it.  There was, however, a strong incentive to stay with the group in the form of several dogs that chased us along one stretch.  The more important thing was obviously not to be the last person in the group.  Jeneane and I joked that at the pace we were riding the last person in the group could be pulled down and have their liver eaten without anyone else knowing.

The group was kind enough to let me suck wheel for most of the last ten miles back into Orangeburg where we found a nice lunch waiting.  I asked everyone else what their ride time was since I was sans cyclo and they agreed: 5:23.  I was a little sceptical until I looked at my watch where I’d been using the chrono to keep track of the overall time, including stops: 5:42.  My fastest century by a long shot and one that is unlikely to be repeated in the near future.  It was a near perfect combination of a great day, flat terrain, and a great group of riders.

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