Road Rash & Mechanized Agriculture

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October 28th 2003
Published: October 28th 2003
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The smell of factory farms permeates the humid air. Instead of bringing relief, the wind brings the rench of offal & overcrowded animals. I'd like to bring every person who orders the Colonel's original recipe here to rural Carolina to get a whiff of industrialized agriculture. I still eat meat, albeit sparingly, but at least I know where my meat comes from, and the often horrid conditions of its brief life before it lands on my dinner plate. At least the deer tied to the trunk of a passing car had a relatively pleasant life before bleeding to death from a bullet wound. From what I can see & smell, the chickens, pigs and turkeys in these parts lead a decidedly unpleasant life encircled by stainless steel & concrete, crowded into pens with hundreds of other animals, & pumped full of antibiotics to prevent the very likely spread of disease. The last moments of their lives are spent aboard trailers before arriving at the slaughterhouse where illegal immigrant working for less than the minimum wage risk their limbs & lives to put the other white meat or Purdue's finest or an oven roaster onto the all-American dinner table.

Martin Heidegger was right when he said that "mechanized agriculture is akin to the manufacture of corpses in gas chambers." In each instance we deny what is unique and sacred, whether it is that of a human or an animal, to further an artificial goal.

Now you may be asking yourself, why's Wes picking a bone with meat producers? Well, there I was, riding my bike in the dark through the rain when a truck en route to the slaughterhouse passed me in a fury & left me drenched in a spray of water that smelled distinctly of poultry feces. I had been in the latter stage of my standard exhalation/inhalation routine, and so I found myself choking and gagging. I dared not rinse my mouth out with a swig from my water bottle because I was sure that it had gotten splashed by the slaughter truck as well. At that moment I distinctly recalledthe words of the lady behind the counter of the general store 5 miles back when I asked her if I could fill up my water bottle,

"Honey, you'd best buy yourself a bottle of water. I wouldn't spit with what you get out of the tap- it ain't clean." Her comments came as an example of first-hand experience with the documented fact that ground water in rural areas is often polluted by runoff from massive factory farms.

All I could do in the aftermath of my scatological experience was pray that I had a strong immune system.

My encounter with the slaughter trucks came towards the end of an 85-mile day, much of it spent in the dark and all of it ridden in the rain across the sand hills of eastern Carolina. My day in Wilmington began with a photo session at the Meetinghouse, and followed with a long list of errands, such as shipping my damaged Palm Pilot back to the company after receiving a replacement Palm, stopping by Office Depot for Palm supplies, purchasing a set of fenders and a new bottom bracket at the local bike shop, and replacing my insufficiently-waterproof jacket.

I rode by Two Wheeler Dealers on my way out of Wilmington to pick up a pair of fenders for my bike. I had already ridden 10 miles in the rain, and the back of my neck was covered in road grit kicked up by my tires. While I was at the bike shop I asked the guys to take a look at my bottom bracket, which had seemed questionable ever since I had first pedalled my bike. Part of it had broke, and while it was not necessarily a catastrophic event, the mechanic summed it up by saying, "I wouldn't worry about it if you were just riding around town, but if you're on your way to Atlanta, you'd better take care of it." So a couple of hours got eaten up at the bike shop while waiting for the repairs to be completed. I spent most of my time looking at geewhiz gadgets, and reminding myself that I didn't really need them, no matter how cool they looked.

I asked the mechanic for directions out of town, and they just happened to take me by an outdoor clothing store. I dropped in & purchased a new waterproof jacket, although at only half the cost of a top notch gore-tex jacket. And I had plenty of opportunity to test my jacket later in the day and confirm that while it was indeed waterproof, it wasn't nearly as breathable as deluxe gore-tex.

While describing my route out of Wilmington, my bike mechanic had casually mentioned that the 3rd Street bridge to the mainland was the better one to "walk across." He didn't elaborate on why I might want to walk across the bridge, as opposed to riding across it, and I didn't give his comment any thought until I found myself riding up the bridge through a construction zone and realized that the crest of the bridge was not concrete, but rather metal grating.

Now if you've spent any time driving interstate highways, you will have had the opportunity to notice the occasioanl sign prior to a bridge warning, "Motorcyclists Beware," and illustrated by a skidding motorcycle. The bridges thus illustrated are covered in metal grating, the danger of which is inversely proportional to the width of a vehicle's tires: the narrower the tires, the more likely that they will slip on the metal grating.

I had been sprinting up the bridge with a line of traffic behind me in the rain, and I was suddenly confronted with the prospect of riding across 100 feet of slick metal grating on tires less than an inch wide, and said tires supporting a load in excess on 300 pounds, at a speed of nearly twenty miles per hour. I briefly considered the prospect of filleting my knees and hands on the grating before I focused upon keeping my bike upright and traveling in a straight line. Sliding my flesh and bones across the metal grating at twenty miles per hour was as attractive to me as a cheese grater would be to a hamster on the skid. I kept my hands away from my brakes for fear of losing momentum and lodging my front wheel between the metal teeth of the bridge. Beneath me I could see forty feet of air between the bridge and the river, and the rain drops on my glasses were incessantly illuminated by the headlights of approaching cars.

I had the good fortune to be riding in front of a construction truck, as in my experience construction crews are among the most generous drivers to share the road with me. All during my ascent up the bridge the driver behind me stayed well back as I rode through a two-lane construction zone. Even as I coasted across the bridge and checked my mirror I saw that he was still giving me space, for which I was extremely grateful because he would have been hard-pressed to avoid me if I had fallen on the grating.

My wheels wobbled slightly as they jumped from one track in the grating to another, but then I was over, and back upon solid pavement. I shifted up into a higher gear and sprinted down the bridge at over thirty miles per hour, and as soon as a shoulder emerged I pulled to the side to let the traffic behind pass by. I found myself coasting again, catching my breath from the sprint up and down the bridge, and remembering the first and previously only time I had ridden across a metal grating bridge.

It had been on my first morning at college, and I had gone off on a bike ride early in the morning to explore the West Virginia hills around town. As I had come back across the river into town I had passed over the metal grating bridge for the second time, and at the far end I hit the metal strip dividing the grating from the pavement. The dew was glistening on the thin strip of metal, and I turned my front wheel ever so slightly as I crossed it. Within an instant my bike had slid out from beneath me, and I landed on my hip on the pavement, scant inches from the grating. I stood up to see that my bike was fine, and then looked to see that there ws no traffic in sight. But I had ruined another set of lycra shorts. My left hip was a bloody, gravelly mess, and my elbow was starting to sting as well. My first dormitory shower was spent washing the dirt out of wounds, and I spent my first few weeks as a freshman wearing a vivid patch of road rash. I don't doubt that the first impression I made on my classmates was decidedly odd.

My host in Wilmington, Rubye, had told me that she and many other people were praying for my safety while I was on the road. I know that except for their prayers, I should not have made it across the bridge in Wilmington. As I pedalled on into the drizzle an old Sunday School song came to mind with some new words, "Thank you, thank you, my Lord...For taking me across the bridge, I would have died if I'd slipped, Thank you, thank you, my Lord..."


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